Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pushpak K. reviews HYGIENE AND THE ASSASSIN, by Amelie Nothomb

“Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. 
Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth.”

-- Alberto Manguel

Our relationship with stories is an odd one - on one hand, stories fuel our imagination and extend our experiences into the unknown; on the other hand, we often dismiss stories as 'just a figment of imagination,' as if, not being realized somehow limits the effectiveness of fiction in having a meaningful conversation with us. For make no mistake -- every author since the first recorded fiction (a matter of much debate!) has sought simply to have a conversation with another human. What probably began as an informal conversation around the communal fire, soon (on the scale of centuries) morphed into a formal, oral mechanism of knowledge transfer, which survived until Gutenberg had other plans. 

Even the stories themselves, if we can think about them in isolation, are intricately tied to the presenter - be it the author, actor, scriptwriter, director or cameraman - depending on the medium of expression. Every individual involved in this process of collaborative creation brings a part of their own life, their own personalities into the whole. But writing, that most loneliest of creative pursuits, is a slightly different beast - certainly more intimate, yet infinitely more challenging. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing is that the collaboration is virtually non-existent, except with the author's internal "voice" that guides the process. Amelie Nothomb's debut novel, "Hygiene and the Assassin," first published in France in 1992, is in hindsight (and by author's own admission) the most sincere projection of her own self into words. Published in English twenty years later, Alison Anderson's translation brings this controversial novel to the non-French public.

The story revolves around two protagonists - Prétextat Tach, an aging, obese Nobel laureate who is dying from Elzenveiverplatz Syndrome, an imaginary malady created by the author, and Nina, a reporter who has, in fact, read all of his published works and then some. Tach is portrayed as a reclusive misanthrope, hardly the image that the public has of this famous author. The story opens with the announcement that Tach has mere months to live. Naturally, the media breaks into a frantic race to interview him, and only five reporters are allowed a brief interview with the aging author. In the actual interviews, Tach alternately revolts and alienates the reporters to the extent that none of them complete the interview (which is what he wants). All except Nina, the final interviewer, who proves to be more than a match to Tach's caustic barbs and exercises in revulsion. She goes a step ahead and also extracts details of his personal life from his twenty-two novels and the unfinished manuscript Hygiene and the Assassin. What ensues is a witty (but not at all charming) repartee, a cat-and-mouse game in which the stakes are higher than what appears on the surface. While Nina would certainly want to walk away with the scoop of her life, Tach knows he has a very short time remaining, and has nothing to lose. The power game escalates when Nina dismantles Tach's life in pretty much the same fashion as he has treated the earlier interviewers. The ending will stay the reader for days, even months - for its unexpectedness, as well as the raw, unsophisticated depiction of the actions that lead to it.  

The text defies any natural characterization into a specific genre - it is broadly a dark comedic tale, but there are numerous passages that may well be beyond the accepted convention of 'humor' in literature. It is as if the author intends to shock the reader by making the characters larger-than-life, and then try to say too much in too little space. Being the first novel, and written decades earlier than its English translation release, the text also feels less contemporary. All this however, does not equate to gimmickry, and is just a taste of the writing that Nothomb wrote in later years, as a more mature author. My first reading of this book (in 2010) made me want to throw it across the room in disgust. On closer observation, I am guessing this is exactly what the author intended! Later readings have helped in looking beyond the gross factor and superficial text. This is certainly not a book that regular English readers expect, and it is not surprising to see why Nothomb is massively popular in the non-English European and Asian markets (to name a few).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Pushpak K. reviews THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK IN THE WORLD, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them ... 
they could perceive what they have made of us.

-- Albert Camus

"The Most Beautiful Book in the World," is the first collection of novellas by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, the beloved French author, playwright and the widely-acknowledged master of shorter fiction. First published in 2006, the English edition saw the light of the day due to the collective efforts of Europa Editions (then, a small independent Italian publishing house who wanted to bring quality European literature to the US shores) and Alison Anderson, herself an author and master translator.

Schmitt recounts the period that led to the birth of this book -- his contract with a movie studio forbade him from writing while he was directing a movie. Naturally, in his own words, "that was too much of a provocation" and he sneakily put to paper these stories that had marinated far too long in his mind. Perhaps it is this search of an accomplishment that unconsciously streams into the protagonists in these stories too - for every story, and every character, seems to be a search for something - happiness, fulfillment, closure, recognition... Everyone emerges a different person through their lives, loves, dreams, and failures too.

The collection begins with the wonderfully fresh "Wanda Winnipeg," the tale of a successful socialite who finally finds an obtuse way to repay a debt she owed to the man who made her the woman she is today. This story showcases initial seeds of Schmitt's evocative style of describing his characters through their experiences, and allowing the experiences to create their physical picture in the minds of the readers.

The second novella "A Fine Rainy Day" is a humorous, yet touching homage to the perfectionist within all of us. I believe there is a very fine line between desiring perfection in what we see, and finding perfection in what lies before us. Schmitt argues that one is merely a transposition of the other, and the search for perfection can lead us to surprising places, sometimes right in front of our eyes, other times within us.

A woman spies an older woman moving about in her apartment in the next tale - "The Intruder." Scared by the encounter, she calls the police for help. The police investigation reveals nothing, but the woman keeps appearing intermittently, rearranging the woman's life and possessions. Part-mystery, part-romance, and part-reflection-on-accumulation-of-a-Life, this story is perhaps the one with the most poignant moral -- sometimes, our search for answers may not yield anything at all, for we are blind to the answers that lie right in front of our eyes.

 In the most straightforward narratives in the collection, "The Forgery," a painting that may or may not be the titular object becomes a battleground between the past and the present, between love and scorn, between naïveté and cynicism.

What ails a beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy woman who, according to everybody around her, has "Every Reason to be Happy?" She has money, time, a loving and caring husband, and is unencumbered by the daily grind of children and livelihood. Her secret is a terrible truth about herself that she and her husband have tried hard to put behind them, she with limited success, and he with (an apparently) determined effort. A chance encounter in an upscale hairdresser's studio puts into motion a series of events that make her question her entire life. She finally understands that although her personal life is often held up as a gold standard of happiness, the notion of being happy is a very individual state-of-mind, and no two people, even if they are a married couple, aspire for the same kind of happiness.

"The Barefoot Princess" is a tragic tale of fleeting love, the kind that stays forever. A washed-up actor revisits the town where he spent an enchanted night with an enigmatic, beautiful, slightly eccentric woman of noble birth. Known to him only through her nickname, his journey in search of that one night reveals the real woman behind the mask. This story encapsulates a character trait that Schmitt would put to use with greater effect in his future works -- the desperate drive to live a full life, given that this life cannot be lived fully.

"Odette Toulemonde" is based on a real-life encounter from the author's life. A famous author encounters a plain, uninteresting woman during one of this book signing events. He brushes off the encounter with ease, unaware of the effect his writings have had on the life of this woman. Their second encounter, almost an year later, however, sets into motion a love affair that can hardly be described as normal. The story unfolds with a languid grace as the tables turn over, and the student and teacher exchange roles, almost unnoticeably. Odette also feels like Schmitt's most autobiographical story, with the narrative employing a meta-narrative element at one juncture that points to the very collection that contains this story. The effect is deftly accomplished without coming off as a worn out cliche. It is about the most tender definition of love, for the time in life when all material pleasures have gone past their novelty.

The crowning finalé of this collection is the story which lends its name to the collection - "The Most Beautiful Book in the World." Set in the dreary world of Siberian gulags during the reign of Stalin, this story shatters the rosy castles of superficial romantic love, and then proceeds to build a simple shrine that is built with care, love and most of all, simple pragmatism. The women of ward 13 are faced with a singular dilemma -- What should they write to their daughters using only three pages of paper that can stand the test of Time? Schmitt's solution is at once pragmatic, cute, and profoundly delicate in the way that only a mother-daughter relationship can be.

The stories do show some signs of an author exploring his style -- they are not big on plots (some are very predictable), but consider the personalities that inhabit these worlds, and their experiences, more important.

This is a very beautiful book of stories - most beautiful indeed!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pushpak K. reviews INVISIBLE LOVE by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”
- Susan Sontag

A plain pensioner in Brussels, Geneviève Grenier née Piastre, receives a strange visitor in the form of a lawyer who brings a most unexpected news — that she is the sole heir to a gentleman from Brussels - M. Jean Daemens. The only problem - she has never even heard of this person in the eighty years of her life. So begins an unexpected adventure for this normally passive, timid woman. Being warned that the legal heir inherits both the assets and the debts of the deceased, she decides to gamble for the first time in her life, and accept this offer. But who is Jean? And why would he leave his entire estate to her, an unknown, simple woman? 

The mystery unfolds entirely in flashback, and forms the backbone of the opening tale in Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s collection of short-stories “Invisible Love.” As befits the name, the stories in this collection centre around the theme of a love that is seldom made explicit, and in some cases, remains undetected, though its impact may last over lifetimes. Schmitt’s oeuvre famously explores connections between individuals, and is romantic, but not mushy; bittersweet but not tragic, and strongly affecting, though not action-packed. In the author’s own words this collection of stories shows the “virtual lives that lie in the background of real lives.” Every tale in this collection includes a virtual presence, sometimes living, in-the-flesh, sometimes as a stream of memories or even as people who manipulates lives of others (for better or worse) but never reveal themselves to the subjects of their affections.

“Two Gentlemen from Brussels” opens this collection with a fictional account of two parallel couples inspired by true-life events. The big mystery of this love story is not “why” but a “how” - the unique relationship between Geneviève and Jean is revealed in the first part of the story itself, but the journey their respective families take to arrive at the present is by far the more intriguing portion of the story. This story is perhaps the most important, not only due to its length
but for the detailed treatment that the author provides to this idea of virtual lives - beginning with  virtual surrogacy to virtual motherhood to eventually, virtual consummation of the love.

“The Dog” is a story of survival. The survival not only of the human body ravaged by horrors inflicted by fellow-humans, but more so of the human spirit against the ravages of Time and adversity. A doctor in a small town keeps a dog, a Beauceron called Argos. When the dog is killed in a hit-and-run accident, the man is distraught with grief and takes his own life five days later. His daughter and a writer, a new arrival in town, and whom the doctor had uncharacteristically taken a liking to, get together to solve the mystery of his suicide. This journey into the man’s past shows them a life that they never experienced with him.

“Mènage à trois” is a wonderfully sweet and short tale of one man’s love for his wife, and his obsession over her first husband. Based loosely on true-life events (but including the real-life people), this tale depicts the central theme of the collection most prominently through layers of virtual lives surrounding actual ones. The man lives in a virtual life, looking at his lover through the eyes of her first husband, while the woman lives an actual life based on the virtual life desired by her second husband; and, to complete the threesome, lives a virtual life with her first husband, as seen through the eyes of her second. The tale is a delightful description of a common conundrum in romance - the free expression of one’s feelings towards the one we love. The husband finds an oblique way to build a monumental homage to his love (and we should all be thankful to his efforts today!) because he is unable to put his affection in the right words.

“A Heart Under Ash” is a harrowing account of love that loses its way under the ash of hatred, but finds redemption when the very love is about to be taken away forever. It follows the lives of two women Alba and Vilma, who believe they have both lost more than their respective children recently, and their search for answers behind the thick fog of bureaucracy and rules. The lost children seem to reach out from beyond their graves and govern the lives of these women, leading them on a very dangerous path of obsession and hate. Where one finds redemption through her never-lost love, the other buries her love under the ashes of those memories. The title is also a very clever play on the locale where the climax unfolds.

The last tale in this collection is called “The Ghost Child.” A couple, very much in love, chooses to not have a child with a congenital disorder in order to spare the child from the bleak future predicted by the doctors. This memory of a child that they never had throws them apart initially. But their pragmatism and love for life leads them to become even better lovers, until a chance encounter with a bright, lively twenty year old girl with the same disease shows them the other side of their decision - the virtual life that their child never had.

Schmitt handles the interplay of the virtual and actual lives with a deftness that displays a very canny judgement of the human condition, especially when faced with adversity. The lives that never were, that could have been, or that may be living, all flow in and out of the narrative in a seamless fashion that is the hallmark of his style. The book is translated by Howard Curtis, and he ably carries the lyrical prose of Schmitt into English.

Heartily recommended!