Saturday, August 29, 2009

23. "Fasting, Feasting" by Anita Desai

Year of first publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Country: India

In italiano: “Digiunare, divorare” di Anita Desai, edito da Einaudi (2005), € 9,80 (un applauso alla grandissima Anna Nadotti che ha tradotto così bene questo titolo!)

About the author: see this post

Plot: Uma is a spinster who lives with her overbearing parents. They confine her at home, smothering her and everything that she would like to do with her life. Her sister Aruna is very different and manages to bring off a good marriage, whereas her younger brother Arun is sent to study in the USA, where he experiences the American lifestyle.

Some thoughts: Those who know me are aware that I am a big fan of Anita Desai and I can’t be objective when I write about her novels. I’m attempting to read all of her works (the next one will be Baumgartner’s Bombay). I am happy to say that Fasting, Feasting is my favourite one so far, after Clear Light of Day. I really can’t cope with the fact that I like Anita Desai’s novels so much even though they are so sad (there are a few funny moments in this novel, though).
By the way, the title is absolute genius! This proves how authors whose first language is not English (Desai grew up speaking German with her mother and Bengali with her father, relegating English to the compositions she had to write for school) can play with the language in such a poetic way.
The book recounts human relationships and emotions using every kind of relations to food, from sparse meals to bulimia and craving. Set in two different countries, India and the United States, the book deals mostly with two siblings, Uma and Arun, and their extended family.
One of the main themes of the book is gender discrimination in traditional Indian families: Uma is not allowed to go to school after a certain grade and her parents only think about finding a good husband for her. She is unlucky because all the potential husbands try to dupe the family for financial reasons (one husband already has a wife and only wants a second dowry, whereas another one asks for some money to build a new house and then disappears). One of Uma’s tasks, as she is a spinster, is to be a sort of servant for her parents who take her for granted. She’s not allowed to go out or have a job, or even a hobby. From the first passage of the book we understand Mama and Papa’s attitude: they are sitting on a sofa swing and giving orders to Uma and the cook, while they don’t do anything in the house. They live their life sipping tea and eating fritters, paying visits to their friends and going to the club. Daughters are seen like a nuisance: the best food is given to the only son, Arun. A lot of pressure is put on the only male son: he is forced to study all the time and doesn’t have a real childhood. He is overwhelmed by the expectations of his parents and grows up as a shy, mediocre boy who spends his time reading comic books in his bedroom.
Uma’s cousin Anamika is not luckier than Uma, despite the fact that she’s beautiful and clever, something that Uma is not. Anamika is married off but she suffers in her new home: she becomes a slave to her husband’s family and doesn’t receive any affection or gratifications. Anamika’s sad story symbolizes the role of women in traditional Indian families: whether they are virtuous and independent or meek and fragile, they are destined to suffer physical and psychological humiliations. The only happy wedding seems to be Aruna’s: she marries a rich man, who takes her to Bombay. Could it mean that in the big cities of India women are spared these horrible sufferings and can actually lead happy lives?
Uma is a sort of incarcerated servant to her parents, but sometimes she finds temporary way outs, for example with the help of Mira-masi, her widowed aunt, or club-footed Ramu, her cousin. Ramu brings her to eat in a restaurant for the first time, sometimes that she considers rather exciting if compared to her uneventful everyday life. Her aunt, instead, is a wandering ascetic who often goes to pilgrimage and hardly eats but can cook delicious ladoos when she visits them. Despite eating almost nothing during her time in the ashram where Mira-Masi has taken her, Uma is happy because she’s away from her despotic parents.
The second part of the book is set in the States, where Arun is sent to study. Somehow I feel that having alternating parts set in India and the States would have worked better, but it’s only a minor flaw to the book. I must admit that this is the part that I liked less, because sometimes the American characters seemed created just to set a contrast or a comparison with the Indian ones (Sylvia Brownrigg also perceives that they speak an ‘oddly anachronistic American’, but I didn’t have this impression). During the summer holidays, Arun is a lodger in an all-American family, the Pattons. He doesn’t understand American lifestyle, especially in relation to food. He is a vegetarian, much to the disgust of his parents, and is shocked by the amount of meat that American people are used to eat. Mrs Patton is incarcerated in her house in a way that is similar to Uma’s: she also lives an uneventful life and her family doesn’t appreciate her. Her daughter Melanie is bulimic and eats nothing but candy, even though nobody seems to notice apart from Arun, whereas her husband and son are addicted to meat and barbecues and are not interested in having conversations with her. Mrs Patton is only happy when she is among the shelves of the supermarket buying incredible quantities of food (as opposed to what happened in Arun’s house back in India, where having samosas and bafti for tea was something exceptional).
At the end of the book you have the sad perception that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. People, and especially women, are unhappy and oppressed in all patriarchal, chauvinist societies around the world.
When the novel came out, in 1999, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but didn’t win. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (read my review here, but I must tell you in advance that I didn’t like it that much, or maybe I didn’t understand it) won instead. In her introduction to the book, Rana Dasgupta writes that a few judges wanted Fasting Feasting to win the prize and that in the end they named the book as “runner-up”.

Links to my other reviews of books by Anita Desai:
The Zigzag Way (in Italian) and In Custody (in English)

Monday, August 24, 2009

22. “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf

Year of first publication: 1925
Genre: modernist novel
Country: England

About the author: Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) was an experimental novelist, critic, short story writer and essayist of the twentieth century, best remembered for the classics, To the Lighthouse (1927) and Mrs Dalloway (1925). She was born in London in 1882, daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, a literary critic. She was born in an upper-middle class, socially active family. She suffered her first major breakdown on the death of her father in 1904. In spite of the fact that in Victorian England women were not encouraged to attend university or participate in the literary debate, she began writing essays and reviews. Later she moved with her family to Bloomsbury where they gathered around them a set of writers and artists, including Leonard Woolf, who married Virginia in 1912. Together they set up the Hogarth Press which published Sigmund Freud, Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Eliot. Leonard also encouraged Virginia to write in her calm periods. Her first two novels are fairly conventional, but her later works are highly innovative: she used the interior monologue, or “stream of consciousness”, and poetic symbolism, with the emphasis on character as opposed to plot. Apart from the aforementioned classics, other works by Virginia Woolf include Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931) and A Room of One’s Own (1929), a feminist text. Continual mental depression led Virginia to drown herself in 1941.

Plot: In London, at the end of the First World War, Clarissa Dalloway is preparing for one of her famous parties. Unexpectedly, her first lover Peter Walsh comes back from India and brings old memories with him. Clarissa remembers her childhood dreams and the events leading to her uneventful marriage with Richard Dalloway, who gave her a comfortable life in an affluent neighbourhood of London. Around Clarissa, a set of different characters: Septimus Warren Smith, for example, who’s going mad with shell-shock and her daughter Elizabeth, who’s now almost a woman. As Septimus decides to commit suicide because he’s not able to deal with life anymore, Clarissa reflects on death and on the differences between people’s personalities.

Some thoughts: I absolutely love Virginia Woolf: I’ve already read To The Lighthouse, Orlando and most of A Room of One’s Own (I used it a lot when I was writing my graduation thesis on Janet Frame, as both authors felt the necessity to have a quiet place and enough “piece of mind” to write without too many worries). I love her “stream of consciousness” and how she portrays the inner life of different people, especially women, in their everyday actions. When I was in London I went in front of her house in Bloomsbury and took a picture, then sat in the nice park in the square just in front of it and ate my sandwich, wondering how many “deep thoughts” that place had heard from Virginia and her friends of the Bloomsbury group.
In Cunningham’s The Hours (and in the movie of the same name) there is a fictionalised version of Virginia Woolf in the period when she was writing Mrs Dalloway (and also in the period of her suicide, such a sad thing when it happens to an artist, don’t you think?). I think that the use of famous people, either dead or alive, as characters in novels (it’s becoming more and more common) reveals that the interior world of that particular person is something we still have an interest in. In this book, we don’t read about Virginia Woolf’s interior world, of course, but we learn about Mrs Dalloway’s thoughts and musings, which is quite satisfying anyway.
Given that it is quite impossible to say something on Mrs Dalloway that hasn’t already been said a hundred times, I just want to point out something that struck me. A recurring sentence in the book, which is actually a verse from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, says: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”. Both Septimus Warren Smith and Mrs Dalloway utter this sentence over and over again. Moreover, it is used in Janet Frame’s Autobiography: when the author is in the mental hospital, she keeps on scribbling this sentence (I can recall the scene in the movie very well, because she writes the sentence on the walls of her room / cell). The three of them (Septimus Warren Smith, Janet Frame and Virginia Woolf) suffered from some sort of mental illness and my interpretation, at the time when I was reading Janet Frame’s book, was completely wrong. I thought that this verse was quite hopeful, a sort of encouragement to ignore the storms in your inner world and try to live your life happily, but I found out that it is quite the opposite. The line is actually from a funeral song that celebrates death as a comfort after a difficult life. Septimus’s life has become unbearable: he has lived the horrors of the war and lost many friends, thus ordinary life in post-war London is worthless to him. Clarissa reflects on the death of her friend and feels responsible for it. Was it the same feeling experienced by Virginia Woolf moments before she drowned herself, during the Second World War, when London was being bombed? Through Shakespeare’s words, nonetheless, Clarissa can finally accept death, something that had been troubling her for the whole day. There is therefore an optimistic side to this novel that is otherwise rather sad.
I acknowledge that with this novel Virginia Woolf found her voice: she describes everyday actions like buying flowers or eating dinner, showing that no action is too ordinary for the attention of a writer. Given that Virginia Woolf was writing the novel in the period when Sigmund Freud was publishing his theories on the subconscious and there was much interest in psychology, I can understand how fascinating the mind of a human being must have been for her. The author shows that our inner lives are always very rich, but they are separated from each other’s. Despite the fact that Clarissa throws parties in order to draw people together, they remain distant and struggle to communicate with each other. It is perfectly clear that people like Clarissa or Septimus are emotional and sensitive, they like to think a lot and to reflect about life, whereas other people like Richard or Lady Bruton are more materialistic. If you pay attention, for example, flowers are a recurring theme and certainly they are a symbol of emotions and a rich inner life. In the book people treat flowers differently: Clarissa is comfortable with flowers and in the first section she is buying flowers for the party, whereas Richard handles the conventional bouquet of roses awkwardly and gives them to Lady Bruton, who lays them stiffly by the plate.
There is so much more to this novel and I’m sure it needed more attention and at least a reread (sometimes it was difficult for me to deal with the shifts of point of view, but I guess that’s the inconvenience of the stream of consciousness).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fernanda Pivano (1917 - 2009)

Traduttrice, scrittrice e saggista, Fernanda Pivano è stata una protagonista della cultura italiana, quella che ha fatto conoscere all'Italia molti scrittori americani tra i quali Hemingway (sua la prima traduzione "clandestina" di Addio Alle Armi che le causò la prigione) e quelli della Beat Generation di Kerouac, Burroughs e Ferlinghetti. Suo anche il merito di aver fatto conoscere all'Italia la splendida Antologia di Spoon River, testo che l'ha influenzata più di ogni altro. Più di recente si è occupata di tradurre nella nostra lingua altri scrittori americani, sempre originali e anticonformisti, tra cui David Foster Wallace e Chuck Palahniuk.

Amica intima di Hemingway, che si disse la volesse sposare, e di innumerevoli personaggi della scena mondiale e italiana tra cui Fabrizio De Andrè, Fernanda Pivano è stata colei che ha avuto il coraggio di rompere gli schemi e tradurre quegli scrittori che tutti gli altri traduttori professionisti aborrivano. Incoraggiata da Cesare Pavese, suo professore al liceo, Fernanda Pivano si era laureata in inglese con una tesi su Moby Dick. Il suo primo viaggio in America risale però al 1956, quando scopre l'America della Beat Generation, un'America pacifista, influenzata dalla filosofia buddista e determinata a rompere gli schemi della letteratura tradizionale.

Monday, August 10, 2009

21. "Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

Year of first publication: 2008
Genre: historical novel, epic saga, adventure novel
Country: India

In italiano: Mare di papaveri di Amitav Ghosh, edito da Neri Pozza, € 18,50

About the author: Amitav Ghosh was born in Kolkata in 1956 and grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. He studied at the universities of Delhi and Oxford. Ghosh's fiction is characterised by strong themes that may be somewhat identified with postcolonialism but could be labelled as historical novels. His topics are unique and personal; some of his appeal lies in his ability to weave "Indo-nostalgic" elements into more serious themes. He is the author of The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1990), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004) and Sea of Poppies (2008).

Plot: Set just before the Opium Wars, in the 1830s, Sea of Poppies is the story of a an old slaving ship named Ibis, sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius with a diverse cargo of passengers. The fate has in fact thrown together a motley crew of sailors, coolies and convicts, including a bankrupt raja, a French orphan girl who is running away from an arranged marriage and a woman who escaped her opium-addicted husband’s funeral pyre. Everybody is hiding something, but while the ship is sailing towards Mauritius, they come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, ship brothers.

Some thoughts: Sea of Poppies is supposed to be the first book in a projected trilogy on the Ibis (which will be awfully long, seen that this book only is 530 pages long!). In my opinion, it should have won the Booker Prize last year instead of The White Tiger (link to my review in Italian), because it was so much better than any other book in the shortlist. It is one of those 500-pages-long books that you can read in just a few days, never growing tired of the characters.
Much space is given to the second mate, Zachary Reid, an American whose mixed origins will leave him a target for blackmail. Then there is Paulette Lambert, an orphan French girl who grew up in India and speaks perfect Bengali and Hindi; she wants to escape to Mauritius and is in love with Zachary. Neel Rattan is a bankrupt raja who is being deported and has lost all his privileges, while Deeti, the widow of an opium grower, is travelling with a low-caste Oxen driver considered by everybody to be her husband. On board there are also the “lascars”, the Asian sailors who crew the ship, among them Serang Ali and Ah Fatt, half Parsee and half Chinese. It is an unlikely group of passengers for a ship: they all come from very different backgrounds and are divided by race, gender and cultural heritage. In particular, there is a hierarchy among people on the ship, even though many people (Zachary, Paulette and Neel in particular) are hiding their true identities. There are strong bounds that connect the characters and others are made on board of the Ibis. The voyage that many passengers were seeking as a refuge becomes in fact a nightmare.
Sea of Poppies is an adventure novel and an epic saga at the same time. It would be perfect for the silver screen, as many features would perfectly fit in a movie (the love between Zachary and Paulette, for example, or the cruelty of British officers on board towards the “coolies”). There is even a website ( where all the words in the Pidgin English of the lascars are explained, imagining that Neel Rattan devoted the last years of his life to a dictionary of nautical jargon used by the lascars (who came from many different parts of Asia and Africa and therefore created a pidgin language).

Riporto la recensione di Alessandro Monti, tratta da La Stampa del 13 settembre 2008:

Sulla nave dei papaveri c’è Dickens
Amitav Ghosh. Lo sfruttamento coloniale nel Bengala dell’800

Siamo nel 1835 in Bengala, gli inglesi hanno appena abolito la schiavitù e hanno bisogno di manodopera coatta per le piantagioni nei Caraibi e alle Mauritius. Nel contempo hanno stravolto l’agricoltura bengalese, imponendo la monocultura del papavero, che lavorato è avviato in Cina. La nave Ibis, una negriera, convertita al trasporto dei lavoratori indiani a contratto, salpata da Baltimora raggiunge Calcutta per le Mauritius e su di essa, imbarcati come lavoratori o galeotti si troveranno tutti i protagonisti del romanzo Mare di Papaveri di Amitav Ghosh.
Tra di essi un mulatto affrancato, in origine carpentiere; una contadina che, rimasta vedova firma il contratto per sfuggire al cognato, unendosi a un fuoricasta. S’imbarca anche, in panni maschili, una giovane orfana francese, destinata dalla comunità inglese a sposare un vecchio; un giovane pescatore bengalese, compagno di giochi della ragazza e di lei innamorato. Tra i personaggi dell’assortita compagnia troviamo un nobile proprietario terriero bengalese, rovinato in modo fraudolento dagli inglesi e deportato alle Mauritius, insieme ad un cinese oppiomane, e per finire un Baboo, impiegato, bengalese a servizio degli inglesi, seguace di Rama e che si veste da donna, per impersonificare, nel suo innamoramento mistico, la sposa del dio.
Ghosh recupera con gusto la narrativa tradizionale ottocentesca, si pensi a Dickens, non dimenticando che tra le radici della narrativa indiana, c’è il romanzo storico. D’altra parte l’autore incrocia i drammi e le vite problematiche dei personaggi sullo sfondo dello sfruttamento coloniale. Il paese è dominato dalla Compagnia delle Indie e dai mercanti privati, che detengono il monopolio degli affari. In particolare, il commercio dell’oppio imposto alla Cina, e di lì a poco causa di guerre, arricchisce le tasche dei mercanti e affama i contadini, costretti a sostituire i raccolti alimentari con il papavero.
E’ impressionante la descrizione fatta da Ghosh dei capannoni dove si lavora l’oppio: una via di mezzo tra gli antri cavernosi e immensi di Piranesi e la futura fabbrica tayloriana, in cui la produzione è sincronizzata e l’uomo stesso ridotto a macchina. Ma un altro aggancio è possibile con il mondo contemporaneo, se pensiamo alla coltivazione del papavero in Afghanistan. Ghosh rappresenta il processo di controllo egemonico coloniale attraverso lo straniamento linguistico provocato dall’uso dell’anglo-indiano, ovvero il gergo parlato dagli inglesi in India, che corrompe deformando le lingue locali con termini criptici, comprensibili solo da chi appartenga al chiuso mondo coloniale. E’ una lingua ormai arcana, di comando e di potere, ebbra di false assonanze con l’inglese: per esempio mysteries rimanda a maistri, qui artigiano. A tale lingua autoritaria si oppongono il multilinguismo indiano e le lingue di intercomunicazione tra etnie diverse. Dall’apparente babele dei subalterni nasce la speranza: se viaggiare per mare implicava la perdita della casta, la convivenza forzosa a bordo tra caste diverse darà origine a uno spirito nuovo di solidarietà, che prefigura come avrebbe potuto essere un’India ispirata a Gandhi dopo l’Indipendenza. Dall’altra parte, il lavoro sporco di controllo e di repressione è svolto nel romanzo da indiani, carnefici dei loro fratelli: forse un apologo amaro su come oggi possa essere interpretato il rapporto tra le masse diseredate e chi detiene le chiavi del potere. Visto l’impasto linguistico di cui sopra, il romanzo era pressoché intraducibile, ma i traduttori se la sono cavata con onore, anche se mi piacerebbe discutere con loro le scelte tipografiche e i problemi posti dal lessico composito, che rischia di allontanare il lettore. Certo una dieta lessicale a base di gomusta, di chobdar e simili può risultare alla lunga indigesta. Anche i lettori colti si sono trovati in difficoltà.

Un breve commento all'articolo: Anche in inglese i lettori più colti si trovano a disagio di fronte a così tante parole indiane e al gergo marinaresco dei "lascar", ma nonostante ciò il romanzo continua ad essere perfettamente leggibile. Non conoscere il bengali o il Pidgin English non impedisce di godersi il romanzo. E poi che cosa avrebbero dovuto fare i traduttori italiani: sostituire "gomusta" con "sacerdote indù" o qualcosa del genere? E dove finiva tutta la ricchezza culturale e linguistica del libro?

And finally, read my review of A Fraction of the Whole, another book shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize (in English).

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Man Asian Literary Prize - Longlist

If you’re tired of this year’s glaringly white Man Something Else List (as Margaret Howie from Bookslut writes in her blog):

With a Stone in My Heart - Gopilal Acharya (Bhutan)
Jimmy the Terrorist - Omair Ahmand (India)
Say Scholar - Siddharth Chowdhury (India)
Witness the Night - Kishwar Desai (India)
The Descartes Highlands - Eric Gamalinda (Philippines)
The Last Gods of Indochine - Samuel Ferrer (Hong Kong)
Rough with the Smooth - Ram Govarhan (India)
History of Hate - Kanishka Gupta (India)
Memoirs of a Terrorist - Kamaroon Rasheed Ismeer (UAE)
Overwinter - Ratika Kapur (India)
The Bereavement of Agnes Desmoulins - Mariam Karim (India)
The Autobiography of a Mad Nation - Sriram Karri (India)
Residue - Nitasha Kaul (India)
Leche - R. Zamora Linmark (Philippines)
Secrets of the Eighteen Mansions - Mario I. Miclat (Philippines)
Different Countries - Clarissa V. Militante (Philippines)
Omigod - Varuna Mohite (India)
Thunder Demons - Dipika Mukherjee (India)
Blackland - Hena Pillai (India)
Lin Xiu-Tzi and Her Family - Roan Ching-yueh (Taiwan)
Eight Muses of the Fall - Edgar Calabia Samar (Philippines)
Table of Four – K. Srilata (India)
The Boat to Redemption - Su Tong (China)
Shadow of the Red Star - Oyungerel Tsedevamba (Mongolia)

I hope that at least one or two of these books will be acknowledged in Europe, because I must admit that I'm bored with this year's Man Booker Prize longlist.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

20. “La Morte a Venezia” di Thomas Mann

Anno di prima pubblicazione: 1912
Genere: romanzo breve
Paese: Germania / Italia

Sull’autore: Thomas Mann nacque a Lubecca, in Germania, nel 1875. Si dedica fin da giovanissimo al giornalismo e alla letteratura, come il fratello maggiore Heinrich. Lavora per un breve periodo in una compagnia di assicurazioni e poi decide di dedicarsi a tempo pieno alla letteratura. Durante un soggiorno in Italia comincia a lavorare al suo romanzo più famoso, I Buddenbrook (1901). Fanno seguito alcuni racconti novelle, tra cui Tonio Kroeger (1903) e La Morte a Venezia (1912), e poi un altro romanzo, La Montagna Incantata (1924). Nel 1929 gli viene conferito il Premio Nobel per la Letteratura e nel 1933, con l’arrivo del nazismo in Germania, si trasferisce prima in Svizzera e poi negli Stati Uniti.

Trama: Un famoso scrittore decide di prendersi una vacanza. Dopo un paio di tentativi falliti, capisce che la destinazione ideale è Venezia, così decide di prendere una camera in un hotel del Lido. Tra i vari soggiornanti dell’albergo c’è un giovane ragazzo polacco dalla bellezza impressionante di cui lo scrittore s’invaghisce senza azzardarsi a rivolgergli la parola.

Alcuni pensieri: Sapevo che iniziando questo breve libro avrei incontrato Venezia e non la Venezia allegra delle calli rumorose e delle serate in campo che piace a me, ma una Venezia tetra e cupa dove regnano la peste e i cattivi odori. Sapevo che iniziando questo breve libro avrei incontrato la morte alquanto insensata di uno scrittore per un’ossessione assurda, quella per un ragazzo con il quale non ha mai scambiato una sola parola e di cui non sa niente se non il nome. Ma non sapevo che avrei incontrato un alone di mistero che ricopre tutta Venezia, le sue chiese barocche e il suo fascino decadente. Misteriosa è la fascinazione di Gustav von Aschenbach per il bellissimo adolescente Tadzio, un episodio di velata omosessualità e pedofilia ma descritto in modo innocente e naturale. La passione dello scrittore è quella che si prova di fronte ad un’opera d’arte o alla bellezza più pura della natura. La situazione in cui si trova invischiato Aschenbach rispecchia un’esperienza di Mann a Venezia raccontata dalla moglie dello scrittore (che non era né omosessuale né pedofilo). Mann era rimasto affascinato da un ragazzino molto attraente, ma non si era spinto fino al punto di inseguirlo per tutta Venezia. Ho visto anche il film di Luchino Visconti degli anni ’70, ugualmente misterioso, triste e cupo. Si tratta davvero di un racconto particolare, ma che in fondo, se ci si pensa bene, mette insieme eros e thanatos, l’amore e la morte, come in tante altre opere d’arte (mi viene in mente Baudelaire, ma si potrebbero citare decine di autori).