Friday, August 26, 2011

My Literary London

London was full of literary bliss this summer.

First of all, I was staying just down the road from London Fields, the city park with a bucolic name where the homonymous novel by Martin Amis is NOT set. M.A. in fact decided that West London, and Notting Hill in particular, was a better place for Nicola, Keith and Guy to live. Of course, while you wander around Hackney you may find some remedies for your “Amis disappointment”, such as bookshops on a boat on Regent's Canal or... reading lanes.

For a radical change, I climbed the stylish neighbourhoods of Highgate and Hampstead, both on the hills in the north of the city. In Highgate there is a famous cemetery, where among other people George Eliot and Karl Marx are buried. 

While wild grass grew on Eliot’s modest grave and not a single flower was in sight, people stop by Marx’s majestic grave all the time, leaving flowers and starting interesting discussions on philosophy. I read about one such discussion  that eventually conflated into Ian Buruma’s famous book “Occidentalism”, a counterpart to Edward Said’s seminal book on the orientalist discourse. I stopped on Eliot’s grave and I felt sorry for her, even though I haven’t read a single line of her. This is only a temporary impediment, because on the aforementioned bookshop on a boat I bought her most famous work, “Middlemarch”. It took some time before I (or the friendly bookseller) could find a copy of it inside the boat, but after five minutes of intense search I was rewarded with a hardback edition of Eliot’s famous book. By the way, during my holiday I also had a trip to this small place just outside London where I used to be an Italian language assistant. The building that hosts the school once was George Eliot’s summer house and she may have written parts of her novels there!

Highgate Cemetery is next to Waterlow Park, which is really a lovely place if you want to have a break from London’s chaotic and intense life. I sat under a tree, with children playing on the lawn and people sunbathing, with my copy of “War and Peace” and a couple of books of poetry (not exactly the kind of reading you would do on the tube).
Hampstead, with its beautiful, picturesque (and incredibly expensive) houses, can boast a population of artists and intellectuals. This is also where John Keats’ house stands, only nobody seemed to know where it was, causing me to wander around the neighbourhood for more than one hour. His house is rather modest: he only rented a room and a parlour. It’s thrilling to know that there he wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale”, one of his most famous poems. Dear John, buried in Rome, who died at 26 years of age. What I was surprised to learn during my visit was that his friend called him ‘Junkies’. John Keats came from East London, from Moorgate to be precise, not far from where I was staying. Apparently he introduced himself as ‘Junkies’, with a distinguishable Cockney accent. Hilarious! During his lifetime they used to call him ‘a Cockney poet’, which when I think of his poetry sounds preposterous.

I wonder if he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale" here...

Part of my literary tour involved the British Library, where I was doing some research. The central pillar is called the King’s Library, because it’s a donation of King George IV. People who need old books and manuscripts go there and you can see them searching through the shelves from outside. The exhibitions included the Magna Carta, old editions of several classics such as “Jane Eyre” or Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and a room dedicated to science fiction, displaying volumes by George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov.

Punting in Cambridge
Among my trips outside of London there was Cambridge and Stratford-upon-Avon. The first is of course famous for its university and the second for being the hometown of William Shakespeare, but the atmosphere was similar: very relaxed but stimulating.  In Cambridge I visited King’s College, the most prestigious and photographed of Cambridge’s many colleges. Because the building that hosts the college was finished under Henry VIII, you can see magnificent statues of him, and in the majestic college’s chapel there are his initials intertwined with Anne Bolyen’s. This obviously reminded me of the books I have recently read about King Henry VIII and his wives, but it was also a history lesson (not to mention the notions of history of art I gobbled while I was there). An incredible number of famous writers studied at King’s College in Cambridge, among which my favourites are E.M. Forster, Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. It was strange to think that they walked the same streets, maybe stopping by at the same café or sitting somewhere on a bench scribbling some lines.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, everything revolved around the bard. His birthplace is a stunningly well-preserved house in the centre of the small town. Of course you can visit it (and you’ll have a taste of that peculiarly British obsession for fake meat or plastic eggs on display in the kitchen). In the garden some of the staff is in costume and improvises fragments of Shakespeare’s plays. While I walked on the garden I spotted a bust of Indian poet and playwright Tagore, who was a great admirer of the bard. I wonder why him, with all the admirers Shakespeare has had!

The marvellous cottage of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, is another place that enchanted me, with its garden full of herbs and flowers, its orchard and its maze. The tour guides love to explain how the house passed on one generation after the other in the Hathaway family and how many expressions we use in English, such as ‘raining cats and dogs’ or ‘one over the eight’, originated in the Tudor period, when life conditions were notoriously very different from ours. The atmosphere here was simply peaceful and romantic. Together with Shakespeare's grave in the small, beautiful church of the town and the Shakespeare Royal Company, it made my day!

Anne Hathaway's cottage

In this almost unintentional literary tour, Westminster Abbey was of course included. Together with the burial monuments of Queen Elizabeth I and much of the Tudor dynasty, the abbey is famous for its Poets' Corner, where writers  such as Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer (that my Italian-speaking audioguide called Goffredo!), Rudyard Kipling and Thomas buried are buried. The problem is that sometimes you cannot distinguish the burials from the memorials, so the visitor is led to think that also the Brontes's sisters, W.H. Auden or Jane Austen are buried here, but they are not.

Well, I'm sure I have forgotten some of the many things I have seen (ops, Pinter's play!) and I could write about things I have visited in my previous visits to the UK (Virginia Woolf's house in Bloomsbury or Walter Scott's munument in Edinburgh, not to mention Deacon Brodie's tavern which inspired Stevenson to write one of his most famous novels), but I'm sure you've heard enough for now... 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"The Ramayana" by R.K. Narayan

As the back cover points out, “The Ramayana” ‘is, quite simply, the greatest of Indian epics’. It was first put in writing between 1500 and the fourth century B.C., but it has been adapted and retold many times, each storyteller offering a slightly different version in the intent to accommodate the tale to one’s demands and preferences. This version, told by R.K. Narayan, is based on the Tamil version written by Kamban (the original is in Sanskrit, instead). Narayan (1906 – 2001) has been one of the greatest Indian writers in English and he is still one of the country’s favourites. His contribution to the Indian novel in English  predates Salman Rushdie by almost fifty years, his first novel “Swami and Friends” being written in 1935. He has written books on Indian legends and epic sagas that are still wildly read and offer a decent introduction to a story that is larger than life. Narayan’s book is a shortened prose adaptation and those who are looking for a rich version of the story with all its strands and descriptions should look somewhere else. His writing is not without charms, however.
The story is well known: Rama, the favourite son of the King of Ayodhya and an incarnation of the god Vishnu, is married to Sita, whom he has conquered by managing to wield the incredibly heavy bow of god Shiva owned by her father, the King of Mithila. Rama is destined not to live in peace, however. In fact, his stepmother plots against him and manages to send him into exile in the woods for twelve years. The forest being a rather dangerous place, the couple, accompanied by Rama’s brother Lakshmana, have a hideous encounter with a demon, a rakshasa woman who tries to seduce Rama and is disfigured by Rama’s brother in punishment. As a consequence, her brother Ravana plots to abduct Sita, by sending another demon disguised as a golden deer to distract Rama and his brother. Ravana tries to conquer Sita’s heart, but she sternly waits for her husband to set her free. Rama in the meantime has formed an alliance with Hanuman, a monkey hero. Rama learns from a vulture that Sita is in the island of Lanka, so Hanuman crosses the sea and spies on Ravana. After a war between Ravana and Rama’s forces, Sita is freed. Her trials are not ended, though, because her husband seems cold and distant. This is because he is not sure that Ravana has not touched her, therefore she proposes to undergo a trail by fire. Sita, eager to prove her innocence, steps into the fire and is protected by Agni, the god of fire. Narayan’s adaptation ends with Rama and Sita going back to Ayodhya after the end of their period of exile, thus omitting a part of the tale that the author considers not popular enough and, always according to him, a later addition to the story.
The most interesting and controversial part of the epic, the trial by fire, is dealt with rather briskly, whereas other parts are described at length with evident gusto. Sometimes I found Sita annoying, for example when she insists that her husband should catch the golden deer for her, even though he suspects that it is just a trick from s demon, as golden deer notoriously don’t exist. I guess that the whole concept of duty (dharma actually) is explored in the epic, but for a “modern”, western mind it is not easy to grasp.
Another thing that I noticed and that puzzled me is that when Sita offers to prove her purity by entering the fire, Narayan considers that Rama was wrong in not stopping her. The author, in this case, enters the epic tale and makes his own corrections and comments, as many tellers of the story have done in the past. Narayan justifies Rama by claiming that in that moment he didn’t remember he was an avatar of Vishnu. Errare humanum est, Narayan seems to tell us. It is often said that “The Ramayana” is a somehow male chauvinist text, but if we take Narayan’s version for granted it is not so.
I also find Hanuman, the king of the monkey people, an interesting character. I like the parallels between the monkeys’ virtues and values with those same qualities in the human people. These qualities are often highlighted and contrasted with the prejudice and low esteem of the monkey people. As for the prejudices, one clear example is when Ravana is furious because he did not manage to kill “the monkey”, whereas the low esteem of Hanuman and his peers is evident when his army needs someone else (Sampathi, brother to the eagle Jatayu) to tell them that they can take any form they want, thus finding a way to cross the sea to rescue Sita. Some people even suggest that Hamunan and its people are a mythological version of the indigenous inhabitants of the south of India, as a contrast with the northern people of Aryan descent (Rama’s people). This is a fascinated hypothesis, but I wonder if it is a correct interpretation or just some gibberish talk.   
Although I already knew bits and pieces of the story, I enjoyed Narayan’s short book. It is an extreme summary for a complex story and the writing is sometimes too stiff for my taste, but it was altogether a pleasant reading experience. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

London is an ... "Art of Pariahs"

I have been studying in the British Library for the past two weeks and I will for the following weeks. I have been working on an essay on transnationality and as London inspires me I have been very busy writing.

I'll post here one of my favourite poems from Meena Alexander's book "The Shock of Arrival".

Art of Pariahs

Back against the kitchen stove
Draupadi sings:

In my head Beirut still burns.*

The Queen of Nubia, of God's Upper Kingdom,
the Rani of Jhansi, transfigured, raising her sword,
are players too. They have entered with me
into North America and share these walls.

We make up an art of pariahs:

Two black children spray painted white,
their eyes burning, 
a white child raped in a car
for her pale skin's sake,
an Indian child stoned by a bus shelter,
they thought her white in twilight.

Someone is knocking and knocking
but Draupadi will not let him in.
She squats by the stove and sings:

The Rani shall not sheathe her sword
nor Nubia's queen restrain her elephants
till tongues of fire wrap a tender blue,
a second skin, a solace to our children.

Come walk with me toward a broken wall
- Beirut still burns - carved into its face.
Outcastes all, let's conjure honey scraped from stones,
an underground railroad stacked with rainbow skin,
Manhattan's mixed rivers rising.