Saturday, October 29, 2011

'A Room of His Own' by Suniti Namjoshi

I just finished reading "Feminist Fables", a small book that elaborates on the most common fables from the point of view of women. I have already written about this little known author here. To show you how clever and yet so unpretentiously written they are, I'll report one of my favourites.

A Room of His Own
The fifth time around things were different. He gave her instructions, he gave her the keys (including the little one) and rode off alone. Exactly four weeks later he reappeared. The house was dusted, the floors were polished and the door to the little room hadn't been opened. Bluebeard was stunned. 'But weren't you curious?' he asked his wife. 'No', she answered. 'But didn't you want to find out my innermost secrets?' 'Why?' said the woman. 'Well' said Bluebeard, 'it's only natural. But didn't you want to know who I really am?' 'You are Bluebeard and my husband.' 'But the contents of the room. Didn't you want to see what is inside that room?' 'No,' said the creature, 'I think you're entitled to a room of your own.' This so incensed him that he killed her on the spot. At the trial he pleaded provocation.

Questo libro è stato tradotto, con il titolo "Fiabe Femministe", per Supernova. Di Suniti Namjoshi, in traduzione italiana con testo a fronte, è disponibile anche "Istantanee di Caliban. Sycorax", una raccolta di poesie che rivisita "La Tempesta" di Shakespeare, rendendo per esempio Caliban una donna-mostro (ma come cavolo si dice "she-monster" in italiano?) e riflettendo sulle questioni postcoloniali presenti nel testo.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

“A Sin of Colour” by Sunetra Gupta

For some reason this novel comes with an endorsement on the front page which reads: “A young, true heir to Virginia Woolf”. I think this was tossed at random: Sunetra Gupta is a very good writer, but she does not resemble Virginia Woolf (and I hope the comparison was not made because one of the characters in the book commits suicide by drowning). I would more eagerly compare her with Anita Desai: they are both very careful about language, the effort being repaid by delicate and precise sentences, and their novels go deep in the exploration of the characters' interior life in ways that are never obvious. It is nonetheless an investigation that is profoundly different from Woolf's interior monologues: Gupta's style is clearer and lyrical in a simpler way. If I were to make a comparison with two famous painters, I would quote Gauguin for Gupta (resolute brushstrokes, plus profound existentialist and philosophical allusions) and Monet for Woolf (hazy landscapes and mostly confused, conflicted emotions). The characters' feelings in Gupta's novel are complex and even they sometimes cannot name and explain their emotions, but the author's intentions are always manifest.
A Sin of Colour” tells the story of three generations, it starts in Calcutta just after the Partition and then goes on in Oxford, only to return to Calcutta in the last movement. I am using this term – movement – because the author obviously had a clear-cut idea of where the novel was going, relying upon structure and therefore giving to her story a feeling of harmony and cohesion that is not easy to find. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Sunetra Gupta is a scientist as well as a writer and has to work with numbers and fixed rules. “The Sin of Colour” begins with an impossible and purely platonic love between a young man called Debendranath Roy and his sister-in-law Reba. In the background there is the family's big mansion, named Mandalay in homage to the country and the city where the Roys made their money by trading teak. If all this rings a bell, it is not by chance: the novel is in fact inspired by Daphne Du Maurier's famous novel “Rebecca”, but this is not the only allusion in the book. “A Sin of Colour” is in fact peppered with references to many works of literature, from Tagore's songs to “Jane Eyre” and Bertold Brecht. The main subject of the novel, for example, made me think of Satyajit Ray's film “Charulata”, which is in fact based on a story by Tagore. It does feel right to learn that the author also translated some of the poet's work. All the literature references in the book, it needs to be clarified, are never annoying. On the contrary, they are very cleverly employed to build a story that always feels true. All the characters, starting from Debendranath's niece Niharika, leave a mark on you. Even the dull, boring English aunt is described with care and wisdom.
All in all, this is a brilliant book, soulful and written with expertise. It flows slowly, but it is never boring. I strongly recommend this to anyone who is interested in good writing and good storytelling, but does not feel attracted to the exotic side of many Indian writers.

About the author: Sunetra Gupta was born in Calcutta in 1965 and raised there and in Africa. She is a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and is the author of five novels. “Memories of Rain”, her first work of fiction, has been awarded the Sahitya Akademy Award in 1996.

Il libro è stato tradotto in italiano con il titolo "La Casa dei Giorni Dorati" ed è pubblicato da Piemme.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tranströmer and Mistry

As you may have read in the news, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. While I hadn't heard of him before the announcement, I am happy that a poet has won (there aren't many poets among the recent laureates). The responses were mixed, but then they are every other year. Too many European laureates, some people says. He's just some obscure Scandinavian poet nobody was aware of, other people may say. I'll just link you to this article written by Tim Parks called 'What's Wrong with the NobelPrize in Literature'. It summarizes all my ideas on the prize: how can you award a prize that is supposed to be truly global when all the judges are Swedish academics? Of course the jury tried to send a red herring by awarding the prize to someone who writes in a minor language, Swedish. Of course, they were not bold enough to venture into kikuyu literature and this makes you think.

I think it is also nice to acknowledge that the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which some people call the American Nobel, was awarded to Indian-Canadian writer RohintonMistry, which strangely enough I haven't read. He is a lot more famous than Tranströmer and writes in English.

Here you have the other side of the coin and the usual dilemma: is it better that those prizes be awarded to well-known writers who write in languages many people can read or is it worthwhile to dig for new talents in minor languages? And, above all, why do we care so much about these prizes? 

"War and Peace" by Lev Tolstoj (vol.2)

In the second volume of this almost never-ending and sometimes dragged on novel (come on, don't be shocked, Tolstoj really lacks in concision), you will find a lot of war and not as much peace. A great deal of pages are devoted to an important field battle and to the fire in Moscow, when the Russian army inexplicably left their capital city in the hands of Napoleon. In spite of this, there is still time to witness Count Pierre Bezukhov's life-changing experience as a war prisoner and his humanitarian experiments. This was my favourite strand of the novel: I could not help but feel sympathy for Pierre, in spite of his foolishness (at a certain point he starts believing that he is destined to kill Napoleon because of an obscure cabbalah-related calculation he has made). Natasha also changes a lot in this second volume and by the end of the book she is finally a woman. Prince Andrej, instead, ends up being almost the hero and his story line is harrowing but also uplifting. You could argue that “War and Peace” is, among many other things, a buildungsroman. I know that most scholars speak of it as the historical novel par excellence and I am not saying it is not that as well. Only, it is difficult to ignore that every character matures somewhere between page 1 and page 1425 and in order to do that each of them has to live through a war and several tribulations.

The primary intent of the book becomes clearer than ever by the end of the book. The last thirty pages of “War and Peace” are actually an essay, pure non-fiction inserted in a novel. This of course makes you think. More than a family saga, “War and Peace” is the medium employed by Lev Tolstoj to write about history. Tolstoj believed in fatalism and thought that revolutions and wars did not happen because of the ambition and desire for power of single leaders. In Tolstoj's world, great men – Napoleon first of all, but also Kutuzov or Murat – are only one of the many factors that make what we like to call “history”. A part of me would like to say that Tolstoj's attempt in these last thirty pages to explain how history works was a failure: instead of showing us what history is and how it works through the characters in the book, Tolstoj ends his novel with an essay, departing from the narrative texture never to return to it. Nonetheless, it is quite possible that this was perfectly acceptable in the 19th century when Tolstoj wrote the book and I must confess that his opinions (and his metaphors to explain how he thinks history functions) are alluring to say the least. However, I found the philosophical parts slightly redundant. 

"War and Peace" is an old-fashioned novel, this I can say without feeling guilty. It has become a classic, not only of Russian literature, but of world literature. It is vast and contains many things. It can provoke frustration ("is this book ever going to finish?") or admiration ("how can Tolstoj describe the world so well?"), but surely you cannot dismiss it very easily. It makes you keep thinking about what you have read. In other words, you feel its weight even after you've finished it.