Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Meet Mr. Mulliner”

Quite some years ago, I had decided that I could not imagine living a life in which P. G. Wodehouse was not a constant presence. Today, I continue to place him among my top four authors of all time; I am so much in awe of his brilliant wit and humour and his superior writing.

The Anglers’ Rest public house bar … an irrepressible Mr. Mulliner, telling unbelievable (and I am using the word for its exact meaning) tales of his many relatives - and there you have it - the fantastic collection of short stories that go to form ‘Meet Mr. Mulliner’!

Through our meeting with Mr. Mulliner, we meet George Mulliner who was cursed with a terrible stammer, and was advised by a specialist in London to go and speak to three perfect strangers each day as a confidence building measure. We follow the adventures of Wilfred Mulliner, the inventor of Mulliner’s Magic Marvels, and see the tanning effects of Mulliner’s Raven Gypsy Face-Cream, Mulliner’s Snow of the Mountains Lotion which fixes piebald-ness, Mulliner’s Reduc-O that takes care of weight problems, and Mulliner’s Ease-o which relieves lumbago. We meet Augustine Mulliner, a meek young curate, and see what happens when he takes Buck-U-Uppo (a tonic which works directly on the corpuscles) with an intention to becoming more confident and assertive.

Like I said: unbelievable!

Like all the patrons at Anglers, we may start off pooh-poohing Mr. Mulliner, but soon get addicted to the tales of the various Mulliners and their stories that always end with ‘and everyone lives happily ever after.’

I always have this problem when, in an attempt to telling people how funny P. G. Wodehouse is, I rack my brain trying to pick one or two funny lines from the book, but I just can’t! The man was a genius, and genius cannot be presented in a neat little box of “top five funny lines”. So I’ll leave you with this random gem I picked from an endlessly dazzling spread:

“What’s this?” demanded Augustine, eyeing it dangerously.
“A nice fried egg, sir.”
“And what, pray, do you mean by nice? It may be an amiable egg. It may be a civil, well-meaning egg. But if you think it is fit for human consumption, adjust that impression. Go back to your kitchen, woman; select another; and remember this time that you are a cook, not an incinerating machine. Between an egg that is fried and an egg that is cremated there is a wide and substantial difference. This difference, if you wish to retain me as a lodger in these far too expensive rooms, you will endeavour to appreciate.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Dracula”

“Welcome to my house. Enter freely and of your own free will!” Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel Dracula turned out to be so much more than what I was expecting! Whether or not we have read the book (or watched the movie) of such stories as Tarzan or Frankenstein or Dracula, these tales are so ingrained in our collective minds, we are all familiar with the names and basic characteristics. But - as I realized after reading these books - there is so much more than just the basic plot points we think is the whole story.

That surprise was for me, the greatest pleasure in reading Dracula! Sure, I knew that Dracula is a vampire who sleeps in a coffin by day and sups on human blood by night. I thought this book would be a short story narrating a few blood-sucking incidents. But this story was so much more. I wasn’t even aware of the whole history of Count Dracula of Transylvania over the ages. (In fact, I had a vague idea that when the vampire does his bit, the victim is in a kind of a helpless trance, but even in that I was gravely mistaken!)

When the story starts off, and some very disturbing things are slowly introduced - the Count who casts no reflection in a mirror, who crawls down the side of a 100-foot castle wall; the three gorgeous “sisters” who appear in a cloud of hypnotic lights - it is all about entering the castle of Count Dracula and the world of the vampire. Slowly however, as Jonathan Harker leaves the castle, the story also moves on and becomes a tale of intrigue and investigation as we follow Dr. John Seward, Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood (Lord Godalming), led by the brilliant Professor Abraham Van Helsing, on their quest to find and destroy the evil Dracula. That quest, in fact, is what the majority of this story is all about. With the arrival of a ghost ship, with Swales’ inexplicable death, with Lucy’s sleepwalking, with children encountering the “bloofer lady” … we see the frightening threat that Dracula is, and that’s when the story reaches a whole new range.

Without question, the best character of this story was Van Helsing. A unique, slightly eccentric character, he leads a team through the twists and turns of the dangerous mission of stopping Dracula once and for all. I was also quite fascinated by the character of Renfield, a patient at Dr. Seward’s asylum who consumes flies and spiders and much more, in order to absorb their “life force”. Renfield’s role as some sort of a sensor, reacting to Dracula’s presence, added to his character’s air of mystery.

I also really liked the way this story is told: through a series of letters, and diary and journal entries made by the chief protagonists, as well as newspaper articles. That first-person narrative made the entire experience that much more personal.

There were a few parts where the story tended to lag at times; some detailed descriptions of steps undertaken by the team, and some of Mina’s more sorrowful diary entries could certainly have been condensed. That apart this was a refreshing read - culminating in a very exciting finale in the hunt for Dracula! Van Helsing’s idea of using the ‘link’ between Mina and Dracula was brilliant, and the search that started with the clue of “lapping waves, rushing water, and creaking masts” led through some very exciting searches from shipping boxes to abandoned houses, finally ending in a glorious climax.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Road”

“Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is the post-apocalyptic story of a father and his young son, struggling to survive in the aftermath of an unspecified calamity that has destroyed almost all life on Earth.

Like the tale it tells, the narrative style of this book hits you with its frank brutality. There are no names. Just ‘man’ or ‘boy’ or ‘old man’. (Presumably because this could be the story of any one of us). Furthermore, when characters speak, there is no flowery adornment of language. Every sentence is stripped away even of basic punctuation and quotation marks. Dialogues don’t even start with, then he said or, then she replied.

That raw telling is however only the voices of the survivors. When the narrator speaks, the sad beauty of this tragic story is presented in such poetic terms, it quite takes your breath away. “By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” … “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” … “The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.”

There is also a juxtaposition of events - in the narration of the present with memories of the past - a fishing trip with his uncle, a movie date with his girlfriend … splashes of colour seep through the alienating grey every now and then.

Every now and then also, a question is thrown at you, making you stop in your tracks and really wonder. “How does the never to be differ from what never was?” … “People are always getting ready for tomorrow but tomorrow isn’t getting ready for them.”

There is so much sadness in this terrifying reality. Those moments don’t just come from scenes of such obvious horror as seeing a man struck by lightening drag himself on and on till he at last sits down and never gets up, or seeing scores of people dying, stuck to melting tar. When the boy thinks he saw another boy and cries to go back and help him, or when the father has to leave him alone for a while and says, “I’ll be in the neighbourhood” and the boy asks, “Where is neighbourhood”; there are so many heartbreaking moments. Like the boy - a moral compass in a disintegrating world - who has to quickly learn many cruel lessons of survival (including how to kill himself with a gun), we too have to deal with the shock of being in a world where the fight for survival strips humans of all humanity and makes cannibals out of them.

As I recount my reactions to the story, I am reliving a great sorrow and a sheer terror, and it is not easy to form a cohesive review out of such brutality. The boy says at one point, some things, once they enter your head, never come out … I think this story about “the good guys who are carrying the fire” will continue to haunt me for a very long time.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “1Q84”

I have just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s magnum opus (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) and it has been such an incredible, indelible experience. One Q Eighty-Four or “ichi-kew-hachi-yon” is a play on the Japanese pronunciation of the year 1984 (in reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), the letter Q and the Japanese number 9 being homophones.

Set in 1984 Tokyo, the story has been divided into three sections - April to June, July to September and October to December - and follows the arcs of Aomame, a fitness club instructor, Tengo Kawana, a novelist, and Ushikawa, a private investigator.

It is not easy to categorize the genre or encapsulate the story of 1Q84, a surrealistic story that deals with several different themes: in the events of Takashima and Sakigake, this is the story of a mysterious cult with a dark secret; in the missions of the “Dowager” Shizue Ogata and Aomame, this is a story of retribution; in the relationship between Aomame and Tengo Kawana, this is the love story that transcended a universe; in the tale of the Town of Cats - later paralleled to Tengo’s father’s nursing home - this is a story of the great meaningless trap that life is; in the flashback on Ushikawa - the ugly little creature who repels everyone he meets - this is a great philosophical commentary; in the incessant knocking on the door by the so-called NHK collector with his creepy “I know you’re in there”, this is a horror story; in the actions of Tamaru there lies a story that blurs right and wrong; in following the investigations of Ushikawa, this is a murder mystery. Of course, central to this novel is the short story “Kuki Sanagi” (Air Chrysalis) submitted to a literary contest by the 17-year old “Fuka-Eri” (Eriko Fukada). In its narration of a story about a world where the Little People exist, this is a great fantasy.

This is not a book that can be read casually. It is so rich with incident and meaning, it demands full attention - and full attention to the smallest detail. Every word and every act is there for a reason. A seemingly small detail will come back carrying a whole world of meaning on its back. From the crow on the balcony to the ominous end of “irretrievably lost” to Janacek’s Sinfonietta, everything will tie in and enhance the experience.

A little like Murakami’s “Sekai no owari to hado-boirudo wandarando” (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) - another fantastic book - we see two parallel worlds, 1984 and 1Q84, with small details of one being reflected in the other; with small incidents in one seeping through to the other - and that was the other extraordinary feature of this novel. From door-to-door NHK collections to door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness distributions, from the 10-year old Tsubasa to the 10-year old Eriko Fukada, from Komatsu’s reality to Aomame’s dream, from the town of cats to the town of Chikura, from maza to dohta, from Air Chrysalis to the real world … and in one grand saga, from 1984 to 1Q84 - this was the fantastic telling of a fantastic story!

In some world, at some time, a taxi driver had told Aomame, “There’s always only one reality.” … Which one will you choose?!