Its been almost a year since we posted anything. The club read some fantastic books, but somehow we didnt get around to posting. I think we need to remedy this so will refer to my notes and give some brief coverage.
Its been almost a year since we posted anything. The club read some fantastic books, but somehow we didnt get around to posting. I think we need to remedy this so will refer to my notes and give some brief coverage.
“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin (from the novel The Left Hand of Darkness)
10th February 2012
I am afraid most of us had not read through the book. I had read it many years ago on the recommendation of my son Utsav and really loved it. I started re reading it and realised why it would not appeal to many. First of all the science fiction genre does cater to a niche market and many of us like our fiction to be rooted in a world and society which we can identify with . It is possible to deal with historical fiction and different countries and cultures because essentially human beings and the societies they are set in, are impelled by universal and familiar human motivations and emotions.
But a completely imaginary world where physical realities are outlandish and stretch the imagination ? They seem to be a waste of time for any serious consideration. There also appears to be a clear demarcation between science fiction and fantasy literature so that the same person may love Tolkien or Harry Potter but not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Ursula Le Guin complicates things by writing both genres , so we have the Hainish series with LHOD(Left Hand of Darkness) as a sample of science fiction and the Earthsea novels as an example of pure fantasy( which I think all members of the book club would have liked).
The difference appears to lie in the fact that while science fiction asks you to suspend disbelief by accepting all weirdnesses as realistic mise en scene , fantasy acknowledges quite openly that we are dealing with magic and unexplained mysteries. Fantasy appears to be more acceptable than science fiction to non aficionados. I must admit I am an unabashed fan of both and indeed sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the two. What I like is the very novelty of unusual situations and contexts and the responses and reactions of humans or humanoids to these situations.
To my mind , the difference is only one of idiom. Take away the language of pseudo science and the enchanting premises of magic and fairytale and you just have an imagined situation where the drama comes from the reactions of the human beings. It could be the conflict of cultures, beliefs , politics, economics , whatever. So it is, as Le Guin points out in the preface to LHOD, just a way to explore the dynamics of human behaviour, or ideas. She uses the idiom of science fiction to explore many of our contemporary issues and ideas and beliefs that she holds dear. We are reminded that she is a sociologist by training and her father was a renowned anthropologist . Taoist, anarchist , ethnographic, feminist, queer theory, psychological and sociological themes recur in her novels and the genres allow scope for free exploration. The impact of sexuality or the exploration of sexual identity is a major precoccupation in LHOD which is set on a planet peopled by an unpredictably androgynous race in . But it is also a story of love and betrayal.
She is a champion of the disempowered and the exploited and abhors discriminatory ethics. This makes her a feminist (not the bra burning type) anti apartheid , pro- environment and sustainable development. We don’t notice, but her heroes and heroines are predominantly coloured people because after all, the majority of humans are coloured and what could be more natural? Long term, conjugal relationships depend on more than sex and the permutations and combinations of functional relationships are examined through many novel social constructs. She appears to feel that the fear of ‘otherness’ as well as pure male aggression as a biological factor is at the root of senseless competition and organised warfare as well as the predatory nature of our society.
I am not going to analyse the story here as the internet has many good exposes, but I have to mention that I just stumbled on her website and her blogs , which are simply delightful . She started blogging two years ago and writes with so much humour and incisive clarity that it even my rusty brains starts moving with much clanking and groaning. The depth, clarity and trenchant logic of her perceptions and views are astounding. Matched only by humour, sensitivity, tolerance and a gentle satire and irony to leaven the whole. I wish I may have the same clarity at eighty two. I am going to give the link here for whoever want to refresh themselves every now and then with her down to earth candidness and voice of sanity
Also as a taster I am quoting below blog number which should interest all of us as a group of women :
7. A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters
I have come to see male group solidarity as an immensely powerful force in human affairs, more powerful, perhaps, than the feminism of the late 20th century took into account.
It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways. Still it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups. The power of male group solidarity must come from the control and channeling of male rivalry, the repression and concentration of the hormone-driven will to dominate that so often dominates men themselves.
It is a remarkable reversal. The destructive, anarchic energy of individual rivalry and competitive ambition is diverted into loyalty to group and leader and directed to more or less constructive social enterprise. Such groups are closed, positing “the other” as outsider. They exclude, first, women; then, men of a different age, or kind, or caste, or nation, or level of achievement, etc. — exclusions that reinforce the solidarity and power of the excluders. Perceiving any threat, the “band of brothers” joins together to present an impermeable front.
Male solidarity appears to me to have been the prime shaper of most of the great ancient institutions of society — Government, Army, Priesthood, University, and the new one that may be devouring all the others, Corporation. The existence and dominance of these hierarchic, organized, coherent, durable institutions goes back so far and has been so nearly universal that it’s mostly just called “how things are,” “the world,” “the division of labor,” “history,” “God’s will,” etc.
As for female solidarity, without it human society, I think, would not exist. But it remains all but invisible to men, history, and God. Female solidarity might better be called fluidity — a stream or river rather than a structure. The only institutions I am fairly sure it has played some part in shaping are the tribe and that very amorphous thing, the family. Wherever the male arrangement of society permits the fellowship of women on their own terms, it tends to be casual, unformalised, unhierarchical; to be ad hoc rather than fixed, flexible rather than rigid, and more collaborative than competitive. That it has mostly operated in the private rather than the public sphere is a function of the male control of society, the male definition and separation of “public” and “private.”
It’s hard to know if women’s groups would ever gather into great centers, because the relentless pressure from male institutions against such aggregation has prevented it. It might not happen, anyhow. Instead of rising from the rigorous control of aggression in the pursuit of power, the energy of female solidarity comes from the wish and need for mutual aid and, often, the search for freedom from oppression. Elusiveness is the essence of fluidity.
So, when the interdependence of women is perceived as a threat to the dependence of women on men and the child-bearing, child-rearing, family-serving, man-serving role assigned to women, it’s easy to declare that it simply doesn’t exist. Women have no loyalty, do not understand what friendship is, etc. Denial is an effective weapon in the hands of fear.
The idea of female independence and interdependence is met with scoffing hatred by both men and women who see themselves as benefiting from male dominance. Misogyny is by no means limited to men. Living in “a man’s world,” plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do. In so far as the feminism of the nineteen-seventies played on fear, exalting the independence and interdependence of women, it was playing with fire. We cried “Sisterhood is powerful!” — and they believed us. Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were.
The nature of sisterhood is so utterly different from the power of brotherhood that it’s hard to predict how it might change society. In any case, we’ve seen only a glimpse of what its effects might be. The great ancient male institutions have been increasingly infiltrated by women for the last two cenuries, and this is a very great change. But when women manage to join the institutions that excluded them, they mostly end up being co-opted by them, serving male ends, enforcing male values. Which is why I have a problem with women in combat in the armed services, and why I watch the rise of women in the “great” universities and the corporations — even the government — with an anxious eye. Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men? If so, will they change the institution so radically that the men are likely to label it second-class, lower the pay, and abandon it? This has happened to some extent in several fields, such as the practice of teaching and medicine, increasingly in the hands of women. But the management of those fields, the power, and the definition of their aims, still belongs to men. The question remains open.
As I look back on the feminism of the late twentieth century I see it as typical of feminine solidarity — all Indians, no chiefs. It was an attempt to create an unhierarchical, inclusive, flexible, collaborative, unstructured, ad hoc body of people to bring the genders together in a better balance. Women who want to work toward that end, need, I think, to recognise and respect their own elusive, invaluable, indestructible kind of solidarity — as do men. And they need to recognise both the great value of male solidarity, and the inferiority of gender solidarity to human solidarity — as do men. I think feminism continues and will continue to exist wherever women work in their own way with one another and with men, and wherever women and men go on questioning male definitions of value, refusing gender exclusivity, affirming interdependence, distrusting aggression, seeking freedom always.
— UKL 2 December 2010
There are a many readers who love Jane Austen as well as P.D. James. And therefore when we learn that PD James herself is a die- hard admirer of Austen we feel ‘ Aah, she’s a right one!’ and feel vindicated in our own preferences ( nowadays one has to defend a love for Austen)
My son( an atypical modern Austen lover) came home one day saying, Hey PD James has written a detective novel set at Pemberly! And I could tell him with justifiable pride that the book club were ‘doing’ it for the current month.
Great anticipation – what could be better than Austen’s chiselled prose and James’ lyrically psychological complexity plus first rate whodunit thrills.
The chiselled prose is great; scarcely a note out of place; we roam the Pemberly landscape and re encounter the main characters of Pride and Prejudice post the marriage and fast forward seven years later without any misstep. But there is a but right?
As the story unfolds , Captain Dennis is found killed in the woods with Wickham crying over him. He is nevertheless the prime and only suspect and is arrested and set up for trial. Much research has certainly gone into the historical facts of such a setting and I am sure it is perfectly authentic though I am no historian, because the detailing is so good and rings true.
But where oh where is the suspense and thrill of a classic PD James? She is a master of characterization – all her characters, victims , associates, detectives, as well as the murderer are such well fleshed, nuanced personalities . You know how they think and what motivates them . Here the well loved people we knew at Longbourne and Highbury are true to form but some how appear like puppets. The spirit and spark seems to be missing. Some of us expressed this by saying that Elisabeth was downright boring, diminished into a class conscious matronly housewife. As for Darcy, that irascible, arrogant yet powerful man of action, seems singularly passive and diffident. Col Fitzwilliam the charming dasher of PP is almost villainous…. And so on.
End of the day, the outcome as to who is the murderer is so much of an extraneous and improbable sleight of hand that it’s a let down….
So what we have is a perfect take on Austen, but no zing and zest of life. PD James is remarkably missing. The book appears to be more like a classroom exercise.
Susmita , Pakhi and Gita were the strongest supporters of the book with Susmita saying that if Austen were to write of a violent death at Pemberly this would have been exactly the way she would have gone about it down to the conclusion. This is the denouement which her sense of social and other values would have dictated. I agree. People do tend to miss the dark side of Austen. Susmita has written a brilliant piece on her take which I put verbatim below.
“ For persons like me who are die hard Pride and Prejudice fans and love PD James, and look at texts critically, Death Comes To Pemberley is a dream come true. PD James is an established detective fiction writer who is not running out of ideas and hence her choice at a retake on Pride and Prejudice is not like a Bollywood remake of cult films when directors take the lazy way out by recasting older milestones. If she has chosen the immortal Pride and Prejudice, it is with a purpose; like a detective herself she has pried into what seems to be perfect and utopian and looked for dark shadows that lurk in the otherwise held through ages as the perfect romance and the perfect marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy. The idea of the novel, Death Comes To Pemberley is not so much to write another detective novel by merely using Pemberley as a backdrop as much as it is to internalize the Austenalia, write in the author’s own voice and while doing this recover through the very same doubts that Jane Austen herself infuses into her novels while closeting her characters into happy homes and warm hearths.
Jane Austen’s novels on hindsight are in fact the perfect setting of crime. Detectives often do best when set in enclosed spaces; either it is the idyllic English village depopulated by war conscriptions, or by death by epidemics, or just abandoned as farming economies collapse or sometimes they are luxury cruises on the Nile or the elaborate properties like the Hollow. In these villages where nothing seems to ever happen or in those palatial abodes where all is always well, crime seems to thrive the best as a contrast to utmost normalcy and serenity. Jane Austen, to a crime fiction writer inhabits just those worlds that are as listless nothings as the ones mentioned above. Her novels are natural settings for crime fiction.
Pride and Prejudice is the pinnacle of Jane Austen; no wonder that it has survived the best. Its characters are sharp profiles out of Sense and Sensibility and then drop off to emerge as Emma. Only Persuasion purports to be different despite the all is well ending. In all these novels, the author gives us a distinct feeling that she is writing in two voices, one conformist and the other cynical. PD James catches the latter and then rewrites Pride and Prejudice by extending it to the present work under discussion, namely Death ..
Is the present novel under discussion a sequel to Pride and Prejudice? A sequel is an aftermath of the events presupposed to have been concluded within a particular piece of work and in whose resolution the author of the sequel is dissatisfied with. The sequel says that the story is far from being over and that there is unresolved karma whose loose ends need to be tied up. The ‘Uttar Ramayan’ is a case in the point because it explores Rama’s fragility of mind, something that sticks out like a sore thumb even as celebrations explode in Ayodhya at the conclusion of Rama’s exile and his victory over Ravana in what is said to be the final war. ‘Death Comes to Pemberly’ tries to address unresolved issues, whether Lydia is all that wrong after all, whether Elizabeth Bennett at all has the perfect romance, was Darcy as much of an idol as he is made out to be. To these questions that arise as fatal doubts to readers like me who read Pride and Prejudice whenever and wherever I find the opportunity, PD James has tried to write a reply.
PD James raises the fatal doubt over Pride and Prejudice, was the Elizabeth and Darcy romance as great as it has been accepted by us as one? It had none of the free flowing spontaneity of Georgiana’s or the hopeless head over heels syndrome of Bingley and Jane’s. Hers was a romance based more on a sense of challenge, ensconced in repartee and resistance, the last of which emanates from a denial of attraction. Elizabeth was also fighting herself when she disliked Darcy, a way to perhaps tell that she better distance this hopelessly attractive man before he rejects her advances. She could not have loved Darcy for what he was because they really never interacted. Theirs was a romance of inklings and not of intimacy and perhaps a free intimacy was not possible since there was an overriding element of being overwhelmed. The marriage of Elizabeth to Darcy was the end of a long of arduous journey between two persons helplessly attracted to each other and yet fighting it within themselves to deny the allure. The marriage is such a neat and a tight conclusion that the reader can only imagine for the two as happily ever after; where does such a final and certain conclusion leave any room for speculation except as cracks that the marriage encounters. The cracks do appear in Elizabeth’s slight envy of Georgiana’s laughter in love, a state of free spirit that her romance has never known, a feeling that she quickly smothers down with her intensely rational and rationalizing self. Elizabeth immerses herself in her role as the incumbent mistress of Pemberley. One cannot help feel disappointed with such a cardboard cutout of Elizabeth but Gita and I felt that there could be no other way.
The other crack appears when we see Darcy as a non performer; apart from walks in the park and being a model husband, and a proper master of an inherited property, he really has little sense of agency. He almost slyly follows Elizabeth with his famous “eyes” and then approaches Elizabeth with a straight proposal for marriage without any effort at courtship. What he “arranges” for Lydia is because he has the reins of Wickham in his own hands and he has money. There has been more activity around Bingley, Wickham and even Colonel Fitzwilliam than around Darcy. PD James insists in her ‘cardboardization’ of Darcy’s character that there never has been and nor can be any much more out of a man who is so well ensconced in his property and social class that he is entrenched into a deep passivity of fulfillment. Ditto same for Elizabeth after marriage.
One may fantasize that Elizabeth should have been the detective, snooping around, intuiting and then logically rationalizing. But this too is not to be. Elizabeth is too absorbed and preoccupied in her role of a mistress of Pemberley and the wife of a prize catch that she seems to have lost the personality traits amidst keeping up traditions such as Lady Anne’s Ball. She neither has the autonomy nor the leisure to hone her own personality after her dream marriage to a dream man, not so much because she loves him but because he is such a desire for other women nor so well aligned to the morals and manners of the contemporary society.
Wickham turns out to be just as one expects him to be; the story is not so much about Wickham really. Instead, the story is about Lydia, a woman who, by the dint of her devotion to a wild and hence attractive man as her husband, must face and continue to face ill consequences of her impassioned choice. I don’t think that I noticed this while reading the book. For me, this comes as an afterthought.
As a story of crime and detection, it was too straight-line, passive voiced and obvious and neat. The murderer after all turned out to be a man who would die a natural death and Wickham would be absolved of all charges; and the detection brought about through the practice of the confession. One wonders why PD James seems to have at all conceptualized this rather watered down story when she herself is such a renowned writer of crime fiction? This should not be an observation on the author but rather this is the question to be addressed.
In a manner of a detective let us look deep into the author and her present work. It is her intention to peer into Pride and Prejudice, into its world, inside Pemberley to look for what is systematically pushed under the carpet. That hanging of a poor boy on false charges that absolved a gentleman makes us wonder whether it was after all not Colonel Fitzwilliam who was the killer, whether or not it was he who, being rejected twice, once by Elizabeth and then by Georgiana did not take out his frustrations on a poor tenant’s daughter? Was Wickham, also like the executed poor boy, an easy target, easier because of his inherent waywardness? The death of Wickham’s half sister brings into the story a sharp contrast with the genteel relation between Darcy and Georgiana and the passionate devotion of an older sister for her half brother. The devotion of a sister to a brother suddenly raises a doubt in my mind, whether Wickham was not the victim of a class war, because with a strongly devoted family behind him, his wonderful manners, his sharp mind and his charming and seductive ways, he could have moved up the social ladder and as easily slip into the upper echelons of the society, a la Eliza Doolittle honed by Prof Higgins ? Indeed Wickham and Lydia’s emigration to America a land known for its equality away from the class divided and class conscious England is a hint for us to pick up the real story that PD James is investigating, namely that of the cracks in the polished veneer of Pemberley.”
Susmita has made several valid points. Still I can’t stop feeling that PD James has missed writing a great story in keeping with her other novels. She has succeeded in being true to Austen but not true to herself.
The implication of this assessment is rather tricky. Does this mean that Austen thinks marriage would inevitably reduce Elisabeth and Darcy to stuffed models of married propriety? We had a huge debate on this.
Austen could be merciless and cynical about the state of marriage ; but she did have an ideal of the marriage of true minds. Elisabeth in PP articulates this when she rejects Collins and her friend Charlotte accepts him. In fact PP is a comparative study of different kinds of marriages and relationships; Mr and Mrs Bentley( unequal and rather pitiful); Jane and Bingley( too alike);Charlotte and Collins( marriage of convenience); Lydia and Wickham( a socially acceptable compromise for a youthful folly). Elisabeth and Darcy are by implication an ideal… not a milky sweetness kind of ideal but a equal partnership where both members offset the other and interact to grow. Elisabeth’s liveliness and Darcy’s sobriety are supposed to be the leaven of their relationship. In fact Austen explicitly discusses each of these aspects in PP and while having no illusions on the score, did believe that there was a practically feasible ideal. And this comes out in her other novels as well.
I cannot believe that in the free intimacy of a loving marriage where both parties are united in their sense of values and principles ( Austenish language) that personality can be submerged and effaced. I would like to believe that ,that this is the fertile ground in which two personalities can take wing and grow. Elisabeth unmarried behaves with no less propriety than the chatelaine of Pemberly. It’s her private take on life which makes her such a delightful character. So where are Elisabeth’s wry observations on life’s oddities and absurdities? She may behave with the propriety demanded of her public role as chatelaine of Pemberly , but she was always able to laugh at herself and her circumstances, and she was also that rare person who could at least privately acknowledge her own faults. And why should Darcy lose his dry , sometimes unkind, irony of speech. It’s what makes him come alive.
So , all in all, we are agreed that while this book reveals the seamy underbelly of the Austen world, it is rather weak as a detective story. The main issue of contention is that of characterization . Surely James who can get in the head of her characters has done them less than justice.
December 20th ,2011.
Shakun’s suggestion turned out to be a good choice. With translations one can never know the exact and real flavor of a book. But as a stand -alone this version by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin was a smooth read. I liked the style:very good command over language, irony, gentle satire, empathy , humour, and a great down to earth pragmatism. Harsh realities are not clouded by either romantic sympathy or gut-wrenching horripilation. Things are as they are , the author seems to be saying: as deux ex machina I am presenting my characters on a theatre of life with a given backdrop and sometimes , because of my distance, I can see the irony and the pathos and even the satire in a situation , but what really interests me is how my three main protagonists react in a given situation; their reactions are conditioned by their situation in life which as they are sisters is basically the same , but the real point of interest lies in their different personalities.
So you have the eldest Yumi whose approach is to take responsibility for what happens to her life and therefore makes choices and takes initiative. There is Yuxiu who relies on her charm to take her places , only it leads her down a lot of dead alleys. And there is Yuyang who lacks self-esteem and therefore grasps at whatever can give her the illusion of recognition even if it means a betrayal of both herself and her companions and friends.
The three operate in a theatre which is pretty hard ,if you think it through. It’s a rural setting in communist China where the party organization and hierarchy replaces the feudal power structure of imperial China. The critical issue is that though people appear to have enough to eat and access to a modicum of education and opportunity,nevertheless, the stranglehold of socio- political and thereby economic power persists in playing the key role in people’s lives. And it is a stranglehold. Power means privilege and privilege means better economic and social position. The difficulty in breaking the stranglehold is unchanged whatever the regime. End of the day all three players are constrained in their power of exercising choice and taking action by the social structure and organization to which they belong. They are trapped by the system. Is this the final assessment of Chinese communist society by outsiders like us ?
My personal favorite is Yumi : she is intelligent, has a clear appraisal of the dynamics of her life situation and is willing to take responsibility for her choices and work to make a success out o them. She does so with courage, patience, and a strong sense of the need for maintaining one’s dignity and pride. She may appear a little hard but she has empathy and can indulge in the softer emotions, only she recognizes the need to subdue them in a fight for survival with dignity.
Yuxiu is a personality which I would not be able to identify with because my mind could never work that way. She is the kind of personality which is parasitic, likes to sustain herself on other and stronger people. But I realize that, if I were to know her in real life, I would probably acknowledge her charm and sympathise with her problems. In fact if she had been fond of Yumi and taken her for a mentor, she could probably have turned out a stronger and less pathetic human being.
I had hopes of Yuyang as the only sister which breaks out of the mould enough to go for higher schooling. But the education system is again just another system ,as rigid, as suffocating ,as hierarchical and as subject to power play as any other authoritarian system. Only Yuyang is also rather mean spirited or am I wrong? She has her share of undeserved miseries and its difficult to fight back in a system where you are not only weak in spirit but also perceived and treated as such. She chooses the last resort of the weak : she becomes a traitor :the official spy of her fellow schoolmates. She gets her self- validation by exercising this sneaky power over them . Not an attractive personality .While she is not likeable, the author’s treatment ensures that she evokes pity and compassion.
All the sisters, in one way or another, are victims of their society .
The three stories can almost be read independently , but together are a powerful tale of character and personality chained and dragged down by the organized structure in which they are placed to evolve and grow. The end of the individual stories end with a whimper .
I like being left with a feeling of hope and faith in the human spirit but the last story is one only of betrayal and it leaves ashes in one’s mouth. The author however, has done a great job in catching all of this. There are subtleties in observation, in language, in ironic comment, in the humour, in the occasional philosophical comment, in poetic descriptions, which make this a richly crafted book in the hand of a master.
What an evocative title ! Bina says that is what attracted her, and the blurb of course, to the book when she bought it about a year ago. But it actuslly evokes a mixed response which appeared in common to us all : the story and theme rather interesting, but the style….. not appealing at all! The narrative is sometimes quite vivid but abruptly lapses into 21st century idiom and slang which doesn’t go with the avowedperiod. My caveat on this was that human beings being what they are , even in the vedic period , they must have used cuss words and slang and surely did not in their daily speech sound like hymns from the RigVeda . So if the author was trying to deglamourise the past, he succeeded, but did so only at the cost of credibility and good prose. My son who zipped through the two volumes and pronounced “ the language is vile!” about sums up our feelings .
Pakhi however also had an issue with authenticity : the author had mixed up historic periods and assumed that the Indus Valley civilization and the vedic period were about simultaneous. Now if you believe in the Aryan ( equivalent to vedic civilisation) invasion then of course she has a point as the Aryan invasion is assumed to have taken place after the Indus valley civilization mysteriously vanished. My objections to this position are two fold : on the one hand, there is an immensely respected and growing body of scholarship which maintains that the the Aryan invasion is a myth and never took place . Marc Daninos the French historian is the most articulate on this point and can be referred to on the web . I also discovered with astonishment that many of our cultural and spiritual gurus like, Tagore, Sri Aurobindo and their contemporaries in England and America didn’t believe in the Aryan invasion either, and argued with some degree of scholarly logic that there was no irrefutable evidence of the invasion. On the contrary they find that the Indus valley civilization shared remarkable simililarities to the vedic approach to life. And there is an interesting fact: we were taught for years that the Saraswati was a mythical river. It is now widely accepted due to geological evidence that the river in fact did exist , its source has been discovered by geographers, and satellite imagery clearly shows the way it shifted its course several times in the course of history before finally drying up. But The Rig Veda and other vedas definitely refer to it as a contemporaneous mighty and living river . As is obvious to the blindest ,I am enamoured of the ‘Aryan invasion that wasn’t’ school of belief. In any case it is difficult to be sure of anything going back before recorded history as Bill Bryson so ably demonstrates in his book ‘A short History of Nearly Everything’. Theories on the origins of species, evolution etc are NOT definitive, merely probabilistic. New discoveries in every sphere of the physical sciences are contradicting older theories every day. Luckily when we deal with literature and fiction we can invoke a phenomenon called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ where you can accept the premise of a work of fiction as if it were a world unto itself.
This brings us to my second objection based on the premise that when evaluating fiction, beliefs are of marginal importance. The author specifically acknowledges that he has taken our myths and legends and even some historical postulates and used them to create a fictional story. So historical fact is not paramount here. There is such a thing as artistic licence…. (Hello Pakhi, remember our Eng Lit classes ?). There was a hot debate on this with Pakhi saying historical facts are out of whack and research was not thorough. Debate was recorded for posterity by Gita.( see candid photo).
Amitav Ghosh was quoted as an ideal example of accurate historical background. Well, that is comparing chalk and cheese. The thing is that Meluha is actually a pot-boiler. As Gurinder commented , it’s a flat narrative , rather superficial, and skims the surface of certain serious social themes e.g. the efficient ,logical and perfectly ordered lives of the Suryavanshis, the chaotic, liberal creativity and individuality of the Chandravanshis, the fear invoked by those different aka the Nagas, the practicality of the Brangas, Shiva representing power allied with responsibility etc, etc. The symbolism, allegorical nuances, etc, are very simplistic and obvious. The lack of depth is highlighted by the inappropriate style and language which trivializes the story. The only vibrant scenes are those describing the battles.
So, net verdict: story content is enough to make you want to know what happens next; I bought and finished reading ‘The Secret of the Nagas’, and have to know what is going on in the last volume. But I also hate being exploited by the author through cheap sensational pot-boiler tricks, like ending chapters and the book with a cliff- hanger. Reminds me so much of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. Was compelled to turn the page because somebody would die, or be captured or, somebody would turn out to be a traitor …. All tricks of pulp fiction.
Gita and Shakun : great marketing job by author who has marketed the book himself so that there is much buzz and inevitably, a movie in the offing. Certainly a job more fun than a bureaucrat’s portfolio !
Some interesting clips and another review I found which really echoes my reactions.
See if the following finds an echo in you :
We adopted a new format this time . Members will take turns to suggest a book for reading and then lead the discussion on it , also by the way, providing the main critique. The following critique is by Pakhi who revelled in the subject of 19 th century European art and treated us to a visual feast of many of the impressionist paintings referred to in the book. I am uploading only a few of them.
The book is a family memoir about 5 generations of the Ephrussi clan with connections around the world, traced by one of the descendants – Edmund de Waal, a well known potter, who starts on an epic journey to discover the story behind a collection of Japanese memorabilia he has inherited – a collection of 264 exquisitely carved netsuke or kimono ties. In the process, he uncovers the history of his family spanning a period of almost a hundred odd years.
But this is no ordinary biography… its pages wander through the cities of Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and Odessa to reveal the complex genealogy of this clan of wealthy Jews, their enviable lifestyle at the height of their power and success and the world events— the first and second world wars, the rise of Nazism– that erodes their power and status leaving them paupers, refugees who had to leave their adopted countries overnight and struggle to survive or die in the aftermath of the Jewish holocaust.
The book is like a onion skin that unpeels to reveal its many layers rather like the Japanese concept of takenoko, the bamboo shoot that is unpeeled layer after layer as starving Japanese sell their heirlooms in the streets of Tokyo to buy food after the second world war.
Tracing the origins, and the owners of the netsuke collection we uncover a treasury of information in passing. For example, the rage for collecting Japanese objects of art in the 1870’s among rich socialites and the emerging school of Impressionist artists that had a great influence on their paintings.
“Old ivories, enamels, faience and porcelain, bronzes, lacquer, wooden sculptures.. arrived at a merchant’s shop and immediately left for artist’s studios and writers’ studies.. Carolus Duran, Manet, James Tissot, Fantin Latour, Degas Monet, the writers Edmund and Jules de Goncourt,..Zola…”
This influence can be seen in Monet’s picture of his wife Camille (La Japonaise) posing in a kimono with a Japanese fan. It is seen in James Tissot’s portrait of La Japonise Au Bain ( Girl in Kimono) or Manet’s paintings where Zola commented on “ this art of simplification is to be likened to that of Japanese prints; they resemble it in their strange elegance and magnificent patches of colour.”
As a connoisseur of art and collector of all things beautiful, Charles Ephrussi and his mistress Louise, also a wealthy Jewess, accumulated a vast collection of Japanese art including lacquer boxes, furniture and the netsuke collection. We learn about his patronage of the arts and particularly his relationships with the foremost impressionists painters and writers of the age ( Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, Degas , Renoir). Through the listing of his collection Edmund reveals the reasons behind the man’s passion for collecting.
It was not just the desire to own a thing of beauty but to understand it. We empathise with Charles’s love of Impressionist art and how he uses his influence to promote their works. He captures the essence of the Impressionist movement “ to seize in passing the perpetual mobility of the colour of the air..ignoring individual shades… to achieve a luminous unity whose separate elements melt together into an indivisible whole… to arrive at a general harmony, even by way of discords”.
This can be seen in the landscapes by Pissaro, Monet’s picture of Bathers culminating in Seurat’s Pointillist technique.
Like the subjects of Japanese art that took commonplace subjects, a pedlar, a woman with a crying child and elevated it into intimate portraits of life that the viewer can identify with, the Impressionists’ too, took pains to capture the fleeting moments of everyday life… the colour of the sky, a woman sowing corn in the field, a still life of fruit on a table.
Yet when there is a tide of anti-Semitism sweeping Paris in the wave of the famous Dreyfus trial and “ by supporting Dreyfus they( the Ephrussis) were proving that they were Jewish first and foremost, and French only second.” Parisian society was divided into camps and there was criticism of the Ephrussis as noveau riche speculators. Renoir (once a close friend of Charles, who included him in his famous painting – The Luncheon of the Boating Party) now cuts off all ties with him and refers to Charles’ taste as vulgar “ Jew art”. Despite his lifetime dedication to the cultivation and promotion of the arts and his status as a serious aesthete, Charles on his death gets only a grudging tribute about his contributions to art and letters by his colleagues in the Gazette.
This undercurrent of anti- Semitism runs like a smouldering flame through the book, ignored by the wealthy Jews who feel they have earned their settler’s rights in their chosen country. Yet it cannot be ignored and eventually engulfs them when the Nazis come to power in Germany and Austria. Through the eyes of Victor and his family we see reflections of the hopes and fears of the Jewish community who despite their wealth have never really been able to assimilate into society. Victor is a member of the Jockey Club but he is not allowed to hold office. Their non Jewish friends visit their houses only when they are bachelors, once married they don’t come as it is no longer acceptable for Gentile wives to visit Jewish salons. Emilie is snubbed at the meeting of a charity committee. Yet the Ephrussis learn to ignore these “gossamer threads of rudeness” in order to fit into Viennese society.
We feel their sense of loss when the Victor and Emmy are robbed of their possessions, have their bank accounts frozen and are arrested for being Jewish collaborators against the Austrian regime. They are forced to confess to these trumped up charges and have to pay a bribe to leave Vienna for their ancestral home in Czechoslovakia where they become stateless refugees. The tragic ending to a great family that ends with Emmy’s suicide in Czechoslovakia and Victor’s death in England. Stripped of their wealth the family too is dispersed. Iggy settles in Japan, his elder sister Elizabeth in England and the younger in Mexico.
Characters and Narrative Style:
The characters in the biography are surprisingly well drawn considering that De Waal had very little source material except photographs and a few odd letters, and conversations with elders of his family to go by. His painstaking research brings alive every era of his family’s history as he traces their glory through magazines, letters of contemporary artists and writers, exhibition catalogues of their paintings, some of which are enshrined in museums in Paris and New York.
The uneven quality of the narrative, the back and forth hunt to trace the history of the netsukes, is a little jarring I feel, but it seems relevant as the history is traced in a series of encounters through cities. The narrative style is also uneven, factual on one hand, passionate on other pages and it owes to the fact that Edmund is a potter and not a writer by profession. He had to use his imagination to bring the story to life and his personal touch comes out in the odd and interesting turns of phrase like “ I walk down the hill from the Hotel Ephrussi at a good flaneurial pace’ or “ for Charles this lacquer had the quality of embedded poetry; not just rich and strange but latent with stories of desire”. And of course you see his love for tactile objects in his descriptions of each one of the netsukes or descriptions of the house and its ornamentation. This is a potter speaking, tracing details of gilding, stucco work and embellishments in the family homes in Paris, Vienna, and Odessa.
The only person who’s character is not fleshed out as a person is Anna, the maid servant who ironically is the person who is most loyal to Victor’s family and is responsible for saving the netsukes, the only symbol of their vast artistic legacy.
There is a wealth of social history in the descriptions of life at the turn of the century the period known as the Belle Epoch. Emmy’s wardrobe and the ritual of dressing three times a day, the life of the upper classes where people changed their lovers and mistresses at the drop of a hat. The mornings in the coffee houses in Vienna, afternoons in the famous salons of Paris and the glittering evening balls and receptions. In contrast to this are the changes – political, economic and social that sweep through Vienna during the wars. I am not an expert in history and others can give a better view of the historic changes that sweep through this biography.
The novel comes full circle in Odessa and Tokyo – the beginning and end of the dynasty.
For me, the novel was an art appreciation course, as much as it was a detective trail. I learnt a lot of the life of those times and enjoyed the bits about Impressionist art having seen a lot of the paintings mentioned in the museums in Paris, New York, and Boston.
Following is the you tube link where de Waal talks about his quest. Interesting snippets.
The first painting is by Renoir of the luncheon at Grenouilles and the top hatted figure in the background to the right is Charles Ephrussi,the patron which is described in such detail in the book.
The other two are by Monet of a bridge on a lily pond which he painted a zillion times in different moods.
26th August 2011
We met at Gita’s house and welcomed a new member Gurinder Kaur. What with all of this excitement the discussion was a little disjointed further disrupted by Gita’s excellent banofee pie and hot buttered scones. Comparisons with the first of the trilogy ‘Sea of Poppies’ was inevitable. Pakhi was of the firm opinion that the first book was more gripping and had more personal drama. But there was an unanimous verdict that River of Smoke bore the hallmark of all that we have come to expect of Ghosh… excellent research, the wide panorama and a vivid cast of characters and a sense of history. I hadn’t read the first book but resolved to do so because I must catch up with what happened to Neel and and what were the beginnings of Diti et all.
‘River of Smoke’however gave me a view on our history which never emerged in our school history books. The economics of British colonialism with particular reference to India is truly mind boggling. As school children we only get a very romanticized view of historical facts… the British came , established hegemony over a bunch of squabbling local rulers and proceeded to lay the foundations of a remarkable adminstrative system and also by the way, exploit the natural resources and strategic benefits of the country.
The ruling motive of greed is not much emphasised at least in school history books. It is not news to my friends who studied history at college when they could actually assess facts and analyse the implications , but most of us dont really pause to think how overpowering and intense was this motive. Maybe it is not surprising, as we are used to the greed motive in modern garb : not much different from the greed which drives the stock exchanges worldwide and colonialises most world economies.
So while on the one hand we have reaped the benefits of a British legacy that includes a remarkable rail infrastructure , a not unremarkable educational system and some truly notable institutions like the legal, judicial , administrative and military systems( not their fault if modern India has been slow to modernize obsolete body parts) nevertheless their economic policies have encouraged with a vengeance the exploitation of the masses by the few, leading to a society of glaring polarities. On the other hand , this was the real reason behind the rise of nationalism and desire for independence.
Musings apart, I had heard of the opium wars but hadn’t realized their true gravity. The question that rises to mind is how was the opium trade different from the drug cartels of South America and the drug trafficking of the modern world? And what does this say of the ethics of a government and a nation which positively encouraged it ? tsk tsk! Seriously, the British have a lot to answer for to their Maker.
Whatever the narrative thread carried over from the prequel, along with the escapees from the Ibis, the real theme of this book is Canton of the mid nineteenth century. The characters which people this book are vivid , many are true life characters , but the real protagonist is the foreign enclave in Canton. It is a world with its own rules, social hierarchy, economics, politics and culture. Remarkable. To think nothing remains.
People who have read Peter Clavell’s ‘Noble House’ which of course is about the founding of Hong Kong, say that many characters are naturally common to the two books. What I find interesting about Ghosh is how, through his story and setting, he makes you really question values and ethics ; for instance Bahram. He is a a opium merchant after all. But you like him, you are keen to know what happens to him and you feel sorry for what he is finally reduced to : an opium drugged wreck of a man. Almost the stuff of tragic heroes. Reminds me of “Othello’s occupation’s gone !”.
I suppose that’s life . No hard and fast rules. Values and choices yes,right and wrong yes, but very rare to be able to sit in final judgment over anyone. Am eagerly awaiting the last part which I assume will be set in Mauritius and the part Indian bonded labour played in the history of that country. Also must read Sea of Poppies.