Catching Up: World Lit Edition

If winter weather makes me want to curl up in front of the silver screen, summer weather often drives me outdoors with a book. So, instead of the usual film-catch up session, let’s talk books.

Ismat Chughtai. Worth it if you read Tahira Naqvi’s translations. But I suggest getting a collection with a glossary at the least, and some explanatory intros to each story at best ... because the context of her stories may be a mystery to you, and her casts of twice and thrice related characters might prove impossible to keep straight. Still, if you pay attention (or understand the world of the zenana or the customs of the Muslim community better than I do), it’s easy to appreciate the broader social commentary and Chughtai’s dry sense of humor.

Rabindranath Tagore. I’d read a few of his short stories before, including the ubiquitous Postmaster. But more recently I read The Home and the World. Personally, I’m a sucker for stories about revolutionary movements and especially personal disillusionment among the revolutionaries themselves, (plus I loved the film), so this pick was a no-brainer. As a whole, The Home and the World reads like a psycho-philosophical thriller (if there is such a genre), where almost all the action of note takes place in the three protagonists' increasingly urgent self-analysis and verbose interactions with one another; in their manipulations and calculations and (eventual) self-immolation in their own conflicting ideals.

Sigrid Undset. One of only thirteen women to win the Nobel prize for literature (ummmm?), Sigrid was awarded for her published work on medieval Norway and Sweden. So far, I’ve only read the first installment of her most popular work, Kristin Lavrandsdatter. Happily, Undset doesn’t fetishize the past, as so many historical fiction writers do as a matter of course. And neither does she make the medieval era (normally my idea of hell on earth) seem unbearable. Also, the characters are stuck in another time, and never venture out of the mindsets of a pre-modern era. In Undset's simple presentations of daily details, the main character emerges as an individual wracked with sexual and religious guilt, but very much determined to snatch some happiness out of her life in spite of it. As my friend said, “This book is so very ... Catholic.” It really is, although, it might appeal to anyone brought up in a culture steeped in both the lows of religious shame and the heights of religious mystical experience.

Winifred Holtby. Often described as well-kept secret, Holtby was a 1920s and '30s social reformer and writer in England, and great friends with the better-known Vita Sackville-West (though seemingly not one of her lovers). Holtby’s defining work, South Riding, was also her last, as she died in her mid-thirties. South Riding is an ambitiously broad view of a fictional district in Yorkshire ... with a cast of characters spanning a wide breadth of social stations and political views and professions. Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of the local girls' school, embodies the one viewpoint (of many) that the modern reader will probably find relatable. But unfortunately, the novel spends at least two-thirds of its time with other characters’ perspectives. As sociological literature, it’s fascinating; but it’s far too politically conscious to be psychologically authentic. I’m glad I read it, and I think it will stick with me, but I can’t count it among my favorites.

Laura Esquivel. It’s been years since I spent any significant time trying to learn about Chicana or Hispanic culture (I admit that this makes me a bad American). This time, my book club forced me to temporarily shift my gaze from South Asia to south of the border. Like Water for Chocolate is one of those books that I previously had classed with Marquez and Rushdie’s work ... thinking it was going to be *ahem* self-important and drowning in its own symbolism. As it was, Esquivel made me laugh, didn’t make me angry, and didn’t depress the hell out of me, so I count it as 1 for Esquivel, 0 for Marquez (who I never get through), and -1 for Rushdie (who alternately entertains me and enrages me). Note: The movie (poor 1992, you have not aged well) is good for a different kind of laugh.

Selma Lagerlof. Though this Swedish Nobel Prize winner’s “great” work seems to me like a massive and unnecessary portrait of an undeserving subject (Gösta Berlings Saga), her novella, The Treasure or Mr. Arne’s Money, is a perfectly ghostly little read for a stormy evening. Murder, high morals, female friendship, Scottish fiends, and a prescient hound populate this macabre Swedish tale. In the public domain, you can read it for free this October and settle in with some pumpkin chai for a quick, spooky adventure.

Qurratulain Hyder. Ok, I haven’t yet read Aag Ki Dariya in translation, which I guess is everyone’s favorite Hyder classic. But I did read Fireflies in the Mist, as the online summary promised me revolutionaries, love among partisans, violence, disillusionment ... all going off together like fireworks in pre-Partition Bengal. In fact, all those things DID happen in Fireflies, but not in the way you (really, I) want them to. Every event manifests artfully out of synchronization, as in the best tragedies and the worst poems. The translation (Hyder's) feels badly edited, over-rich with superficial detail; and yet, the regional situation and interpersonal conflicts are still gripping. Significantly, it is the most politically-centrist and self-aware of the three female protagonists (the Hindu, rather than the Christian or Muslim), that makes out all right through all the regional disasters and tricks of fate that destroy her comrades’ families. Hugging the middle and jetting off to the Caribbean when the home fire gets too hot seems to be Hyder’s prescription for success (or at least, survival).

Sunil Gangopadhyay. I recently made my book club read Aranyer Din Ratri (in translation, of course), and while I enjoyed the themes and the fable-like quality of it all, the movie is better. Heck, Sunil himself is better elsewhere. The translation *might* be a factor, but I think that the novel is more satisfying when approached as a short story. Each character is comically pitiable (if not quite despicable) in his or her inability to get beyond his demons, his social training, his ego, his urban assumptions. In verbalizing this stark truth, the book tends to use situations rather than motivations. Unlike The Youth, you won't find much narration here to take you into any of the characters' inner worlds (not that you'd want to get closer, you might catch something). Jokes aside, like a lot of the 1960's Bengali film youth, these four young men have more dignity than pocket money, and more pocket money than compassion. Despite their assumed good "bhadralok" breeding and education, they are loose cannons in a non-industrial setting, causing havoc in the little town and nearly getting themselves killed at several turns. Autobiographical novel or no, one can't help but assume that Sunil meant this one as a cautionary tale, asking, "Are you really above such people or such problems?" The silent refrain, "Probably not." Note: Another lesson learned, this is too Bengali-specific to be a good American book club book, despite its brevity. 

Nadine Gordimer. The only author on this list that I think I could love, this anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Prize winner started off “simply” enough with a British South-African girl’s coming of age tale, The Lying Days, published in 1953. Depicting yet another side of political revolutionary life, it turns out that Helen, the sheltered and colonial-mine-raised protagonist, is not so much tripped up by regional violence or injustice or the new Nationalist government, but by the militantly bohemian culture of her chosen social set. When she eventually rejects the impotent progressiveness of her fashionable Joburg circle, Gordimer finally leaves Helen (and us) in a place of welcome emptiness. Helen embraces her disillusionment as a new beginning, a space that can now be filled with something better (if unknown). For [a young] Gordimer, the question is not how to survive a revolution or a movement with your body intact, but with your soul still human, still the genuine article ... not to be swallowed by the politics or the people, but refined into something definite and individual and still capable of spontaneous, uncensored conversation. In this goal, one’s greatest asset proves to be a real friend, preferably one allergic to insincerity and newspeak. Gordimer’s blessing breathes through the final pages: If you must be intimate with a person or a set of ideals, may you remain yourself, for what use are you as anything else?


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