Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The inheritance of loss - Kiran Desai

Yet another Indian novel. This one is based in West Bengal. Not in Calcutta or anywhere near the sea though, but up north, in Kalimpong district, in the Himalayan mountainous region, where many ethnic minorities live.

It’s the mid 80s, the Gorkhaland movement insurgency for Nepali independence is underway and the life of Sai - a westernised orphaned Indian girl who lives with her grandfather (a retired judge), his cook and his pet dog - is shaken by the gruesome events and the ambiguous behaviour of his tutor/lover. 

Meanwhile in Manhattan, Biju -  the son of the aforementioned cook - lives and works as an illegal immigrant constantly dreaming to be granted a green card.

This is a story about colonialism and its consequences, of westernised Indians who despise Indian traditions (the judge being the main example of this category) and of traditional Indians who despise everything foreign, of Nepalis who despise Indians and of Indians who despise Nepalis, of love crashed by politics and cultural barriers, of poverty and immigration. 

It’s a very interesting and beautiful read. The prose is very refined and polished, demanding and rewarding, bordering good poetry quality at times.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Lost Horizon - James Hilton

Have you ever heard of something called "Shangri-la"? The mythical and mystical place hidden at the edge of the Tibetan plateau that has become a synonymous with “paradise on earth”, besides being the name of a well known luxury Asian hotel chain? Well, that’s an invention of James Hilton’s and it’s described in his book “Lost horizon”.
A group of British and American people are kidnapped somewhere in the far East and brought to a remote area inhabited by a community ruled by a lamasery. The place has some kind of magical property which makes aging a much slower process than it is elsewhere. As it often happens, though, each medal has its own reverse. Read the book and find out about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

What the dog saw - Malcolm Gladwell

If you enjoyed Gladwell’s bestsellers such as “The tipping point”, “Blink” and “Outliers”, this collection of articles is a must read for you.
Malcolm Gladwell has worked as a columnist for “The New Yorker” since the mid nineties. Many of the articles he’s published in that paper posed as groundwork for some of his most famous non fiction books. “What the dog saw” is a collection of the best of those articles.
Gladwell has a knack for digging a subject and finding some non intuitive viewpoint which allows him to unearth some unexpected detail that can lead to the solution of some broader social issue. Some of the examples he comes up with to back up his points are marvelous. I’ve read many of his books and he never fails to surprise me. I feel I learn so much from his analytical, counterintuitive and unconventional approach. I love his style. If you haven’t read any of his books, go ahead and try this one out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Family matters - Rohinton Mistry

When I read Rohinton Mistry’s “A fine balance”, a few years ago, I thought that it was a beautiful story about Indian castes and politics (the story is based a the time of The Emergency and the sterilization campaigns of the ’70s), but I didn’t like the writing style at all.
I found “Family matters” a much better written novel. A little less interesting from the historical and political point of view, this book delves into the lives of a family belonging to the Bombay’s Parsi community. Mistry, being a Bombay Zoroastrian himself, is very detailed about the description of the community customs and traditions. I did like that aspect a lot. Reading this book one can also learn what the situation in the city was like in the early ’90s, when a Hindu nationalist coalition formed by the BJP and the Shiv Sena parties was ruling the state of Maharashtra (that’s when Mumbai became the official name of the city).
The novel’s main themes are interfaith marriages, bigotry, loss of traditions, family grudges, fundamentalism vs secularism. Definitely a good read, especially if you,
like me, are into Indian culture.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Madrid - Edmondo De Amicis

I was looking for De Amicis’ “Istanbul” and I found his “Madrid” instead.
De Amicis lived and wrote in the nineteen century, so expect style, vocabulary and mindset of that epoch. Yet, it is an extremely interesting, accurate and even modern account of one of the most fascinating European capitals.
This book was written after the Napoleonic campaigns and before the civil war, of course, therefore the city must have looked very different than what it is today, but I guess that a refined and erudite present day traveller to the capital of Spain could still tell similar things about the Plaza del Sol, the Prado museum or the Plaza de toros.
It is a short book, partly travel diary, and partly journalistic report. And it has definitely little to do with De Amicis’ masterpiece “Heart” (original title: “Cuore”).
I will keep looking for “Istanbul”, but this was a very nice detour indeed.


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Interpreter of maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of stories. The recurring theme is that of Indians living in the west, or Indians visiting or living in India as foreigners.
The author is an American woman of Indian descent herself, so she is familiar with most of the situations depicted in her stories.
I am both interested in good Indian literature (or literature about India) and short stories, and I definitely enjoyed reading this book.
I guess that what I found most fascinating is the author’s care for detail, her ability to dig into her characters’ personalities by fragmenting and observing closely each single angle of their behaviours and idiosyncrasies. At the same time she never says a word too many, which is a fundamental feature of great fiction writing. In this regard she reminds me of other American masters such as Hemingway, Faulkner, McCarthy or the two Roth (Philip and Henry).

A violent life - Pierpaolo Pasolini

Pierpaolo Pasolini - poet, novelist, journalist, political commentator, civil rights activist and movie director - is one of the very nicest Italian (and European) intellectuals of the 20th century. Clever, knowledgeable, well read, refined, independent, original and brave, he has had and still has a great impact on Italian culture, society and politics.
“A violent life” is his second novel based in post WWII Rome (the first one being “The street kids”, original title: “Ragazzi di vita”). Set among rubbles, dirt, mud and shacks, featuring the city’s poorest as main characters, the novel deals with the life of Tommaso Puzzilli, a confused young guy torn between the bad and the good sides of his character, which pushes him to pursue an adventurous criminal lifestyle today and inflames his heart with love and strife for justice tomorrow.
The Italian version is full of outdated Roman jargon, with which even Italians born and bred in Rome nowadays might not be familiar. Pasolini included a brief glossary (glossarietto) at the end of the book. Plus, the context makes most of the dialogs understandable anyway.
His style reminded me of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”, with all those Scottish expressions. Who knows, maybe Welsh at some time did read Pasolini’s works and was inspired by him. I’m not sure about him, but I definitely was.