VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dogs at the Perimeter (2012) by Madeline Thien


Book Review
Dogs at the Perimeter (2012)
by Madeline Thien
Published in the United States in 2017 by W.W. Norton

  Originally published in her native Canada and the UK, Dogs at the Perimeter finally got a US release in the fall of last year.  Presumably that had something to do with her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, making it onto the Booker Prize short-list.  If South Asian writers were the hot thing in the 1990's and 2000's, it is hard to argue with the proposition that East Asian writers and themes are the hot thing for the present decade. Certainly there are subjects a plenty, at least including multiple genocide level type events in China and Cambodia.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about China, and Dogs at the Perimeter is about Cambodia.  Specifically, Dogs at the Perimeter is about the experience of the characters at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

  The protagonist is Janie, a native of Cambodia who managed to escape (only after the death of both of her parents) and relocate in Montreal, where she works as a scientist studying the brain.  Dogs at the Perimeter is worth reading simply because of the factual type description of living through the first years of the Khmer Rouge.  If you happen to be unfamiliar, basically the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Phen, and forcibly relocated the entire population, murdering everyone who either worked for the government or qualified as an "intellectual."  Janie's father, a freelance interpreter, apparently qualified under the latter category.

  Janie's description of the past is interspersed with her complicated life in the present, obviously suffering from PTSD and obsessed with finding her colleague, a fellow scientist who emigrated from Japan as a child with his family.  His brother disappeared during the 1970's while he was working as a Red Cross doctor in Cambodia.   What the reader learns is that there is always hope amongst the ruins, but that the impact of that destruction on the human mind can bar a return to the prelapsarian state. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An Obedient Father (2000) Akhil Sharma


Book Review
An Obedient Father (2000)
 Akhil Sharma

  Speaking of Indian-themed novels from the end of the 20th century.  Another debut novel, no less.  Like Arundhati Roy, Sharma waited over a decade to write another book, Family Life, published in 2014.   You really risk...losing your audience...when you wait more than five years between putting out works like books, movies or albums that seek to balance serious and popular art.  Obviously for pure pop the audience attention span is shorter- the idea of a work a year has historically been considered optimum, although now a multi-market promotional cycle including publication and some kind of supporting touring appearances can run two or three years   The cycle takes different shapes for different art forms.

  Of course, the financial consequences of a "hit" in any of these cycles lasts far longer than the promotional cycle itself.  It can be decades, a lifetime of income.  I'm not saying that is the case here, Sharma.  Having a "hit" in the literary fiction world is something like getting Best New Music in Pitchfork:  You can parlay it into big money, but by itself it's not worth a lifetime of financial security.

  An Obedient Father is most notable for its depiction of the most memorable villain in Indian literary fiction, Ram Karan, a widower and "bag man" for a local Congress Party functionary.  The corruption in his job is mirrored by corruption in his private life, notably an incestuous dalliance with his now adult daughter, Anita, who is herself widowed and living in Karan's tiny flat with her own daughter, Asha.

  The events take place against the backdrop of the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, the last representative of the Congress Party dynasty.  His death was a crucial turning point in the rise of the rightist Hindu fundamentalist party BJP.  This rise is mirrored in the plot of An Obedient Father, as Karan's mentor is induced to betray the Congress Party and run for office as a representative of the BJP.  Karan tries to navigate the rapids of politics while the consequences of his behavior with Anita, graphically depicted in the text of the book, come home to roost after twenty years of denial.

   The 1990's were a break out for Indian literature in the West, as well as the literature of South Asia.  Sharma is at the tail end of the initial post-Rushdie explosion, but he also represents an evolution, with a level of graphic detail absent from earlier books. Sharma's India stinks, metaphorically and actually, and it is hard not to be repelled by this world.  Call it progress.

The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy


Book Review
The God of Small Things  (1997)
 by Arundhati Roy

  The God of Small Things was THE break out international literary fiction hit of 1997-1998.  Roy won the Booker Prize- unusual for a debut novel and the first non-expatriate Indian author to win the award.  Plus, you know, she's a woman.   Last summer she finally published her follow-up, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which promptly failed to make the Booker short list.   I'm pretty sure the American release was a sales flop.  That makes her a candidate for the biggest one-hit wonder of late 20th century literature.  I have no problem with one hit wonders- better one hit than no hits at all, that is what I say.

  The God of Small Things is set in Kerala state in India.  It's a not unfamiliar locale for Indian novels, since the area has a hugely diverse population including ancient communities of Syrian Christians, Jews and Portuguese.   This makes it an inviting location for ambitious Indian authors looking for a draw for non-Indian readers, and The God of Small Things makes good on that promise by describing the Syrian Christian community. Like many novels set in India, I find myself going to Wikipedia just to confirm the truth of these exotic "Western" religious communities inside India.

  The plot, which zigs and zags back and forth across time, is not particularly inventive, with it's theme of forbidden love in cast conscious India, but Roy's execution is dazzling, and her characters multi-dimensional.  The theme of twins, so prominent in fiction across the developing world, is important here and of course, as for almost every novel set in India, India itself is a major draw.  I have to say...reading fiction about India makes me very much NOT to want to visit the place, which I think is unusual, but perhaps a testament to the realism of the authors who emerged in the 80's and 90's.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders


Book Review
Pastoralia (2000)
by George Saunders

   Pastoralia is a collection of short stories from Booker Prize winning novelist George Saunders.  Now that the question of "but can he write a novel?" has been definitely answered in the affirmative, short story collections like Pastoralia no longer have to shoulder the burden of Saunders reputation.   The title story, about a man living inside a "human zoo" is the clear stand out, the other stories traverse similar thematic territory- humans disconnected and alienated from their surroundings, often carrying on internal monologues that ignore the outside world.


Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2002) by Ismail Kadare


Book Review
Spring Flowers,  Spring Frost (2002)
 by Ismail Kadare

 Ismail Kadare is Albania's contribution to the world literary canon, one of a small group of Balkan-area novelists to penetrate the English language market for literary fiction.  Most of Kadare's books were originally written in Albanian, and simultaneously published in Albanian and French, and the English language push has come via translations of the French editions.

Mark Gurabardhi is the protagonist- a young artist living in post-Communist Albania. He has an up and down relationship with his artist model, she is vexed by her familial entanglement in the revival of the medieval "blood laws" AKA "the kanun" of Albania. Kadare alternates the main narrative with chapters that are more allegorical in nature, including the "real" story of a young woman forced to marry a snake. 

  It's all very European turn-of-the-21st century-literary fiction, ennui/mild depression, under employment, rootlessness and a loss of purpose, you know, European literary fiction.  The Albanian locale isn't quite as distinctive as it was in his books written prior to the collapse of Communism, now his Albania reads like Eastern Europe with blood feuds. I'm writing as a fan of Albania from way back, and I acknowledge that Kadare is extremely prolific.  I wonder if this is the book to include in the 1001 Books project alongside Broken April (1978). 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007) by Colin Renfrew


Book Review
Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007)
by Colin Renfrew

  There was a point in time, maybe eight or nine years ago, when I seriously considered doing a version of this blog that focused on history instead of literature, something like an attempt to cover all the history in a set number of books, but I abandoned the idea, because it's just too much- particularly before I figured out the library request system and starting picking up books for free- buying state of the art history books from academic presses is likely to cost you thousands of dollars a year, subscribing to academic journals is just as much, or it requires a trip to a specialty library.  Writing about history books isn't very fun.   Ultimately, much of a what a wider audience considers "interesting" in terms of history subjects are 1) wars 2) presidents.  If you are interested in world history, good luck!

  But I like to dip in and out, particularly when it comes to ancient civilizations and current thinking about the development of modern consciousness in that context.  Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind is particularly rare in that it is a general interest title that addresses that very subject, published by the Modern Library and under 200 pages long- a readable synthesis of work into the area up till about 2005-2006. 

  Of course, since then the major development in this area has been the development of LIDAR- ground searching laser technology- which has revealed gigantic cityscapes in the densest jungle, and vastly expanding our level of knowledge which have lagged in understanding.  Renfrew spends much of Prehistory recounting the history of the study of Prehistory, making the very obvious point that the study of prehistory has been dramtically shaped by colonialism and an over-emphasis on theory developed based on findings made in Western Europe, with Franc playing a particularly important role.

  For Renfrew, it's the intersection of radioactive dating technology and the emerging science of genetic pre history which draws his greatest attention in the chapters that cover current developments in this area.  He makes the emphatic point that one subject that genetics has settled is that, genetically speaking, all humanity is genetically very, very, similar, in that we all descend from a small group that left Africa sixty thousand years ago.  Thus, differences between human populations can not be explained genetically, especially in terms of "superior" or "inferior" genetics for particular groups.  The difference we observe- skin color- for example, represents a very recent, minor, difference.

  Renfrew, writing with his general audience in mind, makes it clear that a real "comparative prehistory" is still being formulated.  The study of prehistory from an archaeological perspective carries the clear influence of "area studies" with a particular intrusion from ideas surrounding nationalism or the aforementioned colonialism.  The expansion of interest in hithero under explored areas like Amazonia, South East Asia and Central America is to be applauded.

 The development of LIDAR technology has proved most important in those areas that are precisely those most neglected- Amazonia, South East Aisa and Central America- all areas with "jungle" type land cover making exploration from the ground impossible.   The major problem that Renfrew leaves unresolves is the contrast between peoples that have All Powerful leaders who create massive monumental architecture and those that create those same structures without putting forward a dynastic leader.  The Egyptian Pyramids vs. Stonehenge, for example. 

The Emigrants (1992) by W. G. Sebald


Book Review
The Emigrants (1992)
 by W. G. Sebald

   I was reading a book review last week when the reviewer called the book, "Sebaldian" referring to a combining of text and photos, narrative and non fiction, with a recognizably melancholic weltanschauung.    Sebald's Emigrants are Germans, most of them grappling with the after effects of World War II, a good portion of them commit suicide at the end of their chapter.

  It's remarkable that Sebald has established an international English language audience- not exactly contemporaneous, the 1992 publication date is from the German language version, the English translation followed in 1996.  If you don't know it can be hard to tell that you are reading a book that has been translated from another language- many of the locations are in the United Kingdom, and other than the characters all being from Germany, there is nothing particularly "German" about the proceeding.  I mean, wrestling with the consequences of the Holocaust- not exclusively a German subject, but something that German authors tend to obsess over. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

City of God (2000) by E.L. Doctorow


Book Review
City of God (2000)
by E.L. Doctorow


  I guess E.L. Doctorow is still canon, even though I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside a graduate course in American literature who might be enthusiastic about his inclusion.  He's got the genuine, late twentieth century break out book, The Book of Daniel, he has two mid/late career multi-dimensional culture properties, Billy Bathgate and RagtimeCity of God, then is Doctorow's fourth best novel, and probably the one you would have to cut from the next version.

 If you were looking for a periodization of American literature between, say, 1980 and 2020, a natural dividing line is the events of September 11th, 2001.  For a couple of reasons- first, it's within a couple of years of the twenty year generation line between 1980 and 2000, second, New York City is so dramatically over represented in American literary fiction that the fact that 9/11 took place in New York City magnifies the significance of that particular event.

  City of God, which is more or less a "New York City" novel of the pre 9/11 era- almost the last, I'm thinking, joins a shelf whose most prominent representative is Paul Auster,  American writers influenced by the existentialist influenced European tradition of post- World War II fiction.  Doctorow maintains experimental flourishes without alienating the reader, he confuses the reader, but no in a way that distracts you from the emotions of his character.

  But, I think , the major division is that pre 9/11 fiction is set in a world where evil, more or less, doesn't exist. If evil does exist it is the evil of the increasingly distant past, i.e. the Holocaust, which provides the dramatic element for Doctorow's thin plot.

 I think maybe City of God made the 1001 Book List because it is "late" Doctorow and there is a spiritual theme that is mostly absent from his sprawling Americana epics. To his credit, he pulls it together at the end.  I'm just left wondering who is reading Doctorow in 2018.

Kintu (2014) by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi,

Image result for Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, author of Kintu, release last year in the United States

Kintu (2014)
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi,
United States  Publication 2017 Transit Press

  Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nasubuga Makumbi, was originally published in 2014, but it got a United States release late last year, by Transit Press. That sentence alone should tell anyone that Kintu is a break-out kind of book.   It makes sense- Uganda is an English speaking country with a national identity that pre-dates English colonialism.  The reputation for Uganda as a location for horrific tragedy is decades out of date and the political situation has stabilized to the point where the absence of news stories in the west about Uganda is seen as a relief.

  In Kintu, Makumbi has written the type of novel that slots neatly into the expectation of Western readers- she tracks back and forth in history from the mid 18th century to just about present day, charting the fortunes of the descendants of Kintu- an 18th century nobleman in the pre-English Bugandan Empire. Like other cultures, Ugandans (the dominant ethnicity are the Ganda people, but present day Uganda was long a draw for other ethnicities, notably Tutsi's, who play a part in this book.

  Kintu is permeated with the Ganda traditions regarding twins- it's not too much to say that twins are the central narrative theme here, twins and their relationship to the generational curse that torments Kintu and his descendants.   Kintu is very much the type of novel that only fully establishes it's reputation years after the initial publication date, and I think Makumbi is very much putting Uganda on the international literary map with this book.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Ignorance (2000) by Milan Kundera


Book Review
Ignorance (2000)
by Milan Kundera

 Ignorance is the fourth Kundera title on the original 1001 Books list, the first since The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and it gives Kundera one book in every decade except the 1990's.  The other two are The Joke (1967) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979).   Similar to his other books, Ignorance deals with the impact of Communism on the residents of the Czech Republic (then Czechslovakia) and the various decisions people made.  Here, the narrator is a female emigre, returning for the first time after the fall of Communism, where she hooks up with an old flame after a random encounter.   The punchline is that her partner doesn't remember who she is.  I mean, it's not a punchline, like all Kundera novels, the plot takes  a back seat to the solo philosophizing of your typical Kundera protagonist.

  I would say Kundera is over-represented on the first list.  I would give him two books, The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being and cut the other two.  How much European existentialism do we need?  Just watch The Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders and you've pretty much got it.

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