Tales from the Kathasaritsagara: Somadeva (translated by Arshia Sattar)

Kathasaritsagara can be translated as the “ocean of the sea of stories”. This is the mother lode of stories, composed by Somadeva around 1070 CE for the Kashmiri queen, Suryavati. But many of these had been around for a long time, so Somadeva was more of a compiler than a creator. They are full of unfaithful wives, conniving spirits, magic and intrigue. There are no morals here—these narratives celebrate life, in all its forms.

It starts with Parvati, the consort of the god Siva, asking him to tell her a story that no one has heard before. The story Siva tells her is overheard by his attendant, who then tells it to his wife, Parvati’s door keeper. The wife repeats it to Parvati, who is furious that she was told something that her door keeper knew. The attendant is then cursed to be reborn as a human and to tell the story over and over.

Many of the stories are about vidhyadharas, sky-dwellers with the ability to change shape, who are sent down to earth for some misdeed (like Siva’s attendant). Once they have fulfilled their destiny, they are released from the curse through death. Death is not an end here, merely a return to one’s true nature.

The original Kathasaritsagara runs into several volumes, and this book is a selection of the stories. Each chapter has a framing story, within which is another, within which is another, and so on. This gives the narrative a flow and continuity, like a river’s tributaries flowing into the sea. These are stories to get lost in, to enter another world where anything can happen.

The Pledge: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated by Joel Agee

The book starts with the narrator travelling to Chur in Switzerland to give a lecture on the art of writing detective stories. The talk is not a success, and the writer meets Dr. H., a ex-chief of police in the canton of Zurich. Dr. H offers to drive the writer to Zurich. On the way they stop at a gas station. An old man is sitting on a bench outside: “unshaven and unwashed”, smelling of alcohol and wearing “dark, grease-spotted trousers that had once been part of a tuxedo”.

After they leave, Dr. H. tells the writer that the old man, Matthaï, was once a brilliant policeman who didn’t smoke or drink. Some years ago, he was assigned to travel to Jordan to help reorganize the police there. Just a couple of days before he was due to leave, a call came from Mägendorf about the murder of a child, Gritli Moser. Matthaï was asked to lead the case until his departure.

Matthaï interviews the parents and is about to walk away, when Mrs. Moser makes him promise that he will find the murderer. Wanting nothing more than to get away from the place, Matthaï makes the promise, not really intending to keep it. But when he gets to the airport to catch his flight to Jordan, he has a crisis of conscience and turns back. He had made a promise to the mother, and he intended to keep it.

Matthaï throws himself into the case. He is convinced that the killer is not a local but a serial killer operating in the area. He sets out to lure him into a trap, using any means available. He goes against procedure and his superiors. He is eventually taken off the case but cannot let go. Slowly, his obsession destroys him, until he becomes the half-crazy wreck sitting outside a gas station.

This book is tautly plotted and fairly grim. There are no neat resolutions, just messy endings. Friedrich Dürrenmatt uses language economically and creates a sense of oppression. When he describes Chur and northern Switzerland in the winter, it is no winter wonderland: Chur is covered with “dense, sluggishly lumbering, snow-filled clouds” through which you could see a “patch of metallic sky”. A snow-covered valley is “rigid with cold.” His description of Matthaï’s gradual breakdown is compelling.

This book was made into a film with Jack Nicholson. Even if you have seen the film, you should read this book—it is better than the film.


Of Love and Other Demons: Gabriel García Márquez

of love and other demonsOnce, under a stifling October sun, Gabriel García Márquez, the great Latin American writer, observed the unceremonious wrenching open of a centuries-old tomb.  As the sacred stones were smashed into rubble, bundles of luminescent golden hair tumbled through the suffocating atmosphere of dust.  Measuring 22 meters and 11 centimetres, it was attached to the adolescent skull of a girl whose given names were still legible in the etched stone: Sierva María de Todos Los Ángeles.

A young journalist at this point, Márquez recognised something immediately.  A story had been interred in this catacomb, dormant for long years.  And so, decades later, he did what all writers do, he wrote it.

What emerged is a powerful, moving, homage to the desolate hopelessness of love.  ‘For you was I born, for you do I have life, for you will I die, for you am I now dying.’  Beautiful and enchanting, it spins the sad tale of a girl bitten by a rabid dog on the eve of her 12th birthday.   She was the forgotten and hated daughter of a wretched addict and a feeble old Marquise presiding over the final disintegration of a family fortune built on the back of illicit slave trading.  Suddenly under the threat of rabies, in a flash of inspiration, her father endeavours to save the child.  Sierva María is drawn out of the family she has known her life long, the African slaves whose languages she speaks and by whom she was raised, and cast into the hands of all manner of healers.  Eventually coming to the attention of the Holy Office, the bright and bedazzled young girl is thought to be possessed.

Love, we find here, is the true madness.  But ironically, just as it enslaves, it is also the force which sets us free.  This is the demon which sweeps through the lives of Márquez’s cast.  Like Sierva’s mother, driven to cacao addiction and wild orgies with hired slaves in a bid to reclaim her dead lover.

For the first time since I can remember, as soon as I closed the final page, instead of placing this fable back on a shelf, I began again.  Coming to the end of a second reading, it might be difficult to hold off a third.  Márquez’s prose is gentle.  Even in translation, it flows with a warm rhythm that belies a sometimes harsh message.  As he says, ‘the more transparent the writing, the more visible the poetry.’

There are echoes here of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher who chronicles the solitude that essentially defines true love.  ‘The warm companionship which love intends to be… is an attempt to create a union between my solitude, the genuineness of my life, and that of another; it is the fusing of two solitudes as such into one solitude made up of two.’[1]  This gulf in the heart of the individual is elegantly rendered by Márquez.  In his world, life truly begins when a person turns to love, when they invest their solitude in that of another.  But this beginning is also the end of something; because it is dangerous, it takes us beyond our own control, ‘O sweet treasures, discovered to my sorrow.’  Yet it is also the ultimate risk worth taking.  The Marquise realises this when he sees his daughter sleeping.  ‘He adjusted the mosquito netting so the bats would not drain her blood, he covered her so she would not cough and he kept watch next to the bed, feeling the new joy of knowing he loved her as he had never loved in this world.’

This book is highly recommended.

[1] José Ortega y Gasset, translated by Mildred Adams, Man and crisis, 1958, New York, Norton, p. 92.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—Stephen King

This book on writing starts with two contradictory epigraphs: “Honesty is the best policy” and “Liars prosper”. Good fiction is a mix of the two. Writers invent, but also draw upon what they know.

This book is far more than a primer on writing well. Stephen King starts and ends the book with a series of vignettes from his life. He describes his memories as a “fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees . . . the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you”. You follow him from his childhood as a budding writer all the way to his huge success, his marriage, his battle with alcohol and drugs, and going clean. All of this made him the writer he is. Sometimes his books give a a glimpse into what he was going through when he wrote them: for example, Jack, the main character in The Shining is an alcoholic writer.

In the last section, he writes about a terrible accident he had halfway through writing this book. He was hit by van and almost died. Recovery was slow and painful and finishing the book helped him through it.

King leads into the “how to” part of the book with a piece about his grandfather’s toolbox: a large handmade wooden box, with three levels and a silk lining of “pinkish-red cabbage roses fading into a smog of grease and dirt”. King says that a writer needs to have a similar toolbox, with the first level containing the “common tools”: grammar and vocabulary: “as the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it’”.

He makes two points: one is that “good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals”; and the second that with hard work, dedication and timely help, it is possible to make a good writer out of a competent one. The hard work is critical—there are no shortcuts. And if you want to be a writer, you must read voraciously.

There is a lot more good advice here, which I won’t go into. I like King’s style—he addresses the reader throughout, and feels strongly about most things. He hates adverbs and the passive tense with a passion (and people who say “That’s so cool!”). I loved his passion about his craft, although I didn’t always agree with him.

At the end of the book—normally the annexes, but here referred to as “And Furthermore”—King shares a first draft of his writing and the edited version. As an editor, I found this fascinating. He also shares a list of must-read books. An interesting list, but with a handful of exceptions, it lists mostly Anglophone writers from the West.

If you want to write, I suggest you read this book. Once you have mastered the fundamentals and figured out your genre and style, you need to throw in some stardust. King’s earliest memory is “of imagining I was someone else”. Most children do this, or have an imaginary friend (I did). We start out with the wonderful ability to imagine and create our own worlds, but sooner or later, many of us allow life to knock it out of us. Being creative is keeping that ability and wonder alive. As King says, “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style. . . but…you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”

Zig-zagging around the world

One of the giddy pleasures of joining a reading challenge of the kind we’ve been engaging in—to read around the world—is that you can zig-zag around the world in ways that regular travel would not allow. Your trajectory lands you bang in the middle of cultures, at the center of worlds at once unfamiliar and intimate, disturbing and exhilarating, your journey wrought by the words of storytellers who know their subjects better than any tourist guide.

So the past few months I’ve travelled across three continents—no four—with authors who’ve drawn me an insider’s map to their worlds.

I began, on New Year’s eve, in South Korea with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a surreal portrait of a woman’s rapid withdrawal into herself, the only way in which she is able to deal with the violence of human existence. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Kang has been described by The Guardian as “one of South Korea’s best kept secrets”. Yeong-hye, the protagonist of the novel, is an ordinary woman from an ordinary middle-class family living an ordinary life…until she decides to stop eating meat. Her family cannot understand this decision, initially seeing it as a quirk, then as stubbornness, and finally as illness. The story is told in three parts, from three different perspectives: that of her husband, her brother in law for whom she is first a muse and then an object of desire, and her sister, who also ends up as her carer. We see Yeong-he only as reflected through their eyes, and occasionally, through her dreams that find their way into these alienating narratives. This is a book that intrigues rather than enchants. It draws out in deadpan fashion the hypocrisy that underlies our everyday lives while also in some strange way showing us that resistance is possible, though it might end up consuming us.

A happy contrast to the darkness of Kang’s novel was the small blue book from Finland, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The windswept island that is home to Sophia and her whimsical grandmother is small enough to walk around in an hour or less but large enough to offer magic and discovery to an earnest little girl. Here, wisdom resides in the tiny acts–of walking along the beach, of looking out to sea, of taking a nap in the woods, of finding a bottle in the sand. “Only small things happen in the islands, but these too…have to be dealt with.” And while Sophia and her grandmother deal with these many small things, they have hundreds of delightfully sparse conversations that make us fall in love with the way they are.

And then I veered back Eastward to Turkey, with Elif Shafak’s The Three Daughters of Eve–a story that unfolds during a bourgeois dinner party in a swanky riverside bungalow in Istanbul. Pericim, who has just emerged from a close encounter with a petty thief, spends the evening resenting the party and instead traveling across the decades to when she was a student at Oxford, under the spell of a brilliant philosophy professor whose seminar on God held her–and several other young women–in thrall. We spend the evening with Peri and the other guests, now privy to their desultory high-society chatter, and now, running with her along the Oxford streets clutching piles of books and figuring out her place in an increasingly polarised world. I found the novel somewhat unsatisfying, with loose ends that left one turning back pages to check if there were answers earlier on. I had picked up the book mainly to read someone from the country other than Pamuk–I guess I’ll have to keep looking!

I made one other stop, in Bulgaria, with Alek Popov’s The Black Box, funny in parts, disturbing in others, where two brothers, widely (and wildly) different, are spun in different directions after a series of unfortunate events. Ned, who is a successful financial whiz on Wall Street, messes up at work and is despatched to find a missing director from the company, who seems to be involved in a quasi-legal situation in Bulgaria. In the meantime, Angel, unemployed, wins the green card lottery in the United States and travels there from Bulgaria, conveniently making Ned’s (now empty) apartment his home. What follows is like an absurd drama, with each brother becoming central to a different set of crazy circumstances, from a conspiracy among dog walkers to corporate espionage in Bulgaria.

But the joy of reading resides not in whether one “liked” a book or not, but in the journey the author takes you on, through context and culture, mood and meaning. And there, all four books scored. Bigly.

Brick Lane: Monica Ali

A portrait of the Bangladeshi community in London, Brick Lane follows Nazneen, a young girl from a village in Bangladesh who is married off to Chanu, an older Bangladeshi man, and moves with him to the UK.

During her early years in London, Nazneen’s world is confined to her apartment, crammed with furniture and knick-knacks. She speak no English, and her human contact is, for the most part, restricted to the tattoo lady in the apartment opposite, who sits at the window smoking and drinking beer and barely notices Nazneen as she waves to her. Slowly, Nazneen’s world expands, and she gets to know some of the Bangladeshi women who live nearby—Razia, with a strong sense of fun and a great mimic, whom Chanu dismisses as “not respectable”, and Mrs. Islam, bossy and intefering, whom he holds in high esteem.

Nazneen settles into her new life, starts working as a seamstress, and they have two children. The story picks up pace when Nazneen meets Karim, a young radical, who brings her sewing work, and starts a passionate affair with him.

The story is told in third person from Nazneen’s perspective, and reflects her understanding of the world around her. The characters are well drawn and grow over the course of the book as they reveal themselves to Nazneen, a perceptive observer. Chanu is a kind-hearted man with dreams that he cannot realize, not because the dreams are too big but because he is more talk than action. Their flat is filled with his certificates, many of them worthless. Although he is pompous and has a tendency to hold forth, he is aware of his shortcomings. The relationship between him and Nazneen is tenderly described as they develop a closeness over the years.

Brick Lane is a book about the immigrant experience. It is something that fails Chanu, and he decides to take his dreams back to Bangladesh. Karim, who has spent all his life in London, rediscovers his religion and tries to organize the young people of the community into the Bengal Tigers, partly to take on racists—an experiment that doesn’t really work either. The women in the book—Nazneen, Razia and Mrs. Islam—are stronger and more successful, each in her own way carving out her path.

However, there is one weakness, and I think it really detracts from the book. This is the parallel story of Nazneen’s beautiful sister, Hasina, in Bangladesh. Just before Nazneen leaves, Hasina elopes with the nephew of the sawmill owner, who turns out to be a bully. (Why do fictional women who elope always end badly?) She leaves him, becomes a garment worker, is thrown out on trumped-up charges and becomes a prostitute. All this is told in her badly written letters to her sister. It’s as if Ali felt that a book about Bangladeshis needs to tackle garment workers, prostitutes and acid attacks. The letters are too brief to do the any of these issues justice. Unlike those in London, the characters do not come alive, not even Hasina.

And in the sections about Hasina, there is no trace of the humour that permeates the rest of the book—the sharp observations of human frailties. For example, the decline of the “respectable” Mrs. Islam is caught by the way she wears her hair: “And the hair on her head was not tied tightly, as it usually was, in a neat spool of white held together by the invisible powers of Godliness and elastics. Now it more nearly resembled the nest of a slovenly and spectacularly incontinent bird, and it glittered with the demented treasure of dozen black metal pins.”

The book could have been shorter and would have been better for it. But that apart—and this was Ali’s first novel—I did enjoy the writing and the characters. They felt real and like people I might know.

Minae Mizumura on the Hegemony of English: from The Claremont Review of Books

Mark A. Heberle reviews Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of English, which looks at how English dominates not only science and the internet, but also publishing, and what this means for other languages, especially Japanese. To quote from the article:

“This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse. …

“Mizumura’s experiences…ground the theoretical, historical, and autobiographical arguments that make up the book. Her experiences in Iowa with more than 20 ‘writers writing in their own language’—including literary artists from China and Korea, Norway and Lithuania, and a poet from Botswana who writes in English—were the origin of The Fall of Language, since they raised initial questions about the challenges facing local languages and literatures.”

Read the article on the website of The Clairemont Review of Books.

Photo taken from Nippon.com.

A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby

New Year’s Eve, London, Toppers’ Block, named for the number of people who commit suicide by jumping off the roof. Martin, a disgraced TV presenter, has decided to end his life. He is ready for the job—he has brought a stepladder and wire cutters to get through the protective netting. He sits on the ledge, smoking and contemplating his life. Maureen, a single mother with an adult disabled son who feels she cannot go on, has also decided to end it all. She goes up to the rooftop only to find Martin sitting on the ledge smoking. She waits politely for him to get on with it, until finally having run out of patience, she asks if he’ll be long. Martin, not expecting visitors and convinced that Maureen is trying to kill him, freaks out. Then Jess, a teenage daughter of a Labour minister, joins them, and Martin tries to stop her jumping by wrestling her to the ground. So far, their plans of suicide aren’t going too well. Then a polite cough announces JJ, an American: “Any of you guys order a pizza?”

The four would-be suicides all settle down to pizzas, and decide to give it another half-hour. They start (some of them reluctantly) to share their reasons for wanting to die. And so begins an unlikely friendship between four people who do not have anything in common with each other except the desire to kill themselves. They resolve to help each other survive, and the book follows them through their attempts at living and dying.

The four characters take turns at narrating, and each voice is distinctive. Martin is full of his own importance, which is what makes his fall from grace unbearable. Maureen is self-effacing, devoted to her son but unable emotionally to care from him any more. Jess is foul-mouthed, angry teenager. And JJ is a musician and a voracious reader. Nick Hornby has a light touch and there’s plenty of dark humour, but the problems are real. As the stories of each character take shape, the book becomes darker and more poignant.

I enjoy Nick Hornby’s writing and the way he uses comedy to look at the frustrations that we all go through. Like life, it’s funny and sad at the same time.

What writers really do when they write: George Saunders (from The Guardian)

A wonderful piece by George Saunders on writing. Saunders is a short story writer, and his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has just been published. He writes about how the idea for the book came to him, and what it takes to move from an idea to a finely honed piece of writing.

“A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them. This intuitive approach I’ve been discussing is most essential, I think, during the first phase: the gathering of the pins. This gathering phase really is: conjuring up the pins. Somehow the best pins are the ones made inadvertently, through this system of radical, iterative preference I’ve described. Concentrating on the line-to-line sound of the prose, or some matter of internal logic, or describing a certain swath of nature in the most evocative way (that is, by doing whatever gives us delight, and about which we have a strong opinion), we suddenly find that we’ve made a pin. Which pin? Better not to name it. To name it is to reduce it. Often ‘pin’ exists simply as some form of imperative, or a thing about which we’re curious; a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken. Scrooge says it would be best if Tiny Tim died and eliminated the surplus population; Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat; Gatsby really wants Daisy.

“Then: up go the pins. The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught. If they don’t come down (Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school; the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical, and the overcoat will not be needed; Gatsby sours on Daisy, falls for Betty; the writer seems to have forgotten about his grey motif) the reader cries foul, and her forehead needle plummets into the ‘N’ zone and she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.”

The article is worth reading in full–an inspiration for writers and for anyone who is curious about the craft.

Thank you to Christina O’Shaughnessy for sharing this!

Read the article.

Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

Dark Fire: C.J. Sansom

When I mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed Susanna Gregory’s medieval whodunits, she lent me the entire series of novels set during the time of Henry VIII with a hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, as the main character. Having just finished the first one (although strictly speaking, Dark Fire is the second in the series), I’m glad she did.

Dark Fire is a historical novel that is also a murder mystery, set in London during the last years of Henry VIII. The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster, and he wants to divorce her and marry Katherine Howard. But there are fears that the marriage to Howard will take England back to Catholicism, with dire consequences for Protestants and those who had defied Rome.

The novel takes place in 1540, the hottest summer of the century. Matthew Shardlake takes on the case of Elizabeth, a young girl who has been accused of killing her cousin. But Elizabeth will not utter a word, either to Shardlake or at her trial, and is condemned to the press, an inhuman punishment for those who will not plead.

In the meantime, Thomas Cromwell, Shardlake’s old master, is losing favour with the king. Cromwell arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves and would stand to lose his position and very possibly his life, if the king married Katherine Howard and went back to Catholicism.

Cromwell promises the king Greek fire, a legendary substance used by the Byzantines to blow up ships—a fire that could burn on water. The formula had been lost for centuries but had been found in London, and the substance had been secretly recreated. Cromwell wants Shardlake to help him find the Greek fire in time for a demonstration planned for the king in ten days. He “persuades” Shardlake by delaying Elizabeth’s sentence.

But people connected with Greek fire are being brutally murdered. Shardlake has not only to find the formula and expose the person behind the killings but also unravel the mystery surrounding Elizabeth. He is helped in this by Barak, one of Cromwell’s men sent to help—and keep an eye on—the lawyer.

C.J. Sansom’s fine eye for detail brings Tudor London alive: the noise and commotion of the streets; the narrow, warped wooden stairs in a badly built, lopsided house; the expensive red and green wallpaper on the walls of a senior barrister’s office; and the bottles of herbs and spices and musky smell of a Moorish apothecary’s shop. I  could feel the heat and the smells that came off the river at low tide.

The characters are engaging. Shardlake, because of his disability, is an outsider and a loner with a strong sense of justice. Barak seems like a thug at first but Sansom slowly reveals the man behind the tough exterior: a loyal man who, like Shardlake, cares for those hard done by.

Like the best of historical novels, Dark Fire immerses the reader in the period—a time of turmoil and uncertainty, power struggles and religious strife. Not that different, then, from ours.