Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Last Enchantment. By Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment

Mary Stewart

First published 1979. I read a version downloaded from the Internet, probably pirated.

The last book in the Merlin trilogy. (Stewart has written another book in the Arthurian Saga, but Merlin plays no role in that). It deals with the beginning years of King Arthur's reign. Unfortunately, the legend itself has no thrilling and climactic episodes in this part such as the sword in the stone, or the begetting of Arthur that happened in the first two parts. As a matter of fact, the legend at this stage moves more into the medieval knights and ladies and tournaments and giants and dragons. The Lancelot stories are the highlights here, but Stewart does not deal with them, and sticks to the pre-Norman, pre-Christian era, about 6th Century. All portions of the legend, especially the Malory version, are re-interpreted to fit this era. The quality of writing and the lyricism which I liked in the first two books remain, but become a little tedious now, since the underlying story is less substantial. The chief event here is the enchantment and trapping of Merlin by the young witch Nimue or Niniane (or sometimes Viviane, but not in this book). This episode is again dealt with from the point of view of Merlin, and is sensitively handled. The book however fails to reach the heights of the other two (especially the first one) chiefly because, I think, the Merlin character looses importance after the business of the sword in the stone.    

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. By Steig Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

Steig Larsson

Translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland

Machlehose Press, London. 2007

A nice finale to the series. The tale of Lisbeth Salander comes to an end, though, probably, if Larsson had not died, he would have written several encores. There are interesting underdeveloped aspects to her character, and the latter books could have explored them. Even now, there may be someone writing the 'official' sequels. (I see on the Internet, that Larsson had originally planned ten books and had written the first three, and parts of the fourth before he died. His 'life companion' is said to be finishing the fourth). Anyway back to the the third book in the series. Lisbeth is most of the time in hospital, some time in prison, and only at the end she's free and sees some action. Otherwise its mostly Blomkvist, Berger (Erika Berger is the editor of Millennium magazine, and therefore Bolmkvist's boss, also his close friend and very occasional lover, plays a major role in all three books) and a whole host of new characters, mainly policemen and women (especially women!) who act against each other. Blomkvist and the good guys in the police get together to destroy the bad guys, including several in the police, who are also out to destroy Salander. Lisbeth does some hacking from the hospital, and thus helps the good guys, but anonymously. There is also the unrelated story of Berger and her moves from Millennium magazine to head a newspaper and then back again to Millennium. There is also the again unrelated story of Berger and a stalker. These seem to be added just for the texture, and to soften the character of Lisbeth, who helps Berger in the latter story. Nice books. Nice books, all three of them.

Mahabharata. By Kamala Subramaniam


Kamala Subramaniam

Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, 15th Edition, Published 2009

This, as Subramaniam says in her foreword, is not a translation. It is an interpretation. (As indeed all versions of this epic are, except, maybe the original Sanskrit version. And even that, is there ONE version?) However, it appears to stay fairly true to the original, both in ideas and their expression. It is a better version than the one by Rajaji, unlikely to be bettered without straying too far in the direction of an entirely new creation. Subramaniam occasionally uses her own idiom. In particular she quotes from or refers to Shakespeare - apparently she was something of a Shakespearean scholar.  But on the whole she appears to try literal translations. Best of all, unlike Rajaji, she does not gloss over or rationalize the several nasty deeds performed by even the  best of the heroes. Mahabharata, unlike many other mythologies, has well developed three-dimensional characters, not just plastic heroes and villains.  Everybody is flawed in some way or the other, and everyone is noble, too. Yudhishthitra is held up as a symbol of all that corresponds to true Dharma. However there are several instances where he is shown crooked, or maybe just a stupid fool, at least seen in the light of today's understanding of what constitute righteous conduct. For example, how on earth could he gamble away his brothers, and his wife, and that when she does not even belong to him fully. Arjuna does evil things, or at least underhanded things, when he is desperate to win. Even Krishna is not quite above board. The epic itself comments on this in disapproval, occasionally. One of the very worst things, for me, that the Pandavas did was to induce six innocent 'lower caste' people to be burnt to death in their place in the house of lac in Varanavata. This is an episode described with actual approval in the epic, as indicating the smartness of the Pandavas in outwitting their enemies, not a single word of sympathy for the victims. There are of course several such occasions. In many instances, the narrative resorts to convoluted logic to justify the evil, and if even that is unconvincing, there is always the final, 'unanswerable' argument - fate/destiny. Sometimes though, as in the famous Gitopedesha, the final argument is 'duty'. 

[I have a question here. Are both these words and concepts simply translations or interpretations of the same sanskrit word 'karma'? I also make a digression here. The most quoted part of the Gita is the sloka which is commonly  translated as follows 'You have right only to do your duty, and never have a right to the fruits thereof'. This is reasonable piece of advice on how to live one's life, even in the present day. But a few questions arise immediately, indeed are raised by Arjuna. Firstly, how do I identify my duty? Krishna's answer in the Gita is that it depends on which caste and family you are born into - a brahmin seeks and assimilates knowledge/wisdom - mostly spiritual, (never fights or indulges in commerce - incidentally Drona, the acharya, is a kshatriya, not a brahmin), a kshatriya fights (no learning, at least not the religious/spiritual variety, and no commerce either), a vaishya does business (no learning, no fighting) and so on. Why is this correct? Because I, Krishna, say so. And why should I believe you? Because I am GOD? How do I know you are GOD? Here, see, this is my Viswavaroopa. Cool! Now I believe you, I will go and fight. Rather unsatisfactory to a rationalist. However, I think this particular sloka has great relevance to life today (and always) if we interpret it as follows. You have a right, an imperative even, to do what you believe is correct, to follow your passion, not because it leads to any particular fruits (in terms of wealth or material goods or even spiritual uplift), but because, and only because it IS your passion. In other words decide on your course of action at every point in you life not on the basis of what you might gain from that action, but because it is the right thing to do, because it is your duty, or because it is your passion. Of course, very often, in fact probably most of the time, such action could lead to material well being and other riches, but these fruits are not the aim of your action, and should not form the basis on which your undertake the actions]

Subramaniam gives a rather longish chapter to the Gita, and does a good job of summarizing the complex text. Likewise, Bishma, just before his death, after the war, explains many things about kingship and life to Yudhishthira, and again this is well summarized. About a third of the book is taken up with descriptions of the war. Apart from two or three chapters dedicated to the death of each of the heroes, there are many chapters with general descriptions of the 'action'. All descriptions are highly exaggerated with soldiers always dying in the thousands, and heroes single-handedly wiping out entire armies with rains of arrows. There are also descriptions of arrangement of armies in particular formations, such as the 'chakravyuha' formation that eventually kills Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna. But these descriptions are mere formalities, and it does not appear that whoever composed these parts had any knowledge of the war strategies as employed then, or if he did, then did not want to bore the audience with detailed and knowledgeable descriptions. On the other hand the idea seems to be to constantly evoke awe in the reader/listener. But the effect is ludicrous, with every hero described as the greatest, and the most noble, and the most honourable, and the strongest and the most skilled - always in superlatives. Seen as literature, therefore, the epic is probably to be classified with Greek epics and others (Chinese?) as 'primitive literature' in the words of Stephen Leacock. I quote "The classics are only primitive literature. They belong in the same class as primitive machinery and primitive music and primitive medicine" . 

But the whole point about the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) is to see them not as literature and to read them not as one would read say Salman Rushdie or John Le Carre, but to look at its meta-literature aspects. There is the idea that the two epics are religious texts, and must be treated is some sense as the word of God or 'true descriptions' of the deeds of Gods. In that case one must compare them with the Bible or the Koran, if at all one is to compare them with anything. But that may be much too fundamentalist, and again leads to absurdities, and ideas clearly out of tune with modern life. But look at them as treatises of philosophy, as codifications of ethical principles, as a crucial step in the social evolution of mankind. In that case much of the text makes sense. We simply ignore the exaggerations, forget about the contradictions, and look at the lessons one can take away. And there are many, many such. In fact the contradictions and the exaggerations actually focus attention on the underlying ethics. Reading these epics thus becomes an  elevating experience, giving one some idea of one's place in the world, the meaning of existence, in fact 'Life, the Universe, and Everything'. It is this aspect, really, that underlies, firstly the longevity of the texts, secondly the unique place they hold in the psyche of our nation, and thirdly, and most importantly, the hundreds upon hundreds of versions, interpretations, poems, films, dances, plays, teleserials, music, songs, etc. that have sprung up over the centuries from this epic. Looked at that way, the Mahabharata, in particular Subramaniam's version of it, is a brilliant read. However, the Sanskrit original should be even better.    

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Hollow Hills. By Mary Stewart

The Hollow Hills

Mary Stewart

Published in 1973. I read an e-version downloaded from the Internet. No publisher's name is given and I suspect it is a pirated version.

The second part of the Arthurian saga. Traces the story from Arthur's birth to his accession to the throne of Britain, after the magic of the sword in the stone. Stewart writes as well as she did in the first book, but there is a sense of her stretching the story out, and the book is less eventful than 'The Crystal Cave'. This book goes over much of the same time period of the saga as T. H. White deals with in 'The Once and Future King'. And, on balance, I prefer his version. Stewart writes lyrically and her stories are full of magic. The characters, especially the chief ones, are made very likeable, though sometimes a bit larger-than-life. However her books lack the humour of T.H. White. And disappointingly, she treats the climactic 'sword in the stone' episode differently both from the legend (as she herself relates in the epilogue) and from the way it is treated by White. In both the later, Arthur unconsciously pulls the sword out from the stone, and does not realize until he is told by Hector and Kay and all other nobles, that he has just made himself King of England. This lends a very nice unselfconsciousness to the character of Arthur. In Stewart's telling, he is already crowned King, and the sword episode only serves to firmly establish his claim to the throne. I suppose this resulted from Stewart's, in my opinion unnecessary, efforts to rationalize the legend. Of course she is not able to do so entirely, and Merlin has to work his magic on several crucial occasions. Also Stewart is not just rewriting the chief legend, but sometimes re-interpreting it, and in the process weaving together several historical, half-historical, mystical and fictional 'facts'  to make up the story. In summary, very nice.

Some examples of her lyricism:

---     A hundred years since they had put it here, those men who had made their way back from Rome. It shone in my hands, as bright and dangerous and beautiful as on the day it had been made. It was no wonder, I thought, that already in that hundred years it had become a thing of legend. It was easy to believe that the old smith, Weland himself, who was old before the Romans came, might have made this last artifact before he faded with the other small gods of wood and stream and river, into the misty hills, leaving the crowded valleys to the bright gods of the Middle Sea. I could feel the power from the sword running into my palms, as if I held them in water where lightning struck. Whoso takes this sword from under this stone is rightwise King born of all Britain...The words were clear as if spoken, bright as if carved on the metal. I, Merlin, only son of Ambrosius the King, had taken the sword from the stone. I, who had never given an order in battle, nor led so much as a troop; who could not handle a war stallion, but rode a gelding or a quiet mare. I, who had never even lain with a woman. I, who was no man, but only eyes and a voice. A spirit, I had said once, a word. No more.

--- "I was seeing a settled and shining land, with corn growing rich in the valleys, and farmers working their fields in peace as they did in the time of the Romans. I was seeing a sword growing idle and discontented, and the days of peace stretching into bickering and division, and the need of a quest for the idle swords and the unfed spirits. Perhaps it was for this that the god took the grail and the spear back from me and hid them in the ground, so that one day you might set out to find the rest of Macsen's treasure. No, not you, but Bedwyr... It is his spirit, not yours, which will hunger and thirst, and slake itself in the wrong fountains."

---    I smiled at her. "Do you think you can frighten me? I see further than you, I believe. I am nothing, yes; I am air and darkness, a word, a promise. I watch in the crystal and I wait in the hollow hills. But out there in the light I have a young king and a bright sword to do my work for me, and build what will stand when my name is only a word for forgotten songs and outworn wisdom, and when your name, Morgause, is only a hissing in the dark."

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Girl Who Played With Fire. By Steig Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Steig Larsson

Translated from Swedish by Reg Keeland

Published in 2009 by Vintage Books. Originally published in Swedish in 2005.

The second book in the trilogy - the first was 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'. This book continues the story of Lisbeth Salander - a very engaging heroine.  This book showcases her physical combat skills, unlike the first book, which was more about her computer hacking skills. Mikael Blomkvist, of Millenium magazine, and his colleagues are planning an expose of sex trafficking in Sweden, when three murders happen. Two of the victims are the people who are writing the expose, and a book that would have been published simultaneously, the other victim is Lisbeth's guardian, to whom we were introduced in the first book. The police make the connection and are searching for Lisbeth as the criminal, but Blomkvist (and just one or two others) believe in her innocence. Unlike the first book, which had a mystery and crime that  did not involve Lisbeth except as an investigator, this one is all about Lisbeth, and involves her troubled childhood. The book starts off with the narrative from Lisbeth's viewpoint, but after the murders are discovered it shifts it's point of view, sometimes to Blomkvist, sometimes to the police, and only towards the end it comes back to Lisbeth's actions and thoughts. So for a large portion of the book, Larsson almost makes us believe that Lisbeth could have killed at least her guardian, if not the other two also. The book is nice, though a bit tedious in bits - for example there is a detailed description of the kind of furniture Lisbeth buys at IKEA. But towards the end, the pace is really hot. Lisbeth is revealed to have extra-ordinary combat skills which don't really gel with her physical description (thin, under five feet, etc.) or with her habits (no mention of any training or physical exercise but she eats poorly - mainly Billy's Pan Pizza, and is not averse to drugs and casual sexual relationships). So one might say that the integrity of Lisbeth's character is not preserved. On the other hand that very feature makes her somehow seem more human. It appears that Larsson wants to be as non-judgemental as possible, but as the story develops, Lisbeth's character is becoming more and more conventional. There are too many characters introduced throughout the book, almost to the end of it, and they have confusing Swedish names, so one kind of gets lost amidst all the Svenssons and Gustafssons and Erikssons. For all that it's a good read, and makes me look forward to the last book in the trilogy - namely 'The girl who kicked the hornet's nest'. I'll probably buy that this week.