Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Leopard. By Jo Nesbo

The Leopard

Jo Nesbo

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett
Vintage Books. First published 2009.

This is one of those Scandinavian crime novels. It's gruesome, long-winded, full of references to current events and popular European culture, but overall not very satisfying. Inevitable comparisons with Steig Larsson end up rating the later higher - I would buy another Larsson (except, of course - he's dead), but I would not, probably buy another Nesbo. The hero is Harry Hole, a kind of Philip Marlowe wannabe - a hard drinking, constantly smoking ex-cop, pulled back by the Oslo Police force to solve a series of murders and to do it before the newly set-up national criminal investigation agency can crack the case. Again like Marlowe, Hole gets often beaten up. But where Chandler was sentimental but reasonably realistic, Nesbo does not appear to know quite how to characterize Hole. In spite of his boozing and smoking and smoking opium and not eating well, he remains very healthy. One scene describes him almost passing out, and then with enormous effort digging out through an avalanche (of snow), and a few hours later, without much rest, setting off on a snowmobile with a colleague through the dark, wintry, trackless, mountainous landscape to hunt for the killer. Predictably, he gets into trouble again and is again put to a great deal of physical hardship, but Harry keeps going - like Tarzan. In the end the killer kills almost all the people he has planned to kill, before Hole gets him - hardly worth the effort, one would have thought. Some of the killings are unnecessarily sadistic - there is no motivation for the sadism, and indeed very little even for the killings. Nesbo appears to just want to show off what he knows about gruesome instruments of death. And also about the places he has probably visited (as a backpacker?) So, for no real reason that moves the plot forward, the story goes from Hong Kong to Rwanda to Oslo to the mountains north of Oslo and back to Rwanda. There is a mention of the mining of coltan in the Congo and the ruinous effect this has on the people of that country, but no feeling - unlike John Le Carre in 'The Mission Song'. The title 'The Leopard' is not explained... etc. etc. But why write so much about a bad book? Well it's not completely bad - the writing is quite suspenseful, especially towards the end, and the language is good. And I suppose if one did not know Marlowe, Hole would be quite an interesting character. Maybe it's just that since this is apparently the sixth book in the series, the writing has deteriorated along with the characterization. Maybe the first one - apparently 'The Redbreast' - would be worth reading. Maybe.      

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Honourable Company. By John Keay

The Honourable Company
A History Of The English East India Company

John Keay

Harper Collins. First Published 1991.

This is a history that lies between a popular account and a serious scholarly tome, like both the previous histories (of India and China, respectively) by Keay that I have read. I rather suspect Keay has gone through a huge amount of secondary literature to produce this engaging, ancedotal tale of how a small band of adventurers and unscrupulous fortune-seekers came to rule a large part of the world and maybe about a quarter of the world's population over a period of about two centuries. 

The story starts in about 1600 with the quest for spices. The English (the English East India Company) were not the first, with the Dutch and the Portugese there before them, but perhaps they were the most agressive, especially at sea. This enabled them to range the world and establish contacts and 'factories' (or warehouses), and acquire monopolistic trading rights from rulers, small and large, all over the Asia. The company also persuaded (and bribed or otherwise forced) a succession of Kings of England to grant them monopoly to trade with the East. What initially started as a trade of money or goods from England for goods (spices, cotton) from the East, developed over a period of time into a monopoly of the trade within the Asian countries, i.e. buying at throw-away prices from the India and selling at (literally) exorbitant rates to China. The factories slowly expanded to land grants from local rulers, whose sucession to the 'thrones' the company often manipulated, obviously to its own benefit. Thus land revenue from the land grants started replacing trade profits as the company's chief source of income. From almost the beginning, negotiations were backed up by armies and the threat and conduct of war. Especially in India, the company took full advantage of the huge vertical and horizontal divisions in the society - numerous small kings acting without any strong central authority and always ready to make Machiavellian pacts with anyone who would offer short term benefits; governance that existed only to enrich the royal coffers; a feudal system to effect this transfer of wealth from the people upwards; and a populace that was largely immune to ideas of unity or appeals for support by one 'foreign' invader (their current ruler) against another (the Company). The 'dark ages' that followed the dissolution of the mighty Moghul empire (after the death of Aurangzeb) probably contributed a great deal to the Company becoming the ruler of large tracts of the vast sub-continent, almost without realizing it, and without apparently wishing for it, except occasionally by dreamers such as Clive. Much the same scenes were repeated across Asia, but in more limited ways in countries that had a strong central authority, like China or Japan. Eventually the King and Parliament of England decided to do for themselves what they had been doing for the company - sending armies and navies and administrators across the seas to rule alien peoples. (Actual armies were sent out only in the beginning. As the administration became more and more sophisticated, it became necessary only to ship out officers - the soldiers or sepoys could be recruited easily and cheaply from the local population.) And thus began the British Raj, which lasted another 150 years or so. Keay concludes his account in the early 1800s, when the East India Company has ceased to exist in all but name, and before the first War of Independence in 1857, after which Victoria became Empress of India. 

Keay's writing, as always, is smooth and easy to read, interspersed with frequent sardonic turns of phrase or ironic quotations from contemporary literature, letters and other documents. The pattern in his story telling is not apparent, and the book, as a long series of anecdotes, focuses on one adventurer after another, rather than on any overarching theme. Thus he conveys the impression that the entire history of the British overlordship over half the world is the consequence of a succession of accidents and coincidences. Victories in the encounters were often, however, made possible by technological superiority, especially at sea, and by more sophisticated battlefield strategies, not to say more focussed and single-minded administration of limited resources, and better negotiating skills. So let me enumerate what I learn from Keay's book as possible reasons why whatever happened (British Raj), happened: 
  • The adventurous spirit of the Europeans
  • Their superior sailing and navigational technology
  • 'Dark ages' after the Moghul empire
  • Vertical and horizontal divisions in Indian society
  • The greater ruthlessness and single-mindedness of the Europeans, particularly the British
  • Better battlefield technology and skills
I am not sure this is enough to explain the advent of colonial Indian history, and apparently neither does Keay. Actually he doesn't even try - he just sticks to telling the tale, or rather, the tales. While, on the whole the narrative is not tendentious, he does leave out details of many of the horrors perpetrated by the English - the opium wars in China and the various oppressions of farmers and artisans in India. But, to be fair to him, he also does not dwell at any length on the oppressions practised by the native rulers on their own populations.  

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Man Who Knew Infinity. By Robert Kanigel

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Robert Kanigel

Abacus, London. First Published 1991

This is a well written, highly readable, clear eyed and clear headed look at Ramanujan, his all-too-brief life and his immortal work. It also follows the life of Hardy a great deal. The picture of Ramanujan that it builds is not of an idiot savant or of a man who was bewildered by his own brilliance. Ramanujan knew clearly just how good he was and how important and original his mathematics was. He however had some personality quirks that made him shirk quite a lot of his academic duties – such as obtaining a BA degree and then maybe an MA, and then going to Cambridge – something that would have been quite possible for him. It was just the selfish desire to  work only at maths, and to neglect all other subjects, that consigned him to a poverty-striken early life, that probably lead to his later sickness and the consequent tragic cutting short of his life – at 32! There is a sort of invetibility about his whole life, given the initial assumption of genius, and all what-if guessing games lead to the following conclusion. We must accept Ramanujan for what he was, fully, without crticizing one aspect of it, while standing awe-striken at another.

The other story in the book is that of Hardy. Though born of middle class (teacher) parents, Hardy soon acquired aristocratic manners, though his political and social views were of a decidedly left-liberal tinge – somewhat, I suppose, like J.D. Bernal, and maybe Dorthy Hodgkin. Kanigel does not say that it was this that made him more receptive to Ramanujan's letter than the others whom the latter first approached, but it is a possible interpretation of the events. Kanigel, however never loses sight of the fact that this is Ramanujan's story, and never gives Hardy more space than his apparent share of the encounter between the two. We come away with the idea that without Hardy, Ramanujan may have lived and died in near-obscurity, but certainly the greatness and importance of the maths he did would not have been affected. On the other hand, the best mathematics Hardy produced was only because of Ramanujan, in collaboration with the Indian, or following on his work or expanding it.

Kanigel has taken a great deal of effort to understand the social life of Madras and Tamilnadu of the time, but, of course, he writes about only those aspects that, to him, impinge directly on Ramanujan's life, or about which he has fairly strong evidence. It is a tribute to his writing skills that even with so little material, and having had, no doubt, to wade through a mass of eulogical and gushing accounts by Tambrahms on the greatest among them, he was able to write such a self-evidently unprejudiced account – Ramanujan is portrayed as an inexplicably and awesomely brilliant, but very human character.

Finally, I am gratified that the self-serving rantings of a certain Mylapore family, which used to be published regularly in The Hindu from about the 70s, and which claimed an almost clonal relationship with, and therefore ownership of Ramanujan, have been quietly ignored.

Tony and Susan. By Austin Wright

Tony and Susan

Austin Wright

Atlantic Books, London. First published 1993.

There are three levels in this book, like onion skins, one within another within another. The outermost level is the story that Wright is telling me, the reader. This experience includes the physical book, with its paper and cover, the circumstances under which I read it, and so on. This is the real level, one which occurs for every book, and one over which the author has no control. The second level in this book, enclosed by the first skin, is the story of Susan, her present husband Arnold, and her previous husband Edward, who is also the author of the story at the third and innermost level. Again within this second level, Edward, has only the smallest control over the circumstances under which his manuscript is read. However he does have more control over his reader, Susan, than Wright does over his reader, me. This is because Edward knows Susan, and knows her circumstances, and sends the typewritten manuscript to her to readthe book is not published as yet.  This manuscript tells the innermost story, the story of Tony Hastings, a Professor of Maths in Pennsylvania, who takes a road trip with his wife and teenage daughter. Driving at night he is forced off the road by three, apparently casual, crooks, who then kidnap his family and rape and kill them, while Tony himself is taken elsewhere and abandoned in the woods. The rest of this innermost story deals with the aftermath, its effect on Tony, and his police-mediated encounters with the crooks in the course of the next year.

The innermost story is the most gripping and interesting of the three. Tony is convincingly portrayed as very ordinary academic, suffering, for some time at least, massive pangs of guilt for being unable to stop those vile things happening to his family. But his guilt takes him nowhere, and even when faced with a chance to get back on the crooks, he refuses to act out of character and become a hero, except almost accidentally, and ultimately, unsatisfactorily. The middle story, that of Susan, her current husband Arnold and previous husband Edward, is not so interesting. It follows a fairly predictable course with Susan becoming disillusioned with Arnold, to whom she was initially attracted almost violently, he being more accomplished, more handsome, and, it is implied, a better lover than Edward. But the disillusionment does not make Edward anymore attractive again, and Susan ends up remaining vaguely disatisfied but all the same content with her lot, hinting of future tragedies.  The weakest part of the book is the interaction between these two stories. Thus it is never clear, even at the end, just how Tony impacts on Susan, or what Edward meant to do by writing the story and sending it to Susan.

The book is arranged so that it starts with Susan recieving the manuscript. Some portions of her story are told, and then it moves into Tony's story as she starts to read it. At every chapter break in Tony's story, it comes back to Susan, moves her story along a bit, mainly as reactions to Tony, though these are unconvincing. It is written well, and I skipped only some parts, those given to the suburban frustrations of Susan. The portions involving Tony are grippingly written, and evoke terror and pity, in a true Aristotlean fashion.

I bought this book cheap (Rs 200/-) at the Oxford book store discount sale, and certainly it is worth what I paid for it, perhaps its even worth the undiscounted price.