Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Family Life. By Akhil Sharma

Family Life

Akhil Sharma

Hamish Hamilton. First published 2014.

The story of a first generation Indian-American family - yes, yet another sub-continental immigrant's tale. But not 'Ho hum'. It is extremely well-written, though the story, perhaps semi-autobiographical, is not anything special. The narrator, Ajay Mishra, is a young boy, growing up from about seven to about seventeen. The family is middle-middle class North Indian (usually considered representative of all of India), from Delhi. His father immigrates from a clerical job in India to a clerical job in New Jersey, and takes his family along with him. His first son Birju, elder to Ajay by a few years, does well in school, as Asian immigrants are expected to. On the verge of entering a school that will set him up on the path to American upper middle class prosperity, he suffers an accident that renders him a vegetable. The happy family starts to break up under the pressure of trying to find the money, the love and the energy to look after him and, simultaneously, live normal lives. Ajay takes over the mantle of achiever, and enters Princeton, but not before learning to cope with a increasingly drunken father, and a more and more shrewish mother. 

The writing, as I said, is smooth and brilliant. Sharply observed details of immigrant family life fill the pages, but are subtle and do not thrust themselves upon the reader. There almost none of the false notes one usually finds in such writing, writing that talks about Indian culture to a Western audience. The social and behavioural differences are not exoticized, or subjected to parenthetical explanations, except very occasionally. Almost every page has some sentence or phrase that makes one appreciate Sharma's writing prowess. There is humour, some pathos, melancholy, and finally, satisfaction - satisfaction that despite the apparent odds, Ajay is able to access the American dream. Descriptions of the horrors associated with taking care of a patient like Birju are unsentimentally given. Likewise his father's drinking habit and his mother's reaction to it are observed with clear, unclouded eyes.

Let me end with a more or less randomly chosen quote to illustrate what I have written above.

   I stood at the foot of the bed. Birju's pubic hair was shaved to stubble. His stomach was a dome, and his G-tube, bound in a figure eight, resembled a ribbon on the side of a girl's head. 'Brother,' I said, 'I have never met anyone as lazy as you. Making people bathe you'.
   My mother, finishing with the towel, straightened herself. 'Tell him, "I'm not lazy. I'm a king"'.
   My father slipped his arms through Birju's underarms. He pulled him up until Birju was half sitting. My father grinned. He leaned down and said into Birju's ear. 'Why are you so heavy? Are you getting up at night and eating? You are, aren't you? Admit it. I see crumbs on your chin.' 


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Beyond a Boundary. By C.L.R. James

Beyond a Boundary

C.L.R. James

Yellow Jersey Press. First published 1963.

C.L.R. James was a black intellectual from Trinidad, born at the turn of the 19th-20th century - a leftist scholar, a commentator, an essayist, a newspaper-editor and a cricket-lover. He was involved in the West Indian struggle for freedom from British imperialism. But despite this, going by the evidence of this book, he had thoroughly internalized many of the values of Empire, in particular those that pertained to the game of cricket. 'Beyond a Boundary' is a much-celebrated book, mentioned with respect and even awe, whenever sports books are discussed. James has written other books, some with titles, such as 'The Black Jacobeans', that make obvious their subject matter. But none of these have been so widely read as this one, especially by the readership in the cricket playing nations of the commonwealth. 

Rather than being about one focused theme, the book uses cricket as a leitmotif to discuss a set of disparate topics - personal history, West Indian politics and the aesthetics of sport. Thus it is a series of essays on these topics. Several are about specific cricketers - George John, Wilton St.Hill, Learie Constantine, George Headley and W.G. Grace. Others explain the background politics and the social scene. One or two talk about cricket as Art. At the time of his youth, the 1920s, the islands of the Caribbean were all ruled by one or the other of the European colonial powers. This meant that the majority population, black and 'coloured', would be treated as second class citizens, lorded over by the white expats. But rather than a binary division into black and white, James talks about an almost continuous class hierarchy, correlated with skin colour, that pervaded every aspect of life in the islands, including cricket. In a chapter titled 'The Light and the Dark' James quotes from his own political writings as follows. "The Negroid population of the West Indies is composed of a large percentage of actually black people and about fifteen or twenty percent of people who are a varying combination of white and black. From the days of slavery these have always claimed superiority to the ordinary black, and a substantial majority of them still do (though resenting as bitterly as the black assumptions of white superiority)....Where so many crosses and colours meet and mingle the shades are naturally difficult to determine and the resulting confusion is immense. There are the nearly white...Then there are the browns...And so on and so on. Associations are formed of brown people who will not admit into their number those too much darker than themselves..." All very familiar from Indian society!
Cricket was at that time played in clubs. In Trinidad there were three main ones, with the most prominent and the richest of them being the Queen's Park club. A working class black man such as George John could not aspire to that club, no matter how good a cricketer he was (and he was a wonderful fast bowler). So he joined one of the others. And when a team was chosen to represent all the West Indies, he was overlooked to favour a less talented white man. This was the fate, approximately, of some of James's other heroes as well. St. Hill did not make it to the WI team, despite being a terrific bat. Constantine gave up all attempts to play useful cricket in WI, and migrated instead to English county cricket, where he did very well, though not perhaps to his actually great ability. It was only after independence that WI cricket was fully relieved of prejudices of colour. Frank Worrell, a black man, became captain of the WI team, but only after a sustained campaign in his favour by James and others.

James makes much of the British 'public school spirit' fostered by cricket. He is a through believer that battles such as Waterloo are won on playing fields such as those of Eton. His main grouse is that black people were not allowed to fully participate in all the rituals of that way of life. He is full of respect for the rituals themselves. In a section to introduce W.G. Grace, he places him among the three pre-eminent Victorians, and then talks about the other two, Charles Dickens and Thomas Arnold, the great headmaster of Rugby public school. While James has great admiration for the values set down by Arnold for his students, he says he disagrees with Arnold in the relative lack of importance that the headmaster set on games, and in particular cricket. This, James says, is where W.G. Grace showed the importance of being a great sportsman, as much as being a great scholar. James here labours to make a point which was no doubt important for him, but is rather abstruse in today's context. He tries to establish that W.G. Grace served to bring the spirit of agrarian, pre-industrial England into the more democratic era of Victorian England. Concepts such as 'stiff upper lip' and 'playing the game' and so on, that make cricket a gentleman's game (as opposed to football, I suppose), were, according to James, almost entirely due to W.G. Grace.  In this section especially, there are a lot of lovely descriptions of cricket, not complete matches or even innings so much, but specific strokes and particular overs. 

Rather curiously for a self-confessed Marxist, James is full of admiration for all these feudal rituals in cricket. The concept of 'gentlemen' (i.e. amateurs) for example, as opposed to professionals, being in some sense better sportsman, is a concept carried over from the time when men with no need to do the slightest work for their luxurious living could spend all their time becoming good at games. But, to my mind contrarily, James disdains purely defensive cricket, which, as demonstrated only last week by the South Africans in India, can be as exciting, and as much of a joy to watch. He prefers the quick scoring and fast bowling of most West Indian cricketers. He also argues for shorter games and praises the half-day versions of county-cricket that were then in vogue. I might have thought an author like James might curl his lip at T20 cricket. Perhaps he would hate the commercialism, but the concept of reducing the game to a better version of baseball surprisingly finds favour with him.

He is rather ambivalent about Bradman. he recognizes his great talent, but does not consider him to be all alone in the 'Bradman Class'. George Headley, he considers, and maybe Constantine as well, were in the same class, except they had less opportunity to display their talents. He is however full of praise for the way Bradman faced up to bodyline bowling, but is contemptuous of the Englishmen for using such 'ungentlemanly' tactics. 

He discusses cricket as an art form, considering it on par with classical Greek theatre in engaging the common man with high ideals. He describes many of the batting strokes and bowling actions explicitly in comparison with sculpture and painting of human forms. He opines that other sports lack such grace of body movement. My own appreciation of cricketing action was heightened after I read this book, so clear and lyrical are his descriptions. 

The final few chapters talk about his time back in Trinidad, after a couple of decades away in UK and USA, editing a newspaper and fighting for independence. One form this fight took was the fierce and finally successful lobbying that he carried out to have Frank Worrell appointed as the first black, indeed non-white, captain of the West Indian cricket team. This was the late 1950s and the beginning of the subsequent nearly four decade long dominance of world cricket by the West Indian team. Sobers, Kanhai, Griffths, Hall and Gibbs are mentioned in the book, but Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Roberts, Garner, Holding, Marshall, Lara, all these came later. The present day West Indian team presents not even a pale imitation of that greatness - one can think only of Chris Gayle as a batsman who might have found a place in the teams of the sixties, the seventies and the eighties. One wishes there was another James now to write and revive cricket in the Caribbean.      

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. By Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Mark Haddon

Red Fox. First published 2003.

Cursory research on the Internet shows that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a set of symptoms (difficulty with social communication; difficulty with social interaction; difficulty with social imagination), the intensity of which extends over a range (or 'spectrum'). When they are present, these symptoms are recognizable, even in very young children (less than a year old), and surely by the time they are 3 or 4. Though the entire range is classified as disability, the actual extent and intensity of such disability depends on the position of the patient on this range. There is some debate on whether some of the milder forms of ASD may in fact be simply behavioural traits, not related to any pathology and not requiring any treatment. On the other hand, a child with a severe forms of ASD, could require specially trained teachers and other social helpers. One particular form of ASD is called Asperger's Syndrome, in which the patient may have heightened intellectual abilities - mathematics or music or art. However the majority of people with ASD (or indeed Asperger's) do not possess any extra talents, and this condition should not be romanticized. I now know four fictional heroes with  Asperger's syndrome - explicitly stated, or implied (but no heroine, to my knowledge) - Raymond in the movie 'Rainman', Simon in the movie 'Mercury Rising', Sherlock Holmes (though this is debated, and there is no evidence this was ever Arthur Conan Doyle's intention), and now Christopher, the hero of this book. The trouble with these four characterizations is that all of them stress the great and exceptional intellectual abilities of the hero, rather than the downsides of the condition. While this makes for very good entertainment, it is hardly a true portrayal. It shows the condition as something desirable, which it is not. I have heard someone rather proudly claiming that he is autistic. Autism, of course is nothing to be sneered at, but it is not just unconventional behaviour, accompanied by great intellectual skills. It can seriously interfere with a happy life, and it is not always accompanied by what we might consider the compensations - those exceptional skills.  

This sense of what a pain autism can really be is missing in the present book as well. The book is written by Christopher, a fifteen year boy with ASD. He presents all the textbook (or rather, Wikipedia) symptoms of this condition - his inability to understand language and signs except literally, his inability to trust people and make friends, his love of solitude, his strictly repetitive behaviour, his love of order and hatred of even slight changes from routine, his inability to communicate what he wants, and so on. He has very good mathematical abilities, and is able to do very well in examinations far above the level of other children in his age-group.

Christopher narrates the series of incidents that happen to him over a few weeks. He discovers that his neighbour's dog has been killed with a pitch fork, and sets out, Holmes style, to solve the mystery. But doesn't actually get far with his detection. He keeps quoting from the Holmesian canon, and tries to follow the Great Detective's principles, but without much effect. He has a run-in with almost everybody he meets, including the local policemen. He runs away to London in order to escape his father, but is finally reunited with him. The background to his story, which involves his parents' relationship breaking down under the strain of having to look after him, is narrated at a remove, through Christopher's eyes.

I ordered the book under the impression that it was a detective story. It is not. It is in fact quite a different book, but one which is very interesting to read. I am glad I made the mistake. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Shadow Girls. By Henning Mankell

The Shadow Girls

Henning Mankell. Translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg.

Vintage Books. First published in Swedish 2001. Translation 2012.

Mankell is the author of a series of very popular detective novels featuring Inspector Wallender, or so I have read on the Internet. I wanted to try one of those and ordered this book, thinking that it belonged to that series. I was mistaken, it doesn't, and I have to postpone my introduction to the famous policeman to another day. But I don't regret the mistake - this book is very good.

The Shadow Girls are three young immigrant women, who have come into Sweden from Iran, Africa and Russia. The last two are illegal, while the first one is trying to break away from her violently traditional family. They are meant to the representative of the thousands of such undocumented aliens who, according to Mankell, were living in Sweden at the time of his writing the book. They live in the shadows of Swedish society, occasionally foraying into the light, but quickly withdrawing back into anonymity and darkness. The protagonist Jesper Humlin is a minor poet, who falls into the company of these girls after one of his public poetry-reading sessions. He is attracted by the mystery they hint at about their histories, and tries to set up a workshop or seminar where he thinks he can get them to tell their stories. The girls do not simply or immediately relate their tragic tales - the hurt to their bodies and spirits is still too raw and fresh, and the danger to their fragile free existence is too near. In order to escape the many ordinary tensions of his middle-class Swedish life, Humlin accompanies the girls into their weird, illegal and almost ghostly life. He tries to help, but finds that anything he can do is trivial and superficial compared to the intensity and depth of their literally existential predicament. In the course of their interactions he learns, in bits and pieces, of their fraught journeys from their unbearable lives in their home countries to one only marginally less so in Sweden. In the end, this is all he is left with, as the girls disappear back into the shadows.

The writing reminds me of John Le Carre, though it is lighter. There is a great deal of humour, as Mankell constantly juxtaposes Humlin's own personal problems with those of the immigrants. Humlin's girlfriend keeps nagging him for a baby, his overbearing octogenarian mother is revealed to have an embarrassing secret career, and his stockbroker cheats him out of almost all his savings. To top it all his publisher thinks nothing of his poetry and keeps urging his to write a crime novel. This is probably a swipe at the numerous Scandinavian crime fiction writers who, in the last few decades, have sprung up like mushrooms. This part of the novel is built mainly of staccato conversations between Humlin, his girlfriend, his mother, his stockbroker, and his publisher. As against this, the portions of the novel that deal with the Shadow Girls is serious, and takes a clear-eyed but sympathetic look at the individual tragedies. Mankell is clearly on the side of the immigrants, and but is not patronizingly so. He constantly compares the life-style of the Swedish middle class - the bourgeoisie - with the travails of the aliens, and sympathizes always with the latter. The book was written a decade and a half ago, just before Western misadventures in North Africa and the Middle East set in motion the vast tide of refugees now lapping the shores of a Europe fast turning into a fortress. Mankell could easily find a place in his heart for a few tens of thousands of the 'wretched of the earth'. I wonder what he feels about the tens of millions of people now seeking asylum in 'his' countries. To be fair, and to go by this book alone, he probably welcomes all of them as well.       

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 2007

This is Harry Potter's endgame. It is more adult than the other six, with plenty of swear words, and more ambiguities of character. In an attempt, perhaps, to make the novels more substantial, Rowling insists on fairly elaborate backstories for some of the main characters - Snape, Voldemort, Dumbledore, Sirius. The one for the late Headmaster of Hogwarts (he died in book 6) is related here. (The others are related in the previous books in the series.) It casts him in a much grayer shade than previously. The story dispenses with many of the set pieces found in all the other books - Harry & Co do not go back to school but set out to search and destroy the horcruxes (devices that store portions of Voldemort's soul). The grippingly told story of the search leads up to a grand finale - the Battle of Hogwarts. In an extended action piece, apparently written with the movie firmly in mind, Hogwarts suffers extensive ruin. Though dead, Dumbledore makes a kind of appearance in 'spirit', at a point when all the good guys, including the Boy-Who-Lived himself, have given up Harry for dead. And, in the rich tradition of mentors, from Krishna in the Mahabaratha, to the Oracle in The Matrix, to Yoda in Star Wars, he speaks elliptically and in parables. (Apparently wise people can never talk straight.) Much reinvigorated, Harry rejoins the fight with Voldemort. A few more people near and dear to Harry die, but all's almost well that ends almost well. 

Let me try and describe my thoughts about the entire series now.

First of all, you have to deeply admire how Rowling takes the standard British Public School story and gives it an entirely new and wonderful gloss. Starting from 'Tom Brown's School Days' through Frank Richards' Billy Bunter stories, PG Wodehouse's early school stories, the Enid Blyton school stories, and even Anthony Buckeridge (though Linbury Court is not a public school but a prep school), all of them have set pieces, characters and events, and Rowling uses most, if not all, of them. Thus we have scenes before the start of the term, the journey to the school, meeting up with friends, houses and fierce inter-house rivalry for the 'house cup', sports competitions, boring lessons, examinations, pranks in class, punishments, visits to the nearby villages, good masters and bad, good friends and bad, and so on. The HP books are progressively arranged one for each year of school from the sixth to the twelfth grade, as the principal characters move up the school hierarchy. And while this kind of arrangement has been seen in previous series as well, Rowling takes it one brilliant step further by making the writing more and more mature. The first book is aimed at eleven and twelve year olds, the subsequent books are written for approximately the same set of readers as they, too, grow up. The first few books are thus full of childish emotions - wonder, joy, mischief and petulance. The middle set of books treat teenage angst and the discovery of sex. The final couple of books address young adults. But all of them have something for readers of all ages, and now, in my sixty-first year, I enjoyed them a lot, if not as much, I think, as Gauri did in her thirteenth year.

Rowling is wonderfully inventive, and every book has something new and cool. The first book introduced the eco-system of magical people, and without the slightest degree of forcing, most naturally, introduced a host of new concepts - a school for magic, muggles, Platform 9 & 3/4, the Sorting Hat, Quidditch, Gringotts bank, Diagon alley, and many many more. Her writing style, as much as her language, makes the reader accept all these weird ideas easily and, indeed, joyfully. In later books she introduces such lovely ideas as the Marauder's Map, the flying Ford Anglia(!), the Knight Bus, the Pensieve, all those weird plants and animals, animagi, extensible ears, and many, many more. Some of the devices are a little strained - for example, the Time Turner is not too well thought through. And her inventiveness flags towards the end, becoming a little tedious. The Horcruxes are a little crude, and the Deathly Hallows appear to be invented only in order to give a double twist at the end of the story.

The books work at many levels, and adults are able to enjoy the books as much as the audience for which they are, presumably, primarily intended, i.e. early, middle and late teens. Scattered throughout the oeuvre are throwaway sentences and ideas that are surely addressed to adults. Thus we have Albus Dumbledore's brother Aberforth revealed as someone who did unsavoury magic with goats. There is also a brief passage in which Harry is told that attracting witches requires more than just good wand-work. I think I might have missed many others, which were perhaps rooted in current day British popular culture, with which I have only a very slight acquaintance. I got the feeling that these were inside jokes, and a kind of back and forth between Rowling and her editors. This particularly so in the later books, where the writing loses some of innocent joy of the first two or three.
One of the especial joys of reading these books was to try and discover the origins of the names. Some are straightforward. Harry Potter is, of course, a staple, unremarkable British name. 'Hermione' is slightly exotic. 'Malfoy' incorporates the French adjective 'mal', for bad. 'Voldemort' may be translated from French as 'circle of death'. But some show especial thought. Dolores Umbridge is a character as evil and disgusting as Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens' 'David Copperfield'. Her name, with allusions to 'dolour' and to 'umbrage' is among the best chosen. And there are many more. Even the names of devices are thoughtful - the pensieve, for example. There is dark humour in the name of the vaguely totalitatrian Teutonic magical school Drumstrang, an inversion of 'Strum' and 'Drang', metaphors in German for hard struggle. Rowling accesses the hermetic traditions of many cultures, especially Greek and European mythology. Philosopher's stone, Hippogriffs, centaurs, the basilisk, Cereberus, all make an appearance in the books. We also have dragons and flying carpets. One of the climactic scenes of the series, in Book 4, takes places in a cemetery, and is reminiscent of the events in the Prague cemetery, where, according to antisemitic conspiracy theorists, the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion', a Jewish pact to rule the world, were composed and agreed to.
Now for some of the negatives. First the plot. It is brilliant, but somewhat overdone in places. Rowling's inventiveness overwhelms her sense of proportion, and Books Four to Six, especially, have too many things happening. I had an uneasy feeling while reading those that she had been forced by commercial greed to go beyond and outside her original plot line in several instances. The Quidditich World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament, and young love, in addition to all the standard elements, made Book Four (HP and the Goblet of Fire) a tedious read.

Second, even after making all necessary concessions for the books being 'only entertainment', there are many logical inconsistencies. A prime example is the Time Turner. It raises too many questions about the underlying logic, and as a plot device it does not work satisfactorily. Normally, such books of fantasy can go in two ways. One, a new world is created, and all parts of this world are connected and consistent with each other. All the adventures that happen in this world lead up to the finale, in which, usually, good overcomes the bad. The second style of such literature, is exemplified by 'The Never-ending Story' where one thing after another happens to the protagonist. There may or may not be a overwhelming plot line, a quest or a challenge, but along the way she (or he or they) has many adventures. Each new adventure is approximately independent and only loosely connected to the next, and even more loosely connected to the overall plot, if there is one. The Harry Potter books fall into the first category, but the various subplots do not hold together well. In particular, it is an arbitrary authorial decision as to what is allowed in the magical world, and what is not. So, there are some injuries that can be cured, and some not; Some forms of flying possible, and some not; Some trivial uses of magic allowed (washing dishes), but some not (cooking food); Some ways of fetching some objects are permitted, others not; and so on. This, of course is rather convenient for the author, since any knots in the plot are easily resolved by inventing a new magic, (or inventing a reason why it won't work). But, of course, the writing is so good, and the story moves so fast, that these glitches are easily overlooked. It's like watching a modern Hollywood action movie, where you simply appreciate the special effects, and ignore the logic.

And that brings me to what I consider the main downside of the series. From about the fourth book onwards the stories appear to be written by a team of researchers, script-writers, special effects guys - in other words, the creative team in a Hollywood studio. Even if this is not actually true, Rowling formed, it seems, a one-woman creative team. She stopped writing books for children and started writing screenplays. Thus the books are manipulative and shallow. Too many events, incidents, and even jokes, look like they have designed to be translated on to the screen in a suitably awe-inspiring manner. 

The final book redeems all this. And even though it ends midst mayhem and death and destruction, the resolution of the Voldemort-Potter dualism is reasonably satisfactory, especially, probably, to the teens who grew up along with Harry. And I thought it was nice of her to put in the epilogue, which ends the story so finally, making it clear that Harry's further adventures are of no interest either to the author or to the readers, as he slides into boring British middle class mediocrity.

But that strong-mindedness has lasted only a decade. Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, J.K. Rowling has been unable to resist the pressure (from her fans, of course, but also from the studio bosses, I believe) and has now written a Harry Potter play. This will surely spawn a movie or two or three. Well I enjoyed the recent BBC remake of the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I suppose HP fans will wildly welcome any new stuff about his magical world.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

An Irish Country Doctor. By Patrick Taylor

An Irish Country Doctor

Patrick Taylor

Forge Paperback. First published 2004

James Herriot with his immensely popular series of books about a veterinary surgeon's travails in Yorkshire is clearly the forerunner, if not the inspiration for this book and the two ('An Irish Country Village' and 'An Irish Country Christmas') that apparently followed it. Barry Laverty, obviously a thinly disguised version of Taylor himself, goes to a northern Irish (i.e. Ulster) village with the unlikely name of Ballybucklebo, immediately after his medical degree at Belfast, to take up his first job as assistant to the well-established Dr. O'Reilly. The latter is large hearty country doctor, fond of taking even imaginary illnesses seriously, but dishing out placebos and nostrums to treat them. There follow the expected, but mild, clashes between 'modern' medicine and the more earthy and holistic treatments of Dr. O'Reilly. Both systems chalk up a couple of victories each. Interspersed with these extracts from a medical notebook are many 'charming' anecdotes about the eccentric villagers and their doings. We are also given tales of Laverty's attempts to woo an independent and career-minded civil engineer. 

The book is very light. No serious issues are addressed. The troubles of Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, that came to an uneasy end sometime towards the end of the last century, the period in which the story is set, are mentioned in passing, and do not impinge on the narrative. The book managed to hold my interest to the end, though almost all the characters and events and their descriptions are easily anticipated. Having avidly read all of Herriot's books, and having only recently read De Bernieres' "Notwithstanding" I was constantly assailed by a sense of deja vu during the time it took me to finish this book. It would be an ideal read for a long train or airplane journey, though.         

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 2005

The story is one year older in this, the sixth book of the series, but the character of Harry Potter has aged many years more. He is more mature and emotionally more settled. He is also more accepting of his loss of family, of his basic loneliness, and of his role as the Chosen One, destined to finally confront the evil Voldemort, and prevent armageddon.
Again two story threads run parallel through the book. The larger one about the Dark Forces describes the gathering together of Voldemort's loyalists, the recruitment of Draco Malfoy, Voldemort's backstory (narrated in three or four parts), and the Horcruxes, the magical devices for storing souls that point to a weakness in the Dark Lord's plans, and indicate to Harry a way to defeat him.  In a complicated piece of logical argument, Dumbledore explains to Harry that the reason why he is the Chosen One is because Voldemort believes him to be one! That, says the headmaster, and Harry's capacity to love, will be his strength in the final encounter. In the book's climax, all loyalties are clearly established, either for one side or the other, doubts are cleared away and the path to the final battle between Harry and the forces of good on the one hand, and Voldemort and his loyalists on the other, is marked out.
Harry's personal story as a teenager forms the other thread. There is a brief comical introduction describing an encounter between the Minister for Magic and the 'muggle' Prime Minister. There is a nice scene at the Burrow involving Bill Weasley and his girlfriend Fleur. There is Quidditch. There are are the steps and missteps in the dance of young love between Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny. 

Rowling herself appears to have changed from being a writer of stories only for children. She is more comfortable now in writing what she knows will have to be adapted as a cinematic screenplay, for a general audience. There is, however, a long and somewhat Enid Blyton-ish visit to a cave in a sea-side cliff-face by Harry and Dumbledore, which might thrill younger readers or movie watchers, but did not move me. The final action sequence of the book, however, involving Harry, Dumbledore, Snape, Malfoy and others is thrilling, though relatively brief. 

There are less throw-away jokes through the book, and the writing is a bit more serious throughout. There are fewer inconsequential bits. Again there are several logical inconsistencies, but are easily forgiven. This is probably one of the best books of the series.  

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. By J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

J.K. Rowling

Bloomsbury. First published 2003.

Harry is an aggressive adolescent now, raging against his hormones, and this is the fattest and angriest of all the seven books. Whether climbing out of bed, or climbing into it, in a 'snarly-yarly voice' he 'shivers and scowls and grunts and growls at his bath and his boots and his toys'. The set pieces are all there - preliminary scenes in Privet Drive (spiced up this time by a Dementor attack), scenes at the Burrow, the journey to Hogwarts, Quidditich matches, the lessons, the usual antogonisms with Snape and Malfoy, and a sub-climactic showdown at the end of the book with the forces of evil. There are also elements particular to the book or newly introduced in it - the Order of the Phoenix (of which Harry is not a member, only a spectator),  Dumbledore's Army, St Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, the inside of the Ministry of Magic, Occlumency. 

There are, as usual, two overlapping story lines. The larger apocalyptic  struggle between Harry and Voldemort moves a couple of convoluted steps forward. The magical bureaucracy refuses to believe the Dark Lord is back, and targets Harry and Dumbledore for ridicule and discipline for insisting it is so. So we have a marvelously hate-able Dolores Umbridge displacing Dumbledore as Headmistress, Rita Skeeter splashing venomous ink about Harry's 'misdeeds' all over the Times-of-India like 'Daily Prophet', Hagrid recruiting, or trying to recruit, the giants in the good cause, the Prophecy, and the final fight in the Ministry.

The other story line is about Harry's own growing pains. He learns some unpleasant truths about his father, 'suffers' an immense crush on Cho Chang, begins to come to terms with his powers and his limitations, and has to face up to sudden and tragic loss.

In appreciating the brilliance of the intricate story telling, and always keeping in mind that the books were actually written for a young audience, it is easy to forgive the many obvious inconsistencies and manipulative tricks that keep the series from reaching the literary levels of, say, the Sherlock Holmes stories. The effect of having to soon cater to a cinematic audience is clear, and the magical curses and jinxes and hexes are now more like the light sabers and laser guns from Star Wars and the Terminator movies. Clearly it would not be possible to sustain the movies without the visual effects. 

By the time she wrote this book, Rowling probably had a vast team of editors and researchers to tell her what to write and even, maybe, how to write it. The actual writing is most certainly hers, as probably are the numerous, immensely enjoyable throw-away jokes that scattered throughout the book. However, like all her books, the pace is quite slow in the beginning, and too fast towards the end. Being a large book, all the endless inventiveness rather bored me at the beginning, and I took nearly three weeks to go through it. Gauri, however, finished it in a day, and maybe I did too when I read it a decade ago.