Friday, 15 May 2015

The Hanging. By Soren and Lotte Hammer.

The Hanging

Lotte and Soren Hammer

Originally in Danish. English translation by Ebba Segerberg. 
Bloomsbury. First published 2013.

This is a very nice crime novel set in Denmark. It is not really a thriller, and not really a mystery either, though it starts out as one. But the questions are answered quickly, and the book becomes a more a police procedural, with a number of sympathetic characters, mostly policemen and policewomen. The key point of suspense that moves the book rapidly to the end is the technique used by the investigators to overcome the hostile public perception of the killings as a justified, though extra-legal, 'execution' of a bunch of pedophiles. The crime scene is quite gruesome, and I expected that this novel would follow the apparent Scandinavian predilection for awful crimes by crazed criminals (Larsson, Nesbo). But the rest of the book is less horrifying and neither the criminals nor the victims are actual psychopaths, though both are not psychologically normal. On the whole the writing is quite nice, and the translation adequate, I think. There are a few non sequiturs, and some questions left hanging here and there, and unlike, say Agatha Christie, everything is not fully explained.

The Lotte and Soren Hammer website says that a total of five novels featuring the chief detective Konrad Simonsen have been written (in Danish) by the brother and sister writer duo since the first one in 2005. This is the first English translation. A second is promised this year (2015). Others will follow, I suppose. This paperback version I purchased at Delhi Airport costs only Rs 300/-, and the book is more than worth that price. I certainly intend to try the second also.       

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations. By Mohsin Hamid

Discontent and Its Civilizations

Mohsin Hamid

Penguin Books. First published 2014.

This is a collection of 36 essays by the author of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', originally published between 2000 and 2014 in newspapers and journals such as the New York Times, Dawn, the Times of India, and so on. Chiefly, they chronicle his reactions and emotions to the events at the intersection of the East and the West, the Ancient and the New, the Muslim and the Christian, or in brief, USA and Pakistan. Some the essays are dated, some reveal naivete, some are self-indulgent, and a few are interesting and immediate. All of them, of course, push an upper-middle class liberal-humanist worldview, much like my own, in which there is space for diversity of opinion, for empathy with the less fortunate, and dislike, even positive hatred for closed minds, but at the same time unwillingness to bend too far to give up the privileges that go with the class. They constitute left-liberal soul-food, tasty and nourishing when taken as occasional snacks served in op-ed pages or over the Internet in blogs, but bland, not especially impressive when taken as a continuous meal. Hamid's novel mentioned above, the only one I have read, is a better read, and more illuminating.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Luminaries. By Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

Granta. First published 2013

At eight-hundred and thirty-two pages, this is a throwback, in style and some subtance, to some of the Victorian novels. Typical of those novels, especially those of  Dickens, are the sub-headings to each chapter: 'In which so and so does such and such and such...'. (In fact the last bit of the book is carried forward entirely on the sub-headings, with the actually chapters being a few paragraphs that illustrate what the sub-headings say.) Again in Dickensian fashion, the novel is dense with characters and descriptions. It has a complicated story-line involving all of the characters in key roles. There are the twelve eponymous luminaries, about half-a-dozen more equally-important characters, and a host of less-important ones. The time is the mid-nineteenth century, and the place is New Zealand, chiefly a gold boom town called Hokitika on the western coast of the South Island, but various important events also happen in Dunedin, further south on the eastern coast of the island. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, starting in the middle, and going back and forth in time and space. The book is probably best read continuously. Maybe not in one sitting, (which, if undertaken, and given the size of the book, must be an ultra-marathon sitting), but at least without any distractions, the Internet or TV. Though constructed somewhat like a mystery novel, a murder mystery, the book is not written to grip, and except for a couple of portions, is not a 'page-turner' that will force the reader to forget to go to the bathroom (or if in the bathroom, forget to come out of it). I spent the better part of a month with this book, but I am not sure I follow all the details of the narrative.

It is difficult to summarize the tale linearly. I cannot say 'this happened first, and then this...' and so on. And perhaps that is the great thing about the book. (Perhaps.) We have a whole bunch of characters, loosely bound by a set of incidents, all with their own backgrounds and stories, coming together approximately at the same time and place. The characters include a man newly arrived from England in search of his father who abandoned him; the captain (a villain) of this ship that brings him to Hokitika; the jailer (or Governor) of the town; the town whore (who is one of the two or three characters sympathetically portrayed); a hotel owner; a young man who has come to New Zealand to make his fortune, and makes it in short order (and is another of the sympathetic characters); an exploitative lady (another villain); the publisher of the local newspaper; two Chinese men, one of them looking to take his wreak vengeance on the ship captain for grievous past hurts and insults; a Maori man, neutrally portrayed; and many more. Each of the characters is described in great detail, what they wear and what they look like, and what they like and do not like. Each of their back stories is narrated, sometimes in summary, sometimes in detail. And yet none of the characters come to life, none are memorable.

There are a large numbers of intertwined story lines, none of them complete or particularly interesting in themselves. And regretfully, not remarkable even when taken in the aggregate. The story lines include one following the fortunes of the Chinaman, from Canton to Hokitika, in pursuit of the man who robbed him of his fortune and reduced him to indentured status. There is the story of about 4000 pounds in gold (not enough to buy an English country estate, but maybe enough to get one in new Zealand) which is, at various times, found as nuggets from the gold field, found as dust in the river nearby, remelted and cast into bars, buried in a field, sewn into ladies' dresses, shipped in crate - perhaps there are two fortunes. And there are other stories. 

The book is structured on astrological lines. Twelve of the characters, in particular, are associated with the signs of the Zodiac. Perhaps their characters and their life stories are also true to astrology. But this is lost on me. Similarly the chapters heading denote astrological events, but I could not make the correlations. I think, maybe, a lot of the book was lost on me. But perhaps there was nothing much to be lost. Perhaps the whole idea was to portray the randomness of Life, better represented and explained by astrology than by logically connected narratives. Perhaps.