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.