Sunday, 31 January 2016

And the Mountains Echoed. By Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books. First published 2013.

Khaled Hosseini does not write about Afghanistan. At least, not in this book. He is an American writer, writing here about slightly exotic Americans (or Europeans) who happen to have origins or connections in Afghanistan. The sensibilities are all American (or All-American), i.e., very Reader's Digesty. 

The story, a small portion of it, concerns a brother and sister growing up together for a few sweet years as children in a remote Afghan village. They separated when very young. Many, many years later they meet again, when the sister is invalidated by severe arthritic pain, and the brother by Alzheimer's. This accounts for about a tenth of the book, but still, somehow, provides the underlying tension throughout. We keep waiting for the reunion, which, when it comes, is anticlimactic.  

The other nine tenths of the story is divided into three tenuously connected parts. One part follows the sister and her early childhood as the adopted daughter of very rich parents in Kabul. The parents divorce, and the mother, a 'liberated' woman in 1960's Afghanistan, separates from the homosexual father and takes her daughter to Paris. This thread then follows the two women in Europe, mainly Paris, with no reference, really, to anything that happened, or is happening, 'back home' in Afghanistan. These parts read vaguely like many of the 'Americans-in-Paris' books, by F. Scott Fitzgerald for example (though that comparison is a far reach). The second thread sticks to Afghans and Afghanistan. This story of the driver, caretaker and, in the latter's dying moments, the lover, of the rich father, also the uncle of the brother and sister, who played a crucial role in the sale of the girl, is narrated partly in his own voice and partly in that of a Greek doctor. The doctor is gamely bearing the white man's burden in a Kabul being rebuilt after the Soviets have been driven back, and his story, a fairly conventional bitter-sweet tale, which takes place mainly in an island in Greece, forms the third thread, largely unconnected from the rest the book.

I would characterize the book as beautifully written soppiness. The language is lovely, and the writing smooth. Many descriptions are wonderfully lyrical. But it's all froth, and not much substance. To repeat, the book is not about Afghanistan, it's about America. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

William - The Outlaw. By Richmal Crompton

William - the Outlaw

Richmal Crompton

Macmillan Children's Books. First published 1927.

Not many children now-a-days find these books interesting. If they are still in print, maybe it's because of people like me - the kind of adult readers who like Dickens and Austen and so on. This is the seventh in the series, but except that it does not mention TV or spaceships, the stories do not date themselves very differently from the rest of the canon. Nor are the 'stories' all that different from each other. There are a few standard templates - William exposing a fraud; William unwittingly helping out; William organizing a show or a contest; William meaning to do well but failing badly; and so on. In this book alone, both the first and the last stories describe how William gets the better of a couple of 'well-behaved' children, who are paragons of virtue in adult eyes. But of course, one does not read William for the stories - the conversations, especially those between William and his peers, are brilliant, and the fads and foibles of the British middle classes in the inter-war years are characterized well. Crompton, and thus the reader, are far more sympathetic to William than all the adults who appear in the books. Occasionally, when we find a person in the story whom we like, he or she usually ends up becoming William's friend. So, annoying and disreputable though he may be, William is always likable, and the books are always readable. Again and again.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Sad Cypress. By Agatha Christie

Sad Cypress

Agatha Christie

Harper. First published 1940

About halfway through the book, I realized I not only had read this book before, but remembered the 'solution', too. After that there was no suspense, of course, but I could observe and enjoy Christie's technique. Basically there a lot of misdirection. Many characters are presented, some of them with even stronger motives for the murder that the actual villain, who also is not hidden, but shown to have equally good opportunity to carry out the deed as any of the others. In the denouement, one character after another is presented as the murderer, until the truth is revealed a few pages before the end of the book. There is that is a problem with these books of course, their lengths. We know, by meta analysis, that the solution presented by the author in the middle of the book cannot be the correct one - else why does the book go on for so many more pages? Christie, and other crime novelists, grapple with this problem by filling the novel with social commentary, politics, psychological studies, humour or action. Anyway that is what makes these novels, and not just puzzles.

In this book, Poirot is called upon to, somehow or the other, even dishonestly, prevent the conviction of the prime suspect, a young woman of a very attractive and sympathetic character against whom the evidence is very strong. The resolution of the suspense, which takes place in court at the trial, is reasonably satisfactory, though not one of Christie's best - no 'The Murder on the Orient Express', this. The social commentary and characterisation of very typical English characters, usually Christie's forte, is rather weak here. Nevertheless, I had no trouble reading it to the end. I enjoyed it, in fact. 

The Enchantress of Florence. By Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie

Vintage Books. First published 2008

The story goes back and forth between the latter part of Akbar's India (1556-1605 AD) and Florence, Italy, of the Medicis in the early part of the sixteenth century, with side trips to Central Asia. A mixture of fact and fiction, the book traces the story of beautiful Lady Qara Koz (Black Eyes), sister of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire. After being captured by the Persian Shah Ismail, and serving as his wife/concubine for many years, she changes her allegiance to the Florentine adventurer Argalia, who, as a kind of precursor to Lawrence of Arabia, is serving as a general, the most important one, in the army of the Ottoman Emperor Selim the Gray. In the battle of Chaldiran, the Ottoman army defeated the Persian forces, largely, according to this book, due to the bold leadership of Argalia. After this battle, Argalia retired to Florence, taking Lady Qara Koz with him. She is there involved in the deadly city intrigues, and after a few twists and turns of fortune, when Argalia is killed, she dies too. Her son whose actual birth is a rather a mystery, is adopted by (or is born to) Ago Vespucci, cousin to Amerigo, the eponymous explorer of America. The son is in turn infected with the wandering spirit, and travels to Akbar's India, where he gains the confidence of the emperor and narrates the tale of his ancestry to him. The novel thus keeps cutting between descriptions of the large-hearted and liberal doings of Akbar, and the Qara Koz story. There is some magic, a lot of history - Mughal India at it zenith, the adolescent Ottoman empire, and medieval Italy - and, of course, the fictional story of the Enchantress. 

Lovely though the writing is, keeping the reader always interested, never bored, the book is finally a stew of facts, imaginings and fantasies, without any central theme. Except, perhaps, the rather banal one of love, sexual love that is, being more important than anything else, as motivation, and as gratification. There is some slight political commentary, but not deep enough to have any contemporary relevance. Rushdie evokes the times rather well, and his feel for India of half a millennium ago - I don't know about Europe and Central Asia - is authentic. The story is complicated, like most of his novels, and invokes ideas, tropes and the historical zeitgeist from all over the world in the times he writes about. In places the detail is stunning, like a Mughal miniature - perhaps deliberately so. In fact he describes a Mughal artist and his paintings, some of them imaginary in fact but faithful to the style. And the style then carries over to Rushdie's writing. Sometimes, however, the detail is so much, and so irrelevant to the main story line, that these parts of the novel reminded me of the work of Irving Wallace, who would research a topic and then spend half the book dumping his recently acquired knowledge on a disinterested reader. (Though, of course, Wallace didn't write a tenth as well as Rushdie.) 

A good book, and, like 'Shalimar the Clown', surprisingly (to me) readable.