Friday 27 August 2010


joyous, vibrant the bubble
babble creativity, babel unison
these towers should (will) fall

i broke my own rule but
it’s a good one
if you can’t make art
at least don’t make kitsch

(regurgitated in response to this)

Wednesday 18 August 2010


Not a perfect book - Todorov sets up easily-dismissed strawman versions of the internet's potential (and actual) impact on human co-operation and the space program's relevance to our fate as a species. There's also a sense that his vision of Enlightenment thinking is so subtle as to be almost nebulous - it's not the radical descaralisation and scientism of Dawkins et. al., nor the radical relativism of post-modernism, just as much as it isn't the pursuit of theocracy or autocracy, but I think this is to the good, as I'll explain in a moment. He makes an important distinction between societies that uphold the common good and the general good - the former leading to some form of totalitarianism while the latter necessarily embraces diversity. In his conclusion he points out that 'the fate of humanity is not to find truth, but to pursue it', and this is as compelling an argument as any not to enshrine a rigid set of ideals or ideas as our guiding light, but to imbibe the spirit of open-minded, clear-thinking questing as individuals and as a species. There are certain basic values that we are to be guided by - Todorov rejects the Sadeian notion of the individual as a sort of monad, adrift in a hostile world, pointing out that we are embedded in a web of relationships without which we could not exist. However, there is no privileged source for these values or for answers to the many social, economic, political and moral questions that face us. Todorov makes the case that a certain bent of mind, identified with the Enlightenment, can give us a way to negotiate these challenges without resorting to the kind of totalitarian or Manichean policies that made the 20th century such a minefield and seem likely to do the same for the 21st.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

it's tomorrow today.

Antipodean weird fictioneer Anna Tambour sometimes shares fiction by other writers on her site. I'm thrilled that the best darned subcontinental ghost story you'll read this year (I think we've crossed over from false modesty to spurious arrogance here, people) is part of the Virtuous Medlar Circle.

Friday 6 August 2010


A soldier is on his way home after being confined to a Russian prison camp during the Great War. He fetches up in an Eastern European town in the Hotel Savoy, his first taste of civilized Europe in ages. At first it seems like a return to the pre-war verities: a soft mattress, maids with starched collars, a certain settled way of life that had gone on for ages. But he soon realises that, if the hotel is a microcosm of Europe, it is a microcosm of a Europe that has changed in a fundamental way, and can never return to its past glories.

Much like Thomas Mann, Roth tells a story that resonates on the literal and the allegorical level, with various characters and events standing in for the larger currents that would continue to wash over postwar Europe for the next decade, eventually plunging the continent and ultimately much of the world back into war. Unlike Mann, Roth conveys a gritty, lived-in feel, full of odours, stains and earthy humour, very far away from the middle-class anguish of Mann's protagonists. In that sense, his works are closer to the rambunctious, garrulous yarns of Bohumil Hrabal, which are not without their own dark side, perhaps not quite as dark and bitter as the underpinnings of Roth's vision, however farcical or absurd individual scenes may be. Like Bulgakov, Roth has a flair for group and crowd scenes for picking out the most telling moments and images to illuminate his history-haunted narrative.

Thursday 5 August 2010


I wasn't sure if Bulgakov's first novel, described as a historical novel about the fortunes of the city of Kiev in the year 1918, as the repercussions of the Russian revolution and the tail-end of the first world war play out, would be as good as his satirical masterpieces, The Master And Margarita and Black Snow.

It certainly is.

Bulgakov was a literary genius, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Not only does he maintain complete control over a narrative that segues constantly from the panoramic to the personal, he keeps finding memorable motifs and metaphors to bring his tale to life. There is an entire section where he describes people's expressions and states of minds in terms of clock-hand positions. It seems like a subjective, potentially opaque conceit, but Bulgakov makes it work brilliantly. A good deal of his tale is told through dreams - again something potentially confusing and tedious that he does incredibly well. His talent for invoking the truly fantastic was evident in The Master, as was his facility with conjuring the bad numinous. Here, in an early vision of heaven, he brings us face to face with an equally convincing vision of divinity, both comforting and chilling.

There are numerous bravura scenes of crowds and action, and of the thoughts and experiences of a his focus characters. This novel is also amazingly well structured, casting out a bewildering array of narrative threads that are all woven together into a tight, immaculate narrative tapestry. In all this, Bulgakov's trademark black humour is never very far away, either, although I don't think it dominates as much as in his later novels.

The novel ends with a virtuoso display of oneiric head-hopping which culminates in a passage which shows where the true strength of this novel lies - not in its many technical merits and literary flourishes, amazing though they are - but in its strong sense of the pathos of human destiny.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Dali painted two works called 'The Invisible Man', as far as I know. This one fascinates me the most. Much has been said by others about how the surface calm of a picture of a gloomy, sparsely furnished room where no one seems to be present conceals the variously eucharistic and phallic deployment of loaves of bread, propped, balanced and chopped. What sticks in my mind is the room's primary source of light, that glowing patch of the moon's surface pressed right up against the window. So this is an ultra-mundane space, subject directly to the influences of our satellite's rays, a room where both lunacy and poetry, truth and the retreat from it, may propitiously be pursued. A Moonroom, complete with chair, table and bread.
Is it just me or is Auden's later stuff (60s on) often kinda worthless? Easy to read, because once the grand rhetorical gestures are stripped away what's left is often close to doggerel, but really little more than senescent grumbles couched in better-than-average language? Look at the poems grumbling about physics dealing with really big things and really small things while actual human beings are stuck at 'median', or the one that describes the moon landing as an inevitable and therefore meaningless consequence of the human male's gadget-making and exploring proclivities. This is grumpy-uncle stuff, not Eliot's-natural-successor material (although Eliot had his grumpy-uncle side too).

Monday 2 August 2010

Past tense, imperfect but essential

As the Indian graphic novel genre grows in ambition and self assurance, it was inevitable that someone would use it as a vehicle to take on a historical subject. It’s a subject that all modern Indians should be interested in. That hiatus in our modern history of self-government, that lacuna in our democratic chronicle: the Emergency. As a nation, we tend to focus on our distant past and its many glories; yet, we’re oddly reticent when it comes to our more recent past. I contend that the recent past is much more germane to our decisions regarding our present and our future. We need a sense of modern history if we are to move forward in these postmodern times.

Ghosh’s graphic novel goes a long way towards addressing this need. A weighty historical tome like Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is an invaluable reference work for serious study; indeed Ghosh used it for just that purpose. Human beings respond better to stories than to narratives of facts, no matter how well researched and elegantly conveyed. Stories help us to define who we are, where we stand and what we aspire towards.

Contradictory aspirations war for the loyalties of Ghosh’s characters, caught on a cusp of historical change, torn between ideals and career, activism and survival. Ghosh’s characters never fully spring to life, but they do serve to dramatise various dialogues between hope and despair, populism and elitism, self-respect and self-advancement against the background of a state that could leap from a flawed democracy to an absolute autocracy in one abrupt gesture. Ghosh’s grimy sepia style proves the perfect frame for a gritty look at the recent past, one that is evocative without being sentimental or nostalgic in the least. While the dialogue is often clunky, weighed down by the sheer gravity of the arguments being conveyed, and the narrative tends to inch forward in fits and starts rather than chug smoothly along, there is much to feel and think about here if you take the trouble. The roman à clef interludes in which Ghosh treats us to overviews of the key political figures and events of the 70s serve as an invaluable potted political summary of modern India and how we got here.

So much of what Ghosh depicts still rings alarmingly true. The mythic stature to which we elevate our political leaders, the feudal sway they hold over our minds, bodies and souls. The way in which our rulers can unilaterally take draconian steps to suppress inconvenient truths – consider the way the streets of Delhi are currently being swept clean of indigents, animals and other contaminants of the modern state, not as part of a state of emergency but as preparation for a sporting event that is supposed to celebrate fellowship. To maintain a surface Delhi calm, to borrow Ghosh’s phase.

This is not a perfect book, but it is an ambitious, important graphic novel that helps serve the invaluable purpose of bringing our recent history to life, perhaps in the hope that we may not be condemned to repeat it.

A slightly edited version of this review, with numerous extraneous paragraph breaks added, appeared in the Sunday Herald on Aug 1st, 2010.

not my kind

A post about fantasy author/greatest living Ayn Rand fan, written for a message board I sporadically frequent (colour me oxymoronic today):
Terry's the bad kind, if you ask me. I read the first three books of his Plot Token Of {insert noun here} series at a time when I hadn't read any fantasy for a long time and wanted to lose myself in long, detailed secondary world narratives. Goodkind's books and Jordan's were the only new things on the market at the time, people like Mieville and VanderMeer hadn't started shaking up the genre scene and really, it all seemed sufficiently Tolkienesque, which was all I asked for at the time.

And to Goodkind's credit, despite writing like a hard-working if somewhat slow 13-year old, he managed to display a certain unpolished sense of wonder in the sheer act of storytelling. He seemed to care about his characters and what happened to them, and to enjoy creating their story and shaping the world around them. His professed lack of knowledge of the fantasy genre is probably why he hit on so many stock elements (WoT fans love detailing the ways in which Goodkind's world seems like an echo of Jordan's) that seem rather familiar to a genre fan. I've always believed that to really breathe new life into a genre you have to work from within - we've all seen what happens when a famous literary writer tries his or her hand at a science fictional or fantastic narrative, resulting in a novel that has certain literary values that may be absent from the average genre offering, but resolutely fails to offer a thought or idea that hasn't already been explored in full detail, usually more than half a century back, by genre writers. It takes writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Mieville, writers who are in love with the genres they want to turn upside down, who have an obsessive fan's knowledge of the history and techniques of the genre, to use all that love and knowledge to craft something truly new and sometimes even eye-openingly subversive. Then you have the genre craftsmen who may not bring something altogether new to the table, but who have mastered the tools of the trade and tell stories that add to the tradition subtly even if they don't blaze the radical new trail the more radical genre fans may demand.

Finally, you have people like Goodkind who are neither literary writers trying a new direction or genre writers working consciously within or against a tradition. An outsider artist of the fantasy genre, if you will. Just not necessarily a very good one. By the third book of the series I'd grown weary of Goodkind's black-and-white ideological dichotomies, his increasing use of sex and violence, or better yet, sexy violence to keep things exciting, his self-righteous protagonists, and the general lack of granularity to his world. Goodkind's books have a large and dedicated following, but then again so does The Bold And The Beautiful, a bog-standard US soap opera that has run for an incredible 23 years now, in a world where Star Trek was cancelled after just three seasons.

Not really my kind of fantasy, then.