Tuesday 23 April 2013

andante comodo

“…So in the first place it is completely untrue that any affaires have brought me down. I have not been brought down at all. I am leaving of my own accord because I wish to have complete independence… after ten years of hard work I have decided to leave a post which has remained mine to keep, right up to the moment of my final decision; of that I can assure you most decidedly.”

- Gustav Mahler, June 1907, in an interview with the Neues Wiener Tagblatt.

We are taking a stroll; there is no hurry and we should be relaxed. But there’s a halting rhythm to our gait, as if our footsteps want to backtrack, obliterate themselves. As if they already know the extremities to which this stroll will take us. Yet, there are stretches of even going, serene and accommodating, there is a build and a lift that might almost be euphoric. A triumphant note is sounded – perhaps the dangers will not come to pass after all. We are calmed, we lapse into a swelling, swooning idyllic state of mind. Still, a pulsing, seeking energy builds beneath the surface calm, waves of conflict that ebb and flow and the dominant mood is tinged with a forlorn regret for the moment, soon approaching, when the calm will be torn away. Everything seems to cease for a moment, and then the conflict is upon us, a swirling, measured build that lifts into the air and then leaps away. We are left now, not in an idyll, but decidedly in a calm before storms. We strive to measure our paces, to lapse back into our commodious stroll. Even to ourselves we seem childish, pathetic, in this attempt to recapture a false reverie. Around us, momentarily becalmed elemental forces quietly intimate their oncoming fury. Still, we amble along, this time only to prolong the moment, to hold peace in our thoughts as a distant memory, a favoured and lost dream. Then, the maelstrom erupts. The furies race and roar in the air about us…

Someone is calling my name. I look up. It is the fat man I work for. He is calling my name and tapping on my cubicle. The fellow in the cubicle opposite is smirking; the fat man is clearly annoyed. I remove my headphones, pause my mp3 player and save the document I’ve been working on (it is a script for a motivational film for one of our clients; I am channeling the characters from Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, given the names of two of my cats).

‘What are you doing listening to music so loud? I’ve been trying to call you for three minutes!’ the fat man says.

‘Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you…’ I say, trying to sound a note somewhere in between apology and dignity.

‘Come to my office,’ he barks out, cutting me off. He stomps away, leaving me to scurry in his wake.

‘Oh, okay…’ I mumble after him, putting my mp3 player away. I glance at the time counter. 11.01. About halfway through the first movement of Mahler’s 9th in John Barbirolli’s rendition of the work with the Berlin Philharmonica (the record sleeve says ‘Berliner Philharmoniker’). I am dressed in grey trousers, a light green sweatshirt and grey sneakers. The fat man is wearing a brown blazer with dark blue trousers, a combination I find exceedingly inelegant. In his office, he is not alone, but flanked by two of my colleagues, my nominal peers at the higher end of the hierarchy that dangles from the fat man like a flaccid, incontinent penis that he wishes to swaddle the world in.

They seem tense, uncomfortable. He seems even more tense than them, but with a stern, triumphal air.

‘What’s this about,’ I ask, not sitting down.

‘Sit down,’ he tells me, motioning to a chair placed right in front of his table, away from the sofa where the other two sit. In front of the chair, on his table, a thick printout sits. It doesn’t seem like anything at all, except a stack of papers with things printed on them.

I sit.

‘In spite of all our warnings, your internet usage has been excessive.’

‘What?’ I may as well have simply squealed in horrified shock, like a pig just before its head is forced down onto the chopping block. At least pigs don’t have to die the kosher way. I was to be bled before the killing blow; hence the flurry of work that had descended on me all morning. Hence, the audience.

Not a particularly happy audience, though. The one, a man, was in the process of becoming a friend. Big, bearlike, a former biker, a chef, a laugher, a lover of life. We were becoming friends. The other, a woman, her career her life. We could never be friends, but I imagined a mutual respect; at least she had never unleashed her considerable reserves of sarcasm on me yet. Not until a brief stab last evening, I suddenly recalled. Yet, she seems uncomfortable, too.

‘We have to pay an internet bill of 1 lakh. I have to justify these expenses. Your internet usage has been the highest in this team. We have to let you go.’

Immense silence, vast and icy as a glacier, descends within my mind. All my thoughts are frozen in their tracks.

‘How do you explain this,’ he goes on, pointing to the papers in front of him. ‘This is a log of all your browsing. It’s full of chat sites. Please explain this to me.’

I glance at the papers. I look away. They probably don’t mean as much as he thinks they do; a lot of firewall programs log blogs as chat and social sites. He probably thinks ‘social sites’ are sex chatrooms; he barely understands the web. This is a hatchet job. A head needs to roll, and mine has been chosen. A few days back, another colleague was placed in a similar corner, told that he was not bringing in enough business to justify his employment. He begged for a second chance, took a paycut. I wasn’t going to do that.

‘Is there any complaint as to the quantum and quality of my work,’ I ask, lapsing tensely into some sort of bizarre corp-speak.

‘No, nothing like that,’ he says, almost ruefully, ‘but how do I justify these expenses?’

‘I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back.’ I say. At this point, I have nothing left in me except honesty. No will for aggression, ingratiation or repartee.

‘How can you say it’s backstabbing? The whole team has been repeatedly warned to cut down on internet usage.’

‘So what? It’s a small team, and if I was using as much as all that, how difficult would it be to call me into your office to have a chat?’

He flinches a bit at that. Then, trying to revert to his own script for this meeting, he begins pointing at my browsing logs and asking for explanations again.

‘Wait a minute. Are you firing me?’

He nods.

‘Then I don’t need to explain anything to you. I’d like to pack my things and leave.’

‘Yes, alright.’ He replies. I am no longer registering the tone of his voice, the look on his face. I walk out of his office and go back to the cubicle that used to be mine.

I delete every document I’ve created. Every file that belongs to me. I pack all my things in my bag, pull on my jacket (a green corduroy blazer), strap my bag on and leave. Another colleague looks at me leaving, confused. We were supposed to discuss a job. But it is nearly noon and they all know I eat lunch early.

Outside, I put my headphones back on and switch on my mp3 player.

The last throes of a tempest echo in my ears, and then begins another lull. This time, the lull itself is something of a storm, containing immense turmoil and anguish. This is the very midpoint of the first movement, the very nadir of despair. A despair that never really leaves, but is eventually transmuted into acceptance. There are more storms ahead, and more bouts of calm. There are the bizarre, schizoid, hurly-burly middle movements and finally the lofty heights of resignation of the vast finale. But for now, I am strolling, at a measured pace, through the alternately becalmed and tempest-tossed valleys and peaks of the first movement.

Monday 15 April 2013

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

It is impossible to even begin summing up Anna Tambour's novel 'Crandolin' without sounding a bit crazed. And that's not a bad thing at all. There's something insane about this whole enterprise, but it is an inspired insanity, internally coherent and completely mesmerising.

See, there's this fellow, Nick Kippax. He's looking for piquant flavours. He's been through wine snobbery and the all the usual forbidden fruits of the gourmet. But he's after the grail now, the most legendary and elusive dishes of all time, among them the fabled crandolin. In a musty old tome, he finds a stain on the page that contains the recipe for this dish. He tastes it - and is hurtled into a multiple existence as a red blotch on a variety of entities across time and space. These include an itinerant musician's bladder-pipe, the face of a Soviet railway cook, a nest belonging to a family of cinnamologus birds and a jar of very rare honey.

Are you with me so far? Good work, you're probably ready to read the book itself, then, and need no further prompting from me.

If a completely bonkers conceit isn't enough, Tambour's novel is peopled with a delightful array of, well, people. There's the hapless Kippax himself, Galina, the railway cook, a matronly woman who is blind to her own manifest charms, the many railway employees who yearn for her, a group of railway-enthusiast tourists including a phlemagtic retired Indian railway man and his recumbent wife, there are wandering princes seeking adventure, wannabe brigands, a honey merchant, a master sweetmaker, a virgin in a tower, the Omniscient narrator, the eternal Muse and more. Enough characters to populate a medium-sized and very weird province, maybe even a smallish peninsula.There are even people who aren't people: a donkey whose affections are not to be trifled with, and the crandolin him/herself.

Oh, themes? You want themes? How about the nature of love, the source of inspiration and the quandary of authorship? The diversity of food, the inner glory of donkeys and the elusiveness of truth. This book has enough themes for a bumper-sized Cliff's Notes and then some to spare.

Most of all, this book is completely original. And how many times do you find a book like that? I read a few hundred of the blasted things a year, and even I only encounter one or two really, really unique books on a good year. If I don't read another book as original, whimsical, witty and wondrous as this all year, it will still have been a very good year. Heck, a very good decade.