Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The linchpin of Vikas Swarup’s  Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionaire) was coincidence — twenty of them, to be exact. The readers, however, were not required to suspend disbelief, for they could share the authorities’ scepticism (about coincidence providing the answers to the protagonist). By making the credibility of the events central to his narrative, Swarup elevated Q&A from thriller to genre-breaker. The novel’s in-your-face ingenuity ensured that the coincidences never dwindled into obvious literary devices.

Six Suspects, Swarup’s much awaited second novel, is again held together by the notion of coincidence. This time around, however, the author expects us to swallow it all with no explanation. But while far less convincing than Q&A, Six Suspects is wildly, shamelessly entertaining. Swarup is the Dan Brown of India, with the advantage of not having to look to history for inspiration; modern-day India, with its gaping social chasms and colorful political landscape, provides ample material to conspiracy theorists.

Vicky Rai, the corrupt son of a corrupt politician, kills a young woman in a fit of rage. Despite the presence of several witnesses during the murder, Vicky is acquitted by the Indian judicial system. When Vicky is shot dead at a party celebrating the verdict, six suspects emerge: a Bollywood actress, a tribal, a petty thief, an American visitor, a bureaucrat and a politician. Each has a motive, each has a gun, and each one’s life is filled with coincidence. The American is named Larry Page (just like the Google guy)! The actress has a doppelganger! The thief is in love with a suspect’s daughter! Each sentence describing these six characters deserves an exclamation!

Sadly, the characters themselves are stereotypes; some more than others. The Bollywood actress is an intellectual; we know this because she quotes Nietzsche (“my Master”) and Sartre in her diary, and mentions Heidegger and Malamud in an interview. More troubling, however, is the intellectually-challenged Texan who works at a Walmart and says things like “Me and Mom are closer than ticks on a hound,” who references the Rose Bowl, Miss Hooters International, and the Starplex Cinema at Waco in his introduction. Swarup is on very thin ice here indeed.

And as for the plot: at times, it seems this frantic tale should be shelved under fantasy –the story lurches about crazily, moving from Kashmir to Chennai to the remote Andaman Islands to New Delhi. But it’s all strangely addictive, and makes for a cracking good read. Questioning Swarup’s style and plot developments while reading is like thinking about kinesiology during sex. Why spoil the fun?

Six Suspects is nothing if not ambitious, seeking to encompass each of modern India’s many issues in four hundred seventy pages. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and endemic institutional corruption all find a mention. Terrorism in Kashmir: check. The Bhopal gas tragedy: check. A shamefully inadequate safety net for the underprivileged: check. A growing economic divide leading to escalating crime: check. Centrist policies disenfranchising those away from the seats of power: check. If I’ve left out any of India’s manifold woes — well, you’ll find them in this novel. After all, Swarup’s combination of feel-good emotion in the midst of grim Indian reality is a proven winner. It should surprise no-one that the film rights to this novel were snapped up long ago.

(A slightly modified version of this review appears in The Asian Review of Books.)

Poetics of Dissent: The Fourth Canvas by Rana Bose

While reading a thriller, I anticipate — and usually get — a twisty, testosterone-ridden plot. If I’m lucky, there’s a strong female character; really lucky, a good sex scene. What I don’t expect: a theory of socio-political hegemony centered around the idea of dissent. But Rana Bose’s The Fourth Canvas is a novel of ideas as much as a thriller, with enough red herrings to make Agatha Christie proud, and enough progressive ideas to satisfy the most ardent activist.

 Claude Chiragi, a doctoral student at McGill, has just received a birthday present from his girlfriend Clara. To his relief, the large flat package isn’t an Ikea piece in malevolent wait for assembly. Rather, Clara has come up with the goods — a painting by the political philosopher Guillermo Sanchez, who also happens to be the subject of Claude’s research. Sanchez, who died in 1974, was the author of a few articles, and a book on Mexican history — slim pickings for a thesis. The hitherto unknown painting will provide Claude material for his floundering PhD.

The canvas depicts a city landscape full of characters seemingly in fear of an impending calamity. Only one woman seems exempt from the malaise; her face is calm, even eager. Hidden in the painting are the words “Two periods of rise, followed by two periods of decline.”

Apparently, a theory of empire has been painted into the canvas, which seems but one in a series. And if further incentive to explore the canvas’s provenance was needed — the calm-faced woman in the painting seems to be moving. And so Claude and Clara set off on a quest to unearth all of Sanchez’s canvases. First stop: Cuba, where they’ll meet a friend of Sanchez.

In the manner of all good thrillers, the adventure is also a voyage of self-discovery. This being The Fourth Canvas rather than The Fourth Protocol, Claude and Clara don’t realize an unexpected affinity for grenade launchers or a talent for blending into foreign locales. While Claude plunges deep into Sanchez’s intellectual argument, Clara rediscovers her Argentinean roots — her father and brother disappeared during the country’s Dirty War, and Clara had hitherto suppressed these memories in favor of a cool citizen-of-the-world Montrealer persona. As Sanchez’s theory of the role of dissent in the collapse of empires becomes clearer, Claude and Clara are unable to lead their former passive lives. The canvases have changed not just their worldview, but their notions of their own roles in the fight for social justice.

The Fourth Canvas also features several secondary narratives, including that of one Diana McLaren, a professor of political philosophy in Montreal who is Claude’s father’s partner, and another featuring Sanchez’s sister Lydia. Bose gathers these seemingly random threads together by way of an abduction, a misty mountain hop through the Andes, and a case of mistaken identity, through to a satisfyingly dramatic (and devious) denouement.

Rana Bose is an engineer, a magazine editor and playwright, and The Fourth Canvas showcases each one of his métiers. In his acknowledgement, Bose states that his theatre background leads him to “launch torrents of ideas on the stage,” and indeed, The Fourth Canvas at times is all but submerged under expositions on every possible idea or event, from the film Ghost Dog to The Beastie Boys to cricket. Many of these riffs are at best tangentially related to the plot, and often take place on the flimsiest of pretexts; the only reason I forgive the author such self-indulgence is because everything he has to say is so damn interesting. Consider Bose’s description of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris:

“If a cemetery could, however, be accused of name-dropping in a display of turf arrogance, this would be the place…Chopin has a muse weeping, Oscar Wilde has a winged messenger calling him away…[There] lie the graves of Laura Marx, Karl’s daughter, and Paul Lefargue, who committed suicide together in 1911.”

If this doesn’t send you haring off to Wikipedia, nothing will.

But Bose the novelist is perhaps closest to Bose the editor of the alternative webzine Montreal Serai, a publication whose stated aim is to give a voice to people at the margins. As a character in The Fourth Canvas says “Legitimacy is hogged by the mainstream. [But] the people on the periphery are just as legitimate.” Bose’s novel not only reinforces the importance of dissent, but presents a vision for a new wave of popular resistance that co-opts people from the peripheries of every country on the planet. That he’s chosen to convey his ideas in such an accessible literary genre is altogether fitting. Even thrilling.

 

(This review appears in the current issue of rabble.ca.)

February Flowers by Fan Wu

Seventeen-year-old Chen Ming is a studious, violin-playing first-year student at a university in Guangzhou, fresh off a farm into the big city. Miao Yan is worldly and cynical, an at-ease flaunter of boyfriends, and the oldest undergraduate at the university at twenty-four. An unlikely friendship is struck when the two cross paths.

Ming, whose world has hitherto been defined by the classes she attends and the books she reads, is fascinated by Yan’s insouciant familiarity with all things forbidden (which  in Ming’s case include smoking, drinking alcohol, and dating). In turn, Ming’s intellect, her ability to find contentment in her books, and her stable family background are the stuff of envy for Yan. The two girls are soon drawn into a fervent, consuming relationship, engendered at least in part by the hothouse intimacy that closed institutions often foster. (Ming, sharing a room with three other girls in an all-female dorm, with an eleven o’clock curfew and a warden to monitor incoming phone calls, compares her life to existence in an army barrack.)

California-based Fan Wu’s debut novel February Flowers would seem, at the first glance, to conform to every cliche concerning First Novels. There’s the coming-of-age theme, the first-person narrative (Ming’s), the protagonist whose background mirrors the author’s, the confessional tone etc. etc. But the coincidences are superficial; this novel soon reveals itself as a fresh, original work that strikes a fine balance between intimacy and restraint — and shatters several stereotypes along the way.

As narrated by the adult Ming, her younger self was more than a little in love with Yan. But the seventeen-year-old is too innocent to realize what her feelings might mean. Sex education is all but unknown in the China of the early nineties (the period when the novel is set.) One of Ming’s roommates, for instance, believes frequent masturbation leads to an early death. Upon seeing a picture in a porn magazine of two naked women kissing, another roommate decrees that homosexuals “have a mental illness” and guesses the women are American. Forced to admit (from the photographic evidence before her eyes) that the women are indeed Asian, the roommate decides the women must be Japanese, for the Chinese newspapers have informed her that “only capitalist countries have homosexuals.” Little wonder Ming is confused and nervous about her friendship with Yan.

Too often, in first novels, the author seems to have decided to tell all he has to say, or perish in the attempt. Wu, however, chronicles the evolution of the girls’ relationship with a delicate hand; the reader is subtly made aware of Ming’s gradual awakening (sexual and otherwise), and can only guess, even as Ming does, if there’s a lesbian undertone to the relationship between the girls. The characters’ sexual preferences, however, are but one facet of their multi-dimensional relationship. The author’s control of her subject matter is impressive, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and obsessive passion that youthful friendships can assume without ever rendering Ming’s concerns as self-absorption.

February Flowers does have a few hiccups, the most glaring being a rushed ending that’s very much at odds with the measured pace of the rest of the tale. But the book’s flaws are easily ignored in the face of its many pleasures, including a vivid, insightful picture of the complications and contradictions of China in the nineties. The novel’s ultimate appeal, however, lies in the universality of its themes — the pain and pleasure of growing up, and the discovery of sex and the accompanying wonder and fear; few will not recall their own adolescent pangs while reading these pages.  

****

This review originally appeared in the Asian Review  of Books a while ago. I’m also entering this one for  Color Online’s Color Me Brown Challenge. Color Online is a great blog that  focuses on women writers of color. They have reviews, quizzes and prizes  and  much more…do check them out.

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book , perhaps best known for its Hashish fudge recipe, includes the lines “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire…’” The Book of Salt is the fictional account of the man who answered that advertisement. Binh is the live-in cook at 27 rue de Fleurs—the 1930s Parisian home of Alice B. Toklas and the noted intellectual Gertrude Stein.

Binh is Vietnamese, gay, not fluent in French, not upper-class, not rich, not well-educated; he is the colonized in the land of the colonizer–an outsider in a way that Stein and Toklas, for all their unconventionality, can never quite understand. In Paris, Binh’s identity is reduced to his skin; he is “an Indochinese labourer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same.” The French do not care if he is from Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, for all these countries belong to France, to “the same Monsieur and Madame”. Binh longs to be back in Saigon, where he was, “above all, just a man”, where he would not be perpetually Othered.

The relationship between colonizer and colonized is perhaps ultimately a story of betrayal. The mother country’s claims of its moral and intellectual superiority justify its right to rule—a justification which proves hollow in the face of its treatment of the colonized. Binh, to me, is emblematic of the relationship between France and Vietnam; the betrayal at the national level is mirrored in the life story of this one Vietnamese man. In Saigon, Binh is abandoned by his French lover, following which he leaves for France to find employment as a cook. France, however, never lets him forget that he is a servant. His employers often fire him when they tire of his “exoticism”; Binh of course has little recourse to justice in such situations. And Stein and Toklas, for all their enlightened ways, are often cruel to him, showing more concern for their beloved dogs’ well-being than Binh’s, calling him their “Little Indo-Chinese”, and much more.

Yet Binh is not without agency. The intimate act of cooking and serving food gives him a vantage point in the domestic space of the Stein-Toklas household–an access to the couple that their admirers envy. Food is one of the most overused metaphors in immigrant literature, with the pungent ethnic dish inevitably contrasted against decorous white bread sandwiches, but Binh’s position as cook is essential to the novel rather than a convenient peg for hanging up colourful ethnic differences. But that agency too carries seeds of betrayal within itself; there is no refuge for Binh, at least not in France.

Truong selectively reveals information to construct her complex, whorled tale,   delivering surprise after surprise to the reader in the process. At no point, however, did I feel deliberately manipulated, even though she yanks the rug from under my feet every few pages. The intensity of the protagonist’s voice allows Truong to pull off this authorial chicanery; Binh is so raw and real that we immerse ourselves unquestioningly into his (self-admittedly) unreliable narrative. To apply that overused but admittedly convenient food metaphor, The Book of Salt is a millefeuille of a novel, so intricately layered that it is nothing less than a feat of engineering.

Truong has stated in an interview that while reading Toklas’s book, she felt “…in the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, these “Indo-Chinese” cooks were just a minor footnote. There could be a personal epic embedded inside that footnote, I thought. The Book of Salt is that story…”  It has always seemed to me that the Binhs of our world constitute an essential but ignored part of empire-building; they lurk in margins and in footnotes, waiting to undermine the master narrative, waiting for someone to give them a hearing. Truong’s passionate, beautiful novel makes Binh’s story worth the long wait.

***

I read this book for the OneShot Southeast Asia challenge, which urges readers to step out of their reading comfort zones.  Well, my comfort zone is South Asian fiction, which is of course miles away from Southeast Asian writing.  Thanks to Lisa for the book recommendation, and to Colleen for setting up this challenge.

An Outline of the Republic by Siddhartha Deb

Front CoverThe republic of India is often imagined in the shape of a diamond, with Kashmir and Kerala marking the north and south, and Bombay and Calcutta defining the western and eastern regions respectively. Such a map, however, would be incomplete; north of Calcutta lies a fragile strip of land (no more than twenty miles wide) that connects the Indian ‘mainland’ to the seven hill states of the north-east. Bounded by Burma, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, these states form one of the least-explored regions of the world, and are the setting and subject of Siddhartha Deb’s An Outline of the Republic.

Amrit Singh is a Delhi-educated journalist who works for a sleepy Calcutta newspaper named (inappropriately enough) the Sentinel. Going through the newspaper files, he chances upon a photograph of a young woman being held at gunpoint by two masked men. A note states that the woman is a porn actress killed by a north-eastern rebel group named MORLS, as a warning to those engaging in “corrupt activities.” Posted to the region on a routine assignment for the Sentinel, Amrit decides to privately investigate the photograph, partly out of curiosity and partly because a German acquaintance hints that his magazine in Tubingen will pay well for an article on the picture. The story, Amrit is instructed, must portray “the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph.”

North-eastern India, the reader learns, is rich in oil; the locals, however, have not benefited from the oil wells constructed by the Delhi government. Rebel groups are hence numerous, and have long been fomenting minor trouble, so as to convey their frustration and resentment to the central government. Deb introduces into this real-life scenario the rebel group MORLS (Movement Organized to Resuscitate the Liberation Struggle), which casts itself as a guardian of morality. MORLS’s activities include ordering women to dress modestly, forcing prostitutes to give up their trade, and threatening drug users with violence unless they kick the habit.

An isolated event in a remote location is thus revealed to be no less than a microcosm of the global conflicts of our age. Boundaries and borders—both physical and imagined—are fragile; nothing is one-sided in this novel. The German magazine is guilty of desiring to reduce India to a snappy sound-bite, but Amrit Singh, in search of an easy-to-market story that might grant him financial freedom, is no less culpable. The Delhi government may have suffered under the rule of imperial Britain not long ago, but is now quite content to take advantage of a far-away people in a far-away place.

As Amrit travels to the state of Manipur, and then across the border to Burma in search of his story, reality and illusion begin to blur. The woman in the photograph might not have been a porn actress. She might not be dead. The photograph might have been staged, either by the Indian government to discredit the rebels, or by the rebels themselves, as a warning to the local population. As Amrit goes deep into the region, the difference between the center and the periphery too becomes shadowy—Delhi is no longer the locus, but an unreal and increasingly irrelevant place.

Shades of Heart of Darkness indeed; in fact, An Outline of the Republic is prefaced by a quotation from Conrad “Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” Amrit is always searching for an objective truth, the real story under the layers of narrative, and the novel never veers from the viewpoint of a dispassionate observer.

This self-consciously journalistic tone, however, sometimes leads to the prose taking on an “explaining” note. Manipur is described as having “the highest rate of educated unemployment in the region, rampant drug use, promiscuity, AIDS, and regular violence with government forces as well as ethnic clashes.” Describing the diversity of passengers on a bus, Deb writes that it “felt like a microcosm of the region, indeed of the nation.” At its best, however, the novel is a clear-eyed declaration that nothing less than the truth should do—however complicated and elusive that truth might be. A subtle exploration of identity and conflict, without a whiff of exoticism, An Outline of the Republic is a timely addition not just to writings on India, but to the literature of the peripheries of the world, making the reader question whether ‘far-away’ is perhaps closer than previously imagined.

(This review was one of my earliest published pieces, and appeared in RainTaxi Review of Books. )

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

Your hunt for the most boring Wikipedia entry ever ends now. Type “Yellowknife” in the search box, and you’ll hear the gurgle as the spirit is sucked out of one of the most intriguing cities on the planet.

I mention Wikipedia because most non-Canadian readers of Steve Zipp’s debut novel Yellowknife will in all likelihood want need to look the city up. So, here are some facts about Yellowknife before I begin my review.

First, a map of Canada.  Yellowknife is just above the big black C.

Political Divisions

(This map is available at http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/index.html)

Yellowknife is the capital of the NorthWest Territories. The NorthWest Territories are almost twice the size of France. The population of the NorthWest Territories is about 41,000 people. All together now: Looonely!

In the 1930s, sizable gold deposits were discovered in Yellowknife, leading to a mini gold rush. The rush waned towards the end of the century, but save your sympathy for the Yellowknifers; in the early nineties, the area turned up diamonds. The city now calls itself “The Diamond Capital of North America.”

And in what is possibly the most redundant sentence in Canadian prose, I add that Yellowknife is very cold.

***

Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife is set in the eponymous city in 1998. It’s a delirious read, one that incorporates the region’s history into a truly zany storyline. Endeavoring to describe the plot any further is akin to eating soup with a fork–you get some bits and pieces, but miss the main meal. Picking up my spork: The book features an entomologist who offers his arm for mosquito bait, a conceptual artist who wanders around garbage dumps, a drifter who learns to live off dog food, and about twenty other oddball characters who come together to do their thing in Yellowknife.

And what a city it is, in a region “so remote it’s almost mythical.” A restaurant menu in Yellowknife might include fried ptarmigan, sweet and sour bearpaw, scrambled caribou brains on toast, and detoxified bear liver.  There’s an annual  Caribou Carnival, where activities include tea boiling and log sawing; people sip frosty drinks “in glasses made of ice.” The local newspaper is called the Yellowknife Blade. A posh restaurant accepts diamonds in lieu of cash; waiters carry loupes on their person. Zipp assumes the reader is familiar with the region (or has a huge vocabulary); I for one had to look up “pomarine jaeger” (a sea bird),  mukluks (a type of boot), horsetails (a plant)…you get the idea.  At least I knew   Zamboni, thanks to my years in Canada.

The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing. Zipp quotes from Kafka, Jack London and Bulgakov, amongst others, and his prose is notable as much for its intelligence as its humor. You read it here first: Zipp is blood brother to Tom Robbins.  There are many interesting and erudite passages to showcase; it is purely a function of this reviewer’s base mind that the quoted section deals with sex (or its lack thereof).

Danny the drifter finally has a chance to get it off with the most beautiful woman in our dimension. But then she asks if he has a condom.

The answer was plain on his face. She might as well have been asking for a condominium. “Christ” she muttered and reached for her clothes
“No, wait, I can find something. A plastic bag. A rubber glove.”

No luck. Danny then tries to salvage the situation.

“No problem…I’ll pick some up tomorrow….Do you have a favorite brand?…Any particular color or flavor?”

yellow

If I have one quibble, it is that Yellowknife sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. It’s as though Zipp had a hundred great ideas, and he shoehorned them all into this 286-page book. The resulting read is breathless though manageable, but it gets sticky when it comes to the characters. There are so many appealing dramatis personae vying for the role of protagonist that ultimately, I wasn’t truly invested in any character. Just as I got into Danny’s adventures, bam! a new character squealing “Forget Danny, look at me!” would cavort on the page. I suppose I could have treated the book like the aforementioned soup and just enjoyed whatever came along, but I kept getting distracted, wondering where that tempting piece of pineapple lurked, and if the spongy object I was chewing on was a mushroom or a pellet of Bounty…

It is a sad, sad thing that Zipp’s novel, published by the small press Res Telluris, should languish in obscurity. I do not know the author (apart from exchanging a brief email correspondence regarding the timing of this review) and I have no hesitation in flogging his work in every possible way. Here is the publisher’s website, and here is the author’s blog. Do buy the book. Or, if you must, download it for FREE from the publisher’s site. And don’t forget to send Zipp a mash note asking him to write another novel real soon.

add to del.icio.us :: Digg it :: Stumble It!