This is a Pakistani novel from 1979, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan, but with lots of flashbacks — to a pre-Partition life in India, to Partition and the migration to Pakistan — and dreams going further back still, to India’s First War of Independence.*
The earliest scenes of pre-Partition India are seen, through a child’s eyes, as idyllically multicultural, which makes Partition a sort of fall from grace. Partially that’s just the contrast between the innocence of the child and the cynicism of the adult; but there is a sense reading the book of a great deal of political and ideological energy being expended and great changes being achieved, and none of it making life appreciably better.
Politics aside, it’s just a very well-written novel (hat-tip to Frances W. Pritchett for the translation). As well as the flashbacks, parts of it are in the form of letters, diary entries and dreams. The result is atmospheric and impressionistic, and occasionally confusing, especially for those of us who don’t have the cultural context. But it has a very strong sense of place, a great eye for detail, well-drawn characters and natural-sounding dialogue.
This is the second book from Pakistan I’ve read for the Read The World challenge; I felt I ought to be able to do better than the last one (Kartography by Kamila Shamsie), which was fine but nothing special. Basti is a definite improvement.
An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.
A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.
The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.
A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.
The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.
The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).
It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.
Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.
An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.
It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.
It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.
Is that the coolest headline OF ALL TIME? And yes, it means exactly what it sounds like: ‘Oceans of liquid diamond, filled with solid diamond icebergs, could be floating on Neptune and Uranus, according to a recent article in the journal Nature Physics.’
Sorry for the slight hiatus; it was a combination of the cricket and Dragon Quest: the Chapters of the Chosen. But there’s a pause in the cricket*, so I’ll just quickly round up a few of the things I’ve been to see recently.
Firstly, the big Baroque exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see a few weeks ago and actually closed yesterday. This is exactly the kind of exhibition that the V&A does a superb job with, and I was glad I went, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it because, well, it’s the Baroque. It’s the aesthetic of wealth and power, of an exquisitely crafted, gilded boot stamping on a human face forever. I didn’t warm to it.
There were interesting items and impressive ones, but not many were likeable; almost none triggered the acquisitive itch in me. The slight exception was actually a video reel of Baroque buildings. Craftsmen obviously struggled to capture the grandeur, ambition and megalomania of the Baroque in something like a candlestick or a side-table — although it didn’t stop them trying — but if you’ve got a whole church to work with, or a palace or an opera house, you can produce something magnificent.
And I suppose you can argue that once you’ve got your church or your palace, you need some suitably pompous candlesticks and side-tables to match the decor. I still can’t get excited about going to look at them in a museum.
A more enjoyable exhibition was BM’s Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. These are paintings that are in a style that I associate with Persian miniatures — and of course the Mughals were Persians, more or less — but on a much large scale.
Different Maharajas commissioned different works. The exhibition starts with paintings of court life, mainly represented here as lounging around in the palace garden surrounded by scantily clad women. Then as, we move into scenes from Hindu mythology — some of them looking remarkably like the first paintings except with Shiva sitting in a garden instead of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but others with more dramatic subjects from the Ramayana. And then it shifts into a more esoteric, mystical tradition within Hinduism, with paintings of the creation of the universe from nothingness, spiritual maps of the universe, symbolic maps of the human body with chakras and so on.
The pictures were attractive, never a bad thing, as well as being interesting. And the attempts to represent the unrepresentable were beautiful and more successful (whatever that means) than most Western equivalents I can think of.
I also went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (“now in its 241st year!”). It’s always slightly more enjoyable than I expect; apart from anything else, it’s always interesting to go to an art exhibition where everything has a price marked on it. Vulgar of me, I know. But there’s just so much of it that you’re suffering from fried brain by two thirds of the way through.
*after a heroic win for England at Lord’s, the first time we’ve beaten the Aussies there for 75 years. I could probably find quite a lot to say about the first two matches in the series — that 75-year losing streak is a fascinating subject in itself — but let’s stay on topic.
All About H. Hatterr is a novel I bought after seeing it recommended somewhere — the complete review, I think. It is a modernist novel written in 1948 in a colloquial Indian English laced with bits of slang, Shakespeare, legal jargon and so on. I’m not in a position to judge the relationship between the language of the book and the English of India, but Salman Rushdie is quoted on the back cover:
Hatterr’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language…. This is the ‘babu English,’ the semi-literate, half-learned English of the bazaars, transmuted by erudition, highbrow monkeying around, and the impish magic of Desani’s unique phrasing and rhythm into an entirely new kind of literary voice.
It would be interesting to read the whole article which that comes from, but it’s hidden behind the New Yorker’s pay wall.
The book is narrated by the H. Hatterr of the title, the son of a European merchant seaman and a woman from Burma, raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. It’s anecdotal and episodic in structure; there isn’t, at least for me at first reading, any kind of overarching plot. Picaresque might be a good word for it.
It is somewhat ‘difficult’ — it’s not for people who like their prose plain. But googling around while writing this post I’ve seen it compared to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and it’s certainly not that difficult. The prose is sometimes elaborate and colourful but otherwise fairly conventional: it’s not all stream-of-consciousnessy or anything. And there’s not a great deal of vocabulary from Indian languages. There’s more English public-school slang than there is Hindi.
PRESUMPTION: ‘Kismet’, i.e., fate — if at all anything, and as potent as suspected for centuries — is a dam’ baffling thing!
It defies a feller’s rational: his entire conception as to his soma, pneuma, and psyche!
Why did a feller like me commit matrimony with a femme fatale like Mrs H. Hatterr (née Rialto), the waxed Kiss-curl?
A personal query, but I don’t mind answering…
If only I could!
All I know is that I wanted to raise a family: add to the world’s vital statistics and legitimate: have a niche in the community, for my own kid, to hand out the wager till the end. And since you can’t achieve this without a wife — the neighbours wouldn’t let you! the police wouldn’t let you! — I equipped myself with the blarney-phrases, convinced this female that she was real jam, had me led to the middle aisle and gave the ready ‘I do’ to the amenwallah her brother had hired for the occasion.
This I did, knowing, hell, that between us was all the temperamental difference in the world!
Till death us do part! this museum-piece and I! And that promise — what a stingo! — after a conflict dating back to the donkey’s Sundays!
The female — contrast? — was poles apart: though, between the cur Jenkins, me and the Duke Humphrey, it did seem once that she was going to win my regards for good, by delivering me an heir-presumptive — my own piccolo le fils — to survive me (and be added to the looney-bin). But despite days and days of biological observation and anticipation — the wasted reference to the obstetric table and pre-occupation with the signs of labour — it didn’t come off. (Backed the wrong filly, or, maybe, something the matter with me as create-or!)
You probably have a pretty good idea whether that’s the kind of thing you like. Personally I enjoyed it, stylistically; occasionally there would be a particularly dense paragraph or two and I would glaze over a bit, but more often it was lively and funny.
My only reservation really is the one I have about a lot of these less traditional novels: I think perhaps the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I think people often overstate the importance of plots, but they are at least one way of holding a book together. Still, I’m glad I read it.