Archive for November, 2006

The Portrait

Posted in Action / Thriller on November 29, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Do you see the coldness I have put in around your eyes? The cruelty of the mouth, the calculation of the chin? The background is entirely dark, for there has never been anyone in the world but yourself.

A short, taut, cerebral thriller. A monologue, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes laced with real menace. The story and characters grow out of the nature of painting. I loved the way in which Pears simultaneously reveals the characters along with the progression of the portrait – both take shape simultaneously! A multilayered examination of an ego-driven man, a critic, and an examination of the art critic’s role as opposed to the artist’s creativity.

Henry MacAlpine, a poor Scottish painter has it made as a portraitist in early 20th century London. After years of suffering from the vitriolic William Nasmyth, an implacable, heartless art critic, MacAlpine has the chance to paint his portrait at the artist’s home on a remote island in Brittany. The two men are polar opposites in background and character, but their lives have been interwoven. Each has cheated the other, and betrayals loom large in their relationship. Nasmyth has tried to crush the spirit of a fragile-seeming woman painter whom MacAlpine tried to befriend when she was a fellow student in Paris. As The Portrait takes shape, Henry MacAlpine tells his friend and erstwhile mentor his reasons for leaving London for exile in remote Brittany and what will bring him back.

I need no models now; I haven’t painted any woman under forty for some time. They guard their womenfolk carefully here, and it is a small island. Besides, I don’t find all these lacy coifs particularly appealing, and they don’t go about with their heads uncovered. Nor, for the most part, are they particularly appealing subjects, unless you like to paint weather-beaten faces and the effects of back-breaking work or scant food. Not the sort of subject matter that usually appeals, and they are not open-faced; you would have to know them much better to penetrate their minds and turn them into something worth looking at. Still, beauty can flourish in even the most inhospitable terrain. There is one girl I would love to paint; she has the eyes of the devil. But we have done no more than exchange glances over an expanse of church. I fascinate her, I know. I am to her what you were for me: a new world, full of opportunities, offering everything she wants and cannot win by herself unaided. She wants to leave this island, to see and be different things. She dreams at night of what it must be like, to be something other than she is. She longs for freedom, and is hated for it by many on this island. Her desires have made her difficult and unsympathetic. It will eat away at that beauty soon enough.

If I intervened, her fate would change: whatever happened, she would go, would not marry the honest fisherman who is her destiny, would not be aged before her time by hardship and pregnancy. Lord only knows how she would end up. But high or low, part of her wants to take the chance, to roll the dice. Anything but what is mapped out for her here. If only I would force her hand. Goodness, I see the temptation! But I won’t; it is not for me to change her future. All she has to do is get on the boat and not come back. It’s simple. If you can change someone’s life you have a responsibility to them forever; it is a heavy burden which you must not shirk. Do you not agree, William?

I have painted one portrait, though. Still life might be a better term. It’s unfinished, like most of my work these days. But not through laziness; it cannot be completed. About a year ago, a boy was washed up at the place called Treac’h Salus, a fine sandy beach, about twenty minutes’ walk from here. No-one knew who he was; not from this island certainly. Perhaps he’d been swept off a fishing boat in a storm the week before, but no-one had heard of such a thing. Perhaps he was a cabin boy on one of the passing steam ships, a stowaway, even. Enquiries were made, but he came from the sea—that was all anyone ever discovered. Those who know such things thought he’d been in the water a week or so, not much longer. I was having a morning walk when I saw the small group of islanders gathered around him in the distance; there was something calm, reverential, about their pose; they were praying. You remember Millet’s Angelus? The way the woman’s head inclines to the ground, the way the man fiddles nervously with his hat, both lost in thought? The intensity of prayer depicted so simply and effectively?

My curiosity disturbed them as I approached over the sand, but I could not keep away; I needed to see what was producing that perfect pose. My reaction was quite different to theirs. They were reflective; I was fascinated. They were resigned; I was excited, stimulated. The brilliant colours of decay, the complex bundle of angles and curves on the twisted body, half-eaten and swollen. The green tint, reflecting purple and red in the sun that crept over an exposed leg, so recently young and strong. The way the majesty of the human form, God’s image, could be reduced so easily by the sea to the obscene and grotesque. And the eye—one only, for the other had been eaten out of its socket. One eye was preserved, a pale sky blue shining like hope in that jumble of mouldy, stinking carcass. It still had personality and life, something which seemed almost amused by its predicament. And not fearful or distressed; perfectly calm, almost serene. An echo of the soul which survived despite everything that had happened. I could see it watching me, seeing how I would react.

Haunting. Literally so, because I could think of nothing else for days; I felt I knew it, had seen it looking at me before. I came back in the afternoon with a sketchbook, but the disapproval would have been so intense it wasn’t worth trying to settle down. And for some reason I could not draw it properly without actually being there. All I could get down was that eye, which drowned out the rest of the scene like a brilliant light in the darkness. Even though the image was fixed in my mind, the composition just so, the rest of the boy kept slipping away from me.



Wise Fools

Posted in Uncategorized on November 28, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

He is what they would call a light-hearted writer. And since being light-hearted is far more difficult than being serious or profound, he gets away with stating all sorts of unpalatable truths in a charming manner.

The House of the Scorpion

Posted in SF on November 27, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

 Six years old Matteo Alacran has spent his short life in a small cottage with only a nurse, Celia, and the television for company, and occasional visits from a doctor. He longs to be able to play with the children he sees outside his windows. One day, when some children come close enough to talk to him, he injures himself by jumping out of the window. He is rushed to the Big House, where he is kept as a prisoner in a small room and where he is sometimes visited and often tormented by the other children.

Matt gradually finds out that he is a clone, a genetic copy of El Patron, the 142 year old ruler of the country of Opium, a small strip of land between the United States and what was formerly Mexico but is now called Aztlan. When people try to cross the border from Aztlan to the United States, they are caught by the Farm Patrol and put to work on the opium farms, with chips implanted in their brains so they will be obedient workers, or “eejits”.

Opium sells drugs to countries other than the United States and Aztlan and solves their problems with illegal aliens for them. Clones are normally rendered mentally disabled at birth and are used for spare parts by the rich and powerful. But El Patron feeds his vanity by watching Matt grow up. As El Patron’s clone Matt is provided with an education, music lessons, and a kind but gruff bodyguard named Tam Lin.

Celia, Tam Lin and the child Maria offer him caring, but most others scorn him. He is a clone, less even than the eejits who harvest El Patron’s opium. When Matt is 14, El Patron suddenly collapses, and Matt finally realizes that the old man needs his heart to stay alive. Matt makes a daring escape to Aztlan, but is captured and put into a slave labor camp for orphans. How he escapes and brings freedom to Aztlan forms the satisfying conclusion to this book.

It is a thought-provoking novel which deals with issues like cloning, the value of human life, the importance of responsibility and friendship, and the question of how to make social structures work for all the layers within society.

Difficult books

Posted in Uncategorized on November 23, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.

Flannery O’Connor

Brahma’s Dream

Posted in India / Indian on November 10, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Started out with high ecpectations from Shree Ghatage’s debut novel. However, Brahma’s Dream turned out to be one of the most tedious and awful books I have read. After the first three pages, you know that this is going to be about the protagonist dying. And good luck trying to find anything worthwhile from there.

Mohini is born with Cooley’s anemia, and lives with terrible agony and weekly blood transfusions in the palatial Koleshwar Nivas. The time is 1947, and Independent India. He r family is comprised of the patriarch, Vishnupant, retired professor in the act of writing a book on Indian history. Then there are the long suffering parents, Keshav and Kamala, a strange old widow, Bayabai, and assorted relatives in the vicinity, chiefly Vasanti – another widow – and a few servants.

After wading through the horrible agony of Mohini’s infections, it is mentioned that communal riots between Hindus and Muslims are in force during the Partition. Kamala, in a feat of amazing heroism and defiance of Bayabai, hires a Muslim boy from the neighborhood Irani bakery to sweep the Brahmin house – not the pooja room or the kitchen, of course.

The next cataclysm that is mentioned is Gandhiji’s assassination. After the first reaction, naturally, “was it a Muslim?”, it is established that Nathuram Godse was actually a “Chitpawan Brahmin”, presumably the community the author belongs to, because a couple of incidents are described in some detail how there was some harrassment of the Brahmin community after the Mahatma’s death. Mohini’s father has an affair, a cousin gets married, the servant gets married, Vasanti outlines the reasons why she thinks she isn’t a widow but was deserted by her husband. Then Mohini has a terminal fall in the toilet and expires soon after.

The title is derived from a theological theory that Vishnupant puts forth to advocate stoicism, that the material world is nothing but a dream that Brahma is dreaming. It is effectively shattered when Mohini whispers the most powerful statement in the entire saga, “If all this is Brahma’s dream, then why is He having such nightmares?” It is beyond Ghatage’s ability to justify the theory, or defend it. Indeed, Mohini’s suffering seems pointless.

None of the characters grow – they are one dimensional. Worse, they are Bollywood stereotypes. The angelic mother. The caring but gruff father. The benevolent, strict grandfather. The widow who shaves her head and will not sleep except on the bare floor. And Mohini, whose dying words in tune with nauseating tearjerkers are “Sorry for all the trouble I have caused.”

Perhaps the worst is that it is hypocritical. Is it possible that not only Mohini’s parents, but friends, neighbors and relatives are all so caring about her? Can even a mother be so saintly when burdened by the care of a terminally ill child? All the time? Gatage would like us to believe that Mohini’s care took a toll on Kamala and Keshav’s relationship, and drove him to have an affair. But later, Keshav tells that it was a one time lapse.

Three people hide on the roof to escape rioting and possible violence after Gandhiji’s assassination. When Vishnupant discovers them in the morning, his reaction is positively bizzare. He does not acknowledge their predicament at all, is cold to them, and we are to believe that it is because his rigid morning routine has been disturbed.

Much could have been done to define the post-Independence Hindu Muslim equation through Mohini’s relationship with Gulam, but it was left undefined and unexplored.

Perhaps Ghatage tried to show that a group or community – the RSS – existed who were violently opposed to Gandhi’s politics, but she did not present this with conviction. The saccharine responses by the characters to Mohini’s condition ensures that this novel fails as a personal saga. It fails as a political one because of the wishy-washy tone in which she presents the RSS’ ideological opposition to Gandhi. [Rather, she fails to present it.] And it is a failure as a theological one.

Instead, Brahma’s Dream bumbles along in a monotony of dull suffering. An overweening reviewer in the Montreal Gazette speaks of Ghatage in the same breath as Rohinton Mistry on the blurb. She can barely reach the playful foothills of Anosh Irani, let alone scale the lofty heights of Mount Mistry.

Snow Man

Posted in Translation, World on November 8, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

This novel tries to be too clever by half, and falls amazingly short. The narrator, a writer, writes in first person narrative about leaving his war-torn country and arrives in a Canadian university for a new position. The story ends in a snowstorm, in which the author dies. Between these two facts, one totally loses grip on this story.

For the narrator, everything in his new environment is strange, and he moves around in perpetual dislocation and alienation from everything and everyone around him. Is it the war back home or his personal traumas? Or is it the shock of having to leave home and flee as a refugee that has caused this fracture from reality? David Albahari [or is it the translator  Ellen Elias-Bursac?] has failed to draw an universal experience from this particular situation. This loss of meaning and reality could well be the ramblings of a lunatic instead of reflection on the tragedy of war.

There are page-long sentences, which totally lose the thread from beginning to end, and everything ends up looking like gibberish. And in places, it is vice-versa. A save-worthy quote from this untenable volume:

…I should have told him how much I despise the university… It’s not so much as the university as such, I thought, as it is the belief in education, in a system of learning that, supposedly, allows a person to see things more clearly than anyone can from outside that system; in other words, I hated faith in every system, especially faith in anyone preaching that there is nothing that can’t be learned, even writing, or any art form for that matter, as if writing, indeed any art form, is actually a science, a collection of definitions, equations and negations. I will go to the dean, I thought, and tell him that I cannot stay, not because of him, of course, I will make this clear, but because faith in education, especially when it is art that is being taught, implies a lack of faith in art itself, in the stuff from which art is made: from the void between words, from the silence between sounds, from white spaces between images.

Stacks Winter Challenge

Posted in Uncategorized on November 5, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Thank you, Lotus, for the alert on Stacks Winter Challenge. You seem to be the one fated to draw me into posting memes and joining contests, and I cannot thank you enough for introducing me to a wonderful and vibrant literary community.


My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

Inventory – Dionne Brand

An Equal Music – Vikram Seth