Saturday, 26 July 2014

The In Between World of Vikram Lall


M.G. Vassanji

ISBN: 10-1-4000-7565-0

When I first picked this book up, I was expecting...I don’t know what really, but it certainly wasn’t what I got! It is one of the most avid reads I have had for a long time. Perhaps it is because it uses, as its backdrop, a period of history, recent enough for me to have been alive for, of which I had no information about before reading this tale. Only occasional words and phrases, ‘Mau Mau’ for example, had entered my world of knowledge, but I had no context in which to place it. But I must make clear from the outset, this is not a book about them, it is not a book of blood and guts, and explicit terror, but more about the consequences of the changes that were happening in Kenya, during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.      

The main protagonist, Vik, is telling us the story of his life, justifying his status as the most hated man in Kenya, on the most wanted list, with African hit men on the lookout for him. This makes him sound like a hardened baddie, but he isn’t, just a victim of circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting the wrong people. I’ve just made it sound like a thriller, or a crime mystery, which it definitely is not. The criminal status is a backdrop for the story of his and his family’s life.

The story begins with his childhood, he and his sister from Indian stock, but Kenyan by birth, and their forged friendships with an African servant boy, and a pair of English children. As the Mau Mau terror period looms and erupts, the children’s lives and futures are forever changed and we follow each life to its present day conditions. We are taken through the revolution and the fledging birth of the new country, and explore how each community fares. Indians will suddenly lose their property and wealth, the Mau Mau fighters are let down on the governments promises, and the government is as corrupt as before any changes. The narrative resists the changes to this modern way of thinking, when we are with  Vik’s parents, who insist still on arranged marriages with one’s own culture, and the narrative will forge ahead with changes when we spend time with Deepa, Vik’s sister. Njoroge, the childhood servant boy adds yet another layer in the interwoven lives of all the characters. A certain amount of predictability creeps into the love story aspect of this tale, although that is blown apart on the very last page. I will resist a spoiler, but I did find the ending a little odd, considering the text, the narrator and the end. Those who read this tale will understand.

I found myself there, in Kenya, with the characters from the very beginning. The writing that absorbs the reader into the page and the atmosphere is excellent. I could smell the street, hear the sounds of the jungle and see the vistas of the Rift valley. Vassanji is a first class wordsmith, and I am very pleased to have had the pleasure of finding this book, in a second hand bookshop in Nova Scotia, Canada.    

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Silent House
Orhan Pamuk

ISBN: 978-0-571-27592-2

Set in the 1980’s pre revolution Turkey, Pamuk takes us off to a small seaside town, to a house that is in a state of disrepair, wherein lives a ninety year old grandmother, looked after by her dwarf servant, who is the illegitimate son for her deceased husband, and the  grandchildren are on the way to celebrate her birthday. Sounds simple enough? Well, it is, but...

The story is told in the first person, with each character moving the story along, explaining their role in the family, their hopes and aspirations and some even have a goal in life. We meet the dwarf, who knows nothing more than to serve his mistress; she suspicious of everyone and spending her time with her memories and her past. The younger generation who visit include one who is aiming for a better life in America, one who’s wife has left him when his drinking became too much of an issue, and a young lady veering her political thoughts towards communism.  So, for very different reasons, they all agree that Grandmother should give up the house and the proceeds should be allocated accordingly. But will it work? Can they convince the elderly lady to retire to a care home? That’s the face value premise and plot of the tale. As will all Pamuk’s work, there is an underlying threat and dark, parallel subtexts will draw you into a world that is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

It is a very pedestrian work, slowly ambling along, seemingly going nowhere but giving us an in depth knowledge of each character. But as we stroll though this quaint seaside setting, small telltale signs alert us to rumblings and discontent; guards on the beach, demanding payment for sitting and sunbathing, a small time protection racket going on against the shopkeepers by the angry youth of the town.  So we are drawn in. Certainly for me, I found myself changing my opinion of each character as they went through the tale, and I think we were meant to have that change of heart. Some of the characters find the same about each other, in the same way. I am not one for giving spoilers, so I have no intention of giving anything away, but I was initially disappointed when the climax came and I was taken completely by surprise. Immediately afterwards, the story became as pedestrian s it was before the ‘event’. It is only on reflection that I can now appreciate the how and why the author did this.

As with all his work, you will get sucked into his setting, the world he wants you to inhabit and observe. The quality of the text is superb, the descriptive narrative has you exactly where he wants you to be. Because it is a slow burner, you will need patience to get stuck in, I’m afraid there is no horrific crime to report on the first few pages. What you will gt though, as you close the book for the last time, is an understanding of Turkey at the time when revolutionary thoughts were beginning to enter the heads of the new generation.    

Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Land without Jasmine
Ajdi Muhammad Abduh al-Ahdal

ISBN 978-1-85964-312-9

This short story, from the Yemen is a tale that can be read in one sitting; indeed it probably should be to get the full effect of the moral. It is told in the first person, however, that person changes dependent on the stage of the story. We hear from that person only once, each time moving the story of the missing girl on, or not.
The story begins with the twenty year old girl telling us what life is like for her in modern day Yemen. The narrative tells of the way of life in the country, the differences between the lives of men and women and briefly explores the interaction between the old Yemen and modern ways of life. But, the girl is to disappear...

Enter the detective, eager at first to explain the disappearance, but has to work in the face of the girl’s male family members, all carrying machine guns and threatening to take the law (the old law that is) into their own hands. We meet the shopkeeper from across the road, who spends time ogling the young girls, the lecturer from the college who openly admits to leering and intimidating his female students; and we meet the young boy, implicated by the fact that he loved his next door neighbour and followed her wherever she went. As the story, and time moves on, the family deal with her loss in different ways, and we hear from the father, who will kill his daughter if she has allowed herself to be defiled by kidnappers or rapists, to mother, who is not permitted to openly express her fears, horror and grief.

The ending of the story portrays the stark differences between Yemen and countries I am familiar with. I’m not going to put a spoiler in, but it did make me wonder if firstly, imagination of the writer has taken a step too far, or if the process of moving on was still something that happened in the modern day country. I m at no stage saying it’s a good or bad process, just one I have never encountered before.
This tale is written in an unemotional, stark way, but the narrative is alive with emotion, fear, hope despair and anger. The writing is taut, barely a wasted word; each sentence serves to move the story along, or tell the reader something about past or present Yemen. There is a clever talent that can look into the inner thoughts of a young lady and then switch, successfully, to the workings of a parent, policeman, soothsayer, young boy and Imam, all with the same depth of character. All this can be found in a book that will take no more than a couple of hours to read.

I do recommend this story; so put aside your prejudices, your preconceived ideas of this part of the world, and prepare to have your knowledge base broadened.