Shadows of the past

I’ve never cared much for translated novels. They never quite work for me, because I don’t know whom to credit when I want to quote from the novel. Should I appreciate the original author of the thought or the translator who managed to convey a foreign concept in a language I understood, and in a way I appreciated? Well, that’s why I often conclude it’s better to avoid translated pieces altogether. Although I know by doing so I’d let go of a vast pool of literature, I’d still choose an English novel over the English version of an unknown original. And I held fast to these beliefs until a few weeks ago.

A few weeks ago, I borrowed a hefty book from my friend. Slapped across the cover in bold words was the title of the book: The Shadow of the Wind.

Interesting, I thought as I flipped through the pages without reading any of it. I hadn’t read much in a while, and was desperate to take home the first book I saw. And this book, in fact, seemed like a promising one, too. It wasn’t until after I had got home and gulped down half of my coffee did I realise the book was a translation.

I groaned a little, but read on. The plot unravelled fast enough, and so I want to give up midway.

I’m thankful for that over-caffeinated decision.

Soon after I realised that the story was a translation, my keenness had dropped a few notches. Although the first few pages retained my attention, once I entered the seventh chapter or so, things slowed down a little. In hindsight, this change of pace isn’t out of the ordinary. Many books linger on a slower pace, and the slowest part of this book was still much faster compared to most others. As a reader, I soon left the lag behind and the story picked up its momentum. And from that point forward, until I turned to the last page, I remained hooked—for the lack of a better word.

Not only did the book turn out exciting, but the narrative flowed with such ease that I didn’t even feel like closing the book. It was the first time in a long time that I had wanted to keep on reading, inspite of my initial aversion.

Set in Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy, who finds a book, and finds that its author had a mysterious past. He sets out to solve the mystery, and along the way, discovers how his life entwines with the unknown author’s by total coincidence.

From the book—

“Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

That was the most captivating part of this story. Halfway through the book, I could see the young boy walking the same steps as the person he’s trying to uncover. As a reader, I experienced history repeating itself, and watched in wonderment as two people unrelated and unknown to each other in every imaginable way converged in the same place for the same cause.

To make an otherwise serious narrative light-hearted, the author instigates humour through a vital character. In the way he’s portrayed, the character of Férmin breathes life into our dull protagonist. Every now and then, he amuses the reader with quirky love advice, strewing his speech with abundant wit and nerve. The pair undergoes many adventures, scanning the streets for clues, encountering blows from an evil policeman, and sometimes strolling through alleyways in disguise.

You can’t help but fall in love with the author’s attention to detail. Whether it’s Daniel’s (the hero) father saving up to buy a pen for his son, or a publisher’s employee spending her fortune on the same pen for the man she adored, every character is well-formed and deserving of awe. Each scene is meticulous, and each dialogue reveals the inner most emotions of the character.

In five-hundred pages, the author takes us round and round similar incidents and similar people, but each time, there’s something different and magnetic enough to pull the reader. That’s why I enjoyed every moment of this book, and so would you.

From the book —

“What the flower vendor interpreted as ‘pretty nasty’ was only the intensity that comes to those who, better late than never, have found a purpose in life and are pursuing it to make up for lost time.”

Having said all of that, though, I still don’t know if I like Carlos Ruiz Zofón’s writing or Lucia Graves’s translating. That’s an internal turmoil I’d never disentangle.

Even if you’re not a history buff, a fan of fantasy, or a thrill seeker, you’d still amaze with this book. The Shadow of the Wind is a tale of an avid reader, but it’s also a tale of a novelist, a tale of a book seller, and a tale of a publisher all mingled in one. If you’re a book lover in any form, this one should be on your list next.


Afterthought: This book has so much to talk about that it deserves a part two, too. Coming soon.

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What a poet wants

Now that’s a question worth answering. That’s a question that keeps many a poetry fanatic up all night. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but nevertheless, a poet’s internal conflict gives birth to such pristine work that it’s well worth a trip down to a poet’s thought lane to figure that out.

Well, one poet made it so much easier by writing it down. I came across a poem titled Ars Poetica by Dorothea Lasky. When I saw the title, I rolled my eyes, skeptical. Great, another poet who uses fancy foreign language to convey her meaning. Although I appreciate quirkiness in poetry, I only do so for as long as I understand it. This one, I didn’t. When I searched online, however, I realised that the phrase refers to an ancient treatise on poetry written by Horace. The phrase itself means “The art of poetry” or “On the art of poetry”. That was more than enough to intrigue me. And so I set out to read the poem,

It bagan so,

“I wanted to tell the veterinary assistant about the cat video Jason sent me”

Ok, my mind paused, frowning. For a poem following the old tradition of using Latin terms, that was an unconventional opening line. But it is also an interesting line, because it introduces so many people in so few words. My mind landed on the veterinary assistant who seemed out of place in the world of the poet, Jason, and the cat video. A therapist would’ve been more appropriate, I observed lingering on that first line.

I read further.

“But I resisted for fear she’d think it strange”

Yeah! I raised my eyebrows in agreement.

“I am very lonely”

Oh. I saw now. That made sense to an extent. The cat, the vet, the fear of being ridiculed—they were all justified now.

The poem doesn’t end there, as Lasky goes on to explain more about her life. But those three lines had told me so much more than I had hoped to learn in the first few lines of a poem that stretched for 30 lines.

In the next few lines, the poet describes a telephone call she received from her boyfriend. Yet another character.

And told me that I was no good
Well maybe he didn’t mean that
But that is what I heard
When he told me my life was not worthwhile
And my life’s work the work of the elite.

Ouch. We’ve all been there. While we’re already basking in self-doubt and discomfort of ourselves, someone plucks up the courage to tell it to our face. I could now relate to this poet whose topic of conversation I still wasn’t sure about. But I read on, because from what I’ve read so far, she sounds a lot like me, and I wanted to know how she’d reply to her boyfriend and carry the poem to its conclusion.

Then she talks about what matters the most to her. She accepts to herself what she is, and what she wants from her life.

I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day

Aha, I thought smiling in victory. So, this is nothing but a poet who wants to write poetry for the rest of her life. Now that’s not much to ask.

Or so I miscalculated.

It’s a simple desire. It’s the basic right of any individual to spend their life doing what they yearn for. Regardless, it’s also the most unattainable thing in life: Doing what you love, and doing it long enough without hating yourself or dying of starvation.

This poem is a bundle of mixed emotions and harsh realities. For me, it portrayed the life of every artist who pines to create art. It reflects undeniable truth that makes you smile in sadness as you finish reading the poem.

Here it is in its entirety, if you’re interested:

Ars Poetica — by Dorothea Lasky

I wanted to tell the veterinary assistant about the cat video Jason sent me
But I resisted for fear she’d think it strange
I am very lonely
Yesterday my boyfriend called me, drunk again
And interspersed between ringing tears and clinginess
He screamed at me with a kind of bitterness
No other human had before to my ears
And told me that I was no good
Well maybe he didn’t mean that
But that is what I heard
When he told me my life was not worthwhile
And my life’s work the work of the elite.
I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day
I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,
Write poems in my sleep
Make my dreams poems
Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes
I want my face to be a poem
I have just learned how to apply
Eyeliner to the corners of my eyes to make them appear wide
There is a romantic abandon in me always
I want to feel the dread for others
I can feel it through song
Only through song am I able to sum up so many words into a few
Like when he said I am no good
I am no good
Goodness is not the point anymore
Holding on to things
Now that’s the point

An extreme society, narrated

It’s not the first time that I’ve felt this way. It’s not the first time that a book has taken over my entire soul, twisted it, wrung it, and then left me on the counter struggling to unravel myself. But The Handmaid’s Tale did that a lot harder than the other books I’ve read so far.

The Handmaid's Tale

A few days ago, I wrote about a book that confused me, that left me with so many unidentifiable feelings. I was referring to this one. And now that I’ve finished reading it, I can assert that I’m still lost in an ocean of emotion.

A colleague asked me what this book was about, and it took me more than a few moments of staring behind his ears and then some more into his expecting eyes to reply I didn’t know how to explain it. I don’t.

But what I do know is what I felt reading The Handmaid’s Tale. A close friend recommended the book and I obliged. So even as I flipped the cover I knew I’d like the book. I read through the first few pages, and grew confused with every paragraph I read. Who’s this woman, trapped against her will? And why has she accepted her fate without rebellion? Those were the two questions that popped into my head right at the onset. And they remained unanswered throughout the forty-six chapters of the book.

The story is set in a time and place that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t historic and most characters seemed aware of modern social niceties. Which was good, except for the fact that there was this woman—the protagonist, the narrator—who lived in a closed room much like a prison cell. She had a red uniform and a constant veil over her eyes and head preventing her from looking at others or others from looking at her. She didn’t choose this life, but she didn’t protest against it either. It was her home, and she was a handmaid to a Commander. Her sole duty was to bear children for the Commander, and she had three years to do it. If she failed, she’d be cast aside to a worse fate. A mistress, she says she would’ve been in olden times.

She went to a school where she had to learn to live as a handmaid. She had classmates — other handmaids in training — and yet none of them were young women. They were all middle aged-women, I later learnt, who had led different lives before.

Every page I turned told me something new about this unfamilar world I was venturing into. And the confusion kept me going until all the pieces of the puzzle unravelled before my eyes, leading me to the final few pages — historical notes.

Part of it reminded me of Inception, the movie. A reality and a woman pining for the past. Her past, her life and society of the past is now the reality for me the reader. And so, it felt as if I was reading the life of a woman in the future. But it wasn’t too far into the future because they still had normal television sets and simple cars. It seemed so much to me like the present. Although it was also an alternate reality—no one in their right mind would stifle a woman as a mere container to bear children, at least not in this century.

The further I read, the more I understood what had happened. And that terrified me to the bone. An ordinary woman snatched away from her husband and child, stripped from her ability to live as an independent, and thrust into becoming a utility. And the reasoning: men and women were too busy with their own lives that they didn’t want children anymore. Ha, I mused before my recognition gave way to more terror. That’s what’s happening in our world right now. In the story, birth rates plummeted. In our world, it soon might. In the story, their solution is to force women to give birth. In our world—?

At that moment, I realised that The Handmaid’s Tale could one day become my own. We could walk into a future like that. After all, it’s not unheard of—we’ve seen polygamy in history, maybe that’s the future as well. Maybe, like in the story, we’ll have a bunch of gun-held ruffians walking into a workplace threatening to shoot down the manager unless he dismisses all his women staff. Maybe one day these ruffians would incorporate new laws and bring The Republic of Gilead into existence.

It does seem far-fetched, and even neurotic to an extent, but then again, so’s everything in the news every day.

“Superlative exercise in science,”

Angela Carter calls this book.

It is. In every sense. But it’s also an enjoyable read. I don’t believe that Gilead would one day become a reality, but I do believe that Ms. Atwood has covered the essential mentality of our flippant society. This book will make every woman’s eyes roll in wonder, it’ll inflame her ego and dignity. But it’ll also leave every reader a little scared. It’ll haunt me for the rest of my life, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve read. No regrets.

To parents

Parenting is hard, and I know this because I have great parents. I’ve seen my parents manage to have meat on the table despite struggling to make ends meet. I’ve seen them toil each day just to make my day. I’ve seen them wage battles between them and yet hide them all behind a smile when I enter the room. I’ve seen them go out of their way to keep me comfortable, to provide my needs, to ensure I have my wants, too—even if it put them in an awkward place. I’ve seen them debate over what’s good for me, what’s bad for me, what I should study, where and how I should go to school, how much allowance I’m allowed, how to deal with my adolescent questions, when to have the “alcohol is bad for you” talk. I’ve seen them dabbling in confusion about parenting, and I’ve seen them figure it out. I have great parents.

But they’ve made mistakes, too. It’s easy for me to point out how they should have raised me instead of how they did, but as a child, I’m biased. I’m always going to say that they should’ve let me stay out until 11 PM and let it go if I get home drunk. Not that I’m a “going-out” kind of person, but all children have their own ideas about parenting.

One of the things my mother didn’t do well, is handling my liberties. She forbade certain movies that, when I watched later in life, seemed like nothing to even bother about. She was always over conscious, over protective, over worried that violence in movies would poison my mind. Sometimes it made me hate her—sometimes, I’d wonder why she never trusted me to make the right choices, why she wouldn’t accept that I needed exposure to grow in society.

She always wanted to keep me away from danger—away from the evils of society, to protect me from harassment in public busses, to save me from being mugged in local trains, to help escape cheating boyfriends, to get me through life unscathed and unworried.

She is a great mother.

But I still worry that she’s made me too soft — meek and scared of the great wide world. If I don’t learn the harshness of life, how would I ever face life?

It’s something I think a lot about, something I never stop thinking about.

That’s why I could relate to this poem about parenting. I’m no parent, but as a child I agree with Frank O’Hara. And I think you would, too. Even if you don’t, give this poem a read—it’s got imagery worth your time.

Ave Maria

What is a book to me?

When reading a novel, a short story, or a work of non-fiction, I don’t think about anything other than the story that the words in front of me tell me. I don’t care how the writer felt when they conceived the idea, how they strove to string words with words, how inviting the couch seemed when they had work to do. I don’t think about the trauma, the self-doubt, or the fleeting convictions a writer endures before they even get through the first paragraph of what they’ve imagined as a five hundred-page New York Times bestseller.

Holding a book, caressing the hardcover, flipping over to read the blurb, I’ve never even spared a thought about how a writer looks at their book. Published writers, I found out, have varied perspectives about their books. For some it’s a task — a taxing, yet compulsory process they need to endure to hear themselves speak their minds. For some others, like Anne Bradstreet, it’s like giving birth. I came across her poem where she says what it means to her to write and sell a book.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

It took me a while to understand the depth of her emotions, to appreciate her attitude. She extends the metaphor throughout the poem, addressing her book as a mother addressing her child. She apologises for her maternal instincts, for fussing over her child, for washing its face to make it presentable—for being a mother like any other.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

I had always imagined, if I ever published one, that I’d be happy to put my book out, to let the world see and drop its jaws in awe. But Anne Bradstreet has a different view. She’s sad that she can’t afford a better overcoat for it, she doesn’t want to cast it away and force it to fend for itself. She wants her brainchild to live in grandeur and splendour—all the things a mother wishes for her child.

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.

She’s helpless, a mother struggling to make ends meet, dabbling in poverty, hurting because she’s unable to supply for her child. However, though hesitant, she lets go in the end — because she has to. At last she accepts reality, gives in because the only way for her to live is to send her child out the door.

This is a wonderful poem to read again and again. Here’s the whole of it, if you’re interested.

The Author to Her Book – Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.