Zorba: The unlikeable yet likeable

Zorba

You don’t often come across a book that inspires, confuses, and offends you at the same time. Zorba the Greek did all of that and more to me. Though I’d heard of the title before, I only pursued it because my brother recommended it. He’s not an avid reader, and so since he cherishes it, I guessed I would too.

Through the first few pages, I started to get bored. It seemed like any other fiction — a writer and his friend travelling abroad. It wasn’t clear where they headed or what they intended to do there. My only impetus to keep reading was the hope that a flash of interest would hit me as I turned some page. That page didn’t come for a long time, and I slacked in the mean time. Other priorities came up, and some days I just fell asleep even before opening the book.

It didn’t help that I was reading a misaligned PDF on a digital device. After eight hours at work, the idea of staring at the screen didn’t excite me. Regardless, I snuck in at least an hour on most days. Needless to say, it took me longer to read this than any other book. But that’s not because of these petty situations.

The real reason — I realised later — Zorba took me longer than I’d expected is because Zorba is an idiot. I couldn’t get my head round to like his weird personality that a world of avid readers adore. I hated him. Everything he says seemed to trivialise women, casting them as the weaker sex. He insisted on protecting and respecting a woman, and how when a man does all that, she’d offer herself to him like a slave. As if to prove his point, he takes advantage of a lone woman pining for love. He showers her with praises, gifts, and sweet talk until she falls in love with him and croons for marriage. I felt disgusted. And I couldn’t help but wonder why literature celebrates such an egomaniacal character.

As I read on, however, I realised that he wasn’t bad. Although his speech is fake, his intentions aren’t. As a reader at that point, Zorba’s character evolved so much, displaying an uncanny ability to express love toward the woman he’d seemed to have used. It was only as the story progressed to more aggressive scenes that I understood Zorba reveals his characteristics bit by bit, and it’s almost impossible to assess him midway through the book.

Not only does he express his care for the woman he’d seduced, but he also shows empathy as he fights for and defends another woman who the townsfolk mauled. To me, Zorba then rose from manipulative to compassionate.

While it’s the underlying characteristic I gauged from the narrative, throughout the book Zorba does other little things that hard to hate. Where we speak our mind, Zorba’s unique attraction is that he dances, instead. His playing the santuri, living as if he’d die at any moment, working like a dog, his extensive philosophy of existence—everything of his everyday habits is aspirational to say the least.

“Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside this enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy, mortally feared and hated; the Great Certainty.”

As page after digital page I flipped, I admired Zorba. I still hate that he patronises women and is shameless in thrusting his opinions on others. Regardless, I saw that while Zorba is everything that’s wrong with humankind, he’s also everything that humankind should persevere to become. Not only is Zorba’s character flawed, but it’s also philosophical—a realistic portrayal of human qualities. As I shut the book, I felt as if I’d spent my time in the company of an ordinary human—one who’s good and flawed. In the end I’ve acquired the ability to see through both qualities in Zorba, and still respect him for himself. It’s as if I now can discern the difference between an opinion and the person who holds that opinion. After all, opinions change, people often don’t.

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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.

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.

Nicely saying

Nicely Said

When you’re a copywriter at a corporate, some things you pick up overtime. But even after being on the job for four years, there are still some things that you’d pick up only from far more experienced teachers. This I realised halfway through reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee.

It’s unlike me to read a book titled as such, because I’ve always nurtured a distrust in “how-to” books. This one, however, was a present. It was a present from a few writer friends I hold in high regard. So I decided to keep my mind open and delve into what Nicole and Kate have to say.

“Whether you’re new to web writing or you’re a professional writer looking to deepen your skills, this book is for you.”

That was the blurb of the book, a simple, typical one-line description for so many guide books that often fall short of their expectations. It seemed far-fetched, as if anyone could tell anyone else how best to write copy for the web when no one—including the web readers—knows what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no one way to write. There’s no right way, perfect way, or a way that makes the most impact. Writing is a variable in every sense. The audience varies, the style does, and so does the purpose. How then, could anyone pinpoint one perfect method?

Many books assert that they’ve figured out the one greatest way of writing. This book doesn’t.

The book doesn’t say what to write, but it says how to go abut thinking about what to write. And that’s where this book stands apart from the rest of the sheep. The authors illustrate the process of writing for the web, using an example throughout the book so that’s easier to follow.

They ask some important questions. Who would write for the web? Possible answers include, bloggers trying to hone their writing, freelancers selling their services, and copywriters employed in business. Though they all have different targets of varying complexity, all categories have one thing in common: the medium they choose to write in. When writing for the web, clarity matters, because no matter who the audience is, they’re always on the verge of closing a tab, impatient to move on to the next tab.
In such a situation, Nicole and Kate say how a writer should focus on delivering their message.

As a copywriter in business, I’ve always followed a similar principle: tell readers who we are, what we do, and how we could help them. Then add a section explaining why they (as buyers) should choose us over our competition. That’s the template—a fool-proof guide to writing About pages and sometimes even landing pages.

But this book made me think further: we tell readers who we are, but we also need to tell them who we are not. That doesn’t come from words, but from tone. For example, we’re professional, but we’re not against good puns. We are consistent, but we don’t spam your inbox with ten emails a day. We’re serious, but we don’t hate contractions. All these come from the way we write our copy, not from what we write in our copy.

Those are the kind of lessons that Nicely Said outlines. The book doesn’t come right out of the dark to illuminate magical truths and best practices, but it narrates the minute things that we often miss when writing for the web. The little things that matter, the finer aspects of helping the reader understand our message a couple of seconds faster, of respecting the reader’s time, of being a good host to website visitors—these are a few of the things that make a good copywriter. And the advice this book contains suits anyone, even those who only write Facebook statuses.

Give this book a shot. Chances are, you’ll cherish it as much as you’d a dictionary. I do.