Tag Archives: politics

The Lives of Others (2014) – Neel MUKHERJEE

Only three Indian novels have won the Booker, and two of them (which won in the last decade), are small-scale family dramas. While Mukherjee is continuing the trend of Indian family dramas appearing in Booker lists, this is not a small novel. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of big books. I must confess, this is because I tend to find them offputting. Committing yourself to anything over 500 pages requires an act of great faith in an author, and I can’t think of many that I trust that implicitly. However, in an attempt to get over this, I pulled Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others off the shelf.

Although I was aware of the Naxalites before reading this, I certainly wasn’t aware of the horrific acts of violence they undertook the name of progress and ideology. What is perhaps even more galling is the fact that so many of them—Supratik included—are not part of the poor, disenfranchised they are supposed to be lifting out of poverty. They are simply spoiled middle-class boys who think going around to villages causing trouble will be a laugh. Like all bull-headed twenty-somethings obsessed with ideology over the real world, they think what they are doing is right and just, even though they are, in fact, upsetting delicately balanced relationships (that, granted, should be upset), an action that eventually devolves into murder. These are not heroes to be worshipped—they are garden-variety terrorists that should be stopped.

And yet, the punishment that is eventually meted out to Supratik is brutal. The physical and emotional torture he faces at the hands of the police after his arrest is cruelty of the highest order, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s a testament to Mukherjee that he made me sympathise with Supartik near the end.

Parallel to this (so parallel, in fact, it often seems like it is taking place in a parallel universe) is the rather charming story of the Ghoshes—a middle-class family on the verge of falling apart. As their accumulated wealth slowly trickles from their hands, cracks in the already tense familial relationships begin to appear. Some of these scenes are the best in the novel—Mukherjee has a talent for finding the worst in people, and still ensuring that we care about them. Each time we return to family life, we follow a different member of the family, struggling to find their own place in a family creaking with history and expectation. Though their actions may adversely affect others, when we are with them, we are with them all the way.

Despite some structural issues, as well as slightly confusing/slow start, The Lives of Others has a lot to offer. The two competing storylines are both important, and while it might have made more sense to separate them out, allowing them to run simultaneously allows Mukherjee to remind us that, while huge political shifts are happening, human nature tends towards ignoring it unless it has a direct influence on you. Recommended.

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The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel KUSHNER

As I continue my (very selective) quest to check out this year’s Folio Prize shortlist, I find myself up against a wall of Yanks. The Flamethrowers is one of five American books on the eight-strong shortlist—hopefully not a sign of what is to come in this year’s Booker). In any case, I opened it hoping the rave reviews I’d read were reflective of the book itself.

Moving to New York to chase a boy and a dream, Reno finds herself caught up in a life like nothing she has ever seen before. Rapidly swept up by events beyond her control, she finds herself travelling the world in a time when political upheaval means no one is safe.

I wrote last week about another shortlisted novel that managed to balance substance and style in a way that felt compelling and real. Unfortunately, coming to The Flamethrowers was something of a let-down. It feels like it wants to be a big, important novel. Certainly it seems to be doing everything in its power to breakdown the stereotypes of books usually ascribed to female authors—there is no doubting this is big, bold and political in intent.

Ostensibly the largest problem with the novel, though, is a structural one—we jump around from place to place, leaving the reader confused and isolated. Instead of taking the time to engender an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, Kushner gets sidetracked by all the historical events and movements she is so clearly fascinated with. There’s no mistaking that many of these events are fascinating in their own right—the 70s was a time of huge political upheaval in both the US and Italy—but by trying to crowbar all of them into one novel has the effect of diluting the potency of each one. Instead of tying them all into one grand narrative, they come off as disparate and monotonous.

These kinds of widescreen novels can be saved if the common thread between narrative strands is strong. Unfortunately, the strand in The Flamethrowers—our protagonist, Reno—is not. She often comes across as nothing more than a tool to allow Kushner to explore the times and places that interest her, rather than a real person. Her seeming inability to react to anything that happens to her (and, to be fair, quite a lot does happen to her) opens a distance between character and writer that so often spells doom for a novel.

The Flamethrowers is not a bad book, but it does feel like a lot of what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction has been shoved into it: sweeping temporal and spatial settings that make it hard to get a grip on anyone or anything; characters that devolve into caricatures; and a tone that comes off as self-important. Check it out if you’re interested in 1970s Italian political history—otherwise, it’s a long, meandering ride.

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The Swan Book (2013) – Alexis WRIGHT

It’s been six years since Alexis Wright’s last novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, a sprawling novel about the north of Australia. The Swan Book sees Wright return to similar themes, but in a setting quite unlike anything else ever seen in Australian literature.

The world has been ruined by climate change. In the north of Australia, one group of Indigenous Australians has been granted self-determination, and created a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One young girl, Oblivia, lives in a shipwreck in the bay with an old white woman. One young boy, Warren Finch, has been anointed by the elders to be the vessel of their future. As their lives begin to intertwine in ways Oblivia could never have imagined, the fate of the Australian nation could be in their hands.

The Swan Book is postmodernism at its finest. Wright has no qualms about mixing high and low culture, or about placing European, Asian and Indigenous mythology on the same level. A quick glance at the quotation list at the end of the novel shows sources as varied as Auden, Wordsworth, Paterson, Goswami and Ch’i-chi. These quotes and references are weaved into the text seamlessly, never feeling forced or tokenistic. While mainstream Australian literature can often feel parochial and inward-focussed, Wright proves that Australian writers can mix with the best when it comes to internationality.

There can be no questioning, though, that this is Australian writing—indeed, Indigenous Australian writing. If you’ll forgive my getting theoretical here for a moment: postcolonial theory suggests that when colonised groups write in the language of the colonised, they are reclaiming the centre. They take back the power taken from them by the destruction of their language and culture by appropriating it for their own stories with their own language and words.

Wright has certainly reclaimed the centre in this novel. It is a blistering critique of almost every piece of legislation and policy aimed at Indigenous Australia in perhaps the entirety of Australian history. Nothing is safe from Wright’s keen view, from the Stolen Generation to the ultra-politically-correct language of the bureaucracy. Blame for the state of Indigenous Australia in this time is laid squarely at the feet of the white settlers. Make no mistake—this is at least as much political protest as it is piece of art.

And even though this novel is set in the future, where an Indigenous man, a man who is a world leader when it comes to minority rights and environmental policy, is one step away from becoming Australia’s Head of State, the sharp divide between Indigenous communities in outback Australia remains as stark as it is now. Wright does not see traditional power structures as a way for Indigenous Australian to solve their problems.

There is no one—in Australian or international literature—who writes quite like Alexis Wright does. After the success of Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, The Swan Book cements her claim to being one of the great writers of our time. Imagination is easy, but to be able to couple it with a socially and politically relevant argument to create a cohesive, enthralling and beautiful piece of art is a talent few others have.

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Your Republic is Calling You (2006) – Young-ha KIM

Having read Shin Kyun-sook’s rather excellent Please Look After Mother earlier in the year, I was keen to get my hands on some more modern Korean literature. This novel kept coming up in suggested reading lists, and its high concept starting point fascinated me – what happens when a North Korean sleeper agent living in modern Seoul is given the order to return to his rather less enticing homeland?

When Ki-yong receives a coded e-mail at work one morning, he realises that the dream is over. Sent to Seoul twenty years ago from Pyongyang as a sleeper agent, he has finally been given the order to return home. Why, though? No one has contacted him for years, and he has built a family with his wife and teenage daughter, rooting him to his current life. In the space of one day, Ki-yong must decide what he wants to do – stay, and betray his family, or go, and betray his homeland.

This is a fantastic concept for a novel. I’m impressed it’s taken this long for anyone to tackle it. The Korean Peninsula has a fascinating modern history, and for someone to actually talk about it as frankly as Kim does is quite impressive, particularly given the rather frosty official relation between the North and the South. An, unless I’m very much mistaken, Korea is now the only divided country in the world – both Germany and Vietnam have reunified – which means this novel couldn’t exists outside of this language. I always feel a little pretentious and ridiculous reading translated fiction, but here, it’s completely justified.

It’s an interesting conundrum that Ki-yong faces. For a start, he cannot be sure that the message he has received is legitimate. No one has contacted him for twenty years, not after his original mission was carried out, and so at first he is confused and wary. As it dawns on him, though, that the message is real – and indeed, the consequences of him ignoring the message are just as bad as him being discovered by Southern intelligence – he has to fully consider what it is that he wants. Either way, he is screwed – stay in the South, and probably be killed by Northern intelligence for disobeying the order, or return to a life in the North that is far less materially fulfilling than that of the South.

We also get POV chapters from Ki-yong’s wife, Ma-ri, and his teenage daughter, Hyon-mi. While they somewhat muddy the narrative with seemingly disconnected events, the day these two characters has is just as interesting. Ma-ri, in particular, is a fascinating character. Her affair with a young university student seems, at first, fairly harmless (well, as harmless as an affair can be), but when we discover that the thing he’s been persuading her to try all day is a threesome with his best friend, everything gets a little bit weird. She eventually consents, and what follows is perhaps one of the most awkward and uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve ever read. Truly, truly weird. Hyon-mi’s day, on the other hand, is rather humdrum, trying to navigate her way around a typical day at school, complete with bullies and gossip. Her sections do tend to drag, and take away from the main thrust of the novel. There is a sense from these two characters that the traditional Korea of old is well and truly gone, and the vices of the modern globalised world have arrived in Korea, and are here to stay.

I want to talk about the ending, because this book’s ending – the decision Ki-yong comes to – is the event around which the rest of the novel is based, so I can’t not. And if you want to read the book (and I strongly suggest you do), then you don’t want to know the ending.

As such: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. I don’t think there was a way for Kim to have Ki-yong decide to do anything other than choose his life in the South. Partially because he is South Korean, and there’s no way he’d be advocating anyone’s return to the North, but also because of the construction of the novel. In literary terms, we are again and again reminded of the fact that Ki-yong’s life in the North was bad, not just materially, but also psychically. His mother, in particular, becomes this symbol of repression and madness that seems to encapsulate what happens to normal people in the most ridiculous of all modern regimes. She is pitiable, and indeed pitiful, but the fact that it is Ki-yong who discovers her suicide drives this point home.

SPOILERS OVER.

Kudos, too, to Kim for making Ki-yong’s cover job a foreign film importer. The subtle dig at Kim Jong-il’s obsession with the film industry is a nice touch.

Your Republic is Calling You is a book that demands to be read. Set against a very specific cultural background, it deals with questions of identity in quite a complicated way. In many ways, this is a nature versus nurture debate – for Ki-yong, what will win out? His Northern upbringing, or the life he has come to lead in the South? There are complex questions being asked here, and while the answers may not be what one wants to hear, there’s a lot to take away.

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