The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

(First published 2014)

Typical of Kureishi’s style, but not as good and interesting as his last novel (Something To Tell You), this is a tempestuous story of a literary novelist (Mamoon Azam), an Indian immigrant who moves to England as a student, who commissions a young writer (Harry) to write his biography. In old age, and with struggling book sales and depleting income, the septuagenarian novelist sees his biography as a good publicity stunt and to come full circle with ‘the last word’.

A game of wits ensues: finely-crafted and hilarious series of incidents that see the novelist resisting the biographer’s piercing questions, interviews he’s always evading, withholding vital information, not wanting the curtain of secrecy to lift from his past, and basically requiring the biographer to write a loud paean hailing the great services the novelist has rendered to the post-colonial literature.

Things begin to fall apart when the biographer insists on interviewing a lover of the novelist whom he’d dumped for an Italian fashionista. The biographer is put through a lot of mental pressures, but he comes out with the book when the novelist suffers multiple strokes and goes bedridden, but at the cost of losing his partner and mother of his twins to the dying novelist’s amorous advancements.

It’s a dark satire of the modern literary world, its penchant for showering plaudits on writers who can be best described as mediocrities, of the necessities of the publishing business, and duping the public with what’s worthwhile and that what is not. The narrative also critiques the faux halo of superiority around great writers: they are normal people like us, not necessarily more intelligent than non-writers, but certainly special as ‘word-masters’, but despite all, they have the same fears and desires like the rest of us.

But I have to say, Kureishi’s characters are perfect examples of a Freudian world in which everyone responds to their libido in a freewheeling, uninhibited way. In fact, a person’s life trajectory is dictated by their privates. Fidelity is not possible, no one is happy with their spouses or partners for long, and there comes inevitable infidelity, adultery, and sexual depravity – an unavoidable reality that is much challenged and condemned by our social mores, albeit unsuccessfully.

Kureishi expends a lot of space pontificating on the relationship between love and desire and whether both are compatible. It seems they are not, if honesty be made the judge.

Filled with piercing insights, loaded with cleverly-crafted sentences, charged with politically incorrect statements (‘surely’, says the character of Mamoon to a black feminist academic, ‘being black isn’t an entire career these days, is it?’) and a clever laying out of the story through long and interesting dialogue-writing, it’s quite an enjoyable novel.

مجھ کو تیرے عتاب نے مارا
یا مرے اضطراب نے مارا

بزمِ مے میں بس ایک میں محروم
آپ کے اجتناب نے مارا

خوں کیوں کر مرا کھلےکہ مجھے
ایک سراپا حجاب نے مارا

جبہ سائ کا بھی نہیں مقدور
ان کی عالی جناب نے مارا

لب مے گوں پہ جان دیتے ہیں
ہمیں شوقِ شراب نے مارا

کس پہ مرتے ہو آپ پوچھتے ہیں
مجھے فکرِ جواب نے مارا

یوں کبھی نوجواں نہ مرتا میں
تیرے عہدِ شباب نے مارا

مومن

Letter to a Young Muslim by Tariq Ali

Back in 2001, during an anti-war demonstration in London, Tariq Ali had an encounter with two young Muslims who were shocked to learn that an anti-imperialist of his stature sets no store by religion, any religion.

Those young men were at a loss to understand how a person of Muslim background without faith in Islam could stand up to the crimes, excesses and injustices perpetrated by big powers in the Muslim world.

Later, he wrote an open letter which is a critique of extremist religion as well as American imperialism.

Every time the West intervenes in Muslim countries it sets them back many decades. They intervening powers create exploitative economies run by corrupt politicians on American life-support and unstable, undemocratic governments to do their bidding. This has caused massive discontent among people and they have increasingly turned towards extremist strains of politicised religion to fight American imperialism.

This is ‘anti-imperialism of the fool’. They cannot improve anything by going back to a mythical past which did not even exist for seventh century Muslims, if the ‘Emirate of Afghanistan’ (under Taliban), Saudi Arabian radicalism and Iranian clerical system are examples to go by.

He rejects the notion that Muslims must imitate Western neoliberalism to modernise themselves in order to be able to fight the global hegemony of big powers. Rather, they must find new ways and ideas which are more advanced than what’s on offer in the West.

Yet he does not elaborate except for advising Muslims to support separation of politics and religion, let go of mystified theological debates that serve no tangible purpose to improve peoples’ condition, and instead pay attention to things that matter, by which he means working for the establishment of equitable economic systems and providing people with basic human rights to education, health and food.

Enlightenment in the lands of Islam will not come from the West; they will have to work for it themselves. The internal debates about the role of religion in politics and public space will determine which course Islamdom takes, and he hopes Muslims will not waste any more energies on theological wranglings, sectarian fights and trivial things but get down to business sooner rather than later.

The letter gets somewhat confusing when he mentions celebrations by some Muslims in the wake of 9/11 attacks and says this has nothing to do with religion. He points out to similar reaction among other people like the congratulatory emails that went around in Russia and the case of Argentine students who walked out of the class when their professor criticised Osama bin Laden.

This behaviour is credited to the disenchantment people feel worldwide with the American Empire. 9/11 attack was not a “cause to celebrate”; it actually showed “terrible weakness” of the Third World in the face of American imperialism.

For Tariq Ali, it is still the economy, stupid. Nothing else matters.

Movie: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Japanese: 硫黄島からの手紙); Country: United States; Language: Japanese; Year 2006

Told through the perspective of Japanese army conscripts, the film portrays the historical account of the WWII battle between Japan and the United States at the island of Iwo Jima.

The Japanese defeat was written on the wall before the battle started; most of Japan’s defences were already destroyed in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and therefore no reinforcement could arrive from mainland. Their military commanders at Iwo Jima did not know this when the battle started on the island but fought very bravely with whatever they had at hand.

The Americans planned to take the island in 5 days but it took them 37 days to declare victory.

The story begins when an unposted letter of Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) to his wife is found during the digging of a war era trench detailing the hardships of soldiers at the remote and barren Iwo Jima. The movie then moves through the point of view of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) who leads Japanese forces in the battle.

The General had spent time in the United States on a military exchange programme many years earlier and his conviction at that time that Japan and United States could never go to war is told in flashbacks. He is shown to be frustrated and disappointed at having to fight this war. Despite his skepticism, which might or might not be historically accurate, the general led his forces from the front and died in action.

The usual portrayal of ruthless, racist, terrible Imperial Japanese escapes this movie; the focus is on the struggle of the Japanese contingent stationed to defend Iwo Jima and their efforts for survival once the American air raids begin, and their resolve to see it to the end despite the knowledge that no help was coming from Tokyo.

I’d rate it 4/5. IMDb Link

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

(Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely; translation first published 2004)

Shekure in ‘My Name is Red’, Rüya in ‘The Black Book’, or Ipek in ‘Snow’, it is difficult to avoid falling in love with Orhan Pamuk’s lead female characters. So powerful they are, so enchanting their presence, and so heart-wringing their pains.

This novel is many things: In part it’s a meditation on love, despair, personal loss and atonement told in the background of a violent political upheaval, in part an exploration of the question of identity of a nation, and in part a damning critique of the perennial conflict between the West and the (Muslim) East.

A journalist-poet named Ka visits the small town of Kars in the faint hope of finding his college mate (Ipek), whom he liked during their student days and whom he had not seen for many years, under the cover of investigating a suicide epidemic among hijabi girls of the town. His motive is later revealed to be an attempt to atone for his own disappointments in life; Ka has been living a lonely life in forced exile in Germany.

No sooner he reaches the town than he’s embroiled in a violent political quagmire. As the town is cut off from the rest of the country due to heavy snow, a local military commander egged on by a disgruntled Kemalist actor launches a coup to stop Islamist parties from winning local elections. Their task is made easy when, before the coup, a secular college professor is assassinated by a furious Islamist for the crime of evicting the covered girls from the college premises.

Thus unfolds a quick-paced string of events Ka is sucked into against his wishes. The more he tries to extricate himself the more he’s embroiled in every new turn the events take. After he accidentally confesses his love to Ipek, Ka’s only wish is to marry her and convince her to come with him to Germany. But he cannot leave; Kars is cut off from the world due to snow.

The standout feature of the narrative is the voice the writer gives to the Islamist mindset, their rejection of the West (and why), and their raison d’etre for resorting to violence to achieve their aims. The high point of the debate is played out through the episode of a hijabi girl (Kadife, Ipek’s pious sister) who is forced by the coup leaders to bare her hair on-stage during the performance of a televised theatre play.

Pamuk has been criticised for portraying his female characters as fickle, volatile and unreliable. But the naysayers overlook the fact that his female characters are engaged in constant struggle for survival in unfavourable circumstances, which in turn compels them to change their opinions, positions and decisions when faced with a new, and threatening, situation. We may call it human instinct for survival depicted twice emboldened in the females. Lead female protagonist,  Ipek, as well as her sister, Kadife, both are signature examples of Pamuk’s female creations.

I will give 5 out of 5 and urge you to get your copy directly from AMAZON.

The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

(First published 2013)

In a nutshell, it’s a collection of disparate short stories that converge on a single incident of a bomb blast that happens outside a railway station in the city of Karachi.

The protagonists come from a range of ages and professions; a disgruntled old Communist grandpa, a small time successful businessman, a wayward student out on a romantic rendezvous, an ambulance driver who suffers post traumatic stress disorder due to the blast, another wayward young man who works for a private security company that repossesses cars whose bank installments have not been paid – all of them are caught in the explosion in one way or the other.

A common thread runs through the many narratives: The quest to make sense of the beloved city through a period of turmoil and turbulence; a place that once was but that no longer is. The personal failures in the lives of its many protagonists are superimposed on the failure of the city to give them peace and provide succour.

As a whole, the book fell short of my expectations. Some portions of the stories make for an interesting read in an otherwise rather lacking-in-depth collection of tales that failed to pique my interest.

The circumstantial similarities between a few characters (i.e; their alienation with their fathers) left me rather confused half way through the book as to which character’s story I was actually reading.

The division of the book into 5 main chapters with further sub-chapters without any clear delineation of stories/characters gets one’s head all muddled up, moreso because some stories are broken into two or more parts and told at different places in the book.

For instance the opening and the closing stories, and the one in the middle, are told by the same protagonist. It can be treated as one story divided into three parts. So it can be said that the book falls somewhere between a novel and an interlinked collection of stories but it is neither.

The story (Good Days) of the employee of the private security firm is overrun by ill-used swear words. Whoever said it’s a good idea to use such words in abundance (fuck, fucking, motherfucker, sisterfucker, chutiya, chut etc) in a tight space of a few pages obviously gave a bad piece of advice.

I do realise it’s a debut effort and therefore I must not be too harsh with my criticisms. But the author has been promoted as the “up-and-coming” voice of Pakistani English fiction, a new talent “to watch out for” and thrown into limelight thanks to his impeccable social networking skills, long before he produced his first book. Naturally, dedicated readers of South Asian, particularly Pakistani, fiction have been waiting for his debut work with high expectations.

However, there are a few instances in the book deserving of recognition and, yes, appreciation.

The last story particularly stands out. It’s told by the adult voice of the child protagonist of the opening story: A quest to make sense of the beloved city that has overgrown through the time to become a degenerated and violent place, and that through the life of his deceased father-writer who spent his last days spreading happiness among the people to atone for his own disappointments.

Another story that of the wayward student out on a romantic escapade in his mother’s battered car was good to read. It’s punchline, for me, was the high point of the book. The protagonist takes his mother’s car without her permission. The blast occurs when he’s driving on the bridge with his girlfriend next to him. Luckily they survive the ordeal. Later when they halt on the beach, the guy “cleaned the blood with a rag dipped in the car’s radiator water” because he “couldn’t afford to have anyone find out.” Thus, a very public episode of mayhem and destruction juxtaposed against the personal need to hide the evidence of the blast from his car was amusing, unsettling and ironical.

I’d rate the book 50/50. So 2.5 by 5.

Art: Sacrifice and Eternal Wait in Sadeqauin’s paintings

Sadequain

Sadequain (1930 – 1987) is Pakistan’s foremost painter. Besides being a skilled calligrapher and a poet, his mastery lay in transforming famous Urdu poems and couplets into all-revealing paintings.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great poet, says about Sadequain’s work, “With the commencement of his phantasmagorical exploration of form and substance, there emerges a series of abstract visual statements, strong and subtle, stripping, anatomising and recreating the skeletal forms beneath the visual flesh — skeletons of streets and cities, weeds and plants, men and women.”

Below are six of his paintings which have become synonymous with his name.

The Passion

Eternal Wait

The Competition

Hangings

Faiz chained

“Speak, for your lips are free” – Faiz

Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) 2009

The Secret in Their Eyes (Spanish: El secreto de sus ojos); Country: Argentina; Language: Spanish; Year 2009

The story revolves around a legal counselor (Ricardo Darín as Benjamin Esposito) and his aide who try to catch the culprit after the rape and murder of a beautiful Buenos Aires girl.

The murderer turns out to be on the payroll of the state agencies as an informer and therefore protected from the criminal proceedings. This does not sit well with Counselor Esposito who disregards official orders and goes after the murderer. His friend and colleague is killed as hired assassins are sent to get rid of him. He leaves the city and lives his life in another town for the next twenty five years.

The film starts with Counselor Esposito trying to write a novel about the said case now that he is retired, divorced and lonely, and has nothing important to do. His boss (Soledad Villamil as Irene Hastings) for whom he nurtured tender feelings during the time they spent together on the case helps him with tips and insights to write the novel.

It is exactly during the writing of the novel that the Counselor Esposito actually finds out what happened with the murderer, after twenty five years of the closing of the case.

An engaging script with good dialogues and occasional humour, the film is worth watching but don’t expect too much. My rating 3/5. Here is the IMDb Link.

Travel Photography: Denmark: Hamlet’s Castle and Øresund Coast

Kronborg Castle, the residence of Shakespeare’s fictitious Prince Hamlet.

Leaving Helsingør, Denmark, on ferry and going to Helsinborg, Sweden.

I am looking into the gleaming blue waters of the Øresund

Sun shining on the waters of Øresund as a small boat sails past our ferry

Twilight on the docks in Helsinborg, Sweden.

Art: Sadequain’s Nudes (1 of 2)

Sadequain’s self portrait

Sadequain (1930 – 1987) is Pakistan’s foremost painter. Besides being a skilled calligrapher and a poet, his mastery lay in depicting in paintings the great poems and famous couplets of Urdu poets, including that of Ghalib and Faiz, in the poetry-celebrating culture of Pakistan.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great poet, says about Sadequain’s work, “With the commencement of his phantasmagorical exploration of form and substance, there emerges a series of abstract visual statements, strong and subtle, stripping, anatomising and recreating the skeletal forms beneath the visual flesh — skeletons of streets and cities, weeds and plants, men and women.”

Famous for his poetry-influenced paintings, he occasionally sketched and painted nudes. Here is a small selection of Sadequain’s nudes that not many people know about unless they research and make themselves thoroughly acquainted with his oeuvre.