Movie: Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

(Japanese: 硫黄島からの手紙); Country: United States; Language: Japanese)

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.