The Man Who Would Be King – Rudyard Kipling

First published 1888

I had meant to read Rudyard Kipling for quite some time, more for his experience of India and the stories he set there than for his artistic merit and place in English literary canon. And so it happened that one day I downloaded an e-book reader on my handheld device and found a few pre-loaded books in it, one of which was this book (novella or long short-story) of Kipling’s. So I decided to give it a go and I really enjoyed it!

Two Englishmen in India, charlatans, fraudsters, impersonators, swindlers, cheats, who wander about the length of breadth of the country tricking and deceiving people to earn their dough, decide one day that they will journey up the northern mountains to become joint kings of Kafiristan, a mountainous region then outside the borders of British India but which now falls in present-day Pakistan and where old pagan tribes still exist.

Once in Kafiristan they make a show of force with their guns which the pagans take  to be divine power and come to accept the two men as gods. After initial success their plans begin to go downhill when one of the man wants a wife from the tribe so he can produce heirs to the throne. Thus commences conflict which ends on a terribly sad note.

Kipling’s style of diction and the pace of action demands that it is read slowly, meticulously, and patiently. It look me longer to finish it then I’d initially thought.

It has some similarity with Indiana Jones Temple of Doom film. The blue-eyed Westerner who accidentally lands in some part of tribal India is also taken as god and worshiped. Why, perhaps white people so like to see themselves as gods to the people they subjected to colonialism and ruled as their right?

Kipling wrote in the late 19th century when British colonialism and its attendant racism was in full swing and you can detect those typical oriental remarks about the ‘unruly savages’ and the superiority of the English race and its efficient ways. But this is just to keep the context in mind.

As an aside, I like this Penguin book cover. It looks like an old advertisement of a box of matches, or probably beeris?, priced at 8 anna, whose utility is lent credence to by showing an English soldier using/smoking them. The Hindi text, which I could decipher, says “Gora saab”.

Now I am looking forward to reading Kim, one of his celebrated novels.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
First published 2004; translation 2005

An old man wants to celebrates his 90th birthday by sleeping with a young virgin.

This is a man who has spent his whole life in pursuit of prurient pleasures as a form of art. He has never married and lived all his life alone working as a journalist. At 90 and fearful of death, when he stands at the edge of the virgin’s bed, before he does anything, and before he knows it, he falls in love with her – falls in love for the first time in his life!

Love descends on him with its disturbing components: he expects loyalty from the girl but can’t see how a girl of 14 would love back an almost-dead man.

Despite this he suffers from pangs of jealousy when he suspects she’s been sleeping with other customers. Things begin to awry from that point on and he desperately tries to forget her and move on. But can he?

The novella explores questions of old age, self-image, loyalty, and to fall in love at a time when only a tiny bit of life is left for you to live.

Despite it’s title and the storyline the novel is not at all sexually graphic or frivolous in how it deals with the concupiscent life of the main character.

I won’t say it is as good as other Marquez novels but it is a pleasurable read, short and direct. 4/5.

 

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin|
First published in Japanese 1987
This translation published 2000

This is my first Murakami novel. I wanted to read him for some time as I was hearing lots of praise of him. I knew he’s a bestseller novelist in his native Japan and very famous among international community of readers who keep an eye on the best contemporary world literature in (English) translation. So I picked up Norwegian Wood.

The novel is based on the suicide problem in young people – which is apparently endemic in Japanese culture – and the attendant mental illness that leads them to utter despair.

The narrator (a guy) has only two best friends at school: a guy and a girl, who are also a romantic couple. When the guy commits suicide at 17, the narrator by sheer chance finds himself comforting and taking care of the girl who starts to behave oddly after the tragedy, apparently due to sadness, but things turn for the worse when the girl suffers mental breakdown and gets admitted to a sanatorium for treatment. The rest of the story is the narrator’s attempt to put things to right and to bring the girl back to normal life – so at its heart it’s a heartfelt love story.

It’s written in straightforward first person narrative and avoids the sort of surrealist storytelling flourishes Murakami is known for in his other major novels “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” – it’s more grounded in realist mode.

However, there are a few things that got me thinking.

Murakami makes tons of references to Western classical music and American pop. The books which feature in the story, too, are mostly Western. Shouldn’t a novel about Japanese people set in Japan and written in Japanese should be more grounded in the Japanese culture, music and literature? One character who is a good maverick musician only plays Mozart and Bach and Beatles. The name of the novel itself is derived from Beatles’ song. The mentally ill girl liked the song and that is the only justification for naming the book so.

Sex is a recurrent theme. At times it feels the author is taking great pains, figuratively speaking, in describing the repetitive sexual encounters of his characters even when situations don’t call for it. In this novel everyone is trying to do it with everyone else. But I guess our modern readers don’t think a work of fiction as well-rounded unless the story comes with a few erections and orgasms.

That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s studded with beautiful sentences, startling interpretive utterances revealing complex situations with great ease – and for that one must appreciate the translator. It’s a well-written, sad, moving and, at times, gripping story worth your time and money.