The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

For those scared of the size of Tolstoy’s stellar works like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, this novella may be a good starting point as an introduction to the art of Tolstoy. Set in imperial Russia at a time when every aspiring person seemed to measure their success through their rank or office in the Russian civil service, it is an excellent critique of the elite’s aspirations, the suffocating formality of their lifestyles, of their being beholden to positions and job titles.

At the same time it’s a meditation on the fickleness of life people spend too much time decorating, and making big of one’s achievements. Only just when the middle-aged Ivan Ilyich feels he has made it in life and now can relax away his years in service at a higher position, he is visited by an illness that kills him in pain and misery. His unsuccessful fight against the illness forms most of the narrative of the novella, with frequent retrospectie meditations on his identity, his position, his achievements, and how he ought to be happy at where he has reached in life, but is he happy?

His colleagues receive the news of his death perfunctorily, feeling sorry for the poor devil, and immediately launch upon a discussion as to how Ivan Ilyich’s death might have affected the chain of promotions in the hierarchy of the civil service.

How once Ivan Ilyich seemed indispensable to everything – his work, family, friends – but was easily castaway from memory of things soon after his death. This story has a moralistic side to it too, as a critique of the love for the mundane, since it was written after Tolstoy’s famous reversion to Christianity.

First published in Russian 1886


The Gathering – Anne Enright

I wasn’t going to make a conscious choice for a novel of Anne Enright – and that’s simply because I did not know of her – if she had not won the Man Booker prize for the year 2007.

I don’t put much stock by literary prizes which often reward books for reasons other than artistic merit, but Booker, Pulitzer and, importantly, Nobel literature prizes are useful indicators of what sort of writing is being appreciated and read across the spectrum. They often bring us quality stuff which we readers often miss in the multitude of new literature that’s published and marketed every year. With that in mind, I ordered a copy of this novel.

It’s the story of a dysfunctional Irish family centred around the death of one of the siblings – Liam – and his funeral, who in his life has been rather an odd character, more dysfunctional than the rest of the family. I am apprehensive about giving away spoilers so let’s just say that the suicide of Liam at the young age of 38, was a consequence of something horrible that happened at his grandfather house when he was 8. But there couldn’t be a more cliched storyline than what had happened to Liam and his subsequent deterioration and downfall which it had let to.

The novel is written in stream-of-consciousness style, flitting back and forth time periods, segueing from one thing to something another, getting clearer as it progresses – like a pixelated image that materialises, in slow and steady fashion, from blurry dots to shades, and from shades to shapes and from shapes to a clear image as you read along – which is also to say that it is successful attempt at stream-of-consciousness narration. It’s a difficult form and I think Enright falters a bit in the end when she becomes too direct and explicit about what brought down her brother.

This style of narration is not everyone’s cup of tea, as I have seen many reviews putting the novel down for being ‘slow’ and ‘boring’ and ‘unclear’ which is an uninformed reader’s way of saying that they don’t quite like stream-of-consciousness narration. As for the charge of lack of clarity, the narrator – Veronica – is clearly an unreliable narrator. She tells us something and soon contradicts herself by conceding her failing memory, or maybe it’s just a dream, or maybe she’s just imagining things. She does it for a few important junctions in the story, which confuses the reader as to the actual ‘truth’ of the story, but I think that’s the point: the narrator is unsure of herself, she may even be withholding information – especially about what might have happened to her as opposed to what happened to her brother.  So the narrator is trying to make the reader see more than she with her limitations can.

It’s a good novel and worth reading. But for the big cliché that sits at the heart of the novel, I’d give it full marks. It, however, remains 4/5 for me.

First published 2007

Inside Al-Qaeda and The Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 – Syed Saleem Shahzad

Saleem Shahzad was brutally murdered when he was investigating new generation of Al-Qaeda leaders and their modus operandi in Pakistan and abroad. People in the know and those who were close to the journalist laid blame on the hawks in Pakistani military who were not happy with Shahzad’s investigations. He was perhaps about to uncover some unpalatable truths about Al-Qaeda’s links with some elements of Pakistani military, and for that he payed for his life.

This view is lent credence by the fact that Shahzad received death threats after he refused to back down from his investigative project, and named certain military people as responsible if he’s harmed. Not long after Shahzad’s murder the US troops found and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

This book chronicles the story of Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the course of action they took when their normal operations were disrupted following the American invasion in 2001.

Taliban and their allies retreated to Pakistan’s tribal belt where they were tolerated by Pakistani military. In time the militants regrouped and launched a spectacular Spring Offensive of 2006 in Afghanistan and consolidated their grip in bordering areas. This stunned NATO forces who by that time had written off Taliban as a spent force. Little did they realise that Pakistan’s refusal to sever old ties with militants would turn out to be the main factor in the revival of the Taliban.

The narrative goes into great detail and claims that Pakistan facilitated Afghan Taliban factions and allowed them freedom of action on the condition that they would not engage in violent activities inside the borders of Pakistan. But Pakistan soon understood that armed non-state actors cannot be controlled at will once they acquire enough power and will to defy their masters. A motley bands of home-grown jihadists, who had been hitherto fighting alongside Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan and separatists in Kashmir, turned their weapons on the people and state of Pakistan.

Pakistan has burned since 2007 and Shahzad, till he was killed in 2011, laid blame on the duplicitous policies of the Pakistan military establishment.

First published 2011

The Joke – Milan Kundera

(First published 1967; translated from the Czech by various including the author himself)

I read it as part of a set of debut novels by novelists who later became major names in contemporary literature. I have been a fan of Kundera since I read his insightful expositions on the art of novel and on the nature of art in general.

The politics of Communist rule in 1950s Czechoslovakia forms the background of this novel. The protagonist, himself a budding Communist student, is expunged from the party and kicked out of the university to be sent to slave away in the mines run by the military. Why? He unwittingly made a joke, in a letter to his girlfriend, on Communist politics and leaders. Her dedicated and mirthless Communist girlfriend took it to be a sacrilege – a blasphemy of religious proportions – and reported him to the authorities.

The story revolves around his attempts to come to terms with the turn his fate has taken as he languishes in a military camp in a battalion which is supposed to comprise of the most dangerous anti-state elements. But he finds out that dissenters had been put their for petty reasons: for not supporting wholeheartedly and enthusiastically one of the policies of the Communist regime; and another is punished simply as a preemptive measure because his father is an oppositional activist.

When he regains limited freedom after a few years of hard labour at the military camp, writhing in hate for what his life has become, he launches himself on a campaign to take revenge on another of his friends who had him voted out of the university and the party and who in effect authored his subsequent travails. This is where I think the novel becomes somewhat thin, and ends abruptly. His personal philosophy suffers a painful realisation and makes him do something he wasn’t planning.

It’s a good debut novel in that it goes beyond the usual noisy political sloganeering found in novels that deal with highly charged political subject matter, such as Orwell’s 1984, and delves deeper into the mysteries of totalitarian political collective on a psychological level. Jokes – humour and sarcasm – contends Kundera, is a mysterious and powerful dissenting tool, and any power, be it religious or political or something else, which has taken upon itself to reform the whole world in earnest, is greatly threatened by it, and can’t tolerate it.

In the case of the hero of our novel, the Communist regime elevated a pathetic half-serious joke to the same status as of dangerous anti-state activity when, at the military camp, the authorities assigned him to a battalion reserved for top level dissenters – and this for us is the real joke.

Poem: In You The Earth – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only among the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. This poem is an example of the latter from his second collection titled “The Captain’s Verses”.

Translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh.


at times,
tiny and naked,
it seems
as though you would fit
in one of my hands,
as though I’ll clasp you like this
and carry you to my mouth,
my feet touch your feet and my mouth your lips:
you have grown,
your shoulders rise like two hills,
your breasts wander over my breast,
my arm scarcely manages to encircle the thin
new-moon line of your waist:
in love you have loosened yourself like sea water:
I can scarcely measure the sky’s most spacious eyes
and I lean down to your mouth to kiss the earth.