Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

A metaphor of rotting and unappreciated beauty. Deep in the frozen reaches of the Snow Country a geisha waits out her days for a man who would give her the life of love and dignity that she believes she deserves.

Geishas in the Japanese society enjoyed similar social prestige as the Courtesans of the Indian Muslim culture. They were the connoisseurs of culture and art; they exerted political influence through their patrons; they decided the fates of people who desired their services; they made and broke marriages – they were a soft power centre in the Japanese society.

But in the backwater of the Snow Country only a perception of this power remains. The Geishas there live under crushing poverty and hopeless surrender, maintaining a façade of self-importance but in reality are no more than prostitutes offering affordable services to travelling men.

This novel is a heartfelt depiction of that culture, told through the story of a Snow Country Geisha, Komako, who meets a rich idler from Tokyo, Shimamura, who comes to the town to enjoy the hot springs it’s famous for. Shimamura knows immediately when he sees Komako that she is unlike other Geishas of the town. They develop a relationship but it never goes anywhere. The rich city idler is as though unable to reciprocate the love of Komako who, despite something special in her, is only a hot spring Geisha in his eyes. He tries to involve himself emotionally but can’t stop himself from looking down upon her.

The novel reads like a dream with disjointed and abruptly changing scenes fusing into one another. The writer’s stylistic method is to juxtapose two opposing and contrasting characteristics as in old Haiku: light against dark, sound against silence, being a sex selling Geisha who has a clean and fresh countenance, the whistle of the teapot against the continuous sound of the silence…. and there are beautiful evocations of the stark nature of the Snow Country and the frugality of its people, their lifestyle, travails and their aspirations.

I liked the way the story builds up into a high emotion in so imperceptible a way, without any loud noise-making plot twists. I enjoyed the novel a lot.

(Written during 1935-37; translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker)

Of Love and Other Demons – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
First published 1994

Set in 1700s Colombia, it’s a story of a little girl born into a family of nobles whose landholdings are disappearing and family name is fading.

The twelve-year-old daughter of the Marquis is a miracle child which the saints have given to her parents.

She is bitten by a dog and the fear is that she has contracted rabies, which was common at that time and was a cause of many untimely deaths. Half-doctors, quacks and local medicine-women begin strange and tortuous treatments on her to cure her real or imagined disease.

When traditional medicines fail to treat her festering wound the word goes out to the leader of the Church who forces the father to entrust the girl to a convent of nuns, party to treat her, partly to quarantine her.

There at the convent, living in delusions of solitary life, they come to believe that the girl is possessed and must be exorcised. Then starts a macabre story of blind faith taking over reason.

The novel is a rich depiction of colonial Colombia, its society, faith, and its politics. The twelve-year-old girl has a magical aura to her character; and her fascination relationship with her mother who absolutely hates her, hates anything to do with her, and later, the power of her beauty, the influence of her presence, on the emissary of the Church official, who falls in love with her during her days of confinement at the convent, and wants to rescue her.

And as always, Marquez’s unique narrative style, magical and dreamy, – with an echo of One Hundred Years of Solitude – frankly sensual, and inconspicuously violent, takes you into a world of possibilities – It’s a very engrossing read. Full marks.

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.

Real Men Keep Their Word: Tales from Kabul, Afghanistan by Akram Osman

Translated from the Dari by Arley Loewen

(Translation first published 2005)

This is the first ever collection of fictions in translation that I have read from an Afghan author. These stories cover a range of themes including honour, love and financial difficulties faced by ordinary people. A couple of stories depict the class-based hypocrisy of the rulers and powerful men against the backdrop of oppression on ordinary people.

I particularly enjoyed “A Free Coffin” which is a burlesque critique of a miser who is bent on saving little pennies when he is faced with the burial of a relative that he has to pay for. “The Secret Unleashed” and “The Moderate Politician” reveal the hypocrisy of a ruling class in Afghanistan which led to widespread disillusion and discontent among Afghan  masses.

The lead story titled “Real Men Keep Their Word” sharply portrays strong ethical values, ie unbending commitment to their word, unfaltering hospitality and even ubiquitous machismo Pashtuns are famous for . On the other hand, however, stories like “The Blind Eagle” and “A Crack in the Wall” didn’t carry much literary merit.

The foreword by Jamil Hanifi about Afghan novel writing and publishing history in Afghanistan was very informative. I had no idea things were so bad there with respect to Afghan publishing industry.

The translator, Arley Loewen, has chosen to translate Dari-specific expressions and idioms literally into English. For that reason the translations sometimes make an awkward reading. It would have been better if the local idiom was  translated into equivalent or near-equivalent English expression with an explanation of original Dari expressions in the footnotes. However the translator is of the view that translating peculiar Dari idiom into equivalent English idiom doesn’t do proper justice with the original and rich Dari expression in which the stories are originally written.

Afghanistan gets a great deal of bad press for all the wrong reasons. The society, its people, it’s culture and morals are lain under the burden of negativity that has gripped the country since Soviet forces invaded over three decades ago. This collection of stories present a different side of the society always under scrutiny of foreign “experts”.

I rate it at 3/5. Find the book on AMAZON.