Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children

It's Chapatti and I'll cry if I want to

After a largely ignored first book and a spell toiling as an ad-man, pushing cream-cakes, Rushdie attempted to write a Serious Novel of the kind people in 70s England were thinking only Americans were allowed to do (see above). In order to make a splash, he picked India as his topic and Magic Realism as his toolkit but couldn’t help including film-buff Hollywood allusions. The basic conceit is a sort of John Wyndham idea that all children born in India or the two Pakistans at the precise moment of Partition in 1947 were gifted with super-powers. Yes, a bit like Heroes. Our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is trying to tell his and the country’s story to his girlfriend but keeps digressing and trying to balance explaining everything with keeping it chronological.Tristram Shandy is an ancestor of this book as well as the Ramayana and Garcia Marquez. I found it hard not to think of Ronnie Corbett first time I read it.

It’s a lot less haphazard than it presents itself as being. A great deal of effort and trial runs must have gone into positioning the references to the implied listener getting frustrated or bored at the times when nine out of ten readers are thinking exactly that. It’s far from random but it attempts to seem improvised. A similar effort has gone into making sure that a detailed knowledge of Indian politics and the various religions and mythologies isn’t compulsory before you start. This is, however, not to be trusted as a primer on such topics.

Above all, it’s a book that is concerned with the sensation of being overwhelmed. On a first reading it’s all you can do to keep your head above water and struggle to the end. That’s not a bad thing in itself. It might almost be a good analogy for living in India under Indira Gandhi. Rushdie throws every trick he knows into this novel and nothing he’s done since quite matches up. The next-best attempt at an Anglo-Indian Magic Realist saga, The Satanic Verses, might as well have been called Tonight, Matthew, I’m Going to be One Hundred Years of Solitude. 9 Rushdie’s got a knighthood now, hangs out with Bono and dates models. He’s an insider, a pillar of the establishment, a position he earned by articulating a special form of not-quite-outsider status.

By Tat Wood

Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita

Corky

A novel written under Stalin, published samisdat in the 50s and released to the world in my lifetime, in which Satan, Jesus and a Soviet-style writing authority all figure. You can see why some, if not most, readers assume this to be some kind of anti-Totalitarian allegory. If it were just that nobody would bother with it now. It wouldn’t be so popular in present-day Moscow that, in 2010 when the forest fires surrounded the city after a prolonged, unnatural-seeming heat-wave, the newspapers were making jokes about cats and broomsticks. You’d not see things like this http://flavorwire.com/417116/10-bizarre-literary-landmarks-everyone-should-visit/ If this had just been Stalinism’s ba-ad, M’kay? it would have joined Solzhenitsin gathering dust in second-hand shops.

Neither is it uncomplicatedly about religion. yes, Satan’s there, and Jesus, and the authorities take a dim view of a book that claims Jesus was just some bloke that got mythologised a bit after his death because he did a lot of good and made people feel better. That’s worse, to these drab jobsworths, than claiming the usual Son-of-God/ Water-into-wine/ died-for-our-sins-and-came-back stuff. Satan isn’t on the side of the authorities (although a big bipedal cat is sort of a liaison between them) and Margarita, the forlorn devotee of the author identified as ‘the Master’, becomes a witch and is granted wishes by the (ahem) man of wealth and taste who’s pleased to meet her.8 And, yes, the Master, like Bulgakov, tried to burn his manuscript. So some people see it as a roman a clef with the characters all representing real people the author knew (except, maybe, Jesus).

In fact, the allegory, if such it is, is so obscure that it’s easy to imagine Bulgakov fleeing to America and writing almost the same book about New York or Miami. If you doubt this, read it and then investigate Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, also on our shelves. Although it officially predates the Magic Realist movement, it has a lot of features in common, the weird time-frame, the mix of fantasy and closely-observed detail, the blurring of history, myth and dream and the use of the imagination as a tool of resistance to oppression. It fed into the movement as it developed in the 60s and 70s, especially in Soviet satellite countries. Without it, we might not have had Milan Kundera, the Strugastky brothers or Stanislav Lem.

By Tat Wood

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude

MARQUEZ

In his native Columbia, ‘Gabo’ is the most famous man alive (the most famous woman being his friend and fan Shakira). This is the book that made him a global figure and the story has almost become part of folklore, something that really happened. That’s odd, because it’s about a family curse, a book that foretells the future and the weather defying reason to help the people against a foreign company’s dominion. Along the way there’s a girl so pure that she ascends to heaven to evade lustful men and a boy born with a pig’s tail because his parents were too closely related. (See, I told you Middlesex was influenced by this tradition, and probably this very book).

You’re not supposed to read this the way you would a departure-lounge thriller. Neither are you to read it as a Worthy Tome. Amazon have it listed as a children’s book. Our library’s copy has clearly never been opened but just sat on a shelf making its former owner look clever. In Britain, more people talk about this kind of book than actually read them but, as I indicated, these aren’t forbiddingly difficult, just a bit unfamiliar. In Columbia, the book’s something taxi-drivers have all read. English-reading audiences are used to something a bit more well-behaved, with clearly-defined generic boxes to put things in and a linear progression. You have Historical Fiction over here and Fantasy over here and Family Saga over here and so on. Even delineating clear boundaries for what is and isn’t Magic Realism is an attempt to tame writers who don’t fit the bookseller’s neat categories. Most of my favourite books are exercises in taxonomy-evasion. Just to confuse matters, many of the details in the novel are taken from real events and situations. There’s research in between all the fairytale elements, and genuine, uncompromising anger at the causes of these past injustices. To confuse matters further, the main family in this saga tend to give their sons the same names across generations, so there are ‘Aureliano’s and ‘Arcadio’s hither and yon. It’s confused more than a few readers:

arcadio-or-aureliano

You might want to take notes on your first go, or just flag up anything you can’t follow for next time. The reasons why this book is the way it is are complex and connected to Columbia’s murky and bloody history (and, at the time it was written, present) but it’s as much as anything a book where people who inflict their stories on others come unstuck. To paraphrase an old 70s slogan: objectivity is European/ yanqui subjectivity. Malgudi is an island (sort of) upon which one man thought he could impose his will and vision of the world. That’s about all the help you’ll need for a first reading. Enjoy the ride and then maybe come back to it, armed with the copious online resources – which I recommend you steer clear of beforehand… yes, even Oprah – and see what else was in it.

By Tat Wood

Robert Burton – The Anatomy of Melancholy

ANATOMY

When I was young and foolish (well, 36 and bored) I tried reading this in a week. That’s perversely missing the point, as we’ll see, but it removed the ‘curse’ of looking at a book this meaty and thinking ‘too much’. I don’t recommend this approach for everyone, but as a means to get the measure of the book and its intentions it helped me.

It’s a work by a seventeenth century scholar attempting to understand his own disposition towards… well, we don’t quite have the concept ‘melancholia’ the same way they did. It isn’t straightforward depression, or Sartrean nausée, or even endemic gloominess. The ancient Greeks had posited a system of ‘humours’ (liquids) supposedly in balance but in practice always slightly favouring one over the others due to one’s star-sign, rising planet and so forth. Particular herbs, gods, subjects of interest and gemstones associated with these were thought to be helpful in restoring balance.You can find traces of this in Shakespeare, once you know where to look. Burton was trying to collate all known information on Melancholia (the state resulting from excessive black bile http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melancholia ), its treatment and possible useful side-effects. Yes, useful: one aspect of this is that it’s a form of brain-state conducive to great art, intensive study and feats of memory (and the historians of Mediaeval and Renaissance Ars Memoria have had a field-day with this, notably Dame Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers). However, this is a self-help book with a difference. By the nature of melancholy, reading a big, slow, painstakingly-detailed book at its pace rather than yours is, in itself, a remedy. So is spending decades writing one.

This is a book to re-read and digest slowly in your retirement. However, in order to re-read something you have to have read it a first time. I’m not the only one who’s tried to zoom through this work. A recent production by a Birmingham theatre company attempted to make it work on stage. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/nov/06/anatomy-of-melancholy-robert-burton My sprint-read was exactly the opposite of what this book’s for, as I now realise. Paradoxically, however, one of the primary causes Burton identifies for this condition is ‘over-much study’, so maybe I avoided that. As you might recall from last month, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn alludes to this book a lot. So do many other works, not always by name. In some ways this is the secret link between Albrecht Durer and Virginia Woolf, Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Dance to the Music of Time. I doubt that all of you will queue up to take it out but knowing that it exists is a backstage pass to a lot of literature and history.

By Tat Wood

Introducing: Empiricism

Tetrahedra mean reason

At first sight you might think that this was a simpler read than the Baggini. It’s done as a comic, with one author’s head photographed and stuck inside the drawings. However, the thought-experiments cover a wide array of subjects within philosophy and this investigates one knotty one from the start to the present. It takes us through John Locke and Bishop Berkeley, Hobbes and AJ Ayer. None of these is naturally amenable to sound-bite summaries, so the pictures and text have to get quite detailed whilst pretending to be chatty and chummy. It’s sometimes hard to make the connection between one page and the next even if you studied this for a year (as I did).

Empiricism is, if you want a one-line description, the study of how we can know anything for a fact just through investigation. It became the root of the Scientific Method, testing hypotheses through observation. Locke and Hobbes both derived political theories from this bottom-up process that appalled the top-down establishment of the day (although they were both, perhaps ironically, instrumental in inspiring Adam Smith’s thinking on capitalism and Thomas Paine’s actions towards individual liberty). It is, ultimately, a materialist conception of how to live well and discover the truth of things. This doesn’t rule out religion, but functions as well with it as not. If there is a patron Saint of Empiricists it’s Benjamin Franklin, who saw no distinction between belief in reincarnation, inventing bifocals, leading a revolution and flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

This book skims along briskly but covers a lot of ground thoroughly. It might be read in an hour or so but I suspect it’s more use as backfill for when reading something else. It was probably intended as a reference guide for sixth-formers. When I was that age we had Bryan Magee on BBC2 discussing Kierkegaard before re-runs of Grange Hill or Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. These days it would be a podcast or something. The existence of a book such as this makes me feel old. Nevertheless I’m glad it exists and that someone thought it was worth doing.

By Tat Wood

Julian Baggini – The Pig that Wants to be Eaten

Clutching Forks and Knives

It’s a simple enough concept: a book of page-long thought experiments to see how far you can take an idea. They are all fairly familiar ideas to people like me, but that doesn’t make this treatment of them fruitless. Some are Philosophy standbies, such as Wittgenstein’s ‘Beetle in a Box’, Rawls’ ‘Veil of Ignorance’ and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Achilles and the Tortoise, some are the core of old SF books or recent film dilutions (Minority Report -can you try someone for a crime you know they will commit but haven’t yet? Blade Runner/ Total Recall – is a memory that is implanted ‘yours’ and as good as one you had yourself? Good old PKD, always there to lend a dumb action movie some theoretical clout – but let’s see someone film ‘Faith of Our Fathers’). The title is a reworking of an old saw most famously expressed as the Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but also to be found in Alice. By picking a pig rather than a goat or chicken he’s rather stupidly ignored dietary laws in at least two popular and successful religions.

Most bright kids go through most of these ideas in some form, but not stated as clearly or with such high stakes for the people in the question. The author also refrains from putting his own preferences into the discussion. There are 100 such hypotheticals and they almost all manage to avoid an answer that’s just simply reinforcing or restating your previously-held assumptions. You can take books out of our library for three weeks at a time, so that’s five a day.

By Tat Wood

Malorie Blackman – Boys Don’t Cry

Incurable

Deep down, we all suspected that there’d be a teenage version of Babyfather one of these days. Thank goodness Malorie Blackman got there first. You can sort of work out the storyline from the premise (Dante’s waiting for his A-Level results and gets a baby daughter dumped on him) but what’s good about that is that you can see all the potential pitfalls coming and admire the author for resisting the obvious.

And sometimes, resisting the plausible. Anyone who’s seen what a baby does to someone’s life will be thinking ‘hang on, what about…?’ at some of the curious omissions. There’s nothing about making the house baby-safe, apart from one incident whenre she’s about to fall downstairs. Dante’s dad would remember all of that from last time and embark on a massive DIY binge. Anyone with any experience of how A-Level results are delivered will wonder why he’s waiting for the postman rather than going to his sixth-form to pick them up.

What’s impressive is that the author seems to have a pretty good idea of how an all-male household works. Dante’s mum died a few years back so it’s him, his dad and his brother. There’s an equally predictable sub-plot going on there which feeds in to the main one. It works as a novel, with this contrapuntal narrative and alternating narrators, but there are things along the way that act as information-dispensing cues (and the back of the book has those if you have been affected by these issues addresses and websites). It’s a work of fiction, designed to entertain. Only the baby and the brother ever get described, so that anyone reading can see themselves in one or more characters (it’s scrupilously non-race-specific, unlike the trailer – ys, books get trailers now http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t87HvtuI1Yc ) and the U-certificate not-quite-swearing hints at what the people involved would really have said in the circumstances.

By Tat Wood