Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

Award

Seeking Father Khaliq has been awarded first place, Religion/Spirituality in the Royal Dragonfly Literary Awards, 2017

The synopsis of Seeking Father Khaliq is as follows:

Kareem al-Busiri is a tenured professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university.  A woman whose eyes alone are visible, invites him to meet a Princess Basheera.  After doubt and discussion, he agrees.  Princess Basheera asks al-Busiri to find Father Khaliq, who is apparently her very old father, and she suggest that he find him on the Hajj.

Kareem is a secular Sunni Muslim, a widower, with three children: Naqib, the oldest is a leftist lawyer and secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Wahida, like her late mother is a Copt, working for the Red Crescent; Kalifa, a handsome, principled conservative plans to be an army infantry officer.  Adeeba is a winsome widowed Copt, Kareem’s late wife’s best friend, professor of archaeology, and an expert in ancient Coptic history, culture and language.  Adeeba’s younger adult daughter, Sagira, has a romantic interest in Kalifa.

On the Hajj, which Kareem undertakes with Hafez, a busy-body, agnostic colleague, there are near encounters with Father Khaliq.  The religious fervour of two million pilgrims, and the mystery of the Hajj make an indelible impression on al-Busiri.

Princess Basheera encounters Kareem on several occasions, appearing unexpectedly, wearing casual clothing, but always a niqab, exposing only her eyes.  She discusses his findings, she suggests new pilgrimages, and there is often an exchange of views on the ideas of important Arabic philosophers.  Kareem wonders: Is she real, or do I imagine her?

On a trip to Medina, al-Busiri visits the Prophet’s tomb and finds that, next to the Prophet is a vacant tomb reserved  for the second coming of Jesus.  He narrowly escapes a suicide bombing in the Date Market, and hears a woman crying out for Father Khaliq.

Persuaded to go on Arba’een, the pilgrimage of over twenty million to the Shia shrines in Karbala, Iraq, Kareem joins eleven Shia scholars from the University of Bagdad.  He becomes caught up in the intensity of the emotion at the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s grandson and Shia icon.  During the return to Bagdad, the professors are taken hostage by a violent ISIS cadre and held for ransom.  Locked in an abandoned house in Ramadi, they are rescued by a Shia militia in a bloody shoot-out during which four of the Iraqi professors are killed.

On his return to Cairo, Kareem finds that Kalifa has been posted to north-eastern Sinai, where the army is engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Wilayat Sinai (the ISIS affiliate in Egypt).  Wahida suspects that her older brother’s law firm is providing material support to the terrorists.  Kareem reports the law firm, anonymously, to Egyptian intelligence, and meets with his son in an attempt to moderate his increasingly strident views.

With Hafez, on a trip to Jerusalem, the great mosques on the Noble Sanctuary, the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, and a Druze settlement on the Golan Heights are visited.  Again, there is the illusive Father Khaliq.  Kareem walks the Via Dolorosa with a Christian guide.

Kalifa and Sagira are married in jubilant Coptic and Islamic ceremonies.

Adeeba takes Kareem on a trip to Rome where he is impressed with the splendour of Christian pageantry, music and art, and the two become lovers.  She tells him she has found that ‘Khaliq’ is one of the lesser-known of Allah’s ninety-nine names.

Kalifa is killed in an attack on his base with a rocket which Wilayat Sinai was not known to have.  Wahida suspects that Naqib was involved in the supply chain.  Kareem washes his son’s body for burial; a grieving Naqib appears at the burial.  Wahida finds damning circumstantial evidence, which she passes to an intelligence officer, of Naqib’s involvement with the terrorists.  Naqib, and his law firm partners, are arrested, tried in secret, sentenced to death, and hung.  Again, Kareem washes the body of his son.

Kareem is grief-stricken, and visits his mosque for prayer.  He hears a voice offering reassurance.  Is it Allah?  Adeeba, whom he has now married, suggests that he must seek a new identity in his remaining family and his profession.  In a vacant classroom, Princess Basheera appears once again.  She debates with him the meaning and relevance if an idea of the philosopher Ibn Sina.  Kareem understands her message; she disappears.

Seeking Father Khaiiq  have recently won another award: the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, Spiritual Fiction, 2017:

 

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.

Critique of Criticism

“There are many differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this.  Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.”

This was how Michael Deacon began his review of the Magpie restaurant on Heddon Street on London.  The Telegraph  lists him as a ‘Parliamentary Sketchwriter’; Wikipedia says he is a British author and political satirist.  In any event, I thought, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’.  The review appeared in The Telegraph Magazine on the 2nd of September.  If you’re interested in food, he gave the Magpie four stars and said, “With no menus, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required.  Most of the food was terrific.  Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences”

Michael Deacon

He went on to say, “It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting.  In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary.  To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable.  More important for music to be original than tuneful.  More important for a play to be original than enjoyable.  Novelty trumps all.  Pleasure is a lesser concern.

“There are two reasons for this.  First, insecurity.  A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics.  He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim.  He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it.  He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.

“The second reason is just as crucial.  Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature.  In essay after essay, the same topics recur.  An exhausting majority of students have written about the set texts.  Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired.  So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught  on the course may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior.  The marker is simply relieved by the change in scene.  That’s what critics are like.  Sooner or later they run out of things to say about the conventional.  Hey ho, another romantic comedy.  Yawn, another detective thriller.  So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude.  What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant.  What matters is, it’s given the critic something new to write about.  The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.

“But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest.  It applies to restaurant critics, too.  And so when I go out to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though?  Am I genuinely enjoying myself?  Honestly?  Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s just made  my job easier?”

Five stars to Michael Deacon!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: Song of Solomon

A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader.  In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison.  I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.

Toni Morrison

Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”

The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.”  Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism.  All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities.  The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory.  It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are.  There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers.  He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.

For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience.  One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends.  One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition.  One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation.  The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable.  The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive.  Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.

Review: Silence

The film Silence has been in theaters, lately.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I decided to read the book, Silence, on which it is based. The author, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic.  During World Was II, he worked in a munitions factory. After the war, he briefly studied medicine.  He lectured at several universities on the craft of writing, and he took a particular interest in French Catholic authors.  Ill health troubled him for much of his life.  His work was dominated by a single theme: belief in Christianity.  It has been said that Endo was a ‘Japanese Catholic author’ struggling to ‘plant the seeds of his adopted religion’ in the ‘mudswamp’ of Japan.

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Shusaku Endo

Silence is the story of a Portuguese, Catholic priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who volunteers to go to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Christian converts and to discover why his colleague, Christovao Ferreira, another Portuguese priest, has reportedly apostatized.  The background of Silence is historically accurate.  Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by the co-founders of the Jesuit Order, and the religion found favour with the Japanese court for the next sixty years.  However, the hostility of English and Dutch Protestant missionaries and the desire of Shugun Icyasu to destroy Christian influence in Japan led to ruthless attacks on Japanese Christians, many of whom were tortured, burned alive, or forced to apostatize – renounce their faith.

Rodrigues makes the long sea voyage from Portugal to Japan in the company of another missionary priest: Father Garrpe.  On arrival, and escorted by a shifty Japanese peasant named Kichijiro, they are placed in a remote hut above a Christian village.  As the story unfolds, Kichijiro becomes a surrogate for Judas Iscariot: admiring Rodrigues and helping him, but also so tempted by the reward in silver for leading the Japanese officials to a priest that he succumbs to the temptation.  Kichijiro goes through repeated episodes to apostatizing and then returning to his Christian faith, claiming that he is too weak to resist torture.  The strategy of the Japanese official who is the chief persecutor, Inoue, is to use the Christian peasants as hostages to wring an apostasy from the priests.  With the priests eliminated, the religion will disappear.  In one scene, watched by Rodrigues, three Christian peasants who have apostatized are wrapped tightly in reed blankets and dropped off a boat.  Father Garrpe tries to swim to their rescue, but all four drown.  Rodrigues had been invited to save all four if he would just put his foot on a plaque on which there is the face of Christ.  The psychological torture continues: Rodrigues is kept in prison, un-harmed on meager rations, but exposed to the suffering of Christian peasants.  Ferreira appears, and advises Rodrigues to take the right way out: simply trample on the image.  Rodrigues spends the rest of his life as a comfortable captive, performing translations and writing anti-Christian essays at the behest of his captors.

Silence is not an enjoyable book, but it makes one question one’s own beliefs and assumptions.  The title refers to the silence of God in the face of so much suffering.  How can that be?  And yet, Rodrigues is frequently confronted with mental images and the words of Christ.  The definition of Christianity seems to be based on the concepts of the Japanese oppressors: a flame of strange faith, driven by priestly ritual, which contradicts the warm, comfortable ‘mudswamp’ of Japan, and that a coerced apostasy extinguishes that faith.  I, personally, am not at all comfortable with this definition, which seems far too limiting.  Moreover, given that one of Endo’s objectives as a writer was to introduce his faith to his country, this definition seems unlikely to attract many adherents.  The central messages of Christianity are obscured in the focus on what is faith and the complex role of Judas, and, by extension, on the roles of Pontius Pilate and Herod.

The Daily Telegraph calls Silence, ‘A masterpiece.  There can be no higher praise.’  I disagree.  I would call it, ‘a fine, and thought-provoking, historical novel’.  Some of this divergence in opinion may be a function of timing.  Silence was first published in 1969 (in Japan), and at that time it may have caused something of a sensation.  But for me, now, it seems a dated classic, but still well worth reading.  I didn’t find the prose to be captivating – more ordinary – though perhaps this is the translation.  But, for example, I cannot blame the translator for the inclusion of the phrase ‘a number of” three times in the space of half a dozen lines.

Review: All that Man Is

My wife bought this book for me when I was in the hospital and needed something to read during what would have been periods of utter boredom.  I had asked her to find a book which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The author is David Szalay, who was born in Canada in 1974, moved to the UK, has lived in Belgium and is now based in Budapest.  He studied at Oxford University, has written dramas for the BBC and his four novels have attracted several prizes including a listing for the Booker Prize in 2016.

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David Szalay

All that Man Is is nine short stories about men, away from home, in different stages of their lives, each of whom tries to come to grips with what it means to be alive.   In the final story a 73 year-old man – knighted for his services in Whitehall twenty years ago, on his own, in a small, old Italian house considers, gloomily, his mortality, and it is this story which – for me – comes closest to establishing a theme for the work.  Before this story, we have: a thoroughly bored 17 year-old university student travelling around Europe with an acquaintance; a university drop-out on a down-market holiday in Cyprus where he meets two willing fat women; a tough guy employed to protect an aloof call girl; a driver delivering a car to his disconnected girlfriend’s father; a journalist involved in a political scandal; a real estate developer who meets an attractive young woman in Switzerland; an English drifter in Croatia is stung by a local con man; a suicidal billionaire on his super yacht.

The stories are well-written except that an occasional detail about setting makes one wish for a similar detail about a character.  The characters are interesting – not least because the reader cannot help but try to understand them. There is an undertow of submerged emotion in the book.  Also,  an air of pessimism in the written tone and in the actions of the characters, so that the reader might ask: ‘what is the point of this?’  With most of the characters, one feels urged to shout: ‘Why don’t you get a grip?  Make an effort for goodness sake!  No one ever promised you a rose garden!’  Is Szalay trying to express a sort of  nihilist philosophy?

For me, this more a collection of short stories than a novel, because there is little to connect the pieces except the tone, European geography and men facing dilemmas.  In summary, this is an interesting, if slightly flawed, book

Review: Selection Day

My wife bought me a copy of this novel – signed by the author!  – while I was briefly in the hospital (nothing very serious) and I wanted something to read.  Hospitals are a great place to read: one is always waiting for the next procedure to take place; one can make oneself comfortable; and it is not particularly noisy!  She bought it because I had asked for a novel by a Man Booker shortlist author.  The author, Aravind Adiga, actually won the Man Booker in 2008 for his first novel, The White Tiger.  Adiga was born in Madras (new Chennai) India in 1974; after achieving his secondary school certificate, he emigrated with his family to Australia, where he graduated from high school in Sydney.  He graduated, next, from Columbia University in 1997 and subsequently studied English literature at Magdelan College, Oxford.  He began his business career as a financial journalist with the Financial Times, Money and Time before becoming freelance.

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Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is a book focused on Indian cricket and its effect on a Mumbai slum family of two boys and their compulsive father.  Radha, the older brother, expects to fulfill his father’s dream of being selected for a top Indian team.  Tommy Sir, a coach/agent/promoter introduces the boys father, Mohan, to a ‘businessman’, Anand Mehta, who pays Mohan a stipend in return for a large slice of the boy’s earnings when they become famous.  Unexpectedly, Manju, the younger boy, is the better batsman, scoring 497 not out in a crucial contest.  Radha has a ‘weight transfer problem’ which is inhibiting his effectiveness as a batsman.  Enter a rival, Javed, a cocky, rebellious, rich kid who is also a fine batsman, and who happens to be gay.  Manju, at the center of the story, is his older brother’s best friend and rival, and his father’s severest but respectful critic.  The younger batsman is torn between his admiration for Javed, and his reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship; and between careers in cricketing or in science.

Selection Day offers a rich mixture of conflicted, imperfect characters with whom the reader cannot help but empathize.  The setting of Mumbai is drawn with natural clarity; one feels truly present.  And without being a ‘book about cricket’, Selection Day, presents the culture, the mystique, the competitiveness of Indian youth critic captivatingly, without technical fussiness.  The dialogue is credible, but occasionally seems too tangential to lead the reader to any firm conclusions.  Perhaps, this is Mr Adiga’s intention with this novel: to make the point that, try as one might, there can never be the achievement of one’s ultimate dream.

This sense of failure seems to carry over into the two concluding parts of the novel: what happens after selection day and in the epilogue.  One cannot help but be engaged by the beautiful writing, the energy, and the unfolding future in the lead up to selection day.  The writing is as good, but the energy and the future have dissipated after selection day.  Perhaps this novel could feel more whole, more consistent, if dreams could be scaled back rather than dispelled, and the energy and the future modestly re-directed.