a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: historical

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor, the last of the greats, as it were. His reign lasted nearly fifty years, I was not aware of that somehow. What I have been made consistently aware of in popular local media, is that he’s a much-hated figure in Indian history; known more than anything else as an intolerant anti-Hindu tyrant who destroyed many temples. It’s been repeated so often that I never actually stopped to wonder if it were true. A great example of history being bent into a political weapon. 
Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke aims to distinguish fact from propaganda. The book begins with a chapter long disclaimer stating what the book is and isn’t. It then spends another chapter telling us how it wants us to use the information presented to view Aurangzeb impartially. I am no expert, but I feel that no compelling content should require so much contextualising. The author is so busy making her case, when she could have let the content speak for itself – then again, maybe the issue is that the content is unable to stand on its own.

“I wish you to recollect that the greatest conquerors are not always the greatest kings. The nations of the earth have often been subjugated by mere uncivilized barbarians, and the most extensive conquests have, in a few short years, crumbled to pieces. He is the truly great king who makes it the chief business of his life to govern his subjects with equity. —Aurangzeb, writing to the recently dethroned Shah Jahan.”

I liked more than a few things I learnt about Aurangzeb through this book. We all know that Aurangzeb earned much scorn, during and after his times, for overthrowing and trapping Shah Jahan at the Red Fort while he was still able. What I did not know was that Aurangzeb was plagued by guilt for these actions, especially in the latter part of his reign. The author quotes letters penned by the king to various trusted sources and his obsession with his “impending judgement” is revealing.
I had no information beyond Shah Jahan’s imprisonment about the war of succession between his sons. Aurangzeb was not the heir apparent. It’s interesting how he hounded, murdered and drove out his brothers in the pursuit of the crown. As the author puts it, given the choice, any of his brothers would have done the same. 
I am fascinated by the fact that the emperor asked to be buried in a simple tomb without the pomp and glory of the Mughal tradition. The detailing of his love for mangoes, dislike for courtly music and bias for his grandsons makes the king more than a caricature to sway historical narratives.  
The driving argument of the book is that we fail to see Aurangzeb as a product of his times. Colonial politics carved out the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and enmity that was close to absent to during the Mughal times. It is therefore unfair to judge Aurangzeb through that lens. Though more pious than his predecessor and his brother, he was not a Muslim king. His motivations for controlling religious practices of either Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh communities were political. He was a brilliant military and political tactician. Politics and religion are viewed as largely and purposefully separate in the modern world. This distinction did not exist in Aurangzeb’s time. The head of the state, the ruler of the empire was to take it upon himself to do God’s work. Therefore, his interest in religion was not interference as it would be in the modern mould. 
What the author has proved with a shadow of doubt is also that Aurangzeb was ruthless and power-hungry. His ambition often stood in the way of his sense of justice. Needless to say, it is this hunger for power that makes it so easy and compelling a narrative to cast this emperor as a soulless villain. Consider this example used by the author to show his lack of bias towards religion – paraphrased, a group of rebels caught by Aurangzeb’s army were to be punished differently, the punishment for the Hindus being more severe than that of the Muslims. Aurangzeb did not make such religious distinctions when doling out punishments. Instead, he ordered all their heads to be chopped off. It is difficult to contextualise any actions and eliminate our internal biases (products of our own time) when judging historical characters. 
The tragedy is that with a man as ruthless as Aurangzeb, there’s little incentive to see him as anything other than the devil himself. The author urges us to understand that this emperor was no more cruel than was expected in his times and she asks us to ease up on the ill judgement of his character. The book reiterates then that he was cruel and formidable. But, an honest treatment of history must make the distinction that this cruelty did not stem from a religious bias. This is an important point, and I’m glad it was presented so passionately by the author. I appreciate what the book hoped to achieve, I just wish there was more content. What we have is interesting, informative, but is it really enough to build empathy?

“Too great is the grief of this world, and I have only one heart bud – how can I pour all the desert’s sand into an hourglass?” – Aurangzeb 

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.
My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you’ll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.
In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together – so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people’s stories.

“But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily… Don’t you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”


I’ve not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson’s. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson’s writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It’s the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James’s national identity crisis. We look at James’s minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons’s lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don’t know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story – I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book… pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month! 

The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott

I have been awfully out of touch with all things literary, even the latest Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling release whizzed past my notice. Anyway, here is a long overdue book review. I stumbled upon this book at my new library (best birthday gift ever, by the way.) The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott is an odd book, but one that is right up my alley.
Setting: Paris, July 1815, Wellington has defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Daniel Connor is a young Englishman, a medical student on his way to Paris to study anatomy under the guidance of Georges Cuvier. He carries with him rare corals and important documents. On the train he meets a strange woman. Lucienne is a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with shocking views on evolution and species. The next morning, Connor wakes up to find Lucienne gone and his precious specimens missing. In Paris, he enlists the help of Inspector Jagot, a fiendish ex-thief, who convinces Connor to stay away from the dangerous woman. But Lucienne reaches out to Connor himself, with a proposition, that he help her in return for the stolen possessions. Soon Connor finds himself caught up in an uncanny jewel heist and an even stranger tangle of revolutionary ideas and political upheavals.

The Coral Thief is not without its flaws – a naive guileless narrator, characters who aren’t active agents but simply let the story happen to them, frequent purple prose. But they cease to matter in the light of Stott’s meticulous research and attention to historical detail. A romantic thriller, a scientific mystery, categorize it however you may, this book is an ode to an atmosphere abuzz with change and discovery, and the tumultuous history of Paris.

Deeply woven into the consciousness of its time, the story has a “slice of history” feel. The Coral Thief begins with a quote by Charles Darwin from his voyage of the Beagle. An obvious choice for a book that explores the fresh sprouts of a young theory of evolution. Even as Professor Cuvier disregards the doubters, Connor is drawn to the study of molluscs and tiny organisms and the possibility of an alternate version to his Biblical truth.

‘Imagine an arm,’ Ramon said, slightly drunk, stretching out his own arm. ‘According to the priests, human history starts out with Adam and Eve in the garden up here on the shoulder and reaches down to the tip of the finger – the present – where you are now. Here’s Herodotus near the shoulder and here’s Napoleon down towards the end of the index finger. But the real truth is that all human history can be contained on a single fingernail. All of this, all of this from the shoulder down to the fingernail here, is pre-human history. So now you have to look for Herodotus and Napoleon with a microscope. And us, well, where are we in all of that abyss of time and where is now? Time doesn’t stop for us. La marche.’


I had overheard fragments of conversation about transformism in the coffeehouses and taverns of Edinburgh, where the medical students talked politics. But Erasmus Darwin was mostly ridiculed by the students in Edinburgh; there was a whole set of jokes about whether we had descended from cabbages or oysters. (…) But Fin’s friends talked openly about transformism, and rationally, not speculatively, or apologetically, but as if the hypothesis were beyond question. They – the heretics and infidels – now fascinated me. 

The atmosphere is charged with radical new beliefs and questions and Stott has captured this energy on paper. The politics of Lamarck’s theory of species transformation, the “dethroning” of man as one of the characters aptly puts it, its interpretation as a shift of power from the royals to the masses, is most intriguing. The book makes it plenty clear that politics was of no interest to Lamarck, whose curiosity only rested in science. But a thought cannot be contained in a bubble, and The Coral Thief shows us this and other waves of consequence that stirred the sentiments of the Parisians.

The book neither criticizes nor picks sides and Connor’s perspective of an alarmed outsider works rather well, as you are led through glimpses of the reign of terror, of Bastille and finally Napoleon’s abdication, the resilience of a city swarmed with foreign troupes, a shocked city that still whispers of Napoleon’s return. Stott’s lyrical writing amplifies the drama, certainly, but it is not maudlin.

Connor’s story is interspersed with fleeting moments from Napoleon’s point of view that in my view it could have done without. Without giving away the plot, I must add, the mystery itself is not entirely stable in its construction either. But these are minor grievances in a magical whole. If you are a stickler for well researched stories and like history, all things French, thought provoking fiction (not a good old carefree airport read) and don’t mind the occasional clumsy narrator, do pick up The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Spoiler alert: Do not read this review unless you are already aware of the history of Wolf Hall. It has been brought to my notice that this review contains spoilers. Well, I’m sorry. It never occurred to me that this could be seen as a plot-oriented novel, in the least… nevertheless, you have been warned.

All of last week, I have been struggling with a review and disinterestedly reading bits of this novel. A creative block of sorts. I realized why this evening. There is no room for new in my mind since I read this most haunting account of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall was amazing. And Bring Up The Bodies makes a fitting sequel. Wolf Hall is about the tides of religious reform in Europe, and the separation of the English church. Here, the focus shifts to the immediate affairs of the court. But what happens in Bring Up The Bodies will have unalterable consequences across the realm for years to come.

Picture this: The year 1555. England has a new church, and a new queen. Anne Boleyn is finally at the throne. Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, is on her deathbed, and her daughter Mary is no longer the princess. But the King is still unhappy. Anne has not yet borne him a son to secure the Tudor line. Following a visit to the Seymours at Wolf Hall, a distraught Henry finds himself falling in love with little Jane.
Enter here, the infamous calculating genius of Thomas Cromwell, our unlikely hero and the King’s right-hand-man. With the safety of the nation at stake, Cromwell cooks up a plan that ensures the eventual destruction of Anne Boleyn… ‘As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither Cromwell nor Henry will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.’

The first book in this trilogy went out of its way to shine a positive light on Cromwell. In Bring Up The Bodies, the light flickers. His character now casts beastly shadows reminiscent of the stark image historians have built of him – dangerous, ruthless, the man with the face of a killer. The power of this book lies in Cromwell’s slipping grace, in how it shows a good man turn into the monster that he will forever be known as. In the months leading up to Anne’s arrest, you watch Thomas Cromwell deceive and lie, driven by revenge towards those who wronged his old master, Cardinal Wolsey. He constructs an unshakeable case against the Queen he calls a serpent and seals his own fate as a villain.

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

And yet, you cannot place the blame on one man. That is the beauty and the horror of Bring Up The Bodies. Cromwell is a puppet master pulling strings and slowly the fiction he spins becomes more real than the truth. There is little good in the world of Bring Up The Bodies, and no one to trust. It is a series of wrong choices, unthinking decisions, and bloated egos that lead up to the fall of the Boleyns, and pave the way to the undoing of the man orchestrating it.

Consider Anne. Coaxed into wooing Henry by her greedy family, wary of being cast aside like her sister, Anne is composed of strength and determination. But it is so hard to summon sympathy for someone so conniving and heartless. The woman rejoicing in the death of Katherine of Aragon. Anne of Wolf Hall was feisty and attractive. In Bring Up The Bodies, she seems old, burdened by the expectations of the King. But the fleeting pity she conjures in you is squashed. Still just as boastful, it is her very spirited coquetry that breaks Anne. After her arrest, Cromwell observes her crumble. He does not consider her guilty of the crime. To him, she suffers not because she has been caught, but because she has failed, lost Henry to another woman. Anne is dead to herself, he says. And Mantel writes about how Anne laughs during her final days, clutches her neck and jokes about being beheaded. Those moments leave you shaken. And her ending builds a lump in your throat.

Henry, though, is in no uncertain terms, excuse the bluntness, a pig. Mantel describes him as imposing, intelligent, handsome, jovial; he exemplifies the entitled brat, revelling in the luxury of having so many at the mercy of his whims. A god-fearing man, Henry never fails to invoke the holy name when it suits his cause. He is used to getting his way, a child who wants a toy and will tell all manner of lies to get it. Mantel brings out his hypocrisy in such funny moments as when Henry accidentally refers to Katherine as his ‘first wife’, and sheepishly takes it back – the reason for their divorce having been the fact that he did not consider the marriage real. But you see, Henry of the first book was this lost lamb. What he did to Katherine was scandalous, true, but Anne’s fall makes him the devil who will go on to destroy every life he touches. The sinking realization is, he is only getting started.

Jane Seymour. There is so much and so little to say about her. The final book should display the fullest intrigue of the third queen, the one Henry VIII is supposed to have truly loved. Till then, I will let Mantel’s enchanting writing speak for itself,

He asks Jane, ‘Would you do anything you can, to ruin Anne Boleyn?’ His tone implies no reproach; he’s just interested. 

Jane considers: but only for a moment. ‘No one need contrive at her ruin. No one is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.’

He must study Jane, now, the expression on her downturned face. When Henry courted Anne she looked squarely at the world, her chin tilted upwards, her shallow-set eyes like pools of darkness against the glow of her skin. But one searching glance is enough for Jane, and then she casts he eyes down. Her expression is withdrawn, brooding. (…) French hood, gable hood, it is not enough. If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.

What a solid second instalment. In case you haven’t guessed it by now, I highly recommend these books. I cannot wait to read The Mirror and The Light, the end of Thomas Cromwell’s tragic story, sadly yet to be published. 

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

“The passing years had not diminished Asmat’s beauty. Time had painted some grey in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagra murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him.”
I love novels which open with a birth, for what better way to start a story? The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan begins with a small family fleeing from Persia to seek refuge in India. On their way, Asmat gives birth to a baby girl. Ghias Beg, the father, already burdened by three children, decides to give up the baby. He abandons her under a tree but fate brings the baby back to her parents. A delicate child with azure eyes, they call her Mehr-un-nisa. Sun among Women.
Eight years in the future, Mehrunnisa is a sprightly kid, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in the world around her. Her father’s favourite, she is stubbornly independent. Ghias has earned a position of respect in Emperor Akbar‘s court, in Mughal India. Today he is invited with his family to the Royal Palace for the first wedding of young Prince Salim. Little Mehrunnisa is smitten by the prince. When Empress Ruqayya takes a liking to her and commands her to visit the palace regularly, Mehrunnisa fantasises of a possible future with Salim. But before their love can fully blossom, Mehrunnisa is married off to a common soldier. And so begins a lifelong struggle with destiny for Salim and Mehrunnisa – better known to us as the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his influential Empress Nur Jahan.
Though the first in a trilogy, this novel works as a standalone. Indu Sundaresan has beautifully fleshed out the legendary romance, doing justice to the people and the magic of the late 15th to early 16th century India. She has left no stone unturned in bringing to life Emperor Akbar’s court, with his celebrated aura, his many wives and their struggles for the spotlight, his patronage for the arts, his big heart and bigger ambition. Salim is a spoilt prince. He starts out a drunkard and a rebel, coaxed by Akbar’s ill-wishers. But over the course of the story, he sobers down to the best version of himself. History tells us that, like Akbar, the fourth Mughal ruler too achieved admirable feats. Sundaresan shows us how.
Mehrunnisa is not without her faults. It would be foolish to expect her to stand as some ideal of feminine empowerment. But she possesses great passion and drive. A large portion of her attraction to Prince Salim has to do with the power that being his wife would grant her. She is grounded in reality, uses her beauty to woo him; then, unconditionally, immorally, supports him through his mistakes. Circumstance requires her to be wily and she is. But later, Sundaresan ensures that we see why Salim loves Mehrunnisa, beyond the looks. What starts out as a Cinderella story progresses into a bonding of minds.
Sadly, the book seems to have been marketed as just a romance, when there is a lot more to it. It is about Salim’s transformation from a lazy brat to a good leader – Merhunnisa’s from an idle dreamer to a woman who works to get what she wants. They journey on independently until their paths cross once again. More than half the book is devoted to sieges, wars and the conflicts of inheritance between Akbar and his sons. Sundaresan muses on the social and religious demands of the times, the tongues of corruption in the court, the increasing threat of the British colonizers. There is drama, oh yes, but the book is not what people love to scoff at and label “chick-lit,” as the cover blurb implies. 
To anyone not already familiar with the cast of this story, though, the names will be confusing. Right in the middle of the book, Sundaresan begins to refer to Salim as Jahangir, the title he adopts. A shortened family tree at the start of the book tells that Salim’s son Khurram is actually the future Emperor Shah Jahan. And Mehrunnisa’s niece, the one engaged to young Shah Jahan is none other than Mumtaz, for whom he erected the Taj Mahal. Only at the very end of the book are we explicitly told that Mehrunnisa is Nur Jahan. A nice trick, I suppose. Sundaresan’s research is evident in her attention to historical detail. But I wish she had stuck to one set of names.
That aside, what a lovely book. Swift, engrossing and richly atmospheric, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan gives a neat glimpse into one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man.

Floating on waves of post-book happiness. Blown away. So dark, menacing, so urgent. Painful. Cerebral. Compulsively readable…. an outpouring of admiration, that was me for hours after I finished the book. I had to call my sister to effuse. This review is thanks to her. 

“The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh…”
Picture this. England of the 1520s. As secret wildfires of a new religion are lit through Europe, Englishmen are burned for heresy. Queen Katherine has failed to bear Henry VIII a son. England is on the brink of a civil war. Enter Anne Boleyn, a sly serpent, a shrewd temptress. Henry, desperate in love, seeks to break free of the heirless marriage, to annul it. Scandal ensues; the Roman Church and most of Europe stand staunch against King Henry and his wish to marry Anne, to renounce the law and be his own master. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. He is vastly different from the nobility of the Tudor court, a man with the face of a killer, the only one who can realize the impossible. 
This is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A biography of politics and the beginnings of the English reformation through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and councillor to Henry VIII. Famously chronicled as ruthless beyond redemption, Cromwell slips into the role of a protagonist with surprising ease. In the eyes of those who surround him, he is a bully and a hack, but through his thoughts, his memories, we see a man capable of much warmth, passion and understanding. With a deliberate reassessment of one man’s perspective, Mantel brings to our attention the lack of that human element in most dry historical fact. Cromwell’s recasting as a hero may be a fantasy, perhaps, but it makes you wonder…
Because Mantel’s Cromwell is a person, not a symbol. A loyal servant and a kind father, he is religious in his own way, not orthodox nor explicitly a Protestant. Above all, he is a man who has examined himself and has reconciled with what sin he has found within. Some of my favourite scenes star Cromwell and his wife, their quiet intimacy is very real. The strangest moments are when Cromwell feels surprised by the way he is perceived by others, and is then surprised by his own surprise. He frequently doubts his own beliefs. In his musings on religion and his thirst for knowledge you see an intellectual. His endless displays of cynicism, quick wit and bold plotting reveal the calculating genius that coaxed the Parliament into breaking away the Church of England.
The characters in Mantel’s England are all retold from this quasi-villain’s perspective. Cardinal Wolsey plays a huge part in building Thomas Cromwell and has hence the most crucial role in this redefining of history. Saint Thomas More, the philosopher and martyr, appears dangerously self-serving. Henry to him is intelligent but a lost lamb. Anne Boleyn, full of surprises, not to be trusted. Mary Boleyn, pretty and feisty, earns his sympathies. Katherine of Aragon he finds proud to the point of foolish. Princess Mary, frightfully but perhaps deceptively weak… the list is long and I’m afraid I am running out of adjectives.
The sheer scope of the book inspires wonder. Six hundred pages and never a dull moment. Mantel has garbed the story in intricate detail, converting research seamlessly into plot. No clunky dumps of information. It takes great narrative skill to flesh out the story like that. Stylistically, the book is odd. It has colons and hyphens where none are necessary and a noticeable dearth of quotation marks. For the most part of the book, Mantel refers to Cromwell not by name but as “he.” Cute. Except, with a cast of some fifty characters and at least five Thomases, her copious use of the indefinite pronoun does get a little trying. Truly hen-peck-ish of me, I know, to call that a flaw. The story is narrated entirely in the present tense and it feels as if you have been placed right in the middle of the action. 
Prior knowledge of the Henrican reformation is not mandatory to read and enjoy the book – I had only vague recollections from an old obsession with the Tudor dynasty. That being said, an interest in politics, theology and history would certainly make the book more lastingly effective. If you know your history, by the way, you would know that Cromwell had anything but a happy ending. But in Wolf Hall, Mantel has given him just that. The book ends when he is at the peak of his career. So the one thing keeping me from diving for the sequel is the undeniable fact that there is trouble to come. I shall grant me and Cromwell a month more of happiness before taking on Book #2 – Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.
The world is not run from where he (Henry) thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

A must read, if ever there was one. 

Musings on Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, the thirst for meaning and the recipe for a good novel

This review contains no spoilers, nothing you won’t find out in
the first fifty pages or so.

Why I read the book: I have read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before and I
thought it was an amazing idea with the perfect conclusion and terribly dragging
middle. Recently I stumbled upon a comment 
Viktoria left on an old
blog 
post of mine, saying that Foucault’s Pendulum was her favourite Eco
and a much-needed antidote after she pulled through The Da Vinci Code. Too
intriguing a description to ignore.

About the book: Foucault’s Pendulum is a novel by Italian
writer Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver. Eco spent eight years writing
the book and the years of research is evident in every word.

One of the genres dominating the book world for the past decade
has been thrillers involving secret societies. Foucault’s Pendulum has been
called “the thinking man’s The Da Vinci Code”, as both books no doubt
deal with the same theme, but in remarkably different ways. Foucault’s Pendulum
can be seen as a sort of parody and analysis of our gullibility and constant search
for meaning.

When I read this interview, I delighted in a joke Eco made upon being asked if The Da Vinci
Code was a bizarre little off-shoot of Foucault’s Pendulum, saying he had read
it, but-

“The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s
Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations – the world
conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights
Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I
suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.”

Summary: Picture
a quaint Italian bar in Milan. 1970s. Casaubon, a scholar researching the
Knights Templar, meets Jacopo Belbo, a failed writer who has turned to
publishing. Belbo and his cabalist friend Diottalevi are editors at a vanity
press. Casaubon joins the firm as an expert on the history of secret occult
societies.

Bored of reading scholarly manuscripts on far-fetched conspiracy
theories, one day, the three editors decide to invent their own conspiracy. As
a joke. They call it “the Plan.” It is a hoax that connects the
medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups throughout history and
promises existence of a lost treasure. According to the fake Plan, the key to
this treasure lies at a point in a museum in Paris, the place where the
Foucault Pendulum is housed. What starts out as a game becomes all too real
when existing secret groups begin to believe the Plan, going to desperate
measures to track the treasure.

In the present day, where the book opens, Belbo has gone missing
and our narrator Casaubon is in hiding, fearing for his very life…

THEMES Foucault’s Pendulum is more than critique
on history and culture. In the guise of a parody on society, the novel presents
each of our struggles for identity, for purpose. The book talks about that
concept in history and philosophy of the ultimate quest, the true knowledge,
the lost treasure, you name it. It is the idea that has travelled all over the
world and throughout all time, the idea that has always been present. This
concept, the book shows, is what forms secret societies and occult and
religious orders, whether in reality or in the mass imaginations.

The novel dissects conspiracy theories and categorizes them as not
social phenomena but personal ones. The thirst for an all-encompassing answer
is unquenchable, and every individual’s desperation to satisfy an unending
curiosity, an end which is by definition out of reach, is what makes one human.

Most books that revolve around religious cults and secret
societies like the Knights of the Temple use a small twist on the canon and
give an alternate version of history. Admittedly, I have only read a few such
books, other than the Robert Langdon series I remember The Rule of Four by Ian
Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. But what these generally do is weave a legendary
puzzle or prophecy into a modern-day murder mystery or theft and have
anthropologists and semiologists study clues and scriptures to find
solutions.

Most books about conspiracy buffs are books for conspiracy buffs. Because these books become willing participants of the crazy
conspiring instead of questioning its existence. Foucault’s Pendulum does the
latter, its focus lies in discovering the psychological root of secret
societies and occult theories rather than piecing together another hypothesis through scraps of historical evidence. And what better way to
engage in an introspection of the psyche than to take worldly
sceptics and make you watch them transition into reluctant, and soon demented,
believers.

TECHNIQUE (Plot, Characters, Writing Style) I have noticed lately that I get somewhat
Literature-student about certain aspects of fiction. So I have separated my
rants into sections that the weary reader can skip if not interested.

Characters: As I said, this is book about people. Eco
uses great technique to bring out the many facets of his characters. Take for
instance Jacopo Belbo. He is the kind of man I would be instantly attracted to.
He is witty and on the whole, lost in his own erratic world. At Pilade’s, the
bar where the Casaubon meets him, Belbo is the sort that sits in a corner and
judges people. He makes snide jokes with a straight face, does not appear to be
bothered if no one finds them funny. He has opinions, lots of them. Firm and
fixed. He puts on an air of nonchalance, but is in fact very particular and
selective about making his views known. Belbo can be exasperating, often is,
and though he makes a cool sceptic, he lacks any real strength. When he falls
in love, he appears kind of bumbling, under her spell. And yet, in spite or
partly because of his awkward but frequently self-aggrandizing ways, he is a man I would find
charming. I got through
half the book before I realized I had no idea how he looked, I wondered if Eco
had even bothered to describe his appearance, and I didn’t care.

But you don’t only see Belbo through the narrator’s lens.
Interspersed through the narrative are his own writings. These reveal a curious
detail about human behaviour that most of us ignore when reading books – that
you cannot really know a character, unless you have been inside his mind. That any story with only one narrator is essentially incomplete or misleading. In
today’s writing world, multiple points of view or shifting points of view are frowned upon as taking the easy way out. I disagree, and this book
illustrates why. Whereas to the narrator Belbo seems harmlessly frivolous and
whimsical, his self-indulgent pompous raving makes him sound grossly
delusional. And this revelation tells you a little something about Casaubon
too, his point of view becomes clearer when in contrast with another. And
you begin to question his reliability as the narrator. That is an intriguing
approach to character-building, I think.

The women, on the other hand, are something of a problem for me.
I kept expecting more out of Belbo’s muse and recurring lover Lorena Pellegrini
and she failed to capture me till the very end. In a book that has so much to do
with 
personae it is a let-down to find this maudlin a symbol of seductive
womanly wisdom. A quasi-reincarnation of the goddess of love Sophie, Lorenza
is beautiful and decadent, but she never transcends the stereotype. The gorgeous untameable woman supposedly has a discerning intellect, and she does seem to know it but never quite manages to show it. 
You are told over and over that she is the ultimate muse, both “the saint and the prostitute,” but really, Lorenza is just a flimsy paper doll of a character. 

Style: Eco’s writing is vastly exaggerated to mock the pseudo-intellectuality typical of the scholarly world. It is laden with allusions and symbols, reminiscent of The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. The esoteric
lushness of the prose is not for everybody. However the book avoids sounding pretentious and redeems itself with witty quips on
things each of us can relate to. I read
 this wonderful book review today, which talks about the “good
bits” in books. The reviewer says, “they’re moments of fiction with
the observational acuity, the immediate formal rightness, of a successful joke.
They generate a feeling of surprised recognition by illuminating things we’ve
noticed but never noticed ourselves noticing.” Foucault’s Pendulum is full
of these, which contribute to making more fluid an otherwise
trudging writing style. To illustrate my point, I give you an excerpt from
the point of view of Casaubon – 
That day, I began to be incredulous. Or, rather, I regretted
having been credulous. I regretted having allowed myself to be borne away by a
passion of the mind. Such is credulity.
Not that the incredulous person doesn’t believe in anything. It’s
just that he doesn’t believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a
time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first
thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things
don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there
must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though
distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long
as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas – both false – can
create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for
some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas
that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and
if it was jazz, all the better.



“You live on the surface,” Lia told me years later. “You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up.”


“Are you saying I’m superficial?”


“No,” she answered. “What others call profundity is only a tesseract, a four-dimensional cube. You walk in one side and come out another, and you’re in their universe, which can’t coexist with yours.”
Plot: Now here lies my greatest issue with the
book. It is not so much a complaint as a question, to you – what would you say is the right
recipe for a good work of fiction? For me,
to be honest, this book made a far greater read than something of the likes of
Dan Brown’s novels – which, I admit, I had thoroughly enjoyed.
Foucault’s Pendulum has a warped ending, that
is all the more disappointing after a tense build up. But I deem books with
absurd plot twists or snail-speed stories, which provide personality and rich
writing, still more worthy of my time than swift but well crafted plots that
allow little space for detailing or self-reflection. But I understand and
appreciate the attraction of either.

I would be a fool to say Foucault’s Pendulum is a better work of
fiction than its quick thrilling contemporaries. It isn’t. Eco is undoubtedly an
erudite thinker and deserving of all his critical and popular acclaim. But, in
my humble opinion, he is not a good storyteller. It wouldn’t wholly surprise me
if people whose tastes usually match mine find The Da Vinci Code better than
Foucault’s Pendulum. Because unlike Eco, Brown has nailed that trick of writing
that makes you stay up late into the night, eyes glued to the book, both
unable to put it down and unwilling to finish it and end the ride. And
storytelling is not easy.

There were multiple times reading this novel when I began to lose
my way in the maze of symbolism and heaving philosophy, and had to put the
book down and rest my eyes and mind. I don’t think it was
simply clunky translation that made me do this. There were pages and pages of
dialogue and description that made me crave for action. I was also aware
throughout that there was much more to glean from the book than one
read would let me. 
All these factors took away some of the sheer abandon and
enjoyment only good fiction can provide. Reading this book felt, at times, like
a chore. In the end, it was worth it, but I wouldn’t lie and say the experience
could not have been better. Perfection to me would be an author who has both, the
storytelling techniques of a thriller writer and the sagacious attention to
detail of a scholar – any suggestions?

According to Eco every detail he has included is crucial to understanding his work. But still fresh in my memory are long
winded monologues, chunks of description, lists of data that made me wish he had had a stricter editor. And it is no
surprise that this was true of the other book I read by Eco
. I really like
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, but the staunch philosophizing makes it a
tough book to love. 

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I have been an irregular reader of late. Time seems steadily to slip out of my grasp. Few books hold my attention lately: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, which I read in two feverish sittings, tops the list right now. 


Like its gorgeous cover, the book is random pages torn out and stuck together, a collage of a life or two. It is not a novel in the strictest sense. It is a series of incidents fit together in loose chronology.

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is set in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Rainey Royal lives with her father, jazz musician Howard Royal and his cult of acolytes, groupies and aspiring musicians. Her mother has left the family to live in an ashram, and under her father’s neglect, Rainey fends off advances from his best friend Gordy. She stumbles through life trying to nurture her creative drive, praying to Saint Cath – the patron of temptation, staying barely out of trouble, along with her friends Tina Dial, who secretly loves Howard, and Leah and string of young and old men.


To the world, Rainey Royal is a manipulative bully, a rebel, a criminal even; admirably disturbing, selfish. She’s greedy, talented, cruel, ruthless, moody, secretive. She is not likable. But with her art, Rainey is, in every sense of the word, “royal.” She can sew memories into people. And as she grows up, Rainey learns to use her art to find a place in the world, getting commissions for making tapestries of dead relatives and lovers. But throughout the book, Rainey’s reluctance to vulnerability, her inability to trust herself, her inexperience with love and care – the shadow of her past – hang over her head like a knife ready to sl iceher the moment she lets go of the anger keeping her upright. Rainey Royal is a masterfully crafted character, one you can’t bring yourself to care for. She stands somewhere between protagonist and villain, between good and bad and beyond grey.

Like Rainey Royal, the book is beautiful but it’s not likable, it’s full of emotions but it doesn’t touch you, it’s passionate but not lively. The tone is pessimistic, there is no solution and no real ending. I did not end up feeling a rush of affection towards Rainey or Tina, I did not wish them well, the story showed me nothing but the unfairness of life and innateness of art, and I left the book convinced that the 1970s of the story might as well have been today.


I don’t know if I like this book. Parts of it drip with melancholy beauty and parts make me gag. Sometimes it seems silly and overdone, other times grotesquely profound. Surely, you will like a book which captures how it feels to have that one skill, talent, calling, that makes all the problems of your life whoosh away; but what if its characters make you mad and miserable? Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis is such a book, memorable but I don’t know if I can call it good. It’s short, so you can read it and decide for yourself. 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging For Books.

Summary: In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. 

For Sonja, still haunted by the disappearance of her sister Natasha, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.
My thoughts: Marra’s story is driven by the setting and the characters. The story plays out in five days, but also spans the decade of the Chechen Wars, the flitting timelines circle the string of coincidences that bring Sonja, Akhmed and Havaa together. It is a walk through war and peace and brittle Chechnya itself becomes a central figure. The book uses language to add character, Chechen of course, Russian which sets Sonja and Natasha apart, Arabic which Havaa fumbles with and the English of London, where Sonja leaves her fiance to search for her sister; words of love, madness and the silent language of a man’s hatred for his son. The dialogue is masterful and achieves what vivid descriptions don’t always, creating both a tie and a sinking distance between you and the people of the story who seem all the more real in the detail. 
Eight year old Havaa has never seen a fat person; Natasha doesn’t ask a dying man his name for fear that he will die and she will be left with just a name; when Ramzan, the informer, feels like a criminal, he reminds himself that a land without law is a land without crime; when the Feds torture the prisoners, it is understood that pain, rather than information is the true purpose of the interrogation; Khassan burns his life’s worth of writing, his only book, because he wants to be forgotten.
How often does a novel make you feel that its fictional characters must be thankful to the author for telling their story? How often do you find a novel that has no judgment, where the author has carefully extricated himself from the book and has let the characters monopolize your mind? Ever read a book that shows you a man teaching his six year old daughter how to use a gun on one page and on the next, makes you laugh at a man who knows no world beyond his village and thinks Ronald McDonald is the president of America? How often has a novel made you feel insignificant, shown you the worst of times and the spark of hope in them? How often does a book make you feel, with its unabashed honesty, like a voyeur? Like you’re prying on things too difficult and courageous, too complicated for you with your simple past to comprehend?
Rarely, that’s the answer. You rarely find a book that achieves all of that. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a really good book. It makes you grateful to be in your world, and will make you stronger in the face of your problems. But as every really good book must, it feels more genuine than the real reality you’re in and despite all its horrors, you’ll find yourself dragging your feet when it tries to send you back. 
Favourite quotes: 

(Havaa and Akhmed eat their first meal, a hunk of dry black bread, after Havaa’s father’s abduction)
She ate quickly. Hunger was a sensation so long situated in his abdomen he felt it as he would an inflamed organ. He took his time, tonguing the pulp into a little oval and resting it against his cheek like a lozenge. If the bread wouldn’t fill his stomach, it might at least fill his mouth. The girl had finished half of hers before he took a second bite.
“You shouldn’t rush'” he said. “There are no taste buds in your stomach.” 
She paused to consider his reasoning, then took another bite. “There’s no hunger in your tongue,” she mumbled between chews. Her cupped hand caught the crumbs and tossed them back in her mouth.
(Sonja, making a doctor out of Akhmed, the gentle artist.)

She needed another set of hands, no matter how fumbling and uncertain they might be. Not that she’d admit it to him. She had to harden him, teach him that saving a life and nurturing a life are different processes, and to succeed in the former one must dispense with the pathos of the latter. 
(Khassan and his fleeting affair with the love of his life, Mirza)
She praised his book and he embraced her from gratitude rather than lust, but she didn’t let go. Neither did he. She kissed his cheek, his earlobe. For months they’d run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric. The circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed. She sat on the desk, between the columns of read and unread manuscript, and pulled him toward her by his index fingers.

I agree with the Washington Post review of the book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra “is a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.”

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.


But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.