Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Novellas


Two slim volumes were my staple during the last week of the year - Ian Mcewan’s quite uncharacteristic The Daydreamer and Milan Kundera’s Slowness. Two very different books with very different sensibilities that brought my year to a close.

The Daydreamer is a book that is bound to resonate with anyone who has ever daydreamed away endless hours as a child. The ability to just sit around, stare into space and imagine a whole different world was for me the best part of childhood. McEwan brings alive the fascination and wonder of those times and through the stories of the daydreamer Peter, gives the word possibility a whole new dimension.

Peter Fortune is a 10 year old very quiet boy, with a set of busy parents and a kid sister Kate whom he alternatively adores and despises. All in all, a pretty normal boring sort of suburban kid life. But Peter’s world is anything but normal and boring and with his child’s imagination, he conjures up stories and worlds in his mind from the most innocuous things and people around him.

Not all the stories are nice and pretty – there are elements of Roald Dahl in the story The Dolls, where Kate’s dolls want to exchange his life for theirs, starting with taking over his room. Most of the stories have Peter putting himself in someone else’s shoes – either the old dying cat, the doll, a detested baby cousin or an inexplicable adult. Some of these work beautifully – I particularly liked the story of the cat, where the cat is dying and Peter exchanges his soul with the cat’s for one day. He gets to bring alive his fantasies of cat life while gifting his life to the cat for one day. Touching and kind and lovely. Others like The Baby and The Grownup fall slightly flat. Stereotypical anecdotes of a baby world and a grown up world kind of mar the formula.

All in all, this is a refreshing children’s book that did appeal to a grownup like me too. Unlike the current fascination of kiddie books with alternative worlds – witches and daemons and such like, this book takes a real and normal boy’s life and weaves in exciting possibilities.

I cannot be this enthusiastic about the second novella though. Kundera requires more reading before I can judge whether I like this kind of writing or not. Slowness is about an idea – the idea that ‘the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory, the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.’ We are a generation obsessed with speed, because what we are trying to do is speed away from unpleasantness. While slowness is a mark of memory, when we are trying to remember something. And what Kundera tries to do is have conversations with the reader about ideas like this.

He kind of illustrates this with two stories of seduction set 200 years apart. In one, an 18th century noblewoman seduces a young man simply for pleasure, an Epicurean ideal. In the other, a 20th century academic’s seduction game is messed up, turns out more comic and foolish than expected. The 18th century seduced nobleman savours the memory of his amorous night while the academic bikes away speedily to forget his.

It’s a bit too metaphysical for my taste. But it’s different enough a novel to intrigue me into reading other Kundera works in the new year.

2 comments:

UL said...

Liked these reviews much, both very interesting, the first one I can relate to, staring into the unknown, sometimes staring through people because my world is occuring elsewhere is something I do all the time...so I am curious to see Peter's world. Now the second concept is very interesting, slowness causing long term memory where as speed causing forgetfullness...well thanks for these reviews, I always know where to come when I am looking for an interesting book to read. Happy New Year 08 to the two of you :)

small talk said...

Thanks UL. Happy new year to the 3 of you too.