Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Other Worlds

One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the ability to encounter places you would never otherwise do. The last three books I read were good books, but not good enough to want me to read them again (my criterion for books I really like!); yet they were interesting because they showed me worlds other than where I live, helped me imagine lives so different from my own.

Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is a debut novel set in Australia. Nominated for the Booker, that it ultimately lost to The White Tiger, it is a monster of a book, 700 pages long, rambling and messy at times and peopled with characters bizarre and yet tangible, imaginable. It is a book about Jasper Dean’s search for identity. It follows his father Martin Dean’s (the most hated man in Australia) peripatetic life and his uncle Terry Dean’s (the most loved). The strange fascination Australia has for murderers and criminals (Ned Kelly, for instance), comes into play and Terry Dean, criminal and murderer is a hero. His brother Martin, who is the clever one, the philosopher and the analyzer is vilified and has to escape his country with his son. It takes 700 pages, innumerable diaries written by Martin, weird labyrinthine houses, mad business plans, exile to Thailand and a tragic return to Australia to get Jasper, who is forever looking for excuses to hate his father, learn to finally say, “..I had had the good fortune to be raised by an odd, uncompromising, walking stew of ideas. So what if he was a philosopher who thought himself into a corner? He was also a natural-born empathiser who would have rather been buried alive than have his imperfections ever seriously harm anyone. He was my father. He was a fool. He was my kind of fool.” Throughout, the book is peppered with philosophical homilies from Martin that can get as infuriating as they can get interesting. It is a bit of a roller-coaster of a book, that can get maddeningly bizarre and painfully twisted at times. Yet it all does seem rather fresh and new and interesting. Australia sure has a worthy-of-note, original voice.

Amos Oz’s Black Box (a translation from the Hebrew) gives us a glimpse into life in present day Israel. The lives of ordinary middle-class people living everyday in the midst of a political conflict that cannot help getting personal. It is the story of Alex and Illana, divorced and yet unable to let go of each other. Illana is married again, this time to Michel, an orthodox Jew, whose mission is to establish the supremacy of the Jewish homeland. Alex on the other hand is the liberal professor, who fought the war, yet wants no hand in the continuing conflict. Alex and Illana’s son Boaz forms the fourth character in this fascinating drama. The whole story is told in the form of hand-written letters (a rather old-fashioned technique, I must say – people seem to have large amounts of time to write the long missives) and the loves and passions of the main protagonists that play in the midst of the political drama (liberal vs orthodox; tolerance vs fanaticism) make it a moving and remarkable story. It was for me a first look into modern Israel, the real-ness of living in a kibbutz, the proximity of a conflict zone and the way the political invades the personal in ways that we cannot even imagine. Interesting.

Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland was one of Time Magazine’s 10 best books of 2008. To me, its interest lies in its description of a strange new world – that of cricket players in New York. Hans van der Broek is a Dutch equity analyst, married to an English lawyer Rachel with a young son Jake. They move to New York in high-powered jobs. 9/11 happens, they need to move out of their Manhattan apartment and their marriage slowly falls apart. Rachel moves with Jake back to London and Hans discovers the joys of playing cricket in New York with a jamboree of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and West Indian immigrants. In the process, he meets with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant who dreams of making Americans play cricket. His grand immigrant dream resembles the great American one – he has plans of forming a cricket club, building a stadium, getting teams from the sub continent to play cricket there and introducing the greatness of the game to Americans. Hans is taken in by this strange vision and by Chuck himself, who as a mesmerizing raconteur, he cannot resist. It is only when he slowly discovers Chuck’s darker side – his illegal gambling network and his Russian mafia connections – that Hans finds it in himself to move away. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of cricket and O’Neill’s philosophizing of a game that has never gone past its colonial origins. O’Neill romanticizes the game in its pristine form – men in white on green fields, imagining an environment of justice and fairplay. Netherland is a slow, ponderous book, much like its protagonist Hans and some of its pages can get excruciatingly heavy and tedious. Yet there are moments of lyrical beauty that can catch your breath – he describes experiencing London for the first time as finding something romantic in ‘the leftover twinkle of empire’. And when asked for advice about marriage by a younger colleague, he says “We are in the realm not of logic but of wistfulness, and I must maintain that wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition.” It is a good book if you feel like slowing down and you’re moving too fast.

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