Friday, April 30, 2010

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; Export Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)

I will be the first to admit that Laila Lalami's "Secret Son" had me yawning when I first opened it.  At chapter two I was wondering if I had made a mistake buying the book.  No, it wasn't slow-paced, quite the contrary infact, but coming to it after a novel like "Possessed" (my previous post) , the writing seemed so pedestrian and lifeless with tired metaphors (perhaps this is because French speaking Lalami writes in English?). Thankfully, by the time I was at chapter four things had started looking up and I found myself being drawn into the story.  I'm really glad I persisted because the book, although not a great literary triumph or anything, does bring its own rewards.

The title gives the plot away.  The story follows Youssef El Mekki,  a boy born out of wedlock to a servant girl and an already-married, very wealthy man (Nabil Amrani).  Being married Nabil was unable to give the woman and their son a home.  So Youssef grows up as the son of a single mother,  in Hay An Najat, a slum in Casablanca, often described as "melting pot of misery and poverty", while his "other" family, only a few miles away, live lives of the rich and famous. Had Youssef grown up in the US he may not has cursed his fate so much, but to be the bastard child of a single mother in Morocco carries with it a strong social stigma, something that is very hard to shrug off.

As a premise, the notion of there being a "secret son" is always exciting, but I think this particular novel failed to really capitalize on that - for a truly exciting and endearing story on a secret son try Tim Brannigan's "Where are you  Really From?".  However, as I continued to read I realized that the plot is little more than a hook from which to suspend a  relevant social and political commentary of  the Morocco of the new millennium and despite my reservations on the plot, narrative etc, I found myself drawn to the country, its people and their lives.

Morocco has a rigid hierarchy based on class, wealth, power and jobs, but especially class.  This division of society is very apparent in the cliques at Youssef's university.   There are the rich kids (the “Mercedes-and-Marlboro group”) as they are called; the religious kind (“headscarf -and-beard faction”); the egalitarians or ( “Marx-and-Lenin group”), and the "Berber Student Alliance and the Saharawis", students from distinct ethnic minorities within the country.

The novel also explores how Islamic fundamentalism has come to visit Morocco and how marginalized youth in the poorer areas of  the country are sitting ducks for fundamentalist recruiters.  A boy like Youssef who is not only poor but has major identity issues as well, would be just the kind of person these fundamentalists are fond of targeting.

All in all  "Secret Son" is a pitch-perfect rendering of  contemporary Moroccan life in all its chaos, energy, humor and terror.   As you read you will start to put the touristy, picture postcard images of Casablanca aside and come to the sad realization that it has problems with corruption, a mistrust of government/police, poverty, overcrowding, unequal distribution of wealth and fundamentalism, just to name a few.

Although I didn't like "Secret Son" as much as I enjoyed her previous novel "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits", I will say that this novel has a great sense of place and just for that I will give it three stars out of five.


Friday, April 23, 2010

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Original edition (February 16, 2010)

A comedic academician sounds almost oxymoronic, right?  But that is exactly how critic and Stanford University instructor  Elif Batuman comes across in her excellent first novel "The Possessed".  I had read a few blurbs before picking up the book and while I expected it to be touching on humorous I was not prepared for just how laugh-out-loud funny some parts of the book are and how Elif's pen can turn any meeting-of-people into a scene from "Whose Life is it Anyway" (a live improv comedy show where a bunch of comedians improvise everyday situations turning them into comically bizarre events!)

 Batuman’s “fascination with Russianness” began after she discovered an old copy of "Anna Karenina" as a teenager at her grandmother’s apartment in Ankara.   Funnily enough, I, too, have Anna Karenina to thank for my love of Russian literature. In my case, I discovered a copy of Anna Karenina while I waited for my mother in the waiting room of the Russian Embassy in Bombay. I managed to read a few chapters while I waited and was completely bewitched. I suspect Bautman fell under the same spell.

 This novel ( The Possessed)  thus sets out to explore her love and fascination with Russian literature where she not only offers a fresh perspective on well-loved Russian authors and their works (Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky to name a few), but takes the reader on trips to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retraces Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learns why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying and also observes an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

How does a student like her get to travel so much?  Batuman believes in grants. In a chapter titled “Who Killed Leo Tolstoy?” she requires grant money to help pay for a trip to a conference at Tolstoy’s estate. To qualify for an extra $1,500, she devises a theory that Tolstoy was murdered. Her academic department doesn’t buy it, but she makes the trip nevertheless.

I don't suppose this is meant to be a travelogue but Batuman with her keen eye for beautiful detail, her penchant for absurd stories and her knowledge of Russian and Uzbek (which gives her access to the locals)makes for an invaluable raconteur of travel stories.  She is an  endearing guide and after you read about her travels in Samarkhand, Tashkent and St. Petersburg, you'll find yourself "possessed" with a desire to travel there yourselves.

Batuman has this penchant for picking up the oddest, most fascinating details.  For instance, did you know the Uzbecks actually lament not having been colonized by the British?  I'll bet you didnt'!

"Peter the so-called Great who, noticing that the English had colonies in India, decided that Russia had to have colonies in Central Asia. The Russians were very different from the English, who had sent to India not muzhiks (peasants) but aristocrats.  "Things would have gone better for us if we had been colonized by the English" Dilorom said.  It was one of their idées reçues.: they all thought of India as their missed fate"  pg 237

Throughout the book Batuman also regales the reader with some wonderful anecdotes about figures of history we may or may not have heard of. One that I was most fascinated with is, the "seven-foot, 280-pound" Empress Anna who was the great niece of Peter The Great.  Also fascinating are stories from the life of Chekhov, Pushkin and Dostoevsky among many others.

Anyone picking up this book hoping to be engaged in an intense discussion of Russian literature is in for a disappointment. Even the chapter devoted to the Dostoevsky novel that gives the book its title (narrating the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province) spends most of its pages detailing how disturbingly her friends in graduate school replicated the same story. But she writes with such charm, such cleverness and wit, you'll be enchanted and very glad you stayed for the literary romp through obscure, but wonderfully entertaining tales surrounding the lives of Russian authors.

To close, the one very important message I took away from this book is that when you go after your passion (in Batuman's case it was to learn all there is to learn about Russian literature) you just never know where the road might lead you, but the journey will definitely be very interesting.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

For the most part North Korea remains a dark, inscrutable place. Journalists, tourists and AID agencies are allowed in but with severe restrictions. They are usually not allowed beyond Pyonyang, the Potemkin village-like capital, and they (especially journalists) are assigned "minders" whose job is to make sure no unauthorized conversations or reporting take place. When Barbara Demick moved to Seoul as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, her job was to cover both the Koreas, but as no contact was permitted with the North Korean people she took to talking to North Koreans who had defected to South Korean and in time a picture of real life in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea began to emerge which she put into words for articles written for the Los Angeles Times.

Eventually after seven years of conversations with North Koreans, she decided she would tell their stories in a book titled "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" -  a title inspired by a North Korean children's song which boasts that the N.Korean people have nothing to envy of the rest of the world.  Nothing could be further from the truth as Demick very ably describes in this beautifully-written narrative of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

For the book she focuses on people that came from a place called "Chonglin", N.Korea's third-largest city and one of the places that were hardest hit by the terrible famine of the mid-1990's. It is also almost entirely closed to foreigners.

Funnily enough, North Korea hasn't always been this hopeless. In its early history, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was actually considered a success case in economic development. In the 1960s, the "Korean economic miracle" referred to the steel plants and electrified transport networks of the DPRK, but as South Korea, China (1980) and even Vietnam (1990) embraced market reforms the chasm between North Korea and its neighbors grew wider...South Korea grew richer while its neighbor to the North kept getting poorer.

Also, all through the '70's fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, X-ray machines and more were coming at a low or no cost from Moscow, East Berlin and Prague.With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc 20 years ago there was a sharp decline in Soviet aid and credit, which could not be replaced by the less advanced Chinese, thus the North’s economy was in free fall...

The country’s electricity supply collapsed. Factories went silent. Salaries went unpaid. Food disappeared. Families foraged for grass, and ground the barks of pine trees into a flour substitute in hopes of staving off death. Corpses piled up. Animals that might have provided food disappeared; even frogs were hunted to near extinction.

However, "People did not go passively to their deaths, when the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and strings to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over balconies to snare sparrows."

By 1996, North Korea was in the grip of one of the deadliest famines in modern times. Much of Demick's book is devoted to that time period when an immobile, totalitarian country was transformed into a place of "wandering swallows" (children whose parents had died or gone off to find food) stealing fruit and hunting frogs; middle-aged women who had never worked before bartering skills for food in the black markets; college-educated women wading half-naked across the Tumen River to sell themselves into arranged marriages with Chinese farmers; family patriarchs making sure that the food gets to the younger members of the family first often going raving mad before a quiet, hideous death from starvation.

Demick, (through the eyes of six ordinary North Koreans including a female doctor, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a factory worker and an orphan) describes the harrowing toll of mass hunger on the basic institutions and infrastructure of North Korean life. Its tales of mass starvation, brutal political repression, citizens working long days  followed by hours of ideological training at night; gulags; neighbour spying on neighbour, and a communist regime which seemed intent to blame the “American imperialist bastards,” for having created the famine by imposing blockades on North Korea does not make pretty reading, but you will be riveted because the rationalist in you will keep asking if this post-apocalyptic scenario really could have this modern day and age...where new reporting has scaled new heights...can a place like North Korea actually exist? How do they exist? How do they keep their population so ignorant?

The truth of the matter is that North Korea sadly is a place where transistor radios were/are tuned into domestic services only, the only country on earth not connected to the world wide web, no mobile phones, also, a rigorous system of passes largely forbade internal travel.  North Korea manages to seal its inhabitants off from any outside influences, while at the same time inculcating a belief that North Korea is a paradise.

While North Korea may not have been a paradise, defectors had very mixed successes when they arrived into South Korea.   It is not easy for people earning less than a dollar per month be integrated into the world's thirteenth-largest economy.  A good deal of propaganda on both side of the DMZ is devoted to how North and South Koreans are the same (one people, one nation), but after 60 years of separation the differences between the people are significant.  South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world while people in North Korea don't have access to the internet.  North Korea has been frozen culturally and economically for the last 50 years so even the languages are no longer the same.  South Koreans pepper their Korean with a lot of English slang words. Physically too, the people have grown apart with the average 17-year old South Korean boy being atleast 5 inches taller than his North Korean compatriot!

For all the support provided by the South Korean government, defectors often find it hard to settle down in their new homeland. It is not easy for somebody who's escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world.  Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities.  Choosing where to live what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives. They are also desperately lonely when they first arrive in SK and have a hard time understanding South Korean etiquette, often mistaking sympathy for condescension.  Defectors are also nagged by the impermanence of their situation.  Many fled with the conviction that Kim Jon-il's regime was close to collapse and that within a few years they would be back "home".  Sadly, it's 2010 now and that still hasn't happened.   Many left parents and children behind whom they will probably never see again in this lifetime.   If that is not depressing, what is?  Finally, the qualities most prized in South Korea are height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes and English-language proficiency.  And these qualities are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks which accounts for a low self-esteem, making it virtually impossible for them to shine in social or professional settings.

Some might question Demick’s heavy reliance on the accounts of defectors, but because much of North Korea is so impenetrable there is no other way to tell these stories. She explains that she corroborated the stories with publicly-reported events and cross-checked the accounts with reports by nongovernmental organizations and other defectors.  One can only hope that one day North Korea will be open and we will be able to judge for ourselves what really happened there.

In closing I really must commend Demick for this wonderful expose on the world's last totalitarian regime.  She writes with such sensitivity, grace,skill  and novelistic detail you will be completely drawn into the lives of these poor, unfortunate people.  As with all good writers, she leaves herself out of the picture and takes us into the minds of her subjects until they no longer are the grey-clad people marching in unison that we see on TV, but people like you and I with dreams, hopes and desires.