In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”
The other day, while waiting at the doctor’s reception, I witnessed a dialogue between a black man and a white woman that left me thoughtful and gloomy.
* * *
On this day there is a long queue, unusual for this place, and the German woman behind the reception desk is not in a friendly mood. She is a young woman, wearing a white shirt over white pants, her blond hair pulled back in a short pony-tail. She is efficient in the way Germans usually are: doing the job with precision and speed, assuming a polite but firm manner. But she also seems disturbed, not at ease: she moves her hands rapidly, avoiding eye-contact with the patient in front, which lends her a distracted, impatient air. She deals with a couple of patients in this manner, and then it is the turn of the black man two places ahead of me.
From behind, and from the occasional glimpses of his profile, he resembles the actor Morgan Freeman: an elderly man, tall and heavy-set, curly greying hair, a pockmarked face with deep lines on his forehead. I imagine him speak in a clear, intense voice, but what comes out is hushed and hesitant: German is foreign to him, and he is struggling.
“Ihre Telefonnummer, bitte?” the woman asks, looking into her computer screen.
My first acquaintance with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was through an extract published this spring in The New Yorker. Reading it, I felt like an eleven-year-old watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. I wanted to see more. The book, I learned, would be published “in summer”.
Summer arrived early, but the publishers kept their date fixed not to the season but to the calender. The weekend before the book’s release I scanned some reviews, avoiding parts that revealed the book’s contents, looking for whiffs of judgement. Everyone seemed to love it. On the day of its release, the Kindle edition on Amazon was prized at $3.50. Could this be true? For the price of two ice-cream scoops I could buy a new novel from a contemporary master of fiction? And it would be delivered instantly?
* * *
I do not own a Kindle, but the iPad at home has a Kindle App that lets me read Kindle eBooks on the iPad.
Let this be an experiment, I told myself, as I greedily purchased The Cat’s Table, Kindle Edition. Perhaps this would mark my transition into the world of eBooks, a step I had avoided this far.
* * *
Months later, I am still at “location” – the Kindle analog for “Page” – 235 of 3525. And I’m struggling to understand why.
* * *
As the date approaches, the world comes together. In the last two weeks I’ve often felt that we all are being manoeuvred towards that point of collective recollection of what happened ten years earlier. All the media – the Radio, the Television, the Internet, the Magazines, the Newspapers, the Posters – conspire to remind us that ten years have passed. The world changed that day, they all say, so spare a thought.
My world did not change that day. I drove to work, returned earlier than usual, watched news on the television more than usual, and slept. I went to work the rest of the week, and the week after. I bought groceries on the weekends, visited the library to borrow books. Life continued, the weight of daily routine pulling me forward in a well-defined orbit, a cycle I had been following since I arrived in Germany. Occasionally I heard of people losing their jobs, but I did not lose mine. I also heard of people being harassed at airports, bring profiled along racial lines; I was asked to remove my shoes, which I did — it was a price I was willing to pay for the safety of crossing the Atlantic. But as I continued to tell myself that my world hadn’t really changed after 9/11, something entered my life, unbeknownst to me, like an odourless gas that enters a room through the crack beneath a door. I had begun to pay attention to the world, to follow events regularly, at first the ones related to 9/11 and later, broadening my field of vision, other world affairs. My distaste for politics had not decreased, but I could no longer ignore its consequences. The public space had entered my private life.
[If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood?]
The first female character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation appears in the final third of the book. Licia, wife of the Korellian republic’s leader, is a young woman whose “face was pale and coldly formed” and whose “voice was tart”. She taunts and threatens her husband, invoking her father’s power: “My father would pulverize your toy nation to meteoric dust.” She makes another brief, and similarly insignificant, appearance thirty or so pages later, which marks the end of female presence in this novel that spans a hundred and fifty “Foundation years.”
Rereading a classic can be revealing. I remembered little from my first reading twenty years ago, and on this occasion reading Foundation was like entering a video-game world of men with their politics and guns and trading ships. The sense of place, a vital element for imagining a world vastly different from our own, was all but missing, and the only cultural references included a “vegan” cigar, a two-century old wine, and a game of solitaire. Technology, too, seemed old-fashioned for a world fifty-thousand years in the future: calculators, elevators, public “visiphones” to make calls, “spy beams” to snoop on conversations, “air tubes” between ships, alchemical “transmuters” to convert iron into gold, atomic weapons, identification through a photo-bearing passport, and an encyclopedia containing all human knowledge. The novel was first published in 1953, and the last six decades have turned this view of a future world into an anachronistic vision. A sobering thought, it suggests that predicting the arc of technological progress is harder than we think it is. With our imaginations influenced by extant or emerging technologies, can we conjure up anything that wouldn’t pale half a century later?
We just returned, Wife and I, from a ten-day road trip to Norway. Home, after so many days on the road, feels like just another overnight shelter; I could begin to drive again tomorrow. When this feeling subsides, usually in a day or two, I know the opposite desire will set in: we won’t move for a while.
Continue reading “To Norway and back”
1. The book signing
When I was two turns away from meeting the author, it occurred to me that I must keep a question or two ready when he signed the book. I looked at the copy in my hand, a thick paperback with intricate cover art – Japanese-styled cottages next to the sea on which a three-masted ship sailed, and in the distance mountains, clouds, a pair of large birds in flight – a design that perhaps anticipated the novel’s style. The blurb above the title announced that Sunday Times found the book ‘Spectacularly accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful’. A frivolous quote; why did they choose this one? I had my question.
“Do you have a say in deciding what quotes go on the cover of your books?” I asked, as he wrote my name and signed on the title page.
He smiled, and looked up: “Well, the publishers usually decide that but I do have the presidential veto powers. I haven’t really exercised it, though – I just leave it to them.”
“What do you think of this one?” I pointed to the quote above the title. “Thrillingly suspenseful!”
He squinted his eyes and looked at the ceiling, searching for an answer. “Well… you’re right… it’s a bit redundant, isn’t it? A book can’t be suspenseful without being thrilling, can it?!”
I smiled, nodded and thanked him as we shook hands. Moving out of the line, I opened the page where, below the title The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, he had scribbled, in large but barely readable letters, his name: David Mitchell.
Continue reading “The enigma of a literary festival”
At home news enters our lives early in the morning, through the SWR2 radio channel. We listen to it mainly for the classical music, but the hourly news keeps us in touch with local reality. These days – in fact, since the beginning of 2011 – local reality has often been overshadowed by global, world-changing events.
Continue reading “Who will it be tomorrow?”
Earlier this month the woods still wore shades of winter. Brown dominated the view, and in all the dryness there were few visible signs of plant life. The sun shone generously, and light reached parts inaccessible in other seasons. Parrots screeched above. Every so often, the deep rattle of a woodpecker echoed through the woods. Below, at the foot of some trees, moss clung to all sides and rose up along the north.
The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.
I’ve been thinking, in these past few days, about classification. How does Open City compare with other novels in the reading experience? If I relate reading a conventional work of fiction – with its apparatus of plot, well-developed characters, a beginning, middle and an end – to the act of watching a tennis or soccer match, with its well-defined boundaries, roles and actors, winners and losers, a start and a finish, then Open City makes me feel, at this moment after a hundred or so pages, like someone sitting in the woods next to a gentle stream watching the water flow by, with its characters who appear, linger for a while, and go away, as it has been going on since millennia. There has been no beginning – the first sentence led me into the middle, really – and I do not expect an end. What I see in the stream is guided by Julius’s eye (he is both a character in the stream and, like me, an observer watching it) but my eyes can wander, and so can my mind. Unlike a match, where the anticipation of what happens next often robs me of the joy of the present until, in almost no time, it is all over, sitting by the stream and watching it flow is a reflective activity, unhindered by any plan of action, unlimited by boundaries of space and time.
On the flight to Brussels, as Julius entered into conversation with Dr.Maillotte, I was reminded of my weekend trips to Brussels (when Wife still lived in that city) and those train conversations. One particular encounter stood out; you’ll soon see why.
Continue reading “In the woods next to a gentle stream”