Category Archives: Translation

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

 “With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”

Some people and certain experiences come right out of the blue , gives a kick on your backside and shock you out of your lazy complacence. You are left bewildered for a while before the light slowly starts shining down through the clouds. Certain books are like that. You start reading like you usually do, turning page after page, stopping to catch a phrase or a sentence now and then, skipping a page here and there, expecting to like, love, hate and ignore certain characters and to bring that satisfied smile on your face at the end. You think it would be another affair coming to an end. And then it transforms into a love that would last a lifetime.

To be honest, I was expecting the experience to be a little different from the usual, two of my book group friends just could not stop praising it. A precocious young girl who had decided to burn her apartment and kill herself on her 12th birthday because she was disillusioned with life , a 50 something extra intelligent concierge of a high end apartment complex somewhere in the frequented-by-ultra rich  lanes of Paris, and their profound thoughts – sounds quite pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what my thoughts were as I started with it.

The invasion of senses was slow, but sure and steady. I had to stop after almost each paragraph, sometimes to smile, sometimes to think and sometimes just to have a stupid grin of pure bliss on my face. A book, or should I say an author  was doing this to me after a long time. ‘The Garden of Evening Mists‘ made me dream and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was like seeing my dream come to life. ‘The Book Thief‘ had enchanted me and ‘The Forty Rules of Love‘ was a mystic experience. But this was something else.

At 12, Paloma already knows the futile nature of life. Or so she thinks. And when we consider how most of our lives turn out, you cannot actually blame her,

“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

Renee`, commonly known as the bland Madame Michel, the concierge of the apartment where Paloma lives, is a connoisseur of art and literature. Unfortunately, she believes that people are expected to behave in a certain manner according to which section of the society one belongs to. So, she takes great pains to act like a typical concierge, hiding her true self.

Both have a penchant for things Zen and Japanese. And to their secret world comes in an old and charming Japanese guy, to shake them out. As the three go through their meetings and discoveries about each other, I was wondering what is it about the Japanese that brings out the sublime in us? Is it because they are constricted for space that they make it an art of silence and emptiness? No, to call it an emptiness would be sacrilege, it’s more like creating space and calm from emptiness.

Even an attempt at doing a review would be pointless. For, this is not about stories and plots, maybe a little bit about characters. The first and only word that I can think of is ‘profound,’ if someone asked me to describe it in one word. More than what the characters say or do, the book is about what the characters think.  And their thoughts are what enamors and encompasses you and your whole mind. Among a lot other things, it made me think about a never ending discussion, questions to which there is no right answers, “What the characters speak for, or in this case, think for, is it how the author would be in real life? Do we or should we judge books by their authors and vice versa ?”

The book talks about life , art , beauty and such sublime matters. Weaving its way through all these is the thread that connects one human being to another, irrespective of where they come from , what they do and where they are going. You might be successful in hiding your true self to most, but kindred souls will always find you out, as Paloma says about Renee`,

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”

Paloma’s ruminations tells us how children are not much different from us, the so called adults. You are left wondering how we lose the sense of wonder and the ability to see things as they are , as we grow up or pretend to do so.  Most of us knew how to find joy in the simplest of things as kids, each experience was as exciting as the earlier one and we welcomed it with open hands.  As adults, many of us find solace in  music and art. Have we ever thought the feeling can exactly be the same for a child as well?

“Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”

I have always found answers to many a question on life in books that I love. This one made me wonder whether  they are true answers or merely what my mind and soul seek for. It reinstated my belief that the most profound truths comes from the mouths of children. It also made me realize that the questions that pop up in my mind from time to time are merely an attempt at re asserting what I already knew, that this is exactly what life is about,

“Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

To put it short and blunt, the Hedgehog made me think, after a long time…for a long time…

 

Verdict – You will either love it to death or purely  hate it. If well developed plots, action and the art of beautiful story telling is what turns you on, this may not be for you. But, if you are someone like me who goes into a trance after reading something profound and which touches the core your soul, this is a must read.

5/5

 

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‘The House of the Spirits’ by Isabel Allende

spiritsI had brought back a long list of books to read from our vacation at Capella, Goa.  Ayesha, our lovely hostess is mad about books and I had the time of my life combing through her bookshelves, finding new authors and discovering some titles that I had never heard of, from my favorite authors. One author that was present in almost all her shelves was Isabel Allende and during our chat one evening, she recommended ‘The House of the Spirits’ as a must read. I finally got hold of a copy from the library last week.

A few pages in, the wonder started creeping in. What is it about Latin America and its authors that enchants us so much, it is as if the word magical realism was invented by them. Maybe it is indeed.

The del Valle women has something different about them. Nivea , the mother comes from a  madcap family, while her daughters have their own peculiarities. Rosa, the eldest, is so beautiful and perfect, men are even scared of talking to her. Clara, the clairvoyant and the youngest in the family is the true heroine of the story. The spirits that are around her all the time, helps her predict the future of her loved ones, not that it is sufficient to help them when it is needed. Rosa is betrothed to Esteban Trueba, whose father squandered the family wealth and who is now working day and night in the mines so that he can provide his love Rosa, a life that is truly worth her. However, Rosa’s untimely and accidental death, sends him to his family estate that is in ruins. And this is where I feel the real story begins.

Within a year, Esteban has not only revived his estate, but also established himself as a true lord and master of the people who work for him. What we see next is the rise of the classic feudal land lord, ruling with an iron fist, squeezing out the last bit from the land and his tenants, his eyes and arms never missing a young girl and leaving behind him a spew of progeny that he choses to first ignore and then forget. In the background is his dying mother and sister Ferula with whom he has a volatile relationship. He goes onto marry Clara who, even with her spirit wandering in another world, ensnares him so much that he doesn’t feel like even looking at another woman.

In the true passionate manner that we attribute to people from that continent, Blanca, Esteban and Clara’s daughter,  befriends their plebian manager’s son, who turns out to be a revolutionary and people’s musician. Esteban’s twin sons are as different as chalk and cheese – Jaime, the altruistic and empathetic one and Nicolas , whose only interest is in making money without any effort. The author takes us through the turbulent lives of these characters , shuttling between Esteban’s hacienda, Tres Marias in the village and the ‘big house in the corner’ in the city, both of which are ruled by Clara and her spirits.

The narration is from the eyes of Esteban and his granddaughter Alba, Blanca’s daughter. The story is a true epic, it is as much about the tale of a country as it is about four generations of women, who influence and support each other, whether dead or alive. As the spirits wander around the houses, the country goes through the natural cycle of the rich land owners and the submissive , dirt poor workers who depend on their masters for their existence. The second generation turns against their fathers in both classes, one against the injustices and the other fighting for justice. The third generation tries to settle scores. The government moves from the hands of the rich  and elite, to the socialists who comes into power with the intangible support of communists. In their blind scramble to get power back by hook or by brook, the rich hands over the country in a platter to a set of dictators.

There are a lot many other characters, each having their own place and space in the story. The multitude does not confuse you but adds to the intrigue and strength of the story. The narrative style is so vivid, you feel as though you are actually living in that era, as a part of the Trueba family in a house that is enchanting and intimidating at the same time. The scope of the story is so vast, however hard I try, it is impossible to do justice and summarize it in a brief review.

Though set in Chile, a country that is far off,the similarities are many. The rich land lords, the sons and daughters who rebel against the iron fists, revolution that is spread through songs, the illicit and torrid affairs between the haves and have nots, the very settings itself, reminded me of Kerala a few decades ago. Even the life cycle of Esteban,  is so similar to the many patriarchs that we see even today in some of the hamlets. Like lions in their heydays, terrorizing whole villages, they slowly turn  into indulgent and placid grandfathers as they grow old. The metamorphosis of land and man are intertwined with each other, one cannot exist without the other.

Verdict – Must read, specially if you are one who loves passion, intrigue, revenge, affairs and love  coupled with the history of  a nation.

5/5

Trivia – This is Isabel Allende’s debut novel. Rejected by several Spanish publishers , this was finally published in Barcelona in 1982.

‘Cobalt Blue’ by Sachin Kundalkar

cobaltThere are so many literary gems in our regional languages that we miss either because we do not know the language or somehow we tend to look down on them. Now that I think of it, many of the books that I absolutely loved in the recent past have all been translations. This book was originally written in Marathi and translated beautifully into English by Jerry Pinto.

A typical middle class Marathi family , an empty room with a separate entrance that once was the abode of the grandparents, where the smell of amritanjan still lingers. In comes an unconventional paying guest, changing the lives of two siblings, the younger son and the daughter of the family.

The book is in two parts , first one a sort of conversation where the brother Tanay talks to the protagonist, taking us through their relationship and how it ended. The second part, as a story told by Anuja, his sister after she comes back from a six month long elopement with the same guy. What makes the story interesting is how each relationship builds, without either of them knowing the other part. One is left to wonder in between what sort of guy the painter is. He is introduced as a loner, with no close friends or relatives, living pretty much on his own.

Some contradictions are quite interesting and is reflective of how we, as a society is changing, while trying not to change too much. Anuja is portrayed as a non-conventional girl, who goes on treks and rock climbing, volunteers for a pro-environment organization and the like. Her family seems to have accepted this about her. But, in the true Indian middle class  style, she is expected to stay away from the male paying guest. That she finds her avenues is another matter altogether.

More interesting is how  two boys spending their time together is taken for granted. Tanay’s frequent visits and the long time that he spends in the guest’s room is never questioned, there is not an iota of doubt in his family’s minds. His angst at discovering that he is not inclined to the conventional manner of love, the casual relationships that he gets into and the lonely world that people of a different sexual orientation inhabits, is portrayed in a very matter of fact manner. I particularly loved the way the author has handled this subject in such a sensitive manner. The thoughts of both Tanay and Anuja brings out their characters so beautifully, while their common love stays an enigma to them as well as the readers.

I was curious about the author after having read through the book, so mature were the thoughts and treatment. It was a mild but pleasant shock to discover that he started writing this book when he was 20 and completed it at 22. Wisdom need not be correlated to age, I realize.

A big thanks to Hrishikesh  who gifted this to me. But for him, I might not have even heard about it

Verdict : A sensitive subject handled very subtly. This one is for you if you like simple , but elegant prose, well sketched characters and multi shaded relationships

4/5