Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

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Day 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 896: No Country

Cover for No CountryA story about Irish immigrants to India seemed like an interesting change to me. But I decided not to finish this 500+-page book.

It begins in 1989 in upstate New York, where the bodies of a couple are found and their daughter is being questioned. The promise is that the novel will answer the question of who killed them or whether they committed suicide, but at least in the first 200 pages, after this brief opening, the book doesn’t return to the crime.

Instead, the story goes back in time to 1843 Ireland. There, we meet two boyhood friends, Brendan and Padraig. Through several unlooked-for occurrences, Padraig ends up on a ship to Bangladesh with every intention of returning immediately, while Brendan adopts Padraig’s illegitimate daughter Maeve and ends up fleeing the famine for Canada.

Everything about the Irish section of the novel seemed clichéd to me, and because Ray spends no time at all on characterization, we’re not especially interested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters, but they don’t have distinctive voices or personalities. Finally, there is no sense of place to the novel. So, I decided to stick it out until the novel moved to India, hoping that would change things.

In Calcutta in 1911, we meet Robert, Padraig’s Anglo-Indian grandson. I didn’t stay with Robert very long because I still didn’t feel very interested, and again there was no sense of place. It seems obvious that the couple who die in 1989 are going to find they are related in some unanticipated way, but by then the relationship will be so distant, it would hardly seem to matter.

In fact, the story seems to be one of unrelenting misery, but a misery so detached that we feel little empathy as we read the catalog of horrors experienced by Brendan and his family in Ireland and on the way to Canada. The novel is ambitious to tell the story of these families but in a way that didn’t capture me or make me want to invest the time to finish it. From reviews I’ve read, it just becomes more complex, one reviewer mentioning it needed a family tree. But that would probably give away the ending.

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Day 865: Arctic Summer

Cover for Arctic SummerFrom its description, I thought that Arctic Summer might be one of the most interesting books I’m reading from the Walter Scott Prize list. It is described as a fictional biography of E. M. Forster, particularly leading up to his publication of A Passage to India.

That is certainly the time period the novel covers, and A Passage to India is one of its preoccupations. But the novel spends most of its time on Forster’s obsession with his homosexuality and his desire for sexual experience. As I’m not all that interested in reading about anyone’s obsession with sexuality, this novel was not the best fit for me.

The novel begins in 1912 on Forster’s first trip to India. While he is there, he will visit a good friend, Masood, and he has hopes that his life will open up, particularly in regard to sex. At the age of 33, he is still a virgin, his fear of disgrace holding him back from expressing his sexuality at home. Perhaps in India he will have an experience, maybe with Masood, whom he loves.

Unfortunately, Forster, who goes by Morgan, has a tendency to fall in love with heterosexual men and prefers men from a lower class, so nothing quite works out the way he wishes. Even when he finally has some encounters, years later, what he is actually looking for is love, which he never finds. The novel follows him during the long gestation of his novel about India, back to England, to Alexandria during World War I, and back to India again. During this time, his most significant relationships are with two friends who do not return his feelings.

The novel is extremely well written, and Galgut deeply characterizes Morgan, if not the other characters. It did make me wonder if any person could be so relentlessly focused on sex, although of course he is also lonely. It also made me wonder how, if he really felt this unrelenting focus, he ever got anything written. Certainly this novel makes you feel for Forster—he was a sad man.

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Day 856: A God in Every Stone

Cover for A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is a novel that seems to be trying to convey some profound truths. The trouble is, I couldn’t figure out what they were.

It begins in pre-World War I Turkey, where young Vivian Rose Spencer is on an archaeological dig. She is entranced by the thought of the history of artifacts, particularly by a story told her by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father. He tells her of a circlet worn by the 5th century explorer Scylax, which he believes may be found in Peshawar, where the Persian King Darius sent him to explore the Indus. Viv’s visit is cut short by the start of the war, but by then she has promised herself to Tahsin Bey, who says he will fetch her in London after the war.

Viv begins the war nursing, but after a while she is unable to take the stress. Her mother agrees to allow her to journey to Peshawar as an archaeologist, but first she is drawn by patriotism and naiveté into a betrayal.

Qayyam Gul is a proud Pushtun soldier whose regiment is practically wiped out at Auber’s Ridge. He loses an eye, but it is his experience of being an Indian soldier in England that makes him begin rethinking his loyalties.

In Peshawar, Viv befriends a young Pathan boy, Najeeb, who becomes fascinated by the objects in the museum. She begins giving him lessons in the classics, but when his mother finds out, she makes him stop. Najeeb is Qayyam’s brother, and Qayyam accompanies Najeeb to Viv’s house to return her books. Not much later, Viv is forced to return to London.

Fourteen years later, Viv is enticed back to Peshawar by Najeeb’s letters. He is now employed by the Peshawar Museum and wants her to excavate the site that she hoped to explore years before. Qayyam has in the meantime become involved in the Congress, which wants to separate India from England. Viv arrives, but after violence has already begun.

Although I was interested in the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, I felt that Shamsie presents us with threads of different stories, all unexplored. We don’t learn very much about Qayyam’s experience at Auber’s Ridge or Viv’s nursing experiences, for example, or what’s going on in the Congress. We never find out what happened to Scylax’s circlet. It is almost a McGuffin. The best parts of the novel are her depictions of Peshawar. But even there, the readers’ experience seems fragmentary. In a dramatic portion of the end of the novel, a girl is introduced as an apparent partner for Najeeb, only to be killed within a few pages. The author’s intentions seem confused, as if she started with too many stories to tell and couldn’t decide between them.

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Day 827: Flood of Fire

Cover for Flood of FireBest book of the week!
In the third book of his Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh slowly draws most of his characters to China during a momentous period in history. The only major character missing from the first book is Deeti, making a home on Mauritius. And of course Bahram Modi, who died at the end of River of Smoke.

It is with the absent characters that we start, in a way, for at the beginning of the novel, Kesri Singh, Deeti’s brother, is unaware of what has happened to her. It is through Kesri that Deeti’s family met her husband, for he was brother to Subedar Nirbhay Singh, the highest-ranking sepoy in the battalion to which Kesri belongs. Kesri is a new character, and we go back in time to learn how Deeti helped him join the battalion and how Kesri, although wary of the character of Deeti’s proposed husband, encouraged the match to further his own ambitions. As those who have been following the series know, that did not turn out well.

Shireem Modi, Bahram’s wife, is finding her life uncomfortable since her husband died. Because his opium was confiscated by the Chinese government, she is left with nothing, dependent upon her own family. But soon her husband’s friend Jadig Karabedian arrives and tries to talk her into traveling to China to represent herself in the opium sellers’ claims against the Chinese government; otherwise, her claim may be disregarded. He also finds it necessary to tell her about Ah Fat, her husband’s illegitimate son.

Zachary Reid has finally been acquitted of blame for the incident on the Ibis but finds himself assessed fees that he cannot pay because his mate’s license has been suspended. He goes to work for the mysterious Mr. Burnham (who, although barely present, seems to affect all the events in the series) restoring a boat. There he is led into a dangerous relationship with Mrs. Burnham.

Neel, the rajah who ended up in prison for his father’s debts because of Mr. Burnham’s desire for his property, is still in China working at an English-language press. As the British Empire draws together a force to invade China, bringing most of the other characters there, Neel begins working for the Chinese government as a translator.

This trilogy clearly depicts Britain, driven by the greed of the opium growers and sellers, as the bully of Asia. Sea of Poppies shows how the Indian farmers were forced to abandon food crops to grow opium poppies, and how then the price of opium was manipulated to make them subsistence farmers. River of Smoke shows British efforts to force the Chinese to import opium, including the lies conveyed back to the British public about the behavior of the emperor. Flood of Fire draws all of our friends back to China to culminate in the First Opium War, when the British stuff opium down the throats of the Chinese.

Overall, I was very satisfied with this series. Ghosh is able to get you completely involved with his characters and is playful and inventive with language. Although I was not happy with the evolution of the character of Zachary Reid from a naive young man to the person he becomes, this is a great series.

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Day 793: The Lives of Others

Cover for The Lives of OthersI probably haven’t read enough contemporary Indian novels, or maybe I wouldn’t be surprised that two of them are partially about the Naxilite rebellion of the 60’s and 70’s. Apparently, a good deal has been written about it without my being aware of it before.

The Lives of Others deals with the rebellion on the one hand and the lives of an upper-class family, the Ghoshes, on the other. Prafullanath Ghosh is a member of the wealthy Ghosh family, owners of an expensive jewelry store in Calcutta. But Prafullanath was robbed of his inheritance by his older brother when he was a young man. So, he has worked his way up to become the owner of several paper factories.

His family, however, is not so much interested in the business as in the benefits that accrue from it. His two oldest sons are dilatorily employed by the business while the third son wastes money through a publishing concern. The poor economic climate and Prafullanath’s ill-advised business decisions as an old man threaten the business, and then a strike shuts down the most productive factory.

But the family’s floundering fortunes aren’t so much the focus of the novel as the decadence of the family itself. With nothing much to occupy themselves, some of the wives and the sister bicker endlessly. The four-floor house is occupied according to prestige, with the more important family members living higher, away from the noise and dust. Purba, the widow of the youngest son, and her two children have one room on the ground floor while each other family has a whole floor. Purba is treated worse than the servants.

Although Prafullanath has been ill since his youngest son’s death, his other sons have their vices. Adinath is alcoholic, Priyo is subject to sexual obsessions, and Bhola practically throws money away. At first, Adinath’s son Supratik seems to have escaped the family decadence. He has left home and school without warning to work among the poor farmers and instruct them in Mao’s teachings. He is a Naxilite.

About a third of the novel consists of Supratik’s letters, written to someone who for a long time is not identified. He writes about the plight of the farmers, who are being plundered by large landowners in league with the police. He also writes about the activities of his small cadre.

Even though his deeds eventually become savage, for a long time Supratik seems to be the only Ghosh with praiseworthy motives, but this account is more nuanced than to paint anyone as simply good or evil. Almost all the adults in the novel are in some way corrupt.

Although set mostly in the 60’s and early 70’s with flashbacks to earlier times, an epilogue shows that the same kind of corruption is going on today. The Lives of Others is a novel that is powerful but difficult to read. It is an indictment of class and caste divides, corruption, and the imbalance between the rich and the poor.

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