Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Appointment

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. I recently had the opportunity of reading her novel called 'The Appointment' and it struck me how keen and perceptive people can still be in spite of having suffered mind-numbing violence. The Nobel Laureate is a Romanian born German writer whom the Swedish Academy described as someone who "with the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." In 'The Appointment' she describes life in Romania under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The narrative is so skillfully woven that the fabric of violence unfolds itself without the need of graphic description or a fast paced gripping plot.  Müller's litotic style thrives on understatement and it is perhaps in the seeming banality of her descriptions that she poignantly captures the devastation of violence. "Müller scatters narrative bombshells across a field of dreams" commented the San Francisco Chronicle. It is perhaps only Müller who can write in a way as to take on bombshells and dreams in the same stride. Her words are latent with the pain and the irreversible damage caused by violence to the spirit of being human.
Nicolae Ceausescu, who was imprisoned countless times during his youth for anti-fascist activities and for being a part of the then illegal Communist Party, had already established a firm base for a life in politics even as he became a protege of Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej, his political predecessor. Later Ceausescu went on to become the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989. He also became the Council of State and the President of Romania from 1974 to 1989. His first decade in power was marked with a pro Western policy; in fact Romania was the first Communist country to recognize West Germany and the first to receive a US President, Richard Nixon. Romania and Yugoslavia were also the only East European countries that became part of trade agreements with the European Economic Community before the fall of the Communist bloc. However,
his tactics became increasingly totalitarian after the proposition of his July Theses which marked the reign of terror and ushered in the coercion of ideology with violent authoritarian measures that resulted into massive killings and torture of thousands of people.

'The Appointment', first published in 1997 and translated into English in 2001 by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm, takes place as an interior monologue of an unnamed female narrator on a tram ride to an appointment with Major Albu, an arm of the dictatorship. She has been summoned, not for the first time, under suspicion of being an informant as she has pressed notes in the coats of Italians asking them to marry her. She claims however that she did this only to be able to go out of the country by marrying a foreigner. The narrative has a structure similar to, what comes first to my mind, R K Narayan's 'Guide.' The themes and issues concerned are poles apart and even the style is very different but the technique of narrative alternation between the present and the past is a common device. Müller describes the passengers of the tram, a man with a gash on his head indicating that he too has seen violence at close quarters. His child licks window panes and digs noses for snot but the man does not reprimand or scold him; cultural etiquette is perhaps not so important in a time when living itself is painful.

Müller intersperses the description of the other passengers getting on and alighting the tram--an old lady, a man with a briefcase, even the driver-- with memories of childhood, a crippled boy with whom she used to play in the dust in her childhood, her first husband and her father in law who wanted to replace him during the war. She remembers her beautiful friend Lilli who was caught trying to escape the border with her old lover and shot, her body torn to pieces by hounds. Her lover who could have been her father, did not share Lilli's fate. He was imprisoned.  She describes him as someone who "saw too much and was blinded. He risked Lilli who meant more to him than reason can bear." Müller also describes her sessions with Major Albu, who always begins interrogation by slobbering over her hand-- a thing which she detests wholeheartedly and which wrecks her nerves so that she has to eat a walnut to calm  herself whenever she has been summoned. Müller's unnamed heroine works in a clothes factory and lives with her lover Paul at his apartment which is under constant surveillance by the dictatorial government. Even her moments of intimacy with Paul, her bike rides on his red Java to the bean fields, and her time of "ass backward happiness" as she calls it, is full of undercurrents of the violence that invades their lives and makes living so bare and skeletal.

The bare, sparse emotional landscape that is described throughout the novel is intense and heart wrenching even as Müller achieves the miracle of never breaking into lamentation or graphic description. Even the few lines of songs that she quotes add to the poignancy of her world and end up seeming tragic even when she catches a rare glimpse of happiness. Even the gruesome episode of Major Albu slipping a human finger with a blue nail "wrapped like a candy" in the narrator's bag when she has gone to the washroom, is full of understatement. The protagonist finds a parcel that does not belong to her and, on opening it, she spots a severed human finger. The horror of such an experience is related almost in a staccato manner as if the narrator found it too painful to dwell on it, even for a literary purpose. Her father's affair with another woman at the bus depot, her mother's attachment to her dead son because of whom she wanted a second child, her first husband who almost strangled her to death on a bridge above a river, all add up to create a kind of ghost world, where people don't really live but only deal with the pain of existence. As she says: "I have frequently forgotten how to sleep, and have had to relearn each time." Everyone has suffered and everyone that she thinks of or remembers has had his or her own share of horror. Even the communist officer, whom she calls the Perfumed Commissioner, distributes wealth from the rich and give it to the poor, but breaks down when his white horse is poisoned. Communism seems to be replete with an austerity that strips a human being of the  necessity to love. It inflicts pain on the commands of one man's whim and a whole society of people become nothing but ghosts of their own selves. They do not live lives but memories, memories of the past, of loss, of mindless terror and devastation that leaves no place for any human warmth or fellow feeling. 'The Appointment' is a very beautiful book in spite of the ugly terror it deals with. Müller's keen perception into human thought and feeling is insightful at every step and commands immense admiration for the sheer breadth of its vision.

Rain Man

Rain Man would certainly seem an ancient movie today given the fact that it was released in 1988 but it nevertheless earned an 8 upon 10 on IMDB. Rain Man starrs a dashing Tom Cruise in the pink of his youth and although I am a fan more of his looks than of his acting, I must say this movie completely blew me over. Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic protagonist and it is because of his brilliant performance that the movie works on a different level altogether.  Hoffman slips into an angst driven, existential lad (The Graduate) to an autistic and metathesiophobic character with the ease and grace of one of the best actors in Hollywood. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the story takes on various themes and weaves them all into an open ended but richly textured cinematic space, a space, it would seem, which is devoid of the need to satiate audience desire for happy endings and family reunions. It is starkly realistic and the characters are portrayed in all their humdrum routine complexities, their mixed ethics and values, frustrated ambition, necessity and awry relationships. The movie has a very captivating score that brings the whiff of the late 80's. Also, because the major part of the movie happens on the road and during the journey, the music is charmingly apt and beautiful with haunting beats and pipes.

Cruise plays the character of Charlie Babbitt, an egotistic yet charismatic Los Angeles car bookie who can go to any length to rope in customers. He is the perfect product of all that is the worst of capitalism. He is a brilliant talker and wears his confidence as easily as he slips on his shades. He has the walk of a self made man, whose complusions and necessities end up glorifying his despair rather than crushing him. Charlie left his home as a teenager after a quarrel with his father about a 1948 Buick convertible which he used without permission and as a result, spent two days in jail because his father did not bail him out. It is only when his estranged father dies that Charlie comes to the funeral, more for claiming his share of the will than paying his last respects. Charlie's materialism in the way that he uses people for his own ends is also seen in the way he treats his love interest Susanna, played by the charming Valeria Golino. Charlie comes to know that his father has left his money to a trust fund for the care of a stranger while Charlie's only share is a dying and withering rose shrub. Charlie loses his wits about his inheritance especially as he is in dire need for his car dealings and sets out to find out who the real beneficiary is. He discovers that he has an autistic brother, Raymond. The money in the trust had been placed there for his care. Charlie kidnaps Raymond in order to coerce the fund authorities into transfering the funds to him. The entire story unfolds on this road journey as Charlie grows from an impatient and inconsiderate and opportunitic businessman to a caring and loving brother.

Raymond's repetitive speech and nagging including repeated talks of "Abbott & Costello", "Four minutes till Wapner", his neurotic fear with changes in his routine, his naive incomprehension of notions of privacy and intimacy, his stubborn refusal to travel by air because of flight accidents whose dates and casualties he remembers with astonishing accuracy, drive Charlie insane. However, this cross country journey becomes for Charlie a way to bond with his brother who is "the rain man" from a childhood song that he remembers. Charlie finds what it is like to have family even in the form of an autistic brother who apparently cannot understand brotherly love. The journey is also an adventure for Raymond  who ends up doing things he would never have done if he was institutionalized. He learns dancing, dresses up for a date, kisses Susanna who is kind and gentle towards him. He also reveals, through his fear ( "the hot water will burn the baby") that he was institutionalized because his condition posed a risk for the younger sibling Charlie. Out of a road trip arises a new understanding between Charlie and Raymond although the film leaves the question ambiguous whether Raymond is really capable of remembering Charlie as a friend or family. But Charlie becomes a more sensitive character. Although his journey began with kidnapping, his decides to take responsibility for his brother. But this decision is defied by the authorities who take Raymond back to Wallbrook Institute to his life of familiar routine of books, walks, and television programmes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Demain dès l’aube dans le jour blâfard,
Je partirai à ne jamais revenir,
Je poursuivrai l’horizon qui dépasse le regard
Là, quelquepart au delà des souvenirs.

J’irai écouter le murmur des eaux,
Seule, sur les bords de la béatitude
Là, dans le silence ignorant des mots,
Je demeurerai un instant en solitude.

Et quand le vent bohémien des vastes prairies,
Sifflerait cet air des choses lointaines
Je volerai sur les ailes d’une pensée chérie
Pour frôler les herbes hautes des plaines.

Puis la lumière s’effacerait du monde,
Le crépuscule y viendrait, il ferait soir
Je partirai dans mon voilier sur la mer et ses ondes
Pour cueillir les étoiles du noir.

Mais la nuit berçerait mon âme rebel,
Lasse, heureuse, doucement je pleurerai…
Dans mon coeur encore cette voix, cet appel
Et devant mes yeux, une ombre de l’éternité…

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Temple Of Samara

The temple in the valley of Samāra
Is more than a home to me-
I have borne its myths and histories
In the furrowed wrinkles of my brow,
In the folds of my widow’s garb
I have treasured the dust of another time,
For I am old, old like the wind 
That never dies even with ebbing.
Beside my begging bowl,
Where shadows crumple against the wall 
I think about the years- ah! So many years
Behind me.

In the silence of the sanctum sanctorum,
The evening lamps begin to flicker
I see your form in the green darkness
Your shriveled body and your vacant eyes.
Ah my child, my poor cursed child!
My daughter, my bane!
Panting I bore you in my arms
I shook you and coaxed and whispered
And beat my breast, but you never cried
Nor opened your eyes-
My blood in you was cold.

At dawn they wake the sleeping mendicants:
Bangles, fragrance and a feminine haste-
The rush of veils and whispers,
Hennaed hands and silver anklets
That fill my white head with colourful thoughts.
"Old Hag!" the wives grimace and shudder,
Profaned by the sepulchral stench
Of age and exiguity.

With her kohl-rimmed eyes and vermillion,
The new wife is the last to arrive,
Her walk is slow and she falters
Under the weight of her swollen belly.
Gently she stoops to drop a coin
In the hollow of my coconut shell
And as she climbs the temple steps
The others look fondly upon her.
One by one they reach for the bell
And strike its tongue in a loud clear sound.
With gold thalis decked with flowers,
They sing for their Lord in unison.

I wrapped you in velvet and silk,
Soft and limp like your own body-
Cursed child who left me barren!
I buried you with my own hands!

Here in this corner where shadows sleep,
Squatting among the mendicants,
I see you glide like wisps of smoke,
And curl around the temple bell.
The night outside is soft and starry,
And this is my home and my grave-
Beggared of all, all that is dear,
Let me rock you in my arms, my child,
And sing about the years- ah! So many years
Behind me.