Some Thoughts on Reading Robert Ludlum’s The Paris Option

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It is always a game of wits between the reader and the author of a thriller / detective novel. The reader is always in the know that the hero will remain un-killed, though a little hurt, and that the villain’s plan will not succeed. The reader also knows upon picking up the novel that the apocalyptic crisis promised by the villain will be smoked by the hero, ultimately. This much is certain. But, because the author of a thriller / detective novel also knows what his/her reader knows, this author tries that extra bit to keep the reader from succeeding in predicting what is going to happen and/or how it is going to happen. Now, as a lay reader my attention is not on the failure of the author in outwitting the reader, but it is on his/her success, because my paisa-worth entertainment depends on the author being able to outwit me. If s/he fails, the reading is a bore. While as reader I try to see through the author’s tricks of setting my adrenaline racing, I do not relish being successful in those attempts because, if I do, the fun of reading is gone.

Robert Ludlum's The Paris Option

Now, let me reflect a little on that last phrase I used above – “fun of reading”. No doubt, the fiction industry depends so much on this ‘fun of reading’. I think, the variety of fiction is really the variety in the kind of ‘fun of reading’ a novel offers. And even the individual authors of a particular genre try to offer as different a ‘fun of reading’ as possible. In a thriller such as the kind Robert Ludlum writes, racy action is the key. But, racy action is actually a sequence of rapidly occurring crisis. So in such a novel, action that counts is the cusp-action. If there are too many incidents separating two cusp-actions, the novel will begin to drag. The author has to ensure that on every page there is a reminder of the looming mini-crisis, and also frequently remind the reader that these mini-crises are not an end, only an introduction to one facet of the apocalyptic crisis. The novel in fact works only because of the success of the mini-crises, and not so much because of the final one. Even, these mini-crises are to be narrated with a narrative style that anticipates danger to the hero and his/her minions very often, and that keeps the attention of the reader on the activities of the hero that promise not a solution but a complication to the problems the hero confronts. I think this is the basic building block of the thriller – this indirection. I mean, the reader is allowed more and more to see the complications building up but not the solutions being thought up. One of the sleights of hands that the thriller novelists depend on is the imbalance between the complications faced by the hero and the way they are solved – complications elaborated in great details so that the mass of details weigh heavy on the reader but hero’s solutions are covered in swift strokes, the pacy sentences here hide the paucity of details.

When I am reading Robert Ludlum’s novel, I do not allow myself too much space for noticing all of the author’s tricks. For example, in the course of reading this novel, The Paris Option, I was somehow continuously imagining how this would be cinematically represented. I noticed a couple of times how the author spends pages giving details of a character before reporting that character’s response to some statement by the other characters. As a reader, I spend a lot of time between reading the statement and reading the response to it. In between, I learn a great deal that fills me in on the motivations, psychology etc. of the characters. But a film cannot use time in this manner. I didn’t enjoy this discovery, because it shows the author’s hands, magic recedes, enchantment breaks.

Now, just imagine how this enchantment holds the reader. It is more than an enchantment – it is a chain, it is even drugging. Due to this ‘enchantment’, as a reader, I dislike thinking on my own, because the moment I do it, I lose the ‘fun of reading’. That is, the thriller novel invites me to find it extremely alluring to suspend my ability and faculty of thinking. It promises me that if only I agree to suspend my urge to think for myself, I would have ‘fun of reading’, I would find it a pure entertainment to read, I would find reading magical, ‘enchanting’. Thus reading becomes a way of fun, and fun becomes a way of ‘not thinking’, and thus begins the habit of ‘not thinking’ and concomitantly also the habit of finding ‘fun’ in everything that I ‘read’ – visually and experientially and intellectually. In fact, ‘not requiring to think’ becomes the code for ‘fun’.

Of course, reading some other kind of novel reverses this process and leads me to associate ‘thinking’ with ‘fun’.

Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

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burnt-shadows

In the film Iron Man there is a scene where Tony Stark, imprisoned by an Afghan warlord, asks his Afghan cell-mate, Yensen, how many languages he knows. Yensen replies by saying that in that place where Afghani, Russian, Urdu, Persian, Pushtu, etc are spoken, one has got to be a polyglot. I find such polyglots, more accurately polyglot scenes, very charming. It is for this reason that Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie interests me. Its protagonists, Hiroko Tanaka and her son Raza Konrad Ashraf are both polyglots – no, even more correctly, they have a special sensitivity for languages, learning them, many of them, quickly. Their mastery of languages decides the direction of the plot more than a couple of times in the novel. However, what leaves me with a sense of wanting is the fact that despite its multilingual setting, especially in its Delhi, Pakistan and Afghanistan episodes, its multilingual characters and multilingual plotlines, the novel is monolingual. I would have loved if the novel had made use of multilinguality, or at least had included reflections on the translation through which it is being narrated in English, it would have been exciting.

There are other beauties about this novel. Most importantly, its cosmopolitanism. Shamsie doesn’t restrict this cosmopolitanism to Manhattan or London, as do some of the other diasporic south Asian novelists, but in fact, finds it in Delhi, Nagasaki, and Karachi. Of course, it makes the characters also (not only social setting) multicultural – product of Japan, Germany, India and Pakistan.

Evocation of the places, especially in the episodes occurring in Nagasaki and Afghanistan, are not always satisfying, though the Dilli and Karachi scenes are better. It has a wide time frame, beginning in the early 20th century in war time Nagasaki, and ending around the time of post 9/11 war on Afghanistan. Thus it revisits several apocalyptic moments in history – bombing of Nagasaki, partition riots in south Asia, Indo-Pak nuclear tests, 9/11, war on Afghanistan.

Use of the perspective throughout the novel is very interesting, as there is that outsider’s view – the one who is a minority in each instance, the one who doesn’t melt into or not allowed to feel belongingness. This exilic perspective is very well handled by Kamila Shamsie as it nowhere gets maudlin, yet manages to maintain certain objectivity as it doesn’t have to mediate between binary oppositions. The use of this perspective undercuts rooted cultural chauvinism.

Kamila Shamsie

(image from cafeletrario.blogspot.com)

All in all, Shamsie tells the story very well. Very readable, colorful, action-filled and has that little foreignness that always makes a novel attractive.

Here is an excerpt:

Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.

Konrad cannot see the chimneys themselves from his home in Minamiyamate, but for months now his thoughts have frequently wandered to the factory where Hiroko Tanaka spends her days measuring the thickness of steel with micrometers, images of classrooms swooping into her thoughts the way memories of flight might enter the minds of broken-winged birds. That morning, though, as Konrad slides open the doors that form the front and back of his small wooden caretaker’s house and looks in the direction of the smoke he makes no attempt to imagine the scene unfolding wearily on the factory floor. Hiroko has a day off – a holiday, her supervisor called it, though everyone in the factory knows there is no steel left to measure. And still so many people in Nagasaki continue to think Japan will win the war. Konrad imagines conscripts sent out at night to net the clouds and release them in the morning through factory chimneys to create the illusion of industry.

He steps on to the back porch of the house. Green and brown leaves are scattered across the grass of the large property, as though the area is a battlefield in which the soldiers of warring armies have lain down, caring for nothing in death but proximity. He looks up the slope towards Azalea Manor; in the weeks since the Kagawas departed, taking their household staff with them, everything has started to look run-down. One of the window shutters is partly ajar; when the wind picks up it takes to banging against the sill. He should secure the shutter, he knows, but it comforts him to have some sound of activity issuing from the house.

Azalea Manor. In ’38 when he stepped for the first time through its sliding doors into a grand room of marble floor and Venetian fireplace it was the photographs along the wall that had captured his attention rather than the mad mixture of Japanese and European architectural styles: all taken in the grounds of Azalea Manor while some party was in progress, Europeans and Japanese mixing uncomplicatedly. He had believed the promise of the photographs and felt unaccustomedly grateful to his English brother-in-law James Burton who had told him weeks earlier that he was no longer welcome at the Burton home in Delhi with the words, ‘There’s a property in Nagasaki. Belonged to George – an eccentric bachelor uncle of mine who died there a few months ago. Some Jap keeps sending me telegrams asking what’s to be done with it. Why don’t you live there for a while? As long as you like.’ Konrad knew nothing about Nagasaki – except, to its credit, that it was not Europe and it was not where James and Ilse lived – and when he sailed into the harbour of the purple-roofed city laid out like an amphitheatre he felt he was entering a world of enchantment. Seven years later much of the enchantment remains – the glassy loveliness of frost flowers in winter, seas of blue azaleas in summer, the graceful elegance of the Euro-Japanese buildings along the seafront – but war fractures every view. Or closes off the view completely. Those who go walking in the hills have been warned against looking down towards the shipyard where the battleship Musashi is being built under such strict secrecy that heavy curtains have been constructed to block its view from all passers-by.

Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best describe how war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it. Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.

CFP: CLAI BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2013

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XIII th CLAI BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE 2013

 

ON

 

THE JOURNEY OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE : INDIA AND BEYOND

 

DEPARTMENT OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

 

JADAVPUR UNIVERSITY

 

KOLKATA 700032, INDIA

 

http://www.complitju.org

 

JANUARY 16-18, 2013

 

The Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) invites abstracts for the XIIIth CLAI Biennial International Conference on THE JOURNEY OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE: INDIA AND BEYOND. The Conference is to be held at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in collaboration with the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University.The Conference will be held from 16 to 18 January, 2013.

Concept Note

 

The discipline of Comparative Literature in India is more than sixty-five years old in its institutional form and started with the establishment of India’s first Comparative Literature department at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Over the decades, it has evolved into a vibrant, exciting and relevant discipline. It manifests resonances with the development of the discipline in other parts of the world while at the same time mapping its own distinct trajectory. The Conference seeks to take stock of pedagogical developments in Comparative Literature the world over and to map the Indian context in terms of the same. It also hopes to explore the changing contours of its relationship with other disciplines and share perspectives on the potential of Comparative Literature as an academic discipline.

 

In particular, we would like to focus on the state of Comparative Literature today. Among other things, we would like to explore how the discipline has responded to pressures of a globalised educational matrix,the competition among disciplines for resources and recognition and the pedagogical imperatives of the same.By doing so, we hope to arrive at a nuanced understanding of where our discipline is heading and also how far we are equipped to make necessary interventions in this journey.

 

We welcome well-researched and substantiated, analytical presentations on all aspects related to the development of Comparative Literature as well as to the scope of the discipline. Papers related to the history and methodology of Comparative Literature and concomitant debates are particularly encouraged. Papers involving the study of one or more authors without reference to the methods and/or history of Comparative Literature would not fit into the theme of this Conference.

Sub-themes

 

Comparative Literature and Other Disciplines

 

Comparative Literature in/and Translation

 

Comparative Literature in the Indian academia

 

Comparative Literature or Cultural Studies !!

 

Comparative Literature and Area Studies

 

The Future of Comparative Literature in ‘Bharatvarsha’ and beyond

 

Performance/Practising Comparative Literature

 

Comparative Literature : Theory & Praxis

 

Comparative Literature : Interrogating the Margins

 

What is so ‘comparative’ about Comparative Literature ?

 

Comparative Literature/World Literature Reconsidered

 

Cultural and Literary Interrelations between India and Neighbouring Countries (workshop topic – ICLA)

 

Please note that this Conference is for CLAI members only and individuals intending to present papers at the Conference must become members of CLAI (if they are not so already) before their participation can be confirmed. Details of membership are available on http://www.clai.in.

 

MODALITIES:

 

Please send abstracts (maximum 500 words) to abstractsclaikolkata@gmail.com by August 31, 2012, along with the pre-registration form. All abstracts will be acknowledged within two working days. Participants will be e-mailed intimation regarding acceptance by September 15, 2012. Those who are asked to revise their abstracts must send in reworked abstracts by September 30, 2012. Registration forms will be e-mailed to participants latest by September 30, 2012. Completed forms, registration amount and, where applicable, CLAI membership fees and forms must reach us by November 15, 2012. The funds may be paid by bank transfer or demand draft only. All queries for clarifications are to be e-mailed to queriesclaikolkata@gmail.com.

 

For further details, the following may be contacted:

 

Professor Kunal Chattopadhyay

Joint Coordinator

Ph: (+91) 9831398301

Email: kunal.chattopadhyay@gmail.com

Professor Suchorita Chattopadhyay

Joint Coordinator

Ph: (+91) 9831205770

Email: suchoritachattopadhyay@yahoo.com

 

Professor Chandra Mohan

General Secretary, CLAI

Ph: (+91) 9810683143

Email: c.mohan.7@hotmail.com

Dr Sayantan Dasgupta

Secretary, CLAI

Ph: (+91) 9831191181

Email: dasgupta.sayantan@gmail.com

 

Please follow our website for further updates : http://www.clai.in/

Registration Fees

 

Faculty Members (Outstation): Rs. 2000/-

Faculty Members (Local): Rs. 1200/-

Research Scholars and Independent Scholars (Outstation): Rs. 1200/-

Research Scholars and Independent Scholars (Local): Rs. 600/-

Students (Outstation): Rs. 750/-

Students (Local): Rs. 500/-

International Delegates : US $ 200

CFP: Negotiating Margins: African American & Dalit Writings

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Osmania University Centre for International Programmes
Osmania University Campus, Hyderabad
International Conference
on
Negotiating Margins: African American & Dalit Writings
17 – 19 December 2012
Call for Papers
The Osmania University Centre for International Programmes (OUCIP), Hyderabad, India is organizing an International Conference from 17 – 19, December 2012 on “Negotiating Margins: African American and Dalit Writings”. Participants desirous of attending the conference should submit a soft copy of the abstract of the proposed presentation in about 300 words along with a brief bio-note by 5th July, 2012 to oucipprogrammes@gmail.com with a subject heading “Negotiating Margins”. The broad areas covered by the conference include:
 Democracy and Subaltern Consciousness in African American and Dalit Writings.
 Issues and Perspectives of Subaltern Consciousness.
 Literature of Marginality: Dalit and African American Writings.
 Woman, Caste and Race.
 Constructions of Self.
 The Subaltern Consciousness and the Crisis of leadership.
 America and India the Subaltern Renaissance.
 Politics of Empowerment and Subaltern issues.
 Ambedkar and W.E.B. DuBois: Comparative analysis.

Poor but enterprising… hip hip hurray to piracy

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Following came as an email attachment, sent to me by my friend, writer Sucharita Datta-Asane. I don’t know if it was really written by Shekhar Kapoor, I have no reason to doubt it either. But, I post it here, because this is entirely probable as an incident and, I also see the underlying point about piracy and the corporates’ shameless hunger. I for one stand by the ingenuity behind most piracy. This is also ethical hacking. Hack, Hack and Hack… hip hip hurray to piracy.
Why India Works – written by film director Shekhar Kapoor.
A greater ‘hole in the wall’ you cannot imagine. A small fading sign on the top saying “Cellphoon reapars” barely visible through the street vendors crowding the Juhu Market in Mumbai. On my way to buy a new Blackberry, my innate sense of adventure made me stop my car and investigate. A shop not more than 6 feet by 6 feet. Grimy and uncleaned.
‘Can you fix a Blackberry ?”
‘Of course, show me”
”How old are you” ‘Sixteen’
Bullshit. He was no more than 10. Not handing my precious blackberry to a 10 year old in unwashed and torn T shirt and pyjamas! At least if I buy a new one, they would extract the data for me. Something I have been meaning to do for a year now.
‘What’s wrong with it?”
‘Well, the roller track ball does not respond. It’s kind of stuck and I cannot operate it”
He grabs it from my hand and looks at it
“You should wash your hands. Many customers have same problem. Roller ball get greasy and dirty, then no working’
Look who was telling me to wash my hands. He probably has not bathed for 10 days, I leaned out to snatch my useless blackberry back..
” You come back in one hour and I fix it’.
I am not leaving all my precious data in this unwashed kid’s hands for an hour. No way.
“Who will fix it?”
‘Big brother’
‘How big is ‘big brother?’
‘big …. Umm ..thirty’
Then suddenly big brother walks in. 30 ??? He is no more than 19.
‘What problem?’ He says grabbing the phone from my greasy hand into his greasier hand. Obviously not trained in etiquette by an upmarket retail store manager.
‘Normal blackberry problem. I replace with original part now. You must wash your hand before you use this’. What is this about me washing my hands suddenly??
19 year old big brother rummages through a dubious drawer full of junk and fishes out a spare roller ball packed in cheap cellophane wrapper. Original part? I doubt it.  But by now I am in the lap of the real India and there is no escape as he fishes out a couple of screwdrivers and sets about opening my Blackberry.
“How long will this take?”
”Six minutes”
This I have to see. After spending the whole morning trying to find a Blackberry service centre and getting vague answers about sending the phone in for an assessment that might take a week, I settle down next to his grubby cramped work space. At least I am going to be able to watch all my stored data vanish into virtual space. People crowd around to see what’s happening. I am not breathing easy anyway. I tell myself this is an adventure and literally have to stop myself grabbing my precious Blackberry back and making a quick escape. But in exactly six minutes this kid handed my Blackberry back. He had changed the part and cleaned and serviced the whole phone. Taken it apart, and put it together. As I turned the phone on there was a horrific 2 minutes where the phone would not come on. I looked at him with such hostility that he stepped back.
‘you have more than thousand phone numbers ?”
‘yes’.
‘backed up?’
‘no’
‘Must back up. I do it for you. Never open phone before backing up’
‘You tell me that now?’
But then the phone came on and my data was still there. Everyone watching laughed and clapped. This was becoming a show. A six minute show. I asked him how much.
‘500 rupees’ He ventured uncertainly. People around watched in glee expecting a negotiation.
That’s $10 dollars as against the Rs 30,000 ($ 600) I was about to spend on a new Blackberry or a couple of weeks without my phone. I looked suitably shocked at his ‘high price’ but calmly paid him. Much to the disappointment of the expectant crowd
‘do you have an I-Phone ? Even the new ‘4D one ?
‘no, why”
‘I break the code for you and load any ‘app’ or film you want. I give you 10 film on your memory stick on this one, and change every week for small fee’
I went home having discovered the true entrepreneurship that lies at what we call the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. Some may call it piracy, which of course it is, but what can you say about two uneducated and untrained brothers aged 10 and 19 that set up a ‘hole in the wall’ shop and can fix any technology that the greatest technologists in the world can throw at them. I smiled at the future of our country. If only we could learn to harness this potential.
‘Please wash your hands before use’ were his last words to me. Now I am feeling seriously unclean.