Asia


a thousand splenid sunsAbout two weeks ago I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Novel I was so eager to read. In his bestselling debut The Kite Runner the accent is on the relationship between father and son and friendships between men, in this novel relationship between women is in the focus. Moreover Mr. Hosseini is precisely dedicated this novel “to the women of Afghanistan”.

This is a story of two women against the background of the last forty years in Afghanistan. Two women from completely different milieus but almost equally tragic destiny. Of course this can’t be different considering the problems their country has had. We see what means to be a harami (bastard) in the same country but under different circumstances. Either way it’s very hard but sometimes that might be a deadly mark. So from the very beginning we are confronted with the position of women in society where like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always”.

There is one nice picture of Afghanistan before and then during Taliban rule and period of war against Soviets in between. Therefore we can see how life might be wealthy, the one we are more/less familiar with and not nearly like the images we have when think about nowadays Afghanistan. Namely, second main character is from a wealthy family who is investing in her education and has big planes for her. She has been raised in the “Western” tradition and does not share rigid and traditional Muslim customs. The ones which broke wings of the first woman and the ones which will some twenty years later inevitably knock on her door as well when series of horrifying events will unite destinies of these two women.

Under impossible repressive regime towards women where they must wear burqa, where education is forbidden, where there are no female doctors and male ones can only examine men, where they can’t leave the house without a man … the only salvation is friendship.

Indeed the story sometimes look soap-opera-ish: there is a saintly best friend who commits an act of enormous self-sacrifice to aid the heroine (as in The Kite Runner); romantic twists with sometimes ridiculous description of sexual awakening of young Laila and I’m afraid too many fairy-tale turns as if they were lifted from some B movie. Characters are one-dimensional that they feel like cartoons. Laila is the great beauty, with a doting father and a protective boyfriend — a lucky girl whose luck abruptly runs out. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a bitter woman and a disloyal father — an unlucky girl whose luck turns from bad to worse. There is just too many black/white characterizations.

Luckily Mr. Hosseini succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila’s lives tangible to us, and by conjuring their day-to-day routines, he is able to give us a sense of what daily life was like in Kabul — both before and during the harsh reign of the Taliban and for me that was the most valuable thing here.

He was describing Taliban “beard patrols”; despair of women who can’t find hospital where can be treated (or even give a birth); black market where one can buy forbidden things such are TV, music or movies. Very interesting was “Titanic” fewer in 2000 when parts of the town was named after the movie, also toothpaste, deodorant and (imagine this!) burqas! (recently I’ve read memoirs of girl who lived under Taliban regime “My Forbidden Face” by Latifa (pseudonym) and indeed she wrote about the same “Titanic” fewer)

In some weird way this story is very similar with the movie “Titanic”: They are living on the sinking ship desperately relying on clichés: childhood promises are sacred; true love never dies; justice will be done; sisterhood is powerful. Love will save us and sacrifice for love will always be awarded, in this or in afterlife. It’s very fairy-tale-ish, unrealistic and eventually hard-to-put-down-able story.

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The People’s Act of Love
James Meek

The People´s Act of LoveWOW what a strange novel this is! This beautiful piece of historical fiction written in the best spirit of Russian classics is set in the coldest, isolated part of Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Place where common rules can’t be applied or can easily be neglected and therefore perfect (whatever that means) place to test your humane values and scruples.

I’ve read somewhere one comment about the book as if ”Anna Karenina meets Silence of the Lambs” and that’s pretty much true with the difference that somehow you feel oddly sympathetic with “this” Hannibal Lecter probably because he is breathtakingly convincing (and therefore much scary). His mission is so pure that you’re finding yourself how you almost ignoring the methods; through his words it sounds perfectly right:

 

“…he’s a man so dedicated to the happiness of the future world that he sets himself to destroy all the corrupt and cruel functionaries he can; till he’s destroyed himself. He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction; to hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary man would be strange, like putting wolves on a trial for killing an elk, or trying to shoot the wind.”

And indeed you simply can’t apply the same standard not only to that specific character but (as I said above) to the whole place where the novel is set in. Because just imagine the question like this: “under what circumstances is eating another human being justifiable?” Is there an answer on that question at all? OK maybe if you think now about that horrible true story about plane crash in South American Andes where survivors had to eat pieces of their friends who didn’t survive the crash to stay alive I should reformulate question: “under what circumstances is killing and then eating another human being justifiable?”.
Other question that emerges is “How far are you ready to go in dedication yourself to the God?” and I assure you, if I tell you the answer you wouldn’t believe!

So, the story is set in the middle of Siberia in the village of Yazyk and the characters is one the most impossible group of people: marooned legion of Czechoslovak troops; the members of the strangest Christian sect I’ve ever heard about; a shaman with spiritual “third” eye on his forehead; a strange widow and her son; an escapee from an Arctic gulag and of course the man who “is not destroyer but destruction itself”.

Story about first two groups (Czechs and Christian sect “skoptsy”) is based on historical facts. The year is 1919 and maybe it would be nice to explain historical background of the story (but I should stress that novel is NOT about this):

A turning point in the history of the Russian civil war was the rebellion of the Czech troops, surely one of its most curious episodes. The Habsburg monarchy, Russia’s enemy in the First World War, was like imperial Russia, a multinational empire. The large Slav minority within it felt oppressed, and at the time of the war showed little loyalty to the Habsburgs. A large number of Czech soldiers, for example, easily allowed themselves to be captured by the Russians. The tsarist government hesitated to play the nationality card. They refused to form an army from these prisoners of war and allow them to fight on their side. That situation changed in 1917: Czechs formed an independent corps and fight the Germans. The Czechs were enthusiastic soldiers, for they rightly believed that only the defeat of the central powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, would allow them to form an independent state. When the Russian army fell apart, this tiny force alone wanted to continue fighting, but the Brest-Litovsk treaty made it impossible for them to continue their struggle. After long negotiations with the Soviet government, it was decided to allow them to travel to the Western front through Siberia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Czechs, however, never reached their destination, because while traveling through Siberia they started to fight the Bolsheviks.

And this is where/when the novel is set: In one Siberian village full of Czech soldiers on their way to Pacific but trapped by the Bolsheviks and their own crazy “cheef”.

This novel is extremely thought provoking with such incredible twists. Truth, the start is little confusing and slow with introduction to the characters; it’s kind of little stories about them which will be joined in one story and then the book becomes un-put-down-able. Honestly I can’t remember when was the last time I was so surprised with how the story goes in the book. It’s amazingly unpredictable with turns that leave you speechless. And in the end everything is about love, about many kinds of love and sometimes in quite weird way.

[it’s very hard to write about the novel and avoid the spoilers and I’m aiming to avoid them. I know I would be furious if I have found something that could spoil this great reading adventure. So here is little advice: Do not read comments on Amazon, they are full of spoilers (I’ve read them after I finished with the book)]

This book is definitively not for everyone but it was very enjoyable read for me. It’s not an easy read and (as one my friend said) “nor one that is easily forgettable”.

Probably you’ll get the best image of what can you expect from this novel, from this quote:

“Did you hear the story about the monk who arrived in a small town in Poland one time, rang the bell in the marketplace, gathered all citizens and told them that he had come to warn them of a terrible plague which would soon afflict them? Somebody asked him who was carrying the plague. The monk said: I am”

Yesterday was the opening day of my favourite film festival Free Zone. It is festival of involved film (probably my favourite genre, because it’s (the only one?) without boundaries, because life is its boundary. The industrial production of moving pictures inevitably led to an overabundance of film heroes, to the banality of their missions and to the commercialization of their idealism and to the indifference of the audience. Casual meaningless heroism dominates most of today’s films.

Free Zone offers a different kind of film hero in feature films and documentaries. These heroes are different in their constitution, origin, geography, their burden and, perhaps most importantly, in their existential quality. They are ordinary people who have made, daringly and fearlessly, the hardest choice – to take life in their own hands. Weather by refusing to accept the fate chosen for them by the society, challenging injustice, questioning establishment and traditional relationships and taboos in societies they live in, or truly believing on the possibility of change and the creation of better world, the directors and heroes of these films realize that the belief in choice is what differentiates civilization from barbarism, that civilization means involvement and choice means responsibility.

In next few days you can expect my reviews about movies I’m going to see on the festival.

 

PersepolisFirst film was beautiful Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud; adaptation on the acclaimed graphic novel based on director M. Satrapi’s own life.

This breathtaking animated film is a poignant story of an outspoken young girl coming age in Iran during Islamic Revolution. Hope that revolution has had and disappointing changes it has brought. It is very personal and very emotional story with magnificent portraits of her family members. One might be surprised with modern language and modern look on life. It’s strange to see girl with black headscarf jumping and screaming with “Iron Maiden”. Political struggle, repression of the regime, foreign involvement in producing that misery is so clear and sharp.

This is statement of Marjane Satrapi about her film:

“This isn’t a politically orientated film with the message to sell. It is first and foremost a film about my love for my family. However, if Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like “Islamic fundamentalists”, “terrorists”, or the “Axis of Evil” then I feel like I’ve done something”

Well, I’m not the one who will change my view about Iranians after this film. After years of learning Farsi and knowing many Iranians I never thought they’re “terrorists” or whatever. On the other hand I’m not sure could I be considered as a member of “Western audience” either.

This is French submission for the next Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and don’t be surprised at all if it wins the Oscar.

The Guru of Love
Samrat Upadhyay

The GuruThe Guru of Love is the first Nepalese novel I have read and it was an interesting experience indeed. It was even more interesting because I was constantly picturing my friend Shanna on the streets and temples of Kathmandu. Namely she sent me this novel straight from the top of the world 🙂

This was an easy read. Description of local religious customs, arranged marriages, matching between the castes (and consequences if the match fails) … were very interesting. It was a glimpse into another world, so different from my own.

On the other hand there were many similarities. The main characters are living in the country in which democracy is about to arrive, they are struggling to fulfill their basic needs but also to fulfill the expectations of the others (in-laws who are quite rich). Life under very flammable political situation on the boundary of poverty where everything apart from food is a luxury was very well described. As well as the fact that love doesn’t depend on financial situation.

But the main thing, story about unrestrained passion is what I couldn’t relate myself with. Of course, I’m not talking about sexual fantasies and need to fulfill them but about the dealing with the issue.
I do think that infidelity is so passé, therefore I founded Mr. Ramchandra very irritating. Naturally not because he was having an affair but because the way he dealt with it. I really couldn’t relate myself with his decisions.
And then there is his wife Goma. In the brief description inside the book there is …and he [Ramchandra] learns that he knows far less about his wife […] than he thought which is probably correct but what she has done is really little too much. Again I couldn’t connect myself with her attitude either. I don’t know, maybe that kind of women exists somewhere but for me, from my point of view this was other dimension (extraterrestrial).

In the end maybe all this is part of the general difference in mentality. Maybe that is not so strange for Nepalese. But I guess I couldn’t know that.

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai

Inheritance of loss“Kiran Desai is a terrific writer” are the words of Salman Rushdie and indeed this can be seen from the opening paragraph of her second novel:

“All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kachenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

And this, almost liquid style is something which will carry you on one melancholic and funny and sad and (for me quite) educational journey. You just have to relax and let the stream to carries you away. I must say I did use dictionary a lot (in her river you’ll find beautiful and rare pebbles) and in spite the fact I could understood from the context it would be really such a shame not put little more effort and I was richly awarded. (of course this is something which we from non English world sometimes have to do)

I’ve mention that it was quite educational read. In the background of the story is one historical event: separatist aspiration of Nepalese in the region of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, near the border with Nepal for establishing Gorkhaland. This is something I completely wasn’t familiar with so I had to search a little bit. Of course that is not necessary to understand the book (and especially if history of your own country is full of numerous separatist movements) because misery and consequences are more than evident. In the first plan is the effect of this struggle on the life of common people in the region and personal … well, tragedies of the main characters.

The main characters (including the ones which surround them) are one colorful specter of different personalities that divide story in two (inseparable) parts: Indian on the Eastern Himalayas and American in the cheap restaurants and filled, dirty basements of NYC. Each of them is composed with numerous so emotional, so personal and histories so blind for the histories of others but in the same time so dependable on them. Because misery is more bearable when is not alone. I’m not going to write any spoiler because some of my friends are about to read this novel so I’ll write in general.
There is story about gloriously failed ambition as a “consequence” of wrong genotype (or wrong inheritance), story about too high ambitions and fake image of life that depends only on the talent for mimicry (if you’re good enough maybe you’ll convince yourself that you are one of them), different love stories with political or religious or (wrong) sexual obstacles, story of American dream (or was it nightmare?), immigration, exile, globalization, post colonial disorientation … etc.

Clashes of cultures are so hilarious and sad in the same time. People who would change their inheritance without thinking but after numerous failures they will decorate themselves with superhuman self convincing that precisely that same inheritance is making them unique and interesting (“…who had hit on the fact that you could escape from being a drab immigrant and have a fantastic time as an Indian among the tie-dyed, spout all kinds of Hindu-mantra-Tantra-Mothar-Earth-native-peoples-single-energy- -organic-Shakti-ganja-crystal-shaman-intuition stuff.”); and when they found themselves in the surroundings with people from the same pot as theirs they will start putting peacock feathers on the crow being nothing more than ridiculous and pathetic.

Oh it’s more/less the same thing with our immigrants when they come back here. I really love this part:

“… that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own-wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous. Experience the relief of being an unknown transplant to the locals and hide the perspective granted by journey”

I belong to the nation with unfortunately huge expatriated population and I know many that quote from above refers to. And I do think this transformation is the worst consequence of immigration. That morbid tendency to be assimilated, morbid tendency to be someone else and incurable disease to represent themselves as someone else when they come back in motherland to exhibit their success to the family and left-behind (once) friends. And their universal defending mechanism/explanation (precisely as Desai said as well) is “jealousy, jealousy”… *sigh* how wrong they are…

However I must say that I expected a little more from this novel. I’m not sure what exactly but somehow I have a feeling that something is missing (for my personal sensation). Indeed I think she ended book (too) quickly but that’s surely not the reason for this feeling. I finished book 30 minutes ago so maybe it’s too early to find the right answer so when/if I do I’ll update this post.

Of course I highly recommend this novel.

This book is part of my TBR 2007 Challenge. I’m horribly late with this one thanks to my faculty obligations.

8/10