Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Warren Dean's review

The following is Warren Dean's review of Agamemnon Must Die, reproduced from Goodreads (link) with his permission.

***




This is the story of what happens when King Agamemnon returns from the Greek conquest of Troy.

For ten years, his queen Clytemnestra has been nursing her hatred of Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia at the beginning of the Trojan campaign. In her husband's long absence, she has taken his cousin Aigisthos as her consort. Aigisthos loves her unconditionally and is easily persuaded to help her kill the king.

After the deed is done, the story becomes that of Orestes, son of Agamemnon and heir to the throne. Honour and tradition require him to avenge himself on his father's killers, but is it really in his nature to do so?

In this re-telling of the tale, all of the characteristics of Greek tragedy are faithfully preserved. Mortal heroes and heroines struggle to reconcile lofty ambitions, innate character flaws, and the dictates of love, while immortal gods and goddesses manipulate them to further their own schemes and petty squabbles.

However, that is not all there is to the novel; the central storyline is overlaid with subtle facets which engage the reader on different levels. For example, Aigisthos' backstory makes him a noble character whose motives the reader can sympathise with. And Orestes' inner struggle is what makes him susceptible to Apollo's attempts to coerce him to act contrary to his nature.

The supernatural element of the story is prefaced by some of the mortals openly questioning society's belief in the literal existence of the gods. This gives the reader an insight into what motivates the likes of Apollo, Hermes, and the Furies to compel mortals to do their bidding. The gods' very existence is at stake; if the values and traditions that define them are abandoned, they themselves will fade into oblivion.

This theme culminates in an enthralling debate between the Furies, who want to maintain the power of the gods, and Athena, who wants to end the cycle of violence begun by Agamemnon's murder of his own daughter. Athena's stance is a fascinating one; in proposing to supplant the supreme authority of the gods with the rule of law, she is advocating her own eventual demise. The Furies' make an apposite observation in response: "This is too new for us. We grasp not the reason nor the desired outcome. Do you think to make men good by enacting more laws?"

Good question.

Good story.

(I received a free copy of this story in exchange for an honest, non-reciprocal review.)

***


I have reproduced the review exactly as written, not only because Warren thinks it is worth four stars out of five, but also for his reaction to the ending of the book--the "supernatural element," the debate between the new gods and the old, the Olympians versus the Fates. This occupies almost all of the last third of Aeschylus' trilogy. It was for him and fifth century B.C. Athens a vital debate.

It was also the hardest to write/retell. Nothing happens; it is a long argument. I chose to write this confrontation in verse with the Olympians speaking in a different meter from the Fates. I imagine that usually eyes glaze at this point. A debate between the new morality and the old, the new set of beliefs that make sense of life versus the old. 

How refreshing that a reviewer finds this "an enthralling debate"!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that," declared the author flatly through his narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947 at the same instant that India was given its independence. 

"There was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary ... a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will--except in a dream we all agree to dream ... a mere fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat ... India a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivaled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God."

Thus, with wit, style, and erudition, Rushdie has his narrator usher that event, acknowledging the roles of a dying Jinnah who desired to witness the creation of Pakistan during his lifetime and of Mountbatten with his "extraordinary haste." Was it because the British believed there might be substance to the rumors that Hindus and Muslims had started to work on a resolution of their differences and feared a successful new nation where Britannia had ruled by division?

Those who prefer their fiction separated, like yokes from whites, from mere political history must suffer through much in this blockbuster, from the massacre at Amritsar, through the shenanigans of pro versus anti Muslim Leaguers, through comparisons between Nasser and Nehru, between Indian and Pakistani troops, actions in Kashmir and so on, as if to the last syllable of recorded time. 

William Methwold, the departing expatriate who sold to the narrator's parents Methwold Estates in Bombay, whinged that the British had provided "hundreds of years of decent government ... built your roads. [We bequeathed India with] schools, trains, the parliamentary system. The Taj Mahal was falling down until an Englishman bothered to see to it." 

But Reverend Mother (the narrator's grandmother) noticed that there was no water near the pot. "I never believed, but it's true, my God, they wipe their bottoms with paper only." Magna Carta, habeas corpus, and Shakespeare notwithstanding, the British Empire remained in her eyes as the great unwashed.

Rushdie's exuberant and eloquent stories set this blockbuster aside from Virgil's constipated and politically correct epic of the rise of Rome/Augustus or Tennyson's prissy, labored homilies that celebrated English greatness. Instead, from Tal, Aadam Aziz (the narrator's putative grandfather), heard many stories, "endless verbiage which made others think him cracked." The boatman of Kashmir told the tallest of tall tales: "listen, nakoo. I saw that Isa, that Christ, when he came to Kashmir, beard down to his balls, bald as an egg, old and fagged out." 

But the narrator was ecumenical in his casual references to religious figures. He compared his own visions to those of Mohammed ("on whose name be peace -- I don't want to offend anyone") who had been commanded to Recite and received for his confusion the comfort and reassurance of family and friends that he had been singled out as the Messenger. The narrator, on the other hand, saw "the shawl of genius fluttering down, like an embroidered butterfly, the mantle of greatness settling on my shoulders." In an aside he explains a cozy reference to elephant-headed Ganesh, "despite my Muslim background, I'm enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories."

Myth, politics, a cunningly contrived plot, almost overwhelms the imaginative, inventive, and most enchanting language. The Sinai family fed upon Reverend Mother's "curries and meatballs of intransigence"; Amina ate the "fish salans of stubbornness and biryanis of determination." Mary Pereira made them "pickles of guilt and fear of discovery." 

This may very well be the Great Indian Novel. There is that air about it, but it may have been too clever. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale (of woe)

It is odd that Margaret Atwood's most famous novel, which many consider her best, should have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for the best work of science fiction published in the United Kingdom (during the previous year). She herself thought of The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake (published in 2003) as "speculative" or "social science fiction." In a few places, it has also been referred to as a "thriller"; it might be that, if one could conceive of a Hitchcock movie with the sound turned off as thrilling.

Handmaids in the Republic of Gilead perform their function in the coldest, starkest, most denatured interpretation of Rachel's request to Jacob: "Behold my maid ... go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." To call the society of The Republic of Gilead puritanical is a slander on the Puritans. A reference to Victoria's alleged advice to her daughter (perhaps to everyone of them married off): "just close your eyes and think about England," is more like it.   

"A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick sidewalk towards me. She reaches me and we peer at each other's faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is the right one." Thus a mood of paranoia that swirls around the handmaiden is conveyed. The Eyes are watching. The Guardians are barely to be trusted. A woman was shot for fumbling in her clothes. "They" thought she might have a bomb. She had not even been a handmaid or a Wife or an "econo-wife," but a Martha.

The handmaiden slept in "what had once been the gymnasium... I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat... Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound... There was old sex in the room and loneliness."

Alas, the way of a man with a woman, told in this Tale from the Maid's point of view is bleached of all sentiment, denuded of lust, and bleak, bleak, bleak. It has the intimacy and arousal of a gynecological examination. Even a society like that portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns, devoid of any notion of romantic love, betrays more feeling, more affection.


I wish, said the Handmaid, this story were "about love, or sudden realizations important to one's life, or even about sunsets and birds, rainstorms or snow... I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story... But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story." 

"Our sweetest songs," a Romantic poet once said, "are those that tell of saddest thoughts." The thoughts in this story are sad beyond bearing, but the songs are exquisitely acrid. The writing in this volume may indeed be better than that in The Year of the Flood, but I found the later novel, dark and weird as it might seem, more life-affirming.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A giveaway on Amazon

I had never heard of such a thing until a couple of months ago. I have never considered such a thing until a couple of weeks ago.

But now I have done it. Anxiously following Amazon's hints and prompts, I have taken another small step in self-promotion and set up an Amazon Giveaway of  https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/4ba0b754232f5654

I hope any of my followers or anyone happening on this blog will take the opportunity to try to win a copy (the Giveaway is limited to print versions only.)

Please do let me know by comment on this blog or Twitter (@hgtjoa) if your experience was pleasant.

Thanks!