“A cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning”


Title: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

By: MG Vassanji

From a quiet retreat near the shores of Lake Ontario, Vikram (Vic) Lall, “numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning”, tries to explain his life (“if more of us told our stories to each other, we would be a far happier people”) without defending his actions. He begins with the summer of 1953, when he was eight years old and living in British-ruled Kenya. His playmates, apart from his little sister, were an African friend, Njoroge, and two British children; in a sense, Vikram was an “in-between” from very early in his life.

As the years pass, Vic goes from working as a Ministry of Transport employee to becoming a crucial cog in embezzlement schemes in high places, almost without realising it: “Total corruption occurs in inches and proceeds through veils of ambiguity.” He is influenced in invisible, unknowable ways by external forces and in turn, his actions affect his country’s history. This is a beautifully written, very elegant novel about the gradual decay of a man who always feels himself to be on the periphery of things, on the outside looking in. And Vassanji’s writing never strikes the wrong note; throughout, you feel like you’re inside Vikram’s head.

Cinema in its purest and rawest form


Title: Wages of Fear

By: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Four men must transport nitroglycerin by truck to a burning oilfield 300 miles away. What could go wrong?

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece thriller “Wages of Fear” (or “Le salarie de la peur”) is the film which probably led to the coinage of a cliche used to describe even a B-grade action-thriller: “edge-of-your-seat”.

If the film’s premise makes it sound like a simplistic video game (“Frogger”?), well, it is and it is not. For one thing, Clouzot does not pick stereotypical “heroes” for the mission, but four desperate, down-on-their-luck men who will do anything for a shot at a better life. Second, the “backstory” for each character is so detailed in the first act that when compared to today’s action-thrillers, it almost comes as a shock. Could an action movie spend nearly an hour without an explosion or at least a car chase?

The second-half of the film – one long and unnerving second act – is guaranteed to leave you breathless. The trucks drive over a difficult terrain. How difficult? Well, a hastily negotiated bump on the road can kill the mission. Naturally, the journey gets progressively tougher and with it, the characters change too. The most famous sequence in the film (involving a truck and a wooden platform) is a great example of cinema in its purest and rawest form. Give us characters we care for, put them in harm’s way and we are hooked. Too bad most action films forget to give us characters we care for.

Ultimately, it is in the film’s ending that we learn why Clouzot’s vision is not so simplistic after all.  Needless to say, if you really want to enjoy the film’s full impact, please don’t read any spoilers before buying or renting this film.

The pressures of youth and beauty


Title: Grotesque

By: Natsuo Kirino

I enjoy contemporary Japanese fiction as much as I do their horror films, which are often as taut and dark, the denouement always leaving me agape. So I was delighted to find that Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque, scheduled for March, 2007, had its release pushed forward by a month, making it the author’s second novel after Out to be translated into English.

Out is “gruesome,” “daring and disturbing” and as I discovered last night, shortly after ensuring that all doors had been bolted and the dog put on guard, that Grotesque turns up the ante on several counts. In modern day Tokyo, two prostitutes, the stunningly beautiful and selfish Yuriko, born of a Swiss father and Japanese mother, and the bland, eternal outsider Kazue, who works for a blue chip company during the day, are murdered brutally within months of each other in the same way—“In the first floor apartment in the Maruyama-chō neighbourhood in Shibuya, her clothes in disarray.” The dead girls have something in common. They both studied at the same expensive and elite school for young ladies alongside Yuriko’s charmless older sister, who narrates their story with help from the girls’ journals, insights from the victim’s family, and Chinese immigrant, Zhang Zhe-zong, who has been arrested for the crimes.

Zigzagging madly through Tokyo noir, this extremely sexual novel is a disturbing insight into the pressures that youth and beauty bear, and of the fatal repercussions of not conforming. Not as graphic as Ryu Murakami’s In the Miso Soup, Grotesque will nevertheless cost you a few sleepless nights.

A Whoppin’ Good Time


Title: Modern Times

By: Bob Dylan

“You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time”

– Bob Dylan, ‘Spirit on the Water’

At some point in every great artist’s career, the excitement of appreciation turns into the comfort of faith. We worship what is original and authentic in art, yet our very admiration sets the stage for nostalgia. Every legend is its own ghost.

Modern Times is an album of minor rooms haunted by the unforgettable specter of Dylan’s voice. It is his best album in decades – not because it pushes the frontiers of what Dylan is capable of, or because it is a patch on his great albums from the 60s and the 70s, but precisely because it is a return to what is simple and essential about the Dylan experience. Musically unchallenging (but for the staccato beat of ‘Nettie Moore’) and politically old-fashioned (I mean really, who still sings about the proletariat?), Modern Times is an opportunity to sink back into the familiar drizzle of that voice, to relive that long, lonely drive called growing up. Dylan is over the hill, but if time has worn away his edge it has also granted him a slow, almost elegiac maturity. When Dylan sings “We live and we die, we know not why / But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”, it’s a promise we know he will keep.

Neil Diamond revives that old magic


Title: 12 Songs

By: Neil Diamond

Throughout the last years of school, I nursed a disgraceful little secret. When asked about my tastes in music, I’d reply, “The Doors, Dylan, some Weather Report and, of course, the Beatles”. While that wasn’t intended to deceive, the one artiste I kept concealed was Neil Diamond.

Cracklin’ Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Shilo? Yes, that Neil Diamond, who emerged from the legendary Brill Building and came to be known, without the slightest trace of irony, as “the Jewish Elvis”. (Later, they said he was “the William Shatner of soft rock”. Ouch.)

Tragically, the man’s music became pompous and bloated with the years, and I simply stopped listening; Beautiful Noise and The Jazz Singer were among the last two albums I had affection for. The admiration went underground, emerging only once in a while, such as when I’d inform those listening to Urge Overkill’s ‘Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ or UB40’s ‘Red Red Wine’ that the songs were, in fact, Neil Diamond covers.

Which is why it was such a pleasure to read about—and then hear – his latest release, simply called 12 Songs. Produced by the career-resurrecting Rick Rubin, this is stark, autumnal and from-the-heart Diamond, wrung of excess and posturing. Listening to tracks such as ‘Save Me A Saturday Night’, ‘I’m On To You’ and ‘What’s It Going To Be’ brought back some of the old magic—even though his voice is time-ravaged, ‘Man of God’ is sanctimonious and ‘Hell Yeah’ is too obvious an attempt to create another ‘My Way’. Occasionally mawkish? Yeah. Worth listening to? Hell, yeah.

A complete engine to roast a chicken


Title: Westward Bound: Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb

By: Mirza Abu Taleb

In 1799 the Lucknawi nobleman Mirza Abu Taleb, facing many troubles at home, set sail for Europe. Taking careful notes of what he saw not only on his destination, England, but also on stopovers at Turkey, Malta and Baghdad, he produced among the first – and still among the best – travel books by an Indian writer.

Abu Taleb’s account conveys the wonder of the newly emergent Industrial Revolution (“The English carry their passion for mechanics to such an extent that…a very complete engine is used even to roast a chicken”) and directs an astute eye upon British culture, morals and manners, and politics (“Liberty may be considered as the idol, or tutelary deity, of the English”).

But the real charm of the Travels is that it is a two-way account: Abu Taleb’s travels allow him to consider not just British society but also properly assess the strengths and weaknesses of his own. He is constantly questioning, assessing, comparing – what makes the English this way, and Indians that? Every page resonates with Abu Taleb’s peculiarly candid charm (“Although I am by nature amorous, and easily affected at the sight of beauty…I never met with a Frenchwoman who interested me”). And Travels even establishes that the more things change, the more they stay the same – at one point Abu Taleb speaks about being stuck in a traffic jam on Oxford Street.

In a world of sleeplessness and dislocation


Title: The Unconsoled

By: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled has long been one of my favourite books, but it was only during a hectic foreign junket a couple of years ago that I got a firsthand understanding of the novel’s strange world. It’s a world of sleeplessness and dislocation, marked by a sense of never quite knowing where you are, what you’re there for and what you have to do next. It’s the world of the constant traveller, someone who seemingly spends most of his time stumbling from check-in to boarding gate. (No wonder Pico Iyer is among its admirers!)

The Unconsoled was probably Ishiguro’s least well-received book on its initial publication, but I suspect it will endure the longest. It’s about a world-famous pianist, Mr Ryder, who has arrived in an unnamed European city for a performance but who only learns things about his visit (and about himself) as he goes along; he is shunted around by people, encounters figures from his distant past, and never gets a satisfactory meal or rest. The baffling, surrealistic narrative can frustrate even the most patient reader, but stay with it and you’ll be moved by Ishiguro’s subtle commentary on the myopia that allows people to keep reaching for superficial rewards, and how interior worlds can be much more compelling than “reality”.