Category Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project 2020

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and. Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders Title: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Author: George Saunders
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-1594481529
Genre: Dystopian Fiction, Cyberpunk Science Fiction, Satire
Pages: 134
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders is a book that cannot be categorized. It is a dystopian novella, a science fiction read, a satirical take on our times, the 21stcentury Animal Farm in a way, and perhaps more.

Written in 2006, almost fourteen years ago, this novella is still so frighteningly prescient. We are living it in a way, in almost every country. Most countries of the world today have their own Phil, and their reign isn’t brief.

The country in the book is called Inner Horner, large enough for only one resident at a time. There are citizens who wait to gain entry, and these citizens fall under the rule of the despot Phil, which further leads to mass chaos and hysteria.

The novella is funny (intentionally I guess, at the same time making you see the mirror), dark, and in no way, you will not think about it after you’re done. The so-called people in the story are human in their actions, but maybe not in their appearance. They resemble machines, so maybe Saunders is making multiple points at the same time.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is for sure a quick read and a political allegory that we are perhaps a part of without realizing it. It is the kind of book that will jolt you a bit and makes you also look at the on-goings in the book from a distance by removing the human element. It is a book that delivers its message if you want to see it. Coupled with some lucid illustrations, this book blends the elements of the surreal and fantastical with great ease, making for a highly introspective read.

Suralakshmi Villa by Aruna Chakravarti

Suralakshmi Villa by Aruna Chakravarti Title: Suralakshmi Villa
Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
ISBN: 9789389109399
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 313
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3/5

So, I was eagerly waiting to read Suralakshmi Villa, because I loved Chakravarti’s earlier works – Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko. However, while I enjoyed reading this one, a problem kept nagging me over and over again. The depiction of the Muslim man and I even let it go because the story is rich and detailed, but somehow it kept coming back as the pages turned.

I think it has got to do more with the need for the plot and to propel the story in a certain direction. Having said that, I still think it could’ve been treated differently. At the same time, perhaps it is a function of the time the book is set in. These thoughts and more also make you see a book differently by the time you are done with it.

Coming back to the book, Suralakshmi Villa with its prose, characters, and Bengal at the core never disappoints in the details and character study. There is a lot going on with the focus on the protagonist Suralakshmi Choudhury, and what goes on in her life as she “settles down” – marries, has a kid, is a gynaecologist, and suddenly decides to abandon it all. Why? What for? Those questions are answered as we read – back and forth in time – drawing from her journals, letters, other people’s perspectives, and incidents. While Suralakshmi is at the center of the narrative, there is so much going on with the other characters, that Chakravarti forces us almost to turn our gaze to them as well.

Aruna Chakravarti writes a historical novel that is also a novel about Bengal, about religion, the lifestyle of the common person, blending in the myths and legends, and connecting it very deeply with personal experiences, bias, and the manner in which a character thinks or aspires. Suralakshmi Villa is about human relationships of course, but it is also about how we got there, and what happened and is there any redemption at all in the grander scheme of things.

The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy

The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy Title: The Little Snake
Author: A.L. Kennedy
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 978-1786893871
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 144
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

This inventive, almost fable-like book is just what I needed in times such as these, and so do you. The Little Snake is a story of a girl named Mary, and a snake named Lanmo, and about human beings on this planet, and who we are at the heart of it all. It is a story of how the snake is a symbol of death, is so full of wisdom, and can sense feelings through tasting the air people breathe.

The Little Snake is a book that is so profound and you don’t realise it as you are reading it, but toward the end it all becomes clear. I don’t know what else to say about this book that will stay with me for a very long time. There are some books that come to you, and even after they have you don’t get to them at the earliest. You take your time because there is always a right time to read the right book (no matter what anyone else thinks). The book is influenced by The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and I am not surprised given the language used and descriptions of beauty lending to hope in times of hopelessness.

I found myself thinking of all that is happening right now with reference to Corona Virus, to how we as humans are – taking opportunity of a crisis, to getting together and showing kindness and empathy. The Little Snake is a story of everyone’s journey – from life to death, about community where only wealth and power exists, to the means people have to survive and hope for a better tomorrow.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cámara Cabezón. Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Title: The Adventures of China Iron
Author: Gabriela Cámara Cabezón
Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
Publisher: Charco Press
ISBN: 9781916465664
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 200
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I hadn’t read Argentina’s epic national poem Martín Fierro (1872-79) to which The Adventures of China Iron is a queer response. I just dived straight into this one and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is so much and much more. The layers of this novel are plenty and to uncover and peel each one took quite some time in my head.

The narrator China (Latin for female) is soon renamed Josephine Star Iron, is the teenage wife of Martín Fierro, left behind to fend for herself as her husband is press-ganged into the army. She soon takes refuge with Liz, who has just arrived from Scotland, and the two of them travel together. Liz is here to claim land she and her husband are about to manage for a wealthy British man. On their travels, China develops a crush on Liz. She has her hair cut and wears men’s clothes to travel safely and in turn, becomes Jo. Thus, their adventures begin.

I do not think I will ever read Martín Fierro, and not because it isn’t good or anything, but because The Adventures of China Iron is a book I will never forget. Fierro may not even live up to it at all, and of that I am sure. The complexities of China Iron are plenty. There is so much to take away from it, and not just about being queer, or a woman, but historically as well.

Gabriela Cámara Cabezón’s writing is so powerful that I literally had to reread so many portions, just to understand it at a deeper level. The translation by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre doesn’t disappoint – every nuance – traditional and otherwise is presented to the reader as is. The interactions of these women with men they encounter, the power dynamics, the inequality, and the punch of 1872 Argentina comes across vividly in so many ways.

The Adventures of China Iron is a treat for any reader – a romp of a read, but more than anything else, makes you understand what it means to not only be a woman but find your own at the end of it all.

Red Dog by Willem Anker. Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns

Red Dog by Willem AnkerTitle: Red Dog
Author: Willem Anker
Translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782274223
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2/5

I waited, and waited, and waited some more for this book to get better. I tried. I wanted to give it another chance, which I did. I did not not finish it. I persisted. I read. I read more. I braved through it. I finished the book and out come a big sigh of relief.

Again, Red Dog was hugely atmospheric, but the book somehow went nowhere. I do not say this because Anker was criticised for this novel, as some reviewers think it has similarities to McCarthy’s writing. I say this because I honestly thought that the bloody fictional biography of Buys, a real figure from 18th century South Africa, was just not something that I would read otherwise.

The book is told from the perspective of Buys, that gets plain exhausting after a while. Yes, the South African landscape helps to distract, and those descriptions are near-perfect, so that helps. There was something missing as I was plodding through this book. I love historical fiction. I love books that say it as it is – the violence, the colonial rule, the brutality, and vividly imagined daily life. Somehow though the book turned out to be hyper-masculine for my taste.

Red Dog is not everyone’s cup of tea, maybe just like Cormac McCarthy’s books aren’t. The translation also this time didn’t do it for me. It seemed patchy in most places, and did not seem to provide context in others. What could’ve been a masterpiece in so many ways (and probably is for most readers), fell flat on its face for me, the average reader.