Category Archives: Literature

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra

multiple-choice-by-alejandro-zambra Title: Multiple Choice
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by: Megan McDowell
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1783782697
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 112
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember loving multiple choice questions at school. I would actually look forward to that option at any exam or test, given that I could at least deduce some and get my answer and be almost sure that it would be the right option that I had chosen. Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” is a book which is inventive, playful and based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. It is one of the highly inventive books I have across in a long time (after Hopscotch by Cortazar I think and even he was Latin American) and I can in all honesty say that I loved it immensely.

“Multiple Choice” is a collection of micro-stories which engages the reader at every turn of the page – by giving them options to choose from. At the same time, it doesn’t really give you a choice and that’s when the clever writing of Zambra kicks in. This is not a novel for sure. It isn’t even a collection of short stories. I love the way this book breaks all norms and becomes something which no one can define. The irony lies in the postmodern prose where it challenges everything postmodern as well.

The book does take some time getting into and understanding the format – but once you do, you cannot help yourself but finish it. The book is divided into forms of multiple choice sections where as a reader you have to do either of these: exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how to fill in the blanks in a sentence, eliminate sentences from a short narrative or show comprehension skills of stories. What the book then ends up doing is automatically laying ground for many perspectives to emerge from each short piece. What is interesting is the hidden political criticism that emerges in most short stories, almost defying a system in place.

Alejandro Zambra’s books are not easy to get into, as I mentioned earlier but what they do manage to do is leave a lot of thoughts lingering with the reader. “Multiple Choice” is a smart book that will make you feel clever and also underutilized at the same time. Some pieces are deeply moving as well – I loved the reading comprehension story on divorce which will choke you a bit. Sometimes the unconventional novel or a literary work challenges the way you think and rightly so. I strongly think more works of literature should do that, given the times we live in.

All said and done, “Multiple Choice” is also this good because of the fantastic translation by Megan McDowell. Every word, no matter how small stands out in the reading comprehension pieces and makes so much sense when connected with the questions at the end of it. I think that is the beauty of fiction that doesn’t follow the norm – it all ends up together one way or the other. “Multiple Choice” is deeply emotional, passionate, and political, and to forget a brilliant moving read. One of the best I’ve read in this genre and form in a while.

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The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca

the-house-of-bernarda-alba Title: The House of Bernarda Alba
Author: Federico Garcia Lorca
Publisher: Nick Hern Books
ISBN: 978-1848421813
Genre: Drama
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

For the longest time, I have wanted to watch Rukmavati ki Haveli – a film by Govind Nihalani (which is now up on YouTube). I think it was the allure of the name – a very strong and heavy fisted name – Rukmavati ki Haveli – a daunting name at that and it was only recently (two years ago) when I realized that it was based on a play by Lorca, whose poems I had read earlier and was fascinated by them.

I did finally get to reading “The House of Bernarda Alba” and I was hooked from the first scene of the first act. From what I have heard, it is also Lorca’s longest play and boy was I glad that I read it. It is an easy play to read, but of course, however, what stays with you after you’ve finished the book is unsettling and disturbing if nothing else.

The play is set in Spain, in the house of Bernarda Alba (the titular character of course), along with her mother, the maids, and five daughters who she controls with a vengeance, to the extent that she can also control their hearts. All of this takes place in time of mourning, when they are locked at home and not allowed to step out. It is a quick read, but it is very precise and cuts right through to the reader.

The characterization is flawless – especially Adella (the youngest daughter) and Bernarda as the unrelenting matriarch. The themes of madness, loneliness, yearning, oppression, the changing political landscape of Spain and in that the changing landscape of the Alba household (the juxtaposition is superb) are deftly handled by Lorca. The context of 1930s Spain and its tumultuous landscape is so evident as you read the play – religious, spiritual, traditional and modern merge and the future of the characters hangs in a melancholy balance.

So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors

so-much-for-that-winter-by-dorthe-nors Title: So Much for That Winter
Author: Dorthe Nors
Translator: Misha Hoekstra
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977429
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love it when authors break boundaries of traditional storytelling and present ideas in a new way. Dorthe Nors, a Danish writer does just that. She breaks the norms of telling a tale and how. Her new book (second one) titled “So Much for That Winter” consists of two novellas, of two women sifting through the fallout of respective breakups.

In the first novella, “Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space” – Nors writes the novella in the form of sparse headlines. Minna gets dumped on a text and the novella is about her being consoled by everyone around her – Minna’s mission though is to escape them all, especially her sister. I loved the way it was written. It is raw, brutal and funny – all at the same time. Nors could have very well written her own story. She could be Minna you know.

The second novella “Days” is about another breakup in the form of lists – of how a writer fills her time post break-up. Through both these novellas, I got a very uncanny sense of how nothing might be relevant in our endless age of tweets, updates and Instagram posts. Even heartbreak for that matter. I finished both these novellas in one go and honestly, I have not felt this disoriented in a long time after reading a book. Nors’ writing speaks to you and you can sense it crawling up your back and somehow you enjoy it. You are perhaps also taken in with all the reality but also somehow make peace with it.

Also, let me not forget that this experience would not have been possible without Misha Hoekstra’s wondrous translation of these novellas. “So Much for That Winter” deals in being human above everything else. These two novellas complement each other superbly and one cannot be read without the other. Nors has created a strewn about, lush, hurtful, real and beautiful love-letter of our times.

Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles by Ankit Chadha

the-man-in-riddles Title: Amir Khusrau: The Man in Riddles
Author: Ankit Chadha
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 978-0143426486
Genre: Literary Fiction, Poetry
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I had heard of Ankit Chadha and his Dastangoi acts from a lot of friends. I am yet to witness the magic he creates though. After reading this short book by him on Khusrau’s riddles and some about his life, I will for sure watch Chadha spin his brilliant talent. I did then watch some episodes on YouTube but let me also tell you, I am sure that they do not hold a candle to the real thing.

Amir Khusrau’s life is revealed in this book “The Man in Riddles” cleverly and masterfully by Ankit Chadha. This book is also part-verse and part-mystery – a puzzle for the readers – something for them to engage in and at the same time, get to know Khusrau better. Khusrau was a poet, a strategist, a musician, a scholar, and more. His spiritual master was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his tomb is next to his master’s in Delhi. It is fascinating just to trace his life on the Internet and know more about this man.

The illustrations are not mere pictures or fancy art – they go hand in hand with the story that Chadha has to tell. The book is exquisite, in the sense of what is communicated and how it is done – bilingually – with both Hindi//Urdu (though he mainly wrote a lot in Persian) on one side and English on the other side.

I think the only way to experience Khusrau now would be through Ankit’s Dastangoi. I hope that works out for me really soon. I cannot wait to live it in person. When that is done, a trip to Delhi must be made to know more, a lot more than I do now.

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People: Edited by Tarnya Cooper

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper Title: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People
Edited by Tarnya Cooper
Publisher: National Portrait Gallery Publications
ISBN: 978-1855144552
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

A picture tells a thousand words they say. We have all learnt it as we were growing up. Yet how many of us can actually make pictures talk? Do we even care about what they have to say? The National Portrait Gallery in London receives portraits on a daily basis. Sometimes there are portraits that cannot be identified and belong to a century and time long gone.

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

So this is what the gallery did. They commissioned eight contemporary authors of Britain and Ireland to weave stories around fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women? What were their life stories? What were their thoughts? The book is about the lives of these unknown sitters from a time gone by.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

The stories are deliciously written. Tracy Chevalier brings to life a painting and terms it “Rosy” about a man and his affair with another man. “I am Mary Douglas” by Minette Walters is a reflection of a time to connect emotionally with. You just want more of these stories recorded in the form of short memoirs, character sketches, diary entries and just a brief page or two about the subjects. There is also a brilliant story by Terry Pratchett on one of the portraits’ subjects meeting Queen Elizabeth. To me, that was the best piece in terms of humour.

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper - Image 3

Each portrait is written about and analyzed in detail – not a single element is missed out on. Alexander McCall Smith for instance does a wonderful job in “False Mary” where there is a sit in for Mary Queen of Scots herself. It is delicious and so absolutely believable that you want more from where that one came. Toward the end of the book is a brilliant explanation of how these portraits came to be by the chief curator of NPG and editor of the book Tarnya Cooper, titled “Did my hero look like that?”

“Imagined Lives” is a book about lost souls. It is about life and art merged and seen individually. I just chanced on this book and took to it. The stories and the portraits are something. Definitely something worth reading and owning.