Tag Archives: displacement

Book Review: The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Title: The Free World
Author: David Bezmozgis
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250002518
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When you write about the migrant experience, it becomes very difficult to encompass everything in one single book, keeping the trail of thought intact. The Free World by David Bezmozgis is a perfect example of this. A lot of books about the immigrant experience have been written and it isn’t to write so. A part of the author’s life also goes into the book or else you cannot write about the immigrant life.

David Bezmozgis’s book is a unique take on displaced people, of a family that is nowhere and yet the whole world seems to encompass in this book through their eyes. The Free World is a story of a family of Soviet Jews, who were released in the 1960s and 70s (the Russian Jews could finally leave and find their own way in the world) and could not travel directly to Israel or to the US. They had to often stop over at Vienna or Rome to enter the so-called “Free World”. The stop was undecided. It could take days, weeks or months. Till then, families had no clue as to what was going to happen. The limbo existed.

The book opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome. The family like any other family has its own eccentricities. Each character propels the story forward from his or her way of fitting into the novel. The patriarch, Samuil – an old Communist and Red Army Veteran, who reluctantly leaves home, misses his old life and mulls over it again and again. The mother, Emma is constantly devoted to her family and accepts all decisions without as much a mutter. She is yet central to the theme. The eldest son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two sons. He finds a new way in his life: The Roman Underworld. The younger son, Alec, the womanizer is accompanied with his new bride Polina, who is as scandalous as ever.

The family struggle with themselves – making sense of why they left and what it feels like to be in a strange country, in transit, waiting to get to the free world. The title of the book speaks to the reader on various levels – from freedom (which in this case is elusive as the characters speak for themselves) to the idea of freedom. Bezmozgis’s characters are as real as you and I. The story is beyond a story of a family’s stay in Rome. The political friction is sensitively handled throughout the novel. David Bezmozgis has successfully managed to show us how the family got to where they are when the novel opens.

The writing is accessible. At no point, did I get bogged down reading the book or turning the pages over and over again for references. The other Russian Jews in the book are as endearing as the central family. Each character has his or her story to tell and that is what makes this book unique. There is a lot of history in the book. I for one would have to read more books to understand that perspective a little better. The entire Anti-Semitism, restrictions, deep rooted fears of Stalin and his successors, the dangerous paths for Jews applying for visas, and the ones that literally got away – all this needs to be understood a little more. I could not stop thinking about the characters once I finished the book. Bezmozgis is able to capture the story of a family – lost within itself and in the outside world beautifully. A must read.

Here are some excerpts:

“So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”

“What does it matter to them where they were?” muses Samuil. “How were they different from the birds who landed in one place or another, unmoored by allegiances or souls.” In this land of limbo, the only true connection is not to homeland – past or present – but to each other.

At one point, Alec says, “The same borders you crossed to get here, you can cross in reverse. It needn’t be hard. For all we know, it might even be easier in reverse.”

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Book Review: The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

 Title: The Wasted Vigil
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK
ISBN: 978-0-571-23880-4
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 436
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When you read a Nadeem Aslam novel, you sink in the words. You cherish the writing, and let the plot linger with you way after the book is over. Nadeem Aslam was introduced to me by a friend, when he gifted me a copy of, “Maps for Lost Lovers” and I remember reading it in one night. I was hooked. There was no way I was going to go to sleep without finishing the book. The same happened when I started reading, “The Wasted Vigil”.

“The Wasted Vigil” is not a new book however that does not matter. Moreover it is quite difficult to write a book about Afghanistan and deal with its history of the last thirty-odd years. I have read a lot of books on Afghanistan and its condition, however this one has been very different (rather handled quite well) and written like a dream.

The book is set in present Afghanistan and includes a band of diverse characters. An English Ex-Pat, his Afghani wife and daughter, and the stories from their village form the backdrop of the story. To this, other characters are added – An American Ex-Spy, the sister of a dead Soviet from the 80’s, an American Special Forces agent, and a young Jihadi and two Afghan “warlords” (which is the most interesting in my opinion), complete the tapestry of this book. The action in the book takes place at Marcus’s house (The Englishman). Lara arrives there one fine day in search of her brother and the drama unfolds. The others arrive one after the other in search of someone or something. This is the premise of the book.

What I loved about the book was of course the way it was written but also the way the characters are etched throughout, from beginning to the end, no one is out of place. There are some astoundingly beautiful sentences, though at times (rarely) I felt they somehow did not add to the narrative as whole. Nonetheless, I enjoyed them a lot and here are some striking examples:

“All those who love know exactly the limit they’re prepared to go to. They know exactly what is required.”

“On the journey towards the beloved, you live by dying at every step”

“How keen everyone is to make this world their home forgetting its impermanence It’s like trying to see and name constellations in a fireworks display.”

The literary and historical references in the book are bang on and make a lot of sense when read from an overall perspective. The narrative moves back and forth from one person to another and that at times presents a problem reading the book, however before you know it, you will get used to the style of writing.

The threads are connected with great care throughout the book. The socio-economic lay of the land is described intricately and gives the reader a sense of place and time. No sides are taken and no judgments are made. That is probably the best way to approach this book while reading it as well. All I can say is that I enjoyed this book a lot, despite not agreeing to certain parts. A great read for sure. Intense and thought-provoking.

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Book Review: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

Title: The Land of Decoration
Author: Grace McCleen
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0-701-18682-1
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 291
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Land of Decoration starts off as a strange book. About a girl, her father and their staunch religious beliefs. At the core of it, it is a battle of good and evil at times, about the choices we make and how we can pretty much differentiate, and the times when everything clouds over and we aren’t able to make the right decisions.

Judith McPherson is a 10-year old girl raised by her widowed father to believe they are living the end of days. They go out canvassing neighbourhoods, passing out religious pamphlets, wanting to educate people about the coming Apocalypse. They read the Bible every night and ponder over it. Judith’s father has no time for her besides these set activities. They visit Church and that is that. Judith is lost in her own land of questions and answers. She builds things from garbage and scraps, almost a whole new town she calls, “The Land of Decoration” in her room, as there is no access to TV or books, as laid out by her father. The entire made-up town represents where she lives and people she meets. The only solace she finds from school bullies and a life without her mother is in this land.

One day, due to the scare of a school bully Neil Williams, Judith prays and hopes it snows in the middle of October. She prays against all hope and creates snow through paper and glue on her made-up land. She wakes up to snow next morning and school is cancelled. She continues this for another day and believes God is speaking to her. Is God really speaking to her? Or is it just her faith? Things take a severe turn for her at school and at home Judith exacts revenge (or teaches Neil a lesson). Neil and his friends’ tyranny reach Judith’s home. Judith’s father has problems at work that involve Neil’s father Doug.

Judith has choices to make: Should she listen to so-called God that speaks with her or give up her so-called magical powers to set things right?

The constant struggle of faith and doubt is the crux of this book. Judith’s beliefs or not form the structure. It is interesting how Grace McCleen takes us in the head of a 10-year old and makes us explore her thoughts and emotions. Questions like, What about faith? What does it mean to you?, and more enter the reader’s mind.

I could not believe it was Grace McCleen’s first novel. The writing is descriptive and sets the tone of the book in almost every chapter. The novel is delightfully inventive and unusual. Judith’s voice sometimes is sad but honest. The book more or less reminded me of “Room” by Emma Donoghue which also had a child as the narrator and was set in unusual circumstances as well.

The Land of Decoration is a fresh and original debut, which definitely will keep you wondering about certain elements of faith and religion. An interesting read for sure.

Here’s my favourite part in the book:

“Miracles don’t have to be big, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places. Sometimes they are so small people don’t notice. Sometimes miracles are shy. They brush against your sleeve, they settle on your eyelashes. They wait for you to notice, then melt away. Lots of things start by being small. It’s a good way to begin, because no one takes any notice of you. You’re just a little thing beetling along, minding your own business. Then you grow.”

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Book Review: The Garden of Solitude by Siddhartha Gigoo

The Garden of Solitude
Author: Siddhartha Gigoo
ISBN: 9788129117182
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Rupa and Co. 
PP: 260 pages
Price: Rs. 195
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

When I received The Garden of Solitude from the publishers, for a long time it sat on my book shelf without being read. I was too engrossed in other books that demanded my attention and would not let me be. That’s what reading and reviewing does to you after a point of time. You just do not know what to read next and what to keep for later. Well that’s the story of my life most of the time when it comes to reading and now to the review of “The Garden of Solitude”.

I was taken in by the book’s title – it is carefully chosen and for sure describes the mood of the book. A lot of books have been written about the Kashmir Situation, so much so that I have almost stopped reading them, till I read this one. The Garden of Solitude is about a Kashmiri Pandit Family driven away from the Valley in the wake of armed insurgency and political turmoil. The family is uprooted and forced to live in Jammu, in the wake of loneliness, suffering alienation and no place to call home. Sridar – the son of the family is the protagonist and the story is seen through his point of view.

What does it take to survive in an unknown territory, when all you have are memories of home? How does it feel to lose someone dear to a situation that you never wanted to be a part of? The entire book is about Sridar wanting the solitude back – the longing for peace and quiet moments that he and his friends have lost along the way.

The topic is touchy and the premise is dangerous, in the sense that it takes a lot to write on a subject like this one. All in all what I can say about the book is that it should be read. The writing is beautiful and the emotions are raw and lucid, to touch every reader who picks it up.

An Interview with Priscila Uppal

So I had just finished posting my review of “To Whom it May Concern” a couple of days ago and voila! Here’s an interview with the writer Priscila Uppal. I also requested her to let us know her Top 10 favourite books and she did. So here goes…

When do poetry and prose truly merge in writing? Do they ever? “To Whom it May Concern” has a vast range of poetic imagery. Was it intentional?

I am a poet and a fiction writer (as well as an essayist and non-fiction writer), and since both genres utilize language, I think it’s only natural that my prose frequently displays conventionally poetic stylistics and my poetry displays conventionally prosaic stylistics. I think is metaphors, and to me that means that I am frequently trying to make viable and provocative connections between disparate elements, objects, ideas, worlds. Metaphors help ground the abstract, complex connections.

 What is your idea of family and its eccentricities?

Family is an essential construct, but it can be duplicated easily involving people who are not your blood relatives. When a family construct is beneficial, it offers support, resources, stability, and the freedom to experiment and to express. When it is destructive, it is suffocating, limiting, and cruel.

Your Heroes in fiction are…

Don Quixote, Pip from Great Expectations, King Lear, Aurora Leigh, Christa Wolf’s Medea.

Priscila the writer….likes to write on trains and airplanes, read poetry in translation, obsessively underline books.

Priscila the person…likes to nap with her cats, lounge on Barbados beaches, and drink champagne cocktails.

 Displacement is a common theme running through the book at a subtle level. Where did that come from?

I think that many people feel displaced in their communities when people are not recognized for who they are, in all their complexity. Empathy comes from understanding, and understanding comes from the imagination, which is why the novel also highlights the creative aspects of the imagination as a solution to displacement, alienation, and despair.

 The need of Hardev to keep the family together is intense. What role does family play in your life?

As stated, for me family is a construct meant to cultivate support and freedom and help people realize their dreams. I consider my friends, my colleagues, my students, as part of my family.

Your favourite prose authors…

Miguel de Cervantes. Charles Dickens. Laurence Sterne. Christa Wolf. Virginia Woolf.

Your favourite poets…

John Donne. Gwendolyn MacEwen. Leonard Cohen. Yehuda Amichai. Anna Swir. Christian Bök. Christopher Doda.

 If not a writer, then?

A social worker.  A nun. A veterinarian. A B & B owner. A lounge singer.

 The book has been compared to King Lear. Was that in mind while writing the book?

I was about half-way through the first draft of the book when it struck me that To Whom was my contemporary version of King Lear. I know that some reviewers are a bit baffled by this assertion, since the plot does not follow the tradition tale of greed and betrayal on the surface of the original; however, in terms of the actual language of Lear and its metaphysical concerns, for me each line of my book is in dialogue with that play. But then again I think all stories originate from earlier stories. We just shift and adapt them to speak to our own historical and cultural place.

 My ten favourite books:

 1. Don Quixote (the ultimate dreamer, the battered and failed dreamer, pulls at my heart)

2. King Lear (old broken men pull at my heart)

3. Seeing Voices (this is my favourite Oliver Sacks book, his study of deaf culture—it’s a fascinating exploration of language)

4. Almost anything by Freud (even though I don’t necessarily agree with all his theories, I think he’s a brilliant prose stylist and one of the most imaginative thinkers in history).

5. Aurora Leigh (I love this long poem portrait of the artist as a young woman)

6. Medea (I think this is one of the best novels of the last 25 years—it encapsulates the horrors of 20th century political systems)

7. Yehuda Amichai poems (one of the great wisdom poets of the 20th century)

8. Czeslaw Milosz (another one of the great wisdom poets of the 20th century)

9. Great Expectations (this book, read for the first time in grade 8, made me want to be a writer; I wrote a play about Miss Havisham as my book report for the novel)

10. George F. Walker plays (he’s my favourite Canadian playwright and frequently pits characters who ascribe to different systems of thought against each other, each trying to establish their own rules of conduct and morality)