Review 1: Animal's People, by Indra Sinha
Review by David Hebblethwaite
On 3 December 1984, an accident at a chemical plant released a cloud of toxic gas over the Indian city of Bhopal. The resulting deaths and injuries numbered many thousands. Now, I don't know whether I am telling you something you already know, or whether you've never heard of Bhopal until just now, or something in between. Regardless, we all know that such disasters occur; and it remains a difficult question how we, as distant observers, should react to them, think about them, or write about them. As a small example, consider the dispassionate tone of this review's first two sentences. Then consider that I wrote them that way deliberately to make a point. And so on.
How we respond to disasters is one of the central themes of Animal's People. The novel is set in a city named Khaufpur, which is fictional but has experienced a similar catastrophe of its own. It is narrated by a nineteen-year-old boy whose spine was destroyed by the gas, such that he must move around on all fours—he's taken the name 'Animal' to reflect what he sees as his nature. There are demands for the chemical firm (known only as 'the Kampani') to face justice, but it has thus far refused even to send lawyers to Khaupfur. Now Elli Barber, an 'Amrikan doctress', arrives in the city to open free clinic—but is she all that she seems? Could she actually be working for the Kampani?
Animal's first-person account takes the form of a series of tape recordings. A journalist offered to publish the boy's story, so the 'thousands of other people . . . looking through his eyes' could learn about the Khaufpuris' lives. But Animal was reluctant: 'What can I say that they will understand? Have these thousands of eyes slept even one night in a place like this? Do these eyes shit on railway tracks?' However, with the 'jarnalis' gone, he feels compelled to tell his story to us (whom he calls 'Eyes') through the medium of the 'tape mashin'. Animal's idiosyncratic voice takes a while to get used to, but it truly brings his character to life; and a complex character he is, dealing with his feelings towards the young woman Nisha (which he fears may never be reciprocated), and the question of just how 'animal' (and/or human) he is—particularly when Elli offers him hope of walking upright.
Whilst we can't truly imagine ourselves into the lives of the Khaufpuris, there are some things we can appreciate, such as the various ways the disaster has shaped places and lives. Of course, this is true in the physical sense, as with Animal's body and the city's poisoned ground. But then there are characters like Zafar, who has dedicated himself to securing justice for Khaufpur; and his girlfriend Nisha, who really wants to leave the city, but doesn't feel able, because of Zafar's cause. Surely 'that night' has transformed their lives as much as those caught in the gas cloud.
The author also seems to suggest that, in some ways, the Khaufpuris aren't all that different from outside observers. Animal despises the insincerity he perceives in foreigners; but when he watches news footage of planes crashing into some buildings abroad, he can only see it as a movie. Elli Barber comes across as well-meaning but not really understanding the Khaufpuris' feelings; yet couldn't that also describe Zafar when he calls for a boycott of the clinic on political grounds, even though so many people could benefit from treatment?
Sinha's decision to set Animal's People against a fictionalised background is an interesting one, as it makes us perceive the disaster as being a little way out of reality, as the Khaufpuris do. I don't mean it's not real to them, but that it's now somehow beyond real: one character is a nun whom, as a result of the accident, lost the ability to comprehend and speak languages other than her childhood French; the cause was brain damage, but the way Animal describes it, it might as well have been magic. Similarly, the Kampani is not so much a cartoonish Big Bad Corporation to the Khaufpuris as it is impossibly remote and unknowable, and hence can be whatever they imagine—or fear. In all, this is a powerful portrait of the situation and characters.
However, it's not quite sustained through the whole book. With just over a hundred pages remaining, lawyers representing the Kampani arrive in Khaupfur, and the plot moves on. Whilst this is necessary for the story Sinha wants to tell, the novel loses some of its atmosphere as the Kampani now has a definite face. Still, this section has quite some power of its own, as Animal's world begins to unravel and he retreats into the forest to wrestle with his self and his conscience. Throughout the book, Animal has demonstrated abilities (whether real or imagined) such as being able communicate with a stillborn child preserved in a jar. It's in the final part of the book that this aspect really takes flight. There's also a resolution of sorts to the Khaupfuris' struggles with the Kampani; although it does carry a whiff of 'the baddies getting their just deserts' (I've no idea whether anything like that happened in real life), there is nothing approaching a panacea. Life goes on in the book, as in reality.
So how do we respond to this novel about a disaster without being insincere? I think there's a clue at the very end. For all Sinha's evident anger about Bhopal, there is (commendably, I would say) no real didacticism in Animal's People. Perhaps the closest to a 'message' lies in Animal's closing sentences: 'Eyes, I'm done. Khuda hafez. Go well. Remember me. All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the people of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us.' Maybe the most sincere response is just to know, and to try to understand as best we can. Novels can help us do this by letting us inside the minds and worldviews of others; with Animal's People, Indra Sinha has done exactly that, and done it very well indeed.
Review 2: Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Review by Yasmin Huda
'The year I turned Ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a wild night of love with an adolescent virgin.' This, the opening sentence of Marquez's first novel in over a decade, introduces us to the 'sordid' world of our anonymous protagonist.
Known as 'The scholar', Marquez's latest 'hero' (a small town columnist for a local paper) is, put simply, an archaic, cranky old man who has spent his life frequenting the town's brothels and as he proudly admits, has 'never gone to bed with a woman [he] didn't pay'. Last time he counted (at the age of 50), he had slept with 514 prostitutes after which, he lost track. He describes himself as a 'mediocre journalist'—'ugly, shy and anachronistic' and comes from 'the end of a line without merit or brilliance'; hardly the words of someone trying to endear himself to the reader. And this is exactly what makes him so interesting. You shouldn't like him but you do. And why not? Despite his lecherous ways, he is a likeable narrator. You may not like what he has to say but you can respect him for being honest about it. He doesn't seem to care what the world thinks of him; perhaps in old age, he has gone beyond pride and shame. A fact made all the more obvious when his trusted madam procures for him on his 90th birthday, a 14 year old virgin, at which he remarks 'I don't mind changing nappies'. But when the anticipated 'night of wild love' arrives, the scholar finds his object of desire too drugged (courtesy of Rosa the brothel madam, to 'ease' the girl's fear) to do anything more than sleep through the entire night. So instead, he spends the evening studying the young girl's slumbering form; 'That night I discovered the improbable pleasure of contemplating the body of a sleeping woman without the urgencies of desire or the obstacles of modesty'.
What follows is a tale of an old man's obsession with a young girl. He declares himself 'in love' for the first time in his life at the age of 90 and spends his pension on gifts for her, and on trinkets to decorate the hired room in the brothel, the 'theatre of our nights' as he describes it, all the while, never consummating his physical desires. This new-found relationship brings about a change in the scholar, which seems to reverberate throughout the town as he transforms his column to a series of love letters. But Marquez seems determined to keep us in two minds about his narrator. His 14-year-old Lolita is nothing short of two-dimensional. But he likes her that way. She speaks very little and spends most of the time asleep. In fact, on one occasion she speaks during her observed slumber; 'Her voice had a plebeian touch . . . that was when the last shadow of a doubt disappeared from my soul: I preferred her asleep.' He refuses to learn her real name and instead, refers to her as 'Delgadina' a character from a song he sings to her when she's asleep.
His entire romance with the girl is based on his own idealistic hallucinations; scenarios he imagines for the both of them; the girl becomes an annoyance when her true personality tries to surface. He very tellingly admits 'seeing and touching her in the flesh, she seemed less real to me than in my memory'.
So just when you think you're beginning to warm to the old man through his 'love' induced renaissance, you realise that actually, he's still as antiquated and misguided as he was to begin with. The one woman he has ever loved is in reality, an imagined picture of perfection, created by him, to be enjoyed by him.
To say I was a little disappointed with the female characters in this novel would be a bit of an understatement. Marquez's characters (the females in particular), usually so rich and colourful, are reduced to marginal creatures, mere conquests notched into the belt of the protagonist (with the exception of shrewd brothel madam, Rosa Cabarcas). But perhaps this is more of a comment on the scholar than it is Marquez. He has lived life alone never knowing more of a woman than sex, and on turning 90 seems to seek redemption in his alleged love for the girl. Unfortunately, he can't even get this right. His emotions towards her are immature; more suited to the narcissistic romanticism of a teenager. He is besotted with a woman that exists only in his own mind.
If this is a book about finding redemption, or about never being too old to experience life anew, it doesn't really seem to have anything new to say. There is no lesson to learn or message to decipher, because the 'hero' of the piece is allowed to arrive at the end of the book just as deluded, if not more so, than when it begins. Perhaps Marquez, now 80, is having the last laugh here. Perhaps the message is that men his age have earned the right to believe whatever they want, no matter how deluded they might be. Overall, Marquez's tapestry of words seduces the senses as only he knows how, making the journey enjoyable enough, but those expecting a mesmerising masterpiece should steer clear.
Review 3: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn
Review by Neil Ayres
Ella Minnow Pea is a concept novel, worth, I believe, the author's probably considerable time spent penning it. But the reader not interested or able to enjoy it for what it is (a rather weak story laden with drippings of wordplay) may feel their time might be better spent on something perhaps more real; ie, some hefty and unforgiving modernism or hard SF.
The story, such as it is, is an epistolary dialogue, mostly between the eponymous character and her cousin Tassie, but littered throughout with notes and notifications from various other family members and neighbours, all residing on the small island of Nollop (formally Utoppiana), which is located twenty-one miles to the southeast of Charlestown, North Carolina.
The islanders pride themselves on a sense of community and the apparent equality in which all live their lives, until, that is, the cenotaph bearing the pangram attributed to the island's favoured son, Nevin Nollop, loses one of its letters. The novel begins with a letter from Ella to Tassie, in which Ms Minnow Pea informs her cousin of this news. It doesn't take long for the island's mysterious Council to decree a ban on the use of the fallen letter Z.
Ella sees this development as an exciting challenge, inaugurating a new era for the island, for who needs the letter Z really? The more savvy Tassie sees through the new law and rejects it for the totalitarianism it is.
Of course it doesn't take long for more letter-bearing tiles to begin dropping from the monument, and soon people are abandoning the island in their droves for the promised land that is the USA. (Funnily enough no mention made of Green Cards or work permits at this stage.) The Council starts requisitioning the abandoned property and it's not long before the mis-use of certain letters of the alphabet results in a number of floggings, imprisonments and yes, even executions, all the more disturbing when juxtaposed with the jollity of the storytelling.
All the while Dunn has ever-increasing lippogrammatical fun as his characters struggle to carry on communicating through the medium of words, remaining surprisingly coherent until the loss of the twelfth letter, the letter 'U', whereafter everything devolves into a brand of makeshift argot a la Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker.' Once we reach this point though, there is obviously the necessity for a complete suspension of disbelief, as words in print and words uttered are two entirely separate entities, and it is simply not feasible that, when using a morphic vocabulary, lines between punctuation and spelling will not begin to diverge. Also, from page one I became suspicious of the lack of deaf islanders in a purportedly Utopian nation - are we to suppose that those with physical impairments offer too awkward a prospect to amalgamate in a society founded on principals of equality.
Other than the rather weak political digs that the story seems to be grappling onto for dear life in the hope of gaining some narrative credibility (How difficult is it to take a sideswipe at authoritarian extremism?) the novel revolves around the remaining law-abiding islanders pursuit of a pangram (a sentence containing all the letters of a given alphabet) made up of less letters than Nollop's original.
And that, pretty much, is it. There's plenty to marvel at, not least Dunn's decision to lose the letter 'D' so early on. And if you love word-games, you'll no doubt thrill at the prospect of reading this book. But if you want some of the other things many expect from a good read: strong characterisation and setting, emotional depth, vibrant, clear and unexpected plotting, you'd do well to look elsewhere.
As a literary curiosity, 'Ella Minnow Pea' was a revelation for me, and in spite of my criticisms, I highly recommend it.
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