>Cold War Mentality in Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants

>I can never say no to my readers, so after getting several requests for a review of Ken Follett’s new book Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy) I started reading it. The book is almost 1000 pages long and I will post a review as soon as I’m done. For now, I wanted to discuss this curious phenomenon that I have been noticing for a while where English-speaking writers fall into an outdated and ridiculous Cold War mentality whenever they write about Russia. I shared a while ago that I feel a deep-seated postcolonial resentment against Russia. Even so, things that Follett writes about that country are completely wrong and often offensive.

Take, for example, Follett’s description of the Russian Orthodox Church. I’m no fan of the ROC. Today, they represent a very conservative and stifling force within Russia. During the Soviet era, Russian Orthodox Church collaborated with the KGB, betraying the confidences of their parishioners. Still, this doesn’t mean that accusing the ROC of every sin under the sun is either reasonable or acceptable. The following passage in the novel is so blatantly wrong that it’s scary:

I went to the church and told the priest we had nowhere to sleep.” Katerina laughed harshly. “I can guess what happened there.” He was surprised. “Can you?” “The priest offered you a bed—his bed. That’s what happened to me.” “Something like that,” Grigori said. “He gave me a few kopeks and sent me to buy hot potatoes. The shop wasn’t where he said, but instead of searching for it I hurried back to the church, because I didn’t like the look of him. Sure enough, when I went into the vestry he was taking Lev’s trousers down.” She nodded. “Priests have been doing that sort of thing to me since I was twelve.” Grigori was shocked. He had assumed that that particular priest was uniquely evil. Katerina obviously believed that depravity was the norm. “Are they all like that?” he said angrily. “Most of them, in my experience.”

Of course, there are freaks and criminals everywhere, but this blanket accusation of mass pedophilia amongst the priests of the ROC is not sustained by any kind of historic evidence. The priests of the Russian Orthodox Church are not only allowed to marry, they are required to do so. This suggestion that the ROC priests molest their parishioners’ children en masse is simply wrong.

Follett also states that the ROC priests massively collaborated with the secret police during the tsarist regime. As I said, such collaboration with the secret police did, in fact, take place. However, it happened during a completely different time period and under completely different circumstances. I’d never even heard of any suggestion that the priests of the Russian Empire collectively betrayed secrets told to them in confession to the tsar’s secret police. This is a figment of Follett’s unhealthy imagination.

This tendency to collapse historic periods in Russia into one huge mess is evident in many other aspects of Follett’s novel. He doesn’t seem to realize that serfdom (the Russian equivalent of slavery) was abolished in 1861. The nobles who owned peasants before serfdom was abolished did, indeed, torture, maim and kill their serfs almost indiscriminately and sometimes with no punishment. That, however, became impossible after 1861. At the turn of the XX century, the relationship between the nobles and the peasants, while still problematic, was in no way similar to the way it was in the pre-1861 era.

Another facet of Follett’s annoying Cold War mentality is his tendency to present all Russians as heartless, vile jerks. There is a scene (that takes place in 1914) when a police officer assaults and tries to rape a young woman in the streets of St. Petersburg. The narrator makes a very weird statement about how “no Russian would address a peasant . . . courteously.” This is, of course, ridiculously wrong. There always were many people in Russia who would address anybody in a courteous way. Suggesting otherwise, is simply offensive.

Thankfully, the young woman who is assaulted by the police officer is saved by a character whose kindness, helpfullness and charitability turn him into some kind of a Jesus-like figure. So who is this Christ-like character who roams the streets of St. Petersburg saving damsels in distress and offering his assistance to anybody in need of it? Who is this Savior of the poor and Redeemer of the downtrodden? The answer is obvious. He is an American from Buffalo and against the background of the vile, abusive, nasty Russians, he offers an example of what a good human being looks like.

So if you thought the Cold War is over, read Follett’s book and think again.

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>Did Google Images Go Back to Its Original Format?

>Or am I going crazy? It seems like Google Images mostly went back to its original format and abandoned the idiotic experiment it undertook last week. If so, it must have happened in response to a huge popular outcry against the silly and cumbersome transformation of the Google Image search engine.

I’m extremely glad that I can go back to using it unimpeded by useless experimentation.

>The Beautiful Literature of the Indian Subcontinent, Part II

I’m sure I don’t need to remind anybody about the existence of the inimitable Salman Rushdie. Sadly, more people know about the fatwah against him than have actually read his beautiful The Satanic Verses: A Novel.

If you were told that this novel is filled with hatred against Islam, don’t believe that. No book has taught me to respect Islam more than this one. The rage that informs this novel is not directed at Islam. It is rather addressed to the British Imperialism.

Rushdie possesses a sense of humor that is absolutely unique and this is what makes his books so great.

Other great books by this author inlcude Midnight’s Children: A Novel and Shame: A Novel.

Arundhati Roy is not only a fantastic writer but also a political activist. She is an author of a great novel The God of Small Things: A Novel but she has also written important political treatises, such as The Cost of Living, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire and Power Politics (Second Edition).

Sara Suleri was born in Pakistan and now lives in the US. This talented author of Meatless Days was my professor at Yale. She is the main reason why I know so much about the literature of the Indian Subcontinent and why I love it so much.

As a scholar of literature in English, she also wrote The Rhetoric of English India and Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy.

Many of the very few pleasurable moments I experienced at Yale had to do with Professor Suleri and her great class on the Literature of the Empire.

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of Aravind Adiga, whose novel The White Tiger (Fifth Impression) has sold an incredible number of copies all over the world.

Adiga is a cosmopolitan in the true sense of the world. Born in Madras, he later emigrated to Sydney, Australia. Then, he went to Columbia University to get a degree in English literature. He also studied at Magdalen College in Oxford. Now, Aravind Adiga is living in Mumbai where he writes his beautiful novels.

His novel The White Tiger: A Novel (Man Booker Prize) won the Booker Prize in 2008 and became an international sensation. Adiga is an author of an unassailable integrity. His portrayal of India doesn’t shirk away from presenting his readers with the harsh realities of this country.

Adiga also published Between the Assassinations, a collection of interlinked short stories.
Shaila Abdullah is originally from Pakistan. Her novel has a lot in common with Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that I reviewed recently (Part I is here and Part II is here.) It deals with the painful consequences of the tragedy of 9/11 for the New York based Muslims. The novel is beuatifully nuanced and very powerful.

>The Beautiful Literature of the Indian Subcontinent, Part I

>In one of my recent posts, I mentioned my opinion that the best literature in the English language today comes out of the Indian subcontinent. Now I want to introduce you to some (just some for now, and maybe more later, because there are just so many of them) of my favorite authors who are Indian or Pakistani by origin. They live all over the world and create literature of unimaginable beauty and power. When I had to complete a Minor in English literature as part of my PhD program, I, of course, chose the literature of the subcontinent. Formerly, Great Britain had to rely on the colonies for its riches, its food, its clothes, its very subsistence and its economic hegemony. Today, the English-speaking world has to rely on the former colonies to provide it with culture and literature.
1. The amazing Bapsi Sidhwa was probably one of the first writers from India that I ever read. Cracking India: A Novel is a very powerful story of the Partition of India that took place after the Independence in 1947. The story is narrated by a Parsee girl Lenny in a way that is both touching and profound. Lenny is probably one of the most memorable characters of young girls that one encounters in literature. And I say this as somebody who sepecializes in the female Bildungsroman and has read many novels narrated by a similar narrative voice.

The movie Earth by Deepa Mehta is based on this book, and both the movie and the book are definitely worthy of attention.

If you are interested in the Partition and want to learn more about it, I definitely recommend this book.

2. Rohinton Mistry is a writer I love passionately. He was born in Mumbai but now lives in Toronto (a fellow Canadian, no less!). His A Fine Balance (Oprah’s Book Club) is a book a reread on a regular basis even though it is over 600 pages long. It is so beautifully written and the characters are so endearing that even if you never considered travelling to India, after this book, you absolutely will. If you are put off by this book being part of Oprah’s Book Club, don’t be. This writer is simply fantastic.

Even now as I’m writing this post, I have to fight off the temptation to leave it and go read Rohinton Mistry yet again. 🙂

3 Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-Bengali author who, in my opinion, writes in the most lyrical voice of all the writers I have mentioned so far. I absolutely love his Sea of Poppies,set in 1838 against the backdrop of the Opium Wars, and his equally great The Shadow Lines that takes place in the 60ies and deals with issues of national and cultural identity.

Amitav Ghosh seems to be able to write pretty much in any genre he approaches with equal success. Be it a Bildungsroman, a historic novel, an epic, he always creates works of literature that capture your imagination for years to come.

4. Of course, I know that the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, and not in the Indian Subcontinent. I also know that he is rumored to be a very condescending, mean individual and a total male chauvinist. However, nobody writes about the post-colonial experience better than this writer. He is a descendant of Indian immigrants to Trinidad, and that’s why I feel he belongs on this list.

When I first read Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and his biographical The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, I could not believe that this writer from Trinidad described my Ukrainian post-colonial experiences so well. It was from Naipaul that I learned how post-colonial experience transcends ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic borders.

Unlike so many of the contemporary writers who simply butcher the English language with no compunction, Naipaul cultivates an inimitable style that is incredibly beautiful. If you are looking to improve your writing style in English, look no further than this great writer.

(To be continued. . . I’m only just getting started here, my friends.)

>Mystery Fiction of Summer 2010

>As I mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre. This summer, several of my favorite mystery authors released their new books. In this post, I will share my impressions of these new mysteries.

1. Tess Gerritsen writes very hardcore detective mysteries. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to identfy, American female mystery authors write books filled with scenes of unimaginable cruelty, torture and all kinds of horrors in a way that no male writer has been able to equal. You often encounter the following type of sentence in Gerritsen’s work:

Entrails glistened in her gaping abdomen, and her freshly thawed flesh dripped pink icemelt into the table drain.

Or the following:

THE MAN’S LEGS were splayed apart, exposing ruptured testicles and the seared skin of buttocks and perineum. The morgue photo had flashed onto the screen without any advance warning from the lecturer, yet no one sitting in the darkened hotel conference room gave so much as a murmur of dismay. This audience was inured to the sight of ruined and broken bodies.

If you are not bothered by these quotes and like really suspenseful mysteries about serial killers, check out Gerritsen’s The Apprentice (Jane Rizzoli, Book 2)or The Keepsake: A Novel. This summer, Gerritsen released her new Ice Cold: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel. In my opinion, this is maybe her most suspenseful novel so far. The ending, however, is a bit disappointing. There is also a lot less gore in this novel, probably because of the new TV series based on Gerritsen’s books.

2. Lisa Gardner is another mystery author who writes really hardcore stuff about serial killers,
child abusers, and scary stuff like that.

Her new Live to Tell: A Detective D. D. Warren Novel is probably her best novel so far. Many people say that they find the setting of this new novel (a pediatric psych ward for psychotic and sociopathic children) too disturbing. So beware: this book, as well as any book by Tess Gerritsen are not for the squeamish.

If you don’t feel disturbed too easily, though, this is a great mystery that is suspenseful, engrossing, and makes you want to gulp it down in one sitting.

3. This is a new author I only just discovered. The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is only the 2nd novel in Martin Walker’s mystery series featuring Bruno, a police officer from a small French village of St. Denis.

The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is as unlike the hardcore mysteries of Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Gardner as anything you can imagine. Even though it is a novel about a crome being investigated, it’s a lot more centered on the very French joie de vivre (enjoyment of life). Characters in this novel share endless bottles of wine, engage in the wine-making and wine-selling process with glee, prepare delicious meals, and start numerous love affairs.

This is a really calm, relaxed and fun mystery novel that will make you desperate to travel to France as soon as possible.

4. I already wrote about the incomparable Tana French here and here. I’m still hoping that one day she will dare to abandon the pretense of writing mysteries and start writing novels.

In her most recent book Faithful Place: A Novel, she more or less does just that. Only the most innocent of readers will not be able to guess who the murderer is very early in the book. But the identity of the killer is completely secondary here. What mattters is the author’s beautiful command of the English language and her talent for creating unique and engrossing characters. Tana French is masterful at creating a character who is a total jerk and making the readers cares what happens to him anyways.

5. Richard North Patterson became famous for writing really great courtroom dramas, such as Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child, Caroline Masters, The Outside Man, and others. Then, something happened  and he started writing incredibly boring and convoluted political thrillers. As a result, he lost a huge chunk of his fan base (including me).

Now, Richard North Patterson is trying to return to the courtroom drama genre that made him famous. In the Name of Honor would be good if only it weren’t so similar to a host of other books dealing with the same topic. Of course, if you never read another courtroom drama that has to do with soldiers who fought in Iraq, are suffering from PTSD, and are killing each other as a result, you might enjoy In the Name of Honor. However, after I read John Lescroart’s much better Betrayal (Dismas Hardy), I was pretty bored with Patterson’s book on the same topic.

Still, I’m glad this author is finally making his way back from the horrible political thrillers he kept writing for a while.

>The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid: A Review, Part II

>In the aftermath of 9/11, the worst side of the US that Changez tried so hard not to see for so long starts coming out:

It seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolor but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me—a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know—but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent.

As Changez learns to see the truth about America, he starts questioning his own role in the imperialist domination that this country strives to exercise over the entire planet. He realizes that he is complicit in every crime that he blames on the United States:

I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Bautista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.

As this realization dawns on him, Changez begins to see the entire structure of the American society in an completely new way. His job at a prestigious Wall Street firm that has been such a source of pride (and an impressive income) for him takes on an entirely new dimension in Changez’s eyes:

I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a suspect race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer. . . As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums.

Once he has arrived at this painful insight, Changez is compelled to reexamine and eventually change everything about his life.

Hamid is just beginning as a writer and this is only his second novel. There is a certain heavy-handedness that sometimes comes through in his writing. From time to time, he fails to recognize the moment when the writer should stop explaining himself and let the readers draw their own conclusions. He is also still searching for his own voice, and that’s why there is quite a lot of V.S. Naipaul in the way he constructs his sentences and builds his plot. Still, these little flaws can be forgiven to an author who can create a book as beautiful as The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

In the recent decades, the writers from India and Pakistan have produced the best literature in the English language of anybody on the planet. Moshin Hamid is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of great writers from the region who keep literature in English alive.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid: A Review, Part I

Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a really good book. I can’t imagine how I have gone so long without discovering this great writer. When the book came out in 2007, it apparently awakened a lot of strong emotions in the readers. In many cases, this strong emotional response obscured the beauty and the importance of this book.

The plot of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is quite simple. Changez, a young Pakistani who was educated at Princeton and worked on Wall Street, is telling his story to a nameless American he meets in a restaurant in Lahore. Changez is both fascinated and repelled by the America that offered him an education and a lucrative job but at the same time, made his life intolerable in a multitude of ways. Changez’s uneasy relationship with America is mirrored by his equally painful involvement with a woman called Erica. (As you can see, Hamid is quite heavy-handed with the way he names his characters. He makes his Erica-America parallel so obvious that it becomes annoying.)

When Changez first arrives in the US, he discovers that the opulence that surrounds him in his Ivy League school and his Wall Street job makes it difficult to maintain the same vision of national identity that he brought with him from home:

For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and—yes—conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.

As much as Changez prides himself on his people’s glorious past and enjoys contrasting it with the recent historical origins of America, he has to rely on his American success to gain access to a social class his family was expelled from in Pakistan. For a while, Changez manages to swallow all the instances of discrimination he experiences. He also studiously avoids noticing the suffering of people who lose their jobs as a result of his professional activities. The reward for being an obedient little cog in the Wall Street machine is too high.

But then 9/11 comes and Changez cannot maintain his state of obliviousness any longer. His initial reaction to the events of 9/11 is complex, ranging from contentment to shame, and he explores it honestly. In the US, everything that has to do with 9/11 has been transformed into a holy cow of sorts. Any attempt to analyze what happened and how one reacted is branded as anti-American. Hamid’s book received a lot of criticism for daring to discuss 9/11 in a way that is a little more profound than the official narrative. Unfortunately, those who insist that the only valid narrative of 9/11 is the simplistic one sold to us by George W. Bush don’t realize that they are not doing us all any service by denying this hugely traumatic event the right to be explored in all its facets.