Monday, April 22, 2013

Reflections: A Confederacy of Dunces

Ignatius J. Reilley is an eccentric idealist. Highly educated, extremely opinionated, completely frustrated and disillusioned with the ways of society, he lives with his mother, watches juvenile TV shows, criticizes every kind of movie that comes out, and records his intellectual musings in his notebook. In short, he leads a life that is devoid of responsibilities of any kind until one day his mother’s little accident forces him to find a job to scrape together some money. With that begins a series of (mis) adventures that are as funny as they are frustrating as Ignatius fumbles across events with misplaced idealism and obtuseness. Ignatius’s adventures take on more color and absurdity in the backdrop of New Orleans in the 1960s. With rich descriptions of unique characters and situations, the book offers an uncomfortable glance into the life of a socially unadjusted character that evokes humor mostly at his expense.

This is a Pulitzer Prize winning book that is often described as a hilarious read. I wish I had read the book to verify that claim. I listened to the audiobook, and in this case, it seemed like listening to subtle and sarcastic humor that was meant for reading made a difference to the overall experience. While the narrator was great at delivering the distinct New Orleans’s dialect and in giving voice to the different characters, especially the deep booming voice of Ignatius, his monotonous narration fell  flat for me and the humor didn’t come through as much. It is tricky to convey subtle humor through narration. Also, some of the characters took the same “voice”, so it was a little confusing at times, especially given the similarities in the slang and accent. As an aside, the Southern American accent is one of my least favorite accents because I need to concentrate real hard to parse through their unique syntax and semantics. So it was tiring and mildly annoying to hear the repeated “Whoa”s and “Wowee”s. This is just a pet-peeve of mine, and doesn’t indicate anything more serious.

So, all that said about the narration failing to deliver some of the humor, some passages did get some chuckles out of me. However, as Ignatius repeatedly creates chaos, at a certain point in the book, the humor is lost, because the humor is often at the expense of Ignatius, and the reader is heavily aware of the undercurrent of pity, frustration, and mild sadness couched within the sarcasm. I think as unique as Ignatius’s character is, most of us have probably come across a similar persona in real life. They are pseudo-intellectuals who are well educated, but don’t have the right kind of mental framework or substance to live out their idealistic views/opinions that are sometimes radically different from others. But, that doesn’t deter them from holding onto their stubborn views. They therefore become social misfits, and their frustration deepens to the extent that they begin to shun society and morph into ever more difficult and intractable people. They cease to be “normal” and always stand by the wayside of standard societal dictates. Such personalities are frustrating to me, not funny. I feel sorry for them, but at the same time, I also feel sorry for those that lose their peace and happiness over them. Other “normal” people’s reaction and treatment of such individuals is judgmental and foolish too, of course.  So, the whole thing just leads to loops within loops of frustrations involving flawed, imperfect people directing their ill-informed judgements on each other. The author has portrayed all of this through a comedic approach, a dark comedy of sorts, because the author himself committed suicide after writing this book.  It seemed like he poured all his bitterness and sarcastic observations into this story. Tragic isn’t it?

A person who is incredibly frustrating in real life can be represented as an endearing, or at the very least, sympathetic character in literature/movies in terms of how they are portrayed and developed. The writing rendered Ignatius as a frustrating and unsympathetic character.

So, all in all, this is a book that is not going to stay with me. It is memorable in its own way, of course, because Ignatius is a unique character. But, I can’t say I enjoyed the book or appreciated the humor. I did appreciate the novelty of the story and the implied social commentary. But this view may be biased because of listening to the book as opposed to reading it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Reflections: The Museum of Innocence

Kemal is a young and wealthy Turkish man educated in the West.  He is soon to be engaged to Sibel, another wealthy and westernized young woman wholly in love with Kemal. But when Kemal chances on Füsun, a poor distant relative, he is hopelessly attracted to her. The two begin an affair that soon escalates into something far more serious and destructive than they could ever imagine. Through a detailed narrative of Kemal’s relationships with Füsun, Sibel, his family and friends, Pamuk lays out a comprehensive account on the nature of love, romance, and relationships in Turkey’s patriarchal society.

Obsessions are comforting in some ways. The regularity of faithfully doing something with a mixture of helplessness and dogged determination, oddly enough, imparts a higher meaning to those lives that struggle to anchor onto something. It sometimes elevates the otherwise mundane and unimpressive qualities into something profound and sublime. And that is essentially what happens with Kemal’s life story. It is a story that is at once supremely shallow, indulgent, careless, and annoying as it is profound, romantic, idealistic, and heart-tugging because of how an obsession is portrayed. That a book can evoke and convey such contrasts and ironies from one simple story is testament to the writing and story-telling prowess of the author. With an astounding sense of perspicacity, Orhan Pamuk meticulously pieces together Kemal’s thoughts and feelings, drawing a portrait that is incredibly detailed and true to reality. Every simple element of human interaction is zoomed in and presented through a micro-analytic lens that helps the reader vividly recreate the atmosphere and characters in Turkey. Sometimes, this microscopic narrative does teeter on the edge of becoming mundane and boring, but the narrative is well paced and keeps you engaged. For example, you wouldn’t realize that you just read several pages of text on how Füsun smokes her cigarette. The writing helps with this as well, for it is unpretentiously smart and lucid, so at least it saves you from rereading overloaded sentences. The story, if one can call that, does crawl at a snail’s pace, but it is not frustrating to read Pamuk’s abundantly rich prose on the subtle and intimate aspects of Turkish culture. And since I love books on culture that are woven around a simple story, the long book was engaging to me.

Kemal’s story is a vehicle through which Orhan Pamuk illustrates the dynamics, ideals, and values that shape Turkey’s society, specifically in regards to its attitudes towards men and women. He explains to the reader almost every relevant detail and minutia about the strongly patriarchal culture that struggles to fully embrace certain western ideals whilst holding onto conservative standards on women, notions of propriety, and class-distinctions. What amazed me (I don’t know why it should amaze me) is how identical (well, almost) Turkish society is to Indian society! I could relate to everything the women were going through - the taboos, the prejudices, the subtle mistreatments, the constant reminder of being secondary, the hypocrisy, and how everything comes together to unnecessarily complicate people’s lives. The dynamics between people in a Turkish household is also quite similar to an Indian household, right down to the nosy and gossiping neighbors. It surprised me that even the descriptions of Turkish movies – the stories, the workings of the industry, etc., were exactly like ours! The book also brings to light the all too familiar clash of Western ideals against traditions and socially-conditioned values that are so deeply ingrained, to some measure, in everyone – wealthy, educated, progressive or otherwise. And just as how being educated is different from being literate, the story subtly shows that being “westernized” is different from being truly progressive. But these aspects are Pamuk’s secondary deviations and observations. In this story, he primarily describes the nature of romantic relationships, some of which are universally true and generalizable, and some are specific to Turkish society. There are aspects that everyone can relate to, because that’s how thorough and all-encompassing the narrative is, spanning the entire depth and breadth of what it means to be romantically involved, especially if that relationship is forbidden, elusive, or out of reach.

As the narrator/author often alludes, this is more of an anthropological account of a lovelorn Turkish man in the 1970s, 1980s of Turkey, than a page-turner of a story. But through this subject, Orhan Pamuk delivers a richly ethnographic account of Turkey’s socio-cultural framework. It is an interesting book, for Pamuk’s keen sense of observation and insight makes it an intelligent read. As always, the nuanced writing and insightful portrayal of a culture makes all the difference to an otherwise simple story.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Reflections: The Reader

The choices we make mold us into the people we are today. Sometimes, we underestimate the weight of those beliefs that doggedly lead us to make choices that cumulatively stray us down paths we least anticipate. What does one do when one walks down a road they didn’t mean to take but can see no exit, little alternative, thanks to their beliefs, their insecurities, their mental-model of themselves and their place in the world? So many of us are caught in such traps. We rush headlong into something in order to desperately escape confronting our deepest fears, only to realize that we have landed onto something even more miserable; from the frying pot to the fire. When caught in extenuating situations with no easy answers, no easy alternatives, nothing is more meaningless than the discussion of choice. One can only invent their own meaning, their own purpose, their own reasoning to maintain enough sanity to ensure self-preservation to live through their unintentional mishaps.

The protagonist in the story, Hanna, goes through this struggle. She befriends the narrator when he is a young teenager and begins a unique relationship born out of a desperate need for companionship. Loneliness is a cruel punishment, especially when one is broken in spirit. One of the ways in which she tries to restore her spirit is by listening to the words of great poets and novelists read out to her by the young boy. This ritual deepens their relationship profoundly. But one day, she disappears out of the narrator’s life until he finds her in court, accused of a grievous crime. Hanna’s struggles to find the words and the rationale to defend or explain her choices frames the story with equal measures of shock and poignancy.

The Reader is a haunting exploration of the weighty issues surrounding choice, free will, duty, and morality. It’s actually much more than just these themes. It pinpoints at the most basic insecurities and beliefs that are harbored in the guise of seemingly ordinary foibles, but that slowly erode us, our confidence and the core of our self, and drive us into rash and impulsive decisions in our life. I think this is an aspect that most of us can relate to. Most of us have been in unpleasant situations because we felt it was more bearable to face a harrowing situation that is external to us than face the inner-demons haunting within us. After all, what choice did we have?

But while reading Hanna’s story, it is difficult to empathize with her at times because of the horror and weight of her involvement in a crime that still terrifies the world. However, what the author accomplishes to beautifully address is this - we, as readers and third persons have the benefit and luxury of not having lived Hanna’s particular life, of not knowing what it means to be traumatized by her demons and fears, of not being in those exact situations that she found herself in, and therefore can readily sit on our moral high horse and apathetically view her life as a case-study to be judged and analyzed. But, when one can’t even imagine being in the same situation as Hanna, forcing to speculate on such a hypothetical scenario and engaging in our moral reasoning in the comfort of our secure lives is meaningless. It also brings up the difficult facet within moral dilemmas - what do you do if you are forced to carry out a duty that you know is amoral and terrible? If you fail to carry out the duty, you will be killed, and if you do carry out the duty, your spirit withers. Choosing death seems like the “right” choice to most of us, the privileged third persons, secure in the tacit knowledge that we would never have to make such a choice and therefore discerning the right choice from the “wrong” one. But again, we are not living that exact situation, are we? Maybe there is a third choice, or even a fourth choice in that situation that we can’t even begin to comprehend?

This is a powerful and heavy book that tells a devastating story with sensitivity, clarity, and insight. It is intelligent, poignant and beautiful. The writing moved me and helped me read into Hanna’s difficult life with understanding, if not complete empathy. It explores a confluence of issues surrounding morality through a story that I never imagined would move me.