Thursday, December 20, 2007

Books of the Year 2007

Here is a list of the books I enjoyed the most this year, with a paragraph on what I found especially good about each one. All of these books will make for great presents, but you should exercise some caution in gifting The Ugliness of the Indian Male and even God is not Great, while for War and Peace and India After Gandhi you will need extra-large wrapping paper.

Because of work on my novel on the one hand, and weekly reviewing for Mint on the other, my reading this year was more non-fiction-heavy than last year, and that is reflected in this list - next year I hope to be back to reading fiction in a more concentrated fashion. Where the title of the book is hyperlinked it leads to a longer essay on that work.

I have read several biographies of Gandhi, but the range, depth, narrative poise, and density of detail of Rajmohan Gandhi's Gandhi: The Man, His People and The Empire (Penguin Viking in India, Haus in the UK) made for one of the most intense reading experiences I have ever had. Every page of this massive work is radiant with the intelligence of not one Gandhi but two; reading it was like receiving a moral education in 600 pages. This work also lead me to some of Rajmohan Gandhi's other books, including the many striking ideas of his survey of South Asian history Revenge and Reconciliation.

An even more ambitious project, which might be seen as taking off from where Rajmohan Gandhi's book finishes, was Ramchandra Guha's massive history of India since 1947, India After Gandhi (Picador in India, Macmillan in the UK, Ecco in the USA). Speaking at the launch of the book in Bombay, the distinguished journalist and editor of Loksatta Kumar Ketkar perceptively observed that India After Gandhi was in a way "your, mine and our autobiography". Given the extent to which our sense of our own lives depends on our understanding of our past, there could hardly be a more important book this year for Indian readers, particularly those of my generation, than Guha's. I particularly enjoyed the superb chapters on the Partition, the Indian constitution, and the contributions of our own Founding Fathers: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel and others, and the copious notes and citations at the back of Guha's book were a treasure trove of information and signposts. My only problem with India After Gandhi is that, even at 900 pages, it is far too short. When a biography of Picasso can run to three volumes, why not the history of six decades in the life of a nation?

No work of fiction gave me greater pleasure this year than the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (Fourth Estate in the UK). Wandering in and out of the lives of the characters - rich and poor, traditionalists and rebels, innocents and corrupts - who live in the building of the title, Aswany's omniscient narration is richly freighted with sympathy, and takes such delight in life's sensual pleasures as to reveal not only the predilections of the characters but also suggest something about the private nature of the author. I found the anguished and morally pure youth Taha el Shazli's betrayal by secular life and journey towards fundamentalist religion far more convincing than similar arcs in many better-known novels.

The best novel I read by an Indian writer this year - in fact I've just finshed reading it - was Anjum Hasan's Lunatic in my Head (Penguin/Zubaan), set in the provincial "hill-encircled small town" of Shillong in the north-east, and with a cast of characters even larger than The Yacoubian Building. Hasan's narration, too, takes a high view of her characters, revealing expected connections and overlaps between disparate lives, but what I enjoyed most about her book was its mass of luminous observations of people and places. In one scene the college lecturer of English literature Firdaus Ansari is taken home by her assertive, self-possessed older colleague Flossie Sharma, and suddenly sees her private face, her vulnerability: "Flossie had changed into a faded sari and removed her lipstick and kajal. She had a sort of backstage look, as if this were the real, somewhat decrepit version of the clever painted performer one was used to seeing in public." She had a sort of backstage look - I thought this and many other such moments very fine.

Milan Kundera's The Curtain (Faber & Faber in the UK, HarperCollins in the USA), the final instalment of a trilogy that also includes The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, brought to a close one of the most thrilling and enduring adventures ever made in literary criticism. Brimming with radiant and provocative notions, rich in highly detailed and revelatory analyses of passages from works by Cervantes, Kafka, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Gombrowicz and others, and emphasising at every turn the novel form's unique power to illumine human nature and human situations, Kundera's book is a love letter to the novel that converts its readers to the same love. Here is a beautiful passage from the book: Kundera is arguing that the word "prose" stands not just for a category of writing but also for a set of values, that of the everyday, the concrete, the corporeal: "The everyday. It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life: a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment; the wind rattling the windowpane; the monotonous voice of a professor that a lovesick schoolgirl hears without registering; these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable."

VS Naipaul's A Writer's People (Picador) was a crabbier, more austere work than Kundera's, but there was still a great deal to take away from this supremely iconoclastic mixture of reminiscence, literary criticism, and invective from one of the greatest living writers of English prose. Not the least of this book's pleasures was Naipaul's account of his years of making a living as a book reviewer in the nineteen-fifties. Naipaul too reveals himself to be a great admirer of Flaubert; I feel more and more ashamed at having not read Madame Bovary yet.

The central idea of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (Picador in the UK, Norton in the USA) - that France as an overarching entity was a conception foreign to the very people who lived within it till the arrival of modernity - was perhaps not as so striking as the way in which Robb brought the many worlds of eighteenth- and nineteeth-century France vividly to life: reading this book was like a journey in a time-travel machine. It was not just my historical knowledge that was deepened by Robb's refulgent book, but also my vocabulary. Robb writes sentences of great beauty and density, and I don't believe there can be many writers of English who work so hard at using all the resources of our language.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (Free Press in the UK) was without a doubt the most forceful autobiography I read this year. Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, but in midlife, fleeing an arranged marriage, she became a refugee in the Netherlands and found herself in a world in which "human relations could be different", even for a rank outsider like her. The pleasure of her book is in how she sifts through personal experience to fashion larger arguments about institutions and structures, and in her willingness to voice controversial conclusions about Islam and about the limits of multiculturalism. The form of the autobiography has become too shallow; in Hirsi Ali's case we can see and hear again the urgency and fascination of the self thinking about its relationship with the world and with its own past. "The soul cannot be coerced" - that phrase from Infidel still rings in my mind.

Kang Zhengguo's Confessions (Norton) tells a story similar to Hirsi Ali's, that of an individual in conflict with his or her environment. In this case the adversary is the paranoid Chinese state, which reproaches or incarcerates him for all manner of crimes against it, such as reading banned books or keeping a diary. The difference is that in Zhengguo's case, the soul can be coerced - there is nothing he can do in his position but obey, repent, in some cases by writing long confessions ("Lenience for confessors - severity for resistors!" is a favourite catchphrase of his captors). But the beauty of Zhengguo's book is that it is not just a simple document of official persecution. Rather, it throbs with the vitality of unlikely friendships made in prison and labour re-education camps, of the exact sensory texture of days spent working in a brick kiln and in a plantation, of the opportunities for furtive romances, of dreams of food and leisure, listening to banned stations on radio, and reading proscibed texts. In Zhengguo's narration the simplest activities take on a vivid, burnished quality. A sublime autobiography.

Although I lean more to the religious than the atheist side of the fence of agnosticism, that did not stop me from relishing the crackling energy and brio of Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (Atlantic Books in the UK, Twelve Books in the USA). Hitchens makes a belligerent case for “the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations” for everything we attribute to god. Chapter One of Hitchen's polemic, "Putting It Mildly", is here.

Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of the 2006 Nobel laureate for Economics Muhammad Yunus, was published several years ago but only appeared in India this year (Penguin). Yunus's enormously humane and patient book makes the case that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate, "but because they cannot retain the return of their labour." Hence, to emerge from the shackles of poverty, they need access not so much to development aid, social welfare or skills training as capital. Yunus's inspiring story of how he set up the Grameen Bank from scratch in the seventies and built it up over three decades is interspersed with trenchant observations on contentious issues in economics. Banker to the Poor offers a searching critique of some tendencies of contemporary capitalism - by an avowed capitalist.

Politicians usually write dreadful prose and make highly expedient arguments, so it was a great pleasure to read the lucid and principled opinions of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope (Crown in the USA, Canongate in the UK), an autobiography and campaign manifesto rolled into one. I admired not only Obama's thinking but also his refusal to demonise or in any way misrepresent his opponents, an essential requirement for honest debate that is almost always honoured only in the breach. Although it looks unlikely that Obama will win the Democratic nomination for President against Hillary Clinton, no reader can come away from his book without a sense of his intelligence and integrity.

A century after Constance Garnett, the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have been revolutionizing our understanding of the greats of nineteenth-century Russian literature with their brilliant translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol. Although I am still only a third of the way through their new translation, six years in the making, of Tolstoy's massive War And Peace (Alfred A. Knopf), there is no doubt in my mind that my newfound enjoyment of Tolstoy - I left off reading Garnett's translation of Anna Karenina halfway - has something to do with their rigorous attention to his language and syntax. I will write a longer essay about this once I finish the book - which may be February.

Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Black Kite), one of two essay collections he published this year (the other was Men In White), had at its core a set of dazzling essays on the distinct nature of Indian nationalism and secularism, while also dabbling productively in such areas as the influence of the Urdu language and worldview on Hindi cinema, the place of the South in the Indian imagination, and the contradictions of American foreign policy. Kesavan is not only one of our worthiest public intellectuals but also one of our best prose stylists.

In a year replete with books about India, whether on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of independence or in deference to India's growing stature in the world, few works approached the quality of the Australian foreign correspondent Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma (HarperCollins in India and Australia). The depth of Kremmer's engagement with his adopted country, his curiosity about not just the crisis ushered in by Hindutva but also the larger tradition of Hinduism (his book returns often to the question of the impact of 6, December 1992 - when he was present at Ayodhya - on India), and the beauty of his language (there are many superb descriptions of landscape which a lesser writer would simply pass over) make this one of the best books I've ever read on India.

Sumantra Bose's Contested Lands (HarperCollins in India, Harvard University Press in the USA) was remarkable for the skill and patience with which it navigated the murky histories and numerous charges and counter-charges of the long-running struggles over territory and sovereignty in Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Bosnia. After absorbing Bose's long-historical view of these disputes I realised how superficial, even distorting, most journalistic coverage of fresh eruptions in these contested lands really is. And unlike most scholars, Bose does not have a one-size-fits-all solution for what are apparently similar problems; I was very impressed by the way he meticulously laid out the specifics of each case. Indeed, Kesavan's volume and that of Bose could usefully be read as a pair, because of their cogent warning, from different perspectives, against the dangers of majoritarian thinking in India and nations around the world.

The superb compendium Polish Writers On Writing (Trinity University Press) brought between two covers all the great names of twentieth century Polish literature - Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Gustaw Herling - thinking about the writer's relation to his or her time, his craft, his language, his tradition. I spent many thrilling nights hearing these powerful voices speak out in the silence of my room.

And finally, the reports and columns on the 2006 Ashes series collected in Gideon Haigh's All Out (Black Inc. Books) made for some of the most sumptuous cricket reportage you could ever hope to read. Despite Australia's 5-0 rout, the series was historic because it marked the swansong of two of cricket's greatest bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Haigh's descriptions of Warne in action are superb: when later generations want to find out what the special atmosphere of Warne in control of the game's pace and flow was really like, they will turn to Haigh.

And among the many books I wanted to read - hopefully I'll do so next year - but could not were Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, Julian Bell's Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, Mario Vargas Llosa's Touchstones: Essays in Art, Literature and Politics, Bohumil Hrabal's In-House Weddings, Sandor Marai's The Rebels, Simon Armitage's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night, and Ambarish Satwik's Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire.

And my best-of-the-year selection from last year is here.


shamitbagchi said...

Great write-ups on the books! Some of these would definitely become a part of my reading list in 2K8!

Indran Amirthanayagam said...

good to have your list, thanks. I write from Canada a blog that features poems

all the best


Elif said...

Dear Chandrahas,
Thanks for sending the interesting list---I'm really happy to have an edited list of new Indian books, since this is an area I don't know very much about.
Since our last correspondence, I also started a blog about "literary life": it's called My Life and Thoughts and includes book reviews.
Best wishes for 2008!

Chandrahas said...

Shamit, Indran and Elif - Thanks for your kind words.

Elif, I'm quite happy to trade off information about Indian literature with you in exchange for thoughts on Russian literature. You can begin by posting me copies of Nabokov's book on Gogol and his Lectures on Literature and Joseph Frank's Through The Russian Prismfor study; meanwhile I am sending you copies of the Guha, the Gandhi and the Kesavan.

Dev said...

Enjoyed this blog post. am emailing it to friends... Dev

Quirky Quill said...

I'm currently reading "India after Gandhi" - such a compelling read! It's almost like a time machine :)