Microviews Vol. 42: Elective Purgatory

on Monday, October 14, 2013
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
These must be pretty exciting times for Jhumpa Lahiri. Not only does she already have a Pulitzer in her pocket, but her latest novel, The Lowland, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (UK) and long listed for the National Book Award (USA). With such incessant buzz, it is hard to view her work with any semblance of objectivity. Hype only sets the reader up for disappointment, which is why The Lowland is such a great achievement; it delivers. A slow burn of a novel, sparse yet lush (I know, weird...), it is in essence the tale of a failed revolution and the lifetime of minor tragedies it creates. As children growing up in Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan are inseparable. Subhash, younger, more reserved, is in constant awe of his brother's brash, often hilarious ways. When Subhash heads to university in America, Udayan stays behind and, while pursuing studies of his own, falls in with the Naxalite movement. It is a flash in the pan rebellion, one snuffed out quickly and violently, one that costs Udayan his life. Subhash returns to his grieving family and finds Gauri, the wife his brother has left behind, pregnant and shunned by his parents. Seeing no other option but to marry her and bring her back to America, he thereby sets himself for a life of unintended longing and responsibility. Needless to say it all falls apart. Gauri ultimately runs away, leaving behind Bela, Udayan's daughter who only knows Subhash as her father. Despite the explosive acts of rebellion that underpin the narrative, it is Subhash's inner struggle, his desperate attempts to make sense of this profoundly sad destiny that lies at the heart of Lahiri's novel. It is a beautifully balanced endeavour, tender yet angry and, perhaps of particular note, unadorned by literary tricks or grandstanding. There are many more things to be said for Lahiri right now. I'll go light on the platitudes save one: wouldn't it be marvellous if Team Booker preempted the protectionist hysteria by handing the award to a writer who personifies the borderless nature of literature?
4 Out Of 5 Reluctant Fundamentalists

Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
Castel-Bloom takes the neurotic Jewish mother schtick into psycho overdrive in this brilliant parody of the peace process. Doctor Dolly unwittingly becomes a mum when she kills a man and finds his baby in the back seat of his car. Obsessed with ensuring the child does not succumb to some random illness, she subjects him to all sorts of extreme medical procedures. No doubt it is cruel, but it comes from a place of love. And paranoia. The sheer inventiveness of Castel-Bloom's alternate Tel Aviv (Dolly City is TA's creepy negative, all in the poor doctor's head) is extraordinary and, as the metaphor becomes less oblique, it will not be hard for you to work out why this caused such a storm in Israel when it was first released. Zany, vomit-inducing but exhilarating stuff.
4.5 Out Of 5 Mutilated Doves

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs
A super duper mega hit in its native Holland, recipient of more prizes than you can poke a stick at, and sporter of a very pretty front cover, The Angel Maker came into my life on a very shiny platter. Alas, to quote the great Robert Plant, not all that glitters is gold. Brijs draws on conventional gothic tropes and characters to explore the ethical boundaries of genetic experimentation: Dr. Hoppe, a modern recasting of old Victor Frankenstein, returns to the Belgian border town of Wolfheim after a twenty year absence with three infant boys in tow. It doesn't take long to realise that they are not merely his sons, but his clones, complete with severely cleft palates. Predictably, the experiment goes horribly wrong (in numerous, but not overly interesting ways) and from it all we are supposed to have learnt an important ethical lesson. I think it's something along the lines of: Don't leave the big scientific breakthroughs in the hands of Dr. Moreau.
2.5 Out of 5 Fat Brandos

Personae by Sergio De La Pava
Hidden somewhere within the verbal maelstrom that is Personae I am told (somewhat reliably) that there lies a good ol' whodunnit. De La Pava, this month's hottest meta-prophet with by far the best author bio in ages, has somehow spun a magic eye poster with words. Unfortunately I must have been standing at the wrong angle cos the bloody thing never came into focus for me. Was it my recent laser eye surgery? Oh wait. It's a boat.
3 Out of 5 Broken Kaleidoscopes

Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Abertine Sarrazin is very well worth reading, though I'm not sure whether it's for what she wrote or her amazing personal story. A true French literary rebel, she lived fast, fought hard and died young. Indeed, most of her best work was done while doing time for petty crime and prostitution. Astragal tells what I assume to be the semi-autobiograhical tale of a woman who escapes from jail and, while on the lam, happens upon a motley bunch of French dirtbags with hearts of various metals. At the centre of it lies Julien, the man who first finds her. They become accomplices then lovers before fate intervenes. Don't hold your breath for happily ever afters; this is gritty and exciting but also profoundly sad.
3.5 Out of 5 X-Rays


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