Tuesday, March 19, 2019

I Served the King of England – A Captivating Social Satire

“He answered, pulling himself up to his full height, Because I served the King of England. The King? I said, clapping my hands. You mean you actually served the King of England? And the head waiter nodded his head in satisfaction.”

The renowned Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) has lived through the most tumultuous periods in his country's history, first enduring the occupation of Nazis and later the Soviets. Although Mr. Hrabal finished a degree in law his primary interest was at writing poems. In the post-war years, he was part of an underground literary club where he would read aloud his poems, and later his stories. His earlier novels – Dancing Lessons for the Advanced Age & Closely Observed Trains – were published in the mid-1960s, the later turning into acclaimed movie by Jiri Menzel in 1966. In 1970s, after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hrabal was often at odds with the communist government, forcing him into a period of silence. In 1971, the author had type-written his novel I Served the King of England, but it was only in 1983 the novel was officially published, and the English translation by Paul Wilson was done in the year 1990 (most of Hrabal’s works were translated into English after the Soviet Union collapse).

Paul Wilson says this translation was his response to Czechs claim that 'Bohumil Hrabal is untranslatable'. And he seems to have done a good job, preserving the writer’s unrestrained, flowing style (full of long sentences and page-length paragraphs) which allows us to closely comprehend his central character’s stream-of-consciousness. The chief characteristic of Hrabal’s writing is his ability to focus on the surreal and comic oddities within ordinary human life (I had previously read only one Hrabal’s novel although I have seen all the faithful movie adaptations by Czech film-maker Jiri Menzel). I Served the King of England tells the picaresque story of Ditie, a short, young waiter with prodigious carnal appetite. Divided into five chapters, Hrabal describes Ditie’s sexual awakening, naïve dreams, small victories, and resilience with a mix of farce and poignance that eventually comes off as the intimate portrait of an individual in a particular time and place.

Fifteen-year-old Ditie starts his adventures as a busboy in the Golden Prague Hotel. Like every other adolescent caught in the space between reality and dream, Ditie desires for sex and money. He spends the generous tips he receives on prostitutes. He also likes decorating the naked lap of the prostitute with flowers. Ditie means ‘child’, and much of his action reflects the innocence and absurdity of a child. Ditie is enthralled by ludicrous innovations of the era. He gushes about the salami slicer, and later he marvels at a tailoring firm’s allegedly revolutionary fitting technique. Ditie uses such absurd thoughts as a sort of escapism to forget his own strangeness and isolation within the community. He works in various hotels, raises to the position of waiter, but the jealousies of fellow-workers often keeps him on the move.

At one hotel, Ditie is trained by the esteemed head-waiter who has served the King of England, and subsequently Ditie himself serves the Emperor of Ethiopia, who provides him a medal for the service. The story takes a surprising turn when Ditie falls in love with a Nazi woman named Lise (commander of the nursing corps), whom he marries after intense examination of the Reich authorities on whether his sperm is worthy enough of impregnating a 'Teutonic Aryan vagina' and bring to the world a race of ‘New Man’. Labeled as a German sympathizer and wholly ostracized by the Prague community, Ditie now works in a hotel in the mountains and lives in a ‘breeding station’ which the Nazis has established to develop a ‘pure race’ of humans. Naturally, the war and the subsequent occupation of Soviets drive him to reach rock bottom, even though he finds opportunities in the harshest conditions; amidst laughter and despair, he tries to live life to the fullest.

A still from Jiri Menzel's movie adaptation

Bohumil Hrabal’s flights into magical realism avoid the novel from becoming just another uniformly bleak story on the modern East European history. Hrabal shows greater sympathy for Ditie, an ignorant comman man whose naïve enthusiasms and tall dreams deflate alongside the broader inhumanity. By turns sad and hilarious, Hrabal’s minuscule, insecure protagonist learns how every one of us and our grandiose ambitions is rendered tiny in front of the death’s inevitability and volatile historical forces (which always make the ‘unbelievable come true’). Yet it seems like Ditie who served the Emperor of Ethiopia and trained by the man who served the King of England, one mustn’t allow their indomitable spirit to be crushed.

P.S.: The novel was adapted into a movie by Jiri Menzel in 2006 who also turned Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Closely Observed Trains (1965) and short stories -- The Snowdrop Festival (1978), An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore (1965) which was adapted as 'Larks on a String' -- into feature-length movies.Mr. Hrabal had also co-wrote the script of Menzel's 1981 comedy 'Cutting It Short'

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – A Significant and Subversive Classic of Modern Soviet Literature

“Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published November 1962) is a slender book, telling us a very simple story in a simple format. It’s easy to finish it in a single sitting (and I’d recommend that to have an immersive reading experience). Yet Solzhenitsyn’s story tells us something deep about history, inhumane political system, and human dignity which fat historical textbooks utterly fail to convey. Early in the novel, the titular character Ivan Denisovich Shukhov wonders, “Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?” Solzhenitsyn’s austere yet powerful narration serves as a bridge of empathy, transporting us into a cold, inhumane world to feel the hunger, humiliation, hopelessness, powerlessness, and also small delights of one gulag prisoner.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is enriched by Solzhenitsyn’s sharp realism, devoid of sentimentality or strong emotions. The emotions are a luxury, only we readers could afford. Because the man living in the earth-bound hell can only focus on how to get through the day which involves avoiding punishment, fighting the cold, and overcoming the hunger. It’s a document of human suffering although it’s chiseled with words that are fundamentally life-affirming. In the midst of an unbelievably cruel reality, a man survives keeping his dignity intact. It’s what makes Solzhenitsyn’s novel one of the finest literature; not just a book for history students interested in gulags and Stalinist era.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published nearly a decade after Stalin’s death, the publication sanctioned by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an effort to debunk Stalin's personality cult (the ‘thaw’ went on for a brief period). The novel’s description of life inside the forced labor camps naturally shook the Soviet Union. Although after Khruschev’s removal from power in 1964, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn faced numerous threats, he released his masterwork ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ – a three-volume literary-historical account of the vast ‘slave labor economy’ – in the year 1973. Before that in 1970, Solzhenitsyn received Nobel Prize [the Soviet disinformation campaign against the writer only escalated after Nobel Prize and publication of Gulag Archipelago].

The brilliance of the novel lies in the character Solzhenitsyn chooses to narrate his single day. Unlike the writer, who himself spent 8 years of his life in such camps (between 1945 and 1953), Ivan Denisovich Shukhov isn’t an intellectual, constantly predisposed to philosophical thinking. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t extrapolate his ego to create Shukhov. This distance or removal was what makes it an ingenious literary work, and not simply a memoir-turned-novel. Comrade Shukhov or convict SHCHA-854 belongs to the 104th gang of the gulag’s 9th hut. The gulag was one of the cold-blooded schemes designed by Soviet Supreme leader – the Red Tsar -- to meet the needs of both Soviet industry and economy. Zek is the word used in the novel to describe a gulag inmate. When the novel opens in 1951, Shukhov has already spent 8 out of his 10 year prison-term. He is a decent man who like the majority of members in the camp did nothing wrong to deserve the harsh sentence. He wants to take one day at a time, starting his day by getting up from his sawdust-filled mattress in which he hides a small daily ration of bread.

Shukhov goes through the day by circumventing web of invisible snares – from punishing climate, furious guards to fellow wrathful inmates – and hopes to finish it in the same sawdust-filled mattress, nibbling the black, stale bread. Shukhov takes us through the unwritten rules that must be followed to survive a typical work-day in the camps. Apart from the things Shukhov must do to keep himself warm in order to gain extra mouthful of soup or a bite of bread, we get a sense of the zek’s palpable fear, boredom plus small victories and joys (“That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future”). Solzhenitsyn’s unadorned prose not only allows us to attune to Shukhov’s emotionality, but also to his sensory experiences. Even if I had never smoked in my life, I could feel the warmth Shukhov receives after taking a puff from the cigarette or the way he counts his bread makes us share his sense of triumph (“…got four hundred grams of bread, and another two hundred, and at least two hundred in his mattress…. He was really living it up!”). The description of hunger and the feelings recounted by the meager nourishment really gets to you (“The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow”, Shukhov wryly observes).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Soviet journalist and writer Vitaly Korotich has remarked, “We were absolutely isolated from information, and he [Solzhenitsyn] started to open our eyes………. The Soviet Union was destroyed by information, only information. And this wave started from Solzhenitsyn's One Day.” Even though the power ‘One Day’ held in Soviet slowly waned, while the Stalinist policies are continuing to be embraced and championed by the contemporary Russian establishment, the novel remains as much more than a damning indictment on the staggering injustices of Stalinism. It’s a celebration of human dignity, and the power of the human ability to adapt and empathize. Overall, it’s a study of the spark of humanity that survives through subhuman condition.

P.S.: Please read H. T. Willetts’ translation, the one translated from canonical Russian text and authorized by the author himself.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

North American Lake Monsters – A Skilful Mix of Supernatural and Sad Mundanity

“She’s like a thousand different people right now, all waiting to be, and every time she makes a choice, one of those people goes away forever. Until finally you run out of choices and you are whoever you are.”

Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters is a collection of weird and powerful short stories the author has written between 2004 and 2013. One of my favorite and prestigious ‘New Weird’ author, Jeff VanderMeer has heaped praises upon Ballingrud. Moreover, this debut collection of short dark fiction has won the Shirley Jackson Award. Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth, yet another acclaimed short-fiction, has already been turned into a movie, directed by British-Iranian film-maker Babak Anvari (‘Under the Shadow’). All such interesting tidbits and my predilection for dark fiction drove me towards reading these nine short-stories that explores irreparable human tragedies, laced with ambiguous supernatural elements.

Nathan Ballingrud’s stories have already gained a pivotal status among contemporary weird horror fiction, alongside the works of Victor LaValle, Helen Oyeyemi, Laird Barron, Caitlin Kiernan, and John Avidje Lindqvist. All of Ballingrud’s short fiction in North American Lake Monsters uses supernatural presence or events as a catalyst to examine the mundane lives of ‘broken’ people and their surroundings (most of the tales are set in contemporary American South). While the inscrutable supernatural elements are kept in the background, its intrusion seems to escalate the trauma of individuals in interminable ways. Ballingrud approaches this trauma in a very raw and painful manner that those expecting an escapist horror fiction would be dismayed. Monsters and fantastical beings do exist literally in Ballingrud’s universe, but the aloofness, apathy, fury, and selfishness of humans withholds greater power to terrorize us.

In the first short-story, ‘You Go Where It Takes You’, a waitressing single-mother named Toni meets a charming stranger at the diner. She takes him home and he shows to her boxes full of human skins, which the guy says he stole from a mysterious figure. In the next one titled ‘Wild Acre’, a near-bankrupt construction worker momentarily watches his co-workers getting devoured by a Werewolf-like creature. In my most favorite story in the collection, ‘The Monsters of Heaven’ (which won the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for ‘Best Short Fiction’ in 2008), an estranged couple who has lost their 4-year-old boy nurtures a dying ‘angel’. The arrival of these ugly, baby-like ‘angels’ are viewed as a global phenomenon, but the primary focus lies on how this particular traumatized family react to it. In my second favorite story, ‘The Good Husband’, the husband of a woman, who has attempted suicide several times, leaves her this time to succeed. But the ‘dead’ wife wakes up next day, wondering what she ought to do now. 

The titular story isn’t about a Loch Ness monster-like creature which collides with boats. It’s simply about a guy, who has just come out of prison, vacationing together with his wife and teenage daughter at the lake. The daughter finds a dead lake monster washed up on the shore. The marital problems are foregrounded as the guy’s intense feelings of revulsion towards the creature bring out more of his worst qualities. A deadly deal with a vampire is the focus of ‘Sunbleached’, whereas the discovery of a stairwell going deep into earth (clearly not the work of humans) in the middle of Antartica is the subject of Love-craftian tale, ‘The Crevasse’. ‘S.S.’ and ‘The Wayward Station’ are the timeliest stories in the collection, the former examining the life of a poor teenager who turns out at a white supremacist meeting (on his girl-friend’s insistence), and the later revolves around a homeless man, haunted by the life he had in pre-Katrina New Orleans (also, these two stories has lesser fantastical components).

Nathan Ballingrud’s tales might disappoint readers who are expecting Stephen King or Cliver Barker-style horror fiction. By and large, the author uses the horror element as a tool to realize a challenging and grounded literary expression. The supernatural tropes in these stories are clearly metaphorical. It helps to reveal a character, and in the process the genre tropes also gets reinvigorated. Ballingrud proves that werewolves or vampires or monsters could be used to great effect, provided one rightly discerns and applies it as a metaphor. Failed masculinity or emasculation is a recurrent theme in the collection. The tension in ‘Wild Acre’ or ‘The Monsters of Heaven’ largely arises from interrogating the men’s insecurity and their strict tribalistic feelings. Other recurrent themes include broken families and haunted memories. Furthermore, the emphasis on region and setting (American South) brings lot of energy and raw power to the stories’ themes.

Nathan Ballingrud

Like any other short-story collections, North American Lake Monsters has few shortcomings. But Nathan Ballingrud must be commended for allowing his imagination as well as his attention to realism to break the boundaries laid out for writers of horror. As I mentioned earlier, the author applies horror not as a genre, but as a mode of expression. Accordingly, these tales keeps us in a state of obfuscation, denying any easy emotional catharsis. And unlike many horror fictions, Ballingrud allows great space for personal interpretation. What these stories imply may remain particular to each individual. We aren’t mere spectators in this literary world, but participants gazing at the unknowable. Overall, North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, poetic yet devastating assemblage of short fiction that looks into the darkest corners of human psyche.