1.5/5

An allegory, shrouded in fog

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the English writer Kazuo Ishiguro a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, I had abandoned The Buried Giant just the previous weekend after nearly a month of trying to struggle through its 300-odd pages.

Here’s a review anyway, because I made it 60% of the way through (and because I need to justify the Did Not Finish tag to myself).

Ishiguro’s other books, Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, were terrific reads and when I found a copy of The Buried Giant in the library (giant font, hardback– why America why) it went into my backpack without hesitation. Unfortunately, this book crossed the line from “introspective and subtle” to “uneventful and confusing”.

Axl and Beatrice (who he calls ‘Princess’ in every single sentence- strike one) are an elderly couple living in a medieval British village. They’re a bit isolated from their neighbours, as their advanced age is seen as a liability. Axl has also been noticing strange lapses in the collective memory of their society. A fact that he realizes repeatedly, because he keeps forgetting it. In a moment of clarity, Axl and Beatrice decide to set out on a Quest to visit their son (though they are unsure of his existence and location).

Strike two: Axl is also under the influence of the Fog, and tends to forget and rediscover things frequently. As a weekend/commute reader, I often had to flip back to reread, because I wasn’t sure whether it was my memory or Axl’s that was unreliable.

Then a couple of new characters are introduced– Gawain and Wistan. Axl doesn’t know if they are friend or foe, but seems inclined to trust them. He also finds them vaguely familiar… Argh! Strike three: everything is vague, and at 2/3rds of the way through, I expected at least a hint or two.

As expected from Ishiguro, there is a twist in the end of the story that ties things together in a neat, albeit slightly heartbreaking, way. I did not get that far into the book, but I’ll reveal what I understood of the ending from summaries: the amnesia-inducing fog is caused by the breath of Querig; this is intended to cause the Britons and Saxons to live in peace despite the British massacre of Saxons. Gawain is actually Querig’s protector, and Wistan kills him, and then the dragon, to rescue everyone from memory loss.

This is pretty thought-provoking. We are told that we need to study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But could deliberately avoiding history enable us to live more peacefully in the present by erasing prejudices? Were the amnesiac Britons and Saxons in the story doomed to fight once again?

I don’t regret not finishing this book- it put me in a reading rut for a month. Maybe someday I’ll have the time and energy to give it the patience it deserves. I recommend this book to Ishiguro fans who have some time on their hands. 1.5/5.

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Little England

This is a review of The Colour of Gold, by Gita Aravamudan, published by HarperCollins. It’s a work of fiction centered around the accidental death of an Anglo-Indian in a quiet little mining town.

I was motivated to read it solely because it features my hometown, Kolar Gold Fields. But I was met with disappointment. The descriptions of the town are remarkable but also uninspiring. Remarkable, because this is a first, uninspiring because I failed to relate to the literature even though I have lived in the places that are described.

The greed and human cost of gold mining is brought out in the first chapter. But soon, that is left behind for some mystical sights of the ghost of Ponni, from 1903, that Sheila sees in 2003 and that Arati sees in 1953. The plot of the novel surrounds Ponni, who was an Indian girl that a top British officer at the mines sires and has three children with. He dies in the mine and the children are cruelly separated from Ponni by the wife of the Englishman. The story (actually a set of disconnected stories) is about how his great-great-grand children trace their family trees back to the love affair between him and Ponni. The fiction is okay at best. It is more like a story meant for a tabloid. With a weak plot, and too many characters that remained undeveloped, it ultimately is but a damp squib mystery. The murder/accident of the Anglo-Indian is mentioned in the first couple of chapters, relegated to the backdrop after that and easily forgotten in the interest of other trivia, until the very end when we’re reminded of it again, only to be met with a laughably arbitrary climax. The saving grace was Ponni’s story, but even that was unexciting when it took shelter under clichéd romances.

The literature is of a basic kind, rendering it to be a half day read. I read it because it was given by the writer to my father, an engineer at the mine when it was operating. My father’s markings on the margins of the book tell me that many of the details described in the book resemble the truth, such as the splendor of the clubs, libraries, parties, and the close knit community that was once called ‘Little England’. The open affection that the people in this township felt for the British, combined with the lingering British customs, has also been brought out in the book.

Part of the book is based on life in KGF in 2003, a year after mines in KGF were declared closed. There was a fair amount of thievery and crime in the place, owing to unenforced law and order and the vast amount of unguarded wealth of the mines. Colour of Gold, though, slips into being an exercise in drawing up a family tree, with scant amount of thrill and drama that a mystery novel ought to have. At least pictures from the bygone era could have saved the book. Why, I even think it would have fared better if had been a coffee table book with the well researched descriptions of the city from the book.

If you’ve lived in a mining town and enjoy tracing family trees, you might tolerate the book. Sadly, the colour of gold is all the book can be, not gold. 1.5/5.

Dr House? Maybe Not.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness- Susannah Cahalan

Okay, I admit it: I only read this book because the doctor in it was described as ‘a real life Dr House’. I was disappointed, though. The book describes (in sometimes tedious detail) how the author, Susannah Cahalan, was afflicted by a rare and serious autoimmune disease that was wrongly diagnosed by several specialists before it was correctly identified and treated.

The book begins with Susannah describing her initial symptoms. Some seemingly harmless mood swings and nervousness were actually ominous early signs of her illness. While this in itself is enough to cause panic attacks in hypochondriacs, it gets worse…

One would expect the narration to be anecdotal, but it’s choppy and often disconnected. Not the fault of the author though- she has very few memories of incidents that occurred during her ‘month of madness’.  She has used her experience as a journalist to piece together information collected from her father’s journals, CCTV footage of her while in the hospital, and doctors’ reports.

Back to the story. Initially, Susannah’s illness is attributed to schizophrenia, which commonly manifests in women during their late teens or early twenties. Enter Almost House, Dr. Souhel Najjar, who suspects that her worsening physical symptoms are due to brain swelling. However, all tests are inconclusive. He asks her to draw a clock. All the numbers are clustered in the right side of the circular face, an indication that her right hemisphere is inflamed. AH deduces that this is due to a newly identified autoimmune ailment, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. A brain biopsy confirms his hunch, and after a few months of treatment Susannah is well enough to return to her job.

After Susannah’s case was written about in medical journals, many more patients were diagnosed with this relatively rare disease. It is clear that a significant number of sufferers may have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar, which will hopefully change due to the publicity that was generated by this book. Though this is undeniably a good thing, there are many other books that deal with similar subjects in more informative and entertaining ways. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, The Tell-Tale Brain, and Phantoms in the Brain (both by V S Ramachandran) all deal with strange neurological disorders and how they manifest themselves (inability to identify faces, phantom limbs, etc). Both Sacks and Ramachandran are neurologists, and manage to convey the latest ideas in their field without compromising on readability.

1.5/5