Sunday, February 20, 2011

 Everyone has got secrets. The challenge is how to dig them out.
I am talking about the world’s latest favourite pair in search of secrets – Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. Well, I know I am at least one year late to write a review of the Millennium Trilogy. But I felt it is absolutely necessary to pay my respect to Froken Sallander, Kalle Blomkvist and above all to Herr Larsson.
Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is a close shadow of Stieg Larsson in real life. He is the part owner and the lead journalist of the Millennium magazine. Single and single-minded in investigation, Blomkvist, called Kalle Blomkvist by many (after a famous character of a Swedish children’s book – Blomkvist himself does not like the name), shares a cozy relation with Editor-in-chief Erika Berger. Berger has an open marriage with an artist and for more than two decades – they met at the journalism school - Blomkvist and Berger have been lovers, business partners and best friends. Middle-aged Blomkvist is likeable but his habit of sleeping around in the middle of a dangerous investigation – James Bond style – is quite annoying at times. At the end of the third volume Blomkvist seems headed for a more settled relationship with an athletically beautiful police woman – aptly named – Monica Figuerola.
On the other hand Larsson’s real creativity comes out in drawing Lisbeth Salander – all of 40kgs and at 5 feet from the sea level – Salander packs an incredible punch. One of the best hackers in business, paranoid about her privacy and bisexual (her same sex partner Mirium Wu is another interesting package) – Salander provides the shock and awe treatment to the readers. Salander also has no inhibition in sex but at least she does not sleep around in the middle of an investigation (except, of course, with Blomkvist in the first book). Salander has a past, which is one of the central threads of the series and which also makes her determination admirable. But this 21st century - Modesty Blaise - meets - Charlie's angels keeps you hooked in the trilogy spanning nearly 2000 pages (the third book – at least the edition I read was double the size of a normal paperback, so therefore I am calculating around 2000 pages, otherwise all the books have around 500-600 pages each).
Larsson draws a supporting cast with wonderful eyes for details – so you can almost visualize the small staff of the Millennium magazine, office of Dragan Armansky’s Milton Security (where Salander used to work), Police Inspector Bublanski and of course Erika Berger. In the first story the small island of Hedestad comes alive in such a way that an alert reader could almost walk across the road and look around at various spots, where Harriet Vanger might have sat or walked on that fateful day more than 20 years back. As a crime fiction writer, Larsson’s greatest strength is giving out so much information and in such a neat fashion, yet holding it on till the last page (well, almost) and most importantly, a casual reader will not be able to find any contradictory or non-supportive piece of information anywhere in these massive tomes.
Millennium trilogy consists of three Blomkvist-Salander adventures - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Out of these three, the last two are actually the same story – last volume in fact starts from the precise point where the second volume gets over. If one looks at it closely then perhaps only the first one is a crime fiction, the other two being more like thrillers. In the first book, Blomkvist, discredited and sentenced to prison for defamation, heads to a small town with a curious assignment of finding out what happened on a day more than twenty years back when a girl from a prominent business family disappeared mysteriously. The way Blomkvist and Salander solves the crime is a wonderful piece of fictional detection. As I said earlier also as a detective writer Larsson puts up his best show in this book, yet there is one important weakness. At a crucial juncture in the story Blomkvist’s pre-teen daughter opens up her father’s eyes, thereby paving the way for a whole new perspective – this is one interjection Larsson could have avoided as it did not come into the story in a logical way. Second story (that is the second and third book) starts with the problem of human trafficking and prostitution rackets but soon catches up with Salander’s past. Both the books are pulsating thrillers but there are scenes where Larsson clearly goes overboard and makes it too unreal, particularly at the end of the second volume. It is in last two volumes that Larsson raises serious questions about the limit of a welfare state vis-à-vis notions of individual liberty. He also forces conscious readers to think about unfettered freedom intelligence agencies and such holy cows are often allowed to enjoy even in a democracy.
Of course these are the questions Stieg Larsson (15th Aug 1954 - 9th Nov, 2004) tried to grapple with all his adult life. Larsson, a journalist with TT Wire Agency, editor of Expo magazine, a leading science fiction fan and an expert on right wing movement died shortly after delivering three Salander manuscripts to his Swedish publisher. These are the stories he wrote for fun after his day’s work was done. A large part of the fourth novel was also found in his laptop after his death. He reportedly planned to write ten novels in this series. Larsson was a Trotskyist in his political belief (I thought in today’s world such categories exist only in Calcutta!), reportedly trained Eritrean Women guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers (in late 1970s) and spent years under police protection as his life was under threat from various neo-Nazi groups. At the age of 15, he was witness to gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth – he always blamed himself for not being able to help that girl. Since then he had been deeply concerned about atrocities against women. Overall, this is a very 21st century crime fiction/thriller series in terms of subjects, context and mentality. Like a true chartbuster all the spicy ingredients of a popular fiction are here. Still no one can deny Larsson the credit of putting it together as a unique crime series, despite obvious weaknesses of such a package.
Reading Salander and looking for more such stories I came to know a little bit about the Scandinavian crime fiction tradition, which has been thriving at least since the Second World War. Geography specific sub-categorization of crime fiction with their special characteristics is a theme, which never struck me before. We generally tend to put all crime fictions/thrillers we read in English under a general category making allowance only for individual writer but not in terms of geography (Nordic crime fiction or Canadian crime fiction). But Salander forced me to accept unconsciously that it is patently wrong to overlook the geo-tagging of crime fiction. What Larsson’s success has done – going by the storm in the web world – is to highlight the entire genre of Nordic crime fiction, which despite the success of Kurt Wallander and Inspector Norse never captured the imagination of global readership in such a way.
In a recent study of crime fictions – Imagination of the Evil – author Mary Evans looks for factors behind the setting of crime fictions. Cold climates of Scandinavia, sparse and mechanical lifestyle along with a typical Nordic tendency of holding on to your emotions create an altogether different context from the late nineteenth century cobbled gas-lit streets of London, where Sherlock Holmes used to operate. I have grown up reading a whole host of amiable bhadralok Bengali Goyendas (detectives) – who abhorred violence, guns and to a large extent tried to avoid the other sex. Sub-genre of Bengali crime fiction is not very well known outside Bengal but thanks to some good English translation, a lot of people are now aware of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda (often more a typical Bengali adda story than a serious crime fiction) and one TV series has made the best Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi (written by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay) famous to at least two generations of Indians. There are a number of others from Kiriti Roy to Kakababu – but all of them, now I realize, are someway typically Bengali in terms of imagination of the evil and tackling it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Love Me Tender, Love Me True

Just a few days back my wife literally forced me to watch a romantic comedy – romcom to her. My sweet wife (along with a bunch of her friends) is a die-hard fan of such romcoms and Jane Austen like period piece romances. On the other hand, very few of my friends will blame me as a sentimentalist. I hardly read normal fiction, have not touched any romantic novel in years; hardly watch movies; even listening to music is not something I do normally. Of course the movie ended with the promise that everyone will live happily ever after.
The book I wanted to write about today is The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I have no right to review it as this is an absolutely rare book, which I started but could not finish. Many people believe that Nobel Prize in literature in   reality means the end of creativity for the laureate. This book, coming out after Pamuk’s crowning glory – at a relatively young age (at the age of 54 in 2006) – definitely does not provide any confirmation for such thoughts. Pamuk is of course best known for his classic My Name Is Red (1998). But at least two of his later books have satisfied critiques and ordinary readers alike – his political novel Snow (2002) and his romantic exploration of his beloved city Istanbul: Memories of a City (2004).
The Museum of Innocence, originally published as Masumiyet Muzesi in Turkish in 2008 is a story of an obsessive and doomed love. The hero of the novel Kemal is the son of one of the richest businessmen in Turkey, engaged to a suitable girl. But days before his marriage, he hopelessly falls in love with a young and not-so-well-to-do shop assistant Fusun, who is also his distant relative. Fusun is beautiful and has a charm very different from his upper-class fiancée, which Kemal finds difficult to resist. For Kemal, it does not take much time to lose Fusun but he becomes obsessed with Fusun and everything associated with Fusun. He ends up destroying his relations with the girl he was engaged with and also hope of any meaningful career. Slowly he becomes so engrossed with his obsession that he ends up losing Fusun, the human being and reduces her merely to the object of his obsession. Over a period of three decades from 1975, pathologically obsessed Kemal goes on collecting every little object related to Fusun or that era and builds a museum of innocence. Kemal gradually forgets that Fusun was the love of his life – however impossible and doomed it was – and tries to find solace in objectifying his undying love. Fusun is just a site, where Kemal empties his emotion. Had it not been Fusun – it seems - he would have perhaps found someone else, as he just needed a blood and flesh character to be obsessed with, to waste his life away in search of such pure romance, which cannot possibly exist in real life.
Apart from Kemal’s objectification of love, the story is also a commentary on women in Turkish society – how girls are stereotyped and their roles and attitude are straitjacketed. They carry the guilt of pre-marital sex or the stigma of lose morality when they participate in a beauty contest or act in movies. Overall the entire story unfolds in the backdrop of gradual opening up of Turkey (more in a social sense than economic) to European influence.
The book starts with Kemal noting that the happiest moment of his life came (and went), at a time when he hardly recognized or understood it. This is something like a universal truth, which we all come to recognize. Equally, we all try to build our own museums of everyday life – whether we admit it or not – we all try to preserve that first love letter, pressed rose petals, a hairpin here, a pencil there…..however fastidiously we try to clean up our home or office, we get sentimental with apparently meaningless items and keep them safely locked up, as they carry memories of some association. It is a long book and as Kemal goes on collecting souvenirs and explain their significance, a miasma of heartbreak slowly envelopes the entire city of Istanbul and gradually sucks the reader into it. As he goes on telling Kemal’s story, Pamuk reduces the apparent love story into a pure and condensed emotion – it is so pure that one finds it difficult to bear.
Like everyone else I thought I had known love and the pain of a heart break. I also thought – like all of you – that my love story was the most unique. Yet Pamuk made me intolerably sick – it was as if his love was like Essential Oils – it is so pure that you cannot use it directly. For ordinary mortals like us it has to be diluted and presented in beautiful bottles of perfumes – we are not pure enough to use it in that condensed form –we cannot handle that pure an emotion in our real life. Kemal’s fetishism is just a ploy to challenge us – how pure is your emotion? In real life, love (and perhaps, everything) is so complicated and multilayered that neither romcoms can come true nor can we have Kemal’s purity. Pamuk shows us that inspite of his success, his long career in literature and Nobel Prize, he has been able to retain a certain innocence of heart, which makes him truly great. Perhaps this is not the best of his novels (for me it has to be My Name Is Red) and definitely it does not break any new ground in terms of form or other experiments, yet it establishes Pamuk’s persuading power as a writer and his emotional innocence, which he incredibly retains at this age.
I envy my lovely wife and admit that I cannot enjoy such simple and innocent pleasures of life like her romcoms. I also hopelessly admit that I do not have Kemal’s purity of heart to give up everything for love. I would rather try to lay my hands on his latest book - The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist (it is on literary criticism) rather than giving another shot at it, yet if you have not read Museum of Innocence, I will strongly suggest you try it once, just to know yourself better.