Awards: Booker Prize 2020, National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2020)
The winner of this year’s Booker Prize is Douglas Stewart, a Scottish- American, for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain. An autobiographical novel, this is about the lonely gay son of an alcoholic mother in 1980s Scotland.
After 30 rejections from different publishers, Stuart sold it to Grove Atlantic and Picador, and now, his debut has won the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world. The novel is gripping, poignant, and dark that would leave deep scars in the readers mind. It is a tribute to Stuart’s mother who died of alcoholism when he was 16. Stuart describes himself as a working class Scottish kid .
The story unfolds in 1980s Glasgow and is centered on the boy Shuggie who takes care of his alcoholic mother. His awareness of being gay and heightened sensitivity to precociousness makes him an easy target of school bullies. Shuggie and his siblings had to take the additional burden of caring for Agnes, their mother who descends into alcoholism. Her husband, a taxi-driver, is a philanderer. Thatcher’s policies force him and the children out of work and the family descends into poverty and substance abuse. Agnes keeps her pride by trying to look good with make-up and and pearly-white false teeth. The older children finally distance themselves from their mother leaving her under the care of young Shuggie. She oscillates between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Though she loves her son, alcohol blinds her and eclipses the love she feels for him. The story is about the relationship between the boy and his alcoholic mother.
The novel includes many themes like abuse, addiction, rape, sexuality, and poverty. In a world where the term sexual consent is absent, Agnes is repeatedly being raped by men including her husband. The plight of the children forced by their circumstance to bear witness to the marks left on their mother’s body after rape, and to religiously wipe the bile and vomit from her body is heart wrenching. Though the read is pretty grim and poignant, the novel draws the reader deep into it and the atmosphere it creates around the reader is hard to shrug off.
Two things that could be off-putting are heavy prose and wide spread use of adjectives.
Neruda wrote in a variety of styles such as erotically charged love poems as in his collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair, surrealist poems, historical epics, and overtly political manifestos. In 1971 Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Neruda always wrote in green ink as it was his personal color of hope.
In the wave-strike over unquiet stones
“In the Wave-Strike Over Unquiet Stones”, is a poem which expresses how romantic love fades. Like the waves of the ocean, Neruda expresses romantic love ebbing and flowing. As Neruda says: “the brightness bursts and bears the rose”. In other words, Neruda is saying we sometimes meet a unique romantic love interest in life which shines so brightly; however, love does not always last. It collapse and “destroys its continual forms”. Obviously, something so beautiful and strong like the waves of the ocean will dissolve and disappear, which is how Neruda sees romantic love.
However, despite the lovely metaphors of the poem, the flowery nature of Neruda’s poem overwhelms the senses of the reader. It is as if the imagery is too rich and disturbs the flow of the narrative. Despite this flaw, Neruda’s poem is still fascinating and compels the reader to create their own meaning about love.
In the wave-strike over unquiet stones the brightness bursts and bears the rose and the ring of water contracts to a cluster to one drop of azure brine that falls. O magnolia radiance breaking in spume, magnetic voyager whose death flowers and returns, eternal, to being and nothingness: shattered brine, dazzling leap of the ocean. Merged, you and I, my love, seal the silence while the sea destroys its continual forms, collapses its turrets of wildness and whiteness, because in the weft of those unseen garments of headlong water, and perpetual sand, we bear the sole, relentless tenderness.
Meera’s FB post got me to write this and think through the term ‘self-defense’ when it comes to women. I don’t think any of us women have had the rare luck of evading the unseemly behavior from boys and men, be it insistent taunts, jeering catcalls, seemingly unintended touches or worse, at least for some, the gratuitous and vicious violence.
Unless a man steps into the lady-shoes and experience the unease, they would never be able to understand the anguish, whoever they might be, be it a father, brother, son, or any male for that matter. It is not easy for a girl to stride away with meek, downcast eyes and insecure, diffident steps while someone or a group jeer at her persistently or to stay away from prying eyes or indecent touches in a crowded bus routinely. All of us might have gone through these, but we were wont to ignore them and be on our guard all by ourselves, lest it would be worse and provoke them more. Beyond this wisdom, or carrying a safety-pin while inside a public transport or later, displaying the white doctor’s coat on the forearm hoping that ‘respect for doctors’ would ward off the evil behavior, I do not remember any sort of self-defense that I had practiced when young. Thus, the girl avails those only skills at her disposal. And early on she gets the taste of being vulnerable, powerless, capitulating, and gets to see the darker facets of the world. Far removed from my place for the past many years, I do not know if the situation has changed now in Kerala.
Whenever possible, I was accompanied by my father or brother, but that was not a constant. And after my marriage, I was entirely left to defend by myself in risky situations, something that I had learned the hard way. I learned to drive, but still the fear of ‘what if’ never ever left me. After finishing the 9 PM duty in a hospital at Kerala, I had to pass through a deserted place to get to my parent’s house and take my toddler son back home. The fifteen-minute drive was literally a sort of daily adrenaline-soaked adventure trip. I would make sure that all the four side-window panes were rolled up, locks intact, check the tyres and set my old Nokia mobile to a ready-to dial my husband’s number mode, but the dread of what if a glitch or flat tyre happened at exactly the same spot was always there with me. I do not know how other women would feel under similar circumstances, but it wouldn’t be this dreary for a man driving at night. I would say my inanimate companion never failed me, and hence my feelings for this twenty-five-year-old Maruti 800 are akin to those for the animate beings, it is still with me in good condition.
The Gulf years were not very smooth either in terms of my dread and paranoia, initially, though the strict laws in favor of women there checked transgressions to a limit ( Those laws were routinely misused too, as I later observed). The difference was that my afternoon duty would stretch until 12.00 AM. But the city never sleeps, taxis, people, police cars and ambulances plying the road all through the night. And that slowly gave me the confidence to fearlessly go to and come back from work, and travel alone. But the dread stays and to this day one thing that I would always do to pre-empt an anticipated incident is the only self-defense that I know of, I try to avoid. The one and only one element that could be factored in for me or anyone else to have escaped any of those incidents until now would be just ‘pure luck’.
Even today, the beads of wisdom from people including the world-wise men and women do not amount to anything positive but mostly to parse the situation to finally find a grain of fault with the girl, if ever something happens. The onus to pre-empt an untoward incident is placed on the shoulders of the girl or woman, on her choice of restraint or freedom. These concepts of avoidance behavior, choice, and non-choice went completely over my head after having to examine an eight-year-old girl, a case of sexual abuse at the hospital there, where I had worked. What choice does an eight-year-old have when incidents happen under her own roof? There was no dearth of unfortunate events there too.
A confidential survey done in one of the private schools there a few years back revealed that a good many of the students((boys and girls) had confronted some form of abuse, a minority opened up about the sexual abuse they had endured. They started educating the children and included self-defense training for them(both boys and girls). Karate classes and other self-defense training are a common sight there, and so many girls train themselves to fight back. That was another new for me then.
Which brings me back to some habitual and some strange responses to the gravity of the problem, and the significance of self-defense for women, from the parents and others. Sad to say that most are either in denial or complacent or unintentionally blind to the status quo or callously indifferent and flippant. Even though aware that the world out there is a den, there is a pervading aura of overconfidence that ‘such events’ would not happen to me or mine and as such distancing from taking ‘extreme measures’ to defend those.
‘The girls should try to avoid dangerous circumstances.’ That was the response of one of my colleague’s husband, years back, and a widely prevalent one at that. He is a professional, well-read( if he is to be believed), cognizant and aware of what is going on around him, is the father of a teenage girl, still he expects the fourteen-year-old girl to codify circumstances into a whole gamut of potential hazard from a scale of zero to ten and plan accordingly. Sadly, this is not a singular male opinion, many women go with it full-throatedly. The girl would have to mingle with her male-peers in a multi-cultural, multi-national crowd, or to travel with male colleagues as a part of her work or study in the future. When danger lurks everywhere, even among the routines of work and sleep, the first and the most important thing that would aid her would be her confidence to defend herself.
‘First, teach the boys to behave ‘- Another commonly heard response and true too. The onus should be on both. But, waiting for the ideal romantic vision of a social utopia where all the boys and men turn over new leaves and morph into chivalrous knights overnight would be as good as a charming fairy tale or an unrealistic, self-deluding fantasy. So, prepare her along with teaching the boys.
‘Age-old and incipient feminichis molding the future ‘feminichi warriors‘- This interesting response was an eye-opener for me, originally a covert one in Malayalam in a men’s only whats up group, that somehow turned overt and turned up at the doorstep of another females only group, some time back. The paradox and irony of it all were that the culprit, a father of two daughters, was a strong supporter of women’s rights on stage. Understandable that locker room banter works differently within groups with pack mentality instincts, each one supporting or competing to be an alpha male. Still, the dichotomy inside such a double-faced strategy is hard to come to terms with, since ensuring the safety of women, including his wife and daughters, should not be pigeonholed as a feminist rebellion but it is a duty of each one of us, himself included, and safety is the birthright of every individual. And additionally, a word of caution when it comes to people who go to great lengths to establish their liberal bona fides.
‘Let women be knowledgeable and kind instead of taking up arms‘- Knowledge and wisdom are essential and highly welcome, for sure, but a girl confronting a psychotic assailant about to tear her apart would have little use with kind words or Solomonic wisdom. She needs to have the presence of mind and confidence for a counterattack with whatever object at her disposal.
This is not to incite girls or women to violence or goad them to take up martial arts lessons asap. These pieces of training would definitely add up the confidence of the girl if they are accessible. It might not be possible for a girl to overthrow a man or men single-handedly, but the confidence it gives is worth it. The possibility of misuse of self-defense gadgets is an often- referred concern. Teaching responsible use after weighing the event and outcome could help. The first time that I had seen a can of pepper spray for real was one year back inside the bag of a girl I had met in the apartment lift in India, a smart, young techie staying alone. She struck up a conversation with me and was friendly enough for me to ask how she would come back from work fearless, at wee hours sometimes, since the tech company was a bit far. And she showed me the can and a small pocket-knife with the phrase “just in case“. Something unthinkable for me while I was her age.
As long as the ‘what if’ and ‘ just in case’ phrases remain as doubts, questions, tensions, feelings, and uncertainties the girls need to see the dark sides early on, be confident, learn to say NO, and practice to defend themselves.
The following advice is from a lawyer friend. I do not know anything about the legal facts, so please correct if there are any mistakes.
( Right of private defense is given under s.96 to s.106 of the Indian penal code.
It stipulates that every person has a right to private defense, but three conditions must be fulfilled:
1. Imminent danger 2. No recourse or option to reach police station or police help 3. The defense must be proportionate to danger (e.g if someone coming to slap you, you cannot take out a pistol and kill him. It will be disproportionate. Carrying pepper spray is legal in India and nothing in law classifies pepper spray as an illegal substance. But while using pepper spray, just remember the above three conditions.
One cannot randomly use pepper spray. The use of pepper spray is not immune to legal prosecution. Anyone upon whom the pepper spray is used can proceed against anyone who uses it upon him/her. However, its use for self-defense and defense against imminent danger is allowed ( any reasonable action is allowed for defense). One, however, if by mistake is subjected to pepper spray, they can proceed for civil damages. Responsible use must be ensured since the possibilities of misuse should be considered )
Genre- Historical Fiction/ Political Fiction/ Post Modernism
കേരളസാഹിത്യ അക്കാദമി അവാർഡും വയലാർ രാമവർമ അവാർഡും കിട്ടിയ ടി ഡി രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സാറിന്റെ ഈ നോവൽ ഒരു ഹിസ്റ്റോറിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനാണ് . പൊളിറ്റിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനിലും പെടുത്താൻ കഴിയുന്ന നോവലിൽ ഒരു വിപ്ലവചരിത്രം പോസ്റ്റ് മോഡേൺ രീതിയിൽ വിവരിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു. ഈ സ്ത്രീപക്ഷ നോവലിൽ LTTE എന്ന വിപ്ലവ സംഘടനയുടെ പൈതൃകം ചരിത്രത്തിലൂടെയും മിത്തിലൂടെയും അദ്ദേഹം പറയുന്നു . സച്ചി ദാനന്ദന്റെ ആണ്ടാൾ എന്ന കവിതയിൽ നിന്ന് പ്രചോദനം ഉൾക്കൊണ്ടു എഴുതിയ കഥയാണ്.
വായിച്ചു കഴിഞ്ഞപ്പോൾ ഒരു കുഞ്ഞു review എഴുതാതിരിക്കാൻ കഴിഞ്ഞില്ല. ഇത്രയും പിടിച്ചിരുത്താൻ പറ്റുന്ന ഒരു പുസ്തകം ഇടക്കൊന്നും വായിച്ചിട്ടില്ല. അമ്മയുടെ പുസ്തക ശേഖരത്തിൽ നിന്ന് പണ്ട് വായിച്ചിട്ടുള്ള ചരിത്രം പറയുന്ന പുസ്തകങ്ങൾ വായിക്കുന്ന അതെ ഫീൽ. കൂടെ അറബിനാട്ടിലെ ആശുപത്രിയിൽ ജോലി ചെയ്ത ആദ്യ നാളുകളിൽ ഞാൻ പരിശോധിക്കാനിടയായ ഒരു എട്ടു വയസ്സുകാരി പെൺകുട്ടിയുടെ ഓർമ്മപ്പെടുത്തൽ കൂടി.
സുഗന്ധിയുടെ കഥ ശ്രീലങ്കൻ ചരിത്രമാണ് പറയുന്നത്. ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിന് ശേഷമുള്ള ശ്രീലങ്കയാണ് കഥയുടെ പശ്ചാത്തലം. പ്രസിഡന്റിന്റെ പൂർണ്ണനിയന്ത്രണത്തിലുള്ള സ്വേച്ഛാധിപത്യരീതിയിലുള്ള ഭരണമാണ് അവിടെ. രജനി തിരണഗാമ എന്ന മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകയെ പറ്റിയുള്ള വിവരങ്ങൾ അന്വേഷിക്കുന്ന ഒരു കൂട്ടം അന്താരാഷ്ട്ര ചലച്ചിത്ര പ്രവർത്തകരും ഇതിനു നേതൃത്വം നൽകുന്ന മലയാളി പീറ്ററിന്റെ ഉദ്ദേശവും കണ്ടെത്തലുകളുമാണ് കഥ മുന്നോട്ടു കൊണ്ട് പോകുന്നത് . സുഗന്ധി എന്ന തന്റെ കാമുകിയെ അന്വേഷിക്കുന്ന പീറ്ററിലൂടെ, രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സർ ഈ നോവലിൽ ഉൾപ്പെടുത്തിയിട്ടുള്ളത് ചരിത്രവും, യാഥാർഥ്യവും, ഫാന്റസിയും,ഐതിഹ്യവും, കുറെ ചോദ്യങ്ങളുമാണ്.
ഇത് വായിക്കുമ്പോൾ , തൊട്ടറിയാനാകുന്ന ഒരു വേദന പല സന്ദര്ഭങ്ങളിലും അനുഭവപ്പെടുന്നുണ്ട്. Fascist ഭരണകൂടങ്ങൾ അടിച്ചമർത്തുന്ന ജനങ്ങളുടെ മാനസിക ശാരീരിക സംഘർഷങ്ങൾ, അതിലൂടെ ഉരുത്തിരിയുന്ന വിപ്ലവം, ഫാസിസിസത്തിലും വിപ്ലവത്തിലും common denominator ആകുന്ന ഹിംസ, അത് അനുപാതമില്ലാതെ ഏറ്റുവാങ്ങേണ്ടി വരുന്ന മനുഷ്യർ, പ്രത്യേകിച്ച്
സ്ത്രീകളും പെൺകുട്ടികളും, ഇതെല്ലാം ഇതിൽ പ്രതിപാദിച്ചുട്ടുണ്ട്. സ്ത്രീകൾക്ക് എതിരായ അതിക്രമങ്ങളെ ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെയും മിത്തുകളുടെയും ലെന്സ് വഴി കാണാതെ യാഥാർഥ്യത്തിന്റെ കണ്ണാടിയിൽ കൂടി കാണിക്കാൻ അദ്ദേഹം ശ്രമിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്. ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിൽ ബലാത്സംഗത്തിനും പീഡനത്തിനും ഇരയാകേണ്ടി വന്ന സ്ത്രീകളെ ആയിരം വര്ഷം പഴക്കമുള്ള ദേവനായകി എന്ന അടിച്ചമർത്തപ്പെട്ട mythical കഥാപാത്രത്തോട് സമാന്തരമായി അവതരിപ്പിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു .
1989 ൽ LTTE യുടെ വെടിയേറ്റ് ജാഫ്നയിൽ കൊല്ലപ്പെട്ട രജനി തിരണഗാമ എന്ന ശ്രീലങ്കൻ തമിഴ് മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകയും ഫെമിനിസ്റ്റും, സുഗന്ധിയെപ്പറ്റിയുമുള്ള ഓർമ്മകൾ ആണ് നോവലിൽ പ്രതിപാദിച്ചിട്ടുള്ളത് . രജനിയെ ചലച്ചിത്രപ്രവർത്തകരുടെ പേജുകളിലൂടെയും ആക്ടിവിസ്റ്റികളുടെ ഓർമ്മകളിലൂടെയും , സുഗന്ധിയെ പീറ്ററിന്റെ ഓർമ്മകളിലൂടെയും നോവലിൽ കാണിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു. രണ്ടു സ്ത്രീ കഥാപാത്രങ്ങളെയും പീറ്ററിനും വായനക്കാർക്കും ഒരുപോലെ അപ്രാപ്യമാണ് . ഒരിക്കൽ LTTE യുമായി ബന്ധമുണ്ടായിരുന്ന രജനി ആ സംഘടനയുടെ ക്രൂരതകൾ തിരിച്ചറിഞ്ഞു, അവരുടെയും സൈന്യത്തിന്റെയും അക്രമങ്ങൾ ഡോക്യുമെന്റ് ചെയ്യുകയും അങ്ങനെ കൊല്ലപ്പെടുകയുമാണുണ്ടായത്. ദേവനായകി എന്ന mythical കഥാപാത്രത്തിലൂടെ ആണ് നോവൽ ആരംഭിക്കുന്നതെങ്കിലും ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെ ഭാഗമായ രജനി എന്ന ശക്തയായ യഥാർത്ഥ സ്ത്രീയെയാണ് നോവലിന്റെ ഹൃദയത്തിൽ കാണാനാകുന്നത്. ചെറുത്തുനിൽപ്പിന്റെ അടയാളമാണ് ദേവനായകി. യുദ്ധം നശിപ്പിച്ച സ്ത്രീ ജീവിതങ്ങളെ കാക്കാൻ ഉയിർത്തെഴുന്നേറ്റ പോരാളിയുടെ ആത്മാവ്.
ഒരു അജ്ഞാത ബ്ലോഗറിലൂടെയാണ് ദേവനായകി എന്ന സുന്ദരിയായ റാണിയുടെ കഥ പീറ്റർ വായിക്കുന്നത് . തന്റെ ജീവിതം നശിപ്പിച്ച സിംഹള രാജാവിനോടുള്ള പക തീർക്കലാണ് കഥയുടെ സാരം. പീറ്ററിന്റെ കണ്ണുകളിലൂടെ സങ്കൽപ്പകഥ യാഥാർഥ്യത്തിലേക്ക് നയിക്കുന്നു, myth ചരിത്രത്തിന്റെ പ്രതിബിംബമാകുന്നു . മൂന്നു സ്ത്രീ കഥാപാത്രങ്ങൾ ഉണ്ടെങ്കിലും അതിൽ രജനി എന്ന യാഥാർഥ്യം മാത്രമാണ് വായനക്കാർക്കു ഉൾക്കൊള്ളാൻ കഴിയുന്നത്. ദേവനായകി ഒരു ഇതിഹാസ കഥയുടെ ഏടിലുള്ള സ്ത്രീയായും, സുഗന്ധി മങ്ങിയ ഒരു ഓർമയായും, കഥയായും, ശ്രുതിയായും, കിംവദന്തിയായും നിലനിൽക്കുന്നു, കഥ അവസാനിക്കുന്നതിനു തൊട്ടു മുൻപ് വരെ. സുഗന്ധി ആര് എന്ന ചോദ്യത്തിനൊപ്പം വായനക്കാരെ ചിന്തിപ്പിക്കുന്ന പ്രധാനപ്പെട്ട ഒന്നാണ്, വിപ്ലവത്തിനായി ജീവിതവും ജീവനും ബലിദാനം ചെയ്യുന്ന സ്ത്രീകൾ അഭിമുഖീകരിക്കുന്ന നീതികേട്.
ഫാസിസിസത്തിലും ,വിപ്ലവങ്ങളിലും യുദ്ധങ്ങളിലും കാണപ്പെടുന്ന അക്രമരീതികൾ, കൊലപാതകത്തിന്റെ ക്രൂര ശൈലികൾ ഓരോ രാജ്യത്തിന്റെ കാര്യത്തിലും,വിപ്ലവ, ഭീകര സംഘടനകളുടെ കാര്യത്തിലും ഒരു കൈരേഖ പോലെ ആണ്. ശ്രീലങ്കൻ ആഭ്യന്തര യുദ്ധത്തിന്റെ വാർത്തകളിൽ നിന്ന് മനസ്സിൽ ഇന്നും തങ്ങി നിൽക്കുന്ന രണ്ടു വാക്കുകകളാണ് necklacing and suicide bombing . നെക്ലേസിങ്ങിൽ റബ്ബർ ടയറിൽ പെട്രോൾ നിറച്ചു കഴുത്തിനും നെഞ്ചിനും ചുറ്റും ഇട്ടിട്ടു കത്തിക്കും. ഇരുപതു മിനുറ്റിൽ ആൾ വെന്തു മരിക്കും. എന്നാൽ ഏതു ദേശമായാലും നൂറ്റാണ്ടുകളായി ഒരുപോലെ ചെയ്തുപോരുന്ന ഒരു അതിക്രമം , ഒരു വാർ ക്രൈം, ഒരു instrument of terror ഉണ്ട് – എതിർപക്ഷത്തെ സ്ത്രീകളെ മാനഭംഗം ചെയ്യുന്നതും, ബലാത്സംഗം ചെയ്യുന്നതും. സിറിയയിലും, ലിബിയയിലും, ഇറാഖിലും, അഫ്ഘാനിസ്ഥാനിലും, ഇന്ത്യയിലും, യൂറോപ്പിലും ഇത് ഒരുപോലെ നടന്നിരുന്നു, ഇന്നും നടക്കുന്നു. യുദ്ധങ്ങളിൽ ഇങ്ങനെ cannon fodder ആയി, സ്വന്തം ഗർഭപാത്രം നിറക്കേണ്ടി വന്ന, മനോനില തെറ്റിയ, പിച്ചിച്ചീന്തപ്പെട്ട അനേകം സ്ത്രീകളെയും, പ്രായപൂർത്തിയാകാത്ത പെൺകുട്ടികളെയും ഈ നോവൽ ഓർമിപ്പിക്കും. ഈ സ്ഥാനങ്ങളിലും അവസ്ഥയിലും ജനിച്ചു പോയ സ്ത്രീകൾക്ക് അക്രമവും അക്രമരാഹിത്യവും ഒരു നാണയത്തിന്റെ രണ്ടു വശങ്ങൾ പോലെ സാധ്യതയുള്ള അനുമാനം മാത്രമാണ്.
രാജപക്ഷെ ഗവണ്മെന്റിന്റെ പൊള്ളയായ ജനാധിപത്യത്തിൽ പൊതിഞ്ഞ ഫാസ്സിസത്തിന്റെ പ്രതിബിംബം നോവലിൽ കാണാനാകും. ഫാസ്സിസ്റ് ഭരണകൂടങ്ങൾക്ക് എതിരായ ഒരു സാഹിത്യ വിപ്ലവം കൂടിയാണ് ഈ നോവൽ.
നോവലിന്റെ വിമർശകർ പ്രധാനമായി ചൂണ്ടിക്കാട്ടുന്നത് മൂന്നു കാര്യങ്ങൾ- racy language ,objectification and over-sexualization of women . ഇത് കുറച്ചൊക്കെ ശെരിയാണെന്നു തോന്നാം. പക്ഷെ എനിക്ക് മറിച്ചാണ് തോന്നിയത് . നോവലിൽ പറഞ്ഞിരിക്കുന്നത് പോലെ ഭയരഹിതരായ ഡോക്യുമെന്ററി ഫിലിം ക്രൂ, മനുഷ്യാവകാശ പ്രവർത്തകർ , ദുരന്തമുഖത്തുള്ള നിന്നുള്ള survivors , എന്നിവർ ലോകത്തോട് തുറന്നു കാട്ടുന്ന സത്യങ്ങൾ പോലെ തന്നെയാണ് സത്യം ഫിക്ഷന്റെ രൂപത്തിൽ പറയുന്ന ഒരു സാഹിത്യകാരനും, അത് വരകളിൽ ഒപ്പുന്ന ആർട്ടിസ്റ്റും. ISIS എന്ന പ്രസ്ഥാനത്തിലെ ഭീകരവാദികൾ മാസങ്ങളോളം ബലാത്സംഗം ചെയ്തു sex slave ആക്കി മാറ്റിയ നാദിയ മുറാദ് എന്ന യസിദി ഇറാക്ക് പെൺകുട്ടിയുടെ ചില ഇന്റർവ്യൂകൾ ഉണ്ട്. അവർ എഴുതിയ ഒരു ഓട്ടോബയോഗ്രഫി ഉണ്ട്, ‘The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State ‘. അത് വായിച്ചാൽ അത് പോലെ fodder ആകേണ്ടി വന്ന പെൺകുട്ടികളുടെയും, സ്ത്രീകളുടെയും അവസ്ഥ കുറച്ചൊക്കെ മനസ്സിലാകും.
ഏകദേശം പതിനഞ്ചു വർഷങ്ങൾക്കു മുൻപ് അറബിനാട്ടിലെ ആശുപത്രിയിലെ ആദ്യനാളുകളിൽ എന്റെ അടുത്ത് ഒരു എട്ടു വയസ്സുകാരി അറബി പെൺകുട്ടിയെ ഒരാൾ കൊണ്ടുവന്നു. കംപ്ലൈന്റ്റ് vaginal bleeding from fall . പരിശോധിച്ചിട്ടു സംശയം തോന്നി , റെഫറൽ കൊടുത്തു. കുറച്ചു നേരം കഴിഞ്ഞു ഇറാഖി ഗൈനെക്കോളജിസ്റ്റിന്റെ ഫോൺ കാൾ വന്നപ്പോഴാണ് കാരണം sexual abuse ആണെന്ന് മനസ്സിലായത്. ആ പരിശോധനയുടെ നടുക്കവും , കുട്ടിയുടെ മുഖവും പൂർണ്ണമായി മറക്കാൻ ഇത് വരെ കഴിഞ്ഞിട്ടില്ല. ഈ നോവൽ വായിച്ചപ്പോൾ ആ കുട്ടിയെ പരിശോധിച്ചതാണ് തികട്ടി വന്നത് .
മിത്തും ചരിത്രവും യാഥാർഥ്യവും കൂട്ടിയിണക്കി ഇത്രയും ഭംഗിയായി എഴുതിട്ടുള്ള ഒരു നോവൽ ഈ അടുത്തിടെ ഞാൻ വായിച്ചിട്ടില്ല. പൊതുവെ വായിച്ചിട്ടുള്ള ഹിസ്റ്റോറിക്കൽ ഫിക്ഷനുകൾ വളരെനീട്ടിവലിച്ചു എഴുതിയിരിക്കുന്നത് പോലെ തോന്നാറുണ്ട് . വെറും മുന്നൂറു പേജുകളിലൂടെ രാമകൃഷ്ണൻ സർ ഇത് എത്ര എളുപ്പമായി narrate ചെയ്തിരിക്കുന്നു എന്ന് അതിശയം തോന്നി. അതിനായി ചെയ്തിട്ടുള്ള ഗവേഷണവും ചില്ലറയല്ല . ചരിത്രവും, ഫാന്റസിയും, യാഥാർഥ്യവും കൂട്ടിക്കലർത്തി പല കാഴ്ചപ്പാടിലൂടെ വായനക്കാരെ കൊണ്ട് നോക്കിക്കാനുള്ള അദ്ദേഹത്തിന്റെ ശ്രമം നന്നായി വിജയിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്.
The book is about the Chernobyl disaster, by the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, a Nobel Laureate. At the time of the disaster, she was a journalist living in Minsk. It is a product of interviews with more than 500 eyewitnesses who have had direct experience dealing with the disaster and rendered as monologues in her polyphonic writing.
The book proffers a verbatim account in the form of monologues from the living, breathing relics of Chernobyl, an exceptional product of almost three years of close encounter and interaction with the victims of the disaster, aka Chernobyl people. The author is unique, given her polyphonic writing boring straight through the minds and hearts of readers, proffering fervent accounts that would leave anyone, with no more than a skin-deep grasp of the disaster, totally flabbergasted.
The most consequential technological disaster of the twentieth century has often been linked to Ukraine and Russia, regardless of a fall out of 70% upon a small landlocked Eastern European country Belarus despite it not having any nuclear power stations on its own. The disaster left enduring scars on the future generation in the form of cancers, genetic mutations, mental retardation, congenital anomalies, and many neuropsychiatric disorders.
The area within several kilometers of radii around the reactor was designated as contamination zones where background radiation levels shot off the limits of any conceivable values in the Geiger Counter. One can’t but feel deeply offensive making sense of the egregious and hideous response of the Soviet Union towards the disaster and its own people. Young conscripts and reservist clean up workers were drafted to the contaminated zone for many months to clean up the area without proper protection, where even machines and robots came to a halt. They were given false assurances on the level of radiation but the truth was that most of them were pitifully benighted to the gravity of the disaster, let alone the effects of radiation or nuclear physics gone berserk.
Many statistics are still classified. The communist propaganda machines churned out unenlightened and ill-advised media announcements treacherously providing a false sense of security to the masses. They devoured these along with cesium, strontium and plutonium-laced food washed down with radioactive drinks, inhaled radioactive dust, and splashed around in radioactive rivers and streams.
Most of the cleanup workers died from acute radiation sickness or other long-term effects of radiation. Those that were left behind were afflicted by deep-seated emotional and physical scars. A hasty trial of the perpetrators in Chernobyl during 1986, discernibly without international media presence, settled for scapegoats instead. Even now, nobody knows what is happening inside the reactor number 4 covered by a sarcophagus called Shelter Object and recently replaced by a new one made of high-quality steel capable of withstanding gamma radiation called The Arch.
The poignancy of the monologues is manifest and the barbarism of the regime is abstrusely homicidal into the bargain. A stroll through the zone is striking with respect to the spillage of cemeteries. The masses that had been fed and nurtured by decades of Soviet ideology and upbringing were within easy reach of the regime and they acquiesced docilely to their demands to ‘ contain ‘ the fallout of an unprecedented catastrophe. What these unarmed soviet androids took home from the regime in return were unbefitting and unworthy of life vis-a-vis the intimidating scenarios they would, later on, stand up to.
Two other disasters concurred with the cosmic explosion of Chernobyl, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fizzling out of ‘sovietness’ ingrained in the psyche of the masses. Until the disaster, they had reckoned science, scientists and communism in the upper echelons of their collective consciousness, they were indoctrinated on the amicability of the atom, the immense expanse of the space to be hegemonized and they had unwavering certitude in the Soviet ‘mandarins’. With Chernobyl, the Soviet ethos too breathed it’s last.
The Zone, as it is known, will remain uninhabitable for years to come, carrying the markers of the radionuclides everywhere surrounding it, even more so as a cataclysm of the minds of the Soviet people. This is nothing like the events that are apparently comparable to, far apart from natural disasters or wars that could be consigned to the dustbin of history, where a distinct demarcation is possible between past, present and future.
With Chernobyl, the demarcation is blurred and they blend into the realm of eons inscrutable to us, common men. For that reason this book is synchronistically a requiem for the past and a chronicle of future.
For, there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.
It is a fearful word, alone.
Still, we must write.
We wish to speak once to no ears, but our own”
“Anthem” by Ayn Rand.
Genre- Dystopic literature/ Philosophical fiction
Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem‘ is a political statement against collectivism and blatant erasure of individualism, attacking the tenets of Soviet Communism, that, according to her, promulgates serfdom and slavery, disguising as and hiding behind the veil of ostensible freedom of the proletariat. It is a dystopian novel, the atmosphere same as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World‘ and to cite a more recent one, Yan Lianke’s ‘The Four Books‘.My review here(Book Review ‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke).
Rand and Objectivism
Rand was born Russian(1905) to an intellectual and well-off Jewish family and a witness to the Bolshevik Revolution, and a victim (according to her) when the communists expropriated property from the wealthy, nobles, landlords and aristocrats and distributed to the proletariat. ( The Russian Revolution had had many reasons other than this, though inequality was one notable raison d etre. Rand having had to lose everything, we can very well understand her ire against everything that had to do with communism. Yet, the significance of perspective shouldn’t go unnoticed. Thinking from the proletariat viewpoint, the revolution was a liberating force then. The state surveillance and curbing of individual freedom would have had the most negative impact while shaping the judgments and viewpoints of an intellectual like her).
She had done her Bachelors in History from St. Petersburg State University, Russia, where, she wrote later, she had encountered the distortion of history, art, literature, and past to propagate the Soviet communist propaganda. She turned out to be an excellent propagandist herself, later in the U.S, trumpeting her philosophy and capitalist ideologies, that were soaked up by a liberal crowd pining for change, a business flock hungry for profit and a conservative group who savvied its electoral significance.
She fled to the land of freedom, the USA, obliterated everything Russian( her name was ‘Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum’), took on US citizenship, and started writing novels and propounded her unique and controversial brand of philosophy, called ‘Objectivism’. ‘Anthem’ set the seeds of her philosophy, which was then expounded in detail through her other famous works, ‘The Fountainhead‘ and ‘Atlas Shrugged‘ and also her many non-fiction works.
(I was interested in reading Anthem and about objectivism after reading a newspaper article headlined, why ‘Conservatives and Libertarians embrace Randian philosophy while Academicians reject it‘. Texts about the philosophy were beyond my understanding, I just wanted to find out what the fuss is all about and I love non-fiction. Many GoodReads friends suggested reading ‘Anthem‘ first to make out the whats and whys and also many simplified explanations were available on the net. If you are not a fan of philosophical-fiction, better not try this one).
Objectivism has four tenets- reality, reason, self-interest, and individual rights and capitalism. Simply explaining, Rand’s philosophy is rooted in Ego or self-serving/ self-actualizing acts to achieve individual happiness and prosperity and through this happiness, the prosperity of a society. The moral goal of each individual should be achieving happiness as the purpose of life through the noblest activity of productive achievement with an absolute reason, living in a society that respects individual rights and promotes laissez-faire capitalism. Note, the many interesting points here for conservatives and capitalists, but, one thing that stands out in her materialistic philosophy, is, she is a self-styled atheist to a fault, that makes it an atheistic philosophy too, one that might not go well with conservative ideologies.
Conservatism, Rand and objectivism
The 40-th US president Ronald Reagen was a fan of Ayn Rand, as his private letters reveal A pamphlet was written by Rand after the 1960 presidential campaign,’ Conservatism, an Obituary‘ in which she states that capitalism is the only alternative to Statism. Though Rand was never a fan of Reagen( as her many speeches suggest) due to his alliance with the religious right and his pro-life stance on legal abortion. Her words- “the appalling disgrace of his administration was his connection with the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ and sundry other TV religionists, who are struggling, apparently with his approval, to take us back to the Middle Ages via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.”
Though both were anti-communists to the hilt, there were many dissonances in their overlapping views on objectivism. Simply put, conservatism and anti-communism cannot be automatically linked to the Randian objectivism. There were obvious discordances at many points. Certain pieces didn’t fit into these groups that easily. But the 60’s conservative youth and libertarians, most of whom embraced atheism, found in the philosophy an excellent propaganda tool and inspiration for political and social contexts. Many were searching for ideologies to pin their faith on, about the role of individuals and government in a society. They misinterpreted Rand’s elevation of individualism into the extreme and set limits on government interference in the most minimalist terms possible. Many of the old conservatives who were religious and pro-life, later tried to let themselves out of the Randian hook or added their own convenient religious component into it. Both groups added a prophetic hue to her major novels, pointing to the dystopia that might alight upon them, given the consequence of electing a liberal government. Rand was an adamant pro-choice proponent and had warned and argued strongly against religious conservatism.
Rand’s philosophy encompassed the cold war struggle b/w free countries practicing capitalism like the USA and ostensible surveillance states curbing freedom and individualism like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She went on to write novels and was an acclaimed Hollywood scriptwriter. The novels ‘Atlas shrugged’ and ‘The Fountainhead’ was remade into films, in which she countered and flipped over the communist agitprop of a heroic worker fighting tooth and nail with a sordid capitalist. ‘The Fountainhead’ released during WW-ll tells the story of a self-made heroic architect, Howard Roark, fighting the injustice of people who abuse the labor of others called ‘second-handers’.( Have read the review only. Looks like an interesting read).
Anthem is a paean to Ego. It is the self-realization of individual potential to the utmost when a person is free.
The novel is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Equality 7-2521, (yes, that is his name, he does not have a proper name.), a young man languishing in a dystopian, apocalyptic future society under 24/7 surveillance. Not an ordinary society, here individuality has been cleansed right to the level of vocabulary for communication. No one had even heard of the pronoun ‘I’ or if someone knew that, they were not allowed to use. The collective term ‘We” should be used instead. They have been dictated that the reason for their existence, is to serve others. There is no individual existence, but a collective one. A one- for- all and all- for- one kind.
Our hero happens to be an exception by standing out from the crowd in appearance, intellect, and free-thinking. Actually, there were a few others like him, a minority who had lost the war against a majority, when the era of the Great Rebirth came into existence. In spite of or because of his singularity, he had been assigned the job of a street sweeper, with tedious working hours amidst which he sneaks into an underground tunnel with candlelight and starts writing, thinking and doing scientific experiments, all by and to himself( something that is punishable).
Meanwhile, he falls in love with a lady by the name Liberty 5-3000. Another punishable offense, of giving importance to a person, in particular, a transgression by preference. Time passes and Equality discovers electricity by himself (that is more transgression) and decides to present it in front of the Council of Scholars( unpardonable offense). They freak out and Equality escapes to the nearby forbidden Forest, followed by Liberty and inhales the first air of freedom. They discover a house, an entirely private one and not a collective dwelling, books, and manuscripts from the Unmentionable Times before the Great Rebirth. They see their reflections in the mirror for the first time. From the books, they finally, find out the pronoun, ‘I’ and utter ‘ I Love You’ to each other, instead of ‘We love you’ ( this is exclusively Randian). Equality changes his name to ‘Prometheus'(light bearer, allegorical here) and Liberty to ‘Gaea'(The Earth personified as a goddess)
The climax is when Equality learns that he is extremely happy on his own, the only reason for his existence, tastes freedom and most of all, discovers Ego as the most sacred form of existence of an individual. He decides to go back and fight for the trampled ones in the city. There are other characters going by names like International 4-8818, Fraternity 2-5503 and Solidarity 9-6347. ( You could guess the roles by their constitutional names. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress cited as the first novel written in English in 1678 has characters going by names like Christian, Obstinate, Pliable, Civility, Goodwill and so forth.).
It is a short novella(65 pages only), but hidden within are allegories, images, and truth drenched in philosophical viewpoints. So it takes time since you need to do some significant collateral reading to get to what she means exactly by each sentence.
The philosophical theme is basically ‘egoism’, though she had created the raw materials for ‘objectivism’, that later on, she would expand in her other major works. Collectivism is expressed as nightmarish confinement and subdual and freedom described as the springboard for individual development. Also, with freedom, comes identity( I instead of We) as an individual.
The strained relation between individual and society has been painted in the darkest of tones, as the society tries to control every aspect of individual life from what he should think to when or whether he should procreate. (Reminds me of China’s one-child policy, now abandoned, censorship of literature in many countries, espionage of apparent dissidents, forced sterilization to limit population in democratic India during the Emergency period of 1976, forced sterilization as a part of Eugenic program in the USA in the first half of the 20th century extending to the 1970s. All of this leads us to the conclusion that this is not just something which happens in dictatorships only, even democracies practice many and more such atrocities. The case of Buck vs Bell, when Carrie Buck was stamped by the Supreme Court as imbecile and sterilized without her consent by Dr. John Bell in 1927, followed by many thousands is a notable one in the US). (For those interested, there is an excellent book about Buck vs Bell case -” Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell” by Paul A Lombardo).
Rand explains the superiority of individual happiness over societal good, freedom to choose what one likes and not to toil for the common good. She makes it clear that progress in any field, science or any other, is possible by amassing knowledge individually and not as a group. Freedom to love has been forbidden in Rand’s dystopia and through Equality and Liberty, she argues that freedom to choose and love should be the foremost, though Liberty’s love has more of a submissive and slavish tinge( I don’t get it. Could be some allegory within allegory, not sure).
Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegories
Anthem is executed in scriptural language with Biblical and Mythological( Prometheus, Gaea) allusions. For eg., we could find the frequent use of the words, ‘ sin, transgression, Unmentionable Times, Unspeakable Word, Evil Ones’, etc.. What Rand is trying to affirm here, is the frequent adoption of religion by totalitarian governments to emblazon their God-like power on people’s minds and thereby turning them to puppets, who idolize the state and the heads.
Biblical Gospel of Mathew states, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’, but Rand( remember, she was an atheist) conducts literal sabotage( sacrilege) by emphasizing her brand of solipsism and not a collective love. Similarly, Jesus’ famous “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” is mirrored in Equality’s proclamation, “I am the meaning…. I am the warrant and the sanction“. There are many hard-to- not notice allusions like these.
Light and water symbolisms and imagery are also striking and brilliant. Equality’s discovery of electric light( knowledge, truth) in the dark tunnel, his renaming as Prometheus( who stole and carried fire to earth), his decision to spread the light on the darkness of fellowmen( he is a light-bearer), Liberty’s appearance as water- bearer, all these point to a new beginning, a rebirth. Again an allusion to the King James Bible, which reads, in context:” In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light“.
Look at this beautiful interaction between water and light, when Equality meets Liberty, in Rand’s wonderful imagery,
“And the drops of water falling from their(her) hands, as they(she) raised the water to their(her) lips, were like sparks of fire in the sun. Then the Golden One(Liberty) saw us(me), and they(she) did not move, kneeling there, looking at us(me), and circles of light played upon their(her) white tunic, from the sun on the water of the moat, and one sparkling drop fell from a finger of their(her) handheld as frozen in the air”.
Randian philosophy: who needs it?
Well, as per Rand, every human being needs to be philosophical. With this, she doesn’t mean that we should sit still and brood over philosophy. What she meant was that all of us should be aware of the reason for existence. And unfortunately, embraced by the far right, neo-fascists, and neo-Nazis.
Face reality independent of any consciousness and not try to re-write it, understand that all things have their own identity, the highest moral goal of man should be achieving happiness and this needs rational respect for reality. (This is o.k.)
There is some misunderstanding about the role of ego/ selfishness in her theory and many have construed this to suit their own goals, notably businesses and conglomerates. She makes it clear in an essay, ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It?’. She differentiates between selfishness as a virtue and selfishness without a self. Rand sharply contrasts her view with one conventional picture of selfishness: the mindless amoralist who does whatever he wants. According to her, a selfish person without self is one who “has no self and no personal interests, only momentary whims”. Whereas selfishness is forming a self, developing long-range goals, moral values, and standards through one’s own independent judgment, and staying committed despite distractions resulting in a self- confident individual. This has become jumbled. (What I have understood from objectivism is plain selfishness to achieve individual happiness and nothing to be justified morally or nothing that stands on a moral pedestal. )
Regarding faith, she argues that this goes along with brute force and mysticism like reason and freedom. She adds, ” no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts, and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.” ( Theocracy subjugating the masses(outright autocracy) or the poisoning of secular democracies by extremist uncompromising religious ideologues/ fanatics or a conservative sort of apathy in keeping the church and state separate .)
Regarding capitalism, she elevates the capitalist entrepreneur individualist as the true leader of society. Everything said, like socialism, capitalism has major pitfalls, the foremost being economic inequality and hoarding of a significant proportion of wealth by a small group of rich. And the political consequences are right before our eyes in many countries. We read about it in newspapers every day. To cite a recent one, 30 years of laissez-faire capitalism in Chile brought millions to the streets demanding change. Though Chile is considered a Latin American success story, the main reason behind the protest was economic inequality, the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer in a capitalist system with superadded corruption, paving the way to the young neck-deep in debt, a middle-class struggling to meet day to day expenses and an older generation languishing in privatized pension schemes.
Political capitalism is something like a never-ending quid pro quo, an economic and political system in which the economic and political elite cooperate for their mutual benefit. Most of the time, this goes on surreptitiously and under the radar of unsuspecting common citizens, but some states practice it in an explicit, unabashed manner rebuffing the very voters who gifted them the mandate.
The economic elite influences the government’s economic policies to use regulation, government spending, and the design of the tax system to maintain their elite status in the economy. The political elite is then supported by the economic elite which helps the political elite maintain their status; an exchange relationship that benefits both the political and economic elite. This happens everywhere, at all times, in India, the US, France, and many other countries.
We might support or reject her theories per se, depending on our perspective. From what I could make out from the understandable texts, the only take-home message for me, is to face the reality of things, seek identity and be SELF- LESS for self- actualization and for reaching the highest potential.
And, speaking to my own ears just for once, I don’t think I am going to like her theories or philosophy.
Theme- Relationship b/w Fact and imagination/ gender differences/ conformity/ flow of time/ identity
Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is difficult to be categorized under a specific genre. It could equally qualify for satire, mock biography, fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or modernism. Through the work, she elucidates, questions and examines serious topics like gender bias, the interconnectedness of fact and fantasy, sexual identity, conforming to mores and ethos, a materialistic society sordid with exhibitionism and parade of poseurs, literary progression, and the passage of time and it’s effects on people, through the androgynous protagonist, Orlando using her high flying poetic language. As in each of Woolf’s novels, symbolism and imagery are the predominant vehicles for conveying her thoughts to the reader.
It is a fantastic historical mock biography of ‘Orlando’ through 400 years of his existence whereby he goes through a gender change. The very first sentence of the novel, “He, for there could be no doubt about his sex……” takes in what the reader is about to encounter.
Orlando is claimed to be the product of Woolf’s complex relationship with fellow writer, Vita Sackville West, who was known for her many lesbian affairs and an acknowledged bisexual, so on this account the work is a fiction-biography fusion or autofiction. Woolf dedicates the novel to Vita. The androgynous Orlando exhibits transvestism and is drawn towards male and female characters. ( Reminds me of Shakespeare‘s hero Orlando in ‘As you Like It‘. Orlando’s lover Rosalind disguises as a man to test his love for her. Women cross-dressing as men is a common theme in many Shakespeare plays.)
The novel could be considered the first trans novel in English. But, at about the same time of its publication(1928), another lesbian novel made waves for wrong reasons- “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. The novel was banned in the UK for obscenity and there was a court case against Hall before it became international best-seller years later. Though, Hall’s writing style comes nowhere near Woolf’s. Both the novels were published around the same period, still, interestingly, one was banned and Orlando managed to skirt around the prudish Victorian censors. The reason is laid bare by the way she brings forth the androgynous protagonist, her poetic language, exploration of sexual identity in a subtle way and through that anatomizing gender bias, and the process of literary creativity and literary maturation through Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian periods, the effect of time on self, and the progression of time. In short, Orlando is not just a trans novel.
The rigid conventions and restrictions of Victorian biography are flatly mocked. Traditional stereotypes of gender reinforced on Woolf by her parents are questioned and analyzed. Barbs aimed at her father, himself a biographer, stern and detached, is conspicuous. The narrator, who claims to be Orlando’s biographer, is subjective, intentionally, while describing him using overflowing poetic language and steers and leads the reader’s perception of Orlando’s actions by deliberately expounding for the protagonist. In short, Woolf tells us that biographies are never 100% factual truth, they are fictionalized facts. Woolf notes that ‘she must state the facts as they are known and let the reader make of them what he will.‘
Orlando sways between life, love, and literature in the process of completing his poetry, ‘The Oak Tree’, thus finding the meaning of life, love, and literary maturity at the end. Despite the pain and rigors in literary creation, she projects the incisiveness of the know-all critics and how even the greats like Shakespeare, Marlow, Alexander Pope or John Dryden were at the receiving end of their pen. Like Woolf, Orlando frets about criticism.
Orlando’s journey from the 16-th century to the 20-th century is about the need to conform to the spirit of the age. The struggle becomes more with gender change, as a woman, and more so during the Victorian period with its strait-laced mores and moral judgments. Conjugal relation is ineluctable and the role of women is pigeonholed as homemakers and propagators of the human race. For Orlando, identity is not defined by apparel, there is a man inside every woman and vice-versa, there is no specific delineation of identity or sexuality. Yet, she capitulated to the spirit of the age and decides to find a husband, and fails first, thus accepting nature, moor, as her husband. (A subtle snipe at Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘).
Finally, when Orlando finds Shelmerdine, a sailor, for her husband, Woolf parodies Gothic romance literature by describing their meeting and union that happens in seconds, inevitably entangled with nature. ( One could see a whole lot of feathery metaphors. Shel’s stretched-out moniker is ‘wild, dark-plumed with a steel-blue gleam of rook’s wings, hoarse laughter of their caws, snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool’ ). True, nothing stops the reader from getting lost inside Woolf’s imagination!
A satirical punch is also delivered to Alexander Pope ( Rape Of The Lock), Joseph Addison( Spectator) and Jonathan Swift( Gulliver’s Travels). Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock‘( not literally) deserves mention here since that itself was a satirical work dedicated to his female friend and her fiancee. Pope parodies the circumstances in 18 th century Britain by satirizing an uneventful occurrence of cutting off of a lock of Belinda’s hair without her permission by his fiancee during a jamboree! ( hence the title). The moment had been overblown to elephantine proportions by comparing it with the irredeemable act of looting her virginity and hence chastity. The interesting feature here is, though, Pope lampoons the zeitgeist of the 18 th century by alluding everything from the clothes, hairstyle, way of talking, even furniture through juxtapositioning them with classical epics, instances of patriarchal condescension to female gender sticks out like a sore thumb throughout. Woolf points out that the passage of time has had nil whatsoever remodeling or transmuting effect on the putting down of the female bird brains. ( The poem is a very interesting one though).
The ambiguity of sexes is a constant theme throughout the novel. Orlando as a young boy is described as possessing some feminine characters like a shapely leg and arched lips. When the young man Orlando meets Sasha, the Muscovite princess, she first appears like a boy to him. (Sasha is said to the fictional form of Violet, Vita’s former lover) Orlando as a woman realizes that Shelmerdine(her husband) is more feminine and he, in turn, recognizes the masculine in her.
In the final chapter, the first-person narration by the biographer slides into a stream of consciousness style typical of Woolf. This chapter is about realizations, seeking and finding the truths, finding love and life and attainment of literary maturity. Orlando realizes that poetry is more a personal achievement of the soul than fame, money, and critical acclaim. It is a ‘voice answering a voice‘. The flow of time and reality is entirely subjective. We are many selves in an individual, sometimes more than a thousand identities in oneself. Identifying as a single self at a given moment is close to impossible. Rather Orlando finally becomes aware of the composite self, a unity of all the past, present and future identities that define her at the present moment.
Lord Byron, English poet, aged 25 in a painting by Richard Westall (1813)
This is a poem by me about the turbulent and gloomy thoughts and moods of the famously infamous 19 th century English Romantic poet, George Gordon Byron, simply known as Lord Byron.
Believed to have had Bipolar disorder(controversial), he suffered for all his life time with frequent mood changes, fiery tempers bordering on violence, inebriation, licentious practices and a whole lot of odd behaviors.
The bright side of his malady happened to be his poetical genius. He was a prolific writer who has magnum opuses like ‘Don Juan‘ and ‘ Childe Harold’s pilgrimage‘ to his credit. The beauty and brilliance of his verse is unmatched. Though a Romantic poet, each of his biographers stresses the degree of realism evident in his verses. I have read only excerpts from Don Juan and Childe Harold’s pilgrimage, the ones given in his biography. The wit and satire he had used in most of the lines is so brilliant. This is exactly so, as to the emotional intensity in his verses.
Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with possible Bipolar Disorder posthumously from existing historical records and he never received the proper treatment or empathy from those around him.
I happened to read this short biography of Lord Byron recently and thought it a good idea to present his mind as a poem instead of writing a book review.
This is my short trip through the mind of the temperamental Lord Byron, a poem about what could have been going through his mind during the 36 years of his existence.
Lord Byron’s Insanity
Whom should I blame for making me lame?
My blood, fettle, stars or Him?
To whom shall I whine, for warping my mind?
My blood and blood only by a grim twist of fate.
A savage beast bolting rampant, unfettered,
The row of the brutes ring unbroken,
‘Out of sense and out of nerves‘.
Rein in, O’ racing mind,
Thy wild whims and heathen rage
Mellow down, O’ beloved bosom,
Thy passions, vile and fierce.
Once, the soul fluttering like a thousand vibrant butterflies,
trembling and shaking, powdery colors spilling in the voids,
Of which I pine for the peacock blue shimmering in the muted shadows,
the grass yellow smeared in streaks of summery light,
scarlet red forged from glowing embers
And the grays and purples of cold, hoary November dawn.
Wraith visions of this passionate dreamer,
whirling in cyclonic eddies, in vertiginous spirals
sink down to infernal abyss of ferny hemlocks,
chastened in the murky, baleful waters of the Styx .
Hover over,O’ lucid mind, buoy up with the fragile sanity
Or the forked tongue of hellfire waits to tear you asunder
in the underworld, a hairsbreadth from here.
Why the soul once sublime been leached of the splendid colors?
Like a veined autumn leaf changing it’s hue.
Unlit and sinking, morbid dead ball of shadows.
The grays hiding all the warmth
How the dreary arms of gloom spread inside the vast space?
Once again, it’s bare me, my sinister shadow and the infinite solitude .
Drain my soul of these direful woes,
Of the fleeting shadows, of the faceless primal fears,
Of the ponderous fog clogging the mystifying senses
and the looming maelstrom brewing in the calm of bosom.
A blissful sleep is all I crave for,
Which not Laudanum, nor one singular water of life,
Nor Rahab and the strumpets could ever gift.
I would sooner die a thousand deaths.
Let me pour this settled lunacy into words,
in verse and prose, through the life of Don Juan,
and upend that unchaste Lothario with my unbridled wit.
Let me raise the glass castle of spirit
for, many a pietistic man peer,
before it shatters in my inner light.
The whole universe is warring with me, one that I won’t win
and the homeland loathes this rebellious,perverse poet, an unredeemable defect.
With a heart of stone, I embrace my offences
Though I have nothing to do with the masses.
But, Anabella dear, my ‘princess of parallelograms‘,
my brilliant Lady, O’ thou sharpest among women,
threw my sibilant whispers to the winds,
never once looked through the glass,
to single out the vile frenzy in me.
Let me not hold on the spirit, long splintered ,
letting loose the angels and fiends alike,
but not before uttering these final words to thee.
Detest me, O’ my virtuous wife, as long as you like,
but be done with my phantasm, by punishing or pardoning.
And for Ada, my lovely daughter, touched with the fury and fire
as her blood will tell, let not the venom of verses spread in her veins.
All I yearn for is eternal sleep, a dreamless, painless sleep
deep in my daydreams felled by broken wings.
O’ ferryman, accept the coin and row me across the Styx
Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather thanactual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.
It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.
The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.
Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.
Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.
Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.
The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.