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Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore”

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Killing Commendatore ( translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Gossen) is about a nameless male narrator who is a portrait painter. He is excellent at his work and in great demand. His methodology is unique as he never works with a live model but before commencing work has long conversations with the subject, sometimes spread over many hours:

It was critical to feel a sense of closeness, even just a little, toward the client. That’s why during our initial one-hour meeting I tried so hard to discover, as much as I could, some aspects of the client that I could respond to. Naturally, this was easier with some people than with others. There were some I’d never want to have a  personal relationship with. But as a visitor who was with them for only a short time, in a set place, it wasn’t that hard to fine one or two appealing qualities. Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface became foggy (which was more often the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again. Otherwise the darker side would naturally reveal itself in the portrait.  ( p. 14-15) 

One day the artist retires to the mountains while his marriage crumbles. He retreats to the home of a famous Japanese artist Tomohiko Amada which is no longer occupied as Amada San has had to be admitted to an old people’s home by his son. It is the son Masahiko, an ex-classmate of the portrait artist, who sublets his father’s home. The portrait artist refuses to accept any more commissions even though his agent insists he should not vanish. All is well until an offer arrives that he cannot refuse. It is a commissioned project with one caveat. The portrait has to be made with a live model. And thus begins a professional relationship which morphs into familiar acquaintance between a neighbour and super-rich businessman Menshiki and the artist. An acquaintanceship that extends itself to looking out for each other while exploring the mysterious ringing bell in the garden of Tomohiko Amada. At this point a bizarre, fantastical, parallel dimension is added to the tale, much like going down a rabbit hole into another world. It involves the sudden appearance of a two-foot figure, the Commendatore, as seen in the painting. He insists he is an Idea who appears to a selective few humans but the fact the Commendatore exists and converses with the portrait painter adds a peculiar dimension to the story. Ulitmately this fantastical exploration is a mere artistic digression that doesn’t really add much to the plot except for offering a hint of magic realism.

Killing Commendatore the title is borrowed from the Tomohiko Amada painting discovered by the portrait artist in the attic. It is a very violent painting showing the killing of the commendatore from the famous scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It is probably a turning point in Tomohiko Amada’s own career as an artist when he seemingly veered sharply from the European art tradition that he had learned in Vienna to that of a very classical form of Japanese painting. It is a painting with a scene from the Asuka period, set over a thousand years ago. But the violent manner in which the killing of the commendatore is depicted by Tomohiko Amada is interpreted by the portrait painter as being a painting that Amada San painted for himself alone. It probably hearks back to the time he spent in Europe, at the time of the growing power of the Nazis and in which the young Tomohiko Amada had got embroiled as well. It is probably why that this painting wrapped in brown paper is lying in the attic since Tomohiko Amada was known for getting rid of his paintings as soon as he had done painting them. This one he kept. Even his son did not know of its existence.

In typical Murakami style there are the male characters playing out their lives, sometimes very mundane existences. The almost Gatsby-like, very white haired, Menshiki who is very suave, wealthy, well dressed is very masculine at the end of day who always gets what he wants. ( Murakami translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese.) True he pays handsomely for all that he desires. But it is ultimately very masculine to not expect a no. The portrait artist too falls under Menshiki’s spell even though he knows he is going to be paid very well for the commissioned portrait. The conversation is lack lustre. The women in the novel whether the ex-wife, the various mistresses, the young 13 year old daughter of Menshiki born of an affair he had a long time ago are reduced to sex objects. It is absolutely bizarre that the pre-pubescent girl is so obsessed by her breasts and her first frank conversation with the artist is about her chest size. It is ugly.

And yet in Killing Commendatore there is something very different, very compelling to read, despite the unfortunate portrayal of women. It is as if in this 70th year he wishes to reflect upon his craft and seems to bring together his two loves — the art of writing and his love for music. In many ways, the conversations in the novel revolving around music, or the artist putting LPs on the turntable while working, listening to opera, Strauss, Schubert, Verdi, while also being able to converse knowledgeably about Bruce Springsteen and jazz, are not out of character for Murakami who is known for his love for music. This novel’s dramatic storytelling is much in a similar vein to that of operatic dramas that are definitely overdone. Not many will appreciate this novel for it tends to meander a fair bit but on the other hand it is an act of patient endurance upon the part of the reader to fully admire Murakami’s writing.

I am glad I read the book and I am not even a Murakami fan.

As always the amazing Chipp Kidd has designed the cover for this novel too. 25 years he has been designing the covers for Murakami’s novels. First time in 25 years Murakami asked Kidd to revise his draft drawing. Here is the story published on Vulture.

The book had a global release on 9 Oct 2018, the same day as Frankfurt Book Fair opened. Great timing!

9 Oct 2018  

To buy on Amazon India

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Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599