Pick up lines (Part III, Autumn edition)

Pick up Lines, Part 3 – Autumn edition

Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, (“He had four names at various times.”) continued my Russian streak of novels. It was a strange and wonderful book which will appeal to people with an interest in embodied spirituality and, well, to say ‘religious life’ may be misleading if you already have ideas about what this means, but I think it fits. 
The translator, Lisa Hayden, has received awards for her work rendering the narrative from Russian to English. It was said to have been phenomenally difficult because of the range of registers used. (Modern English doesn’t really do registers, but Japanese does and so I have a sense of how mind-bending the task of translation must have been!) As I was reading I was thinking about the translators of the previous Russian works I’d read (Arch Tait and Polly Gannon of Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein and The Big Green Tent, respectively) because in places the language felt a bit jarring or uneven. In retrospect, though, it’s fair to note that neither of them had quite such tricksy narratives to work with.
Vodolazkin, a medieval scholar, writes in a fascinating way about the nature of history and time. I found this a very engaging part of the novel. I have not seen, I think, a better, starker, and more unromanticised portrait of a Holy Fool than he writes. It is bonkers and it is quite brilliant. 
One of the criticisms of the book that struck me was calling it ‘hagiographical’, as if that were a bad thing. I don’t really get that. I found it a compelling exploration of goodness.

  • Talk by Rowan Williams on TED about Laurus – here
  • More info about Vodolazkin – here. An essay he wrote about the Holy Fool is here.

I was ready for some women in my fiction next, but I picked up Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (“At least he was well dressed.”) because I needed something a little less deep and demanding. That is what I got. This is Mukherjee’s first novel. It was an easy read, a detective story set in colonial India that put me in mind of McCall-Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, or the Death in Paradise tv series. 
Note to book blurbists: ‘Unputdownable’ is not a rave. It is not flattery; it is damning with faint praise and it is lazy. It is a word reviewers should put out to pasture, or better yet, somewhere the sun don’t shine. 
A Rising Man is not a book to be taken too seriously, I suppose, but I confess I felt needled by the racism of the colonials and uncomfortable with the accuracy of the mimicking that this Anglo-Indian man (Mukherjee) ventriloquized (is that a word?). My first, unfiltered inner response was that the absence of irony (at least!) was a betrayal of his ancestry. There was a serious, upstanding, slightly comical Indian character who, it turns out, was the moral centre of the narrative. Mention was made of Gandhi’s resistance and this layer of the story, the heart of it, I thought, was good and regrettably underplayed. Keeping it light seemed to have been a priority.
This may be an interesting text to put into conversation with the big questions that have recently been raised in the Lionel Shriver debacle in respect to cultural appropriation.
(On Shriver, I liked this column by Kenan Malik. I am also going to listen to The Mindfield podcast on ABC on this topic because those blokes are thoughtful and smart and provocative.)

I stayed in pre-partition India for the next read which was Black Narcissus (“The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October.”) by Rumer Godden. I read In This House of Brede a few years ago and loved it and had wanted to read more of Godden’s work. Godden was English and raised in Indian South East Asia (whose boundaries changed in the C20th) and by all accounts she was a fascinating woman. This book was first published in 1939. It has the manners of the time, evident in the characters, cultural expressions and the writing style.
What was particularly engaging about it for me were the questions about mission that it raised. (I’m always trying to understand this better, being where I am, doing the work I do.) The story centres on a group of British sisters who are given a place in the mountains of India and set up a community there. 
I appreciated the less abrasive and insulting attitude to difference in this book. I suppose that is to be expected as the tone will depend on where the centres of power lie. In the former, it was in law enforcement; in the latter, the church. Baldly speaking, there was a preponderance of men in the one story and of women in the latter. There was one very good character drawn in BN, a foil, who encouraged the reader to think about ways of being foreign.
The story invites the question: what is the work of mission? If we agree that it is, plainly, to reflect the love of God and to be open to a range of reflections of the love of God, how are the powers of race, nationality, culture and language accommodated and integrated respectfully? Is the work of mission also about being, in some sense, ’change agents’? It is right to ask of change: Of what, of whom and by whose authority? I wondered, too, and this is a perpetual sort of a question on the dynamics of giving and receiving: How do you remain true to your roots while doing the work of mission? How do you proportion what is held to be precious and true of the self and also let go parts of the self for the good of the work? Do good missioners have to submit to conversion by their host community? (I suspect so.)

The fourth book I read over my summer break was The Amber Shadows (“Damned Engines.”) by Lucy Ribchester. I’ve not quite finished it and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have been scrimping on it a bit in the last few days because I need it to accompany me in the wee hours when the jet lag has me wakeful. Alas, though, it is not long for the shelf. Its setting is Bletchley Park in World War 2 and what drew me to the book was the work of cryptanalysis. It has been a cracking good read!