Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Palace in the old village - Tahar Ben Jelloun

Title – A palace in the old village

Author – Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translator – Linda Coverdale
ISBN - 9780143118473
Pages – 192
Rating - 4 Stars

Tahar Ben Jelloun is considered “Morocco’s greatest living author”. Although his first language is Arabic, all his literary works are in French. This particular book of his is his latest and I read the translated version. “A palace in the old village” is the story of Mohammed. He is an immigrant in France. He has lived and worked in France for almost 40 years but never considers it home. Home, for him, will always be the village that he grew up in. However, as expected, this is not the case with his children. They consider France home and do not share their dad’s fascination for the old village in Morocco.

After leading a rather monotonous 40 odd years in France, Mohammad suddenly has to face his biggest fear – retirement. Work in the automobile factory has been the only constant thing in his life. He hardly speaks to his wife and barely understands his children, their modern views and their irritation with his old-world values. Retirement, according to him, is almost synonymous with death. It is the point where life stops.

However, to win the battle against his retirement, Mohammed decides to focus on a goal – building a house in the old village and settling there with his entire family. He moves back to Morocco and, almost obsessively, starts construction on what will be the biggest and most opulent house in the village. And once the construction of the house is over, he begins to wait – wait for the day when all his children will return to the village to live in the palace he has built for them.

The penguin website describes the book as follows:

A Palace in the Old Village is not a Zolaesque exposé of the failings of French society. Rather, it is an intimate and affecting portrait of an immigrant facing retirement and the concomitant problems of identity it brings with it.

I definitely couldn’t describe it better.

For me, the book is divided in to two sections. The first section covers approximately the first eight chapters that takes place in a single evening. Mohammed sits down to pray and through his thoughts we learn everything about his life until now and his views on religion, work, family, etc. The second part is the rest of the book – which suddenly becomes very fast paced. This is the part where Mohammad decides to do something about his retirement and moves back to Morocco. Chronology is the not the only factor separating the two sections. Retirement brings about a change in Mohammed as well and it almost feels like you are reading about two different people in the two different sections. The Mohammed before retirement is a confident and his thought process is clear. He is a devout Muslim and faith plays a big role in his life. He has made the trip to Mecca and follows the teachings of his religion. But, at the same time, his views are “moderate”. He criticizes the views of jihadist imams. He feels secure in his role as the provider for the family. He doesn’t interact too much with his children and though he knows that they don’t understand him and his values, this doesn’t perturb him.

However, with the arrival of his retirement, there is a sea change in Mohammed’s character. Without the security of his job, he suddenly begins to realize, and fret about, his relationship with his children. He sees that they have becomes citizens of France, while he hasn’t. and of course, they have no ties to his native land. The clarity in this thoughts and ideas begins to blur. His life, reflecting his thought process, becomes haphazard. His blindly convinces himself that building a house in his village is the magical solution to all his problems. His goal blinds him to everything going on around him. He doesn’t see that the villagers don’t accept him as one of them. He is an outsider to them – a wealthy tourist. He doesn’t realize that his children would never leave their lives and come to live with him in Morocco. And while it is clear to everyone around him (and to the reader) that his is only preparing for disappointment and failure, he refuses to acknowledge this.

The book is very well written (as expected by an author nominated for the Nobel Prize!). It appears to be a very quick read with just a 192 pages of very simple writing but only when you start reading it do you realize the depth of the book. You are drawn to Mohammed. You understand him, feel sorry for him and wish he’d see what everyone else around him is seeing..

I enjoyed reading this book. This is not a usual ‘me’ kinda book. I prefer the fast paced ones that you just can’t put down. But I liked reading this one and I’d definitely like to read more of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s books. I only wish I knew French well enough to read the original and not the translations..

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: The Guide

Title - The Guide
Author - R. K. Narayan
Genre - Fiction
My Rating -5 Stars

R. K. Narayan is one of India’s beloved writers. He is one of the He wrote a series of novels and short stories about people in a fictitious town called Malgudi. The descriptions of the place and the characters are so real that it is hard to believe that a place called Malgudi never existed and the characters are just figments of imagination. Though I have read short stories written by him, The Guide was the first novel that I actually managed to get my hands on.

If you are not new to this blog, you’ll know that my favorite author is Salman Rushdie. I love his style of writing and I don’t minds spending days poring over the pages of his books and flipping back and forth to re-read what I just read, etc.
And I have to admit, I enjoyed reading R. K. Narayan almost as much as I enjoyed Rushdie. They are almost completely opposite in their styles of writing and I would never have thought I would enjoy both to almost the same extent.

The first thing that I found interesting about the book was the way Narayan delved right in to the life of Raju – the protagonist. I expected a few pages (or at least a few paragraphs) setting the stage for the book.
Narayan’s style of writing took me by complete surprise. There were no flowery descriptions, no superfluous words, no pretentious texts. The writing was simple and concise. And yet, somehow, you get everything you need to know about the people and the place! It is totally amazing! I have read books which are hundreds of pages long and finished them feeling like I didn’t know the characters well enough. But with The Guide, I was hardly three chapters in to the book and I already knew Raju!

The book revolves around Raju. In alternate chapters we see Raju in his present avatar – a spiritual guru and in the other chapters, we see the previous avatar – that of a tourist guide. The present story and the past story are slowly developed and finally merge in the final few pages of the book. There are very few main characters but they are all very well developed. Telling you anything more about the book will only take the fun out of the reading.. I enjoyed reading the book when I started out knowing nothing about it and I want you to have the same experience. I didn't like the cover art initially, but after reading the book, I appreciated the nuances in the depiction more.

And a review any longer threatens to be longer than the book itself;) obviously, I am no R. K. Narayan when it comes to brevity of writing..