Well, after a few disappointing weeks of reading, this one turned out to be a good one. I finished both the books I had started the previous week and both were delightful.
A tale of exploration by a true explorer. The year is 1932, the early years after the Revolution and Ella wants to travel through the mountain areas bordering Russia, Iran and China. Alone, not allowing the travel restrictions of the Soviet regime or the difficulties of the region daunt her spirit, she uses every form of transport – train, bus, boat, camel, horse and even a donkey – to get to her destination. She crosses the Aral Sea and picking up company here and there, makes it as far East as 77 degrees E, in her own words ‘exactly due north of Delhi’. She visits the cities of Samarkhand, Bhukara and Tashkent and meets with the tribals of the region to understand the changes that the regime has brought to their lives. I was particularly struck by the way that a single dictat from distant Moscow just abolished the traditional cultures overnight. It was particularly interesting in the light of the current conflicts we are watching between development, ideology and traditions in our tribal belt.
This is the best book I’ve read in a while. I’m sure Philip Roth needs no endorsements from me – but the prose is so beautiful, that it leaves you in tears at places. Parenting, loyalties, the ordinariness of the ordinary and the complexities of the complex are all there in a simple story or no story – the almost perfect parents who have an intelligent, smart daughter who cannot get over a significant stammer. She is pampered and loved but ends up joining an extremist anti-Vietnam group at 14 and blows up the local village post-office, killing a local much loved doctor who had stopped by to post a letter. And then she disappears for many years, resurfacing unexpectedly – How can this happen? Was she too pampered? Too loved? The passages describing the father’s love, memories, self recriminations, his sense of loss, bewilderment are heart wrenching. How he wishes he could come to hate her ” If only, instead of living chaotically in the world where she wasn’t and in the world where she once was and in the world where she might be now, he could come to hate her enough not to care anything about her world…..”. The use of language, the flow of words were perfect. The ability to ramble across 2 pages of text in a single sentence, without breaking stride once – superb!! I don’t remember the details of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ which is the only other Roth book I have read – in the distant past. Now, his books are going high up on my ‘to read’ list.
The book I have started is V S Naipaul’s – another favorite author – Half a life. It has started well.