The week in reading 42/15

I was half way through this book – in fact, struggling through it, as part of an effort to read all the 6 Booker short list of this year, as the announcement approached. This was only the 3rd in the list of 6 (reviewed the other 2 in last weeks post), but I had a hunch that it would be the winner!! The reason was its complex and innovative style….the kind you feel award juries will find attractive. And so it was, the first Jamaican author to win the prize. Well, much as I had almost given up on it a couple of times, its winning made it a challenge to finish it.


Its tough, complex and has so many characters that I had to keep going back to the ‘List’ at the beginning – thank God there was one. And a lot of it is not in any English I could recognize – it is in the local Jamaican version as spoken in the slums. The central event is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (refereed to as the Singer through out the book) in 1976 – before the event, the immediate aftermath, and then from later time points. There are many, many short first person accounts by the slum Lords, the young men who were recruited by them, the women, CIA agents, reporters, and one has to stay alert and focused to grasp the flow. And I have not read such foul language (that of the streets), or accounts of such gross violence ever before. But it is all so much in context, that it is justified and does not put you off. Also, I was never a reggae fan, nor much up on the life on Bob Marley. So, I had to look up on stuff like the Rastafanians, a strange Black cult religion that thrived in Jamaica at that time, which hailed Haile Salassi of Ethiopia as a Messiah.  A very, difficult book to read – but in the end leaves with you with a vivid feel for the politics and the every day reality of life in Jamaica of that time. I will re-read it after a gap to really grasp the nuances.

It also left me feeling that so much of the books written by our contemporary authors in India, revolves around middle class life and sensibilities, giving us a comfort feel. Of course, the life of the ordinary Indian would not happen in English – and hence difficult to convey in that language. Raj Kamal Jha’s “She will build him a city’ has a novel approach and tries to look at the city from many angles and Aman Sethie in his ‘A true story of life and death in Delhi’ has beautifully captured the underbelly of the city. But, the real life at the grass roots of our society could never be in any kind of English – and where ever it is written, would have the same kind of violence, I am sure.

John O’Hara is one of the American greats. I have enjoyed his short stories and recently read ‘Butterfield 8’. This one was book 16 on the A-B section of my ‘TIME 100 books’ project. The title is taken from the retelling of an old tale by Somerset Magham, which appears as an epigraph in the book.

“A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles (125 km), where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

This was O’Hara’s first novel, published in 1934 when he was  28 years old.  The protagonist is 28 year old Julian English and there are many autobiographical elements in the book, I believe. The story unfolds over 36 hours, of Christmas day and the day after. It is set in small town America,  of the depression and prohibition period, and reflects the class divide, the snobbery and the anti-semitism prevalent in the society. As the epigraph suggests, the tale will catapult towards a death, and the reader is anxious to unravel when, how and why it will happen. And happen it does, following a series of unprovoked incidents in which Julian’s self destructive  behavior has no real justification. Its difficult to like or sympathize with Julian. But O’Hara has a wonderful way of conveying the thinking of the characters and also the ethos of the time. All in all, it was short, easy and rewarding to read.


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