T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Friday, July 17, 2015

and this post. 
last week's literary review for the sunday herald (deccan herald):

Parisian war saga


Lead review

Modiano has been called the poet of the Occupation. Both these novellas (part of an Occupation trilogy) are set during the Second World War when Paris was occupied and life was on the edge — a dizzy whirl of danger, booze, languor and apathetic sex; and teetering on the middle rungs of a dubious social ladder the characters are trying to climb, not always with an idea of where they’re going or in what condition they’ll reach. The line of the law is thin and ambiguous. Prostitution, gun-running, drugs and sordid power games are the norm.

Now that he’s Nobel Laureate 2014, Modiano is accessible enough to show the world why he should be viewed as a voice to be heard beyond French literature. Aptly translated, the books could do with another stint of proofreading.

Originally published in 1969, The Night Watch is about a man who steps nimbly on both sides of the divide — the Resistance as well as the French Gestapo. Until he sort of oversteps. He is the enfant terrible of the Resistance hunted by the police, and in a Modiano overturn, is set to become his own hunter.

The book begins with a typical (now that I’ve read both the books) Modiano scene of putrid decadence, men with sunken cheeks and “puff bloated” bags under the eyes, women whose make-up “begins to crack”. Members of the police are planning a crackdown on the Resistance even as the garishly dressed bitterati around them drink, dance and flirt with vapid disenchantment.

And pathetically talk of trying to palm off their black market wares. Outside their walls, everything is scarce and expensive, life is a struggle. Listening to them, we know why. Our protagonist is already on the crest of his double game. As these men and women drag on with their sticky enjoyments, corrupt members of the Gestapo are seeking crucial names from him. Brutality meets bored promiscuity. Everything happens in the same place, the bizarre is woven into Modiano’s poetry of loss and memory. 

The narrator has sent his mother to safety in Lausanne, there’s no saying what awaits him. He plans to join her for a better life, though changing tracks at this stage doesn’t look likely. He talks of protecting two people, a red-haired giant and a “tiny little slip of a girl” (who could also be an old lady). He imagines leaving them on their own, betraying their trust. “But nothing compares to the infinite relief you feel as the body goes limp and slowly sinks. This is as true of water torture as it is of the kind of betrayal that involves abandoning someone in the night when you have promised to return.”

What’s the point of such a life? You’re neither here nor there, belong to no one, follow a relentless path of inevitability that gives you no joy at all. The true depth of existential angst! “...you have gained nothing in this life but the whirlwind you let yourself be caught up in.” He doesn’t really know the truth of people around him. Or of himself either. Is he double agent? Triple agent? There’s a trick of presenting images, facts and memories that blow away like bubbles or fade out to reappear elsewhere in barely recognisable form. The final drive through Paris is departure in many ways.

In a sense the second book, Ring Roads, balances out the overall rootlessness of the first. Here, the protagonist searches for and finds his father among a group of (once again decadent) people surviving on the ills of society, steeped in anti-Semitism, people who make use of his father, abuse him openly and would like to see him ultimately destroyed.

The son doesn’t disclose his identity but follows him like a shadow, watching as his father gets closer to people who want him destroyed. (“I cannot remember a single word we said…A father and son probably have little to say to each other.”) And this is the same father who once tried (or didn’t) to push him under a speeding train!

Nevertheless, the son is prepared to give up his life for him. When the man is beaten up, he rushes forward, disclosing his identity when he could have quietly walked away. This steadfastness is probably a given in both protagonists, though one emerges as a hero to our jaded reader’s eye because of his stated filial goal, and the other falls because of the amoral place he inhabits. 

The straightforward descriptions are sometimes more surreal than images that have you blinking through the mist. This is Modiano. He works like an illusionist only to bring you an abstract truth, to give you the essence of time, character. Morality surfaces in the most immoral soil. Happiness is never where you think it is. Vivid descriptions turn out to be the woodwork of an impermanent structure. All that you think is simple narrative in Modiano is thus grist for your imagination long after you’ve set aside the books.

The Night Watch, Ring Roads
Patrick Modiano
2015, pp 130, 146, Rs 299 each

friday children's story for young world, the hindu, july 17, 2015

Holiday with witch No. 16

It was dark when they reached the traveller’s bungalow. Hamsini’s mother looked glum. Hamsini had grumbled throughout the drive that her butter biscuits were missing. And her father kept complaining because she hadn’t packed his favourite green T-shirt.
 “We only go for a holiday once a year,” her mother pleaded, “at least let’s be happy now.”
The traveller’s bungalow was old and falling to pieces. There was nothing else for miles around. Hamsini and her father complained in chorus. The caretaker was equally old.
Time to unwind
“Nice to see human beings in this place,” he said. He switched on the lights. “It’s as bright as sunlight!” said her mother happily.
Later, Hamsini sat reading her favourite book, The Day The Painting Came Alive. Suddenly she felt the lights getting even brighter!
Curiously, she got up and examined the switchboard. All the plug-holes had plugs that went nowhere at all.
“Strange!” she said. As she was about to pull out a plug, the old caretaker appeared from nowhere at all. “Please don’t do that! Never pull a plug in this house!”
That made Hamsini even more determined. When he’d left, she started pulling at it. The plug was stuck hard. She began to sweat. Finally, it came out in her hand. There was a terrific Whoosh! Thick blue smoke rushed from the plug-hole. Hamsini moved back in horror. The smoke curled and twisted itself into weird shapes. It became thicker and thicker until finally a large blue woman, old, bent and dried-up, stood before her. Her nose was half the size of her face. Hamsini stifled a scream.
She took a huge breath and said, “Who-who-who are you-you-you---”
The old blue woman said, “I’m the lady from Witchboard No. 16.” Her voice sounded exactly like the wind that whistled through the window blinds in her father’s study.
“You can call me Witch No. 16.”
Hamsini stared at her in a daze.
The old woman said urgently, “Let’s go out for a while. I want to feel the fresh air! I’ve only half an hour before getting back.”
The little girl and the old woman slipped out through the front door. There was a happy cackle.
“I’m free! I’m free!” Witch No. 16 jumped and gamboled like a young lamb.
“You don’t look so old now,” said Hamsini.
“Because I’m fully charged!” the witch screeched.
She said there were 130 witches in the house, all living in plug-holes. “This house is the Witchboard Headquarters,” she explained. “It’s lonely and far away from TV satellite dishes and mobile phone towers, so we are left undisturbed by all those foul things in our air-waves. Every time someone visits, the caretaker allows one witch at a time to come out and taste the fresh air.”
Hamsini said, “But the old man said not to pull the plugs!”
“And did you listen?” chortled the witch. “He knows little girls!”
After a while, Hamsini said, “I’m feeling cold. I want to go back inside.”
“Aww, please! I come out only once a year. Don’t spoil it for me!”
“You sound just like my mother,” grumbled Hamsini. “She too keeps saying that.”
“Then you should probably listen to her,” said Witch No. 16. “Some people work hard for other people. But when they want to have a good time, everyone shuts them up. Is your mother like that?”
“This is her holiday,” said Hamsini. She suddenly felt sorry for her mother. “We—my father and I—we keep grumbling.”
“See?” said Witch No. 16 sternly. “She does everything for you. And when she wants to enjoy herself, you grumble-grumble-grumble! Let this be a lesson to you. From an old blue witch who knows what it is to be shut up for a year.” Hamsini had tears in her eyes. She nodded silently.
In half an hour the witch had finished her fun and her energy as well. She looked tired and was almost turning into blue smoke once again. “My charge is gone, let’s go back,” she said weakly. “It’s time for the plug-hole.”
The morning after
Next morning they got up early and were ready to go.
As they drove away from the traveller’s bungalow, Hamsini said, “I had the best time in the world. Thanks, Mom!”
Her father said, “I like that! I do all the work and you thank her!”
Hamsini replied, “Have you heard of Witch No. 16 from the plug-hole?”
“Are you crazy?” asked her father.
“No, I’m not. But you should really get to know her. Then you’ll understand.”