Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) by Jim Corbett

"Gone native" is a term of mild disapprobation that the British once used to describe fellow colonial officials who had taken too great an interest in the people they were ruling over. Going native could mean anything from speaking the local language, eating and dressing like the natives, or even, at the most politically dangerous end of the colonial spectrum, being supportive and respectful of local culture and/or independence movements. Lawrence of Arabia is the poster boy for going native, but the British Empire produced a handful of others who put a human face on colonialism.

Jim Corbett (1875-1955) was one such man. Born and raised in India, he was part of the small army of British bureaucrats, politicians, military men, engineers, and businessmen who managed the jewel in Britain's imperial crown. Corbett was in many ways more Indian than British. He spoke the local dialects, he spent most of his life in a remote area of India, and aside from military service during World War One, he barely seems to have set foot in the UK. Corbett  became famous in the late 1940s with a series of books about India's flora and fauna, the life of the rural poor, and, most famously, his exploits hunting down man-eating tigers and leopards.

Man-eater is almost too mild a term for the animals Corbett faced-off against. These tigers and leopards didn't just kill a few people, in some cases they had killed hundreds. One tiger is reputed to have killed more than 500 people in Nepal before being driven out of that country by the army. It set up shop in India where it killed another 400+ before being bagged by Corbett. These were the Blofelds and Hannibal Lecters of the animal kingdom. Corbett's stories of tracking and killing man-eaters are small masterpieces of narrative tension. Corbett isn't the most poetic or fluid writer, but his clear, workmanlike prose works beautifully in bringing alive the tensions and terrors of tracking man-eaters on foot through dense jungle. What makes Corbett's stories more than just plus-sized hunting pieces are his joyful descriptions of the natural world. He knew and understood everything that went on in the jungle and he brings that knowledge to the reader with a contagious enthusiasm. Perhaps the most notable feature of these hunting tales is the empathy Corbett displays for India's peasants. His writing makes it clear that his primary concern in shooting the man-eaters isn't the challenge it poses but the relief it brings to villages and regions paralyzed with grief and fear. It's Corbett's humanity, his love and concern for India's poorest people, that really makes these books something more than tales of adventure.

Corbett's interest in India's rural poor and working classes is even more evident in My India (1952), a mix of anecdotes about his non-hunting career, scenes from rural life, and an extended piece about his involvement in the hunt for Sultana, a legendary brigand who terrorized the United Provinces in the 1920s. Corbett was asked to take part in this police action because of his prowess as a tracker. Corbett has nothing but respect for Sultana, and he makes it very clear that because Sultana was a member of one of India's "official" criminal classes, his depredations were inevitable and blameless. It's hard to imagine any other British colonial official of that era taking as kindly or understanding a view of Sultana. It's undoubtedly for this reason that Corbett makes a cameo appearance in Sujit Saraf's The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009), a wonderful fictional retelling of Sultana's story (my review here). Corbett's affection for Sultana is also definitive proof that he had "gone native." At some point, consciously or unconsciously, he stopped seeing Indians as colonial subjects but as fellow citizens, and that's what makes Corbett's writings more lasting and significant than if they simply concentrated on hunting and nature.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

This novel about modern war and soldiering went from obscurity to semi-cult status when  U. S. General David Petraeus lobbied for its republication back in 2011. Petraeus was in charge of American forces in Iraq at the time, and had done a notable job of winning (temporarily) hearts and minds in Mosul, so interest in The Centurions spiked. The novel follows a group of elite French paratroops who are captured after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, spend several years in harsh captivity, return to a France that's ambivalent, at best, about war and colonial adventures, and then end up in Algeria to put down the pro-independence revolt that's breaking out.

There's a hell of a lot going on in this novel, what with dozens of major and minor characters; escapes from Viet Minh prison camps; philosophizing about miltary, moral and political matters; discussions of Communism; romantic entanglements; and sundry scenes of battle and torture. In this respect, The Centurions might be one of the best 19th century French novels of the 20th century. Like Balzac and Zola, Laterguy isn't afraid to roll his sleeves up and paint a big picture on a very big canvas, cramming every square inch with colour, energy and lots and lots of plot. What's best about this novel is its reckless enthusiasm in tackling so many big issues, historical events and disparate characters. The story moves at a gallop but Laterguy doesn't forget to garnish his novel with telling details and asides that remind us that he had first-hand experience of many of the events in the novel.

The politically correct version of what Petraeus found important in this book is its discussion of what's required of a modern Western army if it's to match arms and wits with a popular, especially Communist, uprising. Laterguy's paratroops learn the hard lesson that a modern army has to be more adaptable, more committed, and at least as politically informed as its enemies. The other reason, and a more worrying one, that Petraeus probably loved this book is that it carries a whiff of fascism. Laterguy's modern centurions are shown as disconnected from civilian life, or rather, civilians don't understand or care about the purity of purpose and love of battle that an elite soldier must possess. The Centurions certainly isn't an uncritical celebration of the martial spirit and mindset, but from time to time Laterguy, who had a long and distinguished career as a soldier and war correspondent, seems to envision a future where political decisions are made by the military.

The only real flaws in The Centurions are some sections of dialogue that get too polemical and the portrayal of female characters, all of whom fail the Bechdel test. Laterguy was a fairly prolific writer, and it would be interesting to see more of his books available in English. In the meantime, you can watch Lost Command, the Hollywood adaptation of The Centurions that came out in 1966, starring Anthony Quinn and George Segal as an Algerian rebel(!).

Friday, August 8, 2014

Little Big Man

Ford reveals his plan for robbing Fort Knox to pay for
Toronto's new subways.
On July 25, Toronto mayor Rob Ford held Ford Fest in a Scarborough park. The picnic/campaign event attracted a few protestors, but mostly it brought out the hardcore Ford supporters and those attracted to any kind of celebrity, notorious or otherwise. Toronto Life did a brief piece on the people who turned out to support Ford, and it's an efficient insight into the continuing puzzle of why this man, who appears to have absolutely no redeeming qualities, continues to earn the attention and admiration of perhaps a quarter of Toronto's electorate. As well, this article in Now provides an interesting look at the surprising (shocking?) support Ford gets from black voters.

What emerges from the two articles is that Ford's base can be divided into two camps. The first consists of those whose ears prick up every time Ford says things about working for the "little guy," a term he uses so often you'd be forgiven for thinking he's Mayor of Munchkinland. To back up his claims Ford regularly stages media events in which he visits public housing projects to knock on doors, shake hands, and listen to complaints about faulty elevators, leaky plumbing, and so on and so on. The fact that this isn't Ford's job and that his visits accomplish nothing is lost on "little guy" voters. The mere fact that he's paying attention to them, calling them by name, as it were, is enough to garner their adulation. Why? Because Ford has accidentally benefited from the class divisions in Toronto. The poor and the working poor in Toronto are largely ignored until one of them picks up a gun. The two other mayoral candidates of note, John Tory and Olivia Chow, spend most of their time currying favour with  the middle and upper-middle classes. On the provincial level, the NDP, supposedly the party of the working class, stayed mum on the subject of raising the minimum wage during this year's election. This election also saw them move vigorously towards the middle of the political spectrum. In sum, the people living on the economic edges of Toronto rarely hear a politician talking about them, and never see one turn up on their doorstep looking concerned. It's not surprising, then, that some of Toronto's proletarians would move into the Ford camp. They might be holding their noses while doing so, but their support for Rob is probably as much a protest against the way they're ignored as it is a vote for Ford.

The other group that loves Rob are those who like to see a "big man" in power. In large parts of the world the tribal chief, clan leader, capo, party boss or religious patriarch is expected be a big man, by which I mean a guy who throws his weight around, bullies, browbeats, acts tough, makes a show of his power and wealth and machismo, and, sometimes, is also physically large, or at least fat. In lots of cultures that are undemocratic or have weak democracies these are the kind of men people expect to see as a leader. Rob Ford is tailor-made for that demographic, and there are certainly lots of Torontonians who have come from countries and cultures that tolerate variations on Ford as leaders. And one has only to look at Italy and Silvio Berlusconi to realize it isn't just less-developed nations that have a weakness for loudmouthed, racist boors. Even Rob's brother Doug (a Toronto city councilor and Rob's more thuggish clone) got into the "big man" act this past Christmas when he gleefully handed out cash to residents of a public housing project as though he were the local lord of the manor or the resident drug dealer.

The socio-economic underclass and adherents to the "big man" theory of politics aren't going to be enough to get Ford re-elected (fingers crossed), but it's a reminder that when people feel ignored and lacking in representation, they'll be tempted to ally themselves with politicians who are willing to speak to them, even if those politicos have no intention or ability to do anything for them, and are singularly lacking in talent, intelligence and morals. Perhaps it's time for Chow and Tory to show up with their tool belts at their nearest public housing complex.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Turbulence (2013) by Samit Basu

As newspapers have folded or drastically slimmed down as a result of people getting their news and opinion from the web, one crucial piece of collateral damage has been the demise of the newspaper book review. Once upon a time any half-decent book would appear in paperback bearing blurbs from newspapers both large and small, anything from the New York Times to the Kingston Whig Standard. These reviews weren't a foolproof guide to a book's quality, but it was a lot better than the situation we're in now. These days paperbacks arrive on the shelves barnacled with glowing reviews from bloggers, online fanzines, and other authors. The problems here are obvious. The bloggers and fanzines are usually uncritical promoters of most anything that falls into their field of interest, and authors are doing favours for friends, publishers, or in the expectation of getting their complimentary reviews repaid in kind. It's become common to come across cabals of authors in various genres and sub-genres who seem to have nothing but good things to say (in print) about their fellow club members. It's all very cosy and does a great disservice to readers.

Having been burnt several times in the past by novels recommended by authors, I've no one but myself to blame for reading Turbulence. The fact that four of the quoted reviews are from blogs with the word "geek" in their name should have provided ample warning. But wait! I think I'll blame Mike Carey and Ben Aaaronovitch, two of the best writers in the urban fantasy fiction genre, because their gushing reviews of Basu's novel are what made take a chance on it. I won't quote their blurbs, if only to spare them the embarrassment. Turbulence is about what happens when the passengers on a London to Delhi flight arrive at their destination to find that they've all been gifted with superpowers, from the odd to the frightening. What follows can charitably be described as fan fiction for people besotted with Marvel's X-Men franchise. There are cinematic fight scenes, much fretting over the responsibility of having great power, and a lot of B-grade quips. The only creative wrinkle is that all the characters are Indian. Basu had a great opportunity to do something more with his concept, specifically the idea of superheroes all being members of the developing world. One intriguing aspect of comic book superheroes is that at one level they are projections of Western (primarily U.S.) power and ideals. How does being an Indian superhero change what a superhero does? Would the caste system still exist amongst Indian superheroes? From Untouchable to Unstoppable? There are a lot of cultural and political ramifications to the idea of Indian superheroes and Basu hasn't addressed any of them.

The SF/Fantasy field is stuffed with bland and bad writing, and good writers like Carey and Aaronovitch don't do readers any favours by pointing them towards vanilla novels like Turbulence. In fact, they damage the reputation of their genre as a whole by promoting books that any discriminating reader is going to be disappointed by. Clearly, the publishing world needs a superhero who has the power to stop first-rate authors from promoting second-rate novels.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Betty and Veronica Unveiled

When I was a kid my least favourite comic book was Archie. From my point of view it was strictly for girls and it couldn't even claim to be funny. Fast forward to seven years ago when I began working at the library. To my amazement, Archie comics were still around. I had figured that the Archie universe of malt shops, roadsters, proms, and Archie's frankly bizarre relationship with Betty and Veronica would seem hopelessly out-of-date and unappealing to 21st century teens. Not so fast, Jughead. It turns out that kids and teens are still fascinated by the denizens of Riverdale, USA.

And here's the interesting part: in my neck of the woods some of the most avid readers of Archie are Muslim girls, especially the ones swathed in chadors and hijabs. At first blush this might seem odd. How can they relate to two female characters, Betty and Veronica, whose lives revolve around dating and clothes shopping, and who feel free to kiss any boy, any time? No psychology degree required to deduce that Archie serves a wish fulfillment function for these kids. The personal freedoms enjoyed by Betty and Veronica are clearly something these girls covet and dream about. The girls are also reading the usual variety of teen lit titles, especially the ones featuring teenagers with supernatural powers.

You don't have to throw a stone very far before hitting a right-wing politician or commentator who rails against immigrant Muslims for failing to integrate, for not adopting Western standards of dress and behavior. That might be true of some Muslims, but that only makes them like every other group of immigrants. Past a certain age, say thirty, we all become old dogs who are too reluctant or too lazy to learn new tricks. It's the kids who adapt and integrate. The popularity of Archie in the Canadian teen Muslim demographic would be just a cultural oddity if it didn't also point out how strongly young immigrants of all varieties want to participate in North American culture.

And now enter a time machine with me and journey back to Toronto in the late 1960s, a time when the city's most visible and numerous immigrant group was Italians. To we WASPy Torontonians, Italians were a strange race, indeed. We tsk-tsked at their large families; snickered at the shapeless, form-disguising black dresses worn by their women; mocked their accents; and most of all we fulminated about their inability to become Canadian, to speak English instead of that ridiculous language of theirs. From a WASP point of view in the '60s it didn't seem Italians would ever be "Canadian." It's at this point that the "the more things change..." cliche comes into play.

Having grown up in Toronto and seen it become one of the most multicultural cities in the world, it's dead obvious that immigrants of all varieties eventually integrate. Some immigrant groups manage the transition quickly, some do it over the course of a couple of generations. But they've all done it. And judging by the hunger Muslim girls have for Western grrl power literature and comics, their female children or grandchildren will one day be acting like Betty and Veronica instead of just reading about them.

I'll close with a story about the way in which integration can even find its way back to the "old country." I went to university with an Italian girl (I'll call her Sophia) who once told me about the time in the mid-1970s when she and her sisters, all teens, spent a summer in her family's town of origin in southern Italy. Her female teenage relatives in the town noticed that she and her sisters shaved their armpits. Sophia was pointedly told by these girls that only whores shaved their armpits. By the time Sophia and her sisters left for Canada, those same girls had started shaving.

Sophia's story neatly reveals how cultural values can backwash into an immigrant's country of origin through family relationships and friendships. So I wonder what seeds are planted when a girl in India or Pakistan or Iran is given a gift of secondhand Archie comics by a relative in Canada? What does she think when she sees Archie kissing an African-American girl? How does she react to Kevin Keller, Archie's openly gay friend? And what on Earth does she make of Betty and Veronica publicly flirting with boy after boy? I'm not saying that the world of Archie & Co. is an aggressive agent of cultural revolution, but in its depiction of teens living their lives unfettered by ancient tradition, ironclad gender stereotypes, and ruthless social prohibitions, the kids of Riverdale are presenting a seductive picture of a world largely defined by the choices and beliefs of individuals. There's nothing very revolutionary in that picture when viewed from North America, but in the right household, in the right country, it could tilt, even in a small way, the axis of someone's world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: The Crooked Man (1997) by Philip Davison

In one of his blog posts, spy novelist/critic Jeremy Duns neatly divided espionage novels into two camps: desk work and field work. A desk-work spy novel is all about spymasters trying to sniff out moles, turn enemy agents into defectors, and divine what the other guy is up to and then frustrate his plans. It's a cerebral genre, and John Le Carre would be the poster boy for it. A field-work novel follows agents at the pointy end of the espionage stick: surveillance, assassinations, dead drops, car chases, shootouts, and having sex with implausibly-named women if your name is James Bond.

The Crooked Man is very much a field-work spy novel. The crooked man of the title is Harry Fairfield, a lowly odd-jobs man for a sub-section of MI5. Harry doesn't even rate an official position, he's simply paid on a per job basis by Hamilton, his ruthless MI5 boss. Hamilton is one of those oh-so-English spies with an Eton tie who can use the word "quite" as a weapon and who refers to his hitmen as "chaps." Fairfield is what Len Deighton's Harry Palmer character (he was only given this name in the films made from Deighton's novels) might have become if he'd succumbed to booze, gambling and the moral brutality of his job. Fairfield is a bit a wreck, hating himself and what he does despite being rather good at it. He's used by Hamilton as an occasional minder for senior politicians, a burglar, and sometimes as an enforcer.

This is a slim novel, but Davison packs a lot of plot into it. The action shifts from London to Dublin to Bosnia, and Harry finds himself at the centre of several murders, including one committed by a cabinet minister that needs to be covered up by MI5. The plotting is excellent, but what makes Davison stand out from the herd is the quality of his writing. Here's a snippet from a scene where Harry KOs a man sent by Hamilton to search his flat:

     He groaned and let out a nauseous whine. His eyes focused on me momentarily, then on the picture cord that bound him.
     "What have you done?" he asked painfully.
     "I've waited patiently," I replied
     "You hit me...you..."
     "Oh, I did," I confirmed.
     "What did you hit me with?" he demanded with the same pain evident in his voice.
     "With conviction," I said assuredly. "What's your name?" I asked.
     He wasn't going to tell me.
     "A first name will do."
     He had a tic in one eye that made want to slap his face.
     "Winston. I'll call you Winston."
     No response.
     "Winston," I said, "these days there's a lack of social cohesion that makes it increasingly difficult for us all to decide what we mean to each other...wouldn't you agree?"
     He sneered. I slapped his face hard. He agreed there was a lack of social cohesion.

Davison's dry, acidic prose is wonderful, and there was one particular line that stuck in my mind (but I can't find now) that describes a character as bringing their problems with them like "a kite on a short string." Fairfield isn't only a hardboiled quipster. The backbone of the novel is his moral struggle with his crimes of omission and commission. Fairfield has intense feelings of guilt, and even tries to atone for his sins, which is pretty much unheard of in spy fiction. In this regard Davison is a thematic cousin to Graham Greene, but for my money Davison is the better writer. There are three more Fielding novels after this one, but they seem to be out of print. So here's me off to the used book stores.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger took the Man Booker prize in 2008, and I choose to believe that it won because the jury felt that they'd stupidly overlooked Sujit Saraf's similar, but much better, novel about modern India, The Peacock Throne (my review), which came out one year previously. Adiga's novel is very good, but it feels like an amuse-bouche appetizer before the high in protein main course of Saraf's book. But on with the review.

The white tiger of the title is Balram, once a peasant in deepest, darkest, most backward India, but now the owner of a fleet of cabs in Bangalore. The novel is written as a series of letters from Balram to the Chinese Premier, who is about to make a state visit to India. Balram feels that because he's climbed from the bottom rung of Indian society to somewhere near the middle, he's perfectly positioned to tell the Premier the truth about India. Balram does this by describing how, through luck and one fateful murder, he managed to reinvent himself as a successful businessman in India's capital of hi-tech..

The strength of The White Tiger (and this applies to almost every Indian novel I've read) is that it enthusiastically takes on subjects such as class conflict, the lives of the working poor, the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, and the corruption and viciousness of Indian politics. Modern Western novels rarely tackle subjects such as these, and working-class characters usually only make regular appearances in crime fiction, most often as perps or victims. The White Tiger is not a dire or dreary examination of hard times in India. Adiga, like his Indian peers, uses wit to make the basic horror of Balram's story palatable. Balram is a consistently amusing narrator even as he's describing the noxious nature of village life, or the demeaning and dehumanizing details of master-servant relationships.

Where this novel didn't work for me was in the character of Balram. He's entertaining, but he's also too much of a fictional artifice. The idea that Balram would write letters to the Chinese Premier works well as a comical, but very artificial, narrative device, but that also ends up applying to Balram; he never feels like more than a deftly-handled, but weightless, comic character who wouldn't exist outside the pages of the book. The same problem, to a far worse extent, handicapped Monica Ali's Brick Lane, set in London's South Asian community, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2003 . And Adiga isn't always consistent with his character: one minute Balram is presented as woefully ignorant and the next he's using a word like "oleaginous."

I'm still recommending The White Tiger, but its issues and themes have been handled better and more imaginatively in The Peacock Throne and, more recently, by Manu Joseph in Serious Men (my review). Finally, it's interesting that Brick Lane and The White Tiger both gained Man Booker approval with stories featuring male South Asian characters who are somewhat absurd and/or laughably naive. The more realistic characters of Saraf and Joseph don't seem to fit Western tastes.