Shalimar the Clown

Me and Rushdie

I finally finished the audiobook for Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown last week. I say finally, because it was about 18 hours long.

It’s an okay book, made good by Rushdie’s way with words, made bad by his meandering style, made beautiful by his willingness to give in to every impulse he has, but ultimately made meh by his lack of restraint. There is so much in this book that in the end, there is too much and I don’t care about any of it.

The story starts in ’90s Los Angeles, goes back to partition era Kashmir, then further back to World War II France, then forward to ’50s and ’60s Kashmir, the ’60s Delhi, then fast forward back to modern day Los Angeles. By the time we get to the end, I am not sure which tangent to care about and which loose ends will be resolved. I don’t need a story to resolve everything– far from it– but I do need to have some sense of where it is headed, or if it is headed anywhere at all.

But Rushdie does have a way with words. As I said a couple of weeks ago, his character names alone are more creative than some authors’ entire life’s work. Continue reading

Bombur Yambarzal and the Art of Naming Characters

I’m almost done audiobook’ing Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and I’ll write about that later. At the moment, I want to talk about his art of naming characters.

There’s Bombur Yambarzal, the waza of Shirmal. Boonyi Kaul Noman, the Anarkali of Pachigam, and her mother, Pamposh Kaul. There is Nazar-e-Buddoor, the seer of Pachigam. Maximillian Ophuls, the flying Jew.

Larger than life characters need larger than life names.

To quote RGV, as I usually do:

Why do villains have names like Bikhu Yadav, Bhai Thakur, Gaddam Narayana, etc instead of Santosh, Ramu, etc?
Ans: Larger than life characters demand larger than life names. If Vito Corleone’s name was John David, Godfather would not remain Godfather.

Another book that I recently audiobook’ed also had extraordinary names. Ignatius J. Reilly, Myrna Mynkoff, Claude Robichaux, Angelo Mancuso, and Burma Jones, the colorful cast of characters from A Confederacy of Dunces.

I think hearing the names in audiobooks makes you a lot more aware of the music of the names.

Some of Rushdie’s names have strange roots. Max Ophuls is the name of a German director who died in 1957. Bombur Yamberzal is the name of the first Kashmiri opera.

Travelog: Mumbai- 30th November, 2008

Mumbai, 30th November 2008

Mumbai, 30th November 2008– the morning after:

Mumbai, 30th November 2008
Mumbai, 30th November 2008

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”

The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg

World War Z

World War Z is a book written by Max Brooks, on behalf of the United Nations. It is a series of interviews, presented as an oral history of the zombie apocalypse. No, the zombie apocalypse has not actually happened.

The book tells of an alternate present, where an outbreak of rising dead turns in to a world-wide epidemic. The story doesn’t unfold as classical horror, but as a look at geopolitical implications, military strategy, and individual survival instincts in the face of an unprecedented, global threat.

It deals with the big questions– wouldn’t Israel deal with such a threat in a fundamentally different way than say South Africa or Russia, because of their history? How would our military machinery work against an enemy who does not work under the traditional parameters– has no emotions, no family, no expenses, and can only be downed by decapitation? And for every one soldier you lose, they gain one.

As I said, the story is told as a series of interviews, a few years after the war is over– an interview of a doctor who saw the first cases in China, an Israeli intelligence agent who was among the first to take the threat seriously, of US military personnel, a South African politician, and of so many individuals from across the globe. While the climax is told from an American perspective, this is a global story and that is what really makes it special– the plausible military, social and political implications.

The audiobook makes this book even better. Here’s part of the cast: Alan Alda, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, John Turturro, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, and Jürgen Prochnow. Since each chapter is an interview with a different person, this format works really well.

When a True Genius Appears in the World

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
— Jonathan Swift

Those are the opening lines of one of the best books I’ve read in a while– John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a grand tale of eccentrics and borderline loony characters in ’60s New Orleans.

Toole wrote it in the ’60s and then promptly killed himself. A decade later, his mother sent a smeared carbon copy of the novel to Walker Percy (author of that other New Orleans tale, the story of my life, The Moviegoer). His mother insisted it was a masterpiece. Percy read it on a whim, and agreed. It was a masterpiece.

It is a masterpiece.

Percy published it, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Continue reading

The Mad Tea Party

The biggest influences on my sense of humor are PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. But there were a few other things growing up that taught me new ways of being funny, one of which is the the Mad Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The wordplay, logical deadlocks, literary nonsense and the frustration of always being just on the verge of understanding what they’re talking about.
Continue reading