Sunday, August 24, 2008

Shalimar The Clown

Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar The Clown” is such a sprawling and challenging read that, even though the physical book itself is only 398 pages, it feels like I’m reading about 4 novels in one. Throughout this, I can’t help but to be intrigued by the way his writing seems natural even though the vocabulary is so wide that there’s nothing but doubt that any human brain can remember all of these words (then again, there are people out there that memorized the whole Bible, but I don’t think that’s the same). He skillfully details all kinds of psychologies, emotions, and atmospheres with a vision that seems to humanize everything, inanimate objects included.

The book starts with India and her father, the American ambassador Maximilian Ophuls, meeting up at her L.A. apartment. Going out to eat for her birthday, Max shows up at her residence with a new driver named Shalimar. After a small scene where India senses weird vibes from him in an elevator, she spends the last two days with her father, before Shalimar takes a knife and slices Max’s throat so deep that the head barely hangs on. The novel then journeys back years and time zones to showcase how and why this happened.

Describing the character India’s view towards L.A., Rushdie pens: “In such a city there could be no grey areas, or so it seemed. Things were what they were and nothing else, unambiguous, lacking the subtleties of drizzle, shade and chill. Under the scrutiny of such a sun there was no place to hide. People were everywhere on display, their bodies shining in the sunlight, scantily clothed, reminding her of advertisements. No mysteries here or depths; only surfaces and revelations. Yet to learn the city was to discover that this banal clarity was illusion.” (pg. 5)

This touches one of the main themes of the novel, which is two spiritual forces, the Hindi mystical dragons Rahu and Ketu pushing and pulling the characters and places between them. It’s consequently also about how these characters strive to transcend their black-and-white predicament, and get destroyed in the process. The design almost seems circular in nature, as the story goes back and forth, into the pasts of the main characters Max Ophuls, India Ophuls, Boonyi Noman and Noman Sher Noman (Shalimar The Clown) and into their futures, and showing them entering and struggling to break through Rahu and Ketu over and over again. They break through, but the price of freedom rears it’s ugly head.

The two sided themes include:
India (the country) and Pakistan
Boonyi and Shalimar
Hindu and Muslim
Pachigam and Shirmal (fictional villages of India)
Lust and love
Tradition and Individuality
Tradition and Modernization
France (Ardienne, Lorraine, Strasbourg) and Germany
Past and Future
Surface appearance and Reality
Living and Dead
The Indian Army and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front

The other theme could be stated either as existing without existing, or transcendence, or shadowing, or echoes. As one of “Shalimar The Clown”’s genres is Magic Realism, a lot of subtle supernatural things occur in the story, and they connect the characters with one another through time and space. Some characters are one with it, some characters are puzzled by it, and some characters don’t question it at all.

- Shalimar, when he was a small boy, used to be kissed lovingly by his father, Abdullah Noman and hear “birdsong” whenever he was, just as India did when her father Max Ophuls was affectionate with her in the same exact way.
- Yuvraj and India sit near the Muskadoon (a lake that ran by the village of Pachigam) yards away from each other but feeling each other’s kisses and touches on their bodies, echoing the same connection that Boonyi and Shalimar have when they are children (sitting by the same lake).
- Firdaus Noman marries a man whose name, Mr. Butt or Bhat, no one can remember the precise pronounciation of, but is accepted into the community of Pachigam by way of the money he easily tosses to everyone. In the beginning, India (the character) is proposed to by a rich underwear model whose name changes constantly, even in his own memory (Joe Blow?, Jock Block?, Rick Flick?, Judd Flood?, Jay Flay? etc.)

This is quite the complex and in-depth book. Reading it sometimes made me wonder how Rushdie expected people to stay interested enough to finish. He has great writing skill and an extremely extensive vocabulary, but the story strays so far from its beginning that occasionally lost me and I had to put the book down and pick it up later. I am, however, glad I finished it, and after my brain is fully rested, I’ll pick up another of Rushdie’s works. Probably “The Satanic Versus”.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dracula

Bram Stoker displays himself as one of the early pioneers of blogging in his internationally reknown epistolary novel Dracula. The writing is incredibly detailed and the imagery is great. However, I must also say that after the story moved to the discussion between Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, I was bored to tears. Completing that novel was a process of torture, due to the unnecessarily huge amounts of late 19th century melodrama. Not to mention that it takes obscenely long to get to any kind of real plot twist, which is why I cannot read “A Scarlet Letter” ever again. And I think this edition has grammatical errors, which I at first assumed was Van Helsing talking in his native dialect and accent, but the sentences don’t make sense (“…in the presence of such earnest purpose as the Professor’s, a purpose which could use the (?) to him most sacred of things,” (Pg. 180).

Surprisingly, I didn’t find too many major changes in between vampire portrayal here and in contemporary mainstream works that wasn’t reasonable. For instance, people in today’s films take all of the blink of an eye to transform into a vampire after they’ve been bitten. In Dracula, it takes Lucy Westenra from August 3rd to Sept. 20th. And I suppose the main difference is temporal context within and out of the story. Where as the film has at most 2 ½ hours tops to get on with it, the novel structurally has much more space to expand and explore. So, people must transform quickly in film so that the story can hurry up and tell itself. The book not only examines the transformation, but holds it as the central conflict (Godalming, Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward and Quincey Morris trying to regenerate her by giving her blood transfusions) for quite a few diary entries.

There’s the underlying theme of sexual repression in the novel. Dracula’s blood sucking, or the exchanging of blood altogether is a symbol of love-making or sex. In the scene I briefly mention above, Lord Godalming gives Lucy a blood transfusion in an effort to keep her alive after she’s been bitten by Dracula. He states that in giving her his blood, they have become married in the eyes of God, but he is completely unaware that all 4 characters have at some point given her some of their blood in an effort to save her. Although Van Helsing is well aware of what she is and what she needs to subsist as a vampire, he even comments on the insolent deduction of that whole mess:
‘“Just so, said he not that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made
her truly his bride?”
“Yes, and it was a sweet and comforting idea for
him.”
“Quite so. But there was a difficulty, friend John. If so that, then
what about the others? Ho, ho! Then this so sweet maid is a polyandrist, and me,
with my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all
gone – even I, who am faithful husband to this now-no-wife, am bigamist.”’ (pg.
151)

Renfield is one of the most entertaining characters in the book. An asylum patient at Dr. John Seward’s ward, Stoker makes good use of this character by having him act out, in a more bizarre and gruesome way, the “child-brain” of Dracula’s affirmation campaign. Dracula is called having a “child-brain” by Van Helsing because he’s in the process of discovering and developing his own powers and strength in the new land of London.

Renfield has a habit of eating animals given to him. He first takes flies and has spiders eat them. Then has the spider eaten by birds. The birds by cats, or he wanted cats to eat the birds but Dr. Seward would not give one to him. When he couldn’t get them, he ate them himself. His mentality was that he’d harness the power and the life of these creatures by eating them. This seems to be representative of Dracula’s sweeping consumption of Europe into his following, which Renfield has already entered prior to his first appearance in the story. But there’s a part where, even as an insane person, his logic is questionable, I think on Bram Stoker’s behalf. In relating his physical confrontation with The Count himself, Renfield states that he
“had heard that madmen have unnatural strength; and as I knew I was a madman –
at times anyhow – I resolved to use my power.”(pg. 241).

He has to confer with his own stereotype on how strong he is?

Dracula, the other most interesting character, is a God-figure in the book. Besides the obvious mentioning of him with capitol letters in mid-sentence (Him, He), the novel is about him spreading himself amongst the humans and turning them into creatures like himself (Christianity?). This especially comes out in Mina’s observation when Dracula first seeps into her room as a mist:
“Things began to whirl through my brain just as the cloudy column was now
whirling in the room, and through it all came the scriptural words ‘a pillar of
cloud by day and of fire by night
.’ Was it indeed some such spiritual guidance
that was coming to me in my sleep?” (Pg. 214)

Also in Renfield’s dialogue with Dr. John Seward:
“Then you command life; you are a god, I suppose?” [Dr. Seward asked as
Renfield] smiled with an ineffably benign superiority.
“Oh no! Far be it from
me to arrogate to myself the attributes of the Deity. I am not even concerned in
His especially spiritual doings. If I may state my intellectual position I am,
so far as concerns things purely terrestrial, somewhat in the position which
Enoch occupied spiritually!” This was a poser to me. I could not at the moment
recall Enoch’s appositeness; so I had to ask a simple question, though I felt
that by so doing I was lowering myself in eyes of the lunatic;-
“And why with
Enoch?”
“Because he walked with God.” (pg. 231)

And finally, after Mina has been bit, Van Helsing tries to keep her protected by placing a piece of Sacred Wafer (Wa[t]er?) on her forehead, but she screams in pain as it burns her terribly and exclaims
“‘Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this
mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgment Day”’

So then, she is casts out of the holy light by Dracula and meant to bear the mark of her new Un-Dead life, which speaks a bit of Cain’s fate.

I usually like to read the classic novels to see what the original content is about after the characters and situations have been hit with so many twists and new perspectives in contemporary arts. Like Frankenstein, which is a great novel. But after coming across examples like this and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide”, I find the experiences aren’t always rewarding.