July 10, 2008

Roopa Farooki's 'Bitter Sweets' not a bitter read at all

Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets was a novel I picked up from the library for the lack of finding anything less 'lighter' to read, and what a perfect pick I made! It's an easy breezy read that you'd want to take on your next long flight.

Now here's a writer who spins simple yarns even if they transcend continents and generations. Apparently inspired by her " father, a charmingly unrepentant rogue who found telling the truth rather dull" and his colorful life, Ms. Farooki has written a charming novel about characters who test and eventually break many long held socio ethnic taboos. The story presents a breaking away from ones native land (Pakistan) and its traditions; willingly or otherwise. However, despite this serious theme of breaking away, Ms. Farooki's novel is not given to overt sentimentality or laden with maudlin characters; in fact she is able to weave humor, satire, and mockery in the most charmingly delectable way. The novel moves at a lethargic pace, which I perceive is deliberate as it takes away the pinch and the barbs out of every difficult situation; something that I enjoyed tremendously. There is nothing 'do or die' in or about the novel, and that lets the reader enjoy the feel and flavor of each of the many foibles that the characters indulge in.

Roopa Farooki's first novel is an easy and interesting read and has deservingly received good reviews.

July 06, 2008

Maureen Freely's "Enlightenment" - a labyrinth of unresolved mysteries?

"A dark Conradian drama, set in a beautifully illuminated Istanbul, where the past is always with us."- Orhan Pamuk

It is easy to guess what it was about Maureen Freely's novel, "Enlightenment", that drew me to it; it was Mr Pamuk's quote on the cover of the novel! However, if I'd only given the quote some more thought, I'd have figured that the quote was an observation and not a recommendation. To give the novel its due, the opening chapters are very gripping as they have the reader wanting for more while he embarks on a journey through the labyrinth that is Istanbul; into the semi revealed lives and psyches of those that inhabit this enigmatic city. The mental merengue that the reader experiences on this journey exhausts his very last grey cell, and by the end of it (that is if he ever reaches there) he simply gives up! When on that last page, I was thrilled that I saw light; that I was finally out of those convoluting plots and conspiracies that made for the Turkish identity of the 70s. However, a fraction of a moment later, it dawned on me that I was still carrying that ball of mysteries that had been handed out to me ever since I turned that first page of the novel; what was even more bothersome was that the ball had grown significantly in proportion; with every new character and each new twist in the plot the reader's bundle of mysteries had increased to the point that it had become burdensome! The reader's mind needed some off-loading before he could take on yet another twist in the tale. Alas, that was not to be, there was no respite from the burdening!

Was that Ms. Freely's intention to burden the reader such? It is one thing to have an open ending for a novel, one that leaves the reader seeking possible solutions, given that there are a few pointers provided for solving some of the mysteries presented. But when the entire novel is simply a complex intertwisting of innumerable mysteries, then the reader, at some point, just wants an out of his mental exhaustion, and that is exactly how I felt! There was no 'enlightenment' at the end of the novel in terms of its plot: what did happen to those young and bright minds during the 70's in Istanbul? Did the gruesome killing of the dynamic teacher really happen, and at the hands of the very students who revered every word of his? Alas, I will never know, and at this point I don't really care.

Maureen Freely, an American of Turkish origin, is a the translator of many of Orhan Pamuk's novels; the Nobel Prize winner with whom she attended Robert College in Istanbul. Ms. Freely has often been credited for being instrumental in promoting Pamuk's agenda for freedom of expression in Turkey and elsewhere. An ardent admirer of Pamuk and his writings she herself is an advocate of free expression of which there is a dearth in her home nation as "80 writers, scholars, artists, and activists have been prosecuted for insulting state, the judiciary, or Turkishness itself; there are 45 more cases set to go to trial before the end of the year."

I wouldn't write off 'Enlightenment' from my reading list if I were better informed on Turkey and its history because then the understanding of the novel may not pose as much of a problem. Besides there are some of us who might enjoy the reading challenge before arriving at that last page of "Enlightenment"!