Of gods and men

BOOK REVIEW: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief  /By Rick Riordan

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Olympian gods and goddesses are not the best role models; their moral compass is frequently out of order and no one dares suggest they get it fixed. The (stormy) age of the gods was great while it lasted but it is over. Rick Riordan reawakens the gods, gives them another shot at (eternal) life with a brand new home, creating a new legion of heroes and heroines in the process. He then combines all these elements to launch his fantasy series making mythology the centrepiece and family values the essential pillars of his newly redesigned universe.

How do these extinct entities fare in a (literary) world already overrun with vampires, witches, werewolves and wizards? Set in the present day, Riordan’s young adult fantasy novel tries to survive the onslaught of other supernatural beings by giving neglected Greek gods a clever makeover. The original Mount Olympus is still in Greece. Olympus, however, has been relocated. Their gods and goddesses currently reside above the modern day US while their half-human, half-god offspring live below — most of them in blissful oblivion of their divine origins or hero status.

Demigods running around in Manhattan saying, “Oh my gods”, being stalked by monsters and going on dangerous expeditions just like their predecessor Hercules is an intriguing premise. Except that readers coming off J K Rowling will be immediately struck by young Percy’s resemblance to his British counterpart.

If Percy Jackson feels like an extension of planet Rowling, it is probably because the major threads holding the plot together appear to have fallen straight out of her wizarding world: a regular child, special abilities, a training camp for half-bloods, a destiny. The similarity is strongest in The Lightning Thief, and subsequent books might touch upon Garth Nix’s Abhorsen accidentally before falling back on Greek legends, but they try very hard not to encroach too obviously upon Rowling territory. They do not always succeed but they do try.

Percy is the American narrator with a droll sense of humour who follows the traditional path of a Greek hero. He is a special case, not just because he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia but also because he suffers from a “divine” condition. One of his parents happens to be a god and he is not the only demigod in the neighbourhood. (The term ‘exclusive relationship’ seems to be missing from the god dictionary; ergo the rising demigod population). Now if one has ADHD and dyslexia combined, they may or may not have descended from the gods but all descendents of Olympians share this problem.

The gods, on the other hand, have exchanged their togas for pinstriped suits but they are the same immortal, (if a little careless) vengeful beings. As the title suggests, Zeus, King of the gods, is missing a lightning bolt — the one he used to pose with (see old pictures). And unless it is returned, he and Poseidon will go to war and that would be a pity, especially since the divine headquarter is now in New York City, atop the Empire State Building.

Why New York one might ask? As Chiron, the centaur (former trainer to Hercules), helpfully explains, the heart of fire or Western civilisation has never been stationary and now rests comfortably in the land of the free.

The book is about Percy’s thrilling escapades, at camp and in the real world and monsters from ancient Greece drop by occasionally to prevent things from becoming too boring. This particular demigod will get a quest, discover his true lineage, embrace his destiny, etc, etc. But, as a mortal, he speaks like any disaffected teen, goes to a private academy for troubled children in upstate New York, and tries to deal with parental issues. The quests become more serious with each passing year and usually the fate of the world hangs in the balance. This is a who’s who of Greek mythological creatures from the highly acclaimed Medusa, Chimera and Cyclops to less well-known Empousa (vampire demon) and the Kampe. Now, many of them had already been vanquished by Greek heroes of yore but they have (considerately) returned for an encore performance, because monsters never truly die.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is the first of five books. It was a New York Times Notable Book for 2005 and won the Red House Children’s Book Award. The series leans heavily on action, is fast paced but not very lengthy. The movie version that had a slightly longer title (Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), took liberties with the plot, casting an older boy, editing out major characters and basically rewriting the entire ending.

Percy Jackson’s adventures conclude in Book Five and Rick Riordan has already moved on to Egyptian mythology. The demigods are not quite ready to leave and Olympian adventures will continue in a spin-off called The Lost Hero, out by October 2010.

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, September 04, 2010
Penguin; Pp 400; Rs 425

Available at Liberty Books

Afrah Jamal is a Columnist for Daily Times. Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com

Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/

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Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage /Author: Elizabeth Gilbert /Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Committed picks up where the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love left off. Elizabeth Gilbert is still travelling but not solo — on a quest but not for the same reasons. The last time she went into exile to Italy, India and Indonesia, it was self-imposed and involved food and spiritual enlightenment. The latest one to Southeast Asia, however, has been brought on by circumstances beyond her control and is about facing her deepest fear head on.

The title of this memoir may be Committed but Elizabeth has not gotten over her dread of matrimony. She has been committed to the institution of marriage before and has no interest in going back. Thus far she has successfully evaded capture and is determined to do anything — anything at all to avoid “going through that apocalypse”. Details of that particular ‘apocalypse’ can be found in the pages of her previous book — Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia, recently turned into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.

While she is content to be in a long distance relationship with a foreigner, her government, sadly, is not. And so Elizabeth Gilbert is “sentenced to marry”. By the US Department of Homeland Security no less and unless she complies, the US will close its doors to her man. Permanently. Suddenly, she is forced to come to terms with her scary marital history and make peace with the idea of marriage.

It gets worse. Soon, any American interested in marrying an outsider will have to undergo an FBI investigation. Thus begins an agonizingly long wait and an obligatory return to a nomadic life. Elizabeth uses this unexpected break to her advantage, raking through her private history and public records to determine “what this befuddling, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is”.

As their travels take Elizabeth and her fiancé off the beaten path, she will make a solitary journey armed with the works of eminent matrimonial scholars to better understand her “inherited assumptions, the shape of her family’s narrative and her culturally specific catalogue of anxieties”. She argues that she must be vigorously persuaded because matrimony has not always been kind to women. This involves extensive time travelling to explore the primitive notions about marriage and divorce. Turns out that marriage was not always considered sacred even within Christian tradition, (they resisted for at least 10 centuries) and this discovery alone allows her to stop stringing together the terms sin and failure with divorce and finally let herself off the hook.

Elizabeth, who has been watching the women in her family “adapt, adjust, glide and accept”, is painfully aware that her advantageous childhood has been built on the ashes of her mother’s sacrifices. She comes across some alarming statistics claiming that a long, happy, healthy, prosperous existence awaits married men who are the sole beneficiaries of this union.

She will also embark on parallel journeys to decipher the modern interpretation of marriage while closely examining its evolutionary nature, which she believes actually ensures its survival. This is nice because it really needed to change. In Europe, a nasty practice known as ‘coverture’ forced women to renounce their legal rights and property, “doubling a man’s power as his wife’s evaporated”. She further observes that combined with the strict anti-divorce policies of the church, marriage became an institution that entombed and erased its female victims — especially among the gentry. Trace amounts of this troubling ruling could be detected as late as 1975 and prevented married women (like Elizabeth’s mother) from opening checking accounts or taking out loans without their husband’s written permission.

While she wanders through the pages of history, learning new facts (apparently, even a seagull that supposedly mates for life has a 25 % divorce rate) and putting the marriages of her friends and family on the stand, Elizabeth must also introduce marital customs of distant lands. This is a part travelogue, after all. In the hills of northern Vietnam, for instance, reside the Hmong, convinced that it does not matter whom one marries “and with rare exceptions, one man is pretty much the same as another”. Their depressing worldview has held them in good stead thus far.

The writer, on the other hand, duels with her deep-seated insecurities and reveals the sort of marriage she is likely to have — “wifeless, motherless and husbandless” — which simply means that neither would be obligated to fulfil the traditional role of housekeeper or breadwinner. It also means that she will proudly defend the decision to join an “Auntie Brigade” instead of enlisting in the “Mommy Corps”. Members of the exclusive brigade will be pleased to learn that they are in great company — Tolstoy, Capote, Lennon and the Bronte sisters, all raised by doting aunts.

Elizabeth freely admits that the point of the whole exercise is just to talk herself into tying the knot. And this leads to an elaborately crafted, highly illuminating, (delightful) discourse between a sceptic and western marriage.

Published in Daily Times 28 Aug 2010

Viking Adult; Pp 285; Rs 1,150

Available at Liberty Books

Afrah Jamal is a Columnist for Daily Times.

Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com
Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/

EAT PRAY LOVE: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia /Author: Elizabeth Gilbert /Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

A magazine assignment took a 30 something woman from NY to Bali where a ninth generation medicine man prophesied her return. She keeps her appointment because he said she would but also makes fresh plans; putting her old life on hold, signing up for an extreme religious experience in India and enrolling in language courses in Italy – because she realized she should.

‘Exhausted by the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of hasty choices and chaotic passions’, Elizabeth Gilbert will leave the ruins of her former life (nasty break-up & all) and head out into the wilderness for some very unusual R&R. Her spirits demand an instant pick me up and a dramatic makeover.

This voyage of self discovery requires that she take a year off, trading in the comforts of home for the comforts of Europe and the discomfort of the third world. Somewhere in another book she has described her foray into the unknown as ‘an experiment with solitude and self accountability’. Most people seeking spiritual rehabilitation probably would not have plotted such an elaborate course to enlightenment. Most people might also have had some trouble lining up eager publishers willing to purchase their book about these experiences beforehand. Moreover, they would think twice before taking their private demons out for a public walk.

Elizabeth is different. Not only does she provide an unflinching portrayal of her post break-up self but she also allows readers to accompany her on a retrieval mission starting from the dreary base camp littered with the debris of wrecked relationships all the way to the summit. And she still manages to make most of it sound funny, which is remarkable.

Here is someone struggling to find her way back, first through food, then with meditation and finally with love and more meditation. She engages in conversations with the Almighty, herself, her mind, invisible dead Guru’s, visible Balinese healers etc. She falls head over heels with a pizzeria in Naples and makes friends with people who have names like Luca Spaghetti (no offence intended). She talks to herself in a notebook, and the notebook talks back.

Indonesia is about learning to ‘hold steady in this chaotic world’ from the good Balinese – global masters of balance. Italy is simpler. The closest Elizabeth gets to art is in the ‘National Museum of Pasta’ which is fine since she just intends to savour their ‘beautiful food’ and rich language. India is, of course reserved for that all important transcendent experience (that will ‘transport her from portals of the universe’ taking her to the centre of God’s palm). At every terminal she checks in demons along with her baggage. After each stop, she summons a new-found spiritual discipline to vanquish these unwelcome travel companions.

A wonderful assortment of friends, family and well wishers are stationed throughout bringing basket loads of humour, advice and insight. There will either be a Richard, Elizabeth’s Texas Yogi – helping her become more anchored or Iva, her Lebanese friend back home, who comes with ‘an Iva-only Bat-Phone to the universe & an open-round-the-clock special channel to the divine’ making her understand the mysteries of the world.

An article called ‘The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon’, chronicling Ms. Gilbert’s experiences as a bartender became the basis for ‘Coyote Ugly’ – the movie. And now the quest for divine communion and Italian food that drove her halfway across the world is the basis for another.

ISBN: 9781408810101

No of Pages: 382

Price: Rs. 695

Available at Liberty Books

Afrah Jamal is a Columnist for Daily Times.

Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com

Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/


Lahore Durbar in free fall

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar
Author: Amarinder Singh
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.

Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on his own governor for a horse. A beautiful Persian horse, but still a horse.

The Lahore Durbar, in Ranjit Singh’s time, constituted what is now Pakistan (minus Sindh and Balochistan). He is perhaps best known for putting the Sikh army on the map and, of course, his love for empire building. The Last Sunset… studies the rapid deterioration of the empire forged by a ruler who combined “cunning, treachery, ruthlessness with diplomacy and military might” to carve out a glorious kingdom, a formidable army and a reputation to match. In the brief but dramatic portion devoted to his life, the writer manages to capture the grandeur of his court (decadent lifestyle and all) and the fickle nature of alliances from multiple perspectives.

It would take just 10 short years for this Durbar to fall apart. The principal portion of the book focuses on major military campaigns between the Sikh and British troops in the post-Ranjit era, as the empire he had so painstakingly built with the help of the much admired Sikh Khalsa Army, raised on European lines, began to fray around the edges. Soon the soldiers, considered to be “the finest material in the world for forming an army” by W G Osborne, military secretary to the governor general of India, would be pitted against the British (1845-46 and1848-49), the court was to become the epicentre of political intrigues (led by a royal) and Punjab would finally be annexed to the British territory.

Amarinder Singh is from the royal family of Patiala. He was ADC to GOC-in-C, Western Command,in the 1965 war between Pakistan and India and later served as a member of the Parliamentary Defence Committee. His previous books include Lest we Forget: The History of Indian Army from 1947-65 and A Ridge Too Far: War in the Kargil Heights 1999. This Maharaja-turned-soldier-

turned-politician records the glorious beginning and not so glorious ending of Ranjit’s Lahore in this meticulously detailed account, cramming maps, order of battles with military strategies and tallying British accounts with what little is known of the Sikh side. He also examines Ranjit’s army that had become the de facto ruler of his state after his death and the conspiracy hatched from within to cut it down to size.

He exposes the cold-blooded role played by the regent — Her Highness Maharani Jinda Kaur (Queen Mother) — as she sent her soldiers into battle ostensibly to defend the kingdom. Faked intelligence was used (which works every time) to rile up the unsuspecting troops, who became convinced that the British Army was coming after them. It was a dangerous gamble but the Maharani hoped to come out as a winner. The Sikhs lose, she gets to stay on as regent; they win, she becomes even more powerful. According to the writer, this was a calculated move designed to clip the wings of a powerful army (a familiar complaint in this part of the world) and strengthen her tenuous hold in the bargain. He notes that though the Sikhs were decisively beaten in the four battles of the war, “but for the regent, her wazir, C-in-C and a mad British officer, Lord Gough’s defeat was near certain”. While the Maharani courted the British and connived against her state in the first war, the blame for the next major conflict is placed at the British doorstep. The author asserts that the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie simply used the Multan revolt as a pretext to carry out his expansionist plans and intended to “do away” with the Lahore state long before the second Sikh war.

The story concludes with the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and the epilogue continues the story of the exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh and his mother, the resourceful Maharani. The Last Sunset… is the tragic saga of a Durbar in free fall, starting from the first Anglo-Sikh war, where Lahore escaped annexation by the British but came under their supervision, to the second, where the British found themselves in the untenable position of both governing and attacking the Durbar.

Afrah Jamal is Former Editor Social Pages & a freelance journalist who blogs at http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com. She can be reached at afrahjh@hotmail.com

Roli Books; Pp 344; Rs 1,395

The book is available here.

THE NEW ANTHEM-THE SUBCONTINENT IN ITS OWN WORDS, Edited By: AHMEDE HUSSAIN Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal

The oft ravaged Subcontinent has been through a silent revolution. Deep below the churning waters, past the shifting sands, under the staggering weight of century’s old bias and primeval beliefs, resides a wellspring of concentrated energy.

The freshly inducted members from the South Asian literary hall of fame tapped this reservoir and have been pushing boundaries with their fiery prose for years. They have been hailed for their refreshing new voice and scintillating style. ‘The New Anthem – The Subcontinent In Its Own Words’ is a literary cocktail compiled by Bangladeshi author – Ahmede Hussain to showcase a galaxy of new-born stars.

22 writers, with a shared past have left a profound impression on South Asian literature. Their sentimental trek across time stops often to relay the exotic beauty of the land, stripping away layers of history to reveal its true character. These disparate sounds, striving to he heard above the usual din bring the Subcontinent to life.

One is accosted by the regions turbulent history over and over again. This particular memory lane is full of sobering thoughts.  Both ‘Cyclone’by Khademul Islam and ‘The Fragrance of Cuticura’ by Amitava Kumar bring back that feeling of oppressiveness. ‘The Barber Lover’, and ‘Laila and Leela’ play with the spiritual while Carl Bloom takes readers down ‘The Alley’ forcing them to confront the ugly side of life in his adopted home.

Wistful voices from the Diaspora also join in the chorus. They explore a range of emotions, breaking away from tradition and cheerfully launching into the realm of political incorrectness. Liberalism creeps in stealthily in ‘The Straight Path’ by Bengali-American writer Abeer Hoque; the price of rebellion is paid in Rachael Khan’s grim tale –‘Foreign Exchange’.

The rest of the composition is equally compelling – if a little bewildering.  Altaf Tyrewala can get rid of unwanted babies but not the voices in his head while Razia fences unsuccessfully with the new cook in Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Surface of Glass’.

These samples demonstrate the collective wealth of the region introducing us to writers who are about to embark on their first major literary expedition alongside those who have already arrived.

Pakistan, India and Bangladesh still have some bitterness leftover. Ahmede Hussain’s new book is unconcerned with the (excruciatingly) slow pace of recovery and finds something to celebrate from each nation. Their spirited new anthem is in keeping with the changing reality.

  • Book: The New Anthem: The Subcontinent in its Own Words
  • Author: Ahmede Hussain
  • ISBN:9380032455
  • ISBN-13:9789380032450, 978-9380032450
  • PAGES: 336
  • Price: Rs: Rs. 750
  • Available at Liberty Books

Reviewed for Liberty Books

Email: afrahjh@hotmail.com

Blog: http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com/

Strange But True

Book Review: And Thereby Hangs a Tale by Jeffrey Archer

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

He has penned numerous bestsellers, done a stint as an M.P. (Member of Parliament), followed by a stint in prison, stopped by the House of Lords, and been in and out of politics. Somewhere along the way he also made ‘life peer’. He is Jeffrey Archer –successful British author and failed politician, who has a knack for turning his fortunes around. His lordship has been front page news for years. He is no stranger to celebrity or infamy and is someone who seems to juggle these roles (as author, politician and jailbird) better than most.

Archers first book – ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, written after his close encounter with near-bankruptcy was an instant bestseller.  In later life, his courtroom ordeal became a stage play (Archer dabbles in playwriting) titled ‘The Accused’ and two years in prison ended up as a three part volume aptly named ‘A Prison Diary’ – Hell (Part 1), Purgatory (Part II) & Heaven (Part III). Another well known work – ‘Kane and Abel’ has been recently revised for its 30th anniversary. Other stories have been adapted for stage, television, and film.

Now Archer is back with a new book – this time it is a delightful set of fifteen short stories out of which ten are based on real incidents and five are borne of pure fantasy. He picked up this relatively light blend of ‘strange but true’ collection during his travels. In the hands of a superb storyteller such as Archer the simplest of storylines assume fantastic proportions. The fact that he is a contemporary writer who manages to keep his plot moving without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade is a refreshing change. Graphic details are kept to an absolute minimum and the emphasis is on the story – like it used to be in the good old days.

‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’ is his sixth book of short stories.

The journey begins with an ingenious con by a couple up to no good (according to the law of the land) and ends with a fairy tale ‘in the making’ about a couple up to no good (according to the laws of their sect). Midway readers can spend time with a bumbling diplomat in the ‘Un-diplomatic Diplomat’ – a fellow who managed to create strife between tribes that had lived in peace for centuries or accompany Alan Penfold on his first case, ‘which one never forgets’ – as he is constantly reminded, in ‘High Heels’. Or, like Archer one can do time with Benny the Fence in ‘Double Cross’.

The fact that so many of these stories are based on true incidents is an added attraction. Part of the allure lies in trying to spot the originals. The more outrageous tales happen to be true. Be they real or imagined, most, if not all the stories deliver on all counts.

Whether it is a simple matter of ‘The Queens Birthday Telegram’ in which a Centenarian must fence with the Queen’s staff or something more involving like ‘Members Only’ where a golf clubs won at a raffle – and one golf ball set events in motion that change the course of a young man life – the book promises to keep readers riveted till the end. Also featured is a fresh variation of the tried and tested ‘sneaky nurse tricks family out of fortune’ routine in ‘Where There’s a Will’.

The final story will appeal to the South Asian audience as it concerns a real life Indian fairy tale (of sorts) which has all the elements needed to turn it into a soppy little film. Picture this. Boy in open top red Porsche meets girl in Ferrari on a busy road – Ferrari speeds away, Porsche follows and thus begins a cross continental pursuit and a story arc that would make any Director from the Subcontinent proud. Additions like ‘Caste Off’ and ‘A Good Eye’ give the requisite multicultural tinge to this trek that takes one across Europe, America and South Asia.

The fictional side of the book is equally charming. Some like ‘Politically Correct’ deal with a deputy bank manager Arnold Pennyworthy’s very understandable paranoia in a post 7/7 Britain and the alarm bells set off by that dodgy looking new neighbour. Others like the ‘Blind Date’ are short and sweet.

Are some of these offerings predictable? Yes. But they are enjoyable nevertheless.  The author is also seen playing with the supernatural in one case where a certain ‘Mr. De Ath’ comes up with an interesting proposition for the dying Chairman.

‘There may not be a book in every one of us but there is so often a dashed good short story’, Archer happily proclaims in the foreword. ‘And Thereby Hangs a Tale’ is a nifty little book that is both smart and sassy and thoroughly satisfying.

Afrah Jamal is a freelance journalist and can be reached at http://www.afrahjamal.blogspot.com

And Thereby Hangs a Tale is available at all Liberty Books outlets and here.

BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times – Site Edition Saturday, July 03, 2010

Author: Yann Martel

According to a website, the Middle East, race relations, gun control, origins of man and religion are among the top 10 things that can never be discussed online “without serious drama following shortly thereafter”.

“The systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborator,” otherwise known as the Holocaust, is number four on this list.

Their reasoning is simple: whichever side you are on, this one topic is a guaranteed firestarter.

Yann Martel is not just talking about the fourth item on the list but is also seeking a new venue altogether to stage his ‘representation’ of that event. To know how he intends to take on such a delicate subject and why it took him eight years to write another book, one must meet Henry.

Henry L’Hote, the main character of this book, is an author headed back in time to retrieve the essence of the Holocaust — he looks suspiciously like Yann Martel, an author bound for similar shores. Henry’s idea will get rejected in the storybook world and Martel’s allegorical treatment, that attempted to push boundaries with a novel and essay, has already been through a similar ordeal. According to an interview by Mick Brown that appeared in the Telegraph, Martel’s original book consisted of a play and an essay. After the rejection, he rewrote the entire novel, working fragments of the play in with the other elements to create Beatrice and Virgil.

Henry/Yann will lay the groundwork at the outset to defend their controversial approach and explain why they believe that interpretation of historical events is vital. His reasoning is simple: “No poetic licence was taken with — or given to — the Holocaust; it was always historical, factual, documentary, anecdotal, testimonial, literal.” Until now.

Henry, like Martel, has dared to blur the lines between fact and fiction with a flipbook that will have two covers, two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine, upside down and back to back to each other. He is convinced that “fiction and non-fiction are not so easily divided” and “if history does not become a story, it dies to everyone”. In his mind, “fiction may not be real but it is true; it goes beyond a garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truth.”

The protagonist has it all figured out but unfortunately he hits a brick wall because Martel’s fictional world also imposes the same limitations. Henry makes a useful spokesperson, standing by, ready with explanations to help readers grasp Yann’s concept while he duels with his own editors (four), a historian and a bookseller trying to make them see the merits of his own approach. They, in turn, give all the reasons his flipbook model is a “complete and un-publishable failure”.

Poor Henry must renounce the idea. Undeterred by his failed flipbook experiment, a determined Yann sets out to prove them wrong and show them why it is imperative to capture that particular instance, not just with a historian’s preciseness but also with an artist’s flair. He stops to give instances where “artists have taken vast sprawling tragedies before, found its heart and represented it in a non-literal compact way. The unwieldy encumbrance of history was thus reduced and packed in a suitcase.” He goes on to imagine “art as a suitcase — light, portable, essential” and wonders why “such a treatment was not possible, or deemed necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe’s Jews?”

Having made a strong case for his ideas, Man Booker prize winner and best-selling author Yann Martel can proceed with the original plan; manipulate Henry — the highly successful writer — helping him find a way to scale the wall of resistance put up by an ignorant world, that will allow them to revisit and ‘interpret’ the horror and guide readers through the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

He uses unorthodox methods and the same topsy-turvy logic to achieve what his character initially failed to do. A disillusioned and dejected Henry allows the author to set a course that takes him away from a disastrous lunch to an unnamed city and, as the Holocaust slowly recedes in the distance, a way to represent the tragedy as an artful metaphor appears on the horizon.

The book is beautifully crafted with a riveting storyline that will take a circuitous path before it returns to the original premise of framing the Holocaust differently.

The author, whose last book was the internationally acclaimed Man Booker prize wining Life of Pi, is on a slippery slope here. Yet, despite the hostile reception, negative reviews and the disturbing end, Beatrice and Virgil cannot be dismissed lightly. The book is impossible to forget.

Spiegel & Grau; First Edition; Pp 224; Rs 850