The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

After so many years when I had read it for the first time and found myself fascinated by it and swept into its currents, I re-read “The Master and Margarita” with relish. It is a literary classic because it has stood the test of time and it transcends its original settings and social commentary of the day it was written.

In “The Master and Margarita” Satan, going by the name of Professor Woland, descends on the Soviet Russia, and wreaks absolute havoc. Heads roll, people go insane and events occur that make the reader’s hair stand on end. Yet, the existence of Satan defies not only logic but also the atheistic mantra of the communist state. The citizens cannot afford to believe in the supernatural causes of the goings on. Those who do are dismissed as lunatics and placed in a mental asylum. This is where poet Ivan Bezdomny meets the Master who is the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate and the times of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. The story is retold from the point of view of a direct observer (the Devil himself) and gives an eerie sense of intimacy with the tormented Procurator of Judea. Still, nobody believes in it. In fact, just in case somebody might, the Master’s book is denigrated and he burns his manuscript in despair. His lover and devotee, Margarita is in despair. Even though she wants to stand by the Master he leaves her and checks himself into an asylum.

This book may be a revered classic but it is also a vivid, engaging, funny and utterly intriguing piece of fiction. The message of condemnation of the soviet regime, human greed, stupidity and narrow-mindedness is masterfully hidden within the plot and brilliant story-telling. The reader is immersed in the supernatural, the surreal, the macabre and burlesque all at the same time. The book bristles with satirical humour. And it is as relevant today as it was in the Stalinist Russia.

A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell

Craving some vintage psychological crime drama, I succumbed to a small dose of Ruth Rendell. I was handsomely rewarded and relished every page of A New Lease of Death.

Reverend Archery embarks on a mission of disproving the guilt of a man hanged for murdering Mrs Primero. The man is the father of the young lady Archery’s son wishes to marry. Inspector Wexford has no doubts about Painter’s guilt – he had investigated the case twenty years ago and knows that there was no room for error.

In her trademark fashion, Rendell guides the reader into the complex psyche of her protagonist as he tries to turn the case on its head. In the process he turns people’s lives upside down with the most dramatic of consequences.

When the conclusion is reached it makes perfect sense. Everything is rational, though surprising and unexpected. Rendell never fails to make me believe that it could have happened for real. Her characters’ motivations are linked to their past experiences and neatly brought together.

Some readers have complained that the book is dated. I find that bizarre. The book is an early Rendell. It is set in the late sixties/early seventies. It fits in its own times and reflects the mores of society as it was then and there. It doesn’t require any updating to the twenty-first century. I wonder if those who complain about dated Ruth Rendell also lament over Jane Austin being out of touch with the twenty-first century.

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene

 

Monsignor Quixote [DVD]

Monsignor Quixote, as the title implies, is Graham Greene’s tribute to Cervantes’s opus magnum. I read Don Quixote in my teens, and though many lofty themes were naturally lost on me, I loved the spirit of that book and the character of a raving-mad knight imposter taking on windmills, wearing a barber’s basin for a helmet.

Greene has done a brilliant job of bringing Don Quixote into the twentieth century and making him relevant. Father Quixote, the Don’s supposed descendant, is as endearing as his famous forefather. His travelling companion, the Mayor of El Toboso, is his answer to Sancho Panza. Like their namesakes 300 hundred years earlier, they too embark on a life-asserting journey, driving Rocinante (no longer a horse, but a rusty old car with a soul). Their road-trip is plagued with difficulties: they are pursued by Guardia and briefly held hostage by a marauding convict (whom they aid and abate out of the goodness of their hearts). They overindulge in wine and food. There is never a dull moment!

Behind their outrageous adventures hides a momentous discourse about the triumph of basic humanity over two totalitarian concepts: religion and communism. The idle conversations between the two protagonists where Father Quixote defends the virtues of Catholicism and the Mayor the ideas of communism, are priceless. I relished the humour, the irony and the warmth of those debates. The two adversaries’ ability to reconcile their differences without compromising their beliefs and to preserve their friendship restores one’s faith in humanity.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

This is a haunting read. It pulls you in and soon you find yourself drowning, gasping for air, reaching towards the light. The single mother of a two-year-old girl opens up to you, tells you all as it is, step after painful step of the way. After separating from her husband, she finds refuge in a light-flooded four-floor apartment where she tries to rebuild her life. It is a fine balancing act between sanity and depression, survival and surrender. She is a tightrope walker and she wobbles and falls down many times. She resorts to drinking which doesn’t do much for her balancing skills. She is vulnerable, incompetent, often late, sometimes short-tempered. As a woman, you can see yourself in her – all those times in your life when you thought you wouldn’t be able to make it through the day. That is what makes it a haunting read. It hits home. It gets under your skin. It could be you.

The dazzling bright light dancing in her flat is symbolic of life. The empty flat on the third floor symbolises new doors, new beginnings opening before her as the story draws to its end. So at last, you can breathe.

I give it 5 stars not because I loved it, but because it was so powerful, so close to the nerve and so painfully honest. Reading it was a vicarious experience I am so glad I only brushed by in passing. But it stays with you and you can’t ignore it.

 

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Time for a third instalment in my series dissecting the secrets of great writers. I read The Remains of the Day because I was inspired by an interview with the author following him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro sounded like such a thoughtful, collected character. In short, I liked him as a person […]

via Recipe for literature that does not go out of fashion — Anna Legat Author

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

A body is found in a river, not far from where Connie and her father Gifford live. Something is familiar about the dead woman. The marks on her neck indicate that it wasn’t an accident. Connie is anxious: has her father had something to do with the woman’s death? He is missing, possibly drunk, possibly on the run.

Connie’s grasp on reality is shaky. She has a big gap in her memory concerning a woman in her and her father’s life, a woman called Cassie. Henry is equally concerned. His father is behaving strangely. Henry has followed him to Fishbourne.

This is where Connie’s and Henry’s paths cross. The two of them join forces to solve this mystery, but will it mean absolving their respective fathers or saving them from danger?

The book is atmospheric and dark, but not quite chilling. The tension builds up slowly but never quite becomes taut beyond reader’s endurance. The sense of place is palpable, but the place doesn’t seem to play an active role in this drama.

Although the plot is drawn with mastery, something is missing. Perhaps it is the affinity with the characters that I found wanting. Perhaps I didn’t care that very much what happened to them. The tale seemed like a post mortem rather than a story with a beating heart. Perhaps taxidermy had something to do with it.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

P1070069It is very hard to live up to the original – sacred – Hercule Poirot! Just the attempt of writing another one in the series must be  sacrilegious to some hard-boiled followers of Agatha Christie Original.

Yet, I think Hannah has given it a decent try. Her sense of era is spot on; the hotel is very twenties and the plot is intricate, if slightly complex. But then, nothing can beat Poirot’s grey cells.

Yes, the Poirot we have all come to love and cherish as an honorary British icon of foreign persuasion is only just beginning to take his former shape. Good things take time. I wish Hannah well with developing the character to his full, unbridled glory. After all, I grieved when the Final Curtain fell on Poirot. I wanted him to go one forever. Maybe, Sophie Hannah can give him a new lease of life.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

Much better than its latest TV adaptation. Constance comes across as vulnerable and torn between her duty and her desires. Her character develops, heading slowly and painfully towards self-discovery. She is more believable this way.

What I have always marvelled about is how DH Lawrence gets into the head of a woman, especially when he dives into her most intimate sensations and the process of her sexual awakening. Astounding for a man to be able to do that.