The radical book review
The Living Days
by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
(Les Fugitives, ISBN 9781999331849)
Poor, old, lonely and living in a dilapidated house on London’s Portobello Road, Mary has little to look forward to until she chances upon Cub, a British-Jamaican boy with whom she strikes up an awkward friendship. Soon mutually dependent, for dark and dubious reasons that neither will readily admit, their lives become entangled in an increasingly surreal and uncomfortable way, with horrifying consequences.
Originally published in French in 2013, The Living Days is an unflinching and at times brutal look at life in the metropolis in the first decade of the 21st century. London is a pulsating, powerful city that contains extreme poverty, violence and racism. It is a divided city, its inhabitants siloed according to circumstance. Mary and Cub’s relationship can be seen as an attempt to build an alternative reality, to create safety within a net of illusion. But as the boundaries between real life and the imagination become increasingly blurred, the fragility of body and mind becomes ever clearer. Mary’s descent into utter delusion is a stark reminder of the pitfalls of ageing; Cub’s life at home with a single mother struggling to bring up her children at a time of economic precarity is a bleak reminder of what younger generations all too often face.
This is a novel of great beauty as well as discomfiting disclosure. Ananda Devi’s writing challenges us to reconfigure our own beliefs about right and wrong and to look beyond our own lives to consider the reality of others. JL
The Birds They Sang
by Stanisław Łubieński, translated by Bill Johnston
(The Westbourne Press, ISBN 9781908906366)
Having recently read and enjoyed Alex Preston’s fascinating book on birds and literature, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, I did not expect to come across another book on the intersection between birds and culture any time soon, and certainly not one that matched Preston’s efforts. Yet here is just such a book. Stanisław Łubieński’s exploration of ‘birds and people in life and art’ is a superlative deep dive into the natural world and humanity’s role in it, for good and ill. While his observations are rooted in the countryside and urban landscapes of his native Poland, Łubieński roves far and wide, culturally speaking, taking in birds and birding in literature, film, art and folklore, from Ken Loach’s Kes to the nature paintings of the Polish artist Józef Chełmoński. He swoops in to track down the elusive Ural Owl then dollies back to consider the astonishing migration routes of the Arctic Tern and the Godwit. James Bond gets a mention – not 007 but the American ornithologist whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his fictional agent.
Łubieński is omnivorous in his interests and infectious in his enthusiasms, whether it be birdwatching by British soldiers in POW camps or a consideration of how an ear attuned to jazz can better appreciate the complexities of birdsong. We learn of the caged bird that heard Mozart compose and took it upon itself to improve the maestro’s composition, and experience the natural glory that is a starling murmuration. This is a life-affirming work on what we as humans can learn about the avian world and what an attentive study of birds can teach us about ourselves. PW
by Jeet Thayil
(Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571356416)
In his third novel, Jeet Thayil picks up the story of a character from his debut Narcopolis. Dominic Ullis, writer and addict, has returned to India from New York with his wife Aki to get their life back on track. Things do not go to plan: Aki suffers from crippling depression and, four years into their marriage, she commits suicide.
Consumed with grief, Dom abandons their Delhi home and flies – with the ashes of his dead wife in a box – to Mumbai, the scene of his drug-addled youth. Here he embarks on a lost weekend of inebriated mourning. Introduced by his dealer, Danny Blow, to a new drug, meow meow, he mixes this with heroin, cocaine and alcohol, as he trawls the underbelly of the city he insists on calling Bombay. As he crosses paths with the pampered demi-monde of the city we are treated to passages of political vitriol as characters break off their ingestion of mind-altering substances to embark on furious denunciations of Trump or Modi. However, although entertaining, these are poorly integrated into the narrative and sit uneasily with the trippy flow of the novel.
With disheartening inevitability we reach the scene where Dom snorts Aki’s ashes mixed with heroin and has a drug induced heart-to-heart with his dead wife and then, ploddingly, onward to an unlikely and thoroughly unearned redemptive ending. Dom’s apathetic response to any question is ‘I don’t see why not’. Perhaps it is time for the author to abandon this affectless character and use his obvious talent to give us a book in search of a why. PW
Becoming Human Again
by Donald E Miller, with Lorna Touryan Miller and Arpi Misha Miller (University of California Press, ISBN 9780520343788)
The 1994 Rwandan genocide unleashed mass violence with shocking ferocity and speed, as Hutus were mobilized to slaughter, with machetes, 800,000 Tutsis in just 100 days. This book gives voice to Tutsi survivors. Their testimonies are harrowing. We read about individuals having to watch family members being mutilated, witnessing entire vibrant communities being reduced to post-apocalyptic graveyards. Sexual violence features widely.
The material is gleaned from 260 interviews the authors conducted over many years in Solace Ministries – a Christian organization set up in Kigali in 1995 to help Tutsi widows and orphans.
The authors offer valuable insights into psychological trauma and its link to loss of identity.
Horror turns to hope in the second half of Becoming Human Again, which looks at forgiveness in tandem with religious values. The controversial role the Church played in the genocide, with clergy aligning themselves politically with the Hutu Power movement, is not glossed over. ‘Half the deaths during the genocide occurred in church buildings,’ the book notes. Many of the survivors interviewed say they can never set foot inside a church again because it abandoned them in their darkest hour. But many also say that personal prayer gave them the transcendental energy to forgive mass killers who still live in their local communities.
Becoming Human Again is not an easy read but it is a worthwhile one; a journey through horror to healing. JPO