Book Reviews: Aravind Adiga: Between the Assassinations; Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

So time to rest from posting poems and do some reviewing of books I’ve just read again.

ARAVIND ADIGA: BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS

Adiga is well-known as the author of “The White Tiger”, but he was new to me. Here he invents a town in south-west India – Kittur – and strings together a series of short stories around a short period in the town’s history. Short stories are famously out of fashion (why is a bit of a mystery) and this is one way of overcoming this trend, by providing a common thread between the stories. It works well. We come to know the town well, and once informed about some aspect of it, the author doesn’t need to do the work all over again. He prefaces each story with a short tongue-in-cheek tourist guide entry on some aspect of the town featured in the story. This is both amusing and revealing.

The people he highlights are mostly near the bottom of society and all are struggling. They are credible characters who grow as he describes them, but he manages to say a lot about Indian society and, like Dickens in England, he finds a lot wrong. The book is not satire, but a few touches show Adiga would be a fine satirist. That’s all admirable, but here comes my criticism. Clearly in the society he describes, some people with hopes do realise them. For some people, life does get better. But Adiga’s characters all fail. After a bit, the reader realises that if someone has managed to get a good job or find a new friend, it will all go horribly wrong. It has to. This does not make the book a gloomy read, but I did begin to feel much the way I feel about Thomas Hardy, that a malign influence was making sure that everything ended in disaster, and that malign influence was the author. I should stress that Adiga is clearly a compassionate man and one with a lively sense of humour. I just wish the failures were more nuanced sometimes.

LAURENCE STERNE: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN

Well, I’ve read it at last. I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I’m reviewing it some 250 years after it was written, but better late than never. Partly it was that I’m prejudiced against the 18th century until the political upheavals from the 1770s on and the rise of the Romantic poets. Mea maxima culpa. This is a hilarious, riotous, lovely book. I suspect a lot of visitors to this blog will at least have heard of it, so I’ll keep the basic description short.

Laurence Sterne was a mid-18th-century clergyman, more conscientious than many, who wrote a book widely condemned for being bawdy and immoral. It’s the account by the main character, Tristram Shandy,  of his life and origins (starting before he was born – in fact it opens by noting that at the moment of his conception, his mother asked his father if he’d remembered to wind up the clock). In many ways it’s astonishingly modern. Tristram Shandy is a man of endless curiosity and volubility. The book is one great stream of consciousness burble – deliberately – but it is never boring because Shandy reveals things he doesn’t realise. He seems to be utterly humourless, yet the book is extremely funny.

Most modern readers will find the bawdy bits quite infrequent and mild, even with the aid of learned notes which point out all sorts of double entendres, some of which would not otherwise work for a modern reader (for example, that the long digression on hobby-horses should be read knowing that in Sterne’s time these were not only children’s toys and obsessive passtimes, but also slang for prostitutes). The book is full of richly comic characters, yet with the exception of the hatchet job on Dr Slop, they are tragi-comic and drawn with compassion. Tristram’s uncle and his servant, for example, engage in endless war-games, building and demolishing fortifications on the uncle’s land; but we can’t forget that these are two brave and able soldiers both robbed of their military careers by wounds.

The humour is often Pythonesque in its improbability and its way of turning one comic disaster into a chain reaction. I find hilarious (as some might find bewildering or frustrating) the way narrative and argument are constantly interrupted by digressions, as with the story of the King of Bohemia, which doesn’t get further than “There was a certain king of Bohemia” (several times repeated) over several pages.

I’m two-thirds of the way through writing a first draft of a fantasy novel which includes time travel, people with multiple identities and different bodies, parallel comic worlds, repeated invocation of all kinds of other works (Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who, The Thirty-nine Steps, Alice in Wonderland, The Magnificent Seven) – and yet when I got into Tristram Shandy, I found Sterne had done it before me.

The chapters are many and very short, which is probably a good thing as the book is so jam-packed with thought and wit that I found I preferred to read it in short bursts. IT IS FUN.

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3 Comments

  1. I read bits and pieces of Tristram Shandy during my post graduation days. He’s so contemporary…even more than writers today are sometimes…..thank you for the review. Adiga’s White Tiger was morose as well…but rightfully so. Thank you Simon….

    Reply
    • Thanks, Neel. Yes, I was amazed how far ahead of his time Sterne was. I wouldn’t say “Between the Assassinations” was morose: it was full of fun, but if you identified the short story’s main character’s main hope and then classified the ending as PASS, FAIL or BORDERLINE, it would be FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL. I suppose this is a problem with a collection of short stories: one novel with a depressing ending is just one FAIL and the pattern isn’t so evident.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for the review of Tristram Shandy. I confess I’d never heard of it but it does sounds like fun. Fortunately, the copyright has well and truly expired and I was able to download a free copy of the book. Here goes…

    Reply

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