My friend Arpita in Mumbai has been recommending novels for me to read. Her picks so far deal with all my favorite themes: people crossing cultures, history and science, humans transforming through relationships with other humans. I dedicate this page to her and thank her for passing along the experiences and emotions.
Silk, by Alessandro Baricco
This sparse, lyrical novel feels like a series of black-and-white photographs, with an occasional splash of color: the red and orange kimonos of the Girl, the little blue flowers of Madame Blanche. Cool colors, hot colors. I don’t want to see the movie now; it would spoil it for me.
In just these few pages, we experience how deeply and irrevocably exposure to a different culture can affect us. We also experience the excruciating pain of loving more than we are loved, of longing for what we can never have or be.
Baricco’s a master at giving us one image and letting us fill in the details.
I was amused that the main character Hervé’s multi-thousand-mile treks seemingly happened in an instant, every time, as a familiar routine can. They felt like my own flights to and from Japan, which I have down to a science of landmarks and habits, and which seem to exist in a magically collapsible no-man’s land of time. Hervé was either in France or in Japan; the in-between time was like nothing.
“The…gentlemen…would never have thought of breaking the law in their own country. The theory of doing so on the other side of the world, however, seemed to them eminently sensible.”
“His life fell like rain before his eyes, a quiet spectacle.”
“It’s a strange grief…To die of nostalgia for something you will never live.”
The Glass Palace: A Novel, by Amitav Ghosh
This is a beautiful and well-researched story of Burma’s recent history. (I know, it’s Myanmar now, but it was Burma during most of the novel.) It’s also a story of love, and how love changes over a lifetime, as people themselves and their perception of their loved ones change. This a metaphor, or perhaps the other way around, for how nations, and perceptions of nations, change over time. Also, how we want to divide people into neat cultural definitions, when so many of us are cultural patchworks.
Sometimes Ghosh is deceptively boring, and your mind starts to wander, and then—wham—someone you’ve grown fond of is being decapitated in slow motion, and you’re riveted. Like life; long stillness punctuated by dramatic moments that color our lives forever.
“This is how power is eclipsed: in a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation.”
“Every life leaves behind an echo that is audible to those who take the trouble to listen.”
The Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh
Ghosh is a meticulous researcher, so he tickles your brain as well as your heart. Prepare to learn about dolphins, tigers, typhoons, and the history of the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal. And, of course, about desire.
Here we see a group of men and women choosing between primal and intellectual desires. Ghosh plays with the class indoctrination that colors our decisions, and how those class distinctions can reverse themselves or disappear in an instant when circumstances change.
If you never wanted to be a lonely dophin researcher, this novel may just change your mind. Or maybe that’s just me, jealous of everyone’s adventures.
“Yet plain as it was, in this tide country setting where mud and mildew encrusted everything, the building’s crisp lines and fresh paint were enough to give it the exclamatory salience of a skyscraper.”
Who would ever have thought of the “exclamatory salience” of a skyscraper? Ghosh must have been so pleased with himself for coming up with this.