Monkey-Man and The Changeling

Two more books on the Man Asian Literary Prize completed making six in total. I am totally stumped about how I can read the other four which I simply cannot track down. I did find three of them on sale on an Indian website equivalent of Amazon, Flipkark, but they only deliver in India. So I will now await the short list announcement on 16th february and if there are any on there which I have not read I will renew my efforts to find them. So to these two books.

Monkey-Man was set around the turn of the millenium in Bangalore and had an unusual start with a contrivance to get four of the key characters introduced via the sighting of a ‘monkey-man’ on the third day of the new millennium. This strange episode did not then really feature in the novel until very late on and then only as a vehicle for a radio interview. The novel for me would not have lost anything had this surreal inclusion been missing.

I found the novel interesting and informative about the changing nature of Bangalorean society and its development as an IT hub but the main characters did not fire me. One key character,Shrinivas Moorty an Indian middling academic who ends the novel with a heart attack never gained my sympathies and I did not warm to him at all. We see his life unfold but I was left thinking it was pretty mundane. The modernizing world represented b y a radio announcer and changes in the academic curriculum whilst again interesting were not wholly convincing either. One review I read said this:

‘ Now Usha puts Bangalore on the map—this is a loving yet humorous tribute to the city, its renaissance, its inhabitants, its blend of global and parochial, high tech and low tech, sacred and profane, the extraordinary and the mundane. This is a novel to be savored slowly like a hot cup of coffee on a cool Bangalore morning.’

Well whilst the novel does evoke all that to some extent my coffee at Pacific Coffee did not savour this novel!!

The second novel by the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe was a challenging read. It is the kind of novel where the reader may well fall into two or even three types. First myself, who knows little of Oe’s history and background and thus reads it simply as a novel in its own right. Second someone who knows more of the background and addresses it with this explicitly in mind and thirdly anyone who can understand many of the complex academic and theoretical issues alluded to as you move through the book.

My reading of it though was enjoyable. I found it highly readable and the story interesting throughout the 450+ pages. It starts with the suicide of his brother-in-law who throws himself off a building and this is conveyed to the leading character, Kogito, through some tapes sent to him by Goro, the aforementioned suicide. The book then continues to explore why this happened, both through these tapes, through re-lived conversations and events and through discussions with his wife, Chikashi, Goro’s sister, why he might have ended his life in this way. Kogito is a famous novelist, Goro, a film director and Chikashi a painter who although at the periphery of the novel for much of it is actually painted as an extraordinary perceptive character often offering Kogito insights into his intellectual meanderings which are a constant feature of the novel.

In its own right the novel works for me. I would have liked to have understood more some of the philosophical illusions but they did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the novel. What I found revealing after concluding was that the novel is strongly autobiographical and was being judged in many of the book reviews I read in terms of where it stands on the books of this novelist and how it fits into his real life where he did indeed have a brother-in-law, film director who committed suicide. The reviews ponder a lot on what Oe is trying to achieve in this overtly autobiographical novel and judge its quality partly through that lens. Indeed some of his illusions about his own artistic merit are interpreted as being a comment on his own expertise. These revelations made me see the novel in a new light though I am glad I was not aware of this when i read it. For me it stands as a sometimes powerful and certainly gripping novel in its own right whatever its progeny. I would recommend it and it will be interesting to see if it makes the short list, more likely in my view than Monkey-Man.

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