Monday, November 23, 2015

Jamai Babu, directed by Kalipada Das

Jamai Babu
British India (silent with English, Bengali, and Hindi titles), 1931
23 min, slapstick comedy
Directed by and starring Kalipada Das

In this Charlie Chaplin-inspired silent film made in Calcutta, the country bumpkin Gobardhan arrives in the city, is confused by the traffic and noise, believes that a “no nuisance” sign is an address, and fakes illness to spend more time at his in-laws' house so he can sleep with his wife. This is the only surviving Bengali silent film, accidentally rediscovered by Mrinal Sen’s film crew while shooting on location in 1980.

Three versions

One of the most interesting things about this film is the multilingual titles. Like all silent movies, this one has title slides interspersed with the filmed sequences to provide context, narration and dialogue. But because of the multilingual milieu in which it was made, Jamai Babu has titles in three languages - English, Bengali, and Hindi – and they say slightly different things! This provides an interesting opportunity to analyze a film that was originally made in three different languages.

For example, at 4:44, the English-language titles say "What's this Amulda- are you not taking me with you?" but the Bengali titles say "What's this Amulda - you're leaving, are you not going to show me the city?" I don't know Hindi, but I expect that the Hindi version also says something slightly different. This difference is important because the next title screen contains the reply, in which Amulda says that he will show Gobardhan the city later. In the English version, this is a somewhat confusing reply, since the tour has not been mentioned before; in the Bengali version, however, it makes complete sense. Comparing the English and Bengali versions throughout the film, the Bengali version usually provides more context and humor, whereas the English one sounds overly formal and simplified.

When this film was first made, how did multilingual people negotiate these titles? Did they ignore all but one language, or read two or three and combine them to make a composite story? I have no idea, but it would be fascinating to find out.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vango Book 2: A Prince Without a Kingdom by Timothee de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Timothee de Fombelle
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone (French)
First published 2014, I read 2015
443 pages, adventure, young adult

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for providing a review copy of this book!

This is the second volume in a 2-volume work (you can read my review of the first volume here). I’m not sure how I feel about a 2-volume story; it almost seems like the author should have published it in one volume. I suppose that would have made it over 800 pages, which may have seemed too big for a YA book (not that that stopped Harry Potter!).

At the end of the last volume, Vango had discovered the treasure that had been stolen from his parents on the night he had washed ashore as a child, and had learned the identity of the man who had killed his parents. He had not, however, found out the identity of his parents. Meanwhile, Father Zefiro had run off to protect his monastery by killing an infamous arms dealer who is a master of disguise. 

Now, in this volume, Vango is out for revenge on the man who killed his parents. He also wants to interrogate the murderer, to find out who he actually is. Leaving Ethel again, Vango has gone to America in the attempt to trace the murderer down. He runs into Zefiro and helps him stalk the arms dealer, who may have some connection with Vango's own search. But are either of these men meant to accomplish the revenge that they have set out to do?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Equilibrium by Paras Joshi

Paras Joshi
236 pages, pulp fantasy

Thank you to Fingerprint! Publishing for providing a review copy of this book.

According to his author biography, Paras Joshi’s friends call him the “Paolini of the East.” I find this comparison rather appropriate, both because of his age (21 when this book was published) and because of the quality of his writing.

Equilibrium seems to be two different books, and the transition is rather startling. The first section is a heist story, in which a ragtag group of thieves attempts to steal treasure from the highest-security building in the country, which, by the way, is apparently a dystopian society with a huge gap between the rich and the poor. With little background, we are introduced to our hero, Arya, who, despite having the same name as the female Game of Thrones character, is male. Arya may be young, but he’s a great thief because he has a magic key that opens any lock.

After the heist goes wrong and Arya is the only one to (miraculously) escape, the Lord of the Rings fanfiction begins. Arya is rescued from a shadowy, evil being by a member of a wise, humanlike species and is taken to the “House of Ayrof.” This is where he is told by the Saatvikas, the magical elders, that the Ring of Aavaasya (that Arya stole in the first section) is magical, and needs to be taken back to where it was created in order to prevent the apocalypse. Gathering a group together, Arya and the elders set off to return the ring to where it came from.

Sigh. You see the similarities. 

The time period and level of technology of this world is very unclear. At times, the story appears to be set in a future with very advanced technology; at others, it seems to be set in a medieval period. It is ironic that Joshi did not provide consistent details when setting the scene, since a majority of this book is taken up with descriptions, either as narration or as characters telling each other something. While Joshi tries to describe the political situation, it ends up being a disjointed, dry description of events and political parties that does not make the reader care about the characters or what is happening. There is a civil war going on, but it is unclear why I should care. There are some sort of ongoing trade problems, but I don't know why that is important. Most of what Arya does (and therefore most of what the reader is privy to) is listen to or follow the other characters; his active actions are confined to stealing the Ring, which he does on accident, and, in the very last pages, performing magic.

Many of the problems with this book stem from the youth and inexperience of the author. I hope that he will learn from this critique and produce better work, with less description and more action, in the future.

This book might be worth a read if you like fantasy and you want something pulpy to read on the train. I wouldn’t recommend it for anything else.

Equilibrium is available from Amazon US/UK/IN and flipkart

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Measuring the World 
Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway (German)
Originally 2005, I read 2007 Quercus hardcover
259 pages, historical fiction
Found: used at Kolkata Book Fair 2015

Alexander von Humboldt is an obsessive, highly trained all-around scientist who constantly measures, observes, and records all kinds of data. He sets off for South America with the goal of discovering the inland connection between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, observing air pressures at different altitudes, and determining whether the earth is really made up of water. All of this is described in letters to his brother, a high-ranking politician in Germany, which are published in the newspapers.

Carl Friedrich Gauss has an innate capacity for numbers that allows him to make the greatest mathematical discoveries since Newton, in fields ranging from algebra to geodesy to astronomy. Unfortunately, he is also an ass to those around him, especially when he feels they think too slowly to keep up with him.

Alternating between the stories of these two men, Kehlmann tells an ironic, drily humorous story that is as much about science as it is about interpersonal relationships and learned German society in the early 19th century.

The Man of Science as Emotionless Beast 

Like many other authors and television shows (Big Bang Theory, anyone?), this novel depicts these two highly intelligent men as emotionally distant, often rude jerks. Humboldt, for example, often treats his good friend and traveling companion Aime Bonpland as a servant, refusing to take breaks from their adventure even when he is ill. In fact, Humboldt shows more affection for a stray dog that he adopts than he does for any of the people around him. Like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, this is often played for laughs - but I didn't find it amusing. I felt rather sorry for Humboldt, who seems to have several mental disorders, not to mention his seemingly repressed homosexuality.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Chutzpah! New Voices from China, edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner

Edited by Ou Ning and Austin Woerner
Translated from Chinese
2015, I read Advanced Review Copy
281 pages, short stories, non-fiction

Many thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Chutzpah! was an innovative, short-lived Chinese literary journal. In the 16 issues published between 2011 and 2014, Chutzpah! brought writing by minorities and people from the margins of Chinese society - including Chinese-language writers from other countries. While the main magazine was in Chinese, every issue included an English-language supplement, "Peregrine," featuring translations of popular stories from previous issues. This collection, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, presents 16 pieces selected by the magazine's founding editor Ou Ning and English language editor Austin Woerner.
What made Chutzpah! special, both to Chinese readers and to Sinophiles abroad, was its focus on younger and lesser-known Chinese writers, its stylistic eclecticism, its broad definition of what constitutes "Chinese writing," and its independent voice - registered in the more liberal Guangdong province, and beholden to a media conglomerate rather than to a government sponsor, it was able to publish more adventurous work than other publications of its kind in China. - Preface
The works presented in English translation here reflect these characteristics of the magazine. Of the 16 works, there are 14 short stories, 1 creative nonfiction piece, and 1 essay, representing a variety of voices and styles. Because of this eclecticism, I have chosen to review each piece individually, with some overall comments at the end of this post.

When a man is trapped under a building during an earthquake, his soul travels into his past, revealing the actions and decisions that led him to become an alcoholic, depressed marketing representative.  

This story is a surprisingly hilarious take on a near-death experience, mostly because of the snarky comments of the main character as narrated by his friend. An example from the moment of the earthquake:

His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you.

According to Xu's biography, his work usually focuses on the less-fortunate classes of Chinese society. I greatly enjoyed his simple, wry humor, and would happily read more of his writing.

Read Xu Zechen's short story "Galloping Horses."