Monday, April 18, 2005

Books that share genes: Ira Levin, Steven Pinker

It's always fascinating when the books I’m reading at various times suddenly intersect each other in unexpected ways - thematic similarities, a piece of dialogue here, a phrase there, a striking bit of imagery that evokes a line read somewhere else. At times it’s simply the case that I’m going out of the way to relate two things to each other, even when the link is tenuous. But that certainly isn’t what happened in the most recent instance. A few days ago Amit Varma gave me Steven Pinker’s acclaimed book The Blank Slate, a revisiting of the human nature debate - to what extent people’s behaviour is determined by their genes as compared to their environment. It’ll take me some time to get through (non-fiction not being my strongest point as a reader) but I read the prologue and it looks very interesting.

Anyway, I took the Pinker home, set it down and got back to the book I was already halfway through, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil - a creepy 1970s thriller about a Nazi plot...but no, I’m not going to do the spoiler thing this time. Enough to say that it has to do with genes and with controlling environments to foster a certain type of human being. And that it’s probably more relevant today than when it was written. I was struck by the link between these two books that occupy such completely different genres.

Levin has the ability to get under your skin and stay there. Despite being a writer of bestsellers, a novelist working in a popular genre, he somehow has a reputation more as a cult author than a mainstream one. (It’s amazing how little on him there is on the Web and strangely his books are rarely ever available in a firsthand bookstore in Delhi, though you’ll see the occasional moth-eaten copy in roadstalls.) Paranoia is the key to his stories - from a young housewife worrying that her husband might be in collusion with Satanists (Rosemary’s Baby) to another young housewife (The Stepford Wives) finding herself in a little town where all the women are unnervingly docile. The Boys From Brazil takes this to another level: here, an elderly Nazi-hunter (based on the real-life Simon Wiesenthal and played by Laurence Olivier in the 1978 film version) tries to find out why a group of Nazis, under the instructions of the notorious “Doctor Death”, Josef Mengele, are plotting the murders of unconnected 65-year-old men in various countries.

Having already seen the film years earlier, I was familiar with the central plot revelation, but that didn’t make the book any less effective. Read The Boys From Brazil and any other Levins you can scrape off the Daryaganj sidewalks (if you’re in Delhi) if you’re seeking genuine, subversive thrills. Meanwhile, I’m starting on the Steven Pinker (which, incidentally, has a brief reference to Mengele and his sadistic experiments in concentration camps).

1 comment:

  1. an curious abt The Blank Slate.. am currently reading about Hume Kant and one theory of his where he talks about if people would have any original thoughts if it weren't for their empirical influences.. wld be interesting to know the controlling environs and basic nature...