Have started each of these, need to finish them in the next couple of days (all work-related *sigh*).
Elvis, Raja: Stories – M G Vassanji
I’ve been a fan of this author’s gentle, elegiac writing ever since reading The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (a story about an Indian family living in Africa, but more particularly about the gradual moral decay of one man). Vassanji was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and now resides in Canada, and ambivalence is central to much of his writing: what can we ever really know about ourselves, or about the people closest to us? There are twelve stories in this new collection; the only one I’ve read so far is “When She was Queen”, about a young man trying to uncover the truth behind an old rumour that his father once lost his mother to an African magnate in a poker game. The motif here is the narrator’s search for his identity, and a nice twist in the end makes the subject even murkier.
The Janissary Tree – Jason Goodwin
Another entry in the historical detective story sub-genre, this is about a series of murders committed in Istanbul 1836. The case is being investigated by one Yashim Togalu, a eunuch; since few people take him very seriously, he has the advantage of snooping about without drawing much attention to himself. (More books may follow; having a eunuch play the lead in a regular detective series is an intriguing prospect, though I have to say Yashim's sex life can't possibly be less exciting than Poirot's or Miss Marple's.)
A couple of friends have strongly recommended this book and the premise is certainly interesting, but on the evidence of the first 50 pages I’m not sure; the writing is a bit stilted, with quite a few superfluous sentences/redundant observations (if a character says something that’s self-evidently surprising, there will invariably be a line saying “Yashim was surprised by this piece of information”). Maybe it’ll get better. Maybe I won’t hang around long enough to find out.
In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India – Edward Luce
As the Financial Times’s south Asia bureau chief, Luce was based in Delhi between 2001 and 2005, and this is his attempt at “an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great-power status in the 21th century”. Topics covered include the schizophrenic nature of India’s economy, the rise of the lower castes, the repercussions of the continuing obsession with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and the country’s relations with China and the US. I’ve read some of Luce’s longer features in the FT and he appears to have a decent understanding of some of the ground realities in the country, though he faces the foreign correspondent’s classic challenge: writing about a country for a readership that doesn’t know much about it, but without oversimplifying or exoticising.
Either way, the honest outsider’s perspective should be interesting. Will also interview Luce sometime in the next week.