30 September 2010

A gang of four from Blaft

They sit in front of me, blocking the bottom of my screen. The mountain of them is imperturbable and amoral as a donkey upon scenting aniseed.

Why 4?
If you have to pay for postage, it's both fun and most economical to order direct from Blaft—and most economical of all to bundle say, 4 books in one order. That was my excuse reasoning. Little do these books care that the reason they sit between me and the screen is that I feel I must speak about them, which is why I haven't yet. The original (2008) Blaft Anthology of Pulp Fiction was my introduction to Blaft, and sowed the seeds of my downfall. Though I really don't review, I raved on about the book and Blaft in general here.

I can't keep what I think of this gang to myself, yet I feel trapped. Damn you, Blaft. Can't you just settle down to being what you are in name, a "small publisher", or at least be mediocre? It's almost impossible for me to be truthful yet avoid sounding like a publicist. So some bitchiness ahead.

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction - Volume II
selected & translated by Pritham Chakravarthy
edited by Rakesh Khanna

Spawned by genuine popular demand (including my scream for more) and only a few months old, this 520-page volume is 154 pages longer than the Vol 1—and Vol 2 also includes a comic. If you like your fiction dark and somewhat longer than short stories, and your comic uncomical and kickful, you'll probably enjoy Vol. 2 even more than 1.

"The Palace of Kottaipuram", the opening novel by Indra Soundar Rajan, is alone worth the price of the book. As with V1, the topics covered in the stories and the treatment of them defy the label "pulp" if that means lower quality. One doesn't expect modern throw-away fiction to concern itself with linking the present with the historical past, except in the most vampiric way. In this pulp, the link attaches land ownership, invaders and colonisers, belief structures and the people who put them into place, AND droit de seigneur—and that's just in one story.

Drugs, love, marriage and mistresses, spirits that take hold of a person; the list of topics in this book is extensive, and unlike many anthologies today, there are many personalities of storytelling here. The improbably prolific Rakesh Kumar, whose stories featured prominently in V1, has a rollicking mystery in V2, with a title that must remain a mystery here, as it is impossible to portray in html. M.K. Narayanan's horrorfest, "The Bungalow by the River", must have a history of its own—a cover with a "shadowy form leering" at a body glittering with parts of a smashed chandelier. "Hold on a Minute, I'm in the Middle of a Murder" by Indumathi is a tale of possession that withstands the most modern attention span, though it is a melodrama. "The Hidden Hoard in the Cryptic Chamber" by Medhavi is so unliterary in suspense that it could be powdered and sold at writers' workshops and through coded ads in the New Yorker.

"Highway 17", the graphic-novel comic by Pushpa Thangadorai, art by Jeyaraj, is supposed to be a sexy thriller, but caused me nightmares. The composition of the panels is at first sight, surprisingly staid. The dynamic duo (who look rather like Sonny and Cher, if Cher were a karate champion) are very leggy, prominently showing the hem vs. cuff details of their bell-bottoms, and the pointed mid-length collar of Kavitha, the karate champion's lined jacket (no buttons). This art must've duo'd as a Butterick pattern spread! Horrors! The pulp look of the comic's original paper has been reproduced in this printing, so there is an additional level of funkiness throughout, especially in two panels that must have been redrawn because of damage to the original. In both of them, the hero seems to have misplaced his moustache.

Although I do miss the fun of Pattukkottai Prabakar's detective team who appeared in V1 (more of Susheela's T-shirts!) this volume includes another assortment of even more lurid covers than V1, and again, a number of camp and tongue-in-the-cheek etceteras—advertisements and columns, including the droll Kangaroo Q & A.

Q When should your heart be kept open, and when should it be shut?
A It should be kept open while you are undergoing a bypass, and shut the moment the operation is done.

If you or your someone special hasn't already got the first volume, I would recommend snapping that up that first because it is more varied, and has a brilliant introduction to the world of Tamil pulp. Volumes I and II complement each other and would make a great gift as a set. I'm delighted they are just "pulp". Their covers (by Shyam) are too delightful to be served up boxed. The series must continue.

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings

by Kuzhali Manickavel
cover design & illustration by Malavika.PC
142 pages

This author has caused me much angst. After I spent a weekend reading this book, then reading it again, I summoned an old favourite of mine, Saki (his driver's licence would have read "H. Hugh Munro"). He came, of course. Death can't keep an author from a fan. I handed him the book and spent hours trying not to watch. Finally, "I see what you mean," he said, (though I'd said nothing). And with that, he uncrossed his legs and left without bothering to stand. He left behind only a whiff of tobacco-tainted sulphur.

He's borrowed Insects like someone borrows a bar of chocolate.

So I'm on my own about Kuzhali Manickavel. KM says she "not very much fond of insects", which makes sense. To those of us who are besotted with the little ones, humans fall far short. The somewhat fey title and the brevity of the book and the stories in it could put many prospective readers off. That would be a shame. Much of this collection of mostly flash fiction has been published in various literary journals, and insect metaphors flit amongst the stories, glooping them together with that rather self-conscious literary flu that also infects the visual arts world. But the strength of the stories overrides all that.

"The Goddess of Dislocation" is almost as good as any great story. I would call it breathlessly perfect if KM hadn't stooped to gratuitous magic realism in the second-to-last sentence. In fiction, anyone can pull a wonder from a hat. So many have that we're overdue for a wonder eradication campaign. But I think that Manickavel knows this, and furthermore, sees the strangeness in the mundane when she has the confidence to run with her own instincts. By putting that sentence to sleep, "Goddess..." becomes a classic.
We decided to go with sister goddesses because Kayalvizhi thought a bad goddess was almost like a haunted house. We Skyped Asha, to let her know what we were doing.
Some readers will be happily reminded of Ukridge in the story (which feels like a first of many) though these women are no Ukridge. Desperation and ennui battle heat, sickness, "cold rice and ketchup", the kind of "going bad" encapsulated by the phrase "plucking pubic hairs", explained so well in the footnote that the story was enhanced and didn't feel interrupted. There's a louche sense of humour with a deadpan delivery, as with other pieces here such as"Spare Monsters" and "You Have Us All Late and Follow". The play on kidney sellers would have made Dorothy Parker say something short and nasty, in jealousy. In every story, humour and horror are as tumbled together as the dirty clothes on the floors of many of these rooms where a generation is living "independently", their world taken up with thinking of themselves and their friends and work.
I would much rather be in trouble than in a train or a bus,travelling with large-elbowed women who kept asking if I was married.
In these stories, family is less important than the landlady. Friends keep in touch partly because of how they handle a friend with a habit, who uses anyone he can. Many of the protagonists (mostly young women) are, they like to say, unliked. They might be. Like Saki's Conradin, their emotions and capabilities are seething just under the surface.

It's also refreshing to find so much smell in stories, and sour at that. KM paints scenes and characters well, too, and although she will use an apt simile, she never falls into the habit of many authors today: stringing similes beginning with "like" together as if this makes a necklace.
James the Office Genius is a man with no earlobes and long, pale fingers like church candles. he wears an army vest with four pockets because he doesn't use the pockets in his pants.
KM has an ability to tell a powerful story in a few words, a rare talent. I might as well reveal that in private correspondence recently, I wrote: "Another author who I think could develop to be tremendously good and an international sensation, is Kuzhali Manickavel, who at the moment has too much taint from the over-workshopped crowd, imo. But once she gains confidence, I'm sure she'll shed her Kelly Link." When she is going with her flow, she already has. (I'm not saying that as a put-down of Kelly Link. Authors who are admired get unconsciously imitated, even by themselves.)

Manickavel's blog Thirdworldghettovampire has a voice that is magnificently her own. In it, she shows that a writer's blog can be something not only worth reading, but addictively so, without the habit destroying brain cells. I would compare it in quality to Jeffrey Ford's blog that I miss very much. It also had marvelous off-the-wall essays, and many stories that are unforgettable (a student's frozen expression, no-shit tales of family relationships as they are, observations about art, politics, doorknobs and hot dogs). It was a wealth of non-self-promotion, and now it's as gone as yesterday's clouds, though not forgotten. Like Ford, Manickavel is so quotable, and I'm glad (in a cautious way) that she is developing a voice that is so original (when she isn't self-consciously trying to be crazy, strange, and worse: experimental-literary) that she will probably become a Monster in our time, over-influencing many other writers in the making. If the characters in her stories could meet others, they would feel a bond with some introduced to readers by another favourite of mine, a writer of great sensitivity and perception, Claude Lalumière.

I hate people who give others advice, unless they're people I trust, or me. So I'll just add my advice now. KM, I hope to see at least some of these characters again, and that you stick with them for a longer attention span and greater depth than flash fiction allows. I'm not pushing you to Write A Novel, but you might consider a structure like Cannery Row. And thinking of Peggy Noonan and Bachi Karkaria, this message is to the Times of India: Kuzhali Manickavel would make a great columnist in your pages, as she would to any periodical of distinction anywhere in the world. If you gave her the freedom she deserves, just pinning her to X number of words X times a week, she could be, say, the Myles na Gopaleen of our time, though she might feel sick at the thought. I, as an international, would certainly look forward to reading her every word, as would many in our world of internationals.

Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings is a find, a flawed gem (and collector's item to be) by an author who has immense potential as a satirist of cutting compassion and wit. The captioned insect illustrations add to the fun of this attractive book with droll illustrations front and back. I highly recommend buying a couple of copies, at least. My last stashed copy is missing, borrowed by Dorothy Parker.

Kumari Loves a Monster
concept by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan
art by Shyam

It's a tossup which is more delightful—Shyam's zaftig beauties, or the monsters they love.

I know one thing. Any man I'd love would know this makes a beaut present – one we can laugh together over, even as he knows his limitations and accepts them. No one can be perfect.

But perhaps he wouldn't be looking at the monsters. The women here are so "we could only wish". They are so wondrously curvy, with something no one in Hollywood would be caught dead with. Real hips! And they have real cheeks, not just gaps under cheekbones. And waists that go in and look touchable, not just tight.

It is the monsters, however, who are the stars of this compilation of hilarious colour pictures on board, faced by one-liners and poems that sometimes rhyme in English, and do what they do in Tamil, in all its gorgeously curvy script that looks like the original noodle alphabet.

And I did promise you a Bitchy comment, so: The Kumari Loves A Monster Come On Repeatty Repeatty Contest has just ended, run by Blaft, in cahoots with that uniquity Kuzhali Manickavel. They should run another, not for glory, but for a romantic dinner with a monster of the winner's choice.

Summation: THE gift book for anyone with a sense of real romance – in shocking pink with, of course, a peekaboo cover.

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? — Folktales from Tamil Nadu
by Ki. Rajanarayanan
translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy

Where has the space gone? This book will get its own review here very soon. There is too much to say about it now.


JP said...

My wife instantly fell for the Kumari book but I have to admit I found it hard to maintain more than a flicker of interest.

The folktales book is awesome.

While on the topic of Tamil literature, this seems interesting although I have my reservations: http://beautifulmind-sam.blogspot.com/2008/06/zero-degree-transgressive-wave.html

This, I think, is a deserving addition to Penguin's Modern Classics list: http://aaahfooey.blogspot.com/2010/09/his-glance-happens-to-skim-heavens.html

anna tambour said...

Perhaps this Kumari book is a morsel more enjoyed by women? And by the way, do you know if there is any relationship between Kumari as a word (and its relationship with girls) and kumara, the sweet potato that spread from Polynesia to New Zealand?

I'd be interested to know what you think about Zero Degree. "Interesting" and "reservations" is exactly how it hit me, from what I could see online.

And thank you for bringing up "Tomorrow is One More Day" by G. Nagarajan. You've written a beautifully in-depth review of a book that because of what you have said, I certainly want to read.