Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)

4*

Written in an elegant, lyrical style (at times it really did feel like poetry), Siddhartha, by German author Herman Hesse, tells the story of a handsome and intelligent Brahmin’s son who abandons the comforts of his home and sets out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. On a quest to seek enlightenment, he encounters a myriad of people and situations along the way, all leading up to his final realisation that the world must be loved in its completeness, and it is the totality of conscious experience that is the best approach to understanding the nature of reality.

This really read like a fairy tale for adults! Though the text is informed by tenets of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, it should not be seen as a substitute for or guide to the principles of those religions. Published in 1922, long before the Hippie movement of the ‘60s, it was the first major work dealing with Eastern thought in the Western world. For this reason, it has influenced the works of many others ahead of its time, such as well-known Beat-era author Jack Kerouac.

There was both a loveliness and profundity present throughout the pages of Siddhartha, and the ending left me feeling uplifted, positive and to an extent, wiser. The final chapter was particularly touching, with its musings on love and life and meaning, and I put the book down feeling light and airy.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, 2007)

3*

Short, very evocative read.

Simple structure – a monologue. The protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, tells his story to a nervous American stranger in a tea shop in Lahore. His story – falling in and out of love with America – is a gripping one. He tells us of his studies at Princeton, his relationship with an American woman, his high-paying job at a valuation firm where he’s quickly recognised as one of the brightest talents, and then his gradually occurring disdain for the nation, post 9/11.

Changez’s account felt real and convincing. His disillusionment comes about slowly, progressively, and as a result, we are empathetic. The love story between him and Erica is poignant and delicately written, and takes up a large part of the novel, serving as a sort of allegory of Changez’s turbulent relationship with America (but to me it still felt like a touching – albeit sad – love story in its own right).

It was difficult to miss some of the ironies though. One that struck me in particular was when Changez referred to Erica’s father’s tone (he makes some rather arrogant comments about Pakistan’s political problems) as having a ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’. This felt a little hypocritical, considering his lofty manner of speech and pompous narrative throughout when addressing the American stranger who sits opposite him. But this, I think, was the point.

An intriguing novel, to say the least, and one that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951)

5*

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel I think will always be relatable. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too begin to observe our surroundings with increasing disenchantment and disillusionment. We are, along with Holden, in total despair of the adult world.

I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and, being of an angsty age, it felt somehow significant when I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings. The polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.

Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, the novel isn’t short of dialogue or humour. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The atmosphere of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:

I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye – it’s written in in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, and allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and identify with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.

Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again, this is what sets the book apart. There are no dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There is no Hollywoodesque element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to our hero’s adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3.5*

My second novel from Ryu Murakami. This gave me the creeps! It was delicious. I do like the way Murakami combines the horror/thriller genre with a sort of philosophical quality, addressing fundamental questions of human nature – loneliness, meaning, despair – all within the context of Japanese society.

Kenji is a 20-year-old ‘nightlife guide’ for foreigners who visit Tokyo. He shows them around the sex clubs and hostess bars of the city. His latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist with disturbing (murderous) tendencies, arouses Kenji’s suspicion from the outset. We accompany Kenji and Frank on their night tour of Tokyo, and through Kenji’s narration, we learn a lot about Japan and Japanese society along the way.

There’s only one really gory part (as in Audition), but when the actual horror begins it completely throws you off balance. Kenji’s state of mind after the horrific event was the most interesting thing to me about the novel – an examination of the human psyche, struggling with questions of right and wrong.

The writing is engaging – Kenji’s insights and curiosities provide plenty of food for thought and reflection on every page, and he remains a likeable character to the very end, even though his decision is shocking. The innocent quality of his narration makes him very sympathetic and exposes the extent of the decadence all around him. Having him as a narrator, the environment we are in becomes easier to deal with and there’s some security to be found in his observations, even after he decides to not to act on what he’s witnessed.

My (limited) experience of reading Japanese fiction so far is that novels’ endings are often left quite open, quite ambiguous – you don’t feel the story is truly over. It’s intriguing, but in this case I would have wanted some more questions answered.

Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman, 1996)

3*

This novel, a stand-alone urban fantasy about a hidden world that lurks beneath the streets of London, the world of London Below, consisting of all those who have ‘fallen between the cracks of reality’, was a charming reading experience. Reminiscent of childhood classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the other world of this story is much like a Narnia for adults – filled with monsters and saints, angels and knights, and, most importantly, a strong sense of mission and purpose which forms the core of the book.

Richard Mayhew leads a fairly conventional life. A recently engaged businessman in London, it is his caring nature that eventually leads to his discovery of this other London. A single act of compassion catapults him out of his everyday existence, and hurls him into a world that is completely and utterly bizarre, yet, as we discover, equally delightful.  Being a Londoner myself, the joys of meeting an angel named Islington, a mysterious Night’s Bridge whose darkness sometimes swallows up those who cross it, a group of people called the Black Friars, and the Earl of Earl’s Court, were hugely enjoyable and added a new, wonderfully wacky dimension to my conception of London.

With a few obvious exceptions (HP, LotR, etc.), fantasy is not an area of fiction I had ever really explored or found myself at home with. But the pleasure of discovering The Floating Market, a giant bazaar (which moves from location to location) where people trade all manners of junk and magical items, was one which was reminiscent of the first time experiencing the moving staircases of Hogwarts. So, even for those who find fantasy somewhat out of their comfort zone, this book will certainly surprise and enchant. My experience as the reader in many ways paralleled the experience of Richard as he slowly fell from the reality we all know (and sometimes detest).

Many times while reading Neverwhere, I found myself marvelling at the author’s creation – what a mad, yet utterly delightful world! Looking forward to reading more of Neil Gaiman’s stuff.