Archive for the 'Writing' Category

07
Jan
09

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

 

SlaveBoys

 

Barry Unsworth’s epic tale of greed and suffering centers around two men in the eighteenth century- Matthew Paris, a doctor aboard The Liverpool Merchant- a slave ship bound for America and his cousin, Erasmus Kemp, landlocked in a Victorian romance that eventually leads to the latter’s emotional downfall. Through The Merchant, the author explores the ghastly triangular trade where baubles are bartered for slaves along the West Coast of Africa en route to the new world, and re-bartered for goods that would be sold in England completing the somber triangle. The title, Sacred Hunger, is as profound as it is original; just as profit is sacred to those who strive for it, so is the drive that impels them, the hunger which finds a dark apotheosis in this brilliant work that in its essence raises philosophical questions much like Camus’ The Stranger.  

 

Few characters in modern literature evoke the degree of terror and brutality as that of the captain of the vessel-Thurso, a shrewd and merciless reprobate greatly feared by his crew. Paris, the slaver’s doctor on the other hand is in strong contrast to Thurso, as a man remarkably enlightened for the century and era he was born into. The Doctor’s reason for embarking on such a calamitous voyage aboard The Liverpool Merchant that had little monetary benefits to offer is steeped in tragedy. For him, it was less a perilous adventure than escape from a land where his happiness was impossible. No stranger to suffering himself, one cannot help but be touched by the good Doctor’s genuine empathy towards the slaves eventually leading him to make decisions that would change the course of his life forever.

 

Although sections of Sacred Hunger are vaguely reminiscent of Spielberg’s movie Amistad, the novel is unlike anything ever attempted before in terms of mastery of craft- Unsworth’s words delineate history with enormous detail-from wanton acts of necrophilia to the bourgeois delicacies of English households, nothing ruins this high-wire act across the valley of time; and in terms of plot, it is flawless. Utterly convincing. There are no cheap gimmicks here-not an iota of pretense. Despite everything-the squalor, the abysmal cruelty human beings are capable of, the humiliation of the weak, the triumph of greed; it would be puerile to call this a depressing novel. It is beyond that. Beyond redemption even. A blasphemous rendering of one thoroughly fucked-up time. The novel is nothing short of a work of genius in that the writing measures up to the monumentally difficult task of re-creating a bygone era to an extreme degree of credibility. It would not be an overstatement to say that Sacred Hunger is one of the most ambitious literary resurrections ever attempted.  It is an endeavor that reeks of masterful storytelling entwined with scholarship and a deep understanding of human psychology. Sadly, it remains one of the most underrated works of the 20th century despite being an imaginative tour-de-force.

01
Nov
08

Trick Or Treat

Today is Halloween. With four days left for the United States Presidential election, anyone can surmise that unless something goes drastically wrong, the conservative right will lose the race. It is evident from the speeches on television that the Republican Party is beginning to feel increasingly desperate. After all, McCain has been outspent and out-endorsed. Colin Powell, Billy Joel, McClellan and Bill Clinton have all fervently expressed their support for Senator Barack Obama.  Does McCain really think that Joe-the-plumber’s voice will be heard against that of these political and cultural heavy weights? Can the American people really lack any sense of discretion? The answer to both these questions, fortunately or unfortunately, is yes.

By using an ordinary middle-class god-fearing white American blue collar worker as a symbol of America’s work force, McCain’s strategy is to win over a majority of the votes from people who are more or less in the same occupational status as Joe. From people who more or less share his love of god and an unabashed sense of pride that supports the reasoning that a citizen of the most powerful country in the world can and should afford to be not-apologetic. To paraphrase Joe, “Why must we be so apologetic dammit! We live in the world’s no.1 country”. Yes, the sad truth is that the no.1 country in the world or at least the people who run it (Guess who? Not Joe-the Plumber, Joe-the CEO) can wreck all the havoc they want wherever they want in the name of patriotism. Or worse still, under the guise of freedom. After eight years of throwing tax-payers money down the proverbial drain, you might think the nation has finally opened its eyes to the truth. You might think that the dawn of realization has finally arrived to awaken the slumbering masses lost in the miasma of deception-it is now more probable for SETI to locate alien signals in space than for the US army to locate any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And yet, there is a significant section of the population that firmly believes that the war can still be won. Yesterday, Sarah Palin urged her listeners to vote for a candidate who will not shy away from a war that is on the verge of being won. Really, who is she kidding ? The answer is obvious – that significant percentage of the population that is kidding itself.

The United States is at present in an economic crisis; apparently the worst since the great depression. While greedy bankers are largely responsible for the steep decline in interest rates by doling out an excess of sub-prime mortgages, the war on Iraq has no doubt played a major and devastating role in emptying the country’s coffers. And yes Joe, that is one amongst several hundred other reasons why an American must be apologetic. If someone doesn’t understand the language of humanity- a hundred thousand civilians dead, half-a-million children crippled, no food supplies for three hundred miles, no water supply for six months (I am sure Joe understands this part about the water supply at least, he is a plumber after all), speak in the language of money- $2 billion a week. Even Bill Gates cannot afford to finance this war for more than 6 months. A year into the war and he will be on welfare – and you don’t need to take my word for it, ask him yourself. In a recent interview with Larry King, Michael Moore was asked how Obama can manage to stabilize the economy in just 6 months and in a reply that shouldn’t have been surprising at all but nevertheless was as I have rarely heard anyone put it so bluntly; Michael said, “How about stopping the war on Iraq? That is $40 Billion an year”. If only all voters thought as rationally as Mr. Moore. But many of them are in fact so stupid that John McCain and Sarah Palin are counting on it. They are depending on every cross-carrying, cheeseburger-chewing yank to fall for their lack-luster, dressed-up policies. People slip into costumes on Halloween. Policies slip into costumes every day.

The most important question looming over this nation right now is whether the people of America will be tricked or treated on the 4th of November. Assume a scenario, however hellish it might be, where John McCain and Sarah Palin make it to the White House. There are two obvious consequences. 1. The War on Iraq continues.   2. Greed flourishes unchecked. Less obvious is the fact that this nation will lose, from what we know so far,  an eminent leader unlike any seen in the history of America. And I am not talking about race here although Obama’s win will at least set a precedent for an African American (albeit only 50%)  to occupy the highest office of the, no doubt, most powerful nation in the world. Now is it possible to ignore this nagging and utterly unpleasant question about race? The answer is a definite No. It has hardly been 50 years since segregation was the de facto standard in many institutions. And a little more than 50 since Rosa Parks refused to shift seats from the white section of a Montgomery Bus in Alabama to the black section. True, 50 years is a long time in politics and culture. True, America has left the era of segregation long behind. That said, Obama’s presidency will be a brutal and sanctifying slap on the cheek of White supremacist groups (By the way, the KKK site proudly asserts that “We do not endorse Obama”).  Only last week or was it this week, two white supremacists had been arrested for plotting a shoot-out in an African-American school. Eventually, their plan would lead to the assassination of Senator Obama. Now is race an important factor to consider in this presidential race?  Consider that a rhetorical question.

Focusing again on Michael Moore’s interview with Larry King, Moore asked a great question. “Even if he (Obama) is a Muslim, how does it matter?”.  Surely, it shouldn’t matter to a country that has separated state and religion. It seems ridiculous to the utmost degree to assume, especially in this case, that Obama’s supposed Islamic faith might interfere with the interests of America. I said supposed because Obama is an avowed practitioner of Christianity. But even if he were a practicing Muslim, it would be retarded to assume that he is a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is a religion by itself that parasites on all religions of the world- Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christanity. But Palin and McCain are counting on the people’s ignorance of that, aren’t they? Treat that as another rhetorical question.

 

 

 

 

 




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