Wednesday, March 14, 2007

WORLD CUP DIARY: Striped Pajamas and Ukrainian Tractors

Pakistan is 17 for 2 against West Indies and life looks worth living...nothing against Pakistan, but would hate to see the West Indians lose. And would hate to see Brian Lara lose.

Anyway, what a tour like this, with its numerous hours spent in flights and at airports, does is it provides a lot of time to read. Read a couple of absolutely marvellous books...

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas: John Boyne
This is what the blurb says:
Nine year-old Bruno knows nothing of the Final Solution or the Holocaust. He is oblivious to the appalling cruelties being inflicted on the people of Europe by his country. All he knows is that he has been moved from a comfortable home in Berlin to a house in a desolate area where there is nothing to do and no-one to play with. Until he meets Shmuel, a boy who lives a strange parallel existence on the other side of the adjoining wire fence and who, like the other people there, wears a uniform of striped pyjamas. Bruno's friendship with Shmuel will take him from innocence to revelation. And in exploring what he is unwittingly a part of, he will inevitably become subsumed by the terrible process.

In many senses, this is hugely unappetising, but the book's yards better.

It's wonderfully effortless. It's incredibly simple, written in almost childlike language, or at least in a Sue Townshend-ish language. The equations between all the characters - none of who are incidental to the plot - are fantastic, with the father, the mother, Maria the nanny, Gretel the Hopeless Case, Pavel the doctor-turned-cook, Schmuel, Liutenant Kotler, et al all playing key roles in confusing Bruno, our hero.

It's light and funny to start with, with the Fury (Fuhrer) starting off the chain of events that leads to Bruno growing up very, very suddenly but not quite grasping his growing up. All the way to Out-with (Auschwitz), where the key events of the book unfold. To the end where our hero - still not sure of what the rest of the novel is all about really - meets an end his father has designed.

It's seriously disconcerting, made even moreso because it's almost entirely seen from a nine-year-old's perspective. Compounded by the fact that while the nine-year-old is doing all the narrating, he is far, far away from understanding what the story is.

A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka
"I had thought this story was going to be a knockabout farce, but now I see it is developing into a knockabout tragedy," is what Nadezhda (or Nadia) says sometime into this absolutely fantastic, incredibly funny book.

It's a simple enough story. Old man living off his meagre pension has just lost his wife, and wants to marry "Botticelli's Venus rising from waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts," or Valentina. Whose logic in marrying the man double her age is simple: "A good life, with good job, good money, nice car, good education for son - must be Oxford-Cambridge, nothing less."

The farce descends into being a tragedy for the old man's scrapping daughters - Vera and Nadia, but turns out to be a fantastic tale on the whole.

And like Boyne's book, this is also written in rather simple language, except that the attempt to make the exchanges realistic - broken, grammatically incorrect, article-less English - Lewycka makes the same sort of mistake that a lot of Hindi filmmakers do when they try to get an offbeat dialect right. Or so I think. Lewycka is Ukrainian and an immigrant, so she might know better...

I have become a reviewer of fiction now, and Pakistan has reached 35 for 2 in the time it took me to write's looking iffy again.