Books

A Jin Wong Appreciation Post

So I recently read the first two parts of the Legends of the Condor Heroes novel, which are considered the Chinese equivalent of Lord of the Rings. Written in Chinese by the writer Louis Cha under the pen-name Jin Wong in the 1950s, this cycle of four novels is wuxia perfection, mashing up historical figures and events with figures of myth and legend. The translations are by Anna Holmwood, a Swedish translator with impeccable credentials, an M Phil in Modern Chinese Studies and a BA in history from Oxford University. Even though she gets flak from OG fans for the anglicized translations, specifically her choice of names, the English versions capture the spirit of the milieu without teetering into footnote hell.

But indeed, you have to maintain a balance between provoking a reader’s interest and losing them completely due to incomprehensibility….the detail, the elements of Chinese medicine or historical references that are perfectly obvious to a Chinese reader. And yet, it is my opinion that an English reader doesn’t need to understand everything on the same level as his/her Chinese counterpart. I would rather that a translation inspires a reader to explore something further than sacrifices the energy and flow in order to make every detail plain.

https://caroltranslation.com/2018/04/03/greatest-women-in-translation-anna-holmwood/

Legend is being published as four parts, out of which two are already out early this year. It is the first of three volumes. The next book is Return of the Condor Heroes, where the two play a subordinate role to the next generation of heroes, followed by Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, which goes one generation further. Holmwood and fellow translator Gigi Chang have been releasing one book every year, since 2018, and since every book has sub-volumes, we are looking at a decade more at least before the series is complete.

Legend of the Condor Heroes deals with the story of every-man hero Guo Jing and his fated duel with his brother-from-another-mother, Yang Kang, and the twists and turns of fate that lead various characters’ journeys to intersect. In the 13th century, where the story is set, friends become foes and vice versa; misunderstandings lead to decade-long rivalries; oaths of vengeance are sworn and kept; both justice and redemption go hand in hand. And through all this, there is the thread of otherworldly kung-fu disciplines that ties characters together. In Holmwood’s own words, from her introduction to the first book:

You are about to begin a journey that will span the lengths of the Chinese Empire and beyond, traverse centuries, witness dynasties rise and fall in brutal wars and deceitful invasions, brave men fight and die for their homeland and traitors exchange honor for personal gain. You will meet young men and women with remarkable kung fu skills, you will encounter gruff men who, despite appearances, always respect the code of honor that governs the martial arts world. You will be amazed by semi-celestial animals, magic medicinal concoctions and poison-tipped weapons. You will come face to face with princes who manipulate and mothers who are easily manipulated, men whose love is undying and women whose hearts never err.

Yes, in case you didn’t realize, I am besotted with the books, the immense cast of colorful characters, the heavily involved subplots, and the universal moral themes that the martial masters both embody and defend. I will freely admit to being enthralled by the multi-page action sequences, the magical ebb and flow of words on paper that bring to life one-on-one duels, both physical and supernatural. One such conflict, between two martial arts stalwarts that are evenly matched, is fought with musical instruments – a flute and a zither.

The iron zither was the call of monkeys and apes in a remote mountain range, the hoot of owls in a dark wood. The jade flute was songs under the spring sun, whispers in a maiden’s chamber. Fierce grief against the softly sensual. When one tune rose in pitch, the other descended. When one reached a crescendo, the other fell all but silent. Neither succeeded in dominating the other.

By the time I was on the second book, the momentum of the story overpowered the sheer volume of information being thrown at me. Here a character suddenly makes an appearance, and then turns out to be related to another from the middle of the first book. We meet another personage and realize that they have tangentially been connected to the proceedings for quite a while. And of course, it helps that every new character has a personality that crackles and pops on the page. A favorite is Hong Qigong, chief of the Beggars’ Sect, who refuses to take on disciples, but is coerced by the wily Lotus Huang into teaching Guo Jing the formidable Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms technique. How does she do so? Why, by cooking a steady course of epicurean delicacies for the gourmand. And Miss Holmwood’s translation does more than justice to the proceedings.

The beggar’s chopsticks got straight to work on what Guo Jing thought looked like pan-fried beef strips. But Count Seven knew it was something much more complex than that, as new flavours and sensations unveiled themselves with every bite. One moment smooth, another moment crunchy – it was impossible to predict the next taste or texture. It was as if his tongue was sparring with a martial master. He examined the dish. Each strip was made up of five different layers! “I can taste shank of lamb, ear of piglet, veal kidney and . . .” The beggar closed his eyes as he savoured each mouthful. “I’ll bow to you if you can identify the others!” Lotus grinned. “Rabbit saddle . . . and . . . thigh of water deer!” “Amazing!” She clapped and cheered. Guo Jing could not believe how much effort she had put into each tiny strip. He was also full of admiration for Count Seven Hong for being able to distinguish the five ingredients. “Pork and lamb bring out one flavour, water deer and veal another,” Hong mused. “I can’t work out how many there are in this dish alone.” “Twenty-five, if we ignore the variations you get from layering the meats in different sequences.” Lotus smiled. “This dish is called Who Hears the Plum Blossom Fall While the Flute Plays? Five kinds of meat, the same as the number of petals on a plum blossom, and the strip is shaped like the dizi flute. It is meant to be a test of your palate, and your tongue affords you the title of Top Scholar.” Count Seven Hong moved on to the other bowl. “This broth is too precious to be devoured.” He scooped up a few cherries, tasted them and – ah! – gasped with delight. Refreshing lotus leaf, delicate bamboo shoot, honeyed cherry – their flavours are unmistakeable, Count Seven thought, as he helped himself to a few more cherries. He chewed with his eyes closed. What is the fruit stuffed with? It tastes meaty. Fowl. It has to be . . . “Partridge?” he said out loud. “No . . . spotted dove!”

Ah, Lotus Huang. Another character that

Of course, it is also the translation choices that fascinate me. Even the act of translating the characters’ names posed a challenge to Holmwood and Gigi Chang, her colleague.

For example, in the case of heroine Lotus Huang’s kung fu master father, his six disciples are named after feng, or “wind” in Chinese. In Chang’s version, they are called Hurricane Chen, Cyclone Mei, Tempest Qu, Zephyr Lu, Galeforce Wu and Doldrum Feng.

http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201904/19/WS5cb91987a3104842260b70d3_1.html

How popular is this series? So popular that there has been adaptations left, right, and center since the books came out. So far, I know of 9 TV shows based on the first book alone, released at the rate of one every decade. I tried watching the 2008 version that’s on Prime Video, and was turned off in the first twenty minutes. Both the bad streaming quality and the dated quality of the show were to blame. However, at another, more wuxia-experienced friend’s suggestion, I gave the 2017 series a chance, and blasted through twenty six 40-minute episodes in the course of 48 hours. The budgetary constraints make themselves known, but the series is a remarkable adaptation, following (so far) nearly every subplot in the books.

When I got to episode 26, the quandary was whether I should keep going or wait for the next book in the series. Obviously the book series has a long way to go before it finishes. Two more books to complete the story of Guo Jing, Lotus Huang and their journey, with Book 3 due to release in September this year. Or so I thought, until it turned out A Snake Lies in Waiting has already been released in the UK, and it’s the US version that will be published later. A few clicks and I had it on my Kindle, and the next day was well-spent. I can’t wait to get back to see how the ocean-bound sequences play out onscreen.

As for the Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s my reaction: LOTR feels like a hearty meat stew compared to the song of spice and flavor that is Condor Heroes. Maybe it makes sense from an ur-text perspective, where both Tolkien and Jin Wong’s works inspired and influenced generations of writers who wanted to create their own fantasy worlds. But in terms of plot, characters, and moral complexity, there is no contest. Jin Wong wins hands down. Which may offend you Tolkien-fans in the audience, but you should probably go curse me in a made-up language. What Condor Heroes reminded me of, and made me go seek out were more non-European works. Indian fantasy and mythology, for example. Baahubali evoked a similar mood, borrowing heavily from Indian epics. As did Mahabharata spin-offs like Mayabazaar which I finally watched last weekend since Amazon Prime had a phenomenal sub-titled version. But that’s a rave for another day.

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Books, Music

Reading At the End of the World: Daisy Jones & The Six

Midway through reading Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s oral history of a fictional rock and roll band from the 70s, I feel this desperate urge to pause and listen to the Fleetwood Mac album Rumors. It was not a normal, hey-I-need-to-check-this-out feeling, it was somewhat akin to craving for a drink on a hot summer day, when you lick your lips and want that first swig of a cold beer to fill that ferocious vacuum in your head and belly all at the same time.

If you read the book, and get to the portion where the band’s seminal album ‘Aurora’ is being made, you may understand why. Of course, you also need to know something about Rumors, in order to make sense of the relationships unraveling on the page and how this very real album, to me, seemed like the only piece of musical history that could provide the musical resonance the book needed. I listened to the first few songs from Rumors, skipped to ‘Songbird’, a track that lacerates and heals my heart every time I have played it in the last twenty-odd years, and then carried on reading.

It is incredible how great the format of the book works for the subject. It is completely immersive, and visual in a way that most books try to be, but do not succeed. The picture that emerges from the juxtaposition of multiple people talking about the same sequence of events, with viewpoints switching in near-real time, makes it feel like I am reading a transcript of a documentary video. Reid captures the distinct voices of the characters in an incredible manner — no one is peripheral, and while the bulk of the focus is on the talented duo of Daisy Jones and Brian Dunne, it is the reactions of characters like Eddie and Camille that garnishes the story, shows you the debris the main characters leave behind, and enriches our experience. The experience, just so you know, is not just that of music, or love, or drug-fueled tours, it’s about the way the writer manages to capture the zeitgeist of the seventies, and a female perspective to rock and roll that I have not seen outside of Patti Smith’s autobiographies. The way the characters of Daisy, Karen, Simone, and Camilla are so different, and do not exist as cliches or tropes of the genre, is astonishing to say the least.

My favorite moment in the book comes when the author (not Jenkins Reid, but the fictional author of this fictional band) breaks character, with a short note explaining why, and the pages that come after not only signal the beginning of the end, but also gives you an idea of where things are about to go. Like turning the viewfinder of a lens that brings a blurry image into focus. It ends with a letter from a mother, and then all the lyrics of the songs in Aurora, one after the other, in the order of appearance in the album.

It is not surprising to learn that Amazon Studios is working on a TV adaptation of the book, and I have no doubt the production team has a tough time ahead of them. And it’s not just the music, it’s about adapting the iconography the book flaunts — be it Daisy’s drug-fueled vulnerability, or the way her voice changes on the fifth take of ‘Impossible Girl’, or the visual description of the album cover shoot of Aurora. It will be hard to match up to what’s in our heads when we read the book, and I am not holding my breath.

But what got me grinning like an idiot was reading the acknowledgements by the author (Jenkins Reid this time), and finding this dedication to her husband:

To Alex: It was hard to know where to acknowledge you because you have your hand in every aspect of this story. You came up with the idea with me, taught me about music theory, listened to Rumours with me, fought about Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie with me, gave up a job to be home more, became the primary parent, and read the book approximately nine million times. And most of all, you make it easy to write about devotion. When I write about love, I write about you. We’re ten years into this party and I’m still mad for you.

Turns out the entire framework of the book is based on the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks dynamic!

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Books, Comics

An Apocalypse of Cockatoos

Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons

Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989

Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and Digital Chameleon introduced lens flares and motion blur with their colors, thereby ensuring these maverick titles looked completely different from the regular superhero fare, the future of the industry was sealed.

At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, OnePiece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.

But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.

A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.

By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.

The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.

It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?

Alan Moore – From Hell

The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.

I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.

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Books, Movies

A Book, a film

Two things caught me by surprise last week. The first was a book called The Devourers, by a writer named Indra Das. The second was a film called Laal Kaptaan, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Saif Ali Khan. The two are completely unrelated, but I found them in them examples of the kind of historical fiction I want to read, or at least the kind of treatment that makes me not want to bang my head against a wall.

The Devourers falls squarely in the speculative fiction genre; talking about it is difficult because of the nature of the beast (pun intended). A professor in Kolkata meets a stranger one night, one who claims to be a half-werewolf and consequently, immortal. The stranger piques his interest by telling him a story set in Shahjahanabad, on the banks of the Yamuna, during the time of the reign of the Great Mughals, and then assigns him a responsibility. The story then becomes a retelling of three different individuals’ life stories, and an act of violence that weaves these stories together.

One of the reasons I picked up Devourers was the blurb by Mike Carey, he of Lucifer and Girl With All the Gifts fame. The other is the phenomenal cover by Chris Panatier, the kind of illustration you do not see on an Indian publication. The work is in pen and ink and watercolor, and wraps around the book. It captures both the soul of the writing as well as a very specific mood, reminiscent of both illustrators like James Jean and the imagery of great tattoo inkers.

But it was the writing that stayed with me. Das grounds his characters and the locale exceptionally well, bringing to life the mangroves of the Sunderbans and the marketplaces of Shahjahanabad; the moments of tension and terror are narrated with inevitability and poetry. And he grinds together myths and folklore of different cultures to produce the most vivid imagery one can associate with creatures of the supernatural.

The beast was like no animal I’d ever seen on this earth. Glowing red in the flickering light of rain-swathed fires, with its war paint of blood and tattered flesh, which hung like ragged pennants off its spines and slicked fur, it was rakshasa of the Hindus, it was asura, lord among their demons. It was glowing, infernal ifreet of the djinn, it was Iblis made incarnate, rising from cold wet earth instead of the arid sand of the desert. It was a towering impostor god of Europe resurrected in this empty stretch of Shah Jahan’s empire and worshipped with fire and violence.

Indra Das – The Devourers

How can I describe what came to my senses, in that silence? Even the birds stopped their screaming, the insects their singing. The smell of it was overpowering. It smelled like birth, the birth of god or demon, raw and animal and steaming in the morning air. Sweet and musk, like frankincense and myrrh; heavy and pungent, like the juice of living things, blood and piss, sweat and spit; rancid and fecund, like waste, shit, and earth. It stank of both life and death, both so intoxicating I found myself flushed with my own blood, my heart aching. I could hear it, feel it breathing, the rumbling of a mountain slumbering through centuries slivered to seconds. It walked to me, twigs snapping sharp under its great hands and feet, soil squelching under its enormous, impossible weight. It was on all fours, or so its steps told me, and yet I could feel its boiling breath, a hot and humid wind on my face as it approached. Even crouched, it was as tall as me.

Indra Das – The Devourers

Usually, when reading a book like this, my worry is that it will end with a set-up to a sequel and an inevitable franchise, the bane of every work in this genre. Thankfully, Das does not fall into that trap. The conclusion involves a transformation, an end that reminds me of the best that outre literature has offered.

The Devourers is a work about change and acceptance; Laal Kaptaan, on the other hand is a story of revenge, pursuit, and ultimately, destiny. It is a film by a creator whose work I have followed with interest over the years. Navdeep Singh sauntered onto the Indian alternative film scene in 2007 with a local remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in rural Rajasthan and starring Abhay Deol (remember Abhay Deol? The guy was the poster-child of great Indian cinema in the 2000s, until he crashed and burned his way out of the industry). His sophomore effort NH10, a slow-burn socially conscious thriller, released eight years later in 2015, to considerable more acclaim and box office success. Laal Kaptaan, which released in 2019, alas, failed to find its audience. Possibly because the historical thriller comes at a time when Indian cinema is rewriting history to the tune of Hindutva. The past is sexy only when there is opulence and patriotic fervor kneaded into clear them/us narratives that spoon-feed how great everything was in the past.

Singh obviously does not take this route. Set in the late 1700s (1789, to be precise, if we look at the Battle of Buxar as the narrative lynch-pin), the film follows a Naga ascetic (Saif Ali Khan) on a hunt for a man named Rehmat (played by Manav Vij, who I last saw in Andhadhun last year), with whom he has — to quote Beatrix Kiddo — “unfinished business”. The story takes us through some incredible sequences set in the arid landscapes of the Chambal valley, a place already seared in our collective consciousness as a hell-scape where terrible things happen to everyone, good or bad. Saif Ali’s character is named Gossain, which I understand is just short-hand for “holy man”, so until the end of the movie, he is truly a man with no name. Over the course of his journey, he encounters a mishmash of characters, including a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter accompanied by two hounds, who can literally smell his prey; a veiled prostitute who attempts to hire the protagonist to exact her own revenge, but on finding him unwilling to take up her cause for money, shows him her mutilated face to sway him to her cause; a vertically-challenged Maratha chieftain leading some wayward Pindari warriors, a pack of undisciplined riffraff that refuse to follow orders and pounce like scavengers on corpses lying by the roadside; and Afghan warriors who track the gossain because — I kid you not — “you killed my master, prepare to die”.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the movie is a genre-lover’s wet dream. It also helps that Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkateshan get their historical details just right. Everything — from weapons to costumes, language to customs — feels authentic and grounded in both era and locale. The characters are splendid — Khan and Vij make for excellent, balanced antagonists when they share the screen; the supporting characters shine regardless of screen time, the lonely widow played by Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal channeling a bit of Toshiro Mifune, Madan Deodhar as the hapless Maratha captain trying to bring his no-good men under control. My favorite moments are the ones that bring the nonsensical theatrics of neo-historical potboilers into sharp contrast, like the short dance performance in the Maratha tent, or the pragmatic outlook of the characters regarding the British. Or even the grounded notion that this land, in the eighteenth-century, was a complicated place where soldiers bickered and back-stabbed each other, with no grandiose thread of nationalism weaving through it all.

However, much like Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2015 Byomkesh Bakshi, all the attention to style and historical detail cannot take away the fact that Laal Kaptaan suffers dreadfully from Sergio Leone syndrome. One wishes the story being told was a little tighter, the pace a little more balanced than the steady canter it sinks into, even in its moments of action. We find our attention divided by too many perspectives; the reveals, including a betrayal in the middle of the story, do not bear the impact that they should. Overall, the film takes too long to weave all its threads together, and it suffers for all that.

The year’s best-of lists in Indian film have gone on record saying that 2019 was not as fertile for Indian cinema. I had high hopes about this particular film, based on the trailer, and my overall optimism regarding Singh’s storytelling skills. It does feels gratifying that something like Laal Kaptaan gets a theatrical release and at least a degree of star-power behind it. It is the kind of film that I like to recommend to friends, the ones that fall under the radar and can still evoke discussion. Hopefully, a filmmaker like Singh continues to push genre boundaries with his works. Hmm, maybe someone should point him to this werewolf story that is set in Mughal times, by this writer named Indra Das…

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Books

My Favorite Unfinished Book Series

In reverse order.

#3 Kentaro Miura’s Berserk

Miura’s fantasy manga series began in 1988, and in 31 years, there have been 40 volumes. There have been periods of complete silence from the creator for many years, and we have no idea when the series will end or how many more volumes there are.

What is the series about? I wrote about the first 6 volumes once upon a time, in Rolling Stone magazine. 10 years ago, to be precise, when the number of volumes released were 28. It has been a maddening wait, rendered more so by my tendency to wait a few volumes before reading the whole series again from the beginning. I even sold my whole collection of the Berserk books, at a stunning profit, may I add, because the books were out of print for quite a while. They are now being reissued in deluxe leatherbound three-in-one volumes, and of course I am buying them again. And reading them again three at a time.

#3 George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

When talking about ASoIaF, I feel like a guy that comes late to a party, proceeds to get drunk, and can’t stop yelling what a great party it is, how it’s his favorite party of all time, the best party ever. I wasn’t too hot on the books when I read Game of Thrones before it was a blip on the radar of mainstream popular culture. In my defence, I had been thoroughly underwhelmed by the likes of Stephen R Donaldson, Robert Jordan, and other writers of the genre recommended to me by Tolkien enthusiasts. It was an easy conclusion to reach, that this medieval fantasy was no different than those other series, flailing to reach that vaunted position in our cultural consciousness that Rings had attained.

Ten years later, when I read the five books in a month, after binge-ing on the first three seasons of the TV show, I wanted to slap myself hard for missing out on the books for so long.

The naive sweet summer child in me actually thought that Winds of Winter would be out by 2015. It took about 2 years more before I attained the Zen of Ice and Fire, that fuck-this-all attitude towards knowing what comes next in the books, with the understanding that there is a chance that I may actually die before the books end. Somewhere in the back of my brain, there is the occasional vein of desperate longing that throbs every time someone on Reddit talks about GRRM’s cheerful demeanor towards his writing. It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. The book will be out when it will be out.

*Insert quiet sobbing here*

#1 Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon B Johnson

Read my lips: this series of books, ostensibly a biography of the US President Lyndon B Johnson, is a history of Texas and the USA, and American politics in the early twentieth century, and possibly the most insanely readable work of non-fiction ever published.

Caro is a journalist who took seven years to write a book on Robert Moses, somebody you wouldn’t know unless you lived in New York in the middle of the century. Moses was a power broker, somebody who worked behind the scenes of city politics, and his contribution to the world is New York as we know it today, the Parks, the Expressways, the beaches, the infrastructure of the city. Caro won the Pulitzer for The Power Broker, and then took on the task of writing about the President who accidentally got his job because his predecessor was assassinated. He began writing the book in 1974, a year after Johnson’s death. Four books have been out so far, the last published in 2012, each more gripping than the previous one. Never have I understood politics or the importance of government more than when I read Caro’s books. There has not been any other work of non-fiction that has moved me to tears. I never thought I would wince at the twists and turns of history as I have when reading of Johnson’s white-knuckle attempts to change his own fate, and that of the nation. I could probably write giant essays and thought experiments about my own complicated feelings for Mr Johnson, but that is a post for a different time.

Caro is 83 this year, and is still hard at work on the fifth and last book, which covers the actual presidency of Johnson, spanning the bulk of the 1960s. He just released a short book called Working, which is a bit of a peek at his process of research, writing, and interviewing. The book is around 200 pages, and most of it is ground previously covered in interviews and articles. I finished reading it today, and I am not embarrassed to say it made me tear up. It is not just a book about process and regimen, but a rare case of the writer insinuating himself into the work that has side-stepped the writer’s ego by a stunning degree.

He talks about meeting Robert Moses (not an easy task, since the man had refused out of hand to cooperate with the writing of the book) and understanding what power truly meant, to see what this ruthless visionary saw when he stared outside the window of his mansion. He goes on at length about the fortuitous meetings and decisions that led to his single volume on Johnson expanding to three and then five volumes, how apocrypha gave way to facts and numbers, and how a flawed, larger-than-life President became an unbelievably complex human being.

But most wonderfully, Caro goes into detail about the mechanics of his writing. How he uses rhythm to make every word convey force and power; his use of mood and place, some of which he got by living for years in the areas he wrote about. How he managed to unpack decades-old dynamics between friends and family of Johnson in the course of multiple interviews, forging friendships over the years. At no point does any of it appear disrespectful, or manipulative. Caro’s motivation behind his writing is not to demean or elevate the subjects at hand, it is to understand and to make us understand the concept of power.

There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this. They’ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they’ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country and how electricity changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up. And that one bridge created thousands of jobs: 31,000,000 man hours of work, done in twenty states, went into it. We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They’ve forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.

Robert Caro – Working

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the final book in the series to be out. After which, I hope Mr Caro will get around to writing the more full-fledged memoir that he talks about in Working. One can only hope and dream, I suppose.

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