Friday, June 18, 2004

A SPRAWLING SAGA OF A NOVEL

ZOYA
Danielle Steel

DANIELLE STEEL'S Zoya looks like a big, sprawling saga of a novel, imbued with latent delights and gaily wrapped in a warm invitation to open and explore its enticing contents. And as we very well know, Steel never fails to deliver the kind of yarns that keep you turning the pages at an unflagging pace, the kind you can spend the weekend holed up with and put down feeling as though you have woken up from a deep and wonderful spell. From the cathedrals, domes, spires and ancient elegance of an Imperial Russia plunged into bloody revolution to the graceful splendour and swirling artistic excitement and bustle of Paris in the 1920s and ultimately to the cut-and-thrust world of corporate New York, Steel has managed to weave a tapestry of tragedy, hardship and triumph, of love and loss, and of searching and fulfilment without the obfuscating irrelevancies and loose ends that seem to plague novels of such genre.

Zoya is a sweeping saga of the crumbling or moribund glamour of the Russian aristocracy. Countess Zoya Ossupov, the fiery protagonist of the saga, was brought up in the opulence and extravagance of a St. Petersburg palace, a charmed and wondrous world that existed nowhere else, the vanishing world of Tsarist Russia. Hers was a magical life of palaces and balls, of men in brightly hued uniforms and beautiful women apparelled in elegant gowns and bedecked with diamond necklaces. But dark clouds are gathering in the horizon and as the Revolution engulfs Russia and all that it stands for, Zoya's whole family and those whom she holds dear are mercilessly massacred in the ensuing turmoil.

Leaving home and fortune behind, Zoya manages to escape to Paris with her aged, but spunky grandmother, the Countess Evgenia Ossupov, with whatever jewels they could salvage sewn into the linings of their clothes. Amidst the chaos and turbulence of a nation torn asunder, Zoya's fairytale world, like sandcastles in the air, crumbles to smithereens.

Paris was a whole new experience for Zoya, filled with new principles, new responsibilities and new people. It was a constant struggle for survival and basic necessities were in dire scarcity. Under the shadow of the Great War and in time, Zoya falls passionately and fatefully in love and moves to a more affluent lifestyle in New York with the American captain, Clayton Andrews. However, her world comes crashing down again without warning during the Great Depression when Clayton commits suicide, leaving her with debts to settle and two children to raise. The Second World War looms ominously ahead, bringing with it more violent upheavals. The rising tides of war in Europe ebbs and flows as people and relationships are forced apart and flung together. Thus presented, Zoya sounds like a melodramatic parable. Yet, despite the heaviness of style, it is skilfully narrated. Steel is adept at catching a historical mood and at describing the complex interrelationships between ordinary people thrown together by the winds of change in a world in chaos and turmoil.

Zoya is a story of hope and restored faith, a testament to the resilient and triumphant human spirit and to the restorative powers of love and that coming to terms with one's past, one's life and one's relationships is always a painful process. The path to glory and bliss is not one strewn with primroses but also with trials and tribulations. You will truly be enamoured by the subtly drawn, indomitable character of Zoya, one of Steel's more compelling female characters yet, an enchanting and audacious redhead whose eyes dance with emerald fire as you keep up with her fluctuating fortunes and battle for survival from the majesty and decadence of St. Petersburg to New York.

Despite its timeworn tale and the fact that it hardly breaks any new ground in literary wizardry, Zoya is a pretty engrossing potboiler and for this it owes to its narrative consistency, which is well-handled and tempered with restraint such that the incessant flow of events is kept in clear perspective till the very end. Much of the fascination with Zoya can be traced to its effective intermingling of high romance with undeniably well-drawn characters that linger in one's memory long after putting the novel down, well-woven descriptive passages, poignant moments and a richly-detailed backdrop of varying moods and ambience. The spirit and soul of the eternal and timeless city of Paris has been captured in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours.

If you have enjoyed Steel's previous novels, you will definitely derive many hours of pleasure from digesting Zoya too. After all has been said, one is still inclined to regard the novel as a rather faithful though constipated version of its pulp.

You somehow know what to expect from a Danielle Steel novel. Yes, by reprising the tried-and-tested formulas that had served her well through the years: flawed characters, tangled lives and redemption. Those with an avaricious appetite for escapist fiction will find her book an interesting and compelling read. Somehow, by working within the conventions of her genre, her novel works, because there is something comfortingly familiar about each new Steel novel in that we know what we are going to get. Assuming no literary pretensions, she entertains us the best way she knows. And it all somehow makes sense.

A TURGID POTBOILER

THE SANDS OF TIME
Sidney Sheldon

SIDNEY SHELDON'S potboiler dwells on a compelling subject matter: the turmoil of a nation embroiled in a bloody civil war. Set against the timeless and haunting landscape of Spain, Sheldon weaves intricate strands of Spanish history and politics into a tangled tapestry of adventure and romance. By depicting the enigmatic and rugged Spanish terrain with broad but deft strokes of colours, Spain comes across as a colourful juxtaposition of the past and present, a land of eternal passion and unceasing bloodshed. He is adept at capturing a historical ambience and the nuances of affinities between people thrown together by circumstances.

The story unfolds with much promise. The legendary Jaime Miro is the leader of the outlawed Basque nationalists, a hero to the Basque people and an anathema to the Spanish government. He is a complex man, fanatical about his cause, a realist who understands the obstacles in his path, and a romantic who is willing to perish for what he believes in. The intransigent Basques are not satisfied with just being Spaniards; they want complete autonomy. With relentless strength and an unshakeable faith in his beliefs, Miro concocts a daring plan which calls for careful, split-second timing to rescue his compatriots from the prison of Pamplona where they have been condemned to die.

The Catholic Church is accused of sheltering and abetting Basque rebels by allowing them to hold meetings and store arms in monasteries and convents. The Cistercian Convent of the Strict Observance in Avila is reported to be sheltering Miro and his freedom fighters.

The Cistercian Convent of the Strict Observance had been built for blessed solitude and silence, devoted solely to a life of prayer and penance, isolated in its cloistered world of innocence and simplicity and a complete renouncement of the secular worldÅits physical love, possessions and freedom of choice. In renouncing these, they had also renounced greed, rivalry, hatred and jealousy and all the temptations imposed by the world outside. No touching or speaking were allowed here except through an ancient form of sign language. There reigned an all-pervading serenity within the hearts of those who had chosen to live here.

Colonel Ramon Acoca of the Spanish Army is the head of a ruthless cadre formed specifically to pursue Basque terrorists. With the instincts of a born hunter, Colonel Acoca loves the thrill of a chase, but it is the final kill that gives him a visceral satisfaction.

The Convent is raided by a cadre of anti-terrorists led by the mephistophelean Colonel Acoca for sheltering terrorists and hence setting into motion a chain of events that shook Spain. Four nuns managed to flee the Convent into the hands of Miro. Unwittingly, they become pawns in a deadly political chess-game between the charismatic Miro and the tyrannical Colonel Acoca. The world to which the nuns had once belonged to and abandoned for the safety of the Convent seemed unreal, unchartered and hostile. It was within the Convent that was real and they longed to return to its sanctuary. They had been cloistered and isolated for so long that, now that they were outside its sacred gates, they were filled with apprehension, confusion and panic as though all their senses had been paralysed. Confronted by a cornucopia of unaccustomed sounds, sights and smells which assaulted their senses, they start to re-evaluate their reasons for seeking to devote their lives to God and religion. Each of them had their reasons for renouncing the world to seek the security of the Convent. And now, without the rigid discipline of the Convent to guide them, they find themselves unable to banish their deepest desires and inner darkness. Torn between their spirits and the guilt-ridden cravings of their flesh, they start to explore their pasts and to discover the truths about themselves.

The Sands of Time has a dramatic poignancy that demonstrates Sheldon's measured writing style, which through sheer imagination succeeds in creating a drama of political intrigue. There was no dearth of dramatic punctuation and the narrative was not bloated with extraneous dialogue; his dialogue is irrefragably excellent for the revelation of characters and his command of the idioms of ordinary speech permits him to achieve a fine naturalness.

The Sands of Time deals with the tragedy of a land torn by strife, unfolded with an insight into the characters that people the vast Spanish landscape. It pricks and provokes ... a people and their ideals, beliefs and freedom, and at the same time delves into the subtle territory of forbidden love. Much of the novel is a joy to read and it may linger in our minds long after other easily assimilated pulp of the same genre have passed beyond our memory. This is also Sheldon's last well-written novel; his more recent flaccid potboilers have somehow become a reviewer's nightmare.

PROJECTING THE NEW ASIA

ASIA PACIFIC
Its Role in the New World Disorder
Michael S. Dobbs-Higginson

AS the 20th century draws to a close, the Asia-Pacific region is establishing itself as a leading economic powerhouse. Half a millennium ago, the world's economic centre shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Today, it has moved again; this time to the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia Pacific: Its Role in the New World Disorder provides a contemporary insight into a much misunderstood region. The Asia-Pacific region, according to M.S. Dobbs-Higginson, includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Brunei, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and excludes Canada, the United States, Mexico and Latin America.

With the passing of the Cold War and of the superpower rivalry since World War II, we are now grappling with "a completely new set of operating conditions that most people haven't really begun to comprehend the ramifications, either in political or, more importantly, in economic terms." The circumstances facing the region in the 1990s and beyond will be different from those encountered in the past. The region must therefore respond and adapt to changing circumstances by embracing new and innovative measures.

Basing his views on the history, culture and politics, rather than on the economics, of the countries in the region, Dobbs-Higginson colours them with his Buddhist philosophy of balance. He sees the world "in terms of whether or not it is balance .... Everything one does, or the world does, affects and is also affected by whether the world, and oneself within it, is in a state of balance or not. Unless one understands oneself within oneself, oneself within the world, and then the world around one, how can one possibly achieve this balance in order to live (and work) effectively? Without proper balance, considerable energy needs to be used either to compensate for such imbalance or to attempt to achieve such balance .... with proper balance, considerable energy is freed up and can be used productively for achieving other, more rewarding, internal and external goals of both a spiritual and worldly nature."

Dobbs-Higginson provides an historical overview of each country's business culture. He intertwines anecdotal asides with bold analyses of the political and social developments over the recent years, and outlining each country's strengths and weaknesses. Besides developing a detailed argument on how and why the countries of the region should come together to create a regional forum, he alludes to the reasons each country would benefit from supporting such a forum and the consequences of not doing so. He believes that Southeast Asian countries, especially Asean countries, will play a catalytic role in uniting the region in the future.

With the end of communism and the fading away of opposing ideologies, and increased communication amongst countries within the region, opportunities for co-operation have become wider. Dobbs-Higginson demonstrates how much each country can benefit by participating in a union with the rest of the region. The best way for Asia to present a common voice and be heard in the world on matters related to trade, security and human-rights issues is to construct a structure similar to that of the European Union. "Trade liberalisation, essential though it is, is not enough in itself ... There must be some other political dynamics as well. There should be fundamental cooperation in regional security, but also in many other fields. Asia Pacific needs permanent institutions to guarantee the future: a rotating presidency, perhaps some form of parliament, a council of ministers, a secretariat, and a structure for dealing with legal disputes." These structures could emanate from ASEAN, which he believes is the region's most mature political organisation.

Dobbs-Higginson reiterates that Asia could forge this integration because of two distinct reasons: growing economic linkages, especially intra-regional trade, and common cultural heritage. Though Asia is divided by language, religion, culture, belief and past animosity, it is nevertheless united by common historical experiences and shared values and social institutions. Such differences may not be as profound, but they nevertheless exist. Differences should be grounds for unity more than divisiveness: "... the countries in this area are too diverse, too hostile to one another, and too geographically separated ever to come together as a coherent regional force. However, it is not often recognised that far from being divided, the region's peoples have benefited from a gradual blending of ethnic groups over the last two millenniums .... Despite their variety, the religions and other philosophical beliefs of Asia Pacific share the same ideas of kinship, discipline, tolerance, and death .... Although there still remain significant barriers of understanding and there are many different national objectives, far less now divides Asia Pacific than ever before." He identifies these changes and suggests how remaining barriers are eroding in such a way that some of these national objectives have or will become common ones soon.

Dobbs-Higginson does not fall short when it comes to argumentation and recommendations; not only does he raise crucial questions, he also thinks them through thoroughly. A more contemporary analysis of the Asia-Pacific region couldn't have come at a better time than now, when economic prowess, not military might, are the determinants of national strength.

AN AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK SAGA

THE THORN BIRDS
Colleen McCullough

SOMEONE once described W. Somerset Maugham as one of the greatest storytellers of our time for he writes with a vigorous flair, extraordinary clarity and precision and tightly disciplined with superb wit and urbanity and his sense of literary form is indeed something to conjure with. After reading Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, I have come to the same conclusion, that is, the description on Maugham’s penmanship can also be applied to McCullough’s writing aptitude. Her style of writing is tinged with a touch of lucidity and simplicity, free from affectations and at her best, she has a delicate, condescending grace and charm. McCullough’s dialogue is irrefragably excellent for the revelation of character and her command of the idioms of the ordinary speech permits her to effectuate a fine naturalness.

From the day of its publication in 1976, this exhilarating epic of outback life has been celebrated as the quintessential modern novel, a work that vividly brings to life all the details of life Down Under.

The Thorn Birds deals with the tragedy of ordinary lives, unfolded with an intense compassion and profound insight into the truth of the multifarious characters. McCullough fleshes out each and every character with minuteness and precision. The characters are common people, extremely down-to-earth and are convincingly and irrefutably alive. We have already taken notice of her bold and believable characterisation in Tim, her first novel which is an extremely poignant love story told with profound candour that acutely delves with acumen and insight into the affinity and emotional consequences of a forbidden love between an ingratiating, mentally-retarded young labourer and a middle-aged spinster.

Concealed behind her writing lies a sense of tragedy of life, in which transgression and iniquity or folly brings its own retributions, especially Justine O’Neil, who sets a course of life and love halfway round the world from her roots in Gillanbone, Australia, to become an actress in London, who lost her virginity at the tender age of eighteen, and who at the end of the novel ultimately repent.

McCullough can command a beauty of perspicuous expression that provokes the very emotional part of the erring human heart, a sweet, mellifluous, dulcet and piercing melody of infinite regret and yearning:

In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees!

The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by the strands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.


From this short abstract itself, McCullough paints the enigmatic and intractable Australian background with striking vividness.

Of all the characters delineated in this rousingly recounted saga of a grazier clan over a span of fifty-four years (between 1915 and 1969), none is better drawn than that of Meggie Cleary. It seems McCullough has put much of herself into the creation of the story, and in many ways, McCullough resembles Meggie Cleary. Even minor figures are drawn with sure, minimal brush strokes.

The Thorn Birds is impregnated with memorable scenes that are vividly etched in the reader’s mind. The heroine and main protagonist at the heart of the story, Meggie Cleary, whose passionate and forbidden love for the handsome, magnificent Catholic priest, Ralph De Bricassart, who is two decades older than her, is veritably the stuff of legend; her broken marriage to Luke O’Neil; her giving birth to Justine O’Neil, the brilliant actress, and Dane O’Neil, who was not fathered by O’Neil but by De Bricassart himself without his knowledge: these are some of the episodes that may linger in the reader's memory long after he has put the novel down. Alas, the course of true love is always littered with thorns.

Much of the fascination of The Thorn Birds can be traced to its blend of high romance and whim with undeniably realistic characters and background. This novel will undoubtedly be considered as McCullough’s paragon, a masterpiece, because of its brilliant descriptive passages, the myriad poignant moments and the dramatic plot. She is indeed a writer of ingenuity and imaginative force. In complete control of her plot, her prose sways as gracefully as a waltz, glinting with irony, and meticulous in its detail and accent.

In this family saga, McCullough fuses intriguing period detail into a generational saga that features a host of superbly wrought characters. Thoroughly enjoyable, this novel offers intelligent, witty entertainment. Its clean prose, empathetic characters, a richly observed tale of love and despair, unravel the tangled threads of doomed relationship. By capturing the dusty, dry essence of life in the Australian outback.

McCullough’s real strength lies in her plotting and pacing, an eye for detail, and at creating a host of minor characters that people the landscape of her novel. Where her characters are caught up in a complex world of emotional connections and confusion, intertwined by the ties that bind them. Against a richly nuanced backdrop of people, place and history, it captures not only the breathless drama and agonising banality of life and all that it engenders, buts its abundant paradoxes as well.

Gripping and awashed with dramatic nuances, rich in detail and densely textured, The Thorn Birds sings with an undertone of elegiac melancholy. Read it and weep!

THE HORROR MASTER HAS DONE IT AGAIN!

’SALEM’S LOT
Stephen King

ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, a well-written horror novel comes along and it makes you feel wonderful to be frightened by the magical realm of the supernatural. ’Salem’s Lot is perhaps one of those novels. It would neither make your hair stand on its roots nor curdle your gore but your flesh would undoubtedly creep under your skin.

’Salem’s Lot depicts modern deviltry against a sweeping contemporary New England backdrop-classic Stephen King territory-notorious for its vampirism, witchcraft and other forms of the supernatural. It could brag of being not one of those unbridled spate of pretentious and puerile pastiche with hackneyed plots devoid of any semblance of credibility that lately clutter the bookshelves. King’s wittily-weaved tapestry of a byzantine and ingenious yarn is based on the premise that the disembodied spirits of the dead in the form of vampires can become reanimated and return to haunt and terrorise the living. As the unheralded novelist Ben Mears returns to ’Salem’s Lot, a Maine resort town, to write about an enigmatic and formidable mansion that has intrigued him since his childhood days and to exorcise the terrors that used to haunt him. He gets entangled in a web of spine-tingling occurrences that leave a growing trail of missing persons and dead bodies behind. Mears’s endeavour to corroborate his suspicions that there exists an evil power equally or more powerful than the power of good forms the crux of this novel.

The denouement is climactic, transporting us into a chillingly bizarre milieu where the daring protagonist, Ben Mears, hammers a stake into the gaunt and cadaverous Barlow's festering soul, apparelled in an effectively black sepulchre hue. The lugubrious atmosphere further enhances the denouement.

Unlike those past stereotypical horror novels which cloud our conscience with washout plots, lacklustre and pedestrian narrative that ramble at excruciating and fluctuating paces, ’Salem’s Lot is in the right sense of the word credible and leisurely paced. Though the plot can be convoluted and complicated at times, King’s writing was not overtly bloated with extraneous dialogue which would otherwise interrupt the novel’s rhythm.

King’s keen ear for dialogue and prose rhythm is evident throughout and with his gripping psychological insights and background detail, a sense of menace is palpable. And with this novel he has done it again by making sleeping at night a nightmare.