The #10BestBooks challenge has been going on in Facebook and I wrote about my 10 Best Books when my friend Sreedhar (@orupakkam) tagged me. The list was a heavily loaded in favor of literary masterpieces like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ etc. The problem with such a list is that not every book would be interesting to everyone. Not many would take up ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Ulysses’ and complete it. Many books on the list (excepting a few) lead to people concluding that literary works are ‘heavy’, boring and takes lot of patience to complete. These books may appeal to the literature inclined but for many it would be a chore to finish reading such books. Keeping this in mind I thought I will list 10 books which are considered as ‘Literature’ and yet are extremely interesting and innovative. Ofcourse, my definition of interesting may differ from yours but if you have a slight patience (as against tons of it) and the inclination, you will definitely appreciate these works. With this preamble, I list 10 books which you will find interesting to read.
1. Embers by Sandor Marai: David Davidar long back suggested this book in his weekly column in Hindu. It was one of the 4 books published by Penguin on some special occasion (What that occasion was escapes me.) Sandor Marai is an Hungarian writer and this book is one of the few books of his that is available in India. The book starts with an old man waiting eagerly for a friend to arrive, a friend he has not seen for a long time. As he waits, Marai reveals a past filled with great friendship, triangular love, betrayal and loyalty. The best part of the novel is the way the story is told: Marai removes layer after layer after layer, revealing more and more and yet provides a deliciously ambiguous ending.
2. Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez : A friend of mine, @dagalti, on twitter once remarked something to the effect that he found it surprising that a well honored writer’s book can be so interesting. I remember reading this in one sitting while travelling from Bangalore to Tirupati. This is a novel which is an explosive mixture of love, drama, notions of honor and imperfect justice. According to me Marquez is an eminently readable author but some people disagree but even they wouldn’t disagree about this novel.
3. Carvalho by Poornachandra Tejaswi : I would have put up ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ here but the ‘Carvalho’ is more freely available in English translation. This is a story about the scientist Carvalho and his hunt for the flying lizard. As usual Tejaswi tells us this story through hilarious set-pieces and leaves behind some memorable characters. As usual Tejaswi is concerned about lack of scientific temper and the degradation of environment. The humor and the characters keep the interest alive throughout
4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa : My friend Kavirajan (@kavi_rt) told me, “If you start this novel, you will not stop till you have completed it.” He was right. This is a highly inventive novel with some amazing stories told along with the main love story. The way the scriptwriter’s stories run into each other is sheer class. The novel has two threads, the love story between the protagonist and Aunt Julia and the radio dramas of the scriptwriter. It reads both as a tender love story and a completely madcap story about the scriptwriter. I haven’t read other novel of Llosa but I am told this is not the typical Llosa. I am thankful for that.
5. Vaadivasal by Chellappa: The preface in the Oxford Press edition of the English translation talks about various undercurrents present in the book like the caste equations in the village, for example. My personal view is that Vaadivasal can be read just as a simple battle between man and beast and it is enjoyable as such. Even this simple reading would yield you a literary classic because Chellappa’s descriptive prose amazingly captures this battle between the hero and the bull that has never been tamed before, the bull which killed the hero’s father. This tale of revenge and bravery has been translated into English very effectively by Kalyanaraman (@kalyansc)
6. French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles: Like the novel ‘Embers’ which I had listed in the beginning, this novel also reveals the plot slowly, one layer at a time. In this case, each layer reveals a new facet of the mysterious woman with whom the protagonist, though engaged to another woman, falls in love. Though the novel can be read as a standard triangular love story — with a conservative and dull woman on one side and a mysterious and hence exciting woman on the other – the narrative technique makes this a very interesting novel
7. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller : This book made almost every other humor writer seem trivial. Heller’s Catch-22 is a dark, humorous anti-war book which talks about the absurdity of war. There have been great anti-war books like Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quite on the Western Front’ and Hemingway’s ‘Farewell to Arms’. These books take war seriously and build a case against war. Catch-22 on the other hand builds a case against war by showcasing the absurdity of war. The Catch-22 situation that Heller invented is used by everyone now but you need to read the book to understand fully the implications of Catch-22.
8. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo : I am slightly hesitant to include it here because I am not sure how many would come back saying that they did not understand it but I would still risk it because those who ‘get it’ will be stunned by what Rulfo has achieved. This dream like novel can leave the reader completely exhausted and disoriented. It is supposed to be the precursor of the magical realism of Marquez and others. You can see why Marquez and other South American authors held him in such high esteem.
9. Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees by Johny Miranda : This Malayalam novel about the Christian community in Kerala with Portugese background is an inventive piece of storytelling. There are some amazing scenes like a pig buried in sand which will stay with you long after you have finished reading the novel. It documents the lives of the marginal people but it is more a story than a sociological document. Combining myth, belief and tradition in equal measures, Miranda comes up with an excellent novella. The translation by Sajai Jose seems to keep the atmosphere of the original intact.
Let me first agree that this is not literary fiction and hence should not be included here but let me include it anyway. For this as interesting a book as you will ever read.. Much before Christopher Nolan came up with ‘Inception’, Jostein Gaarder wrote this book. A dream within a dream approach is used to tell us about Western Philosophy. Unlike the movie, where the dream within dream was used to kindle our interest, here it is used because the book talks about different schools of philosophy, all of which endeavor to find out what is true and what is not. Questions like ‘Is this physical world true?’ get asked often in philosophy and hence the book’s approach seems to be the only logical way to approach philosophy. I am not a student of philosophy and hence cannot say how well the author communicates the essence of various philosophical movements but he definitely does make reading philosophy interesting.
(Note: I have deliberately left out detective fiction like those of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Raymond Chandler, Josephine Tey etc and also spy fiction of Le Carre. I consider the works of these authors as literary classics as well but they are bound to interesting because of their subject matter.