Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Monsoon and Anil's Ghost

I've been promising to put up some book reviews for some time. Unfortunately, work got the better of me, leaving me without time to write. Things are now returning to normal, but it's been a while since I finished reading, making the reviews that much harder much to write.

The first book I wanted to discuss was Monsoon, by Robert S. Kaplan. Kaplan has been one of my favorite non-fiction writers for a long time. In books like Balkan Ghosts and The Ends of the Earth, he travels to some of the harshest areas of the world, to explore how their history, culture and politics create modern powder kegs. He ignores or rejects even the most basic conventional wisdom about these regions, preferring to learn for himself from the ground up.

Monsoon, by contrast, contains very little in the way of travel or original exploration. He pops into a few places and looks around for a few hours, but mostly it felt like his editors made him. Otherwise, it reads more like a college thesis, simply regurgitating other people's writing. You will learn a lot about Bangladesh and Myanmar and Pakistan and Sri Lanka from reading this book. And there's an interesting thesis about the roles of Chinese and Indian naval power in the Indian Ocean. But reading it was a real chore.

That being said, it was a chore that quite unexpectedly paid off when, a few books later, I read Anil's Ghost, a novel by Michael Ondaatje set in the midst of Sri Lanka's civil wars. Ondaatje plunges right in, keeping a tight focus on the interwoven lives of the story's characters. Although the effects of the war are all around them, he never broadens his gaze to explain who is fighting, or why, or where. I would have been bewildered if I hadn't just had Kaplan's crash course.

Otherwise, Anil's Ghost is not as challenging as some of Ondaatje's other work. Although it does move forward and backward in time, it is (relatively) more straightforward and more plot focused than, say, The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. It also includes a wallop of an ending that rivals the best political thrillers. His prose, as always, is amazing, deployed here to describe beheadings and suicide bombings and torture in a manner that is somehow luminous and brutal at the same time. His skills are put to equally impressive service when he delves into forensic archaeology and Buddhist ritual. A highly recommended book.

1 comment:

  1. I like Kaplan, having enjoyed his writings in The Atlantic back when I had a subscription. I've got a copy of Balkan Ghosts around here somewhere that I've been meaning to pick up - after your reaction, i'll be sure to do that rather than picking up Monsoon!