Sunday, September 03, 2006

I should really expand on the comment about 'perfectly ordinary dysfunctional families' that I used yesterday. That may sound a bit shocking to some, but when you have worked in the social sector as I have you see such families every day. It's the same reaction I have to Vikram Seth's book 'Two lives' about his Indian uncle and the uncle's Jewish German wife. Seth, having grown up in Germany and not having been steeped in the catastrophic history of the holocaust is very shocked by it, as probably he should be. For those of us who have grown up with that history, or been affected by it, unfortunately it holds no more appalling surprises.

This book by Seth has been criticized quite a bit as a story about a one-armed dentist. To some degree Seth seems to have been scratching round a bit for information, because there are large gaps in the sequence of events (and in any case, the lives of this couple may have continued in a rather unremarkable way, once they got married). Seth also spends much time doing deep thinking about German and European history - this pads the book, but many Europeans have already done their deep thinking about this (I hope). Interesting that Heine is his favourite German poet (though after finding out about the holocaust, Seth is revulsed by anything German for a while. I can understand that). Having said that, Heine is in effect two poets - one who wrote beautiful romantic poetry (Lorelei), and another who wrote quite biting satire (is that the right word?) about Germany. 'Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, so bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht'. Indeed. Or 'Ich hatte einst/ ein schoenes Vaterland' (implying that he has no longer).

Anyway, Seth's book does have some of his little funny bits, like some of his novels, but generally it is a much straighter line of narrative. The places where he contemplates European history seem to be used to add complexity where none is really needed. It's a very readable book, though. Not sure that the aunt's letters needed to be quoted at quite such length.


Lotus Reads said...

I remember listening to a BBC radio adaptation of this Seth book "Two Lives", and while it was engaging it wasn't a story that stayed with me for weeks after I had listened to it. I am going to be reading "An Equal Music" soon. Have you read that one?