I remember one of us asked Ben about the process of book cover-making. Here is a brief interview with the designer of the Flame Alphabet book jacket. You can hear about the materials used, how it was initially planned, and how the plan was modified at last. I also found an interesting article about this process in a blog named “talkingcovers.” I was surprised when I read that Mendelsund, the designer, started with an attempt to invent typographic characters, mirroring Sam who tries to invent new semantic forms. Then my question arises regarding the role of a book design and a book designer. Is it only a tool to boost the selling? Does it have to be symbolic? Should it give a kind of a summary to the readers? Can it be irrelevant? and do book designers usually finish the book before designing the cover?
When one of the visiting ‘jarnalises’ who come to do their annual ‘Khaufpur story’ leaves Animal with a voice recorder and asks him to record his story, the first thing Animal does is to sell the recorder. Nonetheless, Animal has to find another ‘recorder’ when later on he finds out that he does indeed have something to say about his life, the people he knows, and the aftermath of the Bhopal catastrophe.
It would be fair to say that the population of Khaufpur have so little and have had so much taken away, that they are instinctively skeptical of anything offered for free. Even a clinic, opened up by someone who “left a big job in Amrika out of pity for the people of Khafpour” – so when Elli Barber comes to Khaufpur and opens a free clinic in the poorest part of the town, suspicions are raised whether she is actually working in some sort of a secret enterprise with the bosses of the ‘Kampani‘ who are on trial.
While the author’s severely anti-industrialistic, anti-American and to some extent, anti-neoimperialist tone is heard as a continuous echo throughout the whole book, his using of fiercely humorously coarse and risqué stylistical language, putting it rather mildly, is perchance very much aimed at the reader, making him/her understand not the politically flamboyant long-term manifestations of Sinha, but rather immediate sufferings as well as down-to-earth basic needs of affected Bhopalis to this very day. As a matter of fact, Sinha is painstakingly straightforward with his sublimated-into-a-book cause; one, for instance, may easily spot the political message within the difference between the initial American (on the left) and European (correspondingly on the right) book cover versions:
What led the narrator to Zafar and the political issues around “Kampani,” however, was not his cause for justice, but his lust and sexual desires. While the center of the plot is fixed around what happened “that day,” a big part of the text is filled with the narrator’s fantasizing about sex and Nisha, showing us not only his natural desire for sex, but also his desire to be human. Sinha touches the issue through the eyes of a 19-year-old boy named Animal who walks on arms and legs, which could at once be sad because he is the victim of the incident, and revealing, for the issue is seen at a totally different perspective. It is an interesting parallel between the progress of Kampani case in the court, and the narrator’s realization of his own identity as human. While he still endorses his name Animal, there are things he strongly desire as human.
Communication is also an interesting theme Sinha touches on. Because of his posture and his inability to read or write, the narrator initially has a serious problem communicating with people, nor did he want to interact with others. The narrator’s only companion was his dog, until Nisha approaches him and for the first time in his life, actually treats him as an equal and teaches him the ways of communicating. A lot of the characters throughout the novel, in addition to Animal, have their own problems in communication. The narrator’s careperson, Ma Franci, does not have anyone to talk to, since she lost her language skills “that day,” and the only language she speaks is French. The exchange between the American doctor, Ma Franci, and the narrator makes the readers wonder if language is the only issue in communication in this novel. The lack of language skills as well as disinterest in others lead to serious misunderstanding in communication.
What makes this story so fascinating is that Khaufpur doesn’t even exist in reality. So intricately explained and mapped out with such familiarity, this realisation elucidates the reason that no name is given to the Kampani. This extrication thus means that this is NOT a story about Bhopalis, but about Khaufpuris, and in particular, one Khaufpuri who goes by the name Animal. In this way, it is similar to Dream of Ding Village and different from Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but more than that, he uses the disaster that happened ‘that night’ to contextualise his story of human ambition, love, animosity, trust and lack thereof in a society of abysmal poverty – one that could exist anywhere yet nowhere else. While knowledge and understanding about the Bhopali Disaster can help provide some context that could provide some of the visual imagery Animal is saddened he can’t provide, Sinha’s creation of an alternate yet extremely realistic reality allows it such that this is a story that can be fully appreciated for its full worth even without such knowledge. As such, the focus is placed upon the life of Animal and his fascinating adventures, lusts, struggles, and fascinatingly creative and brutally honest narrative voice. Hence the author’s intent isn’t to tackle the ‘big picture’ questions of imperialism and industrialisation, but rather to let a story be heard; a story of calamity and sadness and a society wrenched at the core, one of powerplay, bureaucracy, and corruption, but also one of unity, love, respect, justice, and altruism. And horny lust in copious quantities.
It is also a story about good intentions coming at cross purposes with each other, and how chronic physical contamination can plague ones mind, perception, and belief in others. The widespread chemical catastrophe ‘erased thousands’ of lives and continues to make living impossible for so many, but its effect is more than polluting the water, but also their trust, their belief in humanity, and eradicates all semblance of hope.
Oh, the seductive allure of heaven!
But can heaven be the answer? Can one escape from life once dead?
As the illness Oswald had in Ibsen’s Ghosts was inherited from his father, the identity of the region is inherited. One is born into the region. The repetitive phrase that follows the names of the character, “Refentse, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow,” for instance, constantly reminds Refentse and the readers that the bond between an individual and the region is stronger than one might assume, and perhaps unbreakable. It is interesting to note that Refentse, even after his death, remains in heaven, or our “new” Hillbrow, watching whatever is happening in the region. As mentioned in the novel, one cannot simply leave home. “Home travels with you.”
The unbreakable bond between the individual and one’s home in the novel somehow reminds me of the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin. Omelas, a fictional ideal village in the story, is maintained on one condition that one child must be kept in perpetual misery in a dark grim room. People who had lived happily in Omelas, when confront the truth where their happiness is coming from, are shocked. The majority keeps on living in Omelas but a few people decide to walk away from Omelas, leaving their ideal happy village behind. But are they exempt from the sins and problems of Omelas? Likewise in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” some characters decide to leave their city either by simply moving somewhere or by committing suicide. All the characters, however, end up returning to Hillbrow. Walking away simply does not clear one from obligations.
The book concludes with Refilwe’s death, welcome by “our heaven.” The characters, even after death, will reunite in heaven. They continue their existence. It’s quite scary when we think that there is no end. Hillbrow will keep welcoming its returnees again and again and again and…
Imagine people losing their eyesight in massive numbers for no apparent reason, without any additional symptoms, while their eyes remain perfectly healthy. Imagine someone just turned off a feature of the brain responsible for vision and left you in an abysmal void. Why not a perfect subject-matter for fiction novel?
The epidemic of mass blindness has been previously used as the basis of the plot – for example – in a post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids.” Yet in this particular case we have a parable, rather than a traditional novel; on top of that, a parable with some rather apparent biblical roots – i.e. the story of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, who got blind for three days by God’s will, and then saw the light at first metaphorically and then literally, thus becoming Paul the Apostle. It would be fair to say that a parable is far from being a perfect genre: the main objective for the author of the parable is not the plot, but rather a peculiar ‘message of the wisdom’ he/she is trying to convey to the reader. Yet, if at the same time, the reader knows in advance (or thinks that he/she knows) what exactly the author is trying to convey to him/her, the parable loses all its elegance from the very beginning and becomes rather mundane. Finally, the whole brilliance of the parable as a genre lays in its brevity, whereas Saramago’s narration style is extremely verbose. Should we perhaps shift from the stylistic features to the content?
The first two-thirds of the novel is the traditional story of how people caught in extreme circumstances, are quickly losing civilized appearance. Matching the storyline with the well-known classics, we might recall “Lord of the Flies.” Much like on Golding’s island, evil prevails in the mental hospital Saramago creates, and a typical, exceptionally cruel dictatorship takes control, which, however, does not last long; since the dictatorship doesn’t manage to address the eternal question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in timely manner, the ‘blindness’ gets out of the quarantine facilities and spreads further on.
The idea of sight without vision and vision without sight is one of the undercurrents of this text – by conceptually separating the two, we are able to distinguish between what we can ‘sense’ and what we can ‘feel’, a distinction that is hard to interpret. Sight is apparently important for foresight, and social stability is contingent on how well we are able to perceive the state of society. Hence there is a primal drive to establish chaotic order in the face of scarcity and fear, leading to repression, violence, and selfishness – all factors that diminish the possibility of stemming the contagion through a collaborative effort. Saramago tackles the centrality to which uncertainty factors into our decision to live within a society – and an epidemic of blindness, whose cause is unknown, makes it a fascinating yet grim tale.
While the loss of sight had brought chaos to the society and changed the way people interact in daily basis, the physical blindness lets the characters realize that they were as blind before the physical blindness as they are now–the sight without vision. They realize the importance of little things they take for granted everyday as well as the reality of human nature unveiled as the society breaks down. The “white sickness” might have blurred everyone’s sight, but it has cleared the nature of human interaction that was hidden and veiled by technology, society, and organizations. This leads us to several questions: what is the meaning of blindness in the novel? Were people always blind? Are some people less blind than others? Is the real human nature only revealed in the midst of plague, disease, or in this novel, blindness?
The reason of blindness is unknown, and like the plague, the contagion of blindness does not have a preference when choosing its next victim. The blindness in this sense is equal to everyone, and as time goes, people realize that they will all become physically blind at some point. What differentiates this “white sickness” from disease or plague, however, is that it inflicts people without killing them, thus making them a different kind of “invalids.” In order to live, they have to be dependent on each other and collaborate. It is interesting to observe how the characters distinguish, judge, and build trust with each other with voice and personality without their looks. Is this state of interactions more or less natural than normal full of pretenses and facades? What we consider natural or take for granted as the truth might not be as real as we had thought.
I found this interesting introduction about Greek pederasty. Before tomorrow’s discussion about whether Aschenbach’s love of Tadzio is that of an artist or a pedophile, I thought it would be a good start to read about the origin of today’s so-called pedophilia/homosexuality. The video below is the story of Ganymede, who is often used as a symbol of beautiful male youth who attracts homosexual desire.