–By Vikas Datta
There are many habits of fervently compulsive readers that can bemuse people around them, but among the most puzzling for their parents and friends would be to see them unwilling to let go of rising stacks of old favourites, in which they again get engrossed with the same level of enjoyment. Book readers, on the other hand, cannot understand why anyone should be perplexed.
For those of the diminishing tribe of those who sit down, by choice, to read, the reason is obvious. From the reams they have traversed, many fondly remember evocative passages, singular characters or telling dialogues, and love to revisit them. They also use them in a variety of ways beyond reading.
These memories may offer refuge from the boredom, disappointments or lack of congenial company the present-day world so abundantly offers, serve as a method of relaxation after a hard day, just as others would chose a favourite spot, food or recreation, or even as means to “visit” a bygone era or faraway place of interest.
This habit should, however, not be viewed as escapism, for most readers are men (and women) of the world, though they may not prefer many of its attributes — questioning of the reading habit or increasing knowledge for its own sake, not growing out of schooltime habits, etc.
And each of these book lovers has their own collection of favourites, across genres. Let me, as one of them, share my own choices to mark another milestone — the bicentenary of these set of pieces. It is an extensive field but I’ll keep to around half a dozen choices, from a wide slice of fiction, including several discussed here earlier.
Lets begin with romance. Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s black humour, surrealistic and long-suppressed satire “The Master and Margarita” (1967) may seem to hardly qualify, despite the name. But though starting with the visit of the Devil (and his retinue) to 1930s Moscow and the havoc that ensues, the romance between the unnamed Master and Margarita Nikolaevna, though only revealed halfway, is the mainstay.
Then, the other motifs — the absurdity, the supernatural, the mockery of Soviet bureaucracy, of literary rivalry and the retelling of the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), make it a work that can be read over and over again with interest at various levels.
As passionate, treacherous and lethal as love is espionage, where again there is an embarrassment of riches, spoiling us for choice — Robert Littell (especially “The Company”), Ian Fleming’s James Bond, say “From Russia With Love”, Lawrence Block’s uproarious Tanner series, John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury, and so many more.
However, one good option is Alan Furst’s series of historical fiction, set across 1930s Europe, especially its less-explored (fictionally) eastern parts and vividly bringing our the loneliness, the moral ambiguity, and the lethal complexity of a secret agent’s life. It is difficult to choose out of over a dozen works, but the first two — “Night Soldiers” and “Dark Star” — are the most panoramic.
But the latter, featuring Soviet journalist Andre Szara, is more enthralling with its complex — not complicated — plot with many motives, noble and selfish, competing purposes, its range of settings from beau-monde Paris to Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland, and its insights into power politics, intelligence and curious similarities between Hitler and Stalin.
As far as crime is concerned, while Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot can be read anytime, the exploits of Andrea Camilleri’s idiosyncratic Sicilian policeman Salvo Montalbano and his zany crew are as absorbing, for these are not only about solving unspeakably vile crimes but also deliver a sharp social and political comment.
One striking example is the second of the series — “The Terracotta Dog” — in which our hero wants to solve a half-century-old mystery as eagerly as the case he has, and ends on a poignant note.
Comic writing that can be read all over again also has many contenders — P.G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men”, Richard Gordon’s droll doctors series, but one to look out for, with its inspired language, singular characters and witty dialogue, is George MacDonald Fraser’s McAuslan trilogy of stories, set in a Highland Scottish battalion soon after World War II.
Narrated by the newly-commissioned Lt. Dand MacNeill, who has to deal with the world’s dirtiest soldier (McAuslan) and many other improbable situations, it seems the outcome of gifted imagination but happens to be all true — as we learn.
Episodes include a haunted fort with hidden treasure, bagpipers going full blast outside the subaltern’s quarters at dawn, a quiz contest, commanding a troop train to Palestine (the simplest issue is an Arab trooper who has got himself locked in a toilet as he finds out from a group of people singing “Oh dear, What can the matter be” outside the door), and McAuslan’s court-martial, in which the presiding officer seems more interested in the etymology of the Gaelic abuses he used than justice’s course.
There are many more for me, but how about you thinking about your own favourites?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)