Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Incendiary Circumstances Incendiary Circumstances : A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times: Books: Amitav Ghosh: "his absorbing collection of essays by novelist, journalist and travel writer Ghosh (The Hungry Tide) covers some two decades of catastrophe and upheaval, from sectarian violence in his native India during the 1980s through the September 11 attacks (which he watched from his home in Brooklyn) to the recent Indian Ocean tsunami. With an eye for evocative detail, he illuminates the human dramas behind the headlines: the plight of tsunami refugees trying to rebuild their lives and finances after every bank record and piece of ID is lost to the waves; the courage of ordinary Indians protecting their Sikh neighbors from rampaging Hindu mobs. Ghosh also includes trenchant essays about the ideologies that fuel the developing world's turbulent politics, arguing in one, for example, that religious fundamentalism is "not a repudiation of but a means of laying claim to the modern world." He is equally engaging when he turns from current affairs to literary essays on, say, the international culture of novel reading or Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. The volume also includes a number of travel pieces, among them a sprightly look at America's Four Corners tourist trap. Written in luminous prose with unusual understanding, these essays offer an insightful look at a chaotic world.

To offer a simple example, giving the name of the man who killed John Lennon helps fulfill the killer's crazed desire to go down in history; yet a writer who wants to shed light on the incident can hardly avoid discussing and analyzing its perpetrator. Ghosh, a journalist who divides his time between Brooklyn and India, is also a novelist, and in an essay on the assassination of another Gandhi -- Indira, the Indian prime minister killed in 1984 -- he notes the temptation in store for any fiction writer who takes on a violent subject: "It is all too easy to present violence as an apocalyptic spectacle, while the resistance to it can easily figure as mere sentimentality or, worse, as pathetic and absurd."

In other pieces, Ghosh writes about the Cambodia of Pol Pot, 9/11, the 2004 tsunami and the winning of the Nobel Prize by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. In the charming "The March of the Novel Through History," he recalls his wonderment at his grandfather's bookcase in Calcutta, which contained Maxim Gorky and John Steinbeck, Henry Sienkiewicz and Henri Bergson; the panoply of 19th-century greats (Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Tolstoy, etc.); and now-obscure folk such as Marie Corelli and Grazia Deledda -- names that for Ghosh "have become a kind of secret incantation . . . a password that allows entry into the brotherhood of remembered bookcases." "

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