All posts by Sukanya Ramanujan

Multi-lingual professional with varied interests such as reading, travelling, music and photography.
Coolest Calling Card Ever

S- The Search for Straka

“What begins at the water shall end there. And what ends there shall once more begin”

And the book that the quote has been taken from is as enigmatic as the quote itself. And yes, I’m talking about “S” a book by Doug Dorst and J J Abrams (better known from Lost and Fringe). I must confess I didn’t know of the book’s existence until it was actually gifted to me. The book is unusual not only in its content but also its format. The actual plot of the book revolves around the effort of two people trying to find the identity of a mysterious author- V M S Straka- whose last work they are reading. Except that their story develops as margin notes that they write in the book.

The book comes in it’s own pouch- you have to break open the seal with the names of the authors to pull it out.

S
S

Inside is a book that looks and feels like an old library book- this is the book supposedly written by V M S Straka called ” The Ship of Theseus”

Ship of Theseus
Ship of Theseus

The book is full of interesting things inserted into – all of which add to the plot in some way.

Documents Inserts
Documents Inserts
Postcards
Postcards

And I was tempted to add my own to the collection- a Pied Hornbill feather- souvenir from one of my trips.

That feather wasn't part of the book
That feather wasn’t part of the book

One of the things that I was most struck about was the presence of three intersecting tales of love- the one of the amnesiac central character of Straka’s book, the one of Straka’s translator and co-worker (who has also never met Straka) and that of the two people writing in the margins.

Margin Notes
Margin Notes

You can read the book in a variety of ways- you can read the central Ship of Theseus without reading any of the margin notes or the inserts or you can read them all together or you can read the inserts and margin notes and then read the story- completely up to you!

Coolest Calling Card Ever
Coolest Calling Card Ever
Especially with that quote
Especially with that quote

(All photos from my phone camera)

Stories in Stone

The Grandest Show on Earth

I was extremely fortunate to be able to visit the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago. Standing in front of it, I was humbled. Humbled by the passage of time- rocks over a billion years – a billion! Some of the stars we see above us in the sky hadn’t been formed when these rocks were around. And stars are so old themselves.

Stories in Stone
Stories in Stone

I captured this image close to sunset (close to Yavapai point). They say that the canyon looks best close to sunrise and sunset- this is because the long shadows create an impressive play of light and dark and of constant movement and colours. Looking at this photograph you have to agree!

 

Back After A Break

You may have noticed that I’ve been silent for the last few weeks- sometimes I feel that it is good to take a break, look back on what you’ve done before and see if there are things you could change. I hope to be more regular in posting over the next few weeks/ months.

I’m amazed that we’re already in October. This year is also whizzing past us- though I’ve done so much this year that it seems a bit slower than 2013- which is a good thing I guess. I hope the rest of the year stays as exciting and colourful!

All set for a colourful last three months of 2014?
All set for a colourful last three months of 2014?

Slow and Steady what?

I’ve never seen a snail anywhere but on the ground. To see one climbing along a vine was a surprise- I don’t know if this is normal or if this was an adventurous snail that was going where no snail had gone before..

This photo looks normal except that I've rotated it
This photo looks normal except that I’ve rotated it

This is what it looks like from the other side

I'm fascinated by how the snail almost seems to drape itself around the vine
I’m fascinated by how the snail almost seems to drape itself around the vine

An Officer and A Spy: Robert Harris

It was nearly 11 years ago that I first heard of “L’Affaire Dreyfus”. I was doing my Diplome Superieur in French and one of our themes was France from 1840-1914. I think each one of us in class had to work on a specific topic for a paper and presentation and I somehow landed up with Dreyfus. I did quite a bit of research on the theme (thankfully google already existed) looking through articles, books, cartoons from contemporary newspapers and so on. I started my presentation to class with a cartoon that in fact showed a family seated calmly around the dining table. That is until someone mentions ‘Dreyfus’ and then they are all at each other’s throats- to show how deeply divisive the topic had been in France of that time. Almost anyone who’s ever heard of Dreyfus will talk about “J’accuse” the infamous open letter written by French writer Emile Zola to the President of France about the unjust treatment meted out to Dreyfus and also how the whole thing had been covered up. Oftentimes this is also the only thing that people know about the Dreyfus Affair. I was glad to have had the opportunity to have learnt more.

An Officer and A Spy
An Officer and A Spy

A few months ago I chanced upon the latest book by Robert Harris “An Officer and a Spy” in stores. I turned it around and was pleasantly surprised to find that it dealt with Dreyfus. But then that also made me doubt how good it would be- as a fiction title coming from the author who has previously written books like Fatherland (I think this was one of his best works. Fear Index probably his weakest but still a good read esp if you are travelling and need a book for a long flight), Pompeii and Enigma (with the exception of Archangel  I have read all of his books, for some strange reason Archangel is collecting dust on my book shelf).

Anyway I really wasn’t sure that this was going to be a great read- I mean a man was wrongly convicted of being a spy for Germany- there was an extra level of prejudice because he was a Jew and anti-Semitism was quite strong in France at that point- he was at the end exonerated when evidence was brought out that he was not a spy and that the real spy was someone else. Of course the treatment that Dreyfus suffered- exiled to  a small island thousands of miles away from France- condemned to rot there was truly cruel but was this whole thing really thriller material a la Robert Harris?

The short answer: YES

The long answer:
I finally landed picking up the Kindle version of the book (the price was deeply discounted and I was going to have a lot of time to kill) and gave it a go.

The book starts from the point of Dreyfus’ degradation and exile and is narrated from the perspective of Major Picquart -who is quickly promoted to Colonel Picquart and gets to head the Statistical Section – which is actually the secret service. In the course of his work Picquart uncovers the truth that the note that was primarily used to incriminate Dreyfus had actually been written by a Major Estherhazy. A person with a strong sense of moral right and wrong he proceeds to lay forth the evidence to his superiors initially only the evidence implicating Estherhazy as a spy and only later about how the two cases were interlinked. He is well aware of the opposition that he would face- a lot had been riding on the Dreyfus case- politically more than practically and reopening the case would mean opening a Pandora’s box. He is advised to keep it quiet but he feels that keeping it quiet would damage the reputation of the army if ever the evidence were uncovered and it is an institution he loves more than his family. So he keeps at it relentlessly until he is quietly exiled himself to a backpost in the middle of nowhere in Tunisia. As the momentum builds the case against him grows stronger with new evidence framing Picquart himself as a forger.

If we didn’t know the ending already- we would be quite tempted to scream and throw the book away at certain points. Robert Harris does a great job of bringing out the suffocating and unjust atmosphere whether it is the rundown office of the Statistical Section or the menacing scenes in the courtroom. You just can’t put the book away until the end.

I particularly liked the characterization of Picquart- an ambitious officer- the youngest Colonel ever in the French army- yet he is not the super hero material. He is just a normal person with a strong sense of justice and loyalty. He doesn’t go through the entire agonizing experience for the sake of Dreyfus but for the sake of justice. In fact in the beginning Picquart himself is shown to possess traces of anti-semitist sentiments. When asked by colleagues how Dreyfus looks right after his public degradation he replies “He looks like a Jewish tailor counting the cost of all that gold braid going to waste. If he had a tape measure around his neck, he might be in a cutting room on the rue Auber” . And even in the epilogue when he is Minister of War and meets the reinstated Dreyfus and says it might not have happened had it not been for Dreyfus for which he replies “No my General, you attained it because you did your duty”.

Reading this book also made me think about the whole concept of good and evil- a la Lord of the Rings and you think that good will always win over evil but I couldn’t help wondering if Dreyfus was the lucky one. He was immensely rich in the first place so his family could lobby senior figures in society and keep the campaign to free him up and running for a long time. Also a lucky stroke that the evidence came into the hands of someone like Picquart who put justice above personal ambition (at least immediate personal ambition). What may have happened to another person in his place? Even today how many people are affected by deep prejudices and malice? I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’ wonderful book ‘Arthur and George’ which also plays on a similar theme.

All in all a good book- a must read if you are interested in history particularly France in the late 1890s and early 1900s.