(Pic: Shashank Shrestha)
A graduate in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Films from Sarah Lawrence College, New York, USA, Pranaya Rana is currently working as a Desk/Sub Editor at the Kathmandu Post daily. In the past, he’s also worked with Wave magazine and Nepali Times. Recently, Pranaya has also conducted Katha-Kuro, a “feature-writing workshop” on the basics of how to write a compelling feature story.
So, in his own words, here are the five books that changed this talented young writer’s life. Thank you Pranaya for doing this.
I would like to preface this list by saying that I am almost exclusively a reader of fiction. I am not very interested in non-fiction and I loathe self-help books. I think that most things worth knowing about life can be found within the pages of a good novel. After all, while they might be fictional stories, they present issues that are true for everyone. They touch on themes that can resonate across distances, times and cultures. The following list is by no means an exhaustive list or a list that will always remain the same. It is, right now, my top five books. But I am certain they will change over time.
1. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut is my hero. It is not just his fantastic writing, which is light years ahead of my own, but the great humanity that comes forth in his words that make him such an admirable figure to me. His books, all written in a dry, sarcastic manner, are full of humour and absurdity, even while dealing with the darkest of subjects like death and war. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, deals with the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II, which Vonnegut, then a prisoner of war, witnessed first-hand. Despite the gravity of this situation, Vonnegut deals with it with wit and humour, not dismissing heady issues but addressing them in a manner that expresses humankind’s ambitions and aspirations most eloquently. Mother Night, my favourite Vonnegut, is about a Nazi who is a spy for the Allies during the World War and his life after the war. It is a tragedy of sorts, this man is never found to be the hero that he was for the ‘good’ guys and is forever branded a Nazi despite having worked against them. He is hunted down by Nazi-haters and glorified by neo-Nazis. All the while, Howard Campbell is a man pretending to be another man, pretending to be many more men. Vonnegut shows, though this book, that our identity is as much about donning mask after mask, second after second, day after day. Who we are changes with the second hand on the clock and who we are then is not who we are now. Mother Night has three morals to it, which Vonnegut tells us very early on: “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral, I just happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”, and “When you’re dead, you’re dead”, and furthermore, “Make love when you can, it’s good for you.” And so it goes.
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Controversial and incendiary, Lolita is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written. While its subject matter might not be everyone cup of chiya, the style in which it is written is absolutely brilliant. Nabokov is a master wordsmith. He plays with sound and structure in a manner I have yet to see anyone else attempt. Just the crafting of his sentences is glorious. For example, take just the beginning of the novel: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It is not just Nabokov’s ease with the English language but his overwhelming understanding of language and how it involves not just sight and sound but textures and emotions that can very easily be manipulated by the author. In Lolita, Nabokov’s prose style is so beautiful that you forget this is a pedophile, a person who seduced and took advantage of an underage teenager. While Humbert might be morally repugnant, he is a master storyteller, drawing on his own fragmented memories and presenting an explicitly subjective, but damning nonetheless, narrative of his affair with Lolita. Upon reading the book, I came upon the realization that I not only excused Humbert’s rape of Lolita but actually condoned it. And it was only with the ending, where Humbert acknowledges his actions that I realized, with disgust, what I had implicitly done. This is the power of literature.
3. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Probably the shortest of Dostoevsky’s novels, Notes from Underground condenses many of the themes of his other works including Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov. Notes from Underground is also the first appearance of an “unreliable narrator,” one who actively seeks to lie and manipulate the audience. I find this type of character in a lot of my own writing as I am more comfortable writing in the first person. Dostoevsky points out the first crucial assumption about any novel: that the narrator tells the ‘truth.’ He explores this in many of his other novels where there isn’t one overarching meaning or truth to the story but rather many conflicting ways of interpretation and conflicting philosophies that are embodied by different characters. The self-loathing, hateful narrator of Notes from Underground is quite refreshing to read, even now, amid all the banal and cloying stories that tend to come out these days (case in point: the Twilight series). This was the first book that impressed upon me the fact that as humans, we often do things that will actively hurt us but we do them because we wish to express our individuality, our free will, the fact that we can do something and it will make a difference, maybe not big but a difference nonetheless. This is why I write, to counteract the indifference of the world and stake my claim with the right to say that I did something.
4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Meursault is Camus’ titular stranger, one who doesn’t seem to feel anything, who is buffeted along by the waves of the world and is satisfied with experience, not introspection. Many things happen to Meursault throughout the course of the book, the most significant being the death of his mother, where he expresses little sadness and only indifference and his killing of an Arab, simply because “the sun was too hot.” He is caught, put on trial and marked for death. All the while Meursault doesn’t feel anything. He looks into himself and comes to a realization that is at the heart of Camus’ philosophy: that the world is absurd. There is no greater meaning, no fate, no destiny, simply absurdity and the world’s indifference to your existence. This, I think, is the beauty of Camus’ existential philosophy: that there is no meaning to life except the one you make yourself.
5. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Each one of Borges’ stories in Labyrinths could become a full-fledged novel. It is not the beauty of Borges’ writing that attracts me but the breadth and scope of his ideas and the economy with which he manages to squeeze such heavy, intricate concepts into a short story running just a few pages. Borges is one of those people I don’t mind reading translated, as it is not his language that is beautiful but his central concept. I think language might have hindered Borges, which is why many of his stories are about the inability to comprehend facets of the world, things like time, memory, faith and infinity. He takes inspiration from many sources and unlike the magical realists of his native South America (Borges is Argentinian), he takes a decidedly post-modern approach to story-telling. For example, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’ is a piece of literary criticism concerning a translation of Don Quixote that is not a translation at all, but a line-by-line recreation. However, this new recreation takes on a life of its own, surpassing the original in its depth, raising the crucial question: is the meaning of a book static and inherent in its text or does its meaning change and flow with the times? Another example is ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ about an infinite book, hypertextual novel that can be read in an infinity of ways as it contains every single forking of time that can take place. Through the story, Borges presents a succinct example of the multiverse interpretation of Schrodinger’s paradox and presents time as not a linear, straight line but an endlessly forking infinity of worlds.
Visit Pranaya’s blog: Thinkinink