The Man in the Yellow Suit – Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries is a novel about Johan Nagel, a man who suddenly lives in a small Norwegian town and who gets the townspeople going with his eccentric thoughts and impulsive acts. With no apparent reason for sojourning in the town and then leaving it just as soon as he arrived, Nagel probes into the deep recesses of the people’s souls, thereby disrupting the peace of the people and turning everyone against him while he goes closer to his own destruction. It is a psychological novel that begins with loose ends and finishes with more loose ends that will  remain as they are: mysteries.


One summer, Nagel arrives at the town wearing a yellow suit. From the port, he sees flags fluttering, and instead of continuing his journey at the sea, he decides to stay. Nagel is rather short, his upper body is quite big for his build, he is in his late twenties, and he has a couple of suitcases and a violin case that contains his soiled clothes. That last bit raises the eyebrow: why keep clothes and not a violin in a container meant for a violin?

We don’t know anything about his past. He just arrives; that’s it. He does not receive a warm welcome from a town that is actually not interesting. The flags he saw upon arrival are not for him but he stays anyway. It could have been any other coastal town, and if the reader tries to understand why he chose this town in particular, the first chapter will be hardly finished.

Local townspeople are introduced as Nagel interacts with them. One of them is The Midget, a courteous fellow who is always the object of the town’s ridicules. Nagel is immediately drawn to this grotesquely described man, so upon learning his plight, he befriends him, and his conversations with him allow us to see how this stranger operates.

What would it be like to be floating around up there among the planets, feeling the tails of the comets brushing against one’s forehead? What a tiny speck the earth was, and how insignificant its inhabitants–Norway had two million bumpkins supported by mortgages and bank loans. What was the point of living, anyway? You fight your way ahead with blood and sweat for a few miserable years, only to turn into dust! Nagel put his head in his hands. He would finally get out of it all–end it! Would he ever be capable of carrying it off? Yes, by God, he wouldn’t falter! He felt euphoric at the idea of having this escape hatch in reserve. Tears of rapture came into his eyes, and the intense emotion made his breathing heavy. He was already rocking on the seas of the heavens, singing as he fished with a silver hook. His boat was made of scented wood, and the oars gleamed like white wings; the sail was of light blue silk and shaped like a half moon…

This novel, switching from third to first person, has an eccentric character for the lead, a type of character that the author is fond of. The novel is inspired by the strangeness and mysteries that reside in the mind and body. We see Hamsun’s unrivaled talent in handling Nagel’s thoughts through seemingly straightforward sentences that jump from one idea to another. Nagel is in a perpetual state of flux: his excitability is hard to keep up with during his moments of hysteria and his bouts of depression are as devastating as they could get. His moods are unpredictable, so one is almost caught offhanded as he raves about various things, particularly the true intentions and the secret longings of the townspeople.

[Anyway, what the devil am I doing, lying here laughing? Am I trying to show my superiority? Only children and young girls should be allowed to laugh like this. Laughter originated in our monkey days--a revolting sound coming out of the windpipe. It's expelled from wherever it happens to be in my body when I'm tickled under the chin. What was it Hauge, the butcher, who had an uproarious laugh of his own, said to me once? He said that no one who had all his five senses...]

The town always murmurs about him, and why not? He voices out the least popular opinions and tells the craziest stories. However much the people indulge him in talk, no one could truly understand him because he always contradicts himself. He would declare his undying love for the minister’s daughter, Dagny Kielland, and then tell her after that no, he doesn’t love her. He tries to bring himself closer to her, and yet he always succeeds in making a negative impression of himself.

There is also a conniving and manipulative part of him. He uses these traits for his own interests, which are all murky. He is capable of persuading people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Thus said, he has a certain amount of charm and candor, as if his other characteristics aren’t enough to keep the reader interested.

[Over there, for instance, sticking out of my vest pocket is the neck of a vial. It contains "medicine"--prussic acid. I carry it because I am curious by nature, but I don't have the courage to take it. But why do I carry it around, and why did I get it in the first place? Hypocrisy again, nothing but a sham; the decadence, phoniness, self-adulation, and snobbery of our times! To hell with all of it! She's as white and delicate as china: she's my morbid Melesina...]

Although Nagel is at the center of this novel, it is really about the soul unsettling from its comfortable seat. Nagel merely acts as the magnifying glass in probing what is in there. He asserts that people are selfish and that they always have ulterior motives. He even questions that casual handling of a change to a beggar. Why are people doing what they are doing? Are acts of kindness borne out of a pure heart, or are they propagated by the need to glorify oneself?

In reading Nagel’s opinions, the reader is forced to evaluate his own self. Why am I doing what I am doing? Did Nagel bring out a truth about me that I’ve either buried or failed to recognize? Is he overanalyzing things or merely speaking what’s on his mind? One may continue arguing with Nagel, and this internal, alternate argument is one of the beauties of this novel. It makes us think while trying to figure out this character.

[I can't accept that it's only theory.God help me, but my way of looking at things is so radically different from everybody else's. Is it my fault? Am I personally to blame? I'm a stranger, alien to this world, a stubborn manifestation of God--call me what you will...]

And at the end, I daresay we can’t really figure Nagel out. We never understand what he means. Erratic, probably deranged, but absolutely enthralling, he leaves the reader with a lingering feeling that he is a predator and a prey at the same time. Surely, there’s a void inside him, and just as we delude ourselves in claiming to quite get his drift, he’s just gone. For sure, the townspeople will often wonder about this man who came as a stranger and left still a stranger. It’s almost like the author just ended everything on a whim, and one is almost forced to flip the book back to page one.


Dates Read: March 15 to 26, 2013

No. of Pages: 340

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A Hundred Feelings – Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair is the second collection of poetry published by the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. The poems in this collection strongly depict love in very personal, intimate, erotic, and artistic ways. Published when he was only 19 years old, the critically acclaimed collection gave him international fame and set his place among men of letters as an emerging South American poet.


I didn’t know how to read this. Should I read the poems in one go? Should I wait for a certain mood before I start? Should I only read one poem a day to process each one effectively? Should I read aloud? I only did the last item, and it proved to be helpful. It further convinced me that poems are meant to be read aloud, to be whispered to the wind, to be heard within someone’s hearing.

Typing this alone makes me nervous because as much as I want to capture the feelings that I have for this book, they just remain as they are: feelings. And while reading, I imagined myself taking a northbound bus with a smattering of passengers. I am seated by the window. It is night. The moon is not full but it is luminescent. I could see it shed its light on the sleepy coastal towns as we drive along the silvery concrete. Further ahead, the shadow of the mountain looms like a grandmother tucking the kids to sleep. One could almost listen to the rustling of leaves perched atop the mountain, or is that the sea foam dissolving at the beach?

There’s so much to say and yet you cannot say.

I Have Gone Marking

Between the lips and the voice something goes dying.
Something with the wings of a bird, something of anguish and oblivion.
The way nets cannot hold water.
My toy doll, only a few drops are left trembling.
Even so, something sings in these fugitive words.
Something sings, something climbs to my ravenous mouth.
Oh to be able to celebrate you with all the words of joy.

Sing, burn, flee, like a belfry at the hands of a madman.
My sad tenderness, what comes over you all at once?
When I have reached the most awesome and the coldest summit
my heart closes like a nocturnal flower.

Mother Nature and her dainty movements were the subjects of my imagination while I was reading this. Neruda’s poems are created with natural elements that they bring a pining to a heart that has been battered by the daily urban motions. He dips his poetic brush into the colors of nature to paint scintillating images of love. And lust.

But the poet’s figure, in the mind’s eye, doesn’t wag a condescending finger. The poems never say that this is how a poem should be written, even if you want to write one half as good. Instead, he reaches a hand and says, come, let us celebrate life and open our senses to feel the love emanating from it.

I Like for You to Be Still

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.
One word then, one smile is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it’s not true.

The collection came out a few years after the first world war. It was perfect timing because people needed something like this for them to remember that their ravaged lives were once beautiful and can still be beautiful. Beauty doesn’t need to be in physical terms; the memory of a loving face from your youth can spell the difference between bliss and despair.

My favorite poems in this collection have a strong similarity. I Have Gone Marking and So that You Will Hear Me talk of the fleeting moments that we so want to communicate and yet, we are incapable to do so despite all the thousands of words swimming in our heads.

So that You Will Hear Me

But my words become stained with your love.
You occupy everything, you occupy everything.

I am making them into an endless necklace
for your white hands, smooth as grapes.

I always thought that words fail when you most need them. But with Neruda, words can be stringed together to preserve every single moment. From the mundane to the significant, there is no exception, not in the deft hands of a poet as talented as Neruda.

Tonight, I may not have written the saddest lines, but I will not despair. I am filled with joy for those lines are here waiting to be read over and over.

Tonight I Can Write

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.


Dates Read: February 2 to 9, 2013

No. of Pages: 94

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

6 Months, 3 Books, 1 Drum – The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

The Tin Drum is the first book in the Danzig Trilogy. It tells us the story of Oskar Matzerath with reminiscences from his birth up to his 30th birthday. A person who hast the power to break glass using his voice, Oskar willfully stopped his body from growing at the age of three, which is also the same year that he received his first tin drum from his mother. He spends his pre and post WWII years in the body of a child until he gets locked up in a mental institution. So how did he end up there and tell his story to us?


I was more than excited to read The Tin Drum when I first got it. In fact, I went out of my way to get a copy of Breon Mitchell’s translation for the novel’s 50th anniversary. The Ralph Manheim version, I gave it away. I imagined this book to be fun because the protagonist is a very interesting character. My expectations were not in vain; the first chapter delivered. However, something happened.

My reading just fell apart. I read it at a sluggish pace, finishing the three books that the novel has in six months. True, I went through a phase filled with unexplained lassitude during the last quarter of 2012, and it’s most probable that this has affected my appreciation of this novel. I feel pretty bad about this because I know that this is an important work in German literature. Perhaps I could be allowed to explain myself.

There, I have it now, my drum. There it hangs, brand-new, zigzagged white and red, on my tummy. There I am, self-assured, my face solemn and resolute, my drumsticks crossed upon the tin. There I am in my striped sweater. There I stand in gleaming patent-leather shoes. There my hair stands, like a brush ready for action atop my head, there, mirrored in each blue eye, a will to power that needs no followers. There I am back then, in a stance I found no reason to abandon. There and then I decided, there I declared, there I decreed, that I would never be a politician and most certainly not a grocer, that I would make a point instead of remaining as I was–and so I did, remained that size, kept that attire, for years to come.

The text is dense and immensely stylistic. Style is a fundamental part of writing, and so is content. I felt that I was fed with too many intricate sentences at every page. When I reached the second book, I’ve had enough of the multiple series and parallelisms that I decided to read other books along it just so I could get rid of the singshattering distaste that filled my mouth. And this is what I always thought when I finished each chapter: what an arrogant, arrogant book this is.

[And I recognized her at once. Rage, shame, indignation, disappointment, and a half-comic, half-painful incipient stiffening of the little watering can under my bathing suit made me forget both drum and drumsticks in favor a of a newly grown stick.]

You also have no clear idea where the novel is headed. It’s given: Oskar is a notoriously unreliable narrator. He is a very quirky and lively storyteller, and he has this habit of switching between the first and the third persons. He is inclined to digress and backtrack a lot, which I found really helpful because I was able to recall details in the novel that I have already forgotten. His reveries reflect how stubborn, selfish, sly, and sad he is. Yes, his personality is a mix of contrasts that it’s not surprising for readers to develop a love-hate relationship with him.

As Oskar tells us his own and his family’s story at the start and end of the second world war, we realize that we are not only reading about the Matzerath history. We are not only being privy to his and his parents’ secret love affairs, to their tragic experiences at the onset of the war, and to Oskar’s coming of age, but we also see the horrendous effects that the war inflicted on ordinary people.

[Today Oskar faces the difficult task of reproducing on his drum an echo of that avalanche of potatoes--a windfall, by the way, for a few of the medics--and the organized din of Greff's drum machine. No doubt because my drum had a decisive influence on the shape and design of Greff's death, I sometimes manage to translate Greff's death into a well-rounded composition for percussion on Oskar's drum, and when friends or my keeper Bruno ask me what I call it, I tell them: Seventy-five Kilos.]

Oskar uses his drum not only to drum up the past but also to drum away the uprising Nazi party. In one chapter, he drums along the marching party not to support them but to disrupt their rally. His mystical voice is a different story. As an adolescent, he used it to vandalize religious objects and to help his gang steal items from different shops. He does so by cracking the storefront windows with his powerful voice. So yes, his musical gifts have an ambivalent nature.

But as he grows older, he loses his power to screamshatter. His three-foot body even undergoes a spurt of growth as he realizes that the times will keep on changing with him getting left behind. He has to adapt to the changes if he wants to survive. His body must learn and grow with the experiences that life is giving us.

A very complex novel, this deserves some serious consideration. The book captures a war-torn era that the world would rather forget, and presents to us themes on music and art as vehicles for peace, the inevitability of adulthood, and the complexity of people’s interaction in the society. Indeed, it’s a book of percussive quality, but the drum has never been on the list of instruments I wish I could play.


Dates Read: August 26, 2012 to February 8, 2013

No. of Pages: 582

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Unmagical Realism – No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories consists of one novella, which is the title story, and eight other ones. These are dense with the seemingly insignificant lives of people living in a South American village. The unnamed villagers, each portrayed separately among the stories, are portrayed as despondent people who could either be hanging on to hope or resigned to utter hopelessness. After every story, the mood seems to get bleaker, but the compassionate writing of one of South America’s best writers makes the reader go until the end.


Readers familiar with the Nobel laureate’s books, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude, will find this a strange departure from the regular Marquez oeuvre. Elements from the school of magic realism are rarely found and, in fact, only present in one of the stories. Readers who are looking for those must prepare themselves to prevent disappointment, but this collection will not go as far as that.

Cross out magic and you get realism. People and places are depicted as they are seen by the naked eye. In fact, the reader could perspire with the characters as they walk around the town under the sweltering heat of the sun, not to mention the pangs of hunger that they try to ignore and the troubles that tug their hearts.

The postmaster delivered his mail. He put the rest in the bag and closed it again. The doctor got ready to read two personal letters, but before tearing open the envelopes he looked at the colonel. Then he looked at the postmaster.

“Nothing for the colonel?”

The colonel was terrified. The postmaster tossed the bag onto his shoulder, got off the platform, and replied without turning his head:

“No one writes to the colonel.”

Most of the stories deal with people struggling through lives strained by poverty. The characters’ situations are both touching and funny wherein the former is considered with a heavy sigh as the last trace of smirk is gone from the reader’s face. Consider an unlicensed dentist extracting the tooth of another without anesthesia in One of These Days. Consider a man stealing billiard balls for nothing in There Are No Thieves in This Town. Consider a man giving away an ornate bird-cage that’s supposed to bring food to their tables in Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon. Consider a priest repetitively saying that he has seen the devil in One Day After Saturday.

[It was a lower wisdom tooth. The dentist spread his feet and grasped the tooth with the hot forceps. The Mayor seized the arms of the chair, braced his feet with all his strength, and felt an icy void in his kidneys, but didn't make a sound. The dentist moved only his wrist. Without rancor, rather with a bitter tenderness, he said:

"Now you'll pay for our twenty dead men."]

There is dark humor bubbling at the surface of each, but as we digest each story, we dissect the characters to a get a taste of the intentions behind the things that they do. In my favorite story here, One of These Days, the patient who gets the painful extraction is a corrupt government official. He intimidates the dentist into taking out the rotten tooth despite the latter’s efforts to hide from him. He does so, but not without vengeance. No anesthesia due to an abscess. He proceeds to pull the tooth out of the official’s mouth with a silent aggression that screams of triumph.

In a book discussion that I attended for this, it was pointed out that the pulling of the rotten tooth is a metaphor for the wiping out of corruption through quiet violence. It could be, and that is the beauty of it. One can interpret the actions of Marquez’s characters in many ways and no one will be incorrect.

And this story is just four pages long.

["It's a sin to take the food out of our mouths to give it to a rooster."

The colonel wiped her forehead with the sheet.

"Nobody dies in three months."

"And what do we eat in the meantime?" the woman asked.

"I don't know," the colonel said. "But if we were going to die of hunger, we would have died already."]

In the title story, the colonel patiently waits for his pension for a decade and a half. He keeps visiting the post office for any letter from the government only to come back to his wife empty-handed. They have nothing; they even pretend to cook by boiling stones just to the neighbors wouldn’t find out that they do not have anything to eat.

But they do have a rooster. The colonel starves himself and his wife just so the rooster could eat. They wage everything on that rooster; who knows it might bring them a lot of money on an auspicious day in a cockfight. But there are mouths to feed and health problems to treat. What are they going to do? What are they going to eat?

The story was inspired from the writer’s grandfather, a colonel who also never received any pension. It was also boldly published shortly after the civil war in Colombia between the 1940s and 1950s. The political turmoil going on in the country is reflected in this collection; fragments of a corrupt government are depicted on the pages. In the last story, Big Mama’s Funeral, people clean up the garbage off the streets right after Big Mama, an absolute power, was buried. This collection will remind people to keep sweeping away any trash on the streets.


Dates Read: November 20 to 24, 2012

No. of Pages: 170

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A Quiet Lullabye – The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing is the coming-of-age tale of Alfgrimur Hansson, a boy orphaned since birth and left to the care of grandparents unrelated to him. Although he is the narrator, the novel does not merely revolve around him. The chapters shift between the different events in the town of Brekukkot and the people that are etched in Alfgrimur’s memory particularly Gardar Holm, an Icelandic opera singer with worldwide fame. We witness Alfgrimur’s relationship with the singer grow thanks to his own developing singing talent, but what happens when he finds out the story behind Gardar’s fame?


My first encounter with the Nobel laureate Laxness is through his epic novel Independent People. It’s still unknown to me why I bothered to read it; perhaps it’s the cover art painted by Louisa Matthiasdottir that features a house on a knoll with sheep grazing about. I’m very grateful that I did read this because otherwise I wouldn’t bother to explore his other works.

This second encounter seems, strangely, both a similar and different experience. The Fish Can Sing lacks the grandeur of Independent People but it has a quaint intimacy that slowly builds itself chapter after chapter.

“There is only the one note, which is the whole note,” said Gardar Holm. “And he who has heard it does not need to ask for anything. My own singing doesn’t matter. But remember one thing for me: when the world has given you everything, when the merciless yoke of fame has been laid on your shoulders and its brand has been stamped on your brow as indelibly as on the man who was convicted of the worst crime in the world — remember then that you have no other refuge than this one prayer: ‘God, take it all away from me — except one note’.”

[How did it ever come about, I wonder, that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? Somehow it just occurred to me one day that the word it said when it ticked, a four-syllable word with the emphasis on alternate syllables, was et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. Did I know the word, then?]

Fame versus obscurity: which one will you choose? The former option seems like the easy choice but for Alfgrimur, this is a dilemma that would trouble him for most of his adolescent years. It is easy to note in the remembrance of his youth that he dearly loves his home and that he does want to be a fisherman like his grandfather. Modern people can dismiss this as backward thinking: why give up the chance to become a famous singer side-by-side a national figure just to become an ordinary man who will catch, sell, and dry lumpfish all his life?

[From time immemorial it has been the custom in all sizeable forms in Iceland to have a good reader available to read sagas aloud or recite rimur for the household in the evenings; this was the national pastime. These evening sessions have been called the Icelanders' University.]

And this national figure, Gardar Holm, is as much an enigma as a household name of the whole Iceland. He may be the greatest singer to captivate every royal audience in the world, but ironically, no one from his homeland has ever heard him sing.

[It is not very pleasant to be so deaf that one can no longer argue with people because one cannot hear what they are saying -- not to mention when one cannot even understand the little one does happen to hear.]

Even so, we can still hear the quiet humor and sarcasm of Laxness pervading the pages. He can even make fun of the sacred without turning it into blasphemy. This is something that the readers will delight themselves especially if they are looking for something that reminds him of his other works. I don’t know much about Iceland and her people, but it seems like they can be both funny and contemplative at the same time.

[If people adhere to the doctrine that words are spoken in order to hide one's thoughts, that words mean something entirely different, sometimes even directly opposite to what they are saying, it is possible, occasionally at least, to reconcile oneself to them and to forgive the poet ...]

This book was written when Laxness’s novels were beginning to get huge attention from the rest of the world. His more popular works were already translated into different languages, hence, he turned to be the great voice of Iceland. Fame was inevitable for the writer, but instead of wallowing in it, he longed for the blessed serenity of everyday living.

[For some time, I had felt in my heart a certain uneasiness, as all guilty people do; I felt I had done something against my better conscience, something which was not worthy of my dignity. But what was the value of Better Conscience if it forbade people to bring others better health and a little romance? And what did the Dignity of a stupid slip of a boy matter?]

His self is reflected both in Alfgrimur and Gardar, and he ponders on the levels of existence that the ordinary man and the famous man may achieve. The novel asserts that what may look like an easy life can even be more turbulent than a life of poverty, that profundity and dignity can be attained even by the most ordinary of people, that getting a living is not always about getting money, and that going back to one’s roots can be a most rewarding spiritual experience.

This novel can really sing, not in the manner of pop stars but in the tradition of a mother singing your childhood lullabye. And you might ask why and how the fish can sing. Try to figure it out with these lines, in the traditional Icelandic saga:

The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.


Dates Read: January 12 to 25, 2013

No. of Pages: 246

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars