Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review: Vikram Chandra Sacred Games

NY: Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN: 9780002008518

Michael Sedano

When is a not Chicano novel a chicano novel in disguise? When you're reading Sacred Games. OK, Vikram Chandra doesn't claim to be a chicano, and the city of Bombay is a long ways from your eastside chicanada. Nonetheless, the novel’s landscape of undocumented and falsely documented immigrants worried about their status, characters worrying that their spoken English isn't good enough, and masses of brown skins everywhere creates a comfortable familiarity that speeds a reader's adaptation to the foreignness of India.

Sacred Games is a magnum opus, 900 plus pages, that weaves deep into its Bombay culture. Chandra’s rich, fluid English prose code switches readily into native terms when that is the right word. Thankfully, Chandra hasn’t taken the trouble to italicize most foreignisms, reserving that irritating typography to some, but not all, phonetically rendered expressions that remain untranslated in all their glory or unknown meaning. Obviously many of these foreign expressions are cusswords or colloquialisms that defy translations, others are song lyrics from Indian movies or television programs. The writer develops a rhythm, the page a comforting feel in the reader's grasp. To interrupt that with typography would be the worst form of cultural pendejismo.

The novel is puro fun. It comes with an engaging story of good, intrepid cops (even if they do solicit bribes) at various stages of difficult careers. Organized crime, political corruption, pimping and prostitution, good guys and bad guys getting killed. Readers familiar with chicano writing will enjoy the cultural parallels between Chandra’s India and the more familiar US setting. Although there is a glossary at the end, I urge readers to let the code-switching take the story along on its face.

A lot of the fun comes from having virtually unlimited space to tell the story. Vikram Chandra doesn’t constrain his story to a single central figure, the honest cop and his partner, nor a single villain, the legendary criminal Ganesh Gaitonde, who dies early in the book. The reader is treated to a sweeping exploration of the criminal’s life. One of the good guys is killed and we explore the aftermath. More tangential characters come in for extensive development, allowing side stories to blossom, connections made, parallels developed. For example, there are three mentor stories; the cop, the crook, and the intelligence officer. It’s a perfect way to balance out the story and make telling points about being successful, solitude, values, and growing older.

Extended character and family history can take a slow plot and make it lugubrious. Not in this novel. Despite the rich cast of characters and the Indian vocabulary code-switched with beautiful ease, the story moves quickly, the reader driven along by all the stories to see how they coalesce, what tiny detail will become the clue that closes down an investigation.

Sacred Games is perfect bound. This means Harper Collins had the pages made up in 16- or 32-page sigs, then stitched and glued into its stiff cloth cover. The volume has a heft to it, and when turning pages the stitching helps the pages make a warm sound as they rub against one another conforming to the avid reader’s eager page turning. How better can it get, an excellent story, well-drawn characters, a fascinating insight to a foreign culture, and a comforting tactile experience? If you haven’t read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games yet, don't wait for the paperback. Find out from this hard cover gem, enjoy.

from "The Guild" and Daniel Olivas
Readings & Events
Sandy Florian and Raul Nino

(Mailing list information, including unsubscription instructions, is located at the end of this message.)

THIS Wednesday, June 20
Doors open at 8:00 PM. Reading begins at 8:30 PM.
California Clipper, 1002 N. California (California at Augusta).
Free admission. 21 and over show (id required)

Sandy Florian was born in New York and raised in Latin America. She is of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. She holds an MFA from Brown University's Creative Writing Program in Fiction. At Brown, she was the recipient for the Francis Mason Harris Award for best book-length manuscript written by a woman. She was also the recipient of the New Voices Sudden Fiction Prize in Cambridge. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her work appears in the following journals: Indiana Review, Bombay Gin, Shampoo, La Petite Zine, Washington Square Review, 14 Hills, elimae, New Orleans Review, eratio, Tarpaulin Sky, Gargoyle, 42 Opus, Copper Nickel, Upstairs at Duroc, Word For/Word, Segue, Versal, Horse Less Review, Identity Theory, The Encyclopedia Project, Elixir, dANDelion, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Visit her blog at http://boxingthecompass.blogspot.com.

With Breathing Light (1991) the Chicago Chicano poet Raúl Niño positioned himself as a writer committed to exploring individual and cultural, as opposed to social and political, concerns. Perhaps the least public and least extroverted of the Mexican poets one could call "Chicano" in Chicago--a group that includes Chicano poets writing mainly in English, recent emigrants from Mexico, and, above all, the self-named Generacion mojada, or "Wetback Generation," writing in Spanish--he represents an important dimension of contemporary Chicago and national Chicano writing as it has developed from its more militant roots and uses in the 1960s.

Please join on Wednesday to hear the work of these two wonderful poets.

Have a great week,
The Guild

Independence Day coming around the corner gente. A blockbuster novel like this one is an ideal way to spend a lazy weekend holiday. If you’ve read this one, or there’s another title you know La Bloga readers should hear about, share it with us! La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. Submitting your work is easy. Post a comment, email a La Bloga Bloguera or Bloguero, or click here.

See you next week.


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