29 May 2013

"Mein Kampf," "One Night @ the Call Center," and "Five Point Someone."

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler

Mysteriously, there is a copy of Mein Kampf at every small bookshop in India – even just the street-side shops that are really nothing more than an old blanket covered in local pornography still manages to find space for Hitler. I guess I understand the general fascination, and it’s certainly an important part of world history, but the market penetration in India of the Third Reich is almost one hundred percent.

The curious thing, though, is that this is just another poorly-written politician’s book. Hitler was a monster, and the ideology of the book is disgusting, but the structure and method behind the text are entirely unremarkable.

 Hitler uses his personal history as a rough frame, using each event to illustrate a lesson. For example, it is when he goes to Vienna for the first time and watches the proceedings of Austria’s parliament that he first realizes the serious “problems” of representative democracy. Watching the legislators, he sees them speaking in a great rabble, many in “Slav vernaculars and accents,” a “turbulent mass of people” that makes him break out laughing in contempt. Under cover of this brief anecdote, Hitler crams in a lengthy bit of instruction:
Is it at all possible actually to call to account the leaders of a parliamentary government for any kind of action which originated in the wishes of the whole multitude of deputies and was carried out under their orders or sanction? Instead of developing constructive ideas and plans, does the business of a statesman consist in the art of making a whole pack of blockheads understand his projects? Is it his business to entreat and coax them so that they will grant him their generous consent?

The parliamentary principle of vesting legislative power in the decision of the majority rejects the authority of the individual and puts a numerical quota of anonymous heads in its place. In doing so it contradicts the aristocratic principle, which is a fundamental law of nature; but of course we must remember that in this decadent era of ours the aristocratic principle need not be thought of as incorporated in the [elite].
Obviously, I need not even point out the errors in thinking here or elsewhere. But it’s remarkable how – grotesque ideas aside – this really felt like just another modern political autobiography. Hitler describes his humble rural roots and his upbringing, contrasting one parent with the other to establish a sense of personal balance, and then proceeds with a series of personal anecdotes, following each one with a tangentially-related sermon about his worldview. Every third sermon or so, it becomes nearly a full essay, scrabbling to fit in the fumbling frame story of Hitler’s life.

The final anecdote of the first volume, in which Hitler becomes politically active and joins the German Labor Party, enables the launch of a concluding analysis, sprawling out to fill the final two chapters with the reasons why Germany under the Hapsburgs collapsed, describing what could be done to restore the state, and laying out the eleven steps by which the Jews had seized control of the world.

In case you are curious about Hitler’s monstrous ideas, here is the ninth step:
And thus the Court Jew slowly developed into the national Jew. But naturally he still remained associated with persons in higher quarters and he even attempted to push his way further into the inner circles of the ruling set. But at the same time some other representatives of his race were currying favour with the people. If we remember the crimes the Jew had committed against the masses of the people in the course of so many centuries, how repeatedly and ruthlessly he exploited them and how he sucked out the very marrow of their substance, and when we further remember how they gradually came to hate him and finally considered him as a public scourge – then we may well understand how difficult the Jew must have found this final transformation. Yes, indeed, it must tax all their powers to be able to present themselves as “friends of humanity” to the poor victims whom they have skinned raw. 
Unfortunately, any pleasure or education that might come from reading such a mass of discredited nonsense is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tripe. Mein Kampf consumes page after page in talking about how Jews control the media, and how the workers’ unions are just a front for the evil Marxist movement, and about how the true lessons of history and nature dictate the rise of a strong Aryan leader, and so on without end. The salacious interest that arises from reading something so universally condemned is swamped, very swiftly, in recognition that the tedious sermons about Aryan supremacy are not just wrong, not just evil, but downright boring. Even moments like the process of selecting the Nazi emblem are rendered without color or skill, and are tedious unless you have a particular appreciation for the mechanics of dictatorship (Hitler did not make public the red-white-and-swastika, his design, until after he was certain it would be the best of submissions, to avoid embarrassment as the leader).

You should be interested in Mein Kampf, and not afraid to crack it open, but I’d advise reading excerpts instead. Otherwise, it’s just 1001 Ways to Forever Embarrass Yourself Before the Eyes of History.


One Night @ the Call Center, Chetan Bhagat
Five Point Someone, Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat is a bad writer. There’s no other way to put it. And yet the runaway success of his work in India is not at all mysterious. His books – there are now four of them – are easy to consume and greasy with lowbrow ploys. The problem is not the plots, which are at least serviceable: one book features three buddies struggling against an uncaring academic system, while the other examines a small group of diverse call-center employees and their various dilemmas. No, the problem is in the execution. Chetan Bhagat is a bad writer.

The protagonists are the first problem. They are not only unsympathetic, but downright unlikable. Rude, dull, incredibly selfish, and without even a whit of charm, they manage in the role of protagonists by sheer brunt of narration: they are telling the story from their perspective, so we unwillingly want them to succeed so we can experience that little twinge of vicarious happiness. It’s a curious phenomenon, and if you wish to explore it, I recommend you read these books and contemplate why on earth you actually find yourself rooting for people so completely unpleasant.

Shyam, the protagonist of One Night @ the Call Center is a good example. This book is about a group of six call-center employees, each of whom has a problem of varying prominence. Shyam’s problem is that his ex-girlfriend, Priyanka, is now engaged to another man. In the flashbacks crammed obtrusively into different parts of the book, it’s not at all hard to see why she’d leave.
“Listen Priyanka, your mom is a psycho…” I said.
“No she is not. It is not because of you, but I have changed. Maybe it is because of my age – and she confuses it with my being with you. We used to be so close, and now she doesn’t like anything I do,” she said and broke down into full-on crying. Everyone in the cafĂ© must have thought I had cheated on my girlfriend and was dumping her or something. I got some “you-horrible-men” looks from girls at other tables.
“Calm down, Priyanka. What does she want? And tell me honestly, what do you want?” I said.
Priyanka shook her head and remained silent. It drives me nuts. The effort it sometimes takes to make women speak up is harder than interrogating terrorists.
“Please, talk to me,” I said, looking at the brownie. The ice cream had melted to a gooey mess. 
 Mildly misogynistic, impatient, and selfish, Shyam spends almost the entire book trying to win Priyanka back. Naturally, he succeeds in the end – but it’s impossible to figure out exactly why he succeeds. He doesn’t change, except to become even more abrasive and thoughtless, and there’s no apparent reason why Priyanka would suddenly decide to get back together with him. Literally the whole of Shyam’s master plan to win her over is to google her new fiancĂ© and look for incriminating information (the search terms, Bhagat tells us, are “ganesh gupta drunk Wisconsin,” “ganesh gupta fines Wisconsin,” and “ganesh gupta girlfriend”). Once he has eliminated his rival, whose dark secret is that he is balding, then Priyanka just sort of… wanders back to him, by authorial fiat.

Five Point Someone’s Hari is similarly successful with his girlfriend, Neha, and I cannot imagine why. He woos her throughout the book – her strict father is an obstacle – and when he wins her, he betrays her horribly and outright, telling himself that “[r]omance was secondary to survival right now.” And while she refuses to talk to him for a few months, after the third time he calls her, she breaks down and comes back to him, happily. It’s hard to see why she liked him in the first place, since he is just as sullen, rude, and dull as One Night’s Shyam, but it’s even harder to see why his flagrant betrayals wouldn’t break whatever spell he’d managed to cast over her with his slack jaw.

In Bhagat’s books, it seems, if a man likes a beautiful woman then she is supposed to like him back, regardless of his glaring personality flaws. When she fails to do so, it is only temporary, caused by some obstacle that must be overcome. Then the beautiful woman will naturally gravitate back to the man who wants her, simply because of his desire. Once the obstacles is out of the way, there’s no need to change or work or even muster up the rudiments of a decent conversation – not if you have author Chetan Bhagat on your side.

Added to this vagina ex machina problem is the issue of morals. Put simply: these people are horrible. They lie, cheat, and steal without limit and with only a moment’s compunction. In Five Point Someone, for example, the trio of friends at the center of the story refuse to go to class or study, and so they are understandably close to flunking out. Accordingly they decide to break into a professor’s office to steal the final exam paper, so that they can cheat their way to an unearned victory. It’s not as if they have more pressing matters on their mind, or have a disability, or are secretly educating themselves outside of the system in a creative way that the Man doesn’t like – they’re just lazy and prefer to get high on the cafeteria roof. They deserve to fail, and the only reason we might think otherwise is that magical power of the narrator to gin up sympathy. We live through part of his story, and so we begin to hope that he – and thus we – will succeed. It’s very frustrating.

That scheme, though, is nothing compared to the cruel plan of One Night. In the second climax of the book, whose structure I will address in a moment, the characters blackmail their unpleasant boss with a sexual harassment suit, which is a little scummy but manageable (since the boss was himself unscrupulous) but then proceed to secure their software company call-center jobs by “Operation Yankee Fear”: instructing all center employees to call anyone who had previously called customer-service and tell them that they had a computer virus, and that unless they called every six hours for assistance – forever – they would lose all of their files. This is outright villainy, and despite all of the techniques Chagat deploys to enlist our sympathy – our jobs will be saved, the bad guy is unhappy, witness the fast reverse! – it is impossible not to picture an elderly woman in rural Georgia, frightened and confused, looking at the laptop her children bought for her and thinking about all the pictures of her grandchildren among its files. She calls, every six hours, for as many days as she can stand it.

It also bears mentioning that this is an insane plan, and far more likely to get the entire call center fired and blacklisted from the industry than anything else. Twenty minutes after the first call, the press would get a hold of the story and contact one of the American representatives of the software company, and that would be the end of that.

To foist these nasty people on us, Chagat uses every manipulative trick in the modern novelist’s book. Both books begin with a brief exciting scene from the climax, before skipping back to the beginning, but hey don’t you want to read the whole thing to get to that exciting moment? Both books are studded with occasional chapters from another viewpoint or another time, painfully contrived (“Allow me, however, to tell you this my way, for yes, this is Alok Gupta, and High Highness Hari has given me an itsy-bitsy space here to give vent to my feelings”).

There is little to report about the style of the books. They have a great deal of local slang and phrasing, which makes them slightly unusual for a western reader, but it provides only a little color. Much of the actual text of the book, for that matter, seems to serve no purpose: dialogue is awkward and filled with pointless exchanges, and the few descriptions are rendered with no evidence of independent thought.

Consider this passage of Five Point Someone:
“Neha is fine. Just took me to the place where her brother met with the accident. Isn’t that weird?” I said.
“Maybe because you are special. And the place holds special meaning for her,” Alok shrugged.
“Fatso is right. She likes you man,” Ryan said. “When did her brother die anyway?”
“Around three years ago. May 11 to be precise. He had gone jogging when they got a call mid-morning, hit by a ring railway train.”
“Wow, that is incredible,” Alok said, “and I thought no one used the ring railway.”
“He wasn’t using it Fatso, he just got hit by it,” Ryan clarified.
“Yes, pretty gory.” I rolled my eyes. 
Notice how Bhagat veers between colloquial expression, imitating natural speech, over to a clumsy bit of exposition phrased in wholly artificial terms. And notice the overall vapidity of the passage, which conveys very little that could not have been better communicated with a brief sentence such as “Later that day, I told Ryan and Alok about Neha’s brother.” Instead, page after page is consumed by inane chumminess. And don’t even get me started about how rabidly anti-American Bhagat’s books are!

These books have nothing that redeems them. Do not read them.