Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti

Lost Luggage by Jordi PuntiBook Review
Title: Lost Luggage
Author:  Jordi Punti
Publisher: Short Books Ltd.
Released: October 15, 2013
Pages: 480
ISBN-10: 1780720440
ISBN-13: 978-1780720449
Stars:  3.5

Lost Luggage by Spanish author Jordi Punti is the remarkable story of four half-brothers who have only known that each other existed for a year.  The curious thing about them is that they are each named Christopher in various languages. There’s the oldest, Christof, an actor/ventriloquist whose mother Sigrun is German; Christophe, a lecturer in quantum physics at the University of Paris whose mother Mireille is French; Christopher, who buys & sells second-hand records in Camden Town (London) whose mother Sarah is English; and Cristòfal, the youngest, a translator of novels who lives in Barcelona and whose mother Rita is Spanish.  When the Christophers’ mothers find out about each other 30 years after they last saw the father of their sons, they have no desire to meet, and so we don’t hear from them.

These are the sons of the missing Gabriel Delacruz Expósito, an enigmatic man with not one, but four secret lives, who drove a truck for a Barcelona based company called La Iberica that moved furniture all over Europe.  Somehow, the charming Gabriel was able to form brief relationships with four different women, all of whom were content with the brevity of his appearances in their lives.

The Christophers each received letters, photos and postcards from their father over the years and even shared the same memory of him when he’d leave early in the morning in his lorry after an all too brief visit.  They use these mementos to try to piece together a portrait of Gabriel’s life because Gabriel has disappeared more than a year ago and even though his sons haven’t seen him in more than 30 years, they embark on a journey to find him.  Barcelona police contact Cristòfal after finding his name on a piece of paper on Gabriel’s bedside table in his abandoned flat, as his landlord and bill collectors want to be paid and that’s how the Christophers end up coming together.

Gabriel grew up in The House of Charity, an orphanage in Barcelona, with his best friend Bundó and they lived together as roommates in a boarding house for years after they left the orphanage at the age of 17.  They befriended Petroli, who was 20 years older, through their work with the moving company and soon the three of them were helping themselves to one box that mysteriously disappeared, in every move they made and divided up the contents among them.

The four Christophers track down Petroli and his partner Angeles in Northern Germany where Petroli, who is now 80, has retired. They glean as much information about their father’s life from him as they can.  Because of their transient life on the road, Gabriel, Bundó & Petroli often stayed in brothels and motels.  Gabriel’s lifestyle offered two choices for past times between jobs: sex or playing cards.  Petroli liked to frequent emigrants’ centres during their down time on the road, which is where he met Angeles and where Gabriel met Sigrun in a Rüsselsheim social club.

Christophe meets with Bundó’s former lover, ex-prostitute Carolina (also known as Muriel), who never allowed herself to accept his proposal to move in with him in Barcelona and years later moved to Paris and said yes to someone else.  By finding all the hidden pieces to the puzzle that was their father’s unconventional life, the four half-brothers discover themselves.

Punti’s lush, descriptive prose takes us on a front seat ride through the lives of his characters.  Beginning with Chapter 8, he allows each of the Christophers to share their life story, and Christof takes the lead. He works part time as a ventriloquist and insists that his dummy Cristoffini be declared The Fifth Brother.  The way Punti incorporates Cristoffini into Christof’s storytelling, where he becomes the incarnation of Christof’s conscience, is nothing short of brilliant.

If there’s one thing we’ve confirmed since we began following the trail left by our father, it’s that our lives (everybody’s lives) are capriciously entwined and knotted together, sometimes playfully and, more often than not, in an impossible twist.  Try to follow a strand from the end, undo all the knots to observe each thread separately and you’ll soon find out that it’s totally useless.  At the moment of birth we’re already tangled like wool.  In the end, the paradox is that a life as solitary as Gabriel’s could have been braided with so many different people.

In Chapter 9, Christopher takes his turn at narrating the story of his mother Sarah’s life. She was a nurse who was working on a ferry that crossed from Calais to Dover. During a move to Great Britain, Gabriel, when he wasn’t cheating at a card game with Bundó, a Frenchman and his groomsmen (they were transporting a racehorse on the ferry), he found time to have a sexual rendezvous with Sarah in the infirmary.  In the meantime Punti tells a fantastical tale of three teenagers on an LSD trip on the ferry who decide to free the horse from its box.  The result is quite a trip!

By the time it’s Cristòfal’s turn to tell his story in Part 2 of the book, I found myself beginning to lose patience with Punti’s wordiness.  In particular, Cristòfal’s chapter At The Airport is tedious and the story of his grandfather’s wig business goes on longer than necessary.  In fact, Cristòfal’s story goes on and on for chapters, for more than half of Part 2 of the book and this is when I started to get bored and just wanted Punti to wrap it up already.  The book, although wonderfully written, could have easily been 150 pages shorter without losing the significance of events in the story.

Lost Luggage is not only one of the literal themes in this book, but also a metaphor for the lost, incomplete souls of its main characters.  There is a pervading atmosphere of sadness and loneliness that permeates its pages and leaves you feeling melancholy so I can’t say that I’d ever want to read it again.  However, I will say that Punti pulls off a conjuring trick with the ending which is perfect!  But you’ll have to read it yourself to find out how it all turns out.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts: The Best Book I’ve Ever Read

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Book Review
Title: Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Released: 2003
Pages: 944
ISBN-10: 0312330529
ISBN-13: 978-0312330521
Stars: 6.0

The sensational epic novel Shantaram by Australian author Gregory David Roberts is one that I don’t think I will ever forget for as long as I live. It is the best book I have ever read and giving it 5 stars just isn’t enough to express how much I loved it and what a profound effect its author has had on the way I look at the world.

This is a book I savoured like a last bottle of water in the desert, while reading several others in between over a period of five months, because I never wanted it to end. Its gripping, visceral descriptions of prison life will make you squirm in your seat and its heartrending passages about the loss of loved ones will have you weeping uncontrollably, but it will also make you daydream, smile, and laugh out loud.

The theme of Shantaram is the exile experience, alienation, and man’s quest for meaning. It’s also about shame and self-loathing, sadness and hope, fear and forgiveness, poverty and true wealth, understanding and catharsis. And above all, it is about love.

Shantaram (which is actually the second book in a trilogy that has not yet been published) for the most part takes place in Bombay (Mumbai) and the author’s knowledge and love for the Indian people is so intoxicating and infectious that it will make you want to visit India with the hope that you will come to know its people in the same way. He describes the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of India (as well as his romantic retreat in Goa and the war torn and ravaged Afghanistan) with as much perfect detail, love and care as a famous artist put into his masterpiece with each strategic brush stroke.

Shantaram is the story of the indomitable spirit of a man who has lost everything – whose will to survive is astonishing – and the lengths to which he will fight to climb out of the abyss, absolutely astounding. The main character who has a number of names: Linbaba, Lin, Shantaram…is a man who feels damned and beyond redemption because of the crimes he’s committed (robbery, smuggling, gunrunning, counterfeiting, and working as a street soldier for the Bombay mafia) but who manages to find light, peace and salvation through the relationships he shares with the people he loves.

“It’s forgiveness that makes us what we are. Without forgiveness, our species would’ve annihilated itself in endless retributions. Without forgiveness, there would be no history. Without that hope, there would be no art, for every work of art is in some way an act of forgiveness. Without that dream, there would be no love, for every act of love is in some way a promise to forget. We live on because we can love, and we love because we can forgive.”

Based on many of the true life experiences of Gregory David Roberts – who after the failure of his marriage in Australia became a heroin addict, robber, inmate, escapee, and finally a refugee hiding out in India – Shantaram is stellar fiction that will leave you with many questions about how much of the story actually happened and how much was devised by Roberts’ literary genius. You may also find yourself falling in love with its author because of his intellect, charisma, and the sheer magnitude of his gigantic heart.

This book should be required reading for every college and university student on the planet. It’s a story that should be read, if possible, before embarking on the major part of your life’s journey. It is filled with so many exquisitely written passages and profound and remarkable quotes that you will be able to find something in it to express almost every situation you could possibly encounter.

“Everything you ever sense, in touch or taste or sight or even thought, has an effect on you that’s greater than zero. Some things, like the background sound of a bird chirping as it passes your house in the evening, or a flower glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, have such an infinitesimally small effect that you can’t detect them. Some things, like triumph and heartbreak, and some images, like the image of yourself reflected in the eyes of a man you’ve just stabbed, attach themselves to the secret gallery and they change your life forever.”

The characters, particularly his closest friends outside of the mafia council, such as Prabaker, Johnny Cigar, Qasim Ali Hussein and the slum dwellers, and the European crowd from Leopold’s Bar: Karla, Lisa, Didier, Ulla and Modena, Maurizio, Lettie and Vikram, Scorpio George and Gemini George, as well as Abdullah, Khader Khan and the other members of the Bombay mafia, are richly developed and fully realized and as a reader you become invested in them as you experience their joys and tragedies. I believe that some of these characters were amalgamations of several different people who Roberts knew in India in the 80s, but the world he creates through their eyes is as complex and colourful as the one we live in at this moment. Rarely, have I read a book that so completely transported me into the author’s world and seldom have I thought of one so much after I’d put the book down.

As I read the last few pages of this giant tome, tears trickled down my face, because of what Roberts had written in ending this part of his tale, and because I had come to the end and now I have to wait for the sequel to be published; hopefully in September 2011. Having a writer’s work that is this good, to look forward to, is something exceptional indeed. Gregory David Roberts’ life has been beyond extraordinary.

I won’t say anything more but READ THIS BOOK.

NOTE (as of March 2021): A TV series based on Shantaram and its sequel The Mountain Shadow is currently in production with Apple TV+, Paramount TV and Anonymous Content. Shooting was interrupted due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The series is set to resume filming in 2021.