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Updated: May 10, 2014 13:07 IST
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Of kings and countrymen

Gautam Padmanabhan
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Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus and Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy.
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Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus and Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy.

For me, one of the real highlights of the last The Hindu Lit For Life was Dr. Abraham Verghese's presentation. Many in the audience were moved by the passion and eloquence of the physician-writer's words as he spoke about the book that made him choose Medicine and the epidemic that inspired his writing career.

After that session, I rushed to grab a copy of his grand novel Cutting for Stone but the bookstore had no copies left. When I finally managed to get a copy, I was immediately drawn in to the writer's fascinating story of twins growing up in Ethiopia, imbibing from their foster parents the passion to become physicians and moving on to face success and tragedy.

Cutting For Stone is truly a modern classic that manages to convey the author's stated ambition of conveying to the reader "how Medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking." (Reader's Warning - Be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of surgical procedures!)

The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie makes a cameo appearance in the book and this reminded me of another great writer whom I had not tried -- the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski who made his reputation as a chronicler of 20th Century conflicts with books on the rise and fall of despotic leaders like Haile Selassie (The Emperor), the Shah of Iran (Shah Of Shahs) and the break-up of the Soviet empire (Imperium). Any of these would have been obvious first options but I chose to dive in to his last book Travels With Herodotus in which the author shares vignettes from his travels interspersed with his observations on the life and work of the Greek historian and retellings from The Histories, a book which he claims was his constant companion and muse during his travels.

While Kapuscinki's own experiences beginning with his first travel experience to India, are often laced with wry humour and surrealism, Herodotus emerges from these pages not only as the father of history but also as a pioneer of journalism, multi-culturism and the first chronicler of the clash of civilisations. He also chronicles Herodotus's method which is not based on studying documents or artefacts but drawing from the stories and recollections of people that he met during his travels. For Herodotus, history was not merely a recounting of past events, but the story of people's lives and their myths.

In recent years, Kapuscinski's reputation has taken a beating with accusations of embellishing facts and reporting on events that he was not a witness to but perhaps he was only taking a leaf out of Herodotus who firmly believed in the limits of memory and the relativity of truth! There are no such issues with the books of Robert Harris that are gripping yarns mostly based on true historical events. His past successes include Enigma about the British code breakers of WWII, Pompeii about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and Imperium and Lustrum, the first two volumes of a trilogy retelling the life of the great Roman orator, Cicero, who was witness to the rise and fall of Julius Caesar.

His latest thriller Officer and The Spy opens in 1895 with the conviction and public humiliation of the French army officer Alfred Dreyfrus on charges of spying for the Germans. Another French officer, Georges Picquart takes up the cause of Dreyfrus when he discovers much of the evidence against him is fabricated. Picquart in his attempt to find justice, not only has to combat the army establishment but also a popular wave of anti-Semitism. Even if you know the outcome, Harris deftly manages to keep you turning the page till the very end.

And still on the subject of French crime and punishment, my last selection is the translation of Pierre Lemaitre's Alex. The crime novel features the dwarfish Commandant Camille Verhoeven who is entrusted with the case of the kidnapping of a young woman called Alex. As Camille races against time with hardly any clues and, like all good literary detectives, battles his inner demons, Alex is dying a slow death in a cage... From here on there are several gripping twists and turns that I leave you to find out. Alex deservedly won the CWA (Crime Writers Association) International Dagger Award in 2013 and the English translation of its prequel Irene has just been released.

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