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The Essence of Camphor [Hardcover]

Naiyer Masud
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 17 2000
Hauntingly beautiful short stories with strong affinities to Kafka and Borges, by one of the most original voices to emerge from India. Indian author Naiyer Masud has long been hailed as a leading writer in his native Lucknow, where he has won several prestigious literary awards. Now seven of Masud's most highly regarded stories have been translated from Urdu for the first time, introducing to a wider audience the work of a master of the short story and opening a window on an exciting literary tradition. In spare, abstract language reminiscent of Kafka and Borges, Masud creates a lush landscape of dreams and disillusion. A parfumier mixes memory with desire to recall the older girl who influenced his destiny. A dispossessed boy learns difficult lessons of love and its transparencies from a young girl who has never set foot on land. A man escapes his incestuous longings to become a building inspector with the unusual ability to detect in houses their obscure realms of fear and desire. Masud's "irreducibly authentic" (Safdir Mir, Dawn) and "enlightening" (Muzaffar Ali Syed, The Friday Times) work reflects his careful ear for the strange and uneven rhythms beneath a highly routinized everydayness, which lend these stories their mystical yet deeply human tone.

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From Publishers Weekly

Masud, Kafka's translator into Urdu, is highly considered for his fantasy-tinged tales in his native India. In the title story the narrator, who makes perfumes using a camphor base, assembles filmy memories of his childhood to show how the odor of camphor became associated with Mah Rukh Sultan, the invalid daughter of his next-door neighbor, and her death. The narrator of "Sheesha Ghat," like a character in a Brothers Grimm tale, is given away by his father because he has a disabling stutter, which his father suspects his new wife will not want to endure. He is sent to live with Jahaz, a street clown living on an island ruled by Bibi, the widow of a gangster. The latter's lovely daughter, Parya, has grown up entirely on Bibi's boat, and has accrued a sort of mythical glamour from having never touched dry land. One day Parya tries to walk on water, and the whole atmosphere of the fantastic suddenly sinks with her into the waves. Another folkloric story, "Ba'i's Mourners," has a marvelous beginning: "Few people know--perhaps none--that for a long time in my boyhood I used to be mortally afraid of brides." The narrator's dread derives from a family story about a bride who was bitten by a centipede in the carriage that took her from the parental home, so that the groom opened the carriage door upon a corpse. Masud likes to play his stories off each other; in this tale, the bridal story shifts to an account of another death, that of the narrator's next-door neighbor, Ba'i, once a famous singer. Like all true connoisseurs of the fantastic, Masud's talent is for finding just those symbols that will convey the obscure oppression of claustrophobia. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

An award-winning writer in India, Masud debuts in English with this quite Kafkaesque collection. Translated from Masud's native Urdu, these seven stories transform routine activities into mystical enterprises. This transformation is best exemplified by "Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire," whose main character, a building inspector, attains the uncanny (and distracting) ability to perceive both fear and desire in the homes he inspects. Masud's writing offers a rich display for all of the senses. Perhaps the only weakness in this otherwise notable collection is the lack of narrative diversity. All of the narrators are male, and though each appears distinctive, especially because of age and class differences, eventually readers may find that one storyteller sounds similar to the next. Still, this is a lovely, accomplished work; recommended for all fiction collections.
-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars very evocative and rooted. zen_108@hotmail.com Oct. 30 2000
Format:Hardcover
The Essence of Camphor is a wonderful story. It is mesmerizing how closely the childhood memories of a perfumer overlap the imaginary and the real. The camphor base of his perfumes mirror his loneliness, and the loss of a friend - she had said that like camphor, death is a cure for many pains. Most of the other characters appear ghostly or distant, as sometimes adults appear to children. At the same time, the image of the 'camphor sparrow' becomes very real, it literally takes flight from its frame in the living room. It reappears on a tree, reached it is dead -- hollow with ants, or again, sighted flying above the rooftop with a string attached, it is alive and free. These precise images are offset by a sketchy background of families of women where men are mostly absent. The boy-protagonist's adventures are very much his own, and passionate in his creation of objects which to him are 'real', more real probably than things around him. What are his creations and how real are they? Images telegraph back and forth till a sense of the past and the future is blurred, as the house once abandoned where people sat with their heads bowed is later inhabited with people who bring with them a similar uncanny melancholy. In the narrative, camphor becomes a metaphor for healing, for emptiness, for renewal, and for death. Heavily layered, read it carefully. Highly recommended reading!
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5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Blew Me Away! May 29 2003
Format:Hardcover
What subtle writing! When I read this book, I was struck by how ephemeral the imagery is, the strange, half-real world of a boy in circumstances that I consider exotic, the ways that he accepted (and didn't accept) his surroundings. I was struck by the re-occurring images, the melancholy air of the story.
And then I got to the end, and I just burst out crying. All of those little images that seemed interesting but disconnected all came together within the space of a single paragraph, and it's the most powerful paragraph in literature I've read thusfar. I had to set the book down because I was crying so hard. It was a very powerful experience.
I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for a writing style that's different from the traditional western storytelling style, but not so challanging as to be unapproachable. Fans of movies like 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs' will probably appreciate it.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars very evocative and rooted. zen_108@hotmail.com Oct. 30 2000
By K. Agrawal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Essence of Camphor is a wonderful story. It is mesmerizing how closely the childhood memories of a perfumer overlap the imaginary and the real. The camphor base of his perfumes mirror his loneliness, and the loss of a friend - she had said that like camphor, death is a cure for many pains. Most of the other characters appear ghostly or distant, as sometimes adults appear to children. At the same time, the image of the 'camphor sparrow' becomes very real, it literally takes flight from its frame in the living room. It reappears on a tree, reached it is dead -- hollow with ants, or again, sighted flying above the rooftop with a string attached, it is alive and free. These precise images are offset by a sketchy background of families of women where men are mostly absent. The boy-protagonist's adventures are very much his own, and passionate in his creation of objects which to him are 'real', more real probably than things around him. What are his creations and how real are they? Images telegraph back and forth till a sense of the past and the future is blurred, as the house once abandoned where people sat with their heads bowed is later inhabited with people who bring with them a similar uncanny melancholy. In the narrative, camphor becomes a metaphor for healing, for emptiness, for renewal, and for death. Heavily layered, read it carefully. Highly recommended reading!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Blew Me Away! May 29 2003
By PurpleKat - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What subtle writing! When I read this book, I was struck by how ephemeral the imagery is, the strange, half-real world of a boy in circumstances that I consider exotic, the ways that he accepted (and didn't accept) his surroundings. I was struck by the re-occurring images, the melancholy air of the story.
And then I got to the end, and I just burst out crying. All of those little images that seemed interesting but disconnected all came together within the space of a single paragraph, and it's the most powerful paragraph in literature I've read thusfar. I had to set the book down because I was crying so hard. It was a very powerful experience.
I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for a writing style that's different from the traditional western storytelling style, but not so challanging as to be unapproachable. Fans of movies like 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs' will probably appreciate it.
3.0 out of 5 stars Stories from Rural India July 15 2012
By James W. Fonseca - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A collection of short stories from India with a lot of local color. I'll call them "mood stories:" a lot of atmosphere but very little plot. In the title story, a young, artistic man grows up observing his neighbors and neighborhood and develops a crush on a young woman who is dying. He mainly sees her on family visits and makes artistic gifts for her. This is old India, so it's not like they are going to run up to the bedroom and close the door. Another story is a bit of a ghost story focused on an old house. Another is almost a medieval tale of a laborer who steals a peacock for his daughter from the royal zoo. In another story, a death leads to a family melee over the deceased's jewelry. There is some elegant writing but little action or even psychological depth. The stories are translated from Urdu, the language of Pakistan, but these tales are set in northeast India where that language is also spoken.
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