The mesmeric allure of mysterious book titles (Column: Bookends)

“What’s in a name?” asks fair Juliet in Shakespeare’s play of star-crossed lovers, questioning the relation between what we name something and its attributes (and in the process, giving birth to an important aspect of linguistic philosophy).It is undeniable that names are an arbitrary description – save when it comes to books. If you are browsing for a book, without any thought as to any specific genre or author (and there are such people!), would you pick up something with a commonplace, usually short, title or one longer, mysterious and enticing?

Old or new, book titles can range from one word – a fairly direct verb (“Kidnapped”), places (real: “Dubai”, abstract: “Fatherland” or imaginary: “Utopia”), names (“Lolita”, “Dracula”), abstract qualities (“Persuasion”), or even time (“1984”, “Twilight”), to several words, based on some combination of these. The title can even stretch to a longish phrase, which is more likely to attract.

The Elizabethans excelled in some colourful ones: “A Check, or Reproof of Mr Howlet’s untimely screeching in her Majesty’s Ear” (1581) or “A Quip for an Upstart Courtier: A Quaint Dispute Between Velvet-Breeches and Cloth-Breeches” (1592).

Some of that art lingers and recent authors have tried to instill a similar sense.

Wouldn’t “Across the River and into the Trees”, “The Garden of Evening Mists” or “Love Songs From A Shallow Grave” (Ernest Hemingway, Tan Twan Eng, and Colin Cotterill respectively) pull you to take a second, closer look even if you aren’t particularly keen about an American soldier’s last day of life, a Malaysian woman’s rite of passage through Japanese occupation, the communist insurgency and more, or an intricate murder mystery in 1970s Laos combined with a personal, nearly fatal, experience of the Khmer Rouge.

Provocatively-mysterious titles have been personally fascinating and the works – fiction or non-fiction – have rarely proved to be disappointing. Let me list some favourites.

“The General Danced at Dawn” is the first of George MacDonald Fraser’s collection of stories based on his life as an officer in a Scottish regiment soon after World War II. The title comes from a general on inspection, initially disapproving of everything until impressed by the battalion’s Highland dancing skills, and making them progress from an eightsome reel to 16-some, 32-some, 64-some and finally 128-some for which he joins in, along with the neighbouring Fusiliers, some military policemen, an Italian cafe proprietor, a few Senussi Arabs, and three German POWs.

A creation of Douglas “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Adams, Dirk Gently and his Holistic Detective Agency employs “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” to solve “the whole crime”. In “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” (his second outing), Gently must solve the murder of a client, whose fears he ignored, while braving exploding airport check-in counters, angry eagles, thunder god Thor, insulting horoscopes, and an omnipotent being who signed over his power to a lawyer and an advertising executive.

“At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances” is the third of the Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment series – one of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith’s lesser-known works, though a witty jibe at academic life. Chronicling the comic misadventures of Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, and his colleagues at the Institute of Romantic Philology in Germany, this one (preceded by “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” and “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs”) sees the good doctor get embroiled in political shenanigans in Colombia where he is invited to receive an award.

In non-fiction, titles can be no less mesmerising, especially travelogues (“Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” or “Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan”).

“Two Eggs on My Plate” is not a cookbook but a thrilling account of resistance activities in German-occupied World War II Noway by Oluf Reed Olsen, while “Emergency Sex: And Other Desperate Measures” by Kenneth Cain, Andrew Thomson, Heidi Postlewait is about three idealistic UN staffers who meet in Cambodia during the 1990 elections and their journey to disillusionment through Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and Haiti.

“Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government– A Memoir” by Gregory Levey deals with his misadventures – left alone and clueless to deal with a UN vote and later with Ariel Sharon’s sandwich, while Jane Bussman’s “The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Heart-Throbs and Other Abominations” lifts the lid on Joseph Kony and his child-staffed Lord’s Resistance Army’s fight with the Ugandan army.

Neil MacFarquhar’s “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East” and Hooman Majd’s “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran” about the paradoxes of the modern Middle East seem self-evident though no less alluring!

(12.07.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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