Saturday, August 15, 2015

New Lives In A New Country

This review of Sunjeev Sahota's Booker long-listed The Year of the Runaways appeared in  today's The Indian Express.

Asserting the universality of immigrant fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri once said: “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar...The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.” It’s this theme that animates Sunjeev Sahota’s rich, rewarding second novel, The Year of the Runaways.

Sahota’s debut, Ours are the Streets – on the basis of which he was anointed one of Granta’s best young British novelists – was a sympathetic portrait of the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield. In The Year of the Runaways, also largely based in the same city, he writes of those who have fled their homes and countries to forge a better future not just for themselves but also those close to them. As one of the characters puts it, “It’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.”

The novel is structured around the interactions of three such young men and one woman over the course of four seasons during which their dreams, physical limits and faith are put to the test. There’s Tochi, from a so-called untouchable caste in Bihar, embittered and alone when his attempts at making a living by driving an auto go up in flames after an engineered riot; there’s Avtar, a private bus conductor from Amritsar, who finds himself at a dead end after he loses his job and finds a girlfriend; there’s Randeep, a college student from Chandigarh who is forced to take over the reins of running the household after his father’s stroke; and there’s Narinder, a staunch Sikh from Britain who discovers that following the codes of her belief leads to an ethical impasse.

After their arrival in England, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep share a squalid flat with other migrants and work on a construction site until circumstances pull them apart and then together again. Sahota describes their motivations and movements in pacing and prose that’s pleasingly unhurried, so that the unfolding of the plot takes on an air of inevitability. Attention is paid to minor characters, be they a girlfriend, an erratic co-worker, a heartless employer or an ailing family member, which creates an enviable verisimilitude. Details of everyday adjustment to an unfamiliar environment – from clothes to food to cramped living quarters—are also carefully and tellingly chosen: “Soon the house was a whirl of voices and feet and toilet flushes and calls to get out of bed. They filed down, rucksacks flung over sleepy shoulders, taking their lunchbox from the kitchen counter; next a rushed prayer at the joss stick and out into the cold morning dark in twos and threes, at ten-minute intervals.”

Sahota lets the predicament of his characters as they move through time and space speak of the novel’s concerns: the injustice of treating people as higher or lower in a pecking order based on circumstances of birth, the wretchedness of having to scrounge for work, and the grimness of having no alternative but to carry on. Large defeats and small triumphs are delineated in a manner that makes us care deeply about them and in this way the novel tunnels through news headlines of immigration and caste debates, one of its transcendent strengths.

At one point early on, when Tochi insists on plying his trade despite the warnings of others, he realises that it’s “not just pride” that makes him do so: “It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognise his place in this world.”  This story of Tochi and his compatriots is an empathetic exploration of this question, with Sahota proving to be an able guide to the migrant terrain of loyalty, loss and longing.

(My earlier review of Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel is here.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Colonising The Present

This review of Anuradha Roy's Sleeping on Jupiter appeared in today's Indian Express.


The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley famously wrote; they do things differently there. The manner in which the past colonises the present, and the ways in which we attempt to make peace with it can be said to be the subject of all of Anuradha Roy’s fiction so far, including her new novel, the whimsically titled Sleeping on Jupiter.

As with her earlier An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, this one features a cast of well-outlined characters, with attention paid to fleshing out their particularities and points of view. There is, to begin with, the group of Vidya, Gauri and Latika, friends in their 60s – “three old biddies from Calcutta”, as a hotel manager dismissively calls them – who embark on a five-day trip to Jarmuli, a medieval temple town overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Of this trio, Latika is efficient and gently mocking; Gauri is garrulous and increasingly afflicted by forgetfulness; and Vidya takes pride in being practical and sensible. Among the people they meet in Jarmuli is Badal, a temple guide in his 20s, a graduate from the school of hard knocks whose street-smart manner conceals an essential naivete. The narrative also circles around Suraj, a liaison person for a TV production company, with his thwarted film-making dreams, erratic, violent temper and controlling ways.

Above all else, Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of the young Nomi – the well-travelled Nomita Frederiksen, born in India but adopted by a foster-mother in Oslo, who has returned to Jarmuli in order to shine a more powerful light upon the fragments of her past. Years ago, Nomi had been wrenched from her family and fallen into the clutches of a predatory ashram, witnessing violence and undergoing abuse almost too much for any young person to withstand. She now faces the challenge of putting these shards together in a form that will afford release and allow her to move on, depicted in the novel by means of deft, occasional shifts from first person to third. 

With most such novels written in a realistic mode, there’s a tussle between the needs of the character and those of the plot. How far can such fictional individuals be allowed to exist as entities in their own right, and how much do they have to be manipulated to serve the unfolding narrative? Most of the time, Roy walks this tightrope with ease, but there are wobbles: easy co-incidences and neat encounters, however necessary they may be to deepen the plot, do at times come in the way of the artifice of reality.

All of Roy’s characters have had things taken away from them, sometimes through violence, sometimes through time's passage. In some cases, innocence is what has been waylaid; with others, an intimate relationship has come apart at the seams; with yet others, it’s the coherent memory of the past that has vanished. The novel progresses by means of these people engaging and disengaging with each other, and the after-effect of these meetings and partings yields truths about the world and about themselves that have so far been concealed or ignored.

The experience of reading Sleeping on Jupiter is, for the most part, rich and immersive. Roy’s delineation of Jarmuli is as atmospheric as that of Ranikhet in her earlier The Folded Earth. In this town by the sea, incense mingles with the stench of rotting fish, scorching afternoons give way to mellow twilights, sunlight plays on water that carries ominous currents, cardamom and ginger are crushed into tea leaves at a stall by the beach, and the stairways and interiors of intricately carved temples witness a swarm of people, from visitors to locals, from the devout to the irreligious. This precise evocation of a sense of place, matched by an equally precise portrayal of interior states, all in unhurried, unshowy prose, makes Sleeping on Jupiter both accomplished and affecting.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Home And The World

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

On a December morning in 1986, the ten-year-old Rafia Zakaria’s Aunt Amina left her husband to return to her parents’ house. This, to the young Zakaria, was mystifying, until it was explained to her that Uncle Sohail had taken a second wife. The reveberations of this episode and the context against which they play out form the driving force behind Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife, a domestic memoir of Pakistan that's counter-balanced by public events.

In Shame, the novel banned in Pakistan almost immediately after it was published in 1983, Salman Rushdie writes: “I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge.” However, he continues, “the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies”. If Shame is set in Rushdie’s “looking-glass Pakistan”, The Upstairs Wife is Pakistan-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with many pieces – though not all -- portraying women’s tragedies, histories and comedies.

The book moves backward and forward from 1986 in an ambitious attempt to capture Pakistan’s “intimate history”.There are vignettes to do with the lives of Zakaria’s grandparents in undivided India: Konkani Muslims living in the shadow of Mumbai’s Jamia Milla Mosque, they stay on after Partition, changing their minds and arriving in Karachi only in 1961. There’s the saga of Aunt Amina who returns to her husband and his second wife: she lives on an upper floor, with Uncle Sohail’s time equally divided between one and then the other. There are mini-portrayals of other members of the family: the author’s mother, for instance, who is determined to provide her children with an education.

Interwoven with these are observations on historical events, notably, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which forms the book's prologue. Other pieces of the jigsaw that make up this portrait of Pakistan feature the Bangladesh War, the effects of the Islamic policies of Zia ul-Haq, the struggles between the muhajirs and other communities, and the fallout of happenings in Afghanistan over the years. A lot for any place to endure.

It’s an approach that works well when there’s a resonance between the private and public. The day of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, for example, is also the day that Uncle Sohail is in hospital after suffering a stroke. As Zakaria writes: “For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.”

At times, though, the links seem forced: “One year after Uncle Sohail took a second wife, another strange wedding took place in Karachi [that of Benazir Bhutto with Ali Asaf Zardari]”. At yet other times, the connections are tenuous, especially as many pieces of this jigsaw aren’t specifically about women’s lives. This can give The Upstairs Wife, deeply-felt and keenly-observed though it is, something of a fragmentary character.

Journalistic set pieces or otherwise, Zakaria’s slices of life in Pakistan are always revealing. There is, for example, the delicious tale of how Hamida Bogra, wife of Mohammad Ali Bogra, third Prime Minister of Pakistan, started a campaign for women’s rights after her husband fell in love with his secretary, resulting in the country’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance. Pages and years later, there’s the moving account of Shaheeda Parveen, sentenced to be stoned to death because her previous husband alleged that he had never really divorced her.


The significance of The Upstairs Wife also lies in its portrayal of the quotidian in the face of the uncertain. “There was the outing to the beach disrupted by the kidnapping of a friend’s father,” the author recollects, “the concert that concluded a half hour after it began because of a bomb threat; the exams carefully prepared for again and again and again only to be put off due to curfews and killings and strikes and sit-ins”. Here, as elsewhere, Zakaria demonstrates how public events shape private lives. Individuals may change history, but more often than not, it’s the other way around.

Bihari Hamlets And Don Quixotes

This appeared in the March 9, 2015 issue of India Today.

In one of the stories from Siddharth Chowdhury’s new collection, The Patna Manual of Style, the narrator settles down for a train journey, looking forward to re-reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches: “a book which always calms me down and makes me feel more generously disposed towards humanity in general”.  In a famous essay written in 1860, the Russian writer mused on two types of characters in fiction, the Hamlets and the Don Quixotes. The first is eaten away by self-reflection, while the second is purposeful and full of belief in reaching his self-proclaimed aims. Both types of characters can be found in Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style; the former comes across as a fictional stand-in for the author himself, while the striking figures he encounters represent the latter.

Readers of Chowdhury’s earlier work will find these interlinked tales comfortingly familiar. Many characters and concerns from Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar appear here too, making The Patna Manual of Style an organic extension. This collection, then, largely deals with the continuing fortunes of the twenty-something Hriday Thakur as he navigates jobs and writing projects in New Delhi. Along the way, he charts a course through a loose network of friends, family and acquaintances of varying castes and affiliations, almost all of them with a Bihar connection.

Among the more pleasing aspects of The Patna Manual of Style is its distinctive tone of voice. This, for the large part, is a mixture of the knowing and the naïve, of the sardonic and the nostalgic, of Bihari comportment and new-wave cinema – all of which sounds like it can’t possibly hang together, but somehow does. (In the first few pages, for example, Hriday strikes a noir pose in Connaught Place by buttoning up his ancient herringbone, “patched up at the elbows and cuffs with scuffed tan leather” and lighting “a fresh Gold Flake from the dwindling embers of the previous one”; after a visit to the barber, he thinks that “with the beard now gone and a thick moustache in place I looked more grown-up and purposeful, which I felt was a good thing”; thus fortified, he looks forward to devouring a thali called the Patna Large at Yadavji Litti Centre in one of the bylanes leading to the train station.)

Many stories involve Hriday coming across, or hearing news of, a character from his past – Quixotes to his Hamlet – with the narrative filling in the blanks between then and now. Thus, Jishnu-da, a former university associate, tells him about how he’s now transformed into an “importer of blondes”, by which he means a supplier of Russian dancers for shows, weddings and the like, and of the dangers of mixing heart and head. At the start of another detail-laden and character-filled story, Hriday attends the funeral of one Samuel Aldington Macaulay Crown, “the best proofreader in all of Ansari Road”, and we’re then supplied with details of Hriday’s initial encounters with him, as well as his potted career. Yet another story deals with Hriday’s wife telling him of the suspected affair of one of his old flames, a lever for Hriday to recall past times.

Perhaps the most satisfying story here is told from the point of view of Hriday’s wife, Chitrangada, a rumination that dwells on her gradual acceptance into his circle of friends. More specifically, it deals with the consequences of a drunken lunch with them, during which she first meets the beauteous Charulata Roy, whom Hriday was ealier almost married to. The shift in focus from Hriday to Chitrangada is pulled off efficiently and provides a welcome and needed shift in perspective.

Many other stories, however, are no more than slight character sketches.  There’s the gently self-mocking tale of writer named Siddharth Chowdhury, who has “published a novel no one has actually read”: a postmodern pirouette that sits a trifle uneasily with the rest, especially since this story is little more than a vignette.  Another such vignette brings us the first-person musings of another writer, the daughter of an eminent littérateur, who riffs on people "getting her goat" as an euphemism for sex (that's more corny than horny, if you'll pardon the expression).

To return to Turgenev, it was of his A Sportsman’s Sketches itself that he somewhat self-deprecatingly wrote: “Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not right, oversalted or undercooked – but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book.” One could say much the same of Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Speak, Memory

This review of Janice Pariat's Seahorse appeared in the current issue of India Today.

Written in a folkloric style best described by the epigraph that referenced Alejo Carpentier’s "marvellous real", Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories, Boats on Land, was notable for its evocation of lives past and present in Shillong and its environs. With Seahorse, her debut novel, Pariat extends her range to come up with a filigreed tale of disquiet and discontent, of longing and loss, based on the Greek myth of sea-god Poseidon and his young acolyte and lover, Pelops.

This is the story of Nem, and of the ways he deals with the end of his affair with Nicholas, a charismatic and enigmatic art historian whom he meets when studying literature in Delhi. Arriving in the city from a town in the north-east, Nem finds himself somewhat of an outsider at first; it is Nicholas who opens up for him worlds of art and music he is enthralled by. The role of Ananda to Nicholas’s Buddha ends with the latter’s sudden disappearance. Nicholas had once remarked to Nem that he was struck by the manner in which works of art change in meaning and significance according to shifts in the world outside; similarly, Nem – a blank slate, who empathises with Svevo’s men without qualities -- has to now remake and be re-made.Years later, while on a literary fellowship in London, he is finally offered the chance to piece together and decipher incidents from the past.

Much of Seahorse, then, is about the inscription of desire on the slate of memory. “We are shaped by absence,” thinks Nem. “The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost.” (A sentence that brings to mind the words of the recently-deceased Mark Strand: “In a field/I am the absence/of field. /This is/always the case. /Wherever I am/I am what is missing”.) This sentiment is matched by a mode of narration that, for the most part, shows incidents broken up into separate sequences of action and aftermath; a wholeness comprised of fragments, a mosaic of remembrance and yearning.

It is also the case, however, that the novel sags slightly in the middle, during the long episodes of Nem’s life in London — despite the attempt to provide a harmonic resonance via the loops of longing and variations of sexual attraction that Nem’s friends experience. Then, there are occasions when the poetic threatens to tip over to the portentous (“Prophecies are the most scientific of supernatural phenomena, for they, like science, invest in a single outcome. The one truth.”) In addition, the accident in the English countryside at the end, though it continues the mythic parallelism, does come across as a trifle staged and out of place with Seahorse’s otherwise wistful, gentle tone.

Leaving all of that aside, Pariat’s prose is beguiling: take, for instance, her pithy descriptions of interiors and exteriors. It’s a pleasure of read of the “pale fury” of the Red Fort; of rooms “as desolate as churches”; of the wings of a building “spread long and low, like a bird in flight”; of London being “filled with old light”; and of a “big-bellied sky” pressing against the tops of buildings. Appropriately enough, Seahorse is also shot through by images of water, be they in aquariums, swimming pools or the seaside.

The paradox of memory, writes Pariat, “is that it gives you back what you had on condition that you know it has been lost”. To regain it, she continues, “you must remember it has gone; to remake the world, you need to first understand that it has ended”. Seahorse, then, is a fine and estimable account of the refashioning of an interior world suffused by a pining for what has been lost.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The History Man

This review of Aatish Taseer's The Way Things Were appeared in today's Mint Lounge.

Given the recent kerfuffle over the HRD ministry’s decision to replace German with Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalayas, the release of Aatish Taseer’s new novel is fortuitously well-timed. The Way Things Were is an exploration of the ways in which India’s past influences its present and the attitudes of those who make history serve their own ends, with Sanskrit being a key symbol of the process.

In an essay written a little over two years ago, Taseer dwelt on what his own study of Sanskrit revealed to him: his wish for a “historical sense” was, to his surprise, answered with linguistic roots. He goes on to unpack this: “In India, where history had heaped confusion upon confusion, where everything was shoddy and haphazard and unplanned, the structure of Sanskrit, with its exquisite planning, was proof that it had not always been that way”.

This is a quest that is, at its heart, personal: “My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together”. Clearly, then, The Way Things Were is another step in Taseer’s continuing writerly attempt to find a weltanschauung he can live with. The problem, however, is that in fictional terms, the novel emerges as far too didactic, with its themes and concerns always on the surface rather than dextrously woven into the narrative. Its moral sense is appealing; its more than occasional ingenuousness isn’t.

The characters who form the twin poles of the novel are Toby, otherwise known as His Highness the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, and his son Skanda. Toby, a reserved and sometimes pusillanimous Sanskrit scholar, ironically finds himself out of place in a country whose past he has striven so hard to understand, and he finally leaves India for good in 1992. The novel opens in the present, with Skanda – also a student of Sanskrit, now based in Manhattan and working on a translation of Kumarasambhava – being informed that his father is on his deathbed. He leaves for Geneva and then arrives in India, carrying his father’s ashes with him.

The book progresses through an admixture of past and present, detailing Toby and Skanda’s lives, respectively. An abundance of other characters fills the novel’s pages, from Uma, Toby’s first wife and Skanda’s mother, to their extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts, to Maniraja, Uma’s second husband. This profusion of individuals apart, Taseer’s clearly conceived of his novel in epic terms, for it deals with or touches upon several incidents from India’s recent and remote history, from the Hampi invasions to the treatment of the Mughal princes after 1857 to the Emergency to Bhopal to Indira Gandhi’s assassination to Babri Masjid.

This, in a sense, is a key weakness because, apart from episodes such as the treatment of Skanda’s uncle during the 1984 riots, many of the other incidents are treated by way of drawing-room discussions, with Skanda, Toby and their kin making oracular pronouncements on the subject. (As a contrast, take a very different novel, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and see how it gets down to the roots of how people suffered during the Emergency years.) Added to this are frequent authorial interjections on the same lines, as in: “The violence of a civilised society, though men may dress it up as anger or grief, has the quality of a celebration”, or: “They spoke rapturously of India, but dreamed of the West. Of European cities, shops and duty-free goods…in their hearts, they were hungry materialists, who wanted nothing so much from life as a Japanese washing machine or a German toaster.”

Those familiar with Taseer’s earlier work will discover common patterns, from an estranged father to a mother’s next relationship with a pushy business magnate to a protagonist making his way through their disparate worlds. Such true-to-life resemblances continue with other characters based on real people, such as Gayatri Mann, who “lived abroad with her husband, the publisher Zubin Mann…She made documentary films on Bangladesh, on secret India, on the timelessness of Hinduism…In the West, she traded on India; and in India, starved for news of the West, she carried back stories of the latest fashions…”. There’s also the writer Vijaipal Sooprasaat, with his strong views on Hampi, among other things, and whose ideas are sought to be appropriated by those seeking an Indian resurgence.

Though it certainly takes skill to delineate changes in such a vast cast of characters over the years, the key dialectic of The Way Things Were -- understanding the past as a shaping force on the present versus shaping the past in the light of the present – is spelt out time and again, almost essayistically, which is the hallmark of underdeveloped polemical fiction. Take Gayatri Mann’s outburst, for example: “This new order [will use] the epics, the poets, Manu, Ayodhya, whatever – and they will hollow them out of meaning. They will make slogans of them. That is what they want them for, as symbols of their rise, nothing more.” One can appreciate such sentiments without necessarily agreeing with the way that Taseer has worked – or not worked – them into his novel.

“The big relationships are like the big novels, messy, chaotic, imperfect,” says Skanda, towards the end of the book. “They operate by emotional logic.” The Way Things Were is both an emotional and messy novel, but not a very compelling one.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

If On A Winter's Night A Professor

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Beset by thoughts of a mysterious incident, an alienated individual walks alone down city streets facing an unnamed crisis and re-evaluating his existence. Readers of Haruki Murakami will find such a premise familiar, and as it happens, these are the elements of his next project, too. Only, they aren’t from a novel he’s writing but one that he’s translating into Japanese, according to a recent tweet by Harvill Secker. The work in question: Professor Andersen’s Night, by acclaimed Norwegian author Dag Solstad.

The novel, longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, was first published in 1996 and translated into English by Agnes Scott Langeland in 2011. It’s of the type that people call an existential mystery (and the sort of thing they have in mind when they say that Paul Auster is an American writer of European novels). As such, it’s qualitatively different from other dark-hued Scandinavian works that have captured the popular imagination of late, be they novels by Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo or TV shows such as Forbrydelsen and Broen.

Solstad’s style is marked by a sonorous, repetitive rhythm that, Bernhard-like, mirrors the mind of a man going around in circles. This is a divorced, fifty-five-year-old professor of literature who, when the novel starts, is settling down in his Oslo apartment for a solitary meal on Christmas Eve, more to observe traditional customs than anything else. Now comes a taste of what’s to follow: “the customs he observed and the celebration he thereby took part in, in his own way and without any feeling of obligation to his family or others, beyond the feeling of duty he felt to himself, and that actually came from within, pointed to a meaning of some kind which for him was meaningless”.

Gazing out at the windows opposite his apartment, the professor suddenly witnesses what he thinks is a murder taking place. So far, so Rear Window, but what happens next is quite un-Hitchcockian. He’s thrown into a frenzy of inaction, afflicted by analysis paralysis. He considers calling the police and the ramifications thereof; finally, he realises, “I know I should have done it, but I can’t. That is how it is, I simply cannot do it”.

As he’s been invited to a friend’s house for dinner the following night, the professor decides to ask him for advice but this, too, he cannot bring himself to do. While depicting the dinner itself, Solstag makes clear that the professor’s predicament is but a metaphor for his generation. Former radicals, now a part of established society whose fires have cooled, their attitudes “had perhaps only been a chance expression of the spirit of modernity, which was their one great fascination”. Now, with increasing affluence, they eat and drink well, own holiday homes and cars and boats. Their state is further spelt out: “intellectuals in a commercial age, and deeply influenced by what stirs the hearts of the masses. What stirs the hearts of the masses are the consequences of our own inadequacy”.

Still nursing his secret, the professor visits Trondheim for a short break, where he mets another associate with whom he engages in dispiriting conversations that reflect his inner crisis. He reflects on the sputtering out of modernity in the twentieth century, affirming our historical inadequacy and meagre cultural inheritance: “…it isn’t Ibsen’s work we perform, it’s Ibsen’s reputation”.

And so poor Professor Andersen returns home, still having told no-one about what he has witnessed, when he suddenly bumps into the man he believes to be the murderer. Those looking for thrilling denouements ought to have realised by now that they’re not to be found here. The professor’s crisis is not one that affords an easy resolution. “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be faced,” as Kierkegaard, the philosopher from Solstad’s part of the world, once said, reminding us that it’s our crisis, too.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murakami's Book Of Sand

This review appeared in the latest issue of India Today.

Haruki Murakami’s new novel is quite unlike the baggy mess that was his earlier 1Q84. Here, there are no Little People, towns of cats and skies with two moons. It does bear the usual Murakami trademarks – alienated characters roaming Tokyo, references to jazz and classical music, the leaking of the past into the present and a collapsed distance between fantasy and reality – but it is closer to his “quieter” works such as Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. Yet, there’s an odd insubstantiality to the novel which makes it less than satisfying, an unintentional colourlessness that seems to have leaked into the text from the character of the protagonist.

The eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki, when the novel opens, has fallen “like Jonah in the belly of the whale…into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void.” This suicidal mood arises because he has suddenly and inexplicably been excluded from a charmed circle of four high school friends, all of whom have names related to colours: Miss White, Miss Black, Mr Red and Mr Blue. Tsukuru alone is a colourless and lacklustre Mr Average, but there’s also “something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart”.

Tsukuru changes a great deal after his friends summarily announce that “they did not want to see him, or talk to him, ever again”, thus banishing him from a fraternal Eden that once was an “orderly and harmonious community”. Now in his mid-thirties, a solitary creature of habit, almost an automaton, he lives in Tokyo working for a company that constructs railway stations (Tsukuru, you see, means “to make” or “to build”). Into his life comes a girlfriend who, wanting a more meaningful relationship, urges him to finally investigate the cause of his rejection, something he has turned his back on all these years. “You need to come face to face with the past,” she tells him, “not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional.” And so the man who builds stations that enable people to converge and connect embarks on a journey to meet his former friends and find the reason behind his own uncoupling.

There is much exposition, especially in the early sections, to do with the characters of the friends, their togetherness and their meetings, and this has the effect of robbing the narrative of a certain granularity. Then again, this being Murakami, the narrative is intertwined with tales and occurrences that can best be described as otherworldly, especially when it comes to another solitary character whom Tsukuru befriends in Tokyo. Death tokens, auras, six-fingered individuals and intense sexual dreams put in appearances, among other things, and characters openly engage in ruminations on philosophy, free will, the nature of evil, the unfolding of talent and the qualities of solitude. We’re thus encouraged to look upon reality as we know it in a new light. In the words of one of the characters: “One thing I can say, though, is that once you see that true sight with your own eyes, the world you've lived in till now will look flat and insipid. There's no logic or illogic in that scene. No good or evil. Everything is merged into one.”

Tsukuru comes across his friends again without too much trouble; they’re in infrequent contact with one another now, and his pilgrim’s progress even takes him to Finland to meet one of them who has settled there. The reason that they turned against him all those years ago comes as a surprise to him, containing as it does shades of the Marabar Caves episode in Forster’s A Passage to India. This provides Murakami with more opportunities to cogitate on the space between emotional and rational reality, with Tsukuru wondering whether he has just one self belonging to just one world, and whether the actions of one impinge upon the other. In his valiant attempt to bridge these divergences, he learns, among other lessons, that “there is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” Deep.

At times, Murakami delineates with grace and tenderness moments of connection between individuals, as well as the opposite, agonising periods of sorrow and solitude. As with his earlier work, the effect of music on characters is movingly shown, in this case notably Liszt’s Le mal du pays, part of a suite titled Years of Pilgrimage. “Our lives are like a complex musical score,” Tsukuru thinks. "Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It's next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there's no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein.”

The conclusion is characteristically open-ended, and though this fits in with the unresolved aspects of reality that Murakami has explored in almost all of his work, in this case it comes across as more functional than whimsical, a consequence of a certain tossed-off quality. Towards the end of the novel, one of Tsukuru’s friends tells him that “the truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what's below is revealed.” That explains it: with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, there’s too much sand and too little city.

Turning Books Into Art

Today's Sunday Guardian column.


'A Bit Of Paper Art' / Etsy.com

Earlier this month, a Mumbai gallery showcased a book collection featuring volumes designed not to be picked up and read, but to be viewed as works of art. Here, there were “book sculptures”, pages with gold leaf illustrations, books embedded with bullet casings, pages folded into shapes of waves, butterflies and more. Ironically, if inexactly, the show was entitled Reading Room.

Artists have been using books as material for a while; last year, hurrying through an overseas mall, I was brought up short by a large installation in the foyer featuring the work of Los Angeles-based Mike Stilkey, who paints surreal figures of horses, dogs, cats and people, among others, on the spines of discarded books stacked together. (The highest of these is 24 feet tall and made up of 3,000 volumes.) “Books don't hold the same amount of power that they used to, because of the Internet and whatnot,” says Stilkey, “and [people] throw them away at an alarming rate”.  With the rise of the e-book, it’s the physicality of the printed book that has become its defining characteristic.

This is also reflected in the increasing attention paid to book covers: look at the ingenious and impressive designs of Chip Kidd, for instance. The apotheosis of such efforts so far could well be graphic novelist Chris Ware’s acclaimed Building Stories, comprising 14 separate printed works -- broadsheets, magazines, pamphlets and more – enclosed in a box.

The case of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, however, shows that such attention to presentation can go too far. In addition to the striking cover, there’s also a sheet of stickers designed by Japanese illustrators pasted within, supposed to represent Murakami’s characters and their concerns. (My copy’s sticker sheet remains within; I haven’t bothered to remove or inspect it, before or after reading the novel.)

Interior designers and fashionistas have been quick to capitalise on the nature of the book-as-object. The website of one design firm affirms that there’s “nothing like a well styled bookcase filled with books, accessories, collectibles, and photos that add warmth, intrigue, and uniqueness to a space…They can make a bare wall go from blah-to-beautiful”.  Coffee table books have long been seen as elegant decor accessories, and one can only avert one’s eyes from bookshelves where volumes have been arranged according to the colour of their spines. More evidence of form over content comes in a recent New York Times article which mentions that NYC’s Strand bookstore is one of the places you can order books by color or spine size; further, on Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, retailers offer “instant libraries”, colour-co-ordinated books in “ocean hues” or “custard to cream colored.”

Elsewhere, there are people who choose books as fashion accessories; presumably, if you’re in a nostalgic mood you can venture outdoors with a copy of a Victorian bestseller -- after ensuring that the shade of the jacket matches your own jacket, of course. (Authors, too, aren’t immune: an online men’s clothing store recently held up Samuel Beckett as a style icon, pointing out that “Gauloises, Jameson and tweeds make the Nobel Prize winner a paragon of geezer cool”. One can’t go on, one goes on.)

Leaving such fashion-forward folk aside, artists are, of course, entitled to choose whatever objects they think best suit their purposes.  One can’t, however, help but feel a sense of unease at treating a printed book purely as raw material. Such volumes are manufactured objects, yes, but certainly not in the same category as, say, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp famously employed for his own artistic ends. Such is the minefield of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. You know things have gone too far when you hear of German artist Dieter Roth’s installation, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used the results to stuff sausages, creating what’s been called literawurst. Cheeky, but hard to swallow.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Papa's Wives

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

The pair is the primary creative unit, wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk recently in the New York Times. “At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head.” Many times, one half of the pair goes unacknowledged, especially in the case of writers and their wives. The obvious examples are those of Vera Nabokov, Nora Joyce and Zelda Fitzgerald; it’s only of late that their contributions have been paid attention to, with biographies and fictionalised accounts of their lives.

Two recent novels continue such revivification, both dealing with Ernest Hemingway’s better halves. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife revolves around Hemingway’s first, Hadley Richardson, and their time in Paris, while Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway encompasses all four of the writer’s wives. The former is more focused on the ways in which Hadley helped her husband flower as a writer, while the latter, with its decades-long span, also shows how the significant women in his life shaped him (and vice versa).

Much of the charm of The Paris Wife comes from its evocation of the city in which the 21-year-old Ernest and the 28-year-old Hadley lived during the 1920s: “filthy and gorgeous, full of rats and horse chestnut blossoms and poetry…The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers.” Here, Hemingway was to meet others who influenced him (notably Gertrude Stein), drink copiously, travel over Europe as a journalist and, of course, start work on the pared-down short stories and novels he was acclaimed for.

Hadley, meanwhile, “closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper”, spent her days practising the piano, attempting French cooking and occasionally accompanying him on his jaunts. She’s clear about her role: “It was shockingly unmodern—and likely naïve, too—but I did believe any sacrifices and difficulties in our life were worth it for Ernest’s career.” By 1927, however, it all came to an end; they were divorced after Hemingway’s affair with Vogue journalist Pauline Pfieffer, who became his second wife.

McLain does provide emotional depth to historical facts, but overall, The Paris Wife could have done with less sentimentality and overstatement. Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway is more ingenious and artful, both in structure and in telling. Set in the last weeks of each marriage, it circles back to first meetings and memories, like a hand of overlapping queens in a deck of cards, each one coming to terms with loss. Wood’s Hadley has more spirit, as do the other wives, especially Martha Gellhorn, war reporter and novelist, who at one point feels that Hemingway “is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything. Wives and wives and wives…”

Hemingway’s small apartment above a sawmill in Paris is an important setting in both novels, and Mrs Hemingway also brings to life the other locations where his wives nourished and inspired him: the house in Key West, Florida; the one in FincaVigia, Cuba; and his final home in Sun Valley, Idaho. Here, Mary Welsh, his last wife, came to grips with his suicide and later, gathered together his posthumous papers. Among these was the manuscript for A Moveable Feast, his nostalgic account of 1920s Paris, thus bringing the saga full circle.

Reviewing two early biographies of Hemingway, Raymond Carver wrote that one grew weary of and ultimately saddened by Hemingway’s actions: “one display after another of mean-spiritedness and spite, of vulgar and shabby behavior”. That reaction, not unmixed with some sympathy, remains after reading these novels. The antidote, as Carver went on to suggest, is to re-read his fiction itself: “How clear, serene and solid the best work still seems”. The Paris Wife and Mrs Hemingway are necessary reminders of the women who enabled him to produce such work.