Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Long, Strange Trip

This appeared in today's Indian Express.


In the old witticism about the power of belief, scientists assert that according to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee’s body isn’t designed for flight. Being unaware of this, the bumblebee goes ahead and flies anyway. Similarly, the elements of George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, don’t appear to be designed for take-off -- but it goes ahead and soars anyway.

It was to be expected that the tone and manner of the novel would be as distinctive and quirky as Saunders’s acclaimed short stories. However, the strangeness quotient here is of a different order altogether.

The Lincoln of the title doesn’t refer to the 16th President of the United States, but to his third son, William. And the bardo doesn’t refer to the pronunciation of a French actress’s last name, but to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of an intermediate state between two lives. It is in this purgatory-like realm that the novel is set.

The seeds of Lincoln in the Bardo are historical, arising from the President’s prolonged grief at 11-year-old William’s untimely death in 1862, even as American troops engage in a bloody civil war. In Saunders’s telling, a disoriented William finds himself in the bardo, surrounded by others who are similarly awaiting their ultimate end.

The narration largely consists of an idiosyncratic mélange of voices belonging to Willie and his cohorts, as they journey towards an understanding of their state and ponder on questions of leaving behind and letting go. Some bent double, some horizontal, some on all fours, some nude, some etiolated, some mutilated, in ways that mirror their lives and deaths, confined within their memories, dreams and reflections, they speculate, gossip and chatter about the goings-on in the eerie zone they inhabit. Every once in a while, they hear a “familiar, yet always bonechilling, firesound associated with the matter-lightblooming phenomenon” marking the departure of “sick-forms” from this limbo of  “serendipitous mass co-habitation”.

This defiantly odd playscript-like pattern is interspersed by another collage of voices drawn from historical records: letters, memoirs and reports, sometimes in agreement and sometimes contradicting each other. These deal with associated subjects such as Lincoln’s presidential ball while his son was ill, and the state of the family after the child’s demise. Thus, in this string of 108 bead-like chapters, otherworldly voices are balanced by voices that are only too human.

Given that the backdrop is drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, there’s very little philosophising, even though at one point some of the characters engage in a brief discussion on destiny and free will, and, a little later, one is told that “whatever way one took in this world, one must try and remember that all were suffering”. Which is why, “though on the surface it seemed every person was different, this was not true”. (He tells the truth, but tells it slant, as the poet from Amherst put it.)

All of this may make Lincoln in the Bardo sound forbidding, if not unmanageable; yet, one learns to navigate and relish this long, strange trip of the grateful dead remarkably soon. There’s weirdness on this journey, but there’s also wit, pathos and redemption.

On Tahmima Anam

Wrote this for Harper's Bazaar India's Jan-Feb issue.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What some memorable books of 2016 said about 2016

This appeared in today's The Hindu.

In a year that many would like to forget, at least there was solace to be found in some memorable books that mirrored and often provided a context for what we went through.

While experts and their theories were pooh-poohed, two books served as reminders that hard-won knowhow shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, a compelling history of genetics that combined the personal with the biological, raised questions about the future role of science in the interplay of nature and nurture. And Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement astutely pointed out that climate change today is so urgent and unexpected that, be it in mainstream literature or public discourse, we still have to come to grips with its scale and effects.

At a time of continuing and alarming instability in the Middle East, a foretaste of one legacy that coming generations will have to contend with came in the form of Hisham Matar’s The Return, an unsentimental, haunting memoir in which Matar returned to Libya after three decades to search for his father who was incarcerated by Qaddafi’s regime.

When Europe seemed to be in danger of coming unstitched, David Szalay’s All That Man Is exhibited the day-to-day existence of individual lives on the continent in a sequence of nine stories about European males, from young to old, each one dealing with the costs of giving in to impulses past and present. Another expression of dark disaffection, this one from the Netherlands, appeared in English 70 years after it was first published: Gerard Reve’s novel, The Evenings, translated by Sam Garrett, a sharp detailing of the pointless life of an office-worker during the course of ten December evenings.

Individual voices were in danger of being drowned out by the roar of the crowd this year, and a necessary corrective was Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, a combination of memoir with portraits of New York City artists such as Warhol and Hopper. It was a book that made loneliness “a populated place: a city in itself”.

Another lonely voice arose in Garth Greenwell’s beautifully written debut novel, What Belongs to You, about an expatriate teacher in Bulgaria and his gay relationship with a grifter. Yet another voice, utterly solitary and distinct, emerged from the womb, that of the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, dealing with the Hamletian dilemma of an unborn child when he realises that his mother and uncle are plotting against his father.

Other voices, quixotic and notable, were heard in novels by Ryan Lobo and Ratika Kapur: the former’s Mr Iyer Goes to War imagined a man of La Mancha in Benaras struggling to reconcile past glory with present decrepitude; and the latter’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma featured a seemingly traditional Delhi housewife navigating a thorny path between public modernity and private desire.

Appropriately enough, “surreal” was Merriam Webster’s word of the year, looked up more frequently in 2016 than in previous years. Han Kang’s powerful, unsettling The Vegetarian, translated by from the Korean by Deborah Smith, captured this “intense irrational reality of a dream”, in the dictionary’s definition, with a tale of a woman whose diet, and other choices, make her set her face against the world and enter a realm of violence, shame and desire.

Another word of the year was “post-truth”, and a chilling outline of a world in which such concepts are embraced and pushed to extremes was in Anjan Sundaram’s Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, a report from Rwanda on the Orwellian lives of some of its brave journalists and their battles for free speech.

In a year of America divided, Colson Whitehead’s unsentimental odyssey of redemption, The Underground Railroad, was a fantastical, richly-peopled saga that took a fresh look at slavery and its consequences. And Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was an invigorating Swiftean rant from a black narrator who launches a political programme with the aim of bringing back segregation.

Economic and other philosophies were overturned this year; those on the right and the left were driven to positions more extreme. Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café was a throwback to how thinkers reacted to earlier circumstances, a revivifying look at the lives, convictions and milieu of those such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Husserl.

Violence in the name of ideology continued to dominate the planet, and Karan Mahajan’s gripping novel, The Association of Small Bombs, made this personal by examining the rippling aftershocks of a car bomb explosion in a New Delhi market, and the changing internal and external lives of families caught in its wake.

When dashed expectations and reversals of fortune were the norm, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air was a transcendent reminder to ask questions about the sort of life worth living. Published posthumously, it dealt with his time before and after a cancer diagnosis, and displayed the forging of a worldview that weaved strands of biology, mortality, life and death.

The year also marked the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare as well as Cervantes, and a fine demonstration of how much other writers owe those two luminaries – as Salman Rushdie underlined in his foreword -- was Lunatics, Lovers and Poets, an anthology of new stories, both Shakespearean and Cervantean, by Kamila Shamsie, Ben Okri, Valeria Luiselli, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and others. Other eclectic influences swam into view with Kanishk Tharoor's striking debut, Swimmer Among the Stars, a story collection that eschewed straightforward realism and reached back to Borges, Calvino and even the Arabian Nights and Kathasaritsagar for inspiration.

In a year that was a precursor to a significant centenary, that of the Russian Revolution, there was a trickle of books in anticipation of the 2017 flood. Notable among them was Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs, an intimate account of three centuries of imperial triumphs and tragedies from Tsar Michael to Tsar Nicholas II; and Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, a fascinating reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the Bolshevik leader’s arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station in 1917. Voices from Russia were also captured in Svetlana Alexeivich’s Secondhand Time, an immersive chronicle of the memories and observations of everyday citizens on the fall of the Soviet empire and after.

The last months of the year were, of course, noted for long lines before banks and ATMs as well as other such “small inconveniences”. One takes what consolation one can from Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel, The Queue, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, a dystopian vision of life after the so-called Arab Spring, when hapless citizens line up before departments of an authoritarian, prying regime for permissions to engage in almost any activity. As for the pernicious effects of wealth, or lack thereof, there was Vivek Shanbhag’s illuminating Ghachar Ghochar, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, on the physical and mental displacement of those from a middle class Bengaluru family.

Perhaps, though, the most telling novel of 2016 was one published in 2010. Gary Shteyngart’s poignant, satirical Super Sad True Love Story was set in a post-literate future with a fractious America, a dominant China, people consumed by shopping and messaging, and governments keeping close digital tabs on citizens. Did someone mention Black Mirror?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Language Of The Heart

IN OTHER WORDS Jhumpa Lahiri

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express.

Language is a filter through which we view the world, and, on a trip to Florence in 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was captivated by a glimpse of one such view. The Italian language, she felt, was one “with which I have to have a relationship”. After studying it for close to 20 years, she moved to Rome with her family in 2012. Here, she wrote much of her new book, In Other Words: brief, linked essays, most of which first appeared in Internazionale. The themes of exile and alienation that animate her fiction are also present in this, her first work of non-fiction, marked by a guileless prose style and a disarming frankness in examining shifting identities and the need to write.

Writers such as Beckett, Nabokov and Conrad have written in languages other than their mother tongue; however, Beckett lived in France for years before writing in French, Nabokov learned English as a child, and Conrad spent a long time absorbing English while at sea. In contrast, Lahiri writes, “what I’m doing – daring to write in Italian after living in Italy for barely a year – is different, out of the ordinary, and so I feel an even more intense solitude”.

An over-abundance of metaphors is one of the ways in which she conveys her experience of learning Italian. The comparison with a love affair is an obvious one, but that apart, she speaks of climbing a mountain, wading into a lake, filling a basket, trying on an unfamiliar sweater, crossing a fragile bridge, and navigating a strange city. Strikingly, “compared with [my newborn] Italian, my English is like a hairy, smelly teenager”.

When it comes to her newly-minted style and its self-perceived shortcomings, “one could say that my writing in Italian is a type of unsalted bread”. “It works,” she continues, “but the usual flavour is missing. On the other hand, I think it does have a style or at least a character”. It does: there’s an affecting transparency to these sentences, rendered into English by Ann Goldstein.

The first story that Lahiri wrote in Italian (included here, along with another) begins with the sentence: “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person”. This, as she points out, with reference to her Indian parents and American upbringing, is no co-incidence. “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.” Writing in Italian, then, becomes a way to chart an independent course for “my divided identity”; a means to bypass her “two sides, neither well defined”. Evidently, such reflections also serve to illumine the roots of her novels and short stories.

She’s equally candid about what made her take to writing in the first place. It was “to tolerate myself [and] get closer to everything that is outside of me…Writing is my only way of absorbing and organising life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much”. This, come to think of it, is a more impassioned way of rendering Graham Greene’s statement that he wrote out of “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience into some sort of order, and a hungry curiosity”.

In Other Words comes across foremost as an act of self-exploration by a writer without a specific homeland, a search for a location triangulated by three languages. In Italian, she has “the freedom to be imperfect”, and this limitation of words and life, along with strategies to overcome them, are what she assiduously explores. Combining simplicity without shallowness and sensitivity without self-indulgence, it is written in the language of the heart.