Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011's 11

To summarise one’s favourite fiction of 2011 this late in the year is to write about books that have been written about many times already -- especially in other best-of lists. Despite varying tastes, by a curious process of osmosis, there will always be some titles common to most year-end round-ups. There’s also the problem of not having read widely enough, and – to point out the obvious – any such list therefore is always tentative and incomplete. Having got that off my chest, here, in no particular order, are the fiction titles of 2011 that I found noteworthy.


Is this a novel? A series of linked meditations on mediocrity and ambition in so-called end times? A collection of hyper-intelligent blog posts? All of the above. Danish-Indian Lars Iyer’s puckish, incisive series of vignettes recording the conversation between two philosopher friends – both self-confessed Max Brods with no Kafka in sight – is both funny and gloomy. (Also worth reading are Iyer’s thoughts on the future of the novel: A literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos.)

Excerpt: What are the signs of the End?, I ask W. - 'You. You are a sign of the End', says W. 'Actually, we both are. The fact that we have careers or flourish at all is a sign of the End. Of course, the fact that we won't have them for much longer is a sign that the End is coming closer'. 

SEVEN YEARS Peter Stamm (Trans. Michael Hoffman)

Those in the market for likeable characters in fiction should stay away. This Swiss author’s cool, clear-sighted account of a self-centred man with a charming wife, but obsessed by a plain  mistress,  is an acute meditation on longing, passion and the inability to remain content with what one has. Ably and fluently translated by Michael Hoffman, down to the comma splices.

Excerpt: All I know is that I got to be more and more dependent on Ivona, and that while I continued to think I had power over her, her power over me became ever greater. She never demanded anything from me, was never hurt when I stayed away for days on end because I was busy in the office or didn't feel like visiting her. Sometimes I'd tell Ivona about other women to get her upset, but she took it, and listened, expressionless, while I raved about the beauty, the wit, and the intelligence of other women. Perhaps she didn't know she had power over me.  Perhaps she mistook my submissiveness for love.


Too much has been written about this Booker winner already for me to add to the torrent. Suffice to say that more authors in our ultra-kinetic times should borrow a leaf from Barnes and create well-shaped magnetic novellas rather than coming up with page after page of bloat.

Excerpt: We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

OPEN CITY Teju Cole / MY TWO WORLDS Sergio Chejfec (Trans. Margaret Carson)

The first by a Nigerian-American, the second by an Argentinian; both delightfully complementary. Owing more than a little to W.G. Sebald, both feature narrators who embark on long walks – the first, around Manhattan, and the second, around a park in an unnamed Brazilian city. In both, the external becomes a symbol that reveals the internal. Rambling, revealing and refreshing, like the best walks should be.

Excerpt, Open City: At first, I encountered the streets as an incessant loudness, a shock after the day’s focus and relative tranquillity, as though someone had shattered the calm of a silent private chapel with the blare of a TV set. I wove my way through crowds of shoppers and workers, through road constructions and the horns of taxicabs. Walking through busy parts of town meant I laid eyes on more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day, but the impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation; if anything, it intensified them.

Excerpt, My Two Worlds: When I walk, my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me, one governed by overlapping windows. I say this not with pride but with annoyance: nothing worse could happen to me, because it affects my intuitive side and feels like a prison sentence. The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links, and this isn’t only true for the objects themselves, which are generally urban, part of the life of the city as a whole, shaped precisely and distinguished from their surroundings, but also the associations they call to mind, the recollection of what is observed, which may be related, kindred, or quite distinct, depending on whichever way these links are formed.

Two debuts by authors from the Balkans, both redolent of the history of the region, but quite different in tone and style.  Obreht’s novel is magical in the manner of a piece of folklore and features a picaresque cast, touching upon faded Ottoman glory, Nazi depredations and later religious strife. In East of the West, a spectrum of characters from Bulgaria – old, young, communist, Westernised -- reflect on that country’s past and how it’s affected their present. The upheavals that the area has witnessed may have redrawn the map, but, as Obreht and Penkof’s tales illustrate, myth and memory have their own contours.

Excerpt, The Tiger’s Wife: Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of my life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and tyrant of the university. One, which I learnt after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

Excerpt, East of the West (from the story, ‘Makedonija’): I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the Turks. 1898. So yes, this makes me seventy-one. And yes, I’m grumpy. I’m mean. I smell like all old men do. I am a walking pain, hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my daughter by my grandson’s name and I remember the day I met my wife much better than yesterday, or today. August 2, I think. 1969. Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring?

Recently raved about in terms that made me immediately want to procure a copy – and I’m glad I did. A delight to read, this is a series of witty, insightful episodes from the life of an acutely self-aware narrator, a pot-smoking American poet, while in Madrid on a fellowship. The question that hovers above his account of tangled relationships, attempts to write poetry and to speak in Spanish is: how does one ever fully express oneself, and is it even possible to do so?

Excerpt: As we entered the party I reminded myself to breathe....I was acutely aware of not being attractive enough for my surroundings; luckily, I had a strategy for such situations, one I had developed over many visits to New York with the dim kids of the stars: I opened my eyes a little more widely than normal, opening them to a very specific point, raising my eyebrows and also allowing my mouth to curl up into the implication of a smile. I held this look steady once it had obtained, a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings...


The story of the man famous for being brought back from the dead – told in a manner that weaves together Biblical scholarship, fictional episodes and literary references. Sounds like an unlikely amalgam, but it works wonderfully. Wholly inventive, completely new and very satisfying: you could say that Beard takes the form of the novel and, well, resurrects it.

Excerpt:  For Lazarus, in the last hour before his death, there is no miracle, no secret sign. The story as told by John abandons him, and a sequence he doesn’t understand is left, for him, unfinished: this is how death feels, and not just for Lazarus. Too soon; incomplete.

SUICIDE Edouard Leve (Trans. Jan Steyn)

An epigrammatic and haunting novella, in which the narrator reflects on the suicide of a friend. Haunting and disturbing, more so because Leve himself took his own life days after submitting the manuscript.

Excerpt: A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent series of actions but a constellation of things perceived. It is looked at, unrelated things congregate, and geographic proximity gives them meaning. If events follow each other, they are believed to be a story. But in a dictionary, time doesn’t exist: ABC is neither more nor less chronological than BCA. To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.

THE TUNNEL Ernesto Sabato (Trans. Maragaret Sayers Penden)

First published in 1948, Sabato’s hypnotic novella takes us into the dark, deranged mind of a Buenos Aires artist, and comprises his prison-cell justification for murdering his mistress. The author died earlier this year, and thus, the 2011 Penguin Classics re-issue of Margaret Sayers Penden’s 1988 translation is an unintended homage. In any description of this work, there’s no choice but to use the word “existential”. (Colm Toibin’s preface to the new edition is to be found here.)

Excerpt: More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course, because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have a greater reason to detest the things we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. If I were a great surgeon, and some fellow who had never held a scalpel in his hand, who was not a doctor, and who had never so much as put a splint on a cat's paw, tried to point out where I had gone wrong with my operation, what would people think? It is the same with painting. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flabby Fantasy

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

1Q84 Haruki Murakami

A female assassin wielding an ice-pick. Shadowy members of an underground, quasi-religious sect. A group of so-called Little People from a parallel dimension. Eerie doppelgangers emerging from an “air chrysalis”.  A tale of a town of cats. And a sky with two moons. Wrapped together in cool, affectless prose with references to jazz, classical music, Hollywood and George Orwell. Who else but Haruki Murakami could have the chutzpah to combine all of these into a three-part saga totalling almost a thousand pages?  Halfway through 1Q84, however, another question arises: has his reach exceeded his grasp?

This brick of a book tells the intertwined stories of Tengo, putative writer and teacher of mathematics, another one of Murakami’s confused loners, and Aomame, massage therapist and avenging angel. The two met briefly in school and now, years later in 1984, events are set in motion that have them circling around each other in Tokyo and its environs, wondering if they will re-unite.

Aomame, stuck in traffic in the back seat of a taxi on Tokyo’s Metropolitan Expressway, decides to take a short cut by walking through an abandoned turn-off. The taxi driver prophetically cautions her: “Things are not what they seem... But don't let appearances fool you. There is always only one reality”. From here on, she’s plunged into an alternative existence, one that she calls 1Q84 -- with the “q”, in English translation, standing for a question mark: “a world that bears a question”.

Tengo, meanwhile, has his own problems to grapple with. He’s tasked by an editor to rewrite Air Chrysalis, the manuscript of a 17-year-old named Fuka Eri with storytelling skills but a raw, unfinished style. Drawn to this enigmatic, other-worldly teenager, Tengo completes the rewrite and the book goes on to become a bestseller. The ghost writer now finds that he’s opened a Pandora’s Box, as Air Chrysalis may not entirely be a work of fiction, after all.

Twin-track plotlines, alternative realities, sundered sweethearts and the loneliness of those who find themselves unable to fit in: Murakami has used all of these devices and themes before, though 1Q84 is probably his most detailed exegesis yet. It’s clear from the start that he intends this to be 'bigger' than his earlier work. The characters' backgrounds, clothes, diet, cultural and sexual appetites are dwelt upon in some detail, and then, there are creaky efforts to incorporate facets of contemporary Japanese history. Tengo's father for example, flees to Tokyo from Manchuria after the Soviet invasion in 1945 and there are references to the student movement to protest against US-Japan security treaty in the Seventies. All of this, combined with repetition and overwriting, means that the book is much larger – though ‘flabbier’ is a more apt word -- than it ought to be. 

Though there’s an engaging flow to most of 1Q84, with a patterned criss-crossing of action and reaction, there are also several examples of clichés and lazy writing. For example, on just a single page chosen at random, one finds Aomame musing that “what she needed...was to be held by someone, anyone”. A little later: “The gun had almost become a part of her body”. More troublingly, did we really need to be plunged into so much detail in the scene of intercourse with a pre-pubescent? (Bad Sex Award alert.)

The resonances with Orwell’s dystopia, too, seem alternately forced and underdeveloped. The virus-like Little People – a counterpoint to Big Brother, a malevolent version of the shoemaker’s elves – sometimes come across as more risible than menacing, especially when emerging from the mouth of a dead goat, uttering clunky dialogue. 

It turns out that at the heart of this bloated fantasy is a tender love story: “Tengo could hardly believe it -- that in this frantic, labyrinth-like world, two people's hearts -- a boy's and a girl's -- could be connected, unchanged, even though they hadn't seen each other for twenty years”. This, come to think of it, is an aspect that should appeal to those yearning for the Murakami of Norwegian Wood.

Perhaps if it had been published in three separate parts -- as was the case with the Japanese original -- the repetitions and recapitulations would not have grated as much. Murakami takes pains to point out on more than one occasion that Air Chrysalis, the manuscript that Tengo rewrites, is a mesmerising, vivid and taut novella. A pity, then, that 1Q84 doesn't quite share the same qualities.

Lady Sings The Blues

This appeared in last Sunday's DNA.


Often, it’s an author’s signature tone of voice that’s the most effective part of his or her work. It’s a pleasure to come across a distinctive voice that animates characters and themes, throwing into sharp relief a particular view of the world.  If one looks at authors from Pakistan, for example, this is amply illustrated by H.M. Naqvi’s suave, jitterbugging style in Home Boy as well as his compatriot Mohammed Hanif’s sardonic, off-kilter take on General Zia’s death in A Case of Exploding Mangoes. In Hanif’s follow up, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, one finds the same sardonic insights, and this is what makes the book gratifying.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti revolves around the travails of its eponymous heroine, a senior nurse at Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital. A mixture of the tough-spirited and soft-hearted, Alice is from the country’s Dalit Christian community, and Hanif manages to fit in several swipes against religious belief of all stripes -- as well as against egregious caste segregation -- in the course of the book.

Alice is pursued by an unlikely swain, a former bodybuilder and unofficial police factotum named Teddy Butt. That they’re opposites is clear from the start; Teddy’s wooing of Alice is, as a character puts it, like “a cheetah falling for a squirrel or bats trying to chat up butterflies”. The cheetah and the squirrel quickly get together after a credulity-straining sequence  inside a submarine off the city’s coast. Hanif doesn’t spend much time on explaining the hows and whys: that these two dissimilar individuals enter into an alliance is the motor of the plot, and he makes it happen without too much fuss, and with the occasional veering into tenderness.

Along the way, one is introduced to a gallery of other characters in Alice and Teddy’s ken, from those who work at the hospital to police officers to patients, with their pomposities and perversions being skewered one by one. Tribute to Saadat Hasan Manto is also paid, among other things, in the form of describing the goings-on in the hospital’s “charya ward”, the so-called Centre for Mental and Psychological Diseases where daily doses of lithium appear to be the only medication on offer.

Every once in a while, Hanif throws in a reminder that, satire apart, he’s skilled in evocative observation, too. At one point, for example, we’re told that Alice Bhatti “carries her handcuffs lightly, as if she is wearing glass bangles”.

However, his sparring mockery extends to cover many sections of life in Pakistan, and because of this, the novel tends to comes across as a series of linked set pieces rather than a fully-integrated whole. It does hold together, but only just, helped by an unexpected structural twist at the end, one that’s satisfying without seeming contrived. Overall, though, it’s the healthy doses of irreverence, sometimes almost Rabelaisian, that make Our Lady of Alice Bhatti rewarding to read.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Search Of Love And Beauty

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge

A LOVESONG FOR INDIA Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Comparisons have often been drawn between the work of Anita Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A gentle melancholia pervades most of their tales, whether set in India or elsewhere, with characters being drawn into relationships and predicaments that, more often than not, leave them more alienated than before.  In their quests for rootedness, many such characters, one imagines, would echo the words Nehru so famously wrote in his autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West...out of place everywhere, at home nowhere”.

Desai’s latest collection of short stories, An Artist of Disappearance, was released earlier this year; now, as a handy counterpoint, we have Jhabvala’s own collection, A Lovesong For India. Translators, civil servants and others ill at ease with the ways of the world find a place in both volumes. To read both is to find that Desai is the better craftsperson, at the level of sentence and structure, while Jhabvala, less delicate but no less evocative, is more accomplished in creating the sweep of a life in just a few pages.

In A Lovesong For India, one finds the same preoccupations that have concerned Jhabvala from almost the start of her writing career. The search for redemption in the form of allegiance to spiritual figures; unequal relationships between disparate characters; and the faint Jamesian pulse of the seductive charms of an older civilization for those from newer cultures: all these can also be found in earlier stories such as the well-known ‘How I Became a Holy Mother’ or ‘Two More Under the Indian Sun’.

The stories here are largely divided between those set in India and those set elsewhere – primarily New York City’s Upper East Side – as was the case with Jhabvala’s earlier East Into Upper East. A last section comprises what could be said to be a combination of the two. Given the number of stories that feature variations on the theme of unequal alliances, the collection could well have been titled Odd Couples. An Oriental scholar from America comes to Delhi to be drawn into the muddled private life of a charismatic, ageing poetess. A lonely talent agent in New York takes under her wing a strange, waif-like aspiring singer. An influential film critic is drawn to a conniving actress. A fifty-something widow of a Hollywood studio head takes up with a young Indian writer-director in LA. An ageing Bollywood star starts to rely more and more upon his daughter-in-law. (Interestingly enough, though many of the characters are drawn from the worlds of film and entertainment, Jhabvala, as before, manages to keep her scriptwriting and fiction writing in separate compartments. The stories here are anything but cinematic in the telling, being more concerned with interiors than exteriors.)

Other stories bring to mind yet other aspects of Jhabvala’s work. There’s a whisper of Three Continents, for example, in the story of the secretary who moves to London to work with a charismatic director, only to find him becoming besotted by her brother. With the title story, though, there’s evidence of a newer, brasher India edging out the old in the contrast between the actions of an upright civil servant and his more business-minded son. Another trope, that of the differences between ‘real’ and ‘translated’ versions of India is touched upon in the tale where the American narrator translates the work of an author who was her former flatmate in New Delhi.

The story with which the collection ends is an odd, ethereal tale of an unlikely courtship between two wraith-like individuals, with much more being implied than said. The spectre of AIDS, the contrasting ties of blood and of marriage and the enervating effects of time are all encompassed in a somewhat eccentric mix. It’s deftly done, but undoubtedly strange in its wide ranging arc.

As with Desai’s stories, here, too, there are no pat endings. Rather, one is left with the plight of those who find themselves in scenarios not of their choosing, with a sense of life going on after the printed stories come to a close. It’s been said of Chekhov that, at the end of his stories, he returned his characters to life, and he himself once wrote that “obligatory for the artist is not solving a problem, but stating a problem correctly”. Bearing the burden of their problems, Jhabvala’s characters continue onwards – as one of her titles puts it – in search of love and beauty.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Poetry

All of the words in this poem are drawn, in chronological order, from the quotes in Lizzie Widdicombe's Talk of the Town piece on the Occupy Wall Street protestors in The New Yorker of October 24, 2011

Something good will come out of it
Don’t get me wrong
But it’s not good for business.

(We would like to find
A sign language interpreter
Available in the here and now.)

Honestly, it’s great here
We’re well-fed
Warm at night.
I’ve made more friends here
Than I did in college.

Here we are in Liberty Plaza
And we’re trying to keep liberty going on this planet
And, actually,
This planet is in dire jeopardy.

(Think of all the reasons 
you didn’t want to be doing this!)

You have a right to protest
Brookfield, they have some rights too.

Fuck that.

I’m excited to be defending this space
We never knew
How publicly accessible
This kind of park would be
And now we’re testing it

It’s kind of fun.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lovers' Discourse

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

THE MARRIAGE PLOT Jeffrey Eugenides

One doesn’t expect the conventional from a writer whose debut novel was a first-person plural account of teenage boys’ fascination with the suicides of five virgin sisters, and whose second was a coming-of-age chronicle of a hermaphrodite of Greek descent. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, however, turns out to be a tender love story that draws inspiration from the novelists of the 19th century.  Earlier evidence that matters of the heart were on his mind came in 2008, with his anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great love stories from Chekhov to Munro.

There’s no denying that Victorian sagas of men and women heading towards marriage -- with concomitant courtship rituals -- have had far-reaching influence. (Where, for example, would the Bollywood movie be without it?) Here, Eugenides seems to be making the point that most contemporary fiction that aims at modernity misses a trick or two when it comes to fulfilling the pleasures of reading. As one of the character’s professors asserts, “the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance”.

The Marriage Plot concerns itself with the lives of three individuals: the caring, bibliophilic Madeleine; the charismatic, bipolar Leonard; and the sensitive, confused Mitchell. It is the early Eighties, and, to begin with, all of them are students at Brown University. The first part of the book is virtually a campus novel, charting Madeleine’s interest in Victorian romance plots, Leonard’s firecracker brilliance and Mitchell’s obsession with theological questions, as well as their interactions with each other. An infatuated Madeleine begins an affair with Leonard while Mitchell, who’s in a “long, aspirational, sporadically promising, yet frustrating relationship” with her, decides to remove himself from the scene by travelling to India.

A love triangle, then. How quaint. It must be said, though, that much of The Marriage Plot is gratifying to read, given its immersion in the lives of its characters, notably the heroine. She’s a modern-day combination of Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke, whose ambivalence towards those close to her is metaphorically represented by the scratched, ill-fitting glasses she periodically dons.

Eugenides brings alive the dilemmas of Madeleine as she careens between a committed relationship and independence, as well as the travails of Mitchell as he journeys to Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying in Kalighat. (This being a time without text or e-mail, both also write letters to each other: a reminder of the importance of such epistles in 19th century novels.)

As for Leonard, his tobacco-chewing and bandanna-wearing habits, not to mention depressive tendencies, are pointers that, in part at least, he’s drawn from David Foster Wallace. A trifle cheeky, given that Wallace’s own fiction relentlessly veered towards the hyper-modern.

The novel can also be said to be about another sort of love affair, that with books and reading. More specifically, it involves itself with the influence of books upon malleable minds. Almost from the start, there’s a spate of titles mentioned, from Madeleine’s beloved Eliot and Austen, to Mitchell’s search for succour in texts such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Elsewhere, Eugenides is droll about American academe’s initial obsession with structuralism, when you weren't cool if you weren't carrying around a copy of Derrida's On Grammatology. Later on, Madeleine also finds unexpected comfort in the pages of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse.

There are many well-done passages, such as the accounts of Leonard’s bouts of mania and depression, “his laziness, his over-achieving, his tendency to isolate, his tendency to seduce, his hypochondria, his sense of invulnerability, his self-loathing, his narcissism”.  Such interiority is matched by attention to detail, for example during Leonard’s lab work with paired and unpaired yeast chromosomes, or Mitchell’s stint at the Calcutta hospice. (One wishes, though, that the tendency to “explain” India had been toned down: at one point, the “real” India is described as “the ancient country of Rajputs, nawabs and Mughals”. Fancy that.)

At a time when the novel is in search of new models and forms, making a point of returning to its traditional verities signals a disappointing retreat from this necessary quest. Despite its many virtues, that’s the niggling thought The Marriage Plot leaves one with.

The Shipping News

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.

THE CAT'S TABLE Michael Ondaatje

An 11-year-old boy named Michael, “green as he could be about the world“, climbs aboard “the first and only ship of his life”. Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical The Cat’s Table starts with this embarkation, and though one is tempted to think of the novel as a personal account, the author takes pains to point out in an afterword that though it “sometimes uses the colouring and location of memoir and autobiography”, it is indeed a work of fiction.  (Bear in mind, though, that the narrator’s nickname is Mynah: “an unofficial bird, and unreliable, its voice not fully trustworthy in spite of the range”.)

It’s a 21-day journey, from Colombo to London in the 1950s, undertaken by the protagonist to meet his mother. The cat’s table of the title is the least privileged place on board – as opposed to the captain’s table – and it is here that Michael strikes up a relationship with two other boys, the quiet Ramadhin and the studious Cassius.

As the vessel embarks upon a “slow waltz” to its destination, Ondaatje gives us pen portraits of the others on board, seen through the eyes of the fascinated, wide-eyed Michael:  gentle bridge players, intense musicians, energetic roller-skating Australians, knowledgeable botanists, rich entrepreneurs and suave thieves, among others. As we’re told: “...we came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”

There’s also a prisoner on board, and his actions and relationships – echoing into later years -- provide a skein of plot to a novel that is otherwise an evocatory record of a voyage that leaves an indelible mark on Michael’s mind.

The three boys get to know every inch of the ship, “bursting all over the place like freed mercury”.  Much of the novel progresses via effective set pieces, such as the passengers’ attempts to watch a movie on board as the storm progresses, or Michael and his cohorts lashing themselves onto the deck to face the onslaught of the storm itself, or a vivid account of a night journey through the Suez Canal. Ondaatje frequently makes use of telling detail, especially when it comes to the differences in social class or living conditions of those on board; this both tempers his lyricism and prevents the nostalgic journey from foundering on the reefs of the maudlin.

Some of Ondaatje’s earlier works, poetic though they may have been, have been marred by obliqueness and too-frequent spatial and temporal shifts. In The Cat’s Table, too, there are detours into the lives of the protagonists in later years: in particular, describing the fate of the weak-hearted Ramadhin and his life as a tutor in London, as well as the narrator's relationship with his sister. However, the overall tone of wistful remembrance and clear focus on the antics of those on board, holds the novel together, giving the whole an elegiac glow.

Towards the end, however, Ondaatje delves into fragments of other lives, such as that of a mysterious circus girl, detailing her background and relationship with the ship’s prisoner. This weakens the narrative, for what makes the book magical -- the boy's mediating consciousness -- is lost.

At one point in the novel, the narrator, as a grown-up, visits an art exhibition by Cassius, who has gone on to become a well-regarded artist. Here, he sees a painterly record of Cassius’s memories of that earlier journey along the Suez Canal. The Cat’s Table is the novelistic equivalent of those canvases, a sequence of impressionistic vignettes of a voyage enlivened by a capacity for wonder.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Not Child's Play

This appeared in today's DNA.


What is it about child narrators that Man Booker Prize judges can’t resist? Off the top of one’s head, one can recall Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (winner, 1993), DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little (winner, 2003), Emma Donoghue’s Room (shortlisted, 2010) David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (longlisted, 2006) and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (longlisted, 2003). Now, there’s Stephen Kelman’s debut novel, Pigeon English, on this year’s shortlist at the time of writing.

The 11-year-old protagonist of this novel is portrayed as endearingly innocent; indeed, there’s little that is arch and precocious in his utterances. An example of the sort of style that Kelman adopts for his narrator’s consciousness comes early on: "My jumper's blue. My uniform's better. The only bad thing about it is the tie, it's too scratchy. I hate it when they're scratchy like that”. This is the sort of thing it’s very easy to like; equally, it can annoy with its faux-naif posturing. And there’s a lot of this in Pigeon English.

It’s the voice of Harrison Okupu, recently re-located from Ghana with his mother and elder sister to one of London’s poorer housing estates. (His father and infant sister remain in Africa, planning to join the rest of the family as soon as they can.) Harrison is a quick study, picking up the ways and language of his schoolmates easily enough. We hear much of their schoolyard games – in a sign of the times, one of their pastimes is called “suicide bomber”. Casual delinquencies, with knives, gang initiations and petty theft, are very much a part of the daily routines of some of those in his ken. 

With wide-eyed naiveté, Harrison also conveys his impressions of new experiences such as travelling on the tube. When he isn’t obsessing over whether he’s wearing the right kind of sneakers, he muses on the differences between his homeland and England, from the way barbers behave to the way traffic does. His Ghanaian backdrop, then, serves the important function of establishing him as a stranger in a strange land. This is a report from the inner city by an insider with an outsider’s point of view.

When a boy is stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant, Harrison, with some of his mates, decides to play amateur detective to bring the miscreant to book. With this as the plot device, Kelman has him keeping tabs on other boys, as well as sparring with his sister and her mates, acquiring a girlfriend of sorts and gradually becoming more attuned to the ways of the world in which he finds himself. Death and dying are very much on his mind, serving both as a foreshadowing of the future as well as a reflection of his environment.

Harrison’s predicament is one that elicits affection, not to mention compassion. However, the tone of voice employed has many repetitive simplicities and overstated pieties, and these can grate after a while. “I saw a bird nest in the tree,” he informs us. “It was very sad. The birds all fell out when the tree came down.” Then again: “Do you know what's a superhero? They're special people who protect you. They have magic powers. They use them to fight the bad men. They're very great”. The use of schoolboy argot, too, is overdone, with words such as “hutious”, “bo-styles” and “dope-fine” appearing on almost every page.

Curiously enough, there’s also the voice of a pigeon that butts in from time to time. This winged creature, roosting on the balcony of Harrison’s house, is given to gnomic, mock-prophetic pronouncements such as “I do know the shape of a mother's grief”.  As a device to incorporate another minority voice, this comes across as unnecessary.

Immersing oneself in a child’s point of view can be a rewarding experience for the way in which it brings to life the gap between what is seen and what is understood. Despite being affecting in parts, and revelatory of the lives of children in violence-prone neighbourhoods, Pigeon English is only partially successful in this regard.     

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Diners' Club

This appeared in today's DNA.


What if a stranger comes to dinner and turns the lives of the hosts upside down? That was the premise of Ali Smith’s last novel, The Accidental. What if an acquaintance comes to dinner and refuses to leave? That’s the premise of her new novel, There But For The.

The plot, such as it is, is pithily summed up right at the start: “There was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.” It’s a sentence that encompasses as well as sets off the events of book, in somewhat the same manner as the first page of Toni Morrisson’s Jazz provides the plot in a nutshell, leaving the author free to riff on it thereafter.

The setting is a tony neighbourhood in Greenwich, and Smith makes use of all the metaphorical associations of the area, from the implications of time’s passage to the underground foot tunnel. The novel comprise discrete episodes that range over past and present, delving into the lives and thoughts of those known to Miles, the intractable guest. There’s Anna, who met him during a European holiday many years ago; Mark, the acquaintance who brought Miles to the dinner in the first place; May, the elderly relative; and most of all the precocious ten-year-old Brooke, daughter of the neighbours  (reminiscent of the intelligent 12-year-old in The Accidental).  As the days pass and Miles refuses to emerge or communicate, barring through handwritten slips of paper pushed under the door, he becomes a minor celebrity in the area, with people believing that his actions mirror their individual concerns.

Smith’s style, as with her previous work, resembles nothing so much as an intelligent, loquacious conversationalist, albeit one who looks at you sideways. Truman Capote’s early novels were recently termed “the literature of the backward glance”; Smith’s writing can be said to deal with the glance that is oblique. The indirectness can prove to be a frustration on occasion, but there’s a probing intelligence and questioning of established verities that rise off almost every page. There is also much wordplay and punning, as well as some execrable ‘knock-knock’ jokes. All of this, however, indicates a concern with the way language is used to communicate as well as obfuscate. As one character says: “I only joke about really serious things”.

Smith’s targets range from the way technology shapes experience to the way we fetishize the actions of those who, in however small a way, stand out or go against the grain. A comment on Brooke’s report card, in fact, could well be a summing up of the author’s particular talents: “Her verbal dexterity is notable and she is wonderfully imaginative and of course we do not have a problem with that or with either of these things. But sometimes her infectious imagination can be vertiginous for her peers”.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Misspeak, Memory

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


The nature and length of the novella as a form compel writers to pay close attention to matters of prose and craft. This is why the best of them have a hand-cut, gem-like quality, with ruminative — although patterned — first-person musings on a given theme. Such, certainly, is the case with Julian Barnes’ elegant, incisive The Sense of an Ending.

On the first page itself, the narrator affirms that “...what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed”. This, then, is an impressionistic record, one that's hedged by constant -- and sometimes overdone -- reminders that what we're reading is the narrator's self-serving memories of earlier times. It’s not just that he’s unreliable: he’s also all too aware of his unreliability.

This is a story is told by Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He recollects, first of all, his time in school and friendship with the charismatic, precocious new boy, Adrian Finn. Almost from the start, Tony and his circle seek out Adrian’s attention and approval, and then keep in touch after they go their separate ways. Inevitably, Tony’s pronouncements on the people in his life tell us more about him than about them. Time and again, he reminds us that this record of the past isn't what it appears to be on the surface: “You can infer past actions from current mental states”.

Tony continues with his account of his life: education in Bristol, his wooing of and short-lived relationship with girlfriend Veronica; and then, in brisk, economical paragraphs, his marriage, job in “arts administration”, children, divorce, and retirement. In sum, “some achievements and some disappointments”.

This is when, pulling off an audacious structural move, Barnes segues into another section, dealing with the narrator’s days in the evening of his life. Circumstances bring him together again with Veronica, who had taken up with Adrian after their break-up, and he’s compelled to examine and re-examine his past assumptions, step by step. He now has to make sense of an almost Wittgensteinian fragment from Adrian’s diary, as well as mull over his interactions with the older Veronica, to solve a mystery springing from his past. As she tells him more than once, he is someone who just “doesn’t get it.”

Tony’s self-deluded, emotionally repressed ways bring to mind other fictional characters with the same traits, notably John Dowell from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, as well as Stevens from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It's also not by coincidence that one of the characters is portrayed as reading a work by Viennese author Stefan Zweig, for this, too, is a book about a person who obsesses over yesterday’s actions and omissions, often rewriting events in his mind.

There’s an aphoristic, crafted quality to much of the book. At one point, for example, the narrator quotes Adrian in a phrase reflective of its theme: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.  Elsewhere, in a passage reminiscent of Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’ earlier non-fiction deliberation on death and dying, Tony says, “…the longer life goes on, the fewer are those to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life”.

At barely 150 pages, The Sense of an Ending is a resonant reminder that one can be succinct, not sprawling, when it comes to creating a compelling fictional world. As a tightly wound meditation on the unreliability of memory and the ways in which we mislead ourselves, Barnes’ work shows that in the right hands, brevity is still a virtue.