Saturday, August 27, 2011

Desert Of Forking Paths

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.


As with Vikram Seth, so with Hari Kunzru: it’s difficult to pigeonhole their work. Kunzru’s novels so far have dealt with subjects as various as the different selves of a Zelig-like creature over the years; the life of a Sixties activist looking back on his revolutionary activities; and the intersection between the creator of a computer virus and a Bollywood star.  In all of them, one finds the ambition to not merely portray an aspect of our world but to encompass it, and this is also the case with his latest, Gods Without Men.

The novel features several interwoven storylines set against the backdrop of California’s Mojave Desert. Kunzru’s splintered narrative ranges over the centuries as he delves into the lives of those who find themselves in and around this sparsely populated, majestic region, particularly in the vicinity of the mysterious natural formation known as the Pinnacles.

There’s the grizzled WWII veteran constructing equipment to send out messages of love and brotherhood to the galaxy, trying to “connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit”; there are reports from 18th century Spanish missionaries; there’s the misadventures of an ethnologist studying the region’s Indian tribes; there’s the disaffected London rock star fleeing an LA producer; there’s the ups-and-downs of the members of a hippy cult who preach that life-altering extraterrestrial contact is imminent. Connecting all of them is the story of a couple – Jewish-American wife, Punjabi-American husband – with an autistic child who find their lives turned upside down after a mysterious abduction.

Intersecting tales spread over the centuries with a science-fiction flavour: this inevitably reminds one of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The difference, however, is that the connections in Gods Without Men are explicitly spelt out, unlike the thematic hall-of-mirrors of Mitchell’s work. Kunzru carries off the voices necessary to pull off his overweening narrative arc, from the sardonic to the schmaltzy, from the tough to the tender, from the archaic to the current. While this is admirable, as is his re-creation of disparate worlds, a concern is that not all of the stories are as compelling. For example, the rock star’s escapades have a distinct whiff of the been-there-done-that.

After a while, it becomes clear that it’s the narrative of the couple with the child that is at the centre of this garden of forking paths. Fittingly, this tale is the one that’s the most well-rendered, with echoes of the cases of Madeleine McCann, JonBenet Ramsey and, closer home, the Talwars from Noida. In this manner, though the novel isn’t quite the contrapuntal symphony it sets out to be, it remains absorbing.

As the book progresses, there’s a sense of surfeit, of ever more dishes being laden on a groaning buffet table. Especially so in the latter half, when more characters are delved into – for example, the Iranian immigrants to America who find themselves participating in war games in the desert. While this may be well-done, one can’t help wondering whether it’s also overdone. The mechanics of the plot threaten to turn awry towards the end, with eeriness and doppelgangers thrown into the mix.

A piece of dialogue from Gods Without Men, uttered by the creator of a revolutionary stock-tracking software programme, sums up Kunzru’s overall intent: “There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what was once whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable but a few of these fragments contains faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It is a part of something larger than itself”. Whether Gods Without Men emerges as greater than the sum of its parts is, however, a moot point.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Past Is A Foreign Country

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


The ancient Chinese believed time is not a ladder one ascends into the future but a ladder one descends into the past. That was the intriguing epigraph to Anita Desai’s last novel, The Zigzag Way, and it’s a dictum many of her characters would subscribe to. The ones in her latest book, The Artist of Disappearance, are no exception. This comprises a series of three novellas featuring people who find themselves cut off from the mainstream of everyday life, brooding over former actions and inactions.

With characteristic delicacy and the incremental accumulation of small effects, Desai takes us into their hearts and minds. To begin with, there’s the reserved bureaucrat of The Museum of Final Journeys who, when posted in a remote, tedious outpost at the start of his career, chances upon a series of rooms in a mansion resembling a ramshackle version of Kolkata’s Mullick Palace. Here, he marvels at artifact after artifact sent from overseas, an experience that haunts him even many years later. In Translator Translated, an introverted college professor with a knowledge and love of Oriya proficiently translates a volume of a favourite author’s short stories, only to confuse notions of creator and translator when it comes to the same author’s new novel. (Language and its context: it’s a theme reminiscent of the author’s earlier In Custody.) Finally, in the title story, a reclusive young man lives in the burnt shell of his family mansion near Mussoorie, finding solace in nature, only to have his idyll interrupted by strangers from the city.

These are stories of lives half-lived, of the disappointment of destinations and of the ever-receding possibility of transformation. The causes, more often than not, turn out to be remote parental figures matched by a native irresolution bordering on timidity. Looking back on the years gone by, the bureaucrat realizes that “while others dreamt dreams and lived lives of imagination and adventure, my role was only to take care of the mess left by them”. And the translator could be speaking for all of the others as she muses while taking a bus journey: “We are all in this together, this world of loss and defeat. All of us, every one of us, had had a moment when a window opened, when we caught a glimpse of the open, sunlit world beyond, but all of us…have had that window close and remain closed”.

There are no finessed, artificial climaxes to these narratives; rather, Desai’s technique is to place her characters in situations that take them out of their workaday milieu and then follow them and their actions with her pen, in a manner of speaking. The simplicity with which the tales unfold belies the artisanship that has gone into their crafting. The interweaving of the present and the past apart, there are other exercises in craft, such as the shifts between first and third person as well as between past and present tense in Translator Translated. (Here, and elsewhere, Desai also gives rein to the understated humour that is her other trademark. Of the atmosphere at a publishing conference, for example, she writes: “Terms proliferate that indicate the large number of academics in the audience: Subaltern. Discourse. Reify. Validate….Wasn’t ‘subaltern’ a military term?”)

The title story, however, the one that’s the most fleshed-out, suffers on account of being curiously bifurcated by the amount of time Desai spends on the activities of the intruders who encroach upon the central character’s Eden. The actions of this three-member film crew from Delhi who travel to Mussoorie in order to shoot a documentary on environmental degradation draw attention away from the titular character’s predicament and weaken the spine of the story -- even though it is because of this disturbance that he discovers a new, albeit more private way in which to express his inventive urges.

The Artist of Disappearance doesn’t exactly extend or deepen Desai’s concerns as a writer: the India she writes about, for example, is the same India she’s always written about. Yet, it is a filigreed and nuanced work, once again demonstrating her moving powers of description, of both inner and outer states. The past may be a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote, but in Desai’s hands, it’s capable of many domestic disturbances.