Monday, September 29, 2008

Rat Race

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


It was the 18th century philosopher Joseph Priestley who once said, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.” Well, anyone observing the teenagers of mofussil Bihar in the Seventies would know exactly what sort of society they were a part of: hidebound, repressed, anarchic and casually violent. This, then, is the subject of Avijit Ghosh’s debut novel, Bandicoots in the Moonlight.

The book tells of the exploits of young teenager Anirban Das, who appears to be a thinly-disguised stand-in for the author himself. Anirban’s father, a police officer in charge of containing the Naxalites in the area, is transferred from Wilsonganj to Ganeshnagar and it is in this latter town that Anirban attends the ironically-named Holy Child School. Here, we encounter Anirban’s friends: landlord’s sons, school bullies, overage pupils, incipient politicians and more. Others introduced into the narrative are his father’s driver as well as some colourful neighbourhood characters.

The structure of the novel is episodic, with each chapter describing a separate incident. And though the town of Ganeshnagar is fictional, the milieu is all too real. Ghosh speaks of the pleasures and passions of street cricket; of listening to Binaca Geet Mala on the radio; of surreptitiously scanning outré film magazines; of discovering and devouring pornographic publications; of attending ramshackle movie halls to watch the latest releases; of devising ingenious ways to cheat during school exams; and of finding willing and unwilling prospects to expend one’s libido on. On a more sombre note, he writes of the teenagers’ awakening to caste affiliations, of honour killings, of female infanticide and of the palpable presence of the Naxalites and their depredations.

The prose style is breezy, unassuming and cheerfully amoral, with the unfortunate inclusion of solecisms such as “booby” in place of “busty” and “lusty” instead of “lustful”. One would think that much of the material would lend itself to a satirical or even a trenchant tone; instead, Ghosh indulges in nostalgic asides as well as banal generalisations such as: “What you don’t know, you don’t crave,” and “Sometimes, we enjoy overestimating dread”. The author’s attempt, then, is simply to impose a structure on and relive Anirban’s wonder years.

The ending seems to be not of a piece with the rest, unexpectedly detailing Anirban’s present circumstances and introducing a character or two at the very last minute for inexplicable reasons. As such, the novel on many occasions resembles nothing more than a collection of diary entries, making the whole unpretentious and pleasant, but also unremarkable.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Enter Ghost

This is from the latest issue of Tehelka


The central characters of Everyman and Exit Ghost, Philip Roth’s two previous books, were both in their seventies and all too aware of their waning mortality. Those yearning for the feisty Roth of old may well perk up to find that the protagonist of his new novel, Indignation, is a 19-year-old college student. However, Roth reveals soon enough that the narrator has died an untimely death; this, then, is a recollection from the afterlife. He could well have called it Enter Ghost.

Indignation – the emotion, not the book – has of course fuelled Roth’s 29-novel career, with most of his work railing against sanctimony, hypocrisy and the smugness of the established order. Indeed, echoes of earlier books resound in the pages of this one: from the condition of the young narrator of Goodbye Columbus to the masturbatory high jinks of Portnoy’s Complaint to the Celine-like rants of Sabbath’s Theatre to the self-serving claustrophobia of campus life in The Human Stain -- among others. If Indignation, despite its strengths, isn’t as stirring a work, it’s because the writing comes across as whimsical and even odd in places. Not to mention the structure, which tends to totter.

The novel is set in the early Fifties, the time of America’s Korean War. This isn’t an alternative-history scenario as in The Plot Against America, but rooted in the reality of the time. It relates the tale of Marcus Messner, who escapes from his overprotective father’s butcher shop in Newark, New Jersey, to study at a college in Winesburg, Ohio. (Winesburg, that site of stunted American emotion in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel.) Marcus is, as he modestly puts it, a “prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student,” and soon finds himself standing out because of his Jewishness and being at odds with the “constricting rectitude”, compulsory chapel attendance and arrogance of his room-mates.

Marcus’ indignation at the state of affairs peaks during an interview with the college dean, during which he’s moved to quote from large sections of Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’. Matters reach a head with the insurrection of a section of the male students who conduct an enthusiastic ‘panty raid’ during a snowstorm, creating an atmosphere that will lead to Marcus’ expulsion. (As should be clear by now, the book has more light-hearted moments than the grim Everyman and elegiac Exit Ghost.)

“All that is solid melts into air” was how the Communist manifesto described the contradictions of capitalism; in Indignation, all that is solid melts into liquid. The novel is full of human stains: the blood in a butcher’s shop as well as in the trenches of war; the vomit spewed by the queasy protagonist as a stand-in for bile when interrogated by the college dean; and, of course, the semen swallowed by Olivia, Marcus’ neurotic almost-girlfriend and fellow student, as well as ejaculated by the high-spirited undergraduates.

Those who look for it will probably find a connection between America’s war then and America’s war now, although Indignation doesn’t belabour the issue. The point driven home instead is that Marcus’ controlling father was right all along: in life, “the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences”. Leaving poor Marcus “replete with frustration, buffeted by the merciless encounter between the no-longers and the not-yets,” as Roth wrote of Nathan Zuckerman in his alter ego’s swan song.

There’s no gainsaying, however, that Indignation doesn’t feel complete as a novel; there’s a definite sketchiness about some parts, while others seem forced. Despite this, there are powerful passages: the descriptions of working in a butcher’s shop and bartending in a local inn, or the college president’s holier-than-thou oration, for example. It’s these, coupled with Roth’s intermittently vigorous sentences, that see the book through to the finish line.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mapping Desire

This is from today's Hindustan Times.


Is writing a form of archaeology? The metaphor is a seductive one, bringing to mind the excavation of buried moments, the enshrining of past activity and the assigning of a structure to the movement of memory. Such activities do, in fact, play an important role in Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. There are other fitting tropes in the book, too: the mining of the earth’s seams and the reclaiming of ancestral houses, for instance.

The novel is a triple-decker, with the first part introducing us to Amulya and his wife Kananbala who move to the hamlet of Sonagarh near Calcutta at the turn of the last century. As the years pass, their mansion is witness to family tragedies, from Kananbala’s mental deterioration to the collapse of their son Nirmal’s marriage. The action of the second part, based in the same location, takes place 11 years later. We learn of Nirmal’s fate and of his daughter Bakul’s association with orphaned tribal Mukunda, in the context of relationships with other family members. Part three segues into a first-person narration by Mukunda, speaking of his life in Calcutta and elsewhere, of his struggle to make something of himself, and of his meeting Bakul once again so that both can reclaim their lives.

Clearly, one thing the author isn’t short of is ambition: the chronological and point of view shifts apart, the novel covers roughly the first fifty years of the 20th century (historical events resound offstage like muffled echoes) and there are quite a few characters and locales whose development she pays close attention to.

Roy’s prose is atmospheric and attuned to nuance, and while there’s always the danger of such writing becoming nothing more than a warm bath of generalisations, she steers clear of this by her attention to detail and by making the action progress through powerful scenes. Thus, river water seeps into the crevices of an old mansion, the feeling of a sari on a mannequin is both unusual and tempting; Bakul rips apart some of Nirmal’s books in frenzy; a building contractor’s hands are studded with rings; and Mukunda struggles with the chaos of Calcutta’s streets.

In its delineation of flowers, skies, rain and their emotionally-charged effect on human beings, the prose is almost Lawrentian. There are other literary resonances to be found here, two obvious examples being the Mrs Rochester-like state of Kananbala and the Miss Havisham-like battiness of the family’s Anglo-Indian neighbour.

Though much of the plot satisfyingly emerges from the interactions between characters, the childhood ties between Mukunda and Bakul come across as insubstantial, which robs their later relationship of impact. In addition, events speed up towards the end through some all-too convenient coincidences. Such reservations apart, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a well-etched map of a world in which the past has to be dealt with before the present can be set free.

Burton's Nights

This is from today's DNA.

Iliya Troyanov

The Victorian era’s reputation for conservatism and Puritanism may be well-deserved, but the other side of the coin is that it was an era of much scientific and geographical enquiry, one that spawned a league of extraordinary gentlemen passionate about their pursuits.

Among these was Sir Richard Francis Burton, who undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile along with John Speke, fought in the Crimean War, traveled across the United States, studied the tribes of the Cameroon, undertook a gold-mining expedition in Egypt and explored Brazil and Damascus. No doubt having much free time on his hands, he also wrote books on travel and ethnography as well as translated the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights into English.

It is this formidable figure that Iliya Troyanov takes as the subject of his novel Der Weltensammler, now translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds.

Troyanov makes it clear from the start that his character of Burton is more of a fictional exploration than an accurate historical reconstruction. The Collector of Worlds comprises three sections, each one dealing with one aspect of Burton’s colourful career. The first tells of his arrival in India as an officer of the East India Company, his dalliances in Bombay and his later intrigues in Sind. The second is an account of Burton’s trip to Mecca, disguised as Sheikh Abdullah, and of his pilgrimage to Islam’s holy places. Finally, we see Burton in east Africa, accompanied by John Speke, on a grim and arduous journey to trace the Nile’s origins.

What’s unusual and appealing about the novel is the manner in which Troyanov builds his recreation. He intersperses a straightforward third person narration with accounts of Burton refracted through the eyes of others. His manservant relates his exploits to a letter-writer, testimonies of those who accompanied him to Mecca are presented, and other letters and official reports fill in the gaps. This may sound like postcolonial decentring – which was probably the aim – but Troyanov doesn’t let it come in the way of a good story. There are some howlers (such as the repeated use of ‘bubukhana’ instead of ‘bibikhana’), some scenes skirt uneasily close to Orientalist fantasy and many passages contain stilted dialogue, but overall, the account is vivid and compelling.

There is another aspect to the book, though, and it’s one that’s not so easily overlooked. Quite simply, Burton never satisfactorily comes to life as a living, breathing flesh-and-blood character, with motivations and impulses common to the rest of us. He remains enigmatic and mythical, a person whose exploits on the page have the power to fascinate, but not one whom we come to know.

In his brief introduction, Troyanov states that his is “a personal approach to a mystery rather than an attempt at definitive revelation”. Perhaps it’s just that Burton’s inner demons have the cunning to escape all of the nets that writers set for him.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Final Chapters

This is from today's Hindustan Times. Do also see McSweeney's for a "thread of memories" by those who knew, met and studied with David Foster Wallace, including Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith.

By now, the most-read piece by David Foster Wallace must be the text of the speech he delivered to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, where he stressed the importance of staying “conscious and alive in the adult world”. Alluding to the cliché of the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master, he went on, “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

It’s a sad and a cruel irony, then, that the talented, Pynchon-inspired and footnote-obsessed 46-year-old author succumbed to his own terrible master last week.

Wallace’s father has said that his son had been bedevilled by depression for a few months before the end. In fact, study after study indicates that it’s those in creative professions, notably writers, who are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder. William Styron, who described his own battle with the mind’s savage gods in Darkness Visible, once wrote, “The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis.”

The neurosis that creates art is also the affliction that leads to suicide. Some, such as Graham Greene, play Russian roulette and survive; others, more determined, go ahead and write their own premature final chapters.

Age doesn’t play a role here. Sylvia Plath was 30 when she placed her head in a gas oven; Virginia Woolf was 59 when she walked into the River Ouse; Ernest Hemingway was 61 when he aimed a shotgun at his head; Hunter S. Thompson was 67 when he yielded to his fear and loathing; and Sandor Marai was 88 when he doused the embers.

If it was Albert Camus who commented that there was but one truly serious philosophical problem and that was suicide, it was Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who contemplated this problem more than most. Reports suggest that he planned his ritual disembowelment for a year before he performed the act, but not before delivering a prepared speech exhorting the primacy of the Japanese emperor from a balcony to a troop of soldiers below.

One would imagine that writers taking their own lives would pay careful attention to the wording of their suicide notes; but such notes aren’t all that common. Understandably so, come to think of it, because those acting on impulse and in the grip of hopeless melancholy clearly have other things on their minds.

Yet, parts of Virginia Woolf’s last missive to her husband Leonard are heartbreaking: “I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time.” The poet Hart Crane, more terse, was heard to yell, “Goodbye, everybody!” as he jumped off a cruise ship. Another American poet, Vachel Lindsay, proved to be as laconic by writing, “They tried to get me – I got them first!” before swallowing a bottle of disinfectant.

Mental illness and dire circumstances apart, one of the reasons writers are driven to terminal despair could well be because of their struggle to make sense of the world by using the inadequate medium of words. As Gustave Flaubert – also possessed of an unstable temperament -- wrote, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Those among you who imagined that writing was a safe, non-threatening pastime involving lounging about in pyjamas all day will simply have to take up an alternative occupation.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Black Is Back

THE LEMUR Benjamin Black

By their metaphors ye shall know them. Try these on for size: a policeman has a face like “an El Greco martyr”. A woman’s gaze is “as blank as the face of her son’s expensive watch, with a myriad unseen, infinitely intricate movements going on behind it”. And shelves of unread books are – how nice – “a battalion of rebukes”.

Yes, it’s the return of John Banville’s alter ego, Benjamin Black, with this slender novella that was serialized in The New York Times earlier this year. Unlike Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, The Lemur doesn’t feature the dour Quirke, but instead dwells on John Glass, a one-time intrepid, passionate journalist, now burnt-out, living in Manhattan, and commencing work on the authorized biography of his father-in-law, William Mulholland. (With a name like that, Mulholland is, of course, a billionaire entrepreneur and former CIA agent.) Glass ropes in researcher Dylan Riley to help him and it’s when the latter is found dead with a bullet in his eye that a Pandora ’s Box of family secrets is unlocked.

Though there isn’t as much depth as in the other Black novels, the prose is crisp and elegant, and things move at a fast clip -- interspersed by apt (and sometimes wry) descriptions of people’s appearances, their motivations and the geography of Manhattan and its environs. It seems clear that Banville had fun writing this one, and reading it affords the same pleasure.