Monday, August 24, 2009

Tales Of Two Cities

This was written a few months ago for a newspaper supplement that stubbornly refused to materialise.

Geoff Dyer

Is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi one novel or two novellas? The separate parts of Geoff Dyer’s new work seem unconnected, but reflection reveals that there are enough links – both of incident and theme – to loosely bind them together. Besides, V.S. Naipaul essayed a similar structure decades ago with In a Free State, his stories of strangers in strange lands.

The first part of the novel introduces us to Jeffrey Atman, a 40-plus disgruntled journalist travelling to Venice to cover the Biennale, the much-anticipated art festival. Jeff mingles with bitchy, Bellini-drinking crowds, analyses exhibits and starts a passionate affair with Laura Freeman, a curator from Los Angeles. After scenes of sex, drugs and decadence, and some tips of the hat to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeff stares out into Venetian waters, hoping for an epiphany.

The second part, narrated in the first person, again features a disaffected journalist nearing middle age – Jeff, or one of his avatars – who arrives in Varanasi on a magazine assignment. Here, the pace is not frenetic as before; there are many descriptive passages, some very well done, some akin to written-up journal notes of a first-time trip with ghats, pyres, filth, festivals and colours. The narrator allows the sacred city to seep under his skin and cancels his return journey, passing time through interactions with other visitors, long walks, boat journeys and dips in the Ganga. Thus, he attempts to find a mantra for the rest of his life.

The yoking together of two cities defined by bodies of water is ingenious, and Dyer’s prose is mellifluous, blending barbed comments and insights. The book’s flaneur-like progress may not be to everyone’s taste, but the moods it conjures up – from the rajasic to the sattvic – are well worth the price of admission.

Madam, I'm Adam

This appeared in Saturday's DNA.

Bernard Beckett

We’re well into the third millennium of recorded history. The world has shrunk into an island-state called the Republic, whose inhabitants live in peace and harmony. This Republic is controlled by a shadowy group, the Academy, with complete responsibility for its perpetuation. Those seeking to join the Academy have to undergo a gruelling four-hour long interview – and it is for such an interview that Anaximander, a bright young girl, arrives. This is the world and the opening of Bernard Beckett’s young adult novel, Genesis.

The entire novel revolves around the interview, with Anaximander recounting, for her interviewers’ benefit, the life of the charismatic, rebellious Adam Forde, who played a seminal role in the early days of the Republic. Adam’s life and actions are a matter of public record; yet, could there be parts that are open to interpretation?

The narrative, then, moves back and forth between the girl’s statements and feelings during the interview, and the man’s progress from being a border guard to someone who brushes up against the apparatus of the state and comes to terms with the power of artificial intelligence.

Beckett’s prose is crisp and economical; yet, because this is a novel packed with many ideas and arguments about human consciousness, the narrative tends to get drowned in argument. Moments of drama are followed by pages of debate, and though the discussions are relevant to the novel, they do tend to overpower it. (Which is also why a narrative strand such as Adam’s saving of a woman called – inevitably – Eve is left unexplored.) There’s more than one twist to this tale, however, including one right at the end, which somewhat mitigates this criticism.

However deftly handled, Genesis doesn’t quite make the cut in terms of innovative science fiction. Beckett’s heart is more in the explication of ideas relating to memes, the interplay between the animate and the inanimate and what makes us distinctive as a species, among other things. Even so, the novel should provide nutritious food for thought for those weaned on a steady diet of Terminator movies.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lush Prose, Bleak Vision

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka

RUPTURE Sampurna Chattarji

Pick up a debut novel from the Indian fiction section of your local bookstore, and chances are you’ll find a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale told in plain, simple English. It’s a relief, then, to find that Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture is anything but that. For a start, this novel is intricately layered, not confining itself to a specific character, background or mode. The language, too, is coiled and charged – as befits, one supposes, a poet writing in prose.

It turns out that these very qualities make Rupture initially daunting since, on the face of it, the narrative follows nine characters in five cities over 24 hours. However, there are pleasures awaiting those who persist with the book. Chattarji probes the actions and psyche of a cast of introspective misfits across social strata and, at her best, throws a searing light upon the inner feelings triggered by the pressures of the outside world. This is narration in slow motion, kept buoyant by the richness of the prose.

We’re introduced to the insular, film-crazy Partho, exiled to Kanpur; the clairvoyant Tennyson, diviner of lost things, suddenly summoned to Mumbai; the indolent Nazrul on the verge of leaving Baruipur for Germany; and the lonely, wandering Biswajit, staying with his daughter in Mumbai but incessantly looking backwards to his native Kolkata.. Not to mention the others waiting on the margins for their chance to step forward and let us hear their voices. Above them all is the disturbed, dreaming Jonaki who creates and then tries to contain the rest within the crucible of her imagination.

Some of these characters find themselves linked in ways they could not have conceived of; others plough a parallel furrow. The rupture is threefold: it exists in the narrative, in the psyche of the characters and in the blood-dark catastrophe their world is hurtling towards.

To be sure, there are dangers in such an approach, and Chattarji doesn’t entirely sidestep them. Page after page of solipsistic musing can be wearying, more so when many of the characters share the same alienated qualities. Haunted by the past, they make their way through the world responding to questions of existence with answers of the imagination. As one of them ponders, if the past is something self-created by our own memories, we should rearrange and embroider instead of bemoaning it.

To break away from such a register, Chattarji also includes a section of lengthy journal excerpts, which don’t quite work: the entries themselves seem jejune, allied to coincidences in the diarist’s relationships. The mock-mythic tone that Chattarji essays later on -- as with descriptions of Tennyson’s past – is pulled off more successfully.

This unevenness apart, the novel is suffused by a bleakness of vision that sometimes rests uneasily with the lushness of prose. Reading Rupture is not always a pleasant experience, but that’s the price to pay when the attempt is -- as Kafka said -- to fashion a novel that serves as an ax for the frozen sea inside us all.