Friday, December 31, 2010

It's The Economy, Stupid: Musings On The Rise Of Asian Literary Prizes And Festivals

This appeared in the latest edition of The Caravan 

Cherchez la femme goes the pulp fiction cliché: look for the woman, and you’ll discover the cause. When it comes to the novel as a genre, one could as well say, cherchez l’argent: look for the money. To know where the novel is headed, move away from the fiction section of the bookstore and look instead at the business books. The number of titles with ‘Asia’, ‘India’ and ‘China’ in them confirms once again the little secret at the heart of novel’s rise. Like the football star in Jerry Maguire, it’s always been hollering, “Show me the money!”

After all, the novel’s recognition as a distinct genre came about in 18th century England with the pecuniary rise of the middle class, becoming a mirror to reflect a society’s growing and secure awareness of itself.  (Wealth gives rise to leisure as well as education; both of these give rise to the urge to read fiction.) It’s no coincidence too that the so-called boom in Latin American writing in the early seventies came at time when Latin American economies were themselves going through a boom. (Their debt crisis was still some years away.) And now that the economies of Asia are set to outstrip the rest, it’s the literature of this continent that being given legitimacy. Something one can see in the Asian Man Booker, the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the rising number of Western authors at the DSC Jaipur Festival and the recent Hay Festival in Kerala, for example.
 A look at the business operations of the sponsors of such activities is instructive. The DSC website proclaims that it is “one of the fastest growing infrastructure developers in India”, and the Man site announces itself to be “a world-leading alternative investment management business”. Infrastructure, investment: as the sign that appeared in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters during his 1992 campaign so pithily put it, “It’s the economy, stupid”. No wonder they’re keen to seek cultural legitimacy in Asia.

By no means, however, is such patronage to be frowned upon: the arts have always depended on wealthy backers in order to flourish, as Michelangelo, among other Renaissance masters, well knew. Besides, any activity that brings the attention of the public to the written word has to come under the heading of A Good Thing.

Which brings us to another knotty issue: how is “Asian” defined when it comes to such awards? Clearly, there’s no homogeneity in the continent in the way there is in, say, the United States. Given also that knowledge of and writing in English is widespread largely only in the Indian subcontinent coupled with a lack of good translations – and the means to make such translations happen – how representative can such awards be? There are no easy answers to this and it’s certainly something that must have exercised the minds of the organisers a great deal. The Man Asian rules simply specify that the author be a citizen of an Asian country, but it’s the DSC Prize that’s come up with an ingenious workaround: their award is open to any book by “an author of any ethnicity from any country which predominantly features themes based on South Asian culture, politics, history, or people”. Had it been published last year, then, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, revolving around Western classical music and based in London, Venice and Vienna, would not have been eligible. Perhaps that’s a petty cavil and an exception, but it does highlight one of the issues that such awards will increasingly face.

Take the recent charges leveled by some at the International Prize for Arabic Fiction supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and thus known as the Arabic Booker. It’s not really representative, say some. There’s a quota system favouring some countries, others assert. Inevitably, there are harsher voices accusing the prize of pandering to the West, ignoring women and – but of course -- “corrupting culture”. Fortunately, the Asian Man Booker and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature have stayed above such allegations.

The question worth asking, though, is whether such legitimisation of Asian literature – however you categorise it -- will in the long term lead to changes in our conception of the novel as we recognize it today. Will European linearity and causality give way to circular serpent-eating-its-tail narratives? Will realism and the plight of the individual yield to a flatter, multi-layered perspective as in a Mughal miniature?

This will form an increasingly visible part of a re-forging of Asian identity in the decades to come. As Patrick Smith points out in his Someone Else’s Century, one of the things that Asia will have to now grapple with is the question of how to be modern without reference to the West. It’s an especially pertinent query as, even in the West, there are signs of exhaustion with the novel as we know it. David Shield’s Reality Hunger is the most recent megaphone for such concerns, and recent novels by Damon Galgut, Jennifer Egan and Geoff Dyer – to take just three disparate and random examples – represent a branching out from convention. Will an ‘Asian way of thinking’ lead to more re-evaluation? Happily, of all art forms, it’s the novel that’s most suited to such malleability, being from the start a protean genre. Somewhere out there at this very minute there’s an unpublished author grappling with these very questions, and his or her novel will probably show up in a future Asian shortlist. If the economy doesn’t tank, of course.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

12 For 2010: My Books Of The Year

I read more in 2010, but I didn’t read enough. Emma Donaghue’s Room, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, to take but three examples, still await perusal. (I did plough through the Franzen, however; my review is here.) With that caveat in mind, here’s a selection of books worthy of mention, in no especial order.


Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Shenanigans at an all-boys’ school in Dublin involving students, teachers, swimming coaches and priests. Written in an exuberant high-five style that threatens to – but never does – go off the rails.Very funny, very moving.

The Ask, Sam Lipsyte. A satire on America today, and by implication the rest of the world. Follows the fortunes of a character collecting donations for Mediocre University and what transpires when he runs into a wealthy former classmate. Obscene, outrageous and hilarious.
Home Boy, H.M. Naqvi. The travails of Shehzad, a ‘metrostani’ lad from Pakistan caught in the cross-currents of post-9/11 New York. Distinguished by great chutzpah in prose style – yet not so flashy that one doesn’t feel empathy for the predicament of his main character.


Teach Us to Sit Still, Tim Parks: A memoir of prostate trouble and how Vipassana meditation showed a way out of it. Frank, forthright and revealing, especially when it comes to sojourns in Italian meditation retreats and how chronic pain affects daily life.
Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro. Ripping aside the sequined curtain that separates Mumbai’s bar dancers from the rest, this exploration of their seamy subculture is brave and compelling, expertly walking the line between the hard-bitten and the wide-eyed.

Following Fish, Samanth Subramanian. Informative, droll essays of travels along the Indian coast while sampling and otherwise immersing oneself in fish and the people who depend on it. Covering better-known destinations (Kerala, Goa) and those that remain anonymous (a secret destination called Xanadu).  Delicious.

Gold Boy Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li. Short stories of an older generation of stoic Chinese men and women reflecting on the changes in their country and their lives. Those wearying of realism would do well to immerse themselves in the quiet voice and telling details of the first and longest story, ‘Kindness’.

Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph. A counter to all those grand Mumbai novels, this inward-looking narrative moves in low gear, with more than a few echoes of Amit Chaudhuri. The well-chosen details make the familiar unfamiliar and the wry musing keeps you immersed in her characters’ lives.


 Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco. A kaleidoscopic debut that attempts nothing less than an audacious retelling of Filipino history. Made up of straightforward narrative, blog posts (and comments), essay extracts, e-mails and more. That all of this hangs together to create a very readable unity is testament to Syjuco’s skill.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason. Puzzles, inversions and reversals on the tales that comprise Homer’s epic of the return to Ithaca. Sometimes inventive, sometimes playful and always haunted by the spirit of Borges.
In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut  Fiction? Memoir? Travelogue? At times it reads like a hybrid, but this novel of encounters in Greece, Africa and India is always haunting in its precision and effect – especially the last section dealing with travails in Goa. The alienated man’s Eat Pray Love.


 A Reader on Reading, Alberto Manguel. Essays from one of the foremost readers of our times, touching upon writers from Lewis Carrol to Borges, mixing the personal and the critical. Encompassing times, places, moods, identities and associations that his act of reading conjures up, it’s a reminder of how there are “a few safe places as real as paper and as bracing as ink”.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bollywood Ending

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai


Alejandro Inarritu’s influential 2000 film, Amores Perros, depicted unconnected lives in Mexico City coping with the aftermath of a crippling traffic accident. It’s a film with which poet C.P. Surendran’s second novel, Lost and Found, has structural affinities, even though, by the end, his characters discover that they are connected by ties that are stronger than that of mere co-incidence.

Here, the city is Mumbai, the incident is a hostage situation in the wake of a terrorist attack and the characters range from a washed-up journalist to a reckless auto rickshaw driver to a porn website content provider to an urchin-turned-actor to a rampaging cow. .As well as a young terrorist from Pakistan, part of a larger group, whose actions bring the rest together. From 26/11 to Slumdog Millionaire, Surendran’s aim is clearly to produce a work that resonates with the city’s contemporary ethos.

In this, he is only partially successful. The novel doesn’t fully cohere as, apart from its improbabilities, many passages dealing with characters’ individual lives remain fragmentary, not adding heft to the whole. The inclusion of the reveries of the terrorist group’s handler, ensconced in Pakistan, exacerbate this. (Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight was a much more successful Mumbai-mosaic novel.)

Surendran’s prose is proficient, skating on the edges of the poetic, even though it hits the occasional purple patch – such as the time when one of his characters “rams his oaken oar” into another; both are then subject to “eddies of endorphins” and “a swamp of pheromones”, after which, “gaily, they sail the sea of senses”. Quite a voyage.

What’s most worrisome about the novel, however, is the denouement, which involves the coming together of twins separated at birth and the discovery that their real mother as well as suspected father are in the vicinity. One can only hope that some dark irony was behind this faux-Bollywood finale, even though the narrative suggests nothing to support this premise. Perhaps Danny Boyle can make something of it. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fate Slipping The Lead Into The Boxing Glove

One of the most revered copywriters in advertising, winner of a Clio lifetime award, a One Club Hall of Fame inductee and creator of memorable work for Volkswagen, Sainsbury’s, The Economist and Volvo. That’s David Abbot, who retired as chairman from the company that bears his name over a decade ago. Turns out he had one more trick up his sleeve: a novel.

Those expecting a fictionalised behind-the-scenes account of the goings-on at Abbott Mead Vickers will be disappointed by The Upright Piano Player. To be sure, Henry Cage, the central character, is a lot like Abbot in that he’s recently retired from a communications company, would rather read a book in a café than mingle with colleagues and is known for a gentlemanly, forthright attitude to work. It’s unavoidable that some of the sentiments attributed to Cage will be viewed as autobiographical, such as a refusal to work on cigarette brands, or statements such as: “He had always been wary of business books and their familiar lexicon of warrior virtues”.

That apart, the novel is more of an exploration of the workings of a malign kismet and how this impacts the emotionally-reticent Cage. It begins in 2004, with him losing his grandson in a horrifyingly gratuitous and violent accident. We segue back to 1999 and Cage’s life at 58, just after premature retirement. He lives alone in London, with memories of an estranged son and a divorced wife in Florida. Cage is confronted and then stalked by Colin, a loutish ne’er do well, has a casual affair and learns of two life-changing events: that Nessa, his wife, is ravaged by cancer, and that he is a grandfather of Hal, a four-year-old. Not quite the right way to start one’s sunset years.

In proficient, occasionally evocative, prose, the narrative moves between London, Norfolk and Palm Springs as Cage comes to terms with what Wodehouse would have called Fate quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove. This grim tale is undercut by intermittent, understated humour, much of it in the form of social commentary: from observations on trendy yet inefficient coffee-shops to management jargon masking a lack of original thought.

There are some finely-observed passages, such as a description of the goings-on at the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Other episodes, though interesting by themselves, are at odds with the narrative – such as a lengthy recounting of the transcript of Orson Welles’ attempt to provide the voice-over of a radio commercial.

Bravely, Abbott delves into the consciousness of not just Cage but others in his ken, such as the brutish Colin, the valiant Nessa and even the growing Hal. This, unfortunately, doesn’t work as well as it should, as there’s an overall reserve to the writing style that comes in the way of veracity. (At one point, Abbott describes a London policeman by saying that his suit wasn’t the only thing buttoned-up about him; that applies equally well to many of the book’s passages.)

The larger issue is that the plot depends heavily on co-incidence – chance encounters in cafes, streets and brasseries – for it to be entirely convincing. It’s as though Abbott doesn’t trust his characters enough to let them off the tight leash of plot. The Upright Piano Player, then, is well-written and even moving, but suffers from an over-determined flow of events to make its point. 

The other advertising luminary who retired to take up novel-writing is, of course, Indra Sinha: you'll find my review of his Animal's People here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tandoori Moose Nights

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Guardian


The Mediterranean is dry. Sand dunes cover most of central Europe. Tropical monsoon winds, having deserted Asia, now sweep over Nordic countries. And Sweden, along with most of the continent, has joined the Asiatic Union after the Chutney Referendum.

This is the landscape of Zac O’Yeah’s curry-drenched dystopian thriller, Once Upon A Time in Scandinavistan. On the face of it, this conceit set in the near future seems to rest on the notion of colonization in reverse; however, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that environmental depredations, and what they can do to our ways of life, are equally important.

Skip past the awful cover art, then, and meet Herman Barsk, a Swedish official working with “a professional core unit for the detection of anti-social activity” in Gautampuri, formerly known as Gothenberg. The world he inhabits is one of a “native” Europe over-run by a resurgent Asia. The streets are decrepit, beedi-smokers are everywhere, chaat and mithai shops dot the city, roads have names such as Tagore Chowk and Ambedkar Avenue, the rupee is the official currency, and the bureaucracy is in the hands of the Indian Administrative Service. Presumably, too, there are paan stains everywhere.

The grizzled, stressed-out Barsk comes across four dismembered, unidentified bodies in the tandoor of a greasy spoon known as the Tandoori Moose. His investigations into this grisly incident lead him, in ever-widening circles, to unravel the truth behind a mysterious ashram, an escorts club, the actions of a British expatriate known, not very subtly, as McGuffin and the personal lives of his colleagues – one of whom is called Salman Kitabwalla.

Along the way, Barsk has also to manage his amorous feelings for Kumkum, former Miss Bihar and current Swedish postal worker, which he does by, among other things, reading The Kama Sutra and trying to track the whereabouts of her husband. The action, as well as writing style, is suitably manic as a battered Barsk lurches from one imbroglio to another in pursuit of a woman who’s called “a blonde cannibalistic bloodsucking vampire”. Ultimately, it all comes down to a nefarious terrorist plot – with a neat inversion on our notions of contemporary terrorism.

O’Yeah creates this world painstakingly: time and again he reminds us of Barsk’s reality by piling detail upon detail. Some references are sharp, such as Ingmar Bergman being referred to as “an old native cinema director” and Thor “a long-forgotten native God”. There are others that are painful, such as a mention of Madonna becoming the UN General Secretary and Halle Berry the first woman president of the United States. (What next, Sarah Palin as best-selling author? Oh, wait, that’s already happened.) Equally, for every joke that works in the novel -- such as Kumkum referring to the poet Browning and Barsk thinking of a machine-gun -- there are others that are sophomoric, such as Maoists demanding that the India-colonised planet of Mars be renamed Maors.

While much of it is fun to read, this is a novel that clearly needed a restraining hand, the absence of which is apparent on every page. Take O’Yeah’s similes, which tend towards the bizarre. A car's engine protests “like a frog being eaten by a Frenchman”; rain falls like “hard-boiled ostrich eggs crashing out of space”; and a man threatened by a pistol makes a sound “like a lapdog falling into a cement blender”. Ouch.

When, for no apparent reason, we’re treated to a long drawn out scene of Barsk’s meeting with a film director, one C.D. Dhoti, and matinee idol Phillumappa Ishtarjee, we know that the author – in the manner of Michael Chabon in his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – has fallen too much in love with his fictional universe to relinquish it.

Though likely to be compared with Nordic noir such as the work of Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell, this is closer in its antic spirit to the environmental thrillers of Carl Hiaasen, with his deranged characters running amok over Florida swamplands. Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan, then, is audacious in conception and has much brio in narration. It falls, unfortunately, into the trap of believing that too much of a good thing is even better. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Half Empty

This appeared in today's edition of Mint Lounge.


In September 2007, the financial institution Northern Rock experienced a bank run, the first time this had happened in Britain for over a century. When it was nationalised a few months later, the £25 billion bailout was the largest sum any government had ever given to a private company. The non-executive chairman, Matt Ridley, science writer and former editor of The Economist’s American edition, resigned shortly after.

It appears that he’s spent his time since writing a cheerful paean to free markets. After acclaimed works on sexuality and the human genome, among others, Ridley’s The Rational Optimist can be read as his most ambitious book. It’s also the most misguided.

The Rational Optimist is about “the rapid, continuous and incessant change that human society experiences”. The reason homo sapiens progresses in this manner, according to Ridley, is because of exchange: free trade, ideas, goods and services, leading to specialisation and comparative advantage. In his overheated phrase, it’s all because “ideas start having sex with each other” that cultures progress and prosper.

Adam Smith, then, is the presiding deity of this enterprise, and Ridley takes us on a panoramic journey through human history to illustrate his thesis. Civilisations that have opened their doors to exchange have thrived; those that haven’t have regressed. (Come to think of it, it could well be the other way around: trade as a consequence of a civilisation’s rise, and not a condition.)

The problem with words such as “progress” and “betterment” is one of perspective. Certainly, there is now more prosperity than before, along with significant advances in healthcare and labour-saving amenities. It’s a fallacy, however, to imagine that because of this, human beings are moving towards some homogeneous, utopian goal, as critics of liberal humanism have pointed out. On this larger issue, Ridley is silent.

An unabashed proponent of increasing urbanisation – because, he feels, it provides opportunity as well as frees up land for agriculture – he also doesn’t have much to say on matters such as population density and competition giving rise to alienation, stress, heart disease and other lifestyle ailments. He dismisses surveys that don’t find a co-relation between wealth and happiness because of their margins of error, quoting others to suit his purpose. Such errors are, however, present in every study, making forecasting an inherently unstable exercise.

Ridley, of course, isn’t as naïve as to close his eyes to humanity’s problems, but asserts that “the population explosion is coming to a halt, that energy will not soon run out, that pollution, disease, hunger, war and poverty can all be expected to continue declining if human beings are not impeded from exchanging goods, services and ideas freely.” Africa, too, will shake off its problems with unimpeded trade.

He claims that global warming scaremongers are simply wrong, picking research to back his claims. Moreover, he says, we ought to embrace GM foods because of their increased output. The rising cost of inputs – much of them monopolistic – doesn’t bother him. Fossil fuels, too, should be used as long as they last, as they enhance means of production, and before they run out, human ingenuity will find other sources of energy. This is nothing but conveniently shifting responsibility to coming generations.

History and economics apart, Ridley also makes use of biology. He writes of the prevalence of the hormone oxytocin in human brains that makes people more liable to trust and cooperation, jumping to the conclusion that “there is a direct link between commerce and virtue”.  (Ah, that explains modern Russian capitalism.)  He recognizes that large corporations aren’t always motivated by the best of intentions – for example, WalMart – but affirms that their advantages always outweigh anything else. That ought to console sweatshop employees and local firms going out of business.

In essence, Ridley’s arguments are built on the foundation of the human being as homo economicus, a creature inherently rational and inclined to maximise profit. In the real world, as we know, all of us act on compulsions other than those of the strictly pragmatic. Fundamentalism is one consequence. The nuclear arms race is another.

As John Gray writes in Straw Dogs, “the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive”. The good life, then, “means making full use of science and technology -- without succumbing to the illusion that they can make us free, reasonable or even sane”. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Through The Luka Glass

This appeared in today's DNA.


Salman Rushdie’s 1990 fable for children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, struck an immediate chord because of the circumstances of its writing and publication. This endearing, inventive book was, after all, Rushdie’s first after The Satanic Verses, written for his older son and, for those old enough to spot it, full of allegorical resonance. An arch-storyteller, the Shah of Blah, and his young son fighting Khattam-Shudh and the Chupwalas to regain his powers and prevent the Ocean of Stories from being poisoned? Irresistible.

Two decades later, we have the follow-up, Luka and the Fire of Life, written this time for his younger son as he turns 12. If this lacks the contemporary charge of the earlier work, it’s simply because Rushdie’s circumstances are (thank goodness) very different today.  It starts once again in the country of Alifbay and this time, young Luka, brother to Haroun, witnesses with alarm his storyteller father falling into a Big Sleep. To prevent his demise, Luka must venture forth to steal the Fire of Life from atop the Mountain of Knowledge.

Accompanied, to begin with, by Bear the dog and Dog the bear, he journeys into phantasmagorical lands facing successes and reverses, making friends and enemies as he nears his goal. As before, there are ingenious fabrications and a lot of wordplay, as well as allusions to, among others, Alice in Wonderland, The Terminator and Sherlock Holmes. (Try reading some passages aloud: it’s then that the rhythm, flow and mischievousness of the sentences come alive.)

The book is loosely structured in the manner of a videogame, with Luka having to pass through rising levels of difficulty, losing lives but not his life. Perhaps the most delightful section, and one with significance to those of us in this country, is when Luka finds himself in a land known as the Respectorate, inhabited by thin-skinned Rats quick to take offence at just about any utterance. Other pleasures await the bilingual reader: for example, there’s itching powder made from the rare Khujli plant, and the formidable guardians of the fire, the three Jos: Jo-Hua, Jo Hai and Jo Aiga.

Ultimately, of course, Luka is successful in his quest, but not before earning the friendship of a local potentate who goes by the name of the Insultana of Ott, fighting off and then winning over a bewildering number of unemployed gods from the world’s cultures (Neil Gaiman, anyone?) and a little last-minute help from Prometheus, the original fire-stealer. It’s a ride as dizzying as the one Luka faces on the Insultana’s magic carpet -- even though it must be said that it’s Haroun which is the more deft and charming of the two books.

If you think Literature ought to begin with a capital L, have an aversion to puns and like your heroes grim and existential, stay far away. The rest of you can dive right in.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Asia As It Is

This appeared in the latest issue of Forbes India


There have been, of late, many books that claim to explain “the Asian century”. Numbers are crunched, technology is analysed, currencies are compared. Economists and business leaders are quoted. Generalisations based on alleged Asian ways of thinking are held together by catchy – if inaccurate – metaphors, some revolving around the world being flat.

Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century does none of these things. These three linked essays are inside-out rather than outside-in, discussing the “post-Western world” with a focus on China, India and Japan. As such, it is more ruminative than ratiocinative, providing a deeper and more insightful exploration of the subject.

Smith’s credentials for the task are apt, having been a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly thirty years. He writes: “These essays are about perspective – or just as much its opposite, which is not precisely blindness so much as a failure to overcome received assumptions.” He compares his method to that of Raghu Rai, aspiring for both great depth as well as breadth of field.  In this manner he tries to capture AAII,“Asia As It Is”, speaking to entrepreneurs, professors, architects, screenplay writers and village workers, from Somnath and Calicut to Kitakyushu and Quixia.

Each essay revolves around a pertinent question. What does it mean to be modern? What versions of history do we embrace and why? Can Asia understand itself without reference to the West? “After 150 years with the modern,” he says, “the modern has lost its strangeness for Asians. Neither is the modern understood any longer to be Western.” There are no easy answers, and Smith puts his views in the context of nostalgia, anxiety, identity and ressentiment, words that define the current concerns of the three countries.

Given this framework, there is much speculation, some of it abstract, such as when he applies notions of an ideal and material world to a country’s development. He muses that now, more than ever, Japan will create an identity not based on an uneasy cohabitation of tradition and Westernisation but one that’s more uniquely Asian -- with consequent lessons for other countries. In China, he discusses the many versions of the past that prevail, depending on which decade you were born in. And in India, he analyses the concept of heterogeneous time, and the tradition of the eccentric -- along the way touching upon the erosion of Hinduism’s syncretic tradition as well as the notion of jugaad, the country’s indigenous method of innovation.

It was Kipling who once wrote: “Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old”. Though much slimmer than other works on the subject, Smith’s book goes much further in unpacking this sentiment. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Freedom, Lost And Found

My year-end piece for Yahoo India.

On the one hand, freedom; on the other, its curtailment. 

That’s the story of two books that attracted the most amount of newsprint this year. The first, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, called by some “the best novel of the century”, which earned the author a spot on the cover of Time magazine – the first novelist in a decade to be so feted. The second, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, which, as we all know, was treated less as a book and more as a springboard for a new Thackeray to be catapulted into the limelight.

Though I have reservations about the acclaim with which Freedom was greeted, it’s ironic that while Franzen’s book explores varying notions of freedom through the prism of an American family, the opposition to Mistry’s novel showed that freedom itself can’t be taken for granted. Franzen illustrates how freedom can empower or emperil -- be it when applied to a homemaker, a student or a nation – while in another corner of the world, a local political party picks a book of which they’ve read, at best, a few paragraphs and has it removed from a university syllabus on the basis of that straw-man argument: “offended sensibilities”. Which brings to mind Rushdie’s words: “It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it.”  More so here, since it was an optional choice in the syllabus, not a mandatory one.

On one side, an acclaimed author from a nation searching for answers about its global role; on the other, the revenge of the anti-Enlightenment brigade. One gloomily recalls the words of John N. Gray, arch-debunker of humanism: “The good life means cherishing freedom -- in the knowledge that it is an interval between anarchy and tyranny.” Happy new year.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Windowpane Or Stained Glass?

George Orwell wrote that good prose ought to be like a window pane. But those such as Nabokov, Banville and Updike prefer stained glass. The next instalment of my Yahoo India column.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Family Matters

This appeared in today's DNA.

FREEDOM Jonathan Franzen

In an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1996, Jonathan Franzen rued the contemporary novel’s inability to engage with culture in the manner in which, say, the 19th century novel did, when  new instalments of work by writers such as Dickens were awaited, pored over and discussed. As he wrote, “The ambitious young fiction writer can’t help noting that, in a recent USA Today survey of twenty-four hours in the life of American culture, there were twenty-one references to television, eight to film, seven to popular music, four to radio, and one to fiction (The Bridges of Madison County)”.

Franzen’s much-commented-upon 2001 novel, The Corrections, exploring “the possibility of connecting the personal to the social”, was an impressive attempt to overcome this, being a study of an American family over the years. His new novel, Freedom, has been greeted by a blare of trumpets, and not just from the literary pages. He’s become the first novelist in ten years to make it to the cover of Time magazine; the book has been hailed by some quarters as “the best novel of the century”; and it’s climbed up and stayed on the bestseller lists from the moment of publication.

Freedom, then, arrives with numerous expectations, and though many are realized, it must be said that it doesn’t live up to all of them. Franzen’s subject is again the American family and, in exploring the vagaries of the lives of its members, he brings out the tenor of the Bush years in America.

It opens with a bravura first chapter introducing us to the Berglunds – Walter and Patty, and their children, Joey and Jessica – entirely through the eyes of their neighbours in St Paul, Minnesota. Walter is a born do-gooder, and Patty is serially conflicted; as their lives unravel, one observer unkindly calls them “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven”.

From here, we move to a lengthy section comprising a journal that Patty has written of her formative years, at the suggestion of her therapist. This manuscript plays a key role later in the book when it is read by two other characters, provoking a sudden change in circumstances. (In this manner, Franzen tries to combine his brand of realism with more modern methods of telling.) The problem with this record of Patty’s school, college and wedded years it that the overall tone is too ironic and knowing for us to fully believe that it’s emerged from her pen.

The narrative moves on, with detailed and rich accounts of the characters’ inner and outer lives. We’re told of Patty’s increasing loneliness and despair, Walter’s search for meaningful work, Joey’s relationship with his parents, love interests and shady business deals, and of Walter’s old friend, Richard Katz, an indie musician who achieves a degree of fame he’s ambivalent about. Befittingly, the novel is also rife with cultural markers to indicate time’s passage, from books to music to movies. (It’s odd, however, that though all the characters’ lives are deeply delved into, it’s the daughter Jessica who’s comparatively ignored.)

The tangles and triangles in all of these people’s lives are explored in an unhurried manner that brings out all their rainbow-hued complexity, and this is Freedom’s greatest achievement. There is much bleakness and heartbreak to be found in these pages, more than occasionally leavened by sly humour -- Joey’s dislike of the acronym MILF, for example.

In keeping with the title, the novel also investigates what it means to be free, in various contexts: from that of a housewife seeking validation to the social ramifications of a nation flexing its muscles overseas. Sometimes, these notions appear a tad heavy-handed, almost as though Franzen is willing himself to insert such concepts into an already smooth narrative.

It’s in the second half that the experience of reading the novel flags: Franzen’s suave, knowing prose, so impressive to begin with, rolls on and on, sometimes unevenly, and one starts to harbour a feeling that he’s too much in thrall to his characters to let them go. In particular, the detailing of Walter’s efforts at ecological conservation tend to pall.

Freedom, then, is layered and ambitious in the way too few books are in today’s times. Alas, as Browning’s Andrea del Sarto would have said, its reach exceeds its grasp.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tusker Tale

This appeared in last Saturday's The Indian Express


In the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each person describes the animal in a different manner, depending on the part that he feels. Something similar occurs in Jose Saramago’s last, posthumous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.

The novel is inspired by the true story of an Indian elephant and his master travelling from Lisbon to Vienna on foot in 1551. In Saramago’s telling, the pachyderm, named Solomon, is a gift from the king of Portugal to his cousin, the archduke of Austria. Solomon and Subhro, his mahout, travel by land across Portugal, by sea across the Mediterranean and finally traverse the Alps, in the manner of Hannibal’s army.

The officers who travel with them, and the people they encounter along the journey, react to the elephant in ways that reveal more about their self-importance and insecurity than the actual animal itself. The animal emerges as larger than life, open to interpretation:  “Some even say that man himself was made out of what was left over after the elephant had been created…”

Commanding officers and priests, in particular, show themselves to be equally susceptible to petty vanity, Saramago’s way of gently mocking different sections of of the state. In particular, he pokes sly fun at Christian theology, sometimes contrasting it with Hindu myths, especially that of the origin of Ganesha.

There’s much of the author’s trademark style in the way the novel is written. Paragraphs go on for pages and quotation marks are done away with in favour of run-on dialogue separated by commas. In addition, proper nouns are democratised by doing away with capitals. One gets used to all of this surprisingly quickly, and the cumulative effect is to add more than a degree of orality to the narrative, all aided by Margaret Jull Costa’s adept translation.

 This aspect is emphasised further by Saramago’s impishness. There are frequent asides to the reader, some of them self-referential: “Now, this story has not lacked for reflections, of varying degrees of acuity, on human nature, and we have recorded and commented on each one according to their relevance and the mood of the moment.” At other times, he gleefully skates over centuries: “It’s a shame that photography had not yet been invented in the sixteenth century, because…we would simply have included a few photo from the period, especially if taken from a helicopter, and readers would then have every reason to consider themselves amply rewarded and to recognize the extraordinarily informative nature of our enterprise.”

The book’s second half has something of a rushed air, especially when contrasted with the first; and Subhro the mahout does come across as a bit of a cipher, with one remaining unsure of his motivation. For all that, The Elephant’s Journey is a pleasure to read in the way that an updated parable for our times would be a pleasure to listen to. A folktale, then, but one told in the knowing, ironic tone of a person who has seen the world and its foibles more clearly than most.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For Laughter, Against Forgetting

This appeared in last Sunday's edition of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian 


Two years ago, a Czech newsweekly announced that in 1950, a young Milan Kundera had informed the Communist authorities about the presence of a Western agent in the country, leading to the latter’s arrest and incarceration. Kundera, however, termed the report “an assassination attempt”, denying it completely. The incursion of the past into the present; of one identity into another; and of the political into the personal: the episode had some of the hallmarks of Kundera’s own fiction.

The nature of fiction, its role and development and the responsibility of the artist  have, as a matter of fact, been subjects that have pre-occupied the Czech émigré of late, evident from his non-fiction work such as The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed and Curtain.

With his latest, Encounter, he continues these speculations. This comprises a collection of pieces of varying lengths written over the years – some disappointingly short, some not; some revised, some not. Here, there are musings on modernity, on novelists close to his heart, and on artists and musicians that he feels ought to be better known. Those who are familiar with Kundera’s novels will find many of the same themes that are present there, such as the nature of nostalgia, questions of representation and selfhood, and the role of comedy at a time when humour is the last thing that one would expect.

A dominant and important strand of thought in Encounter is the view of the novel as “a completely necessary investigation” into society and the individual’s role within it. In particular, Kundera says, “the art of non-seriousness” is one of the unexplored alleyways of the novel, with Rabelais as one of its chief exemplars. He rues the drowning out of the 18th century writer’s narrative voice – puckish, individual, and colloquial – by the more formal rhythms of the 19th century novelist, a theme he had also written about in Testaments Betrayed.

When it comes to more recent changes in the novel’s form, Kundera says that it was after World War One that the sheer size and externality of events had the potential to transform human beings as much as, if not more than, changes from within – and it’s the novelist’s job to understand and reflect this.

There are many scraps, gleanings and observations on novels that have struck him over time, and he unlocks their art by using unconventional keyholes. For example, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has him musing on how most protagonists of great novels do not have children, or his riff on the role that nostalgia plays in Philip Roth’s Kepesh books. (As for the former observation, one could offer Roth’s own Swede Levov from American Pastoral as a rebuttal.)

Kundera is, of course, steeped in the European avant garde and there are several references throughout to writers and artists of that movement – some familiar, many not. He also shines a searchlight on novelists that he feels should have a wider audience. There are, for instance, two lengthy essays dealing with the 19th century Frenchman of letters Anatole France and his The Gods Must Be Thirsty, and the 20th century Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and his The Skin.

Music and art also feature in these pages, with Kundera analyzing the essence of Francis Bacon’s paintings – comparing him with Beckett in being modern in a world that is wearying of the modern. Then, there’s a meditation on the operatic works of Czech composer Leos Janacek and his status as a European anti-romantic standing against kitsch. Both of which once again remind one of Kundera’s own work.

Though for most of the time Kundera wears his learning and opinions lightly, there are also moments of despair, such as in a 1995 piece written to commemorate 100 years of cinema. Here, he says that film as technology nowadays is “the principal agent of stupidity…and of worldwide indiscretion.” He continues: “We have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying”. At least we still have those such as Milan Kundera to remind us that absolute fidelity to the novel and to art is not only important, but vital.