Sunday, January 27, 2013

Philip Roth, Experimental Novelist

My Sunday Guardian column.

“I wake up in the morning, get a big glass of orange juice and read for an hour-and-a-half. I've never done that in my life.” Philip Roth, who announced his retirement last month, seems to be enjoying not writing. "This is nice," he joked in the same recent interview. “They should have told me about it earlier”.

Having re-read all his books, he says the one he’s the most partial to is Sabbath's Theatre, followed by American Pastoral. While those great novels certainly contain all the coruscating power that Roth is known for, there are two others which reveal that he’s adept in not only realistic rants that get under the skin, but also what's called experimental or postmodern fiction -- not exactly a genre you’d associate with Roth.

There’s 1986’s The Counterlife, to begin with, which some claim is his best work. Ingeniously structured to reveal overlapping, alternative lives, it’s narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's famous alter-ego. The novel can be seen as a distorting hall of mirrors: first, Zuckerman attends his brother’s funeral; then, it segues into a section where the brother hasn’t died after all but has left his family to move to a fundamentalist commune in Israel. Later, in an ironic inversion, it's the brother who attends Zuckerman’s funeral. As a coda, there’s a chapter dealing with Zuckerman's non-dead life in idyllic Chiswick, living with an English wife and her family.

Some sections are revealed to have been a draft of a novel written by Zuckerman in an effort to turn reality into fiction; others are more ‘real’, whatever you take that word to mean. One of the subjects of The Counterlife, then, is suggested in a letter written by Zuckerman: “The treacherous imagination is everybody's maker -- we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other's authors”.

The Counterlife is specifically mentioned in 1993’s Operation Shylock. This novel, sub-titled ‘A Confession’, also toys with convention. It’s narrated by one Philip Roth, a famous writer, who discovers that there’s a character impersonating him in Jerusalem; this person has been attending the thronged trial of an alleged Treblinka guard, and making public pronouncements about a plan to rehabilitate Jews in Europe.

From the start, the ‘real’ Roth claims that this is a true account of events -- among the novel’s characters, there’s his then-wife, English actress Claire Bloom, and his old friend, Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld -- which is why he decides to write it as a testimony rather than as “a Zuckerman followup to The Counterlife”. At one point, the narrator says of his double: “It's Zuckerman, I thought, whimsically, stupidly, escapistly, it’s Kepesh and Tarnopol and Portnoy – it’s all of them in one, broken free of print and mockingly reconstituted as a single satirical facsimile of me.”

Roth goes in search of his doppelganger, tracks him down, and in the process has run-ins with a gallery of other characters: con-men, a rare books dealer, a Palestinian ex-classmate, the impersonator’s girlfriend and more, all of whom he has lengthy debates with. He’s then approached by Israeli intelligence for a covert operation, the details of which, contained in a chapter titled 'Operation Shylock’, have been excised from the novel. The final piece of puckishness comes in the book’s last words: “This confession is false”.

Operation Shylock is looser and baggier than the superbly-structured The Counterlife, but in both, Roth experiments not just for the sake of experiment, but as a way to find newer, more effective containers for his concerns with masculinity, Jewishness and the interplay between fact and fiction. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” Picasso famously said, and Roth echoes this: “So much of fiction provides the storyteller with the lie to reveal the unspeakable truth”. In our time, no-one’s combined “playful hypothesis and serious supposition” to reveal such truths better than Philip Roth.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Writer's Silence, A Leader's Roar

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

The ongoing civil war in Syria continues to claim more lives amidst opposing claims and shifting theatres of conflict. At such a time, Syrian writer Nihad Sirees’s novel, The Silence and the Roar – written in 2004 and now available in an English translation by Max Weiss – offers an opportune look at life under a dictatorship.  It’s one of the winners of the 2013 English PEN Awards for Writing in Translation and Sirees, banned from public and cultural life in his country, has spoken in a recent interview of how the book had to be smuggled into Syria from Lebanon. The Silence and the Roar deserves to be read because, in the words of its author, “in a novel, the reader can discover more things than if he simply follows the news”.

At the heart of the book is the ongoing tussle between the silence and roar of its title. The silence is that of its narrator, a writer muzzled by an unnamed tyrannical regime; the roar is that of the Leader, who encourages the populace to hold cacophonous rallies on every occasion. The novel’s events take place during the course of a single day, the twentieth anniversary of the Leader’s coming to power. Naturally, slogan-chanting crowds fill the streets, and for 31-year-old Fathi Sheen, the censored author, the noise is unbearable. As he says, striking a distinctly Orwellian note: “The roar produced by the chants and the megaphones eliminates thought. Thought is retribution, a crime, treason against the Leader. And insofar as calm and tranquillity can incite a person to think, it is essential to drag out the masses to these roaring marches every once in a while in order to brainwash them and keep them from committing the crime of thought”.

In a half-surreal, half-satirical tone Fathi speaks of spending the hot summer’s day in the company of his girlfriend, making his way through crowds and then visiting his mother, living alone after the death of his father -- to discover that she’s planning to get married to one of the Leader’s spineless cronies. This throws up a dilemma: should he give in to the promotional demands of the regime and be “a dummy amidst dummies”, or should he continue to let his silence articulate his opposition?

The satire is broad, and there’s more than a touch of the Kafkaesque, as with another recent novel from France, Phillipe Claudel’s The Investigation. At one point, Fathi tries to enter the ruling party’s building to reclaim his identity card, to be told that only those with identity cards can be admitted. Once inside, he discovers, among other things, that there’s a team of researchers and psychologists whose main occupation is to come up with memorable slogans extolling the regime. (“One, two, three, four, we love the Leader more and more.”) Here, and at many other times in the novel, Sirees punctures the carefully-constructed public image of autocrats.

How do individuals cope with such oppression? “Laughter and sex were our two weapons of survival,” says Fathi when he’s with his girlfriend, putting one in mind of similar satirical work by Egypt-born Albert Cossery. Elsewhere, he states: “Talking to oneself can keep a person insulated from his environment and make him more accepting of the world and all its burdens”. At other times, Fathi speaks of the historical differences between Greek and Persian attitudes towards despots, and Hannah Arendt’s take on the symbiotic relationship between the ruler and the ruled. None of this is to say that the novel becomes bogged down in theory; on the contrary, Fathi’s sometimes-cheeky, sometimes-despairing tone remains engaging throughout.

In a brief afterword included in the English edition, Sirees writes of another, more ominous roar, one that he “never thought the leader would ever be capable of using: the roar of artillery, tanks and fighter jets that have already opened fire on Syrian cities”. The Silence and the Roar is a brave and necessary attempt to fight back.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Branches of Childhood

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Delhi


It’s not easy to write about the experience of childhood. On one side, there’s the Scylla of being patronizing; on the other, the Charybdis of an adult sensibility colouring the proceedings. In his debut novel, the 81-year-old Srikumar Sen avoids the first and only occasionally strays into the second. His The Skinning Tree is marvellously evocative of the narrator’s childhood in 1940s Calcutta and in a Catholic boarding school in north India.

From its arresting opening that deals with a school matron’s tragic fall off a precipice, the novel submerges us in the mind of the 9-year-old Sabby and his privileged pre-Independence childhood.  He’s snatched from this Eden when his parents, fearing a Japanese invasion, send him away to school. Sabby’s Calcutta escapades, from watching a movie with a friend to making manja to fly kites, are portrayed in just the right tone of childlike wonder and thrill of discovery. The meals during a trip to Mussoorie are symbolic of his worldview: “variations of Windsor soup, Irish stew, Emperor pudding at dinner time and curry and rice and chutneys at lunch”. The effect is spoilt somewhat on the occasions that Sen spells this out in more literal terms.

When he faces the harshness of boarding school, the gentle Sabby begins to change. Sen captures his classmates’ Anglo-Indian patios – “I’m telling you, m’n! Yeah, m’n!” -- and challenges such as the making of a bed or the stealing of a chapatti. The school administrators, “distant disciplinarians in white habits”, keep the boys in line by whipping and caning, and this brutish treatment makes Sabby and his friends brutal too. For sport, they mutilate snakes and squirrels, throwing their carcasses onto a tree-entwined cactus on a nearby slope – the “skinning tree” of the title. Their predicament can again be read as symbolic, especially the fear of an English penny tied to a strap “to make it hurt more”.

Symbolic or otherwise, The Skinning Tree’s primary purpose is in the evocation of a lost time and its lingering effects. As such, the narrative drive can sometimes flag but Sen succeeds wonderfully in recreating sleepy afternoons, bridge-playing evenings, the strangeness of a new school and the in-between world of an Anglicised Indian upbringing.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

1984 and 1948

My Sunday Guardian column

The new Penguin edition of George Orwell’s 1984 has a terrific cover that features the author’s name and title masked with black foil. Another reminder of how much Big Brother, Doublespeak and the Thought Police are a part of our lives nowadays. The novel, first published in 1948, was itself inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fantasy, We, with its brainwashed citizens of a totalitarian One State. Years later, Anthony Burgess riffed on Orwell’s book to come up with 1985, the first part of which was a critique of 1984, with the second part being a rather lacklustre novella that imagined a Britain of the future dominated by militant trade unions and large-scale immigration from the Middle East. (Thus, Burgess’s book, written in the 1970s, was more a reflection of its time than of the future.)

Now, there’s another take on 1984, this time titled 1948. This one doesn’t invent an imagined future; it creates an imaginary past. Its purpose isn’t to alarm or warn, but to entertain. And, unusually, it’s written in verse. In Pushkin sonnets, to be exact – and yes, there’s a sly reference made to a certain Vikram Seth who has done the same thing earlier.

Poet Andy Croft’s 1948 is set in an alternative Britain of, well, 1948. There’s a Labour-Communist alliance in power, Winston Churchill is fulminating from his hideout in Washington and as for the royal family, they’re in exile in Rhodesia along, one supposes, with their corgis. Against this background, on a bright, cold day in April, policeman Winston Smith (that name should sound familiar) comes across a body in a dockyard, and then finds his superior, O’Brien, behaving suspiciously. Dreaming of Julia, his ex-girlfriend, he bumps into an alluring Russian operative called Tamara Zaleshoff (named after an Eric Ambler character) and with a little help from her, manages to untangle the mystery, the climax of which occurs at the opening of London’s Olympic Games.

The fun of reading Croft’s book isn’t in keeping track of events – truth to tell, the plot is thin and underdeveloped, even for such a slim volume – but in the sheer joie de vivre of the verses. Keeping to the strictures of line and length for an extended period isn’t easy (as he writes, it is “in short a verse form that’s designed/for distance runners of the mind”) but Croft pulls it off with panache.

The illustrations by Martin Rowson emphasise the comic-noir feel, along with lines such as: “It doesn’t come cheap, this kind of writing/The dockland scene, the low key lighting/The morally ambiguous tone/That late night, smoky saxophone”. As for Croft’s tonal inspiration: “The shadows on my flickering screen/are shot in black and white and Greene; /Here, every mood’s subdued, crepuscular/Like Hammett, Cain and Hemingway/The only ink I’ve used is grey”. That’s a shade of grey one can approve of. At one point, Winston Smith even picks up a book by Eric Blair, an alternative version of Orwell, a volume that’s “weighed down by overweight prediction/And not buoyed-up by common sense/ It looks too much like heavy going/To get Smith’s mental juices flowing”.

Along the way, there are endless digressions, but after a short while these cease to be departures and add instead to the fun of the reading. Croft is constantly self-reflective: “Though you may say that I’m a dreamer/It seems to me that on the whole/This idiotic rhyming schema/Requires some quality control”.

Dreamer/schema isn’t the only amusingly inventive rhyme here; there’s also tea/ennui as well as this one which deserves to be quoted in full: “Though Pushkin stanzas tend to shuttle/Between High Tragedy and Farce/(It doesn’t do to be too subtle/Or you will end up on your arse)”. Croft certainly doesn’t end up on his arse or on any other part of his anatomy. After a diet of Serious Novels all aspiring to be The Next Big Thing, his little 1948 comes as a breath of fresh air. Orwell that ends well.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Alberto Manguel's Labyrinths

My Sunday Guardian column.

As a teenager in Buenos Aires, Alberto Manguel spent much time reading aloud to the by-then sightless Jorge Luis Borges, an experience he’s written about in the slim memoir, With Borges. Since then, Manguel has become arguably the planet’s most ardent bibliophile, recording his passion in volumes such as A History of Reading, A Reader on Reading and The Library at Night.

He’s made infrequent forays into fiction, too. His 2004 novel, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, was a literary murder mystery set in Samoa and featuring Robert Louis Stevenson; his new novel, All Men Are Liars, translated from the Spanish by Miranda France, also has an author and a death at its heart. Given that this fictional character is an Argentine, one is tempted to think that he’s based on Borges himself. This proves to not be the case, although All Men Are Liars has more than a few Borgesian touches.

In a recent piece, Manguel wrote of his personal library of over 30,000 books that it was not “a single beast but a composite of many others”. All Men Are Liars is also a composite: not a unified entity but made up of the testimonies of various people from varying vantage points who speak about their memories of the fictional writer in question, one Alejandro Bevilacqua.

The first of the narrators, talking to a journalist hoping to piece together Bevilacqua’s life story, bears the name of Alberto Manguel. This version of Manguel dredges up his knowledge of the writer: childhood in Buenos Aires, later imprisonment by the junta, exile in Madrid, the circumstances leading up to the publication of his one celebrated novel, In Praise of Lies, and his tragic death shortly after, because of a fall from a balcony.

The next narrator starts bluntly: “Alberto Manguel is an asshole”. This is one of the women in Bevilacqua’s life, directly responsible for his novel’s publication. After more digs at Manguel’s reading habit (“All that fantasy, all that invention – it has to end up softening a person’s brain”) she presents a version of events at variance with what’s come before and raises further questions: how exactly did Bevilacqua die? How did he come to write his novel, if indeed it was his? Her account is followed by other narrators, including a Cuban émigré who shared the author’s cell in Argentina and finally, that of the journalist himself.

There is thus a teasing Rashomon-like interplay between the differing accounts. As one of Manguel’s characters says: “Take any number of events in the life of a man, distribute them as you see fit, and you will be left with a character who is unarguably real. Distribute them in a slightly different way and -- voilà! -- the character changes”. The boundary between truth and fiction is shown to be more porous than we think.

Along the way there are other puzzles to ponder -- “Bevilacqua made a distinction between true falsehood and false truth” --  and also riffs on the work of Enrique Vila-Matas as well as a fascinating little digression on the literature of his country, one that ends with: “Lying: that is the great theme of South American literature”.

The mystery of the writer’s death and the manuscript are effectively-handled plot devices that keep one reading, a wrapper for Manguel’s real intentions:  “From our tiny point in the world, how can we observe ourselves without false perceptions? How can we distinguish reality from desire?”  The journalist’s quest, then, to tell the one, coherent story of this multi-faceted character is doomed from the start. This is something that Manguel overstates, reminding us time and again of the protean nature of reality and its interpretation.  

Despite his attempts to make the novel both entertaining and haunting, it’s more of the former than the latter. Still, All Men Are Liars partakes of the spirit of the words of Borges himself: “We accept reality so readily - perhaps because we sense that nothing is real.”