Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Pleasures Of Being A Pedestrian

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

To take a walk in an average Indian city is to embark upon a dispiriting exercise. Broken footpaths, enthusiastic hawkers and illegal encroachments accost one at every step. Much is spent on creating new roads and flyovers to benefit those who drive, but the simple needs of those who walk, by choice or necessity, go unmet. What we lose in the process is once again brought out by Frederic Gros’s new book, A Philosophy of Walking, translated from the French by John Howe. Gros, a professor in Paris, walks in the footsteps of others who have written about pedestrianism over the years, and brings to the subject a metaphysical tone. His book deals with aspects of walking such as freedom, slowness, renewal and solitude, and touches upon its effects on noted practitioners, from Wordsworth to Thoreau, from Rousseau to Nietzsche, from Dickens to Rimbaud.

Walking is one of those capacious subjects that has always attracted writers, and has often been compared to the act of writing itself. As Robert MacFarlane has put it, “The paths are sentences, the shod feet of the travellers the scratch of the pen-nib or the press of the type." Though many books on ambulation have a common core, they go on fascinating rambles, depending on the inclinations of the writer. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, for example, an individual and sometimes dizzyingly dense look at the topic, informs us of the layout of gardens, the nature of literary criticism, the pursuit of mountaineering, the development of American suburbs, the origins of streetwalking, and the perceptions of women in public spaces. Others pursue different paths:  in Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, there’s an entire chapter on walking in music and movies, referencing an episode of Bob Dylan’s radio show, medieval troubadours’ chansons d’aventure, Robert Johnson’s ‘Walkin’ Blues’, Charlie Chaplin’s signature shuffle and John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever strut.

Gros, however, keeps to the straight and narrow for the most part. Walking is not a sport, he asserts, not subject to the competitive fervor that pervades so much of how we spend our time today. “It’s a process of self-liberation,” he writes; while ambling, “you feel free, because whenever you remember the former signs of your commitments in hell – name, age, profession, CV – it all seems absolutely derisory, minuscule, insubstantial”.

Much of A Philosophy of Walking deals with walking in the countryside, although the particular charms of walking in the city are also considered. It’s here, of course, that one comes across the figure of the flâneur, the solitary urban walker and lounger, much analysed, written about and used as a subject for fiction, from Charles Baudelaire to Walker Benjamin, from W.G. Sebald to Teju Cole. “City, crowd, and capitalism” are the conditions that give rise to such a person, writes Gros. The flâneur’s solitude, anonymity and slowness, the fact that he’s not caught in a “web of exchanges”, contrasts with the city’s capitalistic hustle and bustle; thus, “he subverts the crowd, the merchandise and the town, along with their values”. (No wonder it’s difficult to take a walk here.)

Gandhi is another famous walker whom Gros devotes time to, in particular the former’s Dandi March as well as his trips on foot to riot-ravaged areas before Partition. “Walking with Gandhi,” he writes, “nurtured the slow energies of endurance”, something else that we don’t seem to have time for nowadays. Elsewhere, Gros comments on supplicants on their way to Pandharpur chanting Sant Tukaram’s songs, underlining yet another role of walking, that of being an essential activity on pilgrimages.

Gros can sometimes be a bit precious in his pronouncements, such as when he says: “even when I am alone, there is always this dialogue between the body and the soul”. Overall, though, A Philosophy of Walking is knowledgeable and bracing. One feels like thrusting a copy upon our urban planners to make them realise that the activity is more than pedestrian.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dictators And Memories

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Dictators hate memories.  History can be rewritten, dissent can be suppressed, but remembrance cannot be so easily eliminated. Many such memories, collective and individual, have provided fodder for novelists. In Latin America, there’s a long tradition of what’s called “the dictator novel”, in which real and fictional leaders are scrutinised, criticised or lampooned – notable among them Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme, Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State, not to mention work by those such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

This tradition of looking back at a troubled past lives on, with contemporary novelists trying to understand the role of their countries’ previous generation. Last year alone, there was Juan Carlos Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, examining the recent drug-addled history of Colombia. There was Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home, looking back at Pinochet’s Chile. And there was Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, which explores the lasting effects of Argentina’s last military dictatorship.

Pron’s novel is unconventional and memorable because of its style and structure. “Children are detectives of their parents, who cast them out into the world so that one day the children will return and tell them their story so that they themselves can understand it,” he writes, summing up this tale of a young Argentinian writer returning home.

The narrator, in Germany when the novel starts, travels back to Argentina upon hearing of his father’s sudden illness. He is a blocked and depressed writer, irresponsible, addicted to pills, besieged by dreams and distractions. Thus, the novel proceeds in very short chapters, with -- in the translation by Mara Faye Lethem -- long, looping sentences that carry the weight of thoughts as they take shape.

Once home, the writer spends much of his time visiting the hospital, watching movies on TV with his siblings, making lists of his parents’ books and, of course, taking his pills. His journey from numbness to awareness begins when he comes across a folder on his father’s desk containing several newspaper clippings as well as other details related to the recent murder of one Alberto Burdisso, “a Faulknerian simpleton” employed by a local club.

A section is now almost entirely given over to the reports in the folder, with people, places and proceedings laid out in meticulous detail, after which the narrator pieces together the reasons for his father’s interest in the case, as well as its connection with an earlier murder in his country’s history: “Nobody had fought, we had all lost and barely anyone had stayed true to what they believed, whatever that was, I thought; my father’s generation had been different, but, once again, there was something in that difference that was also as meeting point, a thread that went through the years and brought us together in spite of everything and was horrifically Argentine: the feeling of parents and children being united in defeat.”

It is towards the end that Pron reveals the reason for the novel’s mode of enquiry: the events of the book, he writes, are “mostly true”, although “some are the result of the demands of fiction, whose rules are different from the rules of such genres as testimony or autobiography”. Which of course leads one to ask, why not write it as testimony or autobiography instead? The answer is that by writing it as a novel, Pron can combine an individual sensibility, an interior life, with a larger historical context, and give the whole a shape that has a greater heft.  The result is a narrative in which “I would have to be both author and reader, discovering as I narrated”.

One of the writer’s tasks is to bear witness – to his or her own stories, to the stories of those close to them – and to record testimonies in the best way possible. In My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, that is what Patricio Pron has admirably done.