Friday, December 19, 2014

Speak, Memory

This review of Janice Pariat's Seahorse appeared in the current issue of India Today.

Written in a folkloric style best described by the epigraph that referenced Alejo Carpentier’s "marvellous real", Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories, Boats on Land, was notable for its evocation of lives past and present in Shillong and its environs. With Seahorse, her debut novel, Pariat extends her range to come up with a filigreed tale of disquiet and discontent, of longing and loss, based on the Greek myth of sea-god Poseidon and his young acolyte and lover, Pelops.

This is the story of Nem, and of the ways he deals with the end of his affair with Nicholas, a charismatic and enigmatic art historian whom he meets when studying literature in Delhi. Arriving in the city from a town in the north-east, Nem finds himself somewhat of an outsider at first; it is Nicholas who opens up for him worlds of art and music he is enthralled by. The role of Ananda to Nicholas’s Buddha ends with the latter’s sudden disappearance. Nicholas had once remarked to Nem that he was struck by the manner in which works of art change in meaning and significance according to shifts in the world outside; similarly, Nem – a blank slate, who empathises with Svevo’s men without qualities -- has to now remake and be re-made.Years later, while on a literary fellowship in London, he is finally offered the chance to piece together and decipher incidents from the past.

Much of Seahorse, then, is about the inscription of desire on the slate of memory. “We are shaped by absence,” thinks Nem. “The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost.” (A sentence that brings to mind the words of the recently-deceased Mark Strand: “In a field/I am the absence/of field. /This is/always the case. /Wherever I am/I am what is missing”.) This sentiment is matched by a mode of narration that, for the most part, shows incidents broken up into separate sequences of action and aftermath; a wholeness comprised of fragments, a mosaic of remembrance and yearning.

It is also the case, however, that the novel sags slightly in the middle, during the long episodes of Nem’s life in London — despite the attempt to provide a harmonic resonance via the loops of longing and variations of sexual attraction that Nem’s friends experience. Then, there are occasions when the poetic threatens to tip over to the portentous (“Prophecies are the most scientific of supernatural phenomena, for they, like science, invest in a single outcome. The one truth.”) In addition, the accident in the English countryside at the end, though it continues the mythic parallelism, does come across as a trifle staged and out of place with Seahorse’s otherwise wistful, gentle tone.

Leaving all of that aside, Pariat’s prose is beguiling: take, for instance, her pithy descriptions of interiors and exteriors. It’s a pleasure of read of the “pale fury” of the Red Fort; of rooms “as desolate as churches”; of the wings of a building “spread long and low, like a bird in flight”; of London being “filled with old light”; and of a “big-bellied sky” pressing against the tops of buildings. Appropriately enough, Seahorse is also shot through by images of water, be they in aquariums, swimming pools or the seaside.

The paradox of memory, writes Pariat, “is that it gives you back what you had on condition that you know it has been lost”. To regain it, she continues, “you must remember it has gone; to remake the world, you need to first understand that it has ended”. Seahorse, then, is a fine and estimable account of the refashioning of an interior world suffused by a pining for what has been lost.