Sunday, October 23, 2005

Anger in Tahmineh Milani's Two Women

Art, it is often said, serves as a mirror to society, a mirror that prompts reflection about what is good or bad about the way in which we live. Also, there are two kinds of injustice: the kind which we readily acknowledge and which is punished by the law, but also a subtler kind that is built into the very fabric of a society, so much so that everyone accepts it as the way of the world. Occasionally there appears in the cultural life of every society a mirror – an essay, a book, or a film – that, by adjusting the point of view from which society is accustomed to seeing itself and hearing its stories told, completely blows away the façade that it has built around its hidden and licensed injustices. I thought of all this while watching Two Women (1998), the Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani’s devastating broadside against the suffocating patriarchal values of Iran, a country where women are effectively second-class citizens.

Briefly, Two Women is about the lives of Roya (Marila Zare'i, above left) and Fereshteh (Niki Karimi, right), two friends in the same class at university in Tehran. Fereshteh, who hails from the small town of Isfahan, is the more talented and accomplished of the two; what she wants most from life is to complete her studies and get a good job. But her life is suddenly threatened by a stalker, Hassan, who pursues her obsessively on his motorbike. He wants to marry her, but plucky Fereshteh laughs in his face and tells him to be off. He trails her as far back as Isfahan, where his pursuit of her leads to an ugly accident that takes the life of a child and lands him a long jail sentence.

That should be the end of Fereshteh’s troubles, but in fact it is only the beginning. Firstly, her father attacks her for having disgraced the family name, leaving her puzzled and angry. Then, a family friend, Ahmad, offers to pay the compensation the court has ordered Fereshteh to provide, and later he proposes marriage. Fereshteh finds herself betrothed to a man who is nominally a good husband, and later father, but who absolutely cannot comprehend the fact that she has some needs and desires of her own. Instead, suspicious of her ‘liberated’ ways (he arrives at this conclusion after he finds out that Fereshteh used to speak to male students while at university), he confines her to the four walls of their house. Confined to the duties of a wife and a mother, Fereshteh gradually loses all sense of herself and becomes a cipher, though she never stops fighting against her predicament. As Jasmin Darznik remarks in this piece: "A point of great irony and poignancy in the film is that Fereshteh acts as an acute observer of her own mental deterioration. She does not only suffer; she recognizes and articulates her experience with uncommon acuity."

In an interview Milani has argued that Two Women is “about the negation of the identity of a human being”:
One of the most important problems that we are faced with in Iran's society is that we are unable to express our true personality. Meaning that the society does not allow us to manifest who you really are, and this is worse in regards to women. In my opinion, 90 percent of the women and even the men in our society related to the character Fereshteh. The fact that in our society or in their private lives, there is a constant effort to change or make them into what they want them to be.
The film’s last two scenes had every spectator in the theatre on the edge of their seats - here, Milani brings all the threads of the film together to achieve some kind of resolution, and the quality of her dialogue is exceptional.

First, fleeing from her home after yet another fight with her husband, Fereshteh runs into Hassan, now out of prison but even more embittered and vengeful than before. He chases her with a knife in hand, and corners her in an alley. Sure that she is going to die, she falls down on the ground and waits for him to knife her. The assailant and the victim whose paths first crossed thirteen years ago now encounter each other again. Both now look back at that time long past, and the refrain of the dialogue on both sides is ‘you didn’t let me’. “I would have done anything for you, but you didn’t let me!” charges Hassan. “I wanted to be everything for you, but you didn’t let me!” And Fereshteh, who has encountered far too much of men finding her culpable for their lives going off track, boils over in turn. Referring to how his pursuit of her changed her life forever, and threw her into a chain of events from which she could never extricate herself, she cries (I approximate from memory), “I wanted to study in peace, but you didn’t let me! I wanted to make something of my life, but you didn’t let me!” At this point Ahmad bursts in on the action, attacks Hassan, and is knifed by him while Fereshteh watches in horror.

And in the film’s last scene, we see Roya reunited with Fereshteh after many years, at a hospital in Tehran, where Ahmad lies critically ill. While Roya has retained her good looks, Fereshteh’s troubles have broken her spirit and given her a haggard, dejected appearance. The doctors tell Roya to prepare her friend for the worst. Roya takes Fereshteh home to meet her husband; there, they receive a phone call saying that Ahmad has died.
Fereshteh’s reaction recalls the famous soliloquies of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes: she wanders around the room voicing her thoughts to Roya and her husband, but in truth she is speaking to herself. “I loved him, as a prisoner loves his jailor,” she quavers. “I didn’t want him to die.” She struggles to grasp the implications of her new situation. “Roya!” “Yes, sweetheart?” responds Roya. “What shall I do now? How am I to take care of two children on my own?” says Fereshteh. And then something of the old, plucky, independent-minded Fereshteh returns. “I must learn a new skill to make ends meet – computers, perhaps. A lot of work lies ahead. I must start planning right away. There’s no time to be wasted.” As she goes on and on in this fashion it is clear – especially by the way she keeps saying “Roya!” - that she has to some extent lost her mental balance. Tears roll down Roya’s cheeks.

Milani says in her characteristically provocative manner:

The two female characters in my film are a single person with two personalities - the heroine's actual personality and her potential personality, what she is and what she wants to be but can't because of society and its mores.
Clearly, Milani could not have made such a film without facing her own troubles with censorship. Indeed, the script of Two Women was thought to be so controversial that it took seven years for it to be passed by Iran’s Ministry of Culture, which monitors all film production in the country. After it was made, the film won several awards at film festivals around the world, and sealed Milani’s reputation. But, having tested the waters with Two Women, Milani got into even deeper trouble with the authorities with her next film, The Hidden Half, and was briefly jailed by the government. Milani speaks about the making of Two Women here, and gives an account of her own life and work here.
The story of Two Women has many parallels with aspects of the lives of women in India; among the Indian films I can think of which successfully explore the way women are imprisoned within gender roles is Shyam Benegal's Bhumika.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The playground of war in Ziad Doueiri's West Beyrouth

Ziad Doueiri’s West Beyrouth, the high point of the first day of the Asian Film Festival, is set in the civil war-torn Lebanon of 1975. With the war the city of Beirut has broken up into two: West Beirut, controlled by Muslims, and East Beirut, controlled by Christians. But the teenager Tareq and his friend Omar are not entirely displeased by these developments. The violence spiralling all over the city means, after all, the shutting down of school, and a chance to listen to music and talk about women in each other’s homes, hang out on the streets, and shoot all kinds of sequences on Omar’s prized Super-8 film camera, from close-ups of Omar’s gorgeous aunt from a chink in the door to footage of a rally that the two friends join without knowing what it’s for.

War, and all its predations upon settled existence, is of course a deadly serious business, as we know when we see Tareq’s parents deeply disturbed by the conflict, and left without an immediate prospect of an income. Tareq’s mother wants to leave the city; his father insists they will stay and see the crisis through, and tempers fray easily and arguments break out. Indeed - as we are shown in a scene in which the crowing of one family’s rooster at the crack of dawn drives a neighbour wild and culminates in the entire neighbourhood participating in a slanging match - everybody in the large apartment block in which Tareq’s family stays in West Beirut is on edge. But for Tareq and Omar life has grown more pleasurable, not less, and this, the happy and blinkered self-absorption of adolescence, is the subject of Doueiri’s marvellous paean to youthful friendship and coming of age.

Doueiri was an assistant cameraman to Quentin Tarantino on the filming on Reservoir Dogs, and in an interview he speaks of how he learnt one or two things about dealing with actors from Tarantino – about putting them at ease on the sets, and talking to them rather than instructing them. That skill with handling actors shows on West Beyrouth, in which the two lead actors (Rami Doueiri, the director’s younger brother - below left - and Mohammad Chamas, some of whose feistiness must be genuine, for Doueiri picked him up from an orphanage) are unbelievably good – in one scene, we see the two smoking cigarettes and jiving to “Rock You Baby”; in another, Omar narrates to Tareq how his family has suddenly gone all religious and are insisting that film, theatre and music are all agents of deadly corruption, prompting from Tareq the puzzled question: “Is Paul Anka the work of Satan?”

Late in the film, the two friends lose track of each other when soldiers fire at the rally they have joined. Tareq dives into a car for refuge, while Omar runs around looking for his friend, and we fear is there is tragedy lying around the corner, and that Omar will lose his life. But nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the owner of the car drives off, and Tareq finds himself being driven into enemy territory, East Beirut. Gingerly making his way out after the car has been parked, he accidentally enters a brothel run by one of the most legendary figures in Beirut, a massively obese and gravel-voiced woman called Oum Walid. “We thought you were a myth,” confesses the awestruck Tareq to Oum Walid, “but it turns out you’re for real.” For Oum Walid there is no East Beirut and West Beirut, only Beirut. “Since when did a bed have religion?” she hollers. Oum Walid thinks Tareq too young to keep such company, and throws him out, but not before he has enjoyed a cup of coffee prepared by a gorgeous siren. Reaching home late that night, Tareq tells the relieved Omar all about his day and describes how marvellous the cup of coffee was. “Nescafe!” Omar spits out in disgust. “I almost get shot, while you hang out at the whorehouse!”

In the film’s most beautifully realised scene, Tareq and Omar go out bicycling with a beautiful Christian girl, May, whom Tareq has befriended, much to Omar’s disgust. After a scrape with some militia, in which the cross on May’s neck almost lands them in trouble, the three teenagers fight, Tareq stomps off and Omar chases him down, and they lose track of May. They run back down the streets they had taken, searching for her. Finally they find May sitting, absolutely serene, at her piano lessons. She smiles at them without interrupting her playing, and they look on in silent admiration. The notes become louder and wash over the scene, at which point we suddenly cut to scene of bombings and carnage, of a cripple scrounging in a garbage heap for food, while the same beautiful and soothing notes continue in the background. The juxtaposition is not a facile one pointing to all the horrors that are taking place while three teenagers listen to music – rather it suggests that, for May, music provides a place of refuge that keeps out the trauma of the present, banishes it for a while. (West Beyrouth’s music, incidentally, has been scored by Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of The Police.) And we know that the reality of West Beirut does finally invade Tareq's consciousness - the film's last shots, which present some black and white Super-8 footage of him with his mother on the beach, suggests that his mother lost her life in the war.

Doueiri is a startlingly blunt talker, with a great line in black humour. This interview with Anthony Kaufman is full of highly quotable material, and ends with this droll rendition of how, since West Beyrouth, despite all the acclaim it received, didn’t make him too much money, he had to go back to working in commercials and doing other kinds of donkey work:

But there is no shame in working, so I don't feel guilty. But it's like this commercial I was doing, the entire crew came from London. And we were laying out the shot and the camera. And the director says, "Guys, by the way, I saw this great movie called 'West Beirut'" And the D.P. turns to him, pointing to me and says, "That's the director." And he says, "Oh right." And the D.P. said, "I swear, that's the director." And then the director, he comes to me, and his whole demeanor is changed throughout the commercial. I swear to you, he says, "Do you think we could put the camera here?" And I'm like, "Yeah, we can put the camera there."

Tomorrow, a post about either Tahmineh Milani's Two Women, or Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Middle Stage goes to the movies

Starting tomorrow, the Middle Stage is going to put away all the books on its desk, and instead it's going to pack into a bag a sandwich, a bottle of water, a notebook, and a pen, and go off to the movies instead - for a week anyway. The Third Eye Asian Film Festival is beginning in Mumbai tomorrow, and everybody knows there's nothing as much fun as a film festival. So I'll be off tomorrow morning to the cinema, and watch three films a day - it's been many years since I had this luxury - and write short posts about the best films I see, and perhaps a longer piece for a newspaper.

Among the films I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing are Tapan Sinha's Kabuliwala and Atithi, the Iraqi director Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly, and, best of all, two films by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon.

Come along if you can.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Harold Pinter story

The closest I ever came to Harold Pinter - the plays, that is, not the man - was during my days as a college student in Delhi some years ago, a marvellously happy and carefree time of life. I was a minor member of the college dramatics society, carrying out various kinds of backstage work while my actor friends performed, and ferrying bread pakoras from the college canteen to them while they rehearsed.

This almost daily contact with the world of theatre - watching play texts being performed dozens of times in rehearsal, observing the way actors gave life to their lines and used their bodies, spending a great deal of time in darkness stageside scrabbling around with light controls - made me more interested in drama than in any other form, except perhaps poetry. In addition to all the playwrights on my English degree syllabus - Sophocles, Shakespeare, Congreve, Bernard Shaw, Beckett - I fished around in bookshops and libraries (and there were two excellent ones, the British Council library and the Max Mueller Centre library, just down the road from our flat in Connaught Place, a great privilege) looking for other plays to read. I remember reading and enjoying Marivaux and Moliere, Badal Sarkar's Evam Indrajit, Georg Buchner's hugely powerful Woyzeck, and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

I even wanted to write plays. It seemed the most prestigious work in the whole world. Imagine writing something and then not just having someone read it, but having a whole band of people, from director to actors to backstage hands, totally give over their lives to it for a month or more, commit to memory its every line and its every pause - there could no honour as grand, as terrific, as this! Inspired by Buchner, I began writing a mightily tragic play called Ilyas, and wrote a grand total of two immensely vivid, powerful scenes - or so they seemed to me then as I paced up and down my room - before, for some unaccountable reason, I gave it up. In a curiously appropriate way that play remained, just like Buchner's, an unfinished fragment.

On one weekend visit to the British Council library, having always heard Pinter spoken of as a giant of British theatre, and finding on the shelf in front of me a long row of small blue volumes of his plays, I borrowed one of these volumes and took it home. I regret to say that I cannot even remember what its name was - it may have been The Birthday Party. The reason I cannot remember its name is that, that night, I began to read the play and found it very different, far more minimal and pared down, and with a less clearly delineated narrative structure, than any play I'd read before. The characters didn't seem to be saying anything very profound, and they seemed to palaver on and on about one inconsequential thing after another. The famous Pinterian pauses seemed to me like just so much emptiness; I wanted words. Feeling faintly bored, I closed the book and fell asleep, and when I picked it up again it was only to return it to the library the next weekend.

And that was as close as I have ever come to the plays of Harold Pinter. On leaving college, I slowly began to also leave behind the world of theatre, which at one point had consumed my days. I began to read more novels than plays, and, just as significantly, I became enraptured by film, which began to seem to me a more powerful medium than theatre, able to capture every grain of reality rather than merely gesture at it as the stage did. I gradually stopped going to see plays. Although I now know a good deal more about Pinter than I did then, and might like him better, I now prefer novels, stories, films, poetry, all of these to drama, not to mention cricket (of which Pinter is also a great fan). I must accept I may never read Pinter again.

And there you are - it's amazing how it's possible to write three or four perfectly good paragraphs about a writer even if one hasn't read any of his work. And now it's time, as always, to call up other voices who have actually read and seen Pinter, and who'll offer you something on all those aspects of Pinter's work that I might have inadvertently missed.

When Pinter's work first appeared on the British stage in the fifties it initially received the same reaction of incomprehension and bewilderment, as Robert McCrum writes in this essay, as it did from me coming to his work for the first time in 1999. Among the insights into the logic of Pinter's drama found in McCrum's piece is this illuminating quote by Pinter himself: "One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." Ben Brantley offers another assessment of Pinter in the New York Times here (registration required). In this piece from 2001 Michael Billington, Pinter's biographer, speaks to him about political theatre. But the most interesting of all the essays on Pinter I've come across, one that is intelligently critical of him, is this one by Theodore Dalrymple, himself one of the finest essayists of his generation. It is called "Reticence or Insincerity, Rattigan or Pinter", and attempts to read changes in British society over the last half-century through a comparison of the work of Pinter and the stalwart of British theatre before him, Terence Rattigan.

Pinter wrote plays, works meant to be performed, so it will not do for us to ignore accounts of how his work comes across in performance. In this piece, the theatre critic Margaret Croydon reports on the experience of watching three Pinter plays at the 2001 Lincoln Festival, one of them starring Pinter himself in the lead role. Like Dalrymple, Croydon is moved by some of Pinter's work but feels less warmly towards other parts of his oeuvre. In this piece from 1993 (registration required) Janet Maslin writes about Pinter's stage adaptation of Kafka's novel The Trial. The director Karel Reisz talks about the experience of working on one of Pinter's plays here, and in this piece several leading lights of the British stage talk about the experience of working with Pinter in different capacities. Pinter's has also done a great deal of work for the cinema, including two dozen screenplays, and in this piece Billington argues that the screenplays constitute "a significant second canon to the plays".

And finally, for a little light entertainment after all that serious reading, let's now turn to this exchange between Pinter and a freelance journalist after Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize. The transcript of the conversation appears here on the Nobel Prize website, and this is how it goes in its entirety. There is something comical about it from the very beginning: one imagines this is how a character in the Pinterian universe might react if he found out he'd won the Nobel Prize:

Harold Pinter – Interview
Telephone interview with Harold Pinter after the announcement of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, October 13, 2005. Interviewer is Marika Griehsel, freelance journalist.
– Hello. Good morning.
– Good morning, good morning, Mr Pinter. Congratulations. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation.
– Yes. Well, thank you very much.
– It’s fantastic news for us here; and I would like to hear what your thoughts were when you received the news.
– Well, I’ve ... I’ve been absolutely speechless. I am ... I’m overwhelmed by the news, very deeply moved by the news. But I can’t really articulate what I feel.
– You didn’t have any idea it could come your way, did you?
– No idea whatsoever! No. So I’m just bowled over.
– There’s so much to talk about. But I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most ...
– I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions.
– No, I understand.
– There’s nothing more I can say, except that I am deeply moved; and, as I say, I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm.
– You will be coming to Stockholm?
– Oh, yes.
– Okay. Thank you, Sir.
– Okay?
– Thank you.
– Thank you very much.
– Thank you.
"I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions" - what a fine example that is of the Pinterian pause, communicating the tumult of strong feelings just as much as the words either side of it.
And that's enough for today; thank you very much...and I'm off now. Thank you.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Seventh-century Indian life in Dandin's Dasakumaracharita

One of the most acclaimed works of classical Sanskrit literature is the Dasakumaracharita (What Ten Young Men Did), written by Dandin in the seventh century CE. Reading it in a new translation, in a beautiful green hardback volume published by the Clay Sanskrit Library, I feel wholly persuaded of its merits.

In the book, ten youths, led by the son of an exiled king, set out on an expedition, but are dispersed by circumstances. Wandering off in different directions - the story is spread out over a vast geographical canvas, from Kashi and Mithila in north India to Kanchi in the south - they go through numerous hardships and tests of their strength, intelligence, and presence of mind. Later, when they are reunited, they recount their stories to each other.

The Dasakumaracharita is thus a kind of seventh-century adventure story; one conjectures that its spirit, if not its exact details, probably derives from the life experiences of Dandin, who as a youth wandered from kingdom to kingdom for twelve years after being driven into exile from his native Kanchi. What is notable is that not only do Rajavahana, the leader of the young men, and his friends get into scrapes that lead them to scheming and trickery, the impersonation of people, the assassination of enemies, and seductions and love affairs, but that all this happens without any kind of authorial censure. The Dasakumaracharita is thus considerably liberal in its approach to human conduct.

This stress on how people are, rather than how they should be, makes the Dasakumaracharita an intensely worldly book; there is nothing to which it shuts its doors. Kings, men of noble birth, sages and wise men have their say in the book, but women feature almost as prominently, and there are extended speeches by prostitutes and tricksters. Dandin's worldliness is reinforced by his attention to detail, to the shapes, colours and textures of the physical world. At one point there is a two-page, point by point description of how a woman cooks rice; at another there are details of the materials that go into a sacrificial fire: "milk, ghee, curds, sesame and white mustard seeds, animal fat, meat and blood." Such details, I imagine, are not just of literary but also of historical interest, such as the references to Chinese silk in the Mahabharata or Kalidasa's Shakuntala that tell us of the trade links between ancient India and China. (I cite these references from Amartya Sen's essay "China and India" in his book The Argumentative Indian.)

At one point in the Dasakumaracharita there is a description of two lovers who, meeting one evening in the company of friends, sit down "touching shoulder to shoulder in love's sweet way." A feature of Dandin's work is the attention he gives to the working among human beings of 'love's sweet way', which he understands as physical desire as much as tender and soulful feelings. Dandin's narration is full of rapturous descriptions of the experience of falling in love and the consummation of love, of the beauty of the human form (especially the female form; we are, after all, looking at the work of a male writer) and of the yearnings and torments of separated lovers. Even as he indulges his characters' desires, Dandin tinkers and experiments with traditional literary tropes and allusions. For instance, in one description he cleverly inverts the conventional practice of likening some aspect of a woman to something beautiful in nature: "Her lips were not the subject of pale reflected comparison: they could not be likened to the red bimba fruit, but were that to which it is compared, the redder of the two…"

One very good reason for reading works from another time and another world is that they often hold very different notions of the place of man in the universe, of human agency, of the workings of fate and chance, then modern literature does, and it is worth thinking about these ideas in relation to one's own. A long essay could be written on the Dasakumaracharita's worldview, which is broadly that man may do what he likes but he is finally controlled by his destiny, and that the wise learn to accept this and learn to cultivate a kind of detachment. Early in the book, Rajavahana's father Rajahamsa, the kind of Magadha, is defeated in battle by a rival king and loses all his wealth, power and prestige, which had seemed to him so secure, and has to take refuge in the forest. His wife counsels him:
"My Lord, you were the most charismatic and most important of the entire class of kings, protectors of the earth, yet today you live in the middle of the Vindhyan forest. Thus it is that success glitters like a bubble of water; like a flash of lightning it is born and then destroyed all in an instant. Therefore, we must accept that every venture is entirely in the conrol of destiny….
Reconcile yourself to your destiny. Do not worry, but simply bide your time a while."
And on another occasion the youth Apahara-varman asserts that "there is no man so fantastically cunning that he can step outside the lines drawn up by inevitable destiny". This fatalism is often thought to be a quintessential feature of the Indian, and especially the Hindu, temperament (as Parth Shah remarks in this essay), but such a view of life is found in the thought of a great many ancient civilisations - for example, in Greek tragedy. And indeed this question of how much of our lives in controlled by our wills, by the play of visible causes and effects, and how much by chance or what sometimes seems like fate is something that every human being mulls over, especially at points of stress or crisis.

The new translation of the Dasakumaracharita is by Isabelle Onians, and of the hallmarks of the book is the outstanding set of interpretive notes that Onians provides. For instance, it is now known that Sanskrit and many classical European languages have common roots (both originating, as I understand it, from the Aryans; this observation, first given a coherent formulation by the scholar William Jones in 1786, forms the starting-point of modern comparative philology). Onians at several points provides fascinating illustrations of this by noting how this or that Sanskrit word is remarkably similar phonetically to, and appears to share a common etymology with, its English equivalent: the Sanskrit amruta and English ambrosia; krura and cruel; vijaya and victory. There are dozens of other stimulating observations in her notes. At one stage a character is described (translating faithfully from the original Sanskrit) as being thirsty for battle, when the usual way of expressing this in English would be to say that he was hungry for battle. Onians remarks that perhaps this difference in the phrasing of the metaphor reflects "the desires of a hot and dry climate versus a cold and damp one".

One final thought: the Dasakumaracharita is a work of extended prose fiction, so should it be called a novel? In my view, no, because the features of the novel form as we understand it today include not just the realism, the attention to the details of quotidian life, that we no doubt find in the Dasakumaracharita, but also a willingness to explore the idea of character and individual personality, the subtleties of human behaviour and motivation. This is absent in the Dasakumaracharita, which does not lay a great deal of stress on character development, or even on character differentiation. Although the Dasakumaracharita has ten heroes, we do not like or dislike any one of them more than the others. They exist as separate entities in our minds not because of who they are, but because of what happens to them.

Monday, October 03, 2005

We Need to Talk about Kevin

(Thought it might be a good idea to post this on The Middle Stage given the Theodore Dreiser quote from which this site gets its name – since the book I’m discussing here raises questions about our civilised veneers and the savage, atavistic impulses that lie beneath: be it in the context of a 16-year-old who clinically plans and perpetrates a school massacre or a woman who just can’t find it within herself to love her firstborn child.)

Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the most provocative books I’ve read in a long, long time (and when you’re reading books and writing about them for a living, you learn to be chary about sweeping statements like that one; the reviewer’s jargon is already full of stock phrases. But then cliché is sometimes the only recourse). This is a story told in the form of long confessional letters written by a woman, Eva Khatchadourian, to her (presumably estranged) husband Franklin, about their son Kevin who murdered nine people in his school gym a few days before his 16th birthday. Over the course of her letters Eva looks back at her peculiar, strained relationship with her son; but she begins her story with the time when she and Franklin, both in their late 30s, decided to have a child.

In a perfect world, the most important reason – perhaps the only reason - for a couple deciding to have children would be: both of them badly want to, and feel they are ready for it. In the real world, far too often too many other factors play the decisive role. This is especially true in more conservative societies where pressure from family elders is a continuous, intrusive presence – but it holds good everywhere. The reasons can be many. Perpetuating the species – or, less nobly, having children as a means of ensuring immortality for oneself. The knowledge that they’ll talk about us when we’ve passed on (whether they say good or bad things is another matter), the same way we talk about our parents. Simple curiosity about what it might be like to hear someone calling “Momm-MEEE?” from around the corner. The dark thought that if something were to happen to your partner, you’d at least have a tangible memento. Eva’s decision ultimately rests on a combination of these.

The first 60-70 pages give us some of the starkest, most daring writing on the nature of our closest relationships, the ones we take for granted. In her letters, Eva painstakingly dissects her feelings about parenthood. She wasn’t ready, she repeatedly claims:

“At last I should come clean. It is not true that I was ‘ambivalent’ about motherhood. You wanted to have a child. On balance, I did not. Added together, that seemed like ambivalence, but though we were a superlative couple we were not the same person. I never did get you to like eggplant.”
Her descriptions of pregnancy, of the child-bearing and delivering processes, are shockingly subversive, and shockingly honest.

“Crossing the threshold of motherhood, suddenly you become social property, the animate equivalent of a public park. That coy expression ‘you’re eating for two now, dear’ is all by way of goading that your very dinner is no longer a private affair…”
And later, comparing pregnancy to infestation, to “colonisation by stealth”, as depicted in horror films like Alien and Rosemary’s Baby:

“…the host is consumed or rent, reduced to husk or residue so that some nightmare creature may survive its shell…any woman whose teeth have rotted, whose bones have thinned, whose skin has stretched, knows the humbling price of a nine-month freeloader.”
If the gestation period was a nightmare, the actual labour is worse. Finally, however, Kevin deigns to come into the world, and Eva, having heard gush-stories from friends about how parents fall instantly, irrevocably, in love with their newborns, discovers that she feels nothing for him.

“I felt…absent. I kept scrabbling around in myself for this new indescribable emotion…but no matter how I rattled around, no matter what I moved out of the way, it wasn’t there. ‘He’s beautiful,’ I mumbled; I had reached for a line from TV.”
Here, Shriver’s book takes an interesting right turn. Kevin (at least in the account of him presented us by Eva) turns out to be the kind of child who would have both Damian (the kid in The Omen) and baby Hannibal Lecter bawling for their security blankets. Importantly, this is how he is right from the outset (which means it isn’t the result of his mother’s attitude towards him). He’s positively demoniac – frighteningly precocious and aware, yet uninterested in everything; completely bereft of attachments, yet with a fearsome propensity for malice. No babysitter can handle him for any length of time. Classmates and even teachers are frightened of him for reasons that can never be properly explained. He has the power of influencing people to do things that are bad for them. Eva can see this side of him; Franklin, who truly IS in love with his child, can not.

As the years pass, Eva repeatedly questions whether she’s been a good mother but wonders if she even had an option, given her son’s nature: “After having not a child but this particular one, I couldn’t see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic any more that anyone could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles and an upstairs neighbour who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning.”

In a desperate attempt to “understand something about my soul”, Eva has another child, against Franklin’s wishes, and this one turns out to be an angelic girl who does indeed stir the mother inside her. Her soul is safe for the time being. But now Kevin has a potential victim right under his nose.

Here, portions of the book start to read like the scripts of those horror movies about malevolent children (albeit much better written). And yet, throughout the reading process, we must be aware that we can’t blindly trust Eva’s narrative. Though there’s nothing equivocal about Kevin’s final act of destruction, there is room for ambiguities in the details that accumulate over the years. Another option presents itself: could it be that Kevin, though undoubtedly a strange, emotionless child, was never as malicious in the early stages as his mother makes him out to be? Could the real evil have resulted from his upbringing, and is this what Eva is trying to conceal (even as she repeatedly apologises for the things she does feel responsible for)?

And by the time we reach the book’s end, there’s yet another option: could Kevin have become what he is because he carries his mother’s genes? Throughout the story we’ve been presented the picture of Kevin as his father’s son, while Eva clings to her darling daughter (when Franklin and Eva decide to separate, they joke darkly about there at least being no argument over custody). But is there a bond between Eva and her son that transcends these surface appearances? The final, chilling paragraphs certainly seem to suggest so.

We Need to Talk about Kevin raises so many issues – about the nature-nurture debate, about family units made up of very different individuals who have to find a way to coexist, about upper-class hypocrisies - that it’s impossible to mention all of them here. Ultimately I have to turn to another cliché, this time from the blurb-writer’s pantheon: consider yourselves grabbed by the shoulders and told “Read this!”

(Also see Nilanjana S Roy’s review, here.)