It is not unusual or surprising that Kiran Nagarkar has chosen in Zia Khan, the protagonist of his new novel God's Little Soldier, a man who is self-involved, confused, violent, spiteful, and deluded. Excellent novels have been written about such characters. Indeed, what could be more fascinating than the story of a man who has to deal with the world but cannot see clearly and is shackled by his own failings?
What is unusual, however, is the extent to which the narratorial perspective of God's Little Soldier exists in faithful servitude to the worldview of its central character. Instead of summoning sober intelligence to balance out Zia's vast madness, Nagarkar's narration aggrandises him even further, echoing Zia's slapdash thinking and love of anarchy with a linguistic sloppiness and a bogus grandiosity of its own. Zia is a terrorist, and God's Little Soldier itself enacts a kind of literary terrorism, gleefully blowing up every literary convention and nicety over more than five hundred pages at once tedious and alarming.
Zia's story is credible for only a fraction of this book. This is the early section where Nagarkar takes us through his childhood, his immersion in Islamic doctrine at the urging of his devout aunt Zubeida, and his conviction as he grows up that he is destined to be "God's little soldier", a defender of Islamic values in a degenerate and immoral world. Here one can take genuine pleasure in Nagarkar's tracking of his protagonist. "The power of mass prayer was a revelation to Zia," he writes of Zia's first visit to the mosque by himself. "He discovered that his prayers had more body and weight and rapture when he was among the believers in the mosque." One understands why Zia might want to do something to shake up the world.
But how he shakes it up. Nagarkar's Zia is a Superman. He is a mathematical genius who nevertheless has no great love for mathematics; he has three girlfriends at his posh school but is indifferent towards all of them; he is petty in his dealings with family members yet they all, like Nagarkar, love him to bits. As a student in Cambridge, he decides to assassinate Salman Rushdie, the "obstreperous Midnight's Child" and the scourge of Islam, and hunts him down, only to be stymied at the last moment; this makes him flee the country. Later he becomes a guerilla in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
In the second part of the novel, we find that Zia has renounced his precious Islamic faith to become the zealous Brother Lucens, a monk at an abbey. Here his activities include making massive profits on the stock market, running a campaign against abortion, and setting up an organisation called The Guardian Angels dedicated to nothing less than the moral rejuvenation of godless, sinful America. (It is worth noting that while Nagarkar mocks capitalism, his narrative is steeped with gratuitous references to foreign brand names, as if to establish that he really knows his US and his UK.)
And in the third part of the novel we find that Lucens has taken up with a Hindu godman, Shakta Muni, and has taken on a new name, Tejas Nirantar. Zia is infinitely elastic; at one point Nagarkar even calls him - whether in seriousness or in jest it is hard to say, as Nagarkar seems to believe all seriousness must also be jest - Zia-Lucens-Nirantar, as if to suggest there is nothing like a stable Zia but only a succession of Zia avatars. Zia has only the appearance of independence; in reality he is a hostage - God's little soldier - to his whimsical creator, who makes him whatever he wants him to be.
Worst of all is that this tall tale is narrated in Nagarkar's new wild-eyed vagabond prose, so different from that of Cuckold. His protagonist wants to assassinate Rushdie, and Nagarkar himself sounds mostly like he has the one-point aim of parodying the work of "Midnight's Child". One of the reasons that God's Little Soldier is so long is that a great deal of the time the narrator appears to be working only for the pleasure of the sound of his own voice. Nagarkar needs not the slightest excuse to lurch into verbal excess.
Here is how a cold wind blows around Zia: "It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs." This establishes only that the writer knows many verbs and body parts; as a sentence in a novel it is risible. There is nothing very significant about the wind groping at Zia's crotch; one loses faith in a writer if his powers of discrimination are so poor and his emphases so illogical. Here is the best analogy Nagarkar can find to dramatise a particular mental state of his protagonist: "Zia became a rod of uranium-238, inflammable with self-loathing and spite." Elsewhere Nagarkar provides, "There was a manhole in his soul, and he had fallen into it." Who can countenance work like this?
Nagarkar's shopworn and tacky language is paralleled by a moral flabbiness - in fact he seems determinedly obtuse, as if to affect a kind of unorthodox bravura. Zia is a monster, but the only person with the courage to criticise him is his brother Amanat (whose writing, as quoted by Nagarkar, accounts for most of the book's sane moments). Nagarkar's narration itself records Zia's thoughts and activities without the least trace of irony. At several points he seems desperate to bat for his protagonist, to explain away his improbable deeds.
At one point Zia comes up with a business plan to brings funds into Concord-Ashton, the base of The Guardian Angels ("Tempt them with tax holidays and benefits, incentives, competitive insurance packages….Yes, like the Mafia dons, let's make them an offer they can't refuse."). This is only one of many instances when Nagarkar sounds like nothing so much as a hack brochure writer. And Nagarkar carries on the narration after Zia's speech: "You may call it a juvenile stunt, but it worked. Word about the tax holiday and other benefits got around…" "You may call it a juvenile stunt"? Why is Nagarkar so worried here about what the reader is thinking?
Late in the novel, when Zia embarks upon his grand venture to reform the United States, Nagarkar explains: "What was needed was to turn the world upside down. The very nature of the value system in the country had to be changed.The US had to be taken back, by force if necessary, to a state of innocence and grace." The "value system" indeed! "By force if necessary"! At such points we find it is not the novelist who reveals something about the character but the character who reveals something about the novelist.
Although God's Little Soldier purports to deal with questions of faith, and hollers out the names of Allah and Jesus at every opportunity, what it offers through the study of its cartoonish protagonist is really a parody of the life of faith, even militant faith. Its main quality is that it is a book greatly in love with the idea of its own cleverness; the insight it offers into the large themes it almost programmatically embraces is negligible. This preening and shabby novel exhausts all negative superlatives, and deserves to be sold with the novel-reader's equivalent of the kind of warning found on cigarette cartons and whisky bottles.
Some links: Nagarkar offers an interpretation of his protagonist ("Zia is a good man gone really bad...") consistent with the way he treats him in his novel in a pre-publication interview here, and makes some more bizarre claims here ("[Zia's] intolerance makes me examine my own prejudices and reflect that maybe I'm intolerant as well – towards intolerant people!").
And here are two older pieces on novels that address questions of faith far more sensitively than God's Little Soldier - Naguib Mahfouz's Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth and Leila Aboulela's Minaret.
And, since Salman Rushdie appears so often in Nagarkar's novel, here is a recent piece by Rushdie written the 25th anniversary of the publication of Midnight's Children. Called "The Birth Pangs of Midnight's Children", it is a striking account of how that landmark novel came into being. In the passage I cite below, note in particular not just Rushdie's acknowledgement of a debt to Charles Dickens but also his acute portrait (Rushdie has always been an exceptional reader) of Dickens's work:
In the end I had two titles and couldn’t choose between them: Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight. I typed them out one after the other, over and over, and then all at once I understood that there was no contest, that Children of Midnight was a banal title and Midnight’s Children a good one. To know the title was also to understand the book better, and after that it became easier, a little easier, to write. I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India; also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens — Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyper-realistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seemed toAlso, Vikram Doctor's piece in the Economic Times last week on Midnight's Children and the city that inspired it can be found here (link via Kitabkhana).
grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.