Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Aseem Kaul's Etudes

Two moments involving the clothes of departed people might serve to give a sense of the distinctive mood and method of Aseem Kaul’s book of very short stories, Etudes. In “The Shirt”, we see a woman who has recently been widowed. Every day she continues to wash one of her late husband’s shirts and then hangs it out to dry, watching – the image is both macabre and touching – “the empty shape of him billow in the back yard.”

And in “The Smell of Smoke”, a woman is abruptly left by her partner, and decides instantly to give away all his clothes. The narrator proffers this observation: “There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty.” Although the parentheses insist that the woman is not considering the possibility of the man’s return, we know, of course, from the very vehemence of her insistence that she is. The sentence is simultaneously a description of both determination and desolation.

Almost uniquely among Indian short-story writers in English, Kaul is determinedly a writer of short shorts (for similarly compressed and elliptical work by contemporary Indian writers in English, I can think only of Kuzhali Manickavel's Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings). Kaul’s characters are rarely named, their backgrounds barely sketched in, and the places they live in almost never described—all the pillars and plinths on which realist storytelling is based are rigorously cleared away. But for all the austerity of the writer’s method, his creations seem no less real than those of realist writers. What we see his characters do, primarily, is think. In his best stories, we feel as if mind has insidiously established contact with mind, in the same way as we might in a conversation with someone we have just met.

Indeed, many of Kaul’s stories are built upon a model of conversation, either real or imagined. One of them, “Where Shall We Go For Dinner?”, is written entirely in dialogue, without a single word of narratorial explanation. It shows us a couple quarreling over where to eat dinner, and then making up. It is hard to work from such a simplified palette, so the success of this story is no small achievement.

In another story, “Conversation”, a man begins to track the voice of the woman who lives next door, because he can hear her on the telephone through the wall they share. Although they never actually speak, he becomes more and more involved with her life, . When he realises she is sad, he takes “to playing soft music at night – works for solo piano” to soothe her (as the title of his book indicates, this is clearly the kind of music Kaul loves best). But, churlishly, the woman complains about the disturbance, and makes the narrator gloomy. One day he finally takes the plunge, and calls her. She picks up the phone. “He doesn’t say anything, just sits there, hearing her voice coming through the receiver on the one hand, through the wall on the other. Like a conversation.” Kaul’s arresting ending beautifully fulfils the spirit and strangeness of the story.

Like the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who is clearly one of the moving spirits behind Etudes, Kaul loves to write a certain type of mind-bending fiction. In one story, “Googled”, the protagonist Bihag Sharma (one of the few characters in the book who are named) googles his own name, and is astonished to find, among the search results, a few links dated 2014, describing things that are going to happen in his future. Google's reach and power are now so immense, the story suggests, that is knows not just every bit about our past but also the future. A story called “Juliet” puts a wicked modern spin on the love story of Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that Juliet was really a malevolent schemer who cozened Romeo into sacrificing himself so that she could marry someone else. Kaul’s mischief extends all the way to the back cover, with its list of quotes by fictional reviewers, including one Orhan Gutan.

Here, in full, is the story with which the book opens, called "Note Autobiographical":

Note Autobiographical

Every time he speaks to himself you sense something missing, something not quite true. It's not that you doubt his sincerity—on the contrary, you know he's making every effort to be honest. It's just that by putting himself in the spotlight he has blinded himself to his own shadow, to the audience of alternate selves who watch him from the wings. He tells you what he sees, but all the while the real self remains invisible, like light seen from the inside of a bulb.

It's like the difference between the way you picture yourself and your face in a photograph. The way you hold your breath at immigration, waiting to see if the man examining your passport will accept you for who you are.

In six sentences, many truths and intimations about the self are captured, and the three metaphors—the two light-related ones of the spotlight and the inside of a bulb, and the one about the difference between the face's conception of itself and its look in a photograph—are all rich with suggestion, with lights and shadows. Even such a short piece attests to the writer's control over prose rhythm, and indeed, while the 75 stories in Etudes might prove wearying if read at one go, there is not a page here that does not reveal in some way the writer's ferocious intelligence and alertness to metaphysical complexity.

These winning pieces might be seen not only an assertion of a new kind of method, but also be seen as a tacit criticism of the lazy gestures and banalities of much realist storytelling, particularly from the subcontinent. Such a fresh and strange sensibility is very welcome in the house of Indian fiction.

And an older post on another writer of very short stories: "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret", which features Keret's strange and beautiful story "Pipes".


Aditya Mani Jha said...

The really short short story genre hasn't really struck it big... From what I gather, it seems to hinge mostly on hints, innuendos... suggestions of things that seem obvious on emotional extrapolation... as you said , the writer needs to possess "ferocious intelligence" to come up with a really good one.

A really clever one, like Kaul's or Keret's for that matter, relies on the reader's ability to gauge the emotional temperature, so to speak, of whatever universe the story is inhabiting.... and leads him on accordingly. The classic one, of course, is the one that started it all... when Hemingway bet a friend that he could produce a story in six words.. and came up with this...

"For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."

One of my favourite writers of all time, David Foster Wallace, produced a miniature masterpiece of his own once:

"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one."

Anirudh K said...

I found 'Etudes' mediocre; it seems as if it is ambitious (and I don't use this word the way it is often used -- to describe big, 'touching', pop-sociology texts disguised as literature) but it isn't. In fact, when I read it, I thought it would be received in two ways: either as a pretentious book (which is how some of my family saw it) or as a genuinely interesting/new one, as you have. It isn't the first but I don't think it comes even close to the second. These, however, are vague phrases. I'm writing on the book; I'll send you a link when I'm done. In about two months!

Anirudh K said...

I remember Keret as a refreshing writer, though it has been very long since I read him.

Pal said...

Etudes sounds very interesting.. would def. like to read...

Chandrahas said...

Aditya - These are some very good observations, and your two examples are very well-chosen. To my mind, among the meanings we ascribe to the word "story" is time, and it is very hard to convey a sense of time passing in a short short, or indeed to set up the illusion of a fully imagined world when everything gets over in a page or two. For this reason short shorts can probably never be at the centre of short-short practice, but always a highly fertile variation on it, something that cleanses the palate of the reader of narratives. Even someone as smart as Keret can become one-dimensional after a while. Yet the world of stories is made richer by the practice of a focussed minimalism.

Anirudh - It's always a pleasure to see someone contest my readings as openly as you have done here. I believe nothing helps take a matter forward as much as intelligent disagreement, and such disagreement is fundamental to literary criticism, since no one mind can ever hope to be able to appreciate all the different kinds of works and styles generated by other minds. Even so, there was more that you could have said to back up your judgment, though in this case it seems you have literally a whole family of opinions to offer. For now I will consider your intervention as half a move, not a full one, so it's still your turn to play.

curiouslyfuriously said...

hahaha! chandrahas, you treat this like it's a game of chess. funny. :)

thanks for this review, and thanks to aditya and anirudh for both their comments.

that story written entirely as a dialogue reminded me of hemingway's story Hills like white elephants.
i find a lot of merit in aditya & anirudha's comments.

it will be interesting to see where kaul will be some years from now. whether he'll continue to write or build on this kind of prose or if he'll do something else. in any case, we should check it out, only if to see if we like it or find it pretentious.

'big, 'touching', pop-sociology texts disguised as literature)' well said. and that 6-word story, it touches the heart.

(cheers everybody! children's day today.:))