Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Things I've Been Reading: A New Year Special

The Middle Stage wishes all its readers a happy new year and a happy new decade. (It had some good times in the last one). Here are some things I've been reading recently that might interest you:

A new Indian literary webzine dedicated to the short story, Out of Print, run by three friends of mine: Indira Chandrasekhar, Samhita Arni, and Mira Brunner. The first two issues contain work by a number of excellent Indan prose writers, including Anjum Hasan, KR Usha, Nighat Gandhi and Mridula Koshy. If you'd like to submit work to the magazine, the guidelines are here.

The new issue of the Indian (but world-literature focussed) literary magazine Almost Island, including Adil Jussawalla's essay "Being There: Aspects of an Indian Crisis".

"The Danger of a Single Story", the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's lovely meditation on how we are both imprisoned and liberated by the kinds of narratives constructed about us ("This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561, and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as 'beasts who have no houses,' he writes, 'They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.' Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Locke. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West. A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet, Rudyard Kipling, are 'half devil, half child.'").

"Desperately Seeking Susan", the writer Terry Castle's marvellously zingy memoir of her relationship with the American cultural critic and intellectual icon Susan Sontag ("We were walking down University Avenue, Palo Alto’s twee, boutique-crammed main drag, on our way to a bookshop. Sontag was wearing her trademark intellectual-diva outfit: voluminous black top and black silky slacks, accessorised with a number of exotic, billowy scarves. These she constantly adjusted or flung back imperiously over one shoulder, stopping now and then to puff on a cigarette or expel a series of phlegmy coughs. (The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’)").

"L'Etranger In A Strange Land", Brendan Bernhard's hilarious essay from 2005 on a meeting in Los Angeles with the enfant terrible of French fiction, Michel Houellebecq, even as the writer tries to outwit two other journalists trying to write a profile of Houellebecq at the same time ("A passerby stopped at the table and stared down at the cup. “Is that a quadruple espresso?” he asked in amazement, and everyone except Houellebecq burst out laughing. What the passerby couldn’t know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It’s a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best).

"In Search of Dieguito", the novelist Martin Amis's acute reading of Diego Maradona's autobiography ("In South America it is sometimes said, or alleged, that the key to the character of the Argentinians can be found in their assessment of Maradona's two goals in the 1986 World Cup. For the first goal, christened "the Hand of God" by its scorer, Maradona dramatically levitated for a ballooned cross and punched the ball home with a cleverly concealed left fist. But the second goal, which came minutes later, was the one that [England manager] Bobby Robson called the 'bloody miracle': collecting a pass from his own penalty area, Maradona, as if in expiation, put his head down and seemed to burrow his way through the entire England team before flooring Shilton with a dummy and stroking the ball into the net. Well, in Argentina, the first goal, and not the second, is the one they really like").

See you in 2011!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ambedkar, Gandhi, caste and novels in DR Nagaraj's The Flaming Feet

Two imagined voices suddenly pipe up midway through The Flaming Feet, the Kannada intellectual DR Nagaraj’s book of essays on the history of the Dalit movement in India, and they turn out to be none other than those of the principal protagonists of the book: BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. For once we, as early twenty-first century readers, see them not spoken about, but speaking in their own voices, as if restored to life. Nagaraj, a great lover of fiction and a skilled interpreter of its capacity to tell the truth about the world even more powerfully than reasoned argument or autobiographical testimony – unusually for an Indian observer of society and politics, his work is full of references to Indian novels – is found here taking the fiction writer’s license to compose “two imaginary soliloquies”.

It is 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence – an independence about which both men were, from the very beginning and for different reasons, sceptical. Ambedkar and Gandhi occupy adjoining rooms in heaven, and look down somewhat disconsolately on an India that has moved on. Ambedkar speaks of his immense antipathy to religious superstition and myth-making, and acknowledges that “my intimate enemy, that Gujarati Bania Mr.Gandhi, also does not like these things”, even if Gandhi is always seen as a man of religion. Gandhi, meanwhile, is found contemplating “how Hind Swaraj would be if my nextdoor neighbour, the learned Babasaheb, had written it”, and thinks that Ambedkar, a trained economist and the quintessential rationalist, would have found an enormous array of statistics to improve the argument.

Perhaps no one in the pantheon of Indian intellectuals had earned the right to appropriate Gandhi and Ambedkar in this fashion more than Nagaraj. Although clearly written from a perspective sympathetic to the Dalit viewpoint, Nagaraj’s essays repeatedly dramatised, with the deepest understanding and attention to detail, the epic clash between the two over the kind of society and polity that would finally grant Dalits a life of dignity and self-respect.

For Gandhi, this could happen only if high-caste Hindus examined their consciences, took account of the historic wrongs committed against Dalits, and experienced “a conversion of the heart” that made them redress these injustices. Gandhi’s method seemed idealistic, but was in its own way practical, trying somehow to identify “simultaneously both with caste Hindu society and the untouchable” so as not to lose one or the other.

Nagaraj grants that this was an enormous step forward for upper-caste Hinduism, but remains sharply critical of it. He holds that the Gandhian project had no real role for untouchables themselves, once again making them spectators to history in a drama in which high-castes were the chief protagonists, experiencing the guilt of a tragic hero and acting upon it. The Gandhian appellation for Dalits – “Harijan”, or the child of God – was not so much a generous as a patronising one.

In contrast to Gandhi’s language of conscience (what Nagaraj acutely calls the mode of self-purification), Ambedkar spoke the language of rights and of political agitation (or the mode of self-respect). While Gandhi wished to bind Hindu society into a refashioned whole, Ambedkar’s vision was of a complete break with Hindu society and all its encrusted modes of viewing the beleaguered and alienated masses on its margins. Ambedkar wanted the Dalit to stop being a subject in history and start becoming an agent, thereby “eliminating dependence on mercy and benevolence”. The modern systems of democracy, rights, political suffrage, and the nation-state allowed Dalits all this, while the traditional village panchayat never had.

This bifurcation in views set up one of the pivotal clashes of modern Indian history: the disagreement in 1933 between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the issue of separate electorates for untouchables, which Ambedkar desired deeply. By launching a fast unto death in Yeravada Jail over this issue, Gandhi forced Ambedkar’s hand, and had his own way. But even if Gandhi won the immediate battle, the larger war over the next eight decades for the Dalit view of self and the world has been won by Ambedkar, whose vision of aggressive self-mobilization and minoritization has found a variety of expressions in Indian politics and public life, especially since the seventies.

But, Nagaraj acknowledges, even if Dalits have won themselves new rights and greater security, especially from upper-caste violence, the result is not so much a rapprochement but rather a kind of detente. The structure of caste society remains basically unchanged from the top, and the peace achieved is a fragile one – it needs a dose of Gandhi to convert it into something more meaningful. In this way, as the scholar Ashis Nandy remarks in a short foreword, Nagaraj attempts heroically to reconcile Ambedkar and Gandhi. This posthumously published book, the only one written by Nagaraj, is a memorable examination of the Dalit encounter with history and modernity, rage and healing.

One of the pleasures of reading Nagaraj is his constant awareness of local contexts and frames to ideas which, over time, we have come to see in a somewhat general or pan-Indian way (this applies even to the word "Dalit"). Here he is, for example, on the specific roots of Ambedkarism in Maharashtra and in ideas Ambedkar adapted from his western education, and on other "proto-Dalit" movements which over time have become invisible in history:
Untouchable activism, finally, came into being only with the arrival upon the scene of Ambedkar, a Maharashtra Mahar untouchable. However, the proto-Dalit phase is under-studied in modern Indian history; in this phase, and afterwards too, many other models of lower-caste revolt were active and disappeared only after the decisive victory of Ambedkarism over other competing discourses to define and shape the identity of Dalit politics. For instance, in order to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of the emergence and consolidation of Shudra identity in general and Dalit identity in particular, we must study the insider culturalist-rebel model of Narayana Guru, the religious reformer of Kerala; the model of Manguram of Punjab; and the South Indian model of gradualism. Only then will we arrive at a deeper understanding of the specific strengths of the Ambedkarite paradigms.
Another virtue of Nagaraj's work is his reluctance to restrict himself solely to an empirical style of argument. He is an adventurous rather than a safe writer. Sometimes he advances by applying a vivid metaphorical imagination to the reading of history, and very often he uses examples from Kannada novels, plays, and poems to illustrate particular cruxes and dilemmas in Dalit thought and the representation of Dalits (in an essay on representations of Gandhi, Nandy writes of how he follows in the tracks of Nagaraj, "who loved to claim, following William Blake, that stylised exaggeration could be a path to wisdom"). The Flaming Feet is full of allusions to the work of Shivaram Karanth (whose 1931 novel Chomana Dudi Nagaraj calls "perhaps the earliest Kannada novel to explore the theme of untouchablity"), Kuvempu, UR Ananthamurthy, Devanuru Mahadeva, and the radical Dalit poet Siddalingaiah. These allow us to glimpse a literary universe with very different themes and tropes than those thrown up by Indian fiction in English. Although Nagaraj very rarely offers close readings of literary texts at the level of word or phrase, he is frequently stimulating and provocative when looking at them at the level of ideas and thought systems. Here he is, for instance, on Devanuru Mahadeva's Kannada novel Kusumabale, which he compares to Ananthamurthy's much more well-known English novel Samskara:
While studying the narrative technique of the novel, an inevitable question came to my mind. Does the cosmology of lower castes mean the death of the realist novel? ...I have always been nagged by the doubt that realism can provide full justice to the collective psyche and worldview of the lower castes. Even at its best, realism can only, in our context, reflect and accommodate the rationalist and empirical worldviews of the modern middle class. It can only deal with untouchability as a theme. The life of untouchables and other lower castes –in a total sense –has always remained outside the patterns of realism. If images are the distillation of worldviews, then naturally realism can only create images out of human situations. Images do not appear there as the synthesis of myth and history. Realism can only transform history into fiction. In fact, the realist novel is even seen as a fictional strategy to appropriate a form of history wherein, for example, a cot cannot be made to talk in an autobiographical vein. in Kusumabale, as in folk tales, by contrast, an ill-used cot tells the story of the decadence of the family to which it belongs.

Such restrictions [placed on writers by the realist novel] do not merely reflect the aesthetic rules of a narrative game. They are basically the restrictions of philosophy and ideology. Even if the realms of experiences and worldviews barred by realism seek entry into the fictional world, they are permitted only after making sure that they do not wreck the narrative. It is without argument that their philosophical explanation has no legitimacy in this context: irrational structure are allowed, but only in order to be monitored by the inbuilt rationality of the realist novel.

The Flaming Feet is scheduled for publication in America early in 2011. A essay by Ramachandra Guha on Nagaraj is here, and a long essay by Nagaraj, "Critical Tensions in the History of Kannada Literary Culture", can be found in Sheldon Pollock's massive anthology Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions From South Asia.

And here are some older Middle Stage posts on Indian history and politics: "On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male", "Mark Tully and India", "Krishna Kripalani's Faith and Frivolity", "Jawaharlal Nehru As A Writer of English Prose", "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom", "On the speeches of BR Ambedkar", "On Gandhi's autobiography", "Talking India With Ashis Nandy", "Harsh Mander and Gujarat", "Amartya Sen's large India", and "Utpal Dutt on Theatre and Film".

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On the Auto-rickshaw Drivers of Bombay

I always like chatting with the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bombay. Over the course of this year I decided to pursue these conversations in a slightly more structured way, leading each one of them in the direction of a common set of questions, and to write up our conversations into a long essay.

This essay appears in the December issue of The Caravan, and can be read in full here. Here is a short excerpt:
Like most residents of the city, the drivers have their own, highly developed and opinionated Theory of Bombay: how life is lived here, what makes the city tick, and what their own place is in the scheme of things. Always on the streets, continuously in contact with all kinds of people, they possess wider knowledge and more persuasive intuitions about the city than most. Their descriptions of the city have a certain heartfelt poetry, especially since their Hindi—and its many dialects—has a purer, sweeter sound that the patois that is Mumbaiyya Hindi. Looking around as they drive, they seem almost to be thinking aloud, and their words are a distillation of many years of wandering and watching.  
And here are some more essays from my travels over the last two years:

"Under The BJP's Big Tent", a report from the BJP national convention in February this year ("Further into my twenties, as my own understanding of Indian politics and society expanded, the party’s view of Indian history and culture came to seem ever less satisfactory. Yet, through my interactions with people and on my travels, I had come to be intrigued, both as an observer of politics and as a novelist, by the narrative power exerted by the party’s founding fiction on the minds of many middle-class Indians like myself. This was the idea that Indian culture is rooted in a Hindu ethos and worldview, and that Indian Hindus, because a double-standard secularism that ignored the sentiments of the majority community, were disorganised, defensive about their faith, and therefore accomplices in the desertion of the central principle of their civilizational history.");

"At The Sun Temple of Modhera" ("Descending, I feel as if heaven and earth have exchanged places; I go past level after level of sharp-nosed, full-figured, deities reverentially captured in different poses, faces serene or half-smiling, eyes darting left and right, legs splayed or crossed, arms delicately outstretched or holding up weapons or musical instruments. Every wall, pillar, arch, or nook in the bav ripples with the agitation of faces and limbs suspended forever in stone, and as the day progresses the sun begins at the western face of the well and works its way downwards to light up this rapturous panorama level by level");

and a trip to Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh ("Thus it was that, over two six-hour mornings in the woods, this writer, who hitherto could only recognise such two-legged creatures of his native urban habitat as the Jostling Traincatcher, the Horn-Happy Motorist, the Beautiful Passing Lady and the Common Loafer, suddenly became alive to the beauties of the leaping air-dashes of the white-tailed paradise flycatcher, the hushed, monastic vigil of the crested serpent eagle, the breathtaking mid-air halt of the black-shouldered kite, the mellifluous call of the white-rumped shama, and the whooping of the racket-tailed drongo...").

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Six New Poems From Around The World

The greatest pleasure of my ten weeks at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa has been the chance to befriend a host of writers from around the world. A substantial number of them were poets, and over the course of an American fall we had plenty of leisure to discuss other poets we liked, issues of rhyme and rhythm, classical and modern poetry, and the unavoidable question of whether poetry is completely translatable.

As I leave America, I thought I'd put up on The Middle Stage poems by four IWP poets, from South Korea, Nigeria, the Netherlands, and Poland respectively, and then two recently published poems by Indian poets to make for a mix of Indian and world literature.

First up, I have in my hands a marvellous little book of poems by the South Korean poet Kim Sa-in, and from it I take a poem called “A Girl Hunched by the Fire Making Dumplings—I Will be her Man”, in a translation by Brother Anthony of Taize:

“A Girl Hunched by the Fire Making Dumplings—I Will be her Man”
by Kim Sa-in

That girl hunched by the fire making dumplings—
I’ll end up wasting my life,
dependent on her ruddy, frozen hands.
That girl with nowhere to go,
only whimpers, crying alone, can’t run away.
She looks wretched, burned by the sun,
but her breasts and thighs must be whiter than milk.
I’ll wake up late, bleary‐eyed, sprawled over that body,
wipe the sleep from my eyes with my thick, drooping beard.
I’ll rush over to the gambling room in the tavern at dawn.
I’ll snoop around for leftover drinks,
flirt idly with the aging bar‐woman,
and once I’m drunk I’ll drop and spend another day out back.
I’ll toss into the void a goodbye that no one hears, “I’m going now,”
then stumble home carrying starlight on my back.
When ten to twenty years have gone by like that
I’ll have feebly spawned three or four children in her body.
After spawning them I’ll be helpless.
That young girl
only whimpers alone, nowhere to go.
The children will grow up rough as badgers.
Lying in a dirt‐floored room as dark as a cave,
my head resting on my arm,
I’ll watch the dry snow flutter in through a crack in the fogged window.
Noisily puffing bitter cigarettes, I’ll let some more years go by.
When that girl’s waist grows thick, once her tears have run dry
and her eyes blaze blue flames,
I’ll suddenly fall badly sick and make my bed under a rack.
I’ll hide the liquor she doesn’t want me to have and keep drinking.
When her hair is half white from years of hardship
I’ll finally expire ahead of her;
by then she won’t be able to laugh or cry.
She’ll smoke the bitter cigarettes I used to smoke,
learn to drink the liquor she couldn’t handle, learn to swear.

Would this not be quite a hopeless love?
Though I’m not sure if it makes any sense.

More of Kim Sa-in's poems are here, and some more translations of Korean poets by Brother Anthony here.

And here is the Nigerian poet Ismail Bala's very funny and acute "The Poetry of Others":
The Poetry of Others
by Ismail Bala

Is there no lull to it
the way they keep springing up in journals
then conclave in the inky chapel of an anthology?

You would think the daffodil would speak out,
but like the Muse it only inspires—then more of them appear.
Not even the authorities can put an end to it.

Just this morning, one accosted me like a beggar,
eyes squinting, difficult to ignore.
Another lunged out of the cover at me like a bully.

How can anybody despise them
when they hang about the hem of books
and humble themselves in our faces?

Perhaps I’m being mean, even frivolous.
It could have been the day at the circus
that left me this way—all the cast by the scripts—

as if only my poetry had the clout to be
and readers would come up from the heavens
in the morning to see them in cathedral of papery gods.

So I will take the word of the masters
and put this in a cooler for a week
possibly even a month or two and then have a harsher look at it—

but for the moment I’m going to take a breather
through this nearly greyed place
that is my harmattan hidey-hole, my scriptorium,

and get my eyes off the poetry of others
even as they look down from the shelves
or laugh at my feigning in the guise of local clowns.

after Billy Collins

Some more of Bala's work is here and here and, should you be interested in having a look at the rhythms and sounds, if not the meanings, of his second language, some of his translations into Hausa of poems in English by other poets are here.

Next is the Albanian-Dutch poet Albana Shala and her very deft and twinkle-toed poem "Digital Pope", from her collection by the same name:
Digital Pope
by Albana Shala

Let us choose another pope

A pope
we will never doubt
if he gazes with amusement at the nuns
if he dreams of getting under the covers with cardinal X
if he has betrayed the fatherland or his best friend
fifty years ago.

Let us choose once and for all
a pope with the latest software
trustworthy
reliable
rechargeable
painfree

A digital Pope.

Some more poems by Shala can be found here.

Finally, here is the Polish poet Milosz Biedrzycki's "The Music Hour Hostess On Al-Jazeera Throws A Fit", in a translation by Frank L.Vigoda. Biedrzycki plays electric guitar very loudly and energetically in his spare time, and some of the "he/roic tenor" of that sound can be heard in this poem:

The Music Hour Hostess On Al-Jazeera Throws A Fit
by Milosz Biedrzycki

bonsoir, she always said politely
and bye-bye. in between, shukran habibi. And ana mabsuta
but it wasn’t that she was upset. quite the opposite.
Bedouin dreams of luxury, whizzing Lexuses,
water gurgling everywhere. girls belly
dancing at the very edge of the cognitive horizon
of this likable man with moustache and belly.
everything in its place. sweet ornaments
waving their hips just right. he sings, sings with he
roic tenor, a very powerful man. giving so much. and she?
suddenly a vampire, suddenly mabsuta
brazenly and wildly, legs all over the place.
at least the remote is safely stored
in the sofa. she? should know better.
she gets up, goes, clicks, off—
More poems by Biedrzycki can be found here and here.

And last, here are two poems recently published in the books pages of Mint Lounge. The first is "How Not To Age" by Tishani Doshi:
How Not To Age
by Tishani Doshi
It happens one night that the hurdles champ
of Loyola, Class of ’58, finds himself on the lawns
of a gentleman’s club – shoulders stooped,
bandy-kneed, unable to hear or digest sugar.
It happens his wife dies first, and his children
frequently think, Hypothetically, if dad had gone
first, mum would still have had things to do.
It happens that the man who threw the best parties,
the first person in town with disco lights,
psychedelic shirts, the works – now finds it difficult
to smile. And as if to prove this unhappy man
once had the capacity to dance, the moon skids over
his spectacles, does a little jig on the wintry expanse
of his head, eclipsing for a moment this night,
these stars, all the borrowed future ahead.
And the second is "A Folk Song" by Anupama Raju:

A Folk Song
by Anupama Raju

I was once your birthplace, your maternal village.
You grew as they fed my trees in this leafing village.
You built me a temple and invoked my blessing
Did you know I’d bring rain, me, your sleeping village?

The rain filled your stomach, you rose with the water,
poured into my empty nest, your weeping village.

When the floods came, you sang me songs and dried my tears
but my rivers wouldn’t nourish you seeping through this village.

You let go of my hand and cursed my love for you
chose a new mother instead of me, your heaving village.

Summer’s ripe with memories of you, my children
But don’t come back to me, to your seething village.

Also, my three-month sabbatical from book-reviewing duties in Indian literature is over, and from mid-December onwards you'll find my reviews in Mint Lounge again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Arzee the Dwarf in World Literature Today

The new issue of the literary journal World Literature Today is devoted to modern Indian writing, and I was pleased to find my novel Arzee the Dwarf  cited in it on a list called: "60 essential English-language works of modern Indian literature".

Some of the web-only content from the magazine is here.

An old post on an anthology of world literature, Words Without Borders, is here, with links to several essays on the pleasures and problems of the work of translation.  

Words Without Borders is, of course, also the title of one of the premier online journals of world literature today, and a recent issue of the magazine, guest edited by Muhammad Umar Memon was devoted to Urdu fiction from India. An old post on Memon's anthology of Urdu writers from Pakistan in translation, Do You Suppose It's The East Wind, is here.

Last, for an interesting theoretical perspective on the idea of world literature, you might be interested in reading  "Goethe Coins A Phrase", the introduction to David Damrosch's book What Is World Literature?.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A lecture at Yale University

I will be speaking tomorrow afternoon at the Henry Luce Hall at Yale University on the subject "Place and the Making of Literature". Full details are here.

And a recent lecture: "The Classical Novel, On a Fall Morning In Iowa City."

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Jose Saramago's The Elephant's Journey

A slightly different version of this piece appeared last weekend in The National.

In José Saramago's novella The Tale of the Unknown Island, the protagonist an unnamed everyman figure asks a king for the gift of a boat so that he may go out "in search of the unknown island". The king is sceptical: after all, isn't it well established that no more unknown islands exist? But the man stands his ground in a remark rich with metaphorical meaning, he insists that there is always another unknown island to be discovered.

Finally the man has his way. The story gives him a love interest: the humble cleaning lady of the palace, who decides that after a lifetime of swabbing the royal floors she would rather be part of a voyage. No other crew member can be found, but this does not seem to be a problem. The story takes its leave of us with an image of the two lovers painting the name of the boat on the prow. "Around midday, with the tide," the narrator finishes, "The Unknown Island finally set out to sea, in search of itself."

Of the dozens of great exponents of the novel in the 20th century, Saramago, who died in June at the age of 87, was one of the few who really made the form his own. In his books the story never arrives to us neatly organised, crafted, and finished, cleansed of narrative detritus. Rather, like the boat in Unknown Island, it is always in search of itself, trying to arrive at an understanding of itself, remarking on its own difficulties as it goes on.
 
Of the dozens of great exponents of the novel in the 20th century, Saramago, who died in June at the age of 87, was one of the few who really made the form his own. In his books the story never arrives to us neatly organised, crafted, and finished, cleansed of narrative detritus. Rather, like the boat in Unknown Island, it is always in search of itself, trying to arrive at an understanding of itself, remarking on its own difficulties as it goes on.

At first this puzzles us. Then, when we see the possibilities inherent in the method, it delights us. The narrator is always the most powerful presence in Saramago's novels, now speeding the action along, now slowing it down, making a luminous observation one moment ("We are, more and more, our own defects and not our qualities"), then succumbing to a page or two of pure pedantry. The narrator's love of irony, sympathy for the marginalised, and undercutting of the grand narratives of history establishes a direct line between him and the author, a lifelong and outspoken communist.

Most distinctive in Saramago's work, though, is the style. His narrators revel in the role of master of ceremonies, insisting on it through the very form of their prose, which swallows up the talk of the characters into long, rolling, idiosyncratic sentences. The typical Saramago sentence can seem almost Jamesian in its love of ripples and qualifications, but it employs no other punctuation than the full-stop and the comma and creates the illusion of something spoken rather than written. In Saramago, it is as if the folktale met modernism.

This narrative method naturally risks falling into self-indulgence and corrosive doubt - the kind of arid self-reflexivity visible, for instance, in the French nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. But Saramago vaults this chasm by virtue of the scale and the thrilling conceits of his stories, which roam widely over Portuguese and European history and are never happier than when juggling metaphysical speculations. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a proofreader of a historical work changes the entire shape of the Portuguese history by inserting the word "not" at a crucial moment in the text. Blindness imagines an unnamed city struck by a mass epidemic of sightlessness, thereby illustrating just how fragile and hard-won is the civic peace that a portion of humankind now takes for granted. In Death At Intervals, death (a character, named, like most of Saramago's characters, with her initial in lowercase) suddenly abandons her work of taking human beings away from this world. First there is delight at the prospect of immortality, and then consternation as the larger implications of eternal life start to emerge.


Saramago's new novel, published posthumously, is called The Elephant's Journey. (After this we can expect one more book, Cain, as yet untranslated, and perhaps some unfinished or unpublished work.) The Elephant's Journey is translated by Saramago's excellent long-time translator Margaret Jull Costa, and supplies all the familiar pleasures of his voice, seen here filling out a diverting little story about a pachyderm and its mahout who live in one strange land and travel to another.

For two years Solomon the elephant, a gift to King Dom Joao III from one of his colonies in India, has been languishing in Lisbon along with his devoted keeper Subhro. Solomon's arrival, we hear, initially caused a great stir in Lisbon life before he fell, like all fashionable new diversions, from favour with the elite.

It is the middle of the 16th century and Protestantism has recently shaken the foundations of Western Christendom. Dom Joao III wants to send a present to the Duke of Hapsburg, Maximilian, who has embraced the new faith. But the gift cannot have any Catholic associations, and so Dom Joao fixes - taking the irresolute suggestion of his flighty wife - on Solomon. The elephant must now travel on foot, by land and by sea, down rivers and over the Alps, to Vienna. And so we embark on a picaresque tale in the manner of Cervantes, to whose school Saramago certainly belongs, albeit told in slow motion, as if keeping time with the stately pace of its protagonist, who often holds up the travelling party because he wants to take a nap.

Solomon causes a great stir in towns and villages along the route, becoming, like in the old fable about the elephant and the three blind men, many things to many people indeed, a screen on which human vanities and fears are projected. Some villagers, overhearing bits of a conversation about the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesha, come to believe that Solomon is God. One priest nearly loses his life in trying to exorcise the devil from Solomon's soul. Another tries to enlist the elephant in performing a cunningly man-made miracle, just so that the authority of the Catholic Church may be reaffirmed (many of Saramago's best jokes are those aimed at the self-importance of church and state).

But the book's pleasures are mainly rooted in the narrator's playful spirit and his rejection repeatedly played for laughs of most of the rules of conventional novelistic exposition. We hear a voice that is gnomic, dryly witty, rich in proverbs and zany maxims ("The same thing happens with good ideas, and, on occasions, with bad ones, as happens with democritus' atoms or with cherries in a basket, they come along linked one to the other"). It is a voice given to gusts of whimsy and anachronistic observation, fastidiously laying out all the possibilities of a situation with qualifiers ("in the unlikely but not impossible event of", "always assuming that"), and then breaking up this rhythm with sudden pistol shots: "He went plof and vanished. Onomatopoeia can be so very handy." When I came across the simple declarative sentence "The snow began to fall" at the end of one chapter, this sounded dramatic and climactic in a manner far beyond the sense-meaning of the sentence.

Jull Costa's English, too, has an energy and a verve that rings in the ears long after the book has been put down. Her translation, like many other translations of linguistically rich books, also expands the common vocabulary and sonic possibilities of the target language, employing words and rhythms that are beyond the range of most contemporary novelists in English.

"It must be said that history is always selective," says the narrator at one point, "and discriminatory too, selecting from life only what society deems to be historical and scorning the rest, which is precisely where we might find the true explanation of facts, of things, of wretched reality itself. In truth, I say to you, it is better to be a novelist, a fiction writer, a liar." This is as close as Saramago comes to articulating a philosophy for his fiction. In The Elephant's Journey, it is the stoical mahout Subhro whose experience - like that of other figures outside the grand narratives of the past, like Raimundo Silva in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, or Baltasar and Blimunda in the novel of that name - allows us to access what the Indian historian Ranajit Guha calls "the small voice of history". Such works should never go plof and vanish.

An interview with Margaret Jull Costa is here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Classical Novel, On A Fall Morning In Iowa City

This is the text of a lecture (or a short story) I presented yesterday at the Iowa City Public Library as a response, along with some other IWP writers, to the question of the persistence of the classical realist novel as a template for fiction. Because it was written for the ears of a particular audience, there are some local references and in-jokes here, but nothing that is too obtrusive. Some other lectures I've enjoyed particularly over the last month are those by the New Zealand writer David Hill and the Mauritian writer Farhad Khoyratty (on the topic "Satire's Global Reach"), one by the Icelandic novelist and translator Solvi Sigurdsson on translation, and another by the South Korean poet Kim Sa-In on "Why I Write The Way I Write".


                        The Classical Novel, On A Fall Morning In Iowa City

The IWP writer Chandrahas Choudhury was in a state of great distress as he walked with long strides from the Iowa House Hotel up towards the Old Capitol Building on the morning of Friday, the 9th of October 2010. He did not see – or if he saw, he did not register – the red and yellow leaves of fall that now rustled beneath his feet, and that only lately had been green leaves above him; nor, mired in his inner discontents, did he respond to the overtures of all the attractive girls winking at him from behind their sunglasses. The only two things in his sights were his destination – the Iowa City Public Library, where he was due to speak in a few minutes – and his dismay.

Because it was private and unspoken, his distress and the reasons for it could be picked up by nothing but fiction, which has a way of looking inside human minds that human beings themselves can never achieve, and this is its value in the world. To keep it short: Choudhury was distressed because he was unprepared. Or rather, he had prepared a lecture, but he had prepared wrongly, and so to the world it would seem that he had been slacking off and had not prepared at all. Only fiction (which excels at sympathy) would understand that he actually had prepared, only he had prepared wrongly.

What was his error? Choudhury had unfortunately long been misconstruing the nature of his invitation to speak at the panel. Instead of applying himself to the subject of the persistence of the classical novel in modern times, he had instead for weeks now, with the habitual carelessness and the susceptibility to exotic suggestion that was at the root of his nature, been writing up his thoughts on the abiding relevance of the classical navel. This was less absurd than it might seem. For thousands of years it has been believed in Indian yogic thought that the navel is the centre of the consciousness, and it is therefore central to any Indian poetics of fiction. Choudhury had imagined that the presiding powers of the IWP, with their usual exquisite delicacy and their characteristic attention to the local contexts of writers from different parts of the world, had been wanting illumination from his proudly Indian self on this hitherto obscure subject of the navel and its relation to fictional realisations of consciousness, but he’d been wrong. It was the novel they wanted to hear about, and he’d only realised this two hours ago.

In a panic, Choudhury had gone to all his friends at the IWP, hoping they might be of some help to him. This was because, on principle, he never wrote more than a thousand words a day, and now, with so much tension in the air, he couldn’t possibly manage more than four hundred words – an introductory paragraph, perhaps, and a swift conclusion. But if his friends (all smart people) would be so good as to contribute to his project a paragraph each off the top of their heads, each one taking the argument of the previous one a step further, then he might have something.

However, his friends, in the usual manner of life, disappointed him deeply. The Israeli writer Touche Gafla offered no help other than playing Kate Bush’s “Babooshka” for Choudhury as a way of unlocking his creative energies; the answer to all the problems presented to Touche lay in some rock song or another. The Mauritian Farhad Khoyratty, a university professor by profession, said that, after a decade of dealing with truant students, he had no sympathy for ludicrous excuses about navels (which, with his characteristic cross-cultural agility, he said were also a kind of orange with their origins in Brazil). The Pakistani writer Husain Naqvi was unable to help, because this was not the slender window of lucid time when he was both not asleep and not at a bar (it strikes the narrator that there are three negatives in this particular sentence, while there are four in the opening sentence of that latest and much-lauded take on the classical realist novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and that if only one other “not” could be found from somewhere, this would be a sentence not unworthy of America’s greatest living writer of classical prose). And Choudhury found himself quite unable to approach the Icelander Solvi Sigurdsson, because it had been Solvi’s birthday the day before and he hadn’t given him a present. As for Pola Oloixarac...well, ever since Pola had started attending those belly-dancing classes with the other IWP girls, she wasn’t the same person. If at all there was a subject on which she might now conceivably be of some help, it was that of the (now unwanted) navel.

So there was Choudhury, on his own, walking to the Iowa Public Library without a lecture in the bank, feeling like a character from one of his own stories, typically a person who is in deep trouble, and is feeling the pressure of time on his pulse. Indeed, the same pressures that proved so satisfying in fiction, and gave him the greatest pleasure to construct, proved now, when transferred to real life, to be agonizing beyond belief. He resolved to be kinder to his characters from this point on, but then saw instantly that he was making one of those terrible conceptual fallacies that are always being pointed out by theorists of fiction: that of confusing characters in a novel with real people.

He also saw, though, that if there was any stream of literature – and we’re talking here of fiction, poetry, drama, essays, and various avant-garde movements that have still to work out their identities – if there was any stream of literature that allowed for this kind of envisioning of a character as a living, breathing individual, as real and as present as one’s family or girlfriend or cat, then it was the realist novel. It was also the realist novel that, for the first time in the history of literature, dared to imagine, at extraordinary length and in vivid detail, a protagonist who was typical and not exceptional, and yet highly individualized, presented in his or her everydayness. In other words, the distinction of the classical novel form was precisely that it allowed the reader, through the magic of the extended and elaborate illusion that it was able to spin from mere words and narrative sleight of hand and a wealth of sensory detail, to imagine that he or she was watching a life (or even living an alternate one) and not reading a book. The persistence of the form and its many conventions as a perennial template for fiction was connected to the fact that here, finally, was a form that allowed you to forget the very question of form. The sprawl of the classical novel was like a kind of comfortable armchair, or pint of AmberBock beer, that broke down the self-conciousness – the awareness that this was a book – that both writers and readers had previously brought with them, like a second skin, to the experience of literature.

Indeed, it seemed to Choudhury (as he nimbly avoided a US Bank frisbee that sailed out at him from somewhere) that one of the greatest and most durable satisfactions of the classical novel was the way in which it dramatised the passing of time. How the novel loved to play with time! Whole years could be made to pass with a single precise sentence, or the events of a single day could be made to fill up an entire book. Hundreds of things could be done with tense structures, cuts, and flashbacks, and at particularly delicious or fulfilling moments the reader, too, could stop time by closing the book for a few minutes. The realist novel gave both writer and reader the power to control time, which was denied to them by life.

Choudhury was by now consumed by realist-novel-love: it seemed to him that Dickens was walking alongside him, that it was Willa Cather just ahead, withdrawing some cash from the ATM, that Naguib Mahfouz was smoking a cigarette on the patio of the restaurant he was passing, and it was Irene Nemirovsky who gave him a brief nod, from behind her sunglasses, as she passed. It seemed to him – oh, if only he had some paper at hand, to record these zinging thoughts that were now raining upon him like Iowan autumn leaves! – that the most characteristic experience of human consciousness was that of the workings of memory. The realist novel, through the deployment of repetition, echoes, leitmotifs, and contrast, allowed the reader to powerfully experience memory within the field of the literary work, suggesting a connection between an incident on page twenty to another on page two hundred, and thereby stoking, without a pressuring hand, emotions just as strong as those from one’s own life.

In its attention to inwardness, to the patient tracking of the leaps and bends and flows in the thoughts of characters (thought Choudhury, lost in himself at a traffic signal), the realist novel schooled the reader in life. It taught him or her that that which is the most silent may yet be the most dramatic, and created in him or her a yearning for a greater engagement with the back-story of the world – or, if the world proved disappointing and somehow unnovelistic, then once again with novels. And further: although the realist novel strove to be a comprehensive representation of life, in the most capable hands it somehow proved to be an even stronger and more potent presence than the reality from which it mined its details, because, for one, it could eliminate the inessential, which life couldn’t, and two, it could be inflected with the storyteller’s personality and tone, and become not just the world but a way of looking at the world. After reading a good novel, the reader was always looking – for a little while at least, while he or she remained within the force field of the work –to heighten his or her own life to the same level of significance and meaning. The realist novel both bowed to life, and raised its music up a couple of notches.

Choudhury stopped for a moment outside the Public Library, and contemplated turning the other way into Bread Garden Supermarket instead, where he could hide himself amidst all the shelves of soup and the rows of microwave meals, the racks of vegetables and the salad bar (and also perhaps get himself some lunch). He felt the sun warm upon his face, and looked up at a blue sky in which he could see precisely one cloud. He saw that his deeply dire situation was once again something that only the novel could adequately record: a state of contingency, of being alive at a particular moment in time, and feeling a particular set of pressures and sensations. The realist novel was both chronicle and snapshot, coiling its nimble fingers equally ably both around an era and upon a moment.

But what of it? All these thoughts were useless, useless. He saw that if only he had half an hour to sit down and write up the reflections of just the last five minutes (how silverquick was thought!), he would have, even at such short notice, made a success of his lecture. (Choudhury was given too often to thinking a little too well of himself.) But alas, there was no time. He was done for.

Choudhury was innocent of the fact that, all this time (and as you and I know), a story was hanging above him like a small cloud (the first requirement of characters in fiction, of course, is that they never realise they are characters in fiction). And the story was recording his thoughts anyway, in all their rambles and tangles, occasionally editing a word or eliminating a redundancy, because it wanted to be a better story than Choudhury was a thinker.

And Choudhury didn’t know that, in the digital age, the story could take care of itself, and reproduce itself, and circulate itself – it needed no mailman, no agent, no publisher. Even as he walked into the hall where he believed he would soon be undone, the story was writing itself out rapidly on the blank pages of a handout, and when Choudhury glumly picked up the sheets to look at what the others had prepared, he was astonished to find that – astonished to find that – really astonished to find that – despite having done no writing at all, he was a presence in them and not an absence. Really amazed. Blinking in confusion, and eating two kinds of pizza one slice above the other to save time, Choudhury took a few moments to register the amazing good luck of this day and, indeed, of his life.

He had, once again, been saved by a story.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading in San Francisco on Thursday

I'm in San Francisco! This Thursday, the 30th of September, I'm going to be reading here at The Book Passage from my anthology India: A Traveler's Literary Companion along with the novelist Vikram Chandra, who has a story in the book. The event details are here.

If you live in the Bay Area, it'd be very good to see you.