Sunday, April 09, 2006

On Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier

[A version of this piece appears today in the Indian Express]

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 to
grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
Also, 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).


Anonymous said...

Did nagarkar intend to write a cult novel or something?! Your review somehow reminds of movies like Fight Club!

Swar Thounaojam said...

"hack brochure writer"!!!

wish you were also reviewing theatre. pity cinema weaned you away from it. still, wonderful that the books remained strong.

Space Bar said...

Your comment about Nagarkar's authorial voice getting tangled up with his character's reminds of a review of Pride And Prejudice that Martin Amis wrote in 1990. In it, he accuses Austen of of not paying enough attention to what happens to Lydia, and says:

And here, I think, the reader begins to feel that artists should know better than that; we expect them to know better than that. We expect artists to stand as critics not just of their particular milieu but of their society, and of their age. They shouldn't lose sight of their creations at exactly the same point that 'respectability'--or stock response--loses sight of them.

I thought that made sense.

Anonymous said...

You say, among many other damning things about God’s Little Soldier, “The insight it offers into the large themes it embraces is negligible”. I couldn’t disagree more. I find Nagarkar’s insights complex and unorthodox.

For one, Zia becomes a monk because the inherent spirit of forgiveness nascent in all men manifests itself as Jesus, tormenting and maddening him till he sees its value and has to become a Christian.

Secondly, Nagarkar is trying to explore what one might call the extremist psyche, which can occur in Muslims, Christian or Hindu (after the Gujarat pogrom can any person of conscience question that?).

Thirdly, he is also trying to show that the extremist psyche, when it is in the service of the ‘positive’, can result in the dedication and single-mindedness that we value in say an artist, a composer, a mountaineer; while when it is in the service of an anti-life ideal of intolerance, it can become the fanaticism that underlies many of the world’s problems today.

Summing up – I find Nagarkar grappling with important themes that unfold in ways that echo the complexities of life – no easy, pat answers. It also seems to me that you have not understood the book.

P.S.: What is “literary terrorism”? I think you review could be an example of “book review terrorism”! (except that the phrase is meaningless).

Chandrahas said...

Pervin - Those are some interesting remarks. Readers can read a novel in different ways, and it is often the case that from the viewpoint of one it seems as if the other - as you say of me - has not "understood the book".

I have no problem with the things you point out - a reasoned defence of the novel would emerge from just these points. But I think that there is much room for interpretation in your assertion that "Nagarkar is trying" - trying to represent, say, the psyche of the extremist, or trying to problematise simple views of human predicaments.

It might be possible to say, in the abstract, that Nagarkar is trying to do these things. But if that is the case, then in my reading there is a great gap between intention and reality. (In my opinion this was a problem also with many of the interviews with Nagarkar at the time of the book's release, in that they featured his talk about the book, instead of attending to the book itself.)

As I said in the very first paragraph of my piece, characters like Zia can be very compelling. Oftentimes in Dostoevsky, we feel ourselves battling with the massive strength of the madness of the characters.

But, as I argue in my piece, Zia is actually emasculated, weakened, by how much the narrator seems to want to do for him - we feel two presences, not one, at work here, and that is a distinct problem.

And, as I also noted, beyond the first fifty pages I have no sense of Zia as a believable character any more, but as a series of bizarre floating shapes - there is no convincing rationale for his transitions.

You say, "Nagarkar is trying to explore what one might call the extremist psyche, which can occur in Muslims, Christian or Hindu (after the Gujarat pogrom can any person of conscience question that?)"

Yes, but to my mind a book cannot take that reality for granted; it has to recreate it afresh within its pages, and I argue in some detail that it does not.

What people of conscience think about the Gujarat pogrom is no doubt of great significance, but why should we make this a factor in our judgement of a book?

I'd say, then, that what you say about Nagarkar's intent may be true - I don't necessarily accept it to be so - but it doesn not hold good for my own experience of the book.

Your response has been a great deal more reasoned and civil than some of the others I have received on this subject, for which I thank you. If it seems to you that I have exceeded certain boundaries in calling Nagarkar's work an act of literary terrorism, then I apologise for giving offence.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the book. And I did not quite not like it completely. Whatever his follies, I really liked the way he has done Amanat. The perfect potrait of imperfection though I might want to hold back a little more from a brother who tried to kill me.Yes, Zia does get a little tiring...i mean can't he think beyond the borders of pretty pictures he's busy painting - the most obvious contradictions of what he's doin??? But what I really don't understand at all is - how can there be such utter change of terribly exclusive (the way zia does it) faith??
m annoying. but he had his moments, though I couldn't quite quote right now. Your review makes sense... well, mostly... and I would have liked more on Amanat (but that's my prejudice speaking) and hey, you seem to really weigh in towards Rushdie..?

Anonymous said...

The last comment was posted on April 30. I appear to have missed the bus by a several months. Even so, in my defence, I have only now accidentally stumbled upon this very intriguing blogspot, so I might as well make the most of it.

My take on the novel? I enjoyed it. I do not know why, but it seems to me that we are a little too harsh in judging literary skills of people.

Even so, since that is the trend, I will try not be a delinquent in these matters, although I hope I am slightly more forgiving of the review than the reviewer has been of the book. It is interesting that you should find fault with Nagarkar's, as you put it 'tacky language' and in the same breath say it affects 'a kind of unorthodox bravura'?

Please. I would be much obliged, and immensely grateful if you could tell me what is a 'bravura'?

Anonymous said...

My comment comes in after a long break from the previous, my apologies for taking up on this subject again. It is only very recently that I finished reading the book and accidentally came across this interesting piece of blog. I must say that I disagree with your take on the book to a large extent, if not entirely.
Zia's character, though riddled with obscure thoughts and ideas, is very well presented according to me. It is not unusual to have ardent liking for the extremist views of a religion, goaded on by his aunt, and to find solace in it. But it is also not unusual to be suffocated by the passion for religion and I believe that is what caused Zia's confusion, and later, his wanderings.
I should also like to address your take on the language of the author. You described the line " It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs" as tedious and over-expressive. I agree that the author has used various verbs to describe how the cold breeze affected Zia, but I believe every bit of the description was necessary and none of it seemed additional. Those of us who have grown up reading Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy would agree that descriptive narratives (when done sparingly) adds to the sensory aspect of the novel. And Nagarkar has carried it off in a rather commendable way throughout his book.
I agree each man is free to have his own view of the book, but I believe it is necessary to get the facts right before completely damning the book to the deepest recesses of hell.