Saturday, April 28, 2007

Guy Sorman's Year of the Rooster

A version of this piece appears today in Mint.

China's sustained economic boom over the last twenty-five years and India's progress since liberalisation have generated a great deal of breathless talk - particularly in the financial press - about caged tigers waking, the balance of power in the world shifting, and the twenty-first century being "the Asian century". Much of this is just hot air. Although China is now the fourth-largest economy in the world, and India not far behind, per capita income is both countries is a fraction of what it is in the developed world.

Further, both countries have followed unusual paths to greater prosperity. India's growth has been kickstarted by its comparative advantages in the IT and service sectors: we have not enjoyed an industrial revolution, and this may hurt us in the long run. China, on the other hand, is the workshop of the world, owing its growth to massive exports of consumer goods and an unusually high domestic savings rate. Its economic miracle is all the more surprising because it has managed and directed by the Communist Party, which controls the apparent paradox of a socialist market economy. Everywhere the question is being asked: can such a rise be sustained?

The French political commentator Guy Sorman has been an Asia-watcher for three decades now, and has written a series of intriguing books, including Barefoot Capitalism (1989) and The Genius of India (2001). His latest book, The Year of the Rooster (Full Circle Global, Rs.495), is an attempt to inspect the Chinese miracle from within, building on a year of travel, study and encounters with people in China in 2005, the Year of the Rooster in the twelve-year animal cycle of the Chinese calendar. We are presented not with an enigmatic, faceless China of facts and figures of the kind bandied so often in the press, but instead a people very much like us, hungry for civil and religious liberty and for responsive government, but in thrall to forces whose power they cannot contest.

Sorman follows, on the one hand, the trail of misery and cruelty left by the Party-State. The story of China, he demonstrates, is "a chronicle of everyday repression". He meets the mother of a youth who was killed during the suppression of the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, still trying, in 2005, to get information on how and why her son died. He comes across political dissidents who have spent years in prison being tortured, and members of banned religious sects who have done time in labour reeducation centres. Some rebels dream of an armed revolution, others of a thaw ushered in by a figure in the Chinese communist party comparable to Gorbachev or Yeltsin, still others of a Chinese Martin Luther King.

Civil society is weak, for "the ability to associate outside the Party is what the Party fears the most". Thought control is everywhere. Both the press and the judiciary are emasculated, and serve as unofficial extensions of the Party. The regime even subjects the Internet to government control, and the state telephone company has developed software to censor text messages for words like "Tiananmen" and "Tibet". If matters have improved, in is only by comparison to the years of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.

Sorman argues that the West, in not taking a harder line with China's government for its predations, has valued "trade over human rights". All of this, he contends, renders comparisons of China's growth with that of India virtually meaningless, for a narrowly quantitative analysis does not reflect "non-economic values which matter like democracy, freedom of religion and respect for life".

And even that 9 per cent growth rate needs close examination. For one, if China is witnessing an unprecented migration of labour from the villages to the cities, much of that migration is forced: China has prospered because of its human rights violations, from using people as "human fodder". Also, China's manufacturing revolution is based on a virtually unlimited supply of cheap labour; the spirit of creativity and innovation traditionally associated with capitalism is foreign to Chinese firms.

"The Party has created a labour market not tempered by law, dissent, or collective bargaining," argues Sorman. "Economists had envisaged such a scenario only on paper. Chinese leaders have shown the lcassical economists were right: the less hampered the labour market, the greater the growth. But economists never had the kind of unlimited power the leaders of China enjoy." When, in addition to a precarious legal system and an absence of property rights, one factors in political uncertainty and a looming energy crisis, it is hard to believe that China will really become the world's new superpower.

As Gurcharan Das, the author of India Unbound, writes in his foreword to Sorman's book, he was himself a believer in "the myth of contemporary China". That belief seems to be shared by a section of India's political class: witness Chief Minister's Vilasrao Deshmukh's ambition, later repeated by Manmohan Singh, of turning Mumbai into "another Shanghai". But Sorman's visit to Shanghai reveals nothing but "a façade of modernity", a soulless centrally-planned city of glitzy appearances but poor sanitation, no freedom of speech, and an insipid cultural life. Most readers of Sorman's sobering book would take Mumbai over Shanghai any day.

Sorman's piece "The Empire of Lies" can be found here, in the most recent issue of City Journal.

Here are some other contributions to the debate on modern China: "New China, New Crisis", an extract from Will Hutton's new book on China The Writing on the Wall; "Does the future really belong to China?", a debate between Hutton and the economist Meghnad Desai in Prospect, and "What's Your China Fantasy?", another debate by James Mann and David Lampton in Foreign Policy; "The Dark Side of China's Rise" by Minxin Pei, "Getting Rich" by Pankaj Mishra; "The Great Leap: Scenes from China's Industrial Revolution" by Bill McKibben; "Unmasking the Man with the Wooden Face", a piece by Willy Wo-lap Lam on the Chinese President Hu Jintao; and "China: a 'great nation'?" by the Chinese journalist Li Datong.

And two fascinating accounts by individuals of their struggles with the paranoid Chinese state: "Arrested in China" by Kang Zhengguo ("The questioner begins from the assumption that you are guilty of many, many crimes and that the police already know the details of all of them. He does not say what the crimes are; it is up to you to show your sincerity and earn forgiveness by confessing") and "Enemy of the State: The Complicated Life of an Idealist", a recent piece in the New Yorker by Jianying Zha.

And lastly, an excellent ten-part series on present-day economic and social life in China for which the Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2007.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

The word "Bollywood" - till recently there were still some who resented the term, thinking it conveyed a satellite status, but now it seems universally accepted - refers not just to the Hindi film industry in general, but also to a specific site, the city of Bombay, and a specific style of moviemaking different from others, particularly in the use of songs and the mixing - some would say the outright murder - of genres.

It could be argued that before the arrival of the talkies in the late nineteen-twenties, the Hindi film was not a Bollywood film as we know it. This distinction is not considered in Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History, the jacket copy of which claims it is "the first comprehensive history of this major social and cultural phenomenon". For Bose, Bollywood begins the day cinema arrived in India in the late nineteenth century. He has written a curious book, high on enthusiasm but low on insight, containing plenty of personality sketches - and Bollywood is in some ways all about the cult of personality - but for the most part rehashing old arguments and interpretations in equally careless prose.

As Bose points out, unlike other Western inventions like the motor car or the typewriter, the cinema came early to India, almost as soon as it was birthed. In December 1895, the Lumière brothers showed their first selection of short films to a thunderstruck audience in Paris using the Cinématographe, which was both a camera and a projector. It was a seminal moment in the history of the modern world. As the great film critic and historian David Thomson has written, "Used to the frozen mirror of stills, people began to see for the first time how they walked, smiled and gestured, how they looked from the back, and how other people watched them. Introspection and exhibitionism were thus simultaneously stimulated by the cinématographe."

Only seven months later, the films of the brothers Lumière were being screened at Watson's Hotel in Bombay, and the Times of India carried an advertisement about "the marvel of the century, the wonder of the world". India took to the movies almost at once: viewers were enthralled, short films began to be made imediately by native filmmakers, cinema-houses mushroomed in the major cities, and within a few decades, the Indian film industry was the world's second-largest. How did the new art form capture the Indian imagination so swiftly? Bose does not spend any time over this - in general he shows little interest in the specificity of film as a form - but the explanation surely lies in the power of the medium itself.

As the film theorist Noel Carroll has argued, the movies are an unusually clear and intelligible medium, requiring little or no training on the part of the observer (unlike, for example, reading). It is much easier understanding the conventions of films than of novels or plays: film is a truly mass medium. If film easily superceded prevailing forms of spectacle in India, such as the theatre, it was because it outdid the theatre in the production of mythological stories, which was what Indian audiences liked to watch. The Indian film scholar Nasreen Munni Kabir, in her book Bollywood Dreams, notes how cinema technique could enhance the illusion of the mythical, through simple devices like low-angle shots or basic special effects. It was not just the matter but also the medium that excited the wonder of the viewer.

Several parallel film industries, each working in a different Indian language, sprang up, but of these the Hindi film industry emerged the strongest. Early on the Hindi film industry worked along the lines of the Hollywood studio system, in which each actor was employed with a particular studio; later, as star power grew, actors began to freelance and the star system emerged. Many of the early luminaries of Bollywood were foreigners, such as the German director Franz Osten, who made 14 movies between 1935 and 1939, or the spectacular stunt queen Mary Ann Evans, who became famous as "Fearless Nadia".

With the arrival of sound in the nineteen-twenties came not just spoken dialogue but, just as significantly, music. Indian popular narrative traditions had always incorporated music, and the first Indian talkie in 1931, Alam Ara ("All Talking Singing & Dancing"), had seven songs. As films were then all shot in sync sound, the actors needed to be able to sing capably, as did stars like KL Saigal. Later image and sound were broken up, and the tradition of playback singing emerged. Bollywood also attracted some of the best writers of the time, like Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto (whose superb memoir of his days in the Hindi film industry, Stars From Another Sky, Bose quotes frequently).

From this potential treasure trove of material, Bose has produced a severely undercooked book. Although he has written other good books, most notably A History of Indian Cricket, Bollywood, or cinema in general, are clearly a foreign field for him. His general method is to paraphrase a bit of history, augment it with a long quote, (usually from Shyam Benegal, who deserves twenty per cent of the royalties); supply a few plot summaries here, retail a bit of gossip there. His book does not extend or deepen our understanding of Bollywood in any way.

Some of Bose's writing is exceedingly puzzling. Consider this bit, about the culmination of the romance between Dharmendra and Hema Malini: "In 1979, Dharmendra heard that in the film Hum Tere Ashique Hain, based on My Fair Lady, Hema had planted a kiss on Jeetendra's cheeks and also cried in the movie without the help of glycerine. He decided he had to act and, in May 1980, he married her." It seems to me that the writing here accentuates the absurdity of what was already an unusual affair.

The film historian Iqbal Masud, we are told, "sees the forties as a prelude to the golden fifties, whose nakedness of themes remained unequalled until the eighties". Naked themes? Bose's punctuation, particularly his deployment of commas, could make a reader weep: "But while [Yusuf] was in jail Gandhi, observed a fast, and Yusuf, refused to eat his prison breakfast."

Not only is Bose's writing pedestrian, his book is glazed over with an unseemly self-regard. He constantly makes references to his own life and experiences when they have not the least relevance to the subject. Consider his prologue, a tedious 30-page account of how, in the early nineties, he travelled from London to Bombay to write a piece on Bollywood commissioned by a British newspaper. Accompanying him was an attractive photographer called Pamela Singh, better known as the infamous Pamela Bordes. When word got around of the photographer's real identity, all of Bombay's high society wanted to meet her, and took to soliciting Bose's help in doing so. Even the newspaper editor who'd commissioned the piece decided he wanted a story on Pamela instead.

"Having been incognito as a writer for twenty years, I had suddenly discovered fame as an agent for a photographer who wanted to remain incognito," sniffs Bose. "Pritish Nandy, editor of the Sunday Observer, who had in the past taken great pleasure in knocking my books in print and describing me as a worthless writer, now rang me repeatedly to get to Pamela." All this tells us nothing about Bollywood, but a great deal about Bose. At another point Bose introduces Shobhaa De, the former editor of the film magazine Stardust: "Born in 1948, she had a degree in psychology from St.Xavier's College, where I went to as well..." If this sort of chitchat is all we're getting up to, I might as well reveal that I went to St.Xavier's College too for a bit.

Although published by a major Indian press, this book is shockingly copy-edited. The cover is beautiful and the layout stylish, but when it comes to the actual text, misspellings and grammatical errors are abundant - what kind of priorities does this reflect? In one of the book's many incoherent passages, the director Rakesh Roshan is quoted as saying, "In the old days you controlled the release in order to wet the appetite (sic)". Bollywood: A History does indeed wet the appetite.

Here's an old post about one of the best books on Bollywood ever written: The film writing of Saadat Hasan Manto.

And a piece on one of the best Bollywood films of this decade: Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Words Without Borders, and the stories of Parashuram

At least since the invention of the printing press, the history of literature has also been the history of translation. Within fifty years of the birth of print technology in the fifteenth century, the number of books in Europe shot up from a few thousand handwritten manuscripts and their copies to over nine million. As soon as it became possible, for the first time in history, for every household to possess a copy of a book it valued, such as the Bible, it was not just book production but also translation that became widespread, enriching both life and letters immeasurably by casting literature into new languages and making them accessible to new audiences.

Even today, what we think of as the greatest works of world literature are works we generally know only in translation. The most popular version of the Bible, the King James Bible, is an enduring and majestic sixteenth-century translation of the original Hebrew and Greek. Cervantes's Don Quixote, widely considered the greatest novel ever written, is read today by many more readers in English and other translations than in the original Spanish. The same is true for Flaubert, Chekhov, or even last year's Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It is a paradox of literature that as a writer's reputation grows, the proportion of his readers who read his words exactly as he wrote them dwindles.

If the world today is a smaller place, then, than it used to be, then we owe that as much to translation as to travel by aeroplanes or the arrival of the Internet. Indeed, in our own vibrantly multilingual country, the glories of our literature would sometimes not find an audience even a few hundred kilometres from their place of origin were it not for the benediction of translations, and our literature as a whole would be the poorer for it. As the literary critic Edmund Wilson once wrote, translations achieve something like a cross-fertilisation of cultures, allowing the best of what has been thought and said to reverberate widely.

Yet English, with its imperial past, is now the dominant world language, and as with all asymmetries of power, there ensues a neglect of small or marginal presences. As the translator Michael Hofmann has remarked, the size and spread of the English language offers readers "a delusive self-suffciency". A study by the online magazine of literature in translation Words Without Borders shows that 50 per cent of all books published in translation worldwide are translated from English, but only 6 per cent into English. A sample of the riches English readers are missing out on because of the reluctance of English-language publishers to invest in the (admittedly expensive and time-consuming) process of translation is now provided by the anthology Words Without Borders, which brings together 28 works of literature never before published in English and selected by some the most prominent names in world literature, from Naguib Mahfouz and Gunter Grass to José Saramago and Ha Jin.

The Indian representative in this contingent is the Bengali writer Parashuram (1880-1960), whose story "The Scripture Read Backwards", chosen by Amit Chaudhuri, is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Parashuram had a talent for a comedy that penetrated to the very heart of cultures and their relations with each other.

"The Scripture Read Backwards" envisages, through a series of comic vignettes, a world in which it is not England which has colonised Bengal, but Bengal which has colonised England. British schoolboys sitting in pathshalas study how Bengali suzerainty has brought peace and order to a fractious Europe; newspapers feature advertisements for powders to darken "the unfortunate natural pallor" of the skins of Englishwomen; a British governess is ticked off by her Indian mistress for saying thank you, please and sorry all the time ("It's a very rude habit"); and a nascent British Home Rule movement tries valiantly to counteract the propaganda of the Bengali empire.

The fun of the story is that British subjects are not just forced into submitting to the ways of empire; some of them really want to be like the Bengalis in matters of conduct or fashion - indeed there is no stopping them. "What's that? Feeling cold?" says one character to another. "Whatever made you wear a dhoti and kurta again? You'll die of pneumonia trying to ape the Bengalis." In this way Parashuram sublimated Indian resentment at the Raj into healing laughter. Would that "The Scripture Read Backwards" had been translated earlier, and read forwards to a Curzon or a Mountbatten.

Many of the other pieces are just as entertaining. The Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of The Noodle Maker and Stick Out Your Tongue (he had the good fortune also of marrying his translator, Flora Drew, and the couple talk about their marriage here), treats us to "Where Are You Running To?", an entertaining story about a woman chasing her truant son through the streets of the city, remembering on the way all the hardships of her life. The Nigerian writer Akinwumi Isola presents a tale of marital strife in "The Uses of English", a translated story that is also about translation, and the Mexican writer Juan Villoro a hardbitten story about the life of a boxer, "Lightweight Champ". This sparkling collection is the most powerful manifesto possible for a world of words without borders.

More of Parashuram can be found in an excellent edition of his Selected Stories, published just last year by Penguin. The translations are by the prominent critic and translator Sukanta Chaudhuri and the physicist Palash Baran Pal, and they render Parashuram's prose into a fine light-footed English, bounding along on gusts of whimsy. Here are the first two paragraphs of the story "The League of Tender Spirits":

The weather office at Alipur has reported that the hole in the atmosphere above Sagar Island has filled up for good, so there will be no more rain. An advance guard of three autumnal green insects has been captured on Chowringhee Road. The murky sky is being rent apart to reveal the underlying blue. The sunlight has taken on the hue of bell metal. The mistress of the house is airing quilts and blankets out of doors without fear of the weather. One has to snuggle up a little close in bed in the early morning. Skinny little baby cauliflowers are selling at four to a rupee. The price of gourd is rising, of potatoes falling. The autumn is manifesting itself on land and water, air and ether, body and mind. The kings of yore used to set out on expeditions of conquest at this time of year.

The court was in vacation; my house was empty of clients. The whistle of the Dhapa Mail sounded from Circular Road. I observed with wonderment that my elder son had laid aside his geometry textbook and was perusing a railway timetable. My younger son was possessed by a railway demon: he was churning his elbows like pistons, pursing his lips like a shrew and crying 'Choo--choo--choo!' My heart grew restless.
The sentences, flatly declarative and roving from subject to subject, seem forged almost independently of each other, yet the effect they create cumulatively is exceptionally fine. Parashuram, too, was "possessed by a railway demon" - the wonder and excitement of train travel figure prominently in many of his stories. "The king of all forms of transport is the railway train," declares one of his characters, "and the king of all railways the East Indian Railway".

Two stories by Parashuram can also be found in Amit Chaudhuri's excellent, if somewhat too Bengali-centric, anthology The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature.

And here are some essays on translation: by Howard Goldblatt ('Sometimes, of course, a translation can enhance a work in ways the author never imagined. Gabriel García Marquez has said he prefers Gregory Rabassa's English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to the Spanish original, to which Rabassa replied, "That is probably less of a compliment to my translation than it is to the English language." James Thurber tipped his hat another way: When told by a French reader that his stories read even better in French, he replied, "Yes, I tend to lose something in the original."'); "A Rose By Any Other Name" by Umberto Eco, "On Translation and Garcia Marquez" by Edith Grossman, "How To Read A Translation" by Lawrence Venuti, "The Process of Translation" by William Weaver, "On Translation" by James Atlas, "Translating Saramago" by Margaret Jull Costa, and "Animadversions on Translation" by Michael Hofmann. And Douglas Hofstadter compares two translations of Pushkin's novel-in-verse Evgeny Onegin in this essay, "What's Gained In Translation".

Other Middle Stage essays on early-twentieth-century Indian writers: on Fakir Mohan Senapati, whose novel Six Acres and a Third also contains a witty critique of British rule like that of Parashuram, and Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay.
[The first part of this essay appears today in Mint as a review of Words Without Borders.]

Saturday, April 07, 2007

On Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s taut and accomplished second novel, takes the form of a single long monologue that we are asked to imagine as a dialogue - a form which reverses the power relationship that is the subject of the book.

Changez, a resident of the Pakistani city of Lahore, encounters by chance or purpose an American tourist on the streets of his city, and presses his hospitality upon him. They get to talking—we never actually hear the interlocutor, only Changez’s reactions to him—and Changez loses no time in revealing that he has actually lived in America. He is, we learn, a graduate of Princeton, worked subsequently for a prominent American firm, and even had a love affair with an American girl. Then how is he now here? Changez’s story—which seems to gush from him like blood from a wound—traces the self’s shifting sense of itself against the rumblings of a rudely shaken world.

Changez is the scion of a prominent Lahore family. A bright student, he wins a scholarship to Princeton, where many of his American peers come from the same class of their society as he does of his. But it is a different society. The bright allure of meritocratic America seems to Changez in direct contrast to the tired air of his home country, its attention focused on military skirmishes with neighbouring India. On graduating, he takes up a lucrative offer from Underwood and Samson, a leading valuation firm. The guiding principle of his firm is “Focus on the fundamentals”.

At 22, Changez becomes part of a global elite, flying business-class and hopping from country to country. He loves the buzz of New York. “I was, in four-and-a-half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker,” he exults. Returning to Pakistan to visit his family, he is depressed by the shabbiness of the house in which he grew up, but realizes that “I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner”. It is a persuasive portrait of how life in a new country reshapes one’s old attitudes and certainties.

In New York, Changez also falls in love with Erica, a girl from a wealthy American family. As their attachment develops, he learns that Erica has a past: Her long-time boyfriend, Chris, passed away recently. Changez feels that it is only a matter of time before Erica leaves behind her memories and embraces the present, but disturbingly she seems instead to regress, and he feels powerless to help her.

Changez, then, has multiple allegiances to America. Yet, while on assignment in the Philippines, when he sees on TV the spectacle of the World Trade Center being mowed down by terrorists, he finds himself perplexed by the fact that his immediate reaction is one of satisfaction. “[A]t that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack,” he analyses, “…no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

Those italicised emphases—of which there are many in The Reluctant Fundamentalist—are Hamid’s way of signalling tremors in his otherwise understated writing; they are suggestive also of the cadences of Changez’s analytical mind at work, seeking precise nuances and distinctions so as to avoid falsifications of his experience.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Changez finds that something in the air has changed: almost overnight, he has been pushed out to the margins of a world in which he felt so much at home. If the complaint of the unnamed black protagonist in Ralph Ellison's landmark novel Invisible Man (1952) is that his skin colour has made him invisible ("Look at me!" he shouts), then Changez's predicament is that he is too visible - because of his ethnicity, he is viewed with suspicion as he never was before. He is alarmed also by the martial stance of his adopted country, intent upon a reprisal that will lead to the deaths of many more innocents. He finds America in the grip of “a dangerous nostalgia” not dissimilar to that of Erica, pining for her departed companion.

But Changez’s doubts and fears are not solely directed outward. He begins to see himself, too, as complicit with a world order he finds morally repugnant. After all, “finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised his power”. He feels he cannot abide any more within his insulated world. Instructed to focus on the fundamentals, he sees now that those fundamentals were akin to a pair of blinders. He becomes—in a clever subversion of the expectations raised by the novel’s title and its alienated Pakistani protagonist—a reluctant fundamentalist.

Hamid's narration recalls not just the Dostoevskian universe of humiliation, resentment, and self-loathing, but even Dostoevsky's pairs or doubles: attempting to get Erica to warm to him in bed, Changez invites her to imagine he is Chris, his dead rival.

And just like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who rather than believe in an unjust order decides to “return my ticket”, Changez, too, forsakes his gilded life in America and returns to Pakistan to teach. During the course of his narration, he asserts repeatedly that he means his unidentified American companion no harm. But the reader has heard in his voice the dark undertow of what Orhan Pamuk has called “the anger of the damned”, and is not so sure.

Some links:
Mohsin Hamid writes about the gestation of his book here, in an essay called "My Reluctant Fundamentalist".

And he writes here about applying for British citizenship: "It...occurs to me that I have something to lose. I am a Pakistani and proud of it. Inevitably, I wonder if I am not somehow being disloyal to the country in which I was born and which I have always loved. I have the nagging guilt that I imagine accompanies thoughts of divorce. But then I remind myself that I am allowed dual citizenship. My situation is not analogous to that of a husband who is leaving his wife for another woman. No, I tell myself, I am more like a father who is about to have a second child. Of course I am nervous about neglecting my first-born. But surely I can find within me the affection and commitment to be true to both."

And here are two pieces on Pakistan by Hamid for Time magazine: "The Usual Ally", written just after 9/11 ("I remember, as a boy in Lahore, the moment I learned Pakistan had become, once again, America's ally" - the pauses in that sentence sound just like Changez's voice) and "Divided We Fall", written last year, in which he writes sagely of "the inability of our society to channel dissent into debate". He articulates his doubts over Pervez Musharraf's continuing hold on power in a recent piece in the New York Times, "Pakistan's Silent Majority Is Not To Be Feared".

Sunday, April 01, 2007

On Etgar Keret's Missing Kissinger

A version of this piece on Etgar Keret's new book of stories Missing Kissinger appeared recently in the Scotland on Sunday.

On the inside back-cover of his new book Missing Kissinger, Etgar Keret appears with a black gag around his mouth, staring into the camera with one eye. And if that's what a writer gets up to with just his author photograph, imagine what the stories are like.

Keret is one of literature's freest, zaniest spirits - just as his photograph is not what we expect of the Writer, or the Israeli writer, so his stories stick their tongue out at conventional notions of the literary. They are no more than four or five pages long, their sentences are very short, their language that of casual conversation, and their tone laconic ("Soon as…", a typical Keret sentence begins, or "Truth is…"). The characters, mostly everyday joes puzzled by life, work within a limited vocabulary: "I was going through a shitty time", they might say, or "I love him too, I really do, but that's a biggie".

Indeed, Keret's stories are all tricks of voice, of people taking grave matters lightly and impossible things seriously, in a way that we both see their point and relish the confusion. In the Keretian universe anything can happen; his stories have the strangest premises.

"Suddenly, I could do it," begins the story "Freeze". "I'd say 'Freeze' and everyone would freeze, just like that, in the middle of the street." In "Cramps", the unnamed narrator dreams that he, or she, is a forty-year-old woman, who then falls asleep and dreams she is a twenty-seven-year-old man. Two boys dig for dinosaur eggs in their backyard and find one, and another commandeers an army of ants. In an essay on "quickness" in literature, Italo Calvino noted how in some works "the speed at which events follow one another conveys a feeling of the ineluctable". That remark might serve as a summary of Keret's method.

The stories abound with splendid gags. In "Venus Lite", all the gods come down to earth to work, and Venus arrives in the narrator's office, to work the photocopier. The narrator is going through a hard time and needs something to believe in. He falls in love with beautiful Venus right away, but can't work up the courage to tell her. "In the end, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it on the desk for her. The next morning, the note was waiting for me, along with fifty photocopies."

The same anti-climactic tone characterises "Magician School", one of three stories about magicians in Missing Kissinger. The narrator, a young magician, is telling us about the recent graduation ceremony at Magicians High School:
At the ceremony, all the graduates got to demonstrate something from their theses. Amicam Schneidman, who was undoubtedly the great Israeli hope in the field of classical magic, showed how he turned staplers into animals. Mahmud al-Mi'ari shrank himself into miniature size and talked to things that didn't exist. I killed a cow. After the ceremony, I was thinking about something else as I was pulling out the parking lot and boom! After it died, it turned back into a stapler.
In the story "Drops", one of Keret's many unreasonable and perplexing women learns that someone has invented a medicine against feeling alone, and decides to leave her boyfriend before he cheats on her. The medicine comes in two forms, drops and spray. The narrator's girlfriend chooses drops. "Just because she doesn't want to feel alone, there's no reason to harm the ozone layer."

Just as Keret's stories are anti-literary, so too they are anti-romantic. Illusions are always being punctured, and the unambitious protagonists are always being left by their girlfriends for firemen, law students or photographers. Life is tough, and even when the going is great - as in "Freeze", when the narrator can take the most beautiful women home after getting them to freeze - the fun is ruined by the realization that "None of them wants me because of what I really am". These are fine, potent drops of storytelling.

Here is a previous post on Keret: "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret".