Monday, April 28, 2008

Speeches in Manipal, and thoughts of England

I love giving talks. After all, I can sit down to write any time I want, and put up a post any time I want, but to give a talk a man has to be invited to give one in the first place. So I was particularly pleased to be invited to speak on the subject of "Blogging and Literature" at a convention of media students in Manipal a few days ago.

Also, as writing is all labour, premeditation, slowness, and revision, I find that the experience of speaking extempore, letting each sentence find the next, can be quite a liberating one.

And as summer arrives outside my window, so, I find, do thoughts of England: the country half-glimpsed under low scudding clouds from the plane window; waiting for the coach to Cambridge at Heathrow airport; the beautiful faces of old friends; babies newly born, or on the way, or grown beyond belief between the last time and this time; walks by the Cam river, the grass bright with ducks in lines almost as orderly as those of people in stores and stations; the world floating by on a punt; hours in secondhand bookshops and warehouse sales; rare books hunted down in libraries, four-digit PINs in ATMs; shopping in Sainsbury's; proliferating pleases and thank yous; precious invitations to high table; the chatter of people outside Trinity Great Gate; cricket in whites under a blue sky on a green field; water drunk straight from the tap; the smell of grass and pollen; the continuously changing light; loamy beer in dim and woody pubs; memories of women loved, or only admired from a distance; nights of conversation and catching up and old tales retold; long journeys on the top deck of London buses; crooked lanes and sculpted hedges; the Sunday papers fat as sheep; the pleasurable accents and stresses of many kinds of musical English; Scotch eggs, rashers of bacon, trifle, cheesecake, scones with cream, ginger ale, and lambrusco; washing up, because there are no maids; samosas at Baker Street station; phone calls to newspapers and magazines asking for work — new footprints on old sand.

'Tis time to be buying a ticket.
And some other past-centred posts: "A Harold Pinter story", and "Memories of a Borges book, and the old Twentieth Century bookshop".

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On Ma Jian's Beijing Coma

A shorter and slightly different version of this piece appeared on Sunday in the Observer.

Dai Wei, the protagonist of Ma Jian’s shaggy and slow-moving novel Beijing Coma, is a man doubly captive. Although he is kept under close observation by the police for his role in the Tiananmen Square student protests of June 4, 1989, Dai Wei is first and foremost a prisoner of his own body: he has been lying in a coma since he was felled by a bullet on the day of the protests. Dai Wei’s mind is still functioning, but his body, which he thinks of as a“fleshy tomb”, is a mere vegetable. The opinion of one of the many doctors who attends to him is that, “Strictly speaking, he isn’t human any more.”

As China is rapidly transformed by economic modernization, and the world-changing ardour of Tiananmen Square recedes from the minds of its citizens, Dai Wei lies in his bedroom, tended to by his mother and occasionally visited by friends. As one of them jokes, Dai Wei, more than any other Chinese citizen, has actualised Chairman Mao’s advice “to remain unchanging in changing circumstances”.

Ma’s novel, a vibrant collage of scenes from Dai Wei’s past and present life, is simultaneously a large-scale portrait of a citizenry writhing in the grip of the Party and the state and a strikingly intimate study of the fragility of the body and the persistence of self and memory. It takes its form and even its tone – that of horror mixed with laughter – from the poverty and deprivation of Dai Wei’s condition. Trapped in an unchanging present, Dai Wei wraps himself around all “the tiny details people generally store in the back of their minds and never get a chance to savour again”. He thinks of the three women he has loved, of his favourite books, of food, of walks in the streets.

Ma (whose work was banned in China following the publication of Stick Out Your Tongue, his book of stories about Tibet) allocates a great deal of narrative time to the discussion of politics and the plotting of stratagems by the rebelling students. But his novel is never uninteresting, because he is not a didactic writer. Even when his characters speak of oppression, there is humour and pathos in their words. Indeed one of the pleasures of Beijing Coma is the author’s skill with dialogue. Wheedling citizens, sloganeering students, peremptory officials, whispering lovers, even the protagonist’s silent conversation with himself – all these are expertly rendered.

“What kind of country is it that punishes the victims of a massacre, rather than the people who fired the shots?” cries Dai Wei’s mother. Yet later she is so excited by the arrival of a telephone that she calls up unknown people listed in the telephone directory just to try out her new plaything. In these two kinds of speech – a despairing lament that exposes the corruption and mendacity of an entire social order, and a wholly gratuitous confirmation of connection – lies one of the clues to Ma’s method. Beijing Coma is full of such unruly and oddly moving details.

The great achievement of Ma’s book is the way we are made to experience Dai Wei’s extreme debilitation, his painful limbo in “death’s waiting room”, almost viscerally. Dai Wei’s body is broken up into parts: his mother has to sell one of his kidneys to pay for his medical expenses; his urine is collected for sale to followers of urinotherapy; and to his embarrassment, his penis grows hard whenever anyone touches him. When his ex-girlfriend comes to visit, he breathes in her smells and admits, heartbreakingly, that: “I long for her to touch my hand, then I remember the cadaver that I am.” Dai Wei feels guilty about all the years of trouble his body has given to his mother, and longs for the day when his death serves as both his release and hers.

In one beautiful passage, a sparrow makes Dai Wei’s room its home. The noises it makes as it hops and flies around allow the sightless Dai to form a picture of his surroundings. “Since it arrived, the room seems to have grown much larger,” he exults. Later the sparrow perches on Dai Wei’s chest and is “lulled to sleep by the ticking of my heart”. Bedridden for almost a decade, Dai Wei’s infirm body nevertheless proves capable of supporting the sleep of a sparrow.

As the novel explores the predicament of the comatose protagonist and of a society paralysed by fear and denial, the meanings of its title begin to ramify, suggesting a parallel between Dai Wei’s wretched body and the entire body politic. In the apocalyptic finale, Dai Wei’s apartment block is razed by the government to make room for a stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. The residents leave one by one, leaving only the supine protagonist and his half-crazed mother on stage. The irony of Dai Wei’s exhilarating waking as we leave him, Ma seems to suggest, is that he only rises up from one Beijing coma into another.

And some links
to other essays about China or Chinese literature: "On Guy Sorman's Year of the Rooster" (Sorman argues that comparisons of China's growth with that of India are virtually meaningless, for a narrowly quantitative analysis does not reflect "non-economic values which matter like democracy, freedom of religion and respect for life"); "Vaclav Havel, Kang Zhengguo, and prison literature"; and "Lush life in Mo Yan" (Mo Yan is in my opinion as good a novelist as Ma Jian, and one feature common to their work is their interest in the lives of birds and animals).

Indian novelists writing in English are often excoriated by local readers for living abroad and (this is often a vague charge) "trying to pander to the West". The irony of the best contemporary Chinese literature, in contrast, is that it is almost by definition the literature of expatriate writers, writers whose critical spirit has led the Chinese government to persecute them and ban their work ("Mo Yan" is actually a pseudonym that means "Don't Speak", and this is an appropriate symbol of the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party towards writers).

China's economic success has led people in important positions the world over to enthuse about a regime that, for fifty years, has blithely erased or rewritten history, made human fodder of its people, systematically ransacked an ancient civilization and vilified or outlawed many of its highest achievements, suffocated all creative endeavour and everyday speech with doctrine, and made political conformity (which is just another name for hypocrisy) the highest measure by which human action is judged. Strictly speaking, such a regime cannot be considered human either. In the year of the Beijing Olympics, and of the Chinese government on its best behaviour, we need novels like Ma Jian's and memoirs like Kang Zhengguo's to tell us the truth about China.

And some other essays: "Boycott Beijing" by the columnist Anne Applebaum (I must say that I am myself not in favour of such a move); "Does the future really belong to China?", a debate between Will Hutton and the economist Meghnad Desai in Prospect; "Empty Olympic Promises", a recent New York Times editorial; "The World of Mao", by Susan Spano; and "Hammers and drills, concrete and dust", a recent piece by Robert Macfarlane.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Three years of The Middle Stage

The date of my last post, April 12, is also the third anniversary of the Middle Stage.

How time flies. I was 25 then — I am 28 now; I had a day job then — I don't have one now; I had no burns then — I have sideburns now; I could run only three laps around my neighbourhood park then — I can do ten now; I owned lots of books then — I own lots more books now; I used to live west of the Western line then — I live east of the Harbour line now; I dreamt of being rich and drinking champagne then — I dream of being rich and drinking champagne now.

Regrettably, although the number of people visiting this site refuses to grow, the profusion of books and writers who have come and gone on these pages in the last three years makes it impossible to contemplate the kind of party that I proposed at the end of my first year (also, I am saving up for a vacation abroad, so you would have to bring your own alcohol anyway).

So I thought that all I'd do is thank you, my readers, for taking the time to read my work and often send in illuminating comments. I know it's cheap, but that's me.

I hope you will also read my first novel, which should be out in a while. And I've put together a selection of what I consider to be my best posts from the last two years:

"The Books Interview with Ramachandra Guha"; "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose"; "Tigers in the poetry of William Blake and Salabega"; "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games"; "Necessary and unnecessary steps in Constantine Cavafy"; "On David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk"; "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam"; "On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red"; "Some thoughts on artistic time and real time"; "Words Without Borders, and the stories of Parashuram"; "The Books Interview with Christopher Kremmer"; "On Muhammad Yunus's Banker to the Poor"; "Houshang Moradi-Kermani's "The Vice-Principal" and Literature from the Axis of Evil"; "On Saul Bellow's Seize the Day" and

(yes, I know it's long)

"On Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor"; "Memories of a Borges book, and the old Twentieth Century bookshop"; "On Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi"; "The tumbfalling prose of EE Cummings"; "Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India"; "On looking through Ted Hughes's Selected Translations"; "On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul"; "Fakir Mohan Senapati's roundabout fictions"; "On Amitava Kumar's Home Products"; "Talking India With Ashis Nandy"; "Wislawa Szymborska, curious about everything"; "On Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age"; "Travelling with Graham Robb"; "On Vinod George Joseph's Hitchhiker"; "Mark Tully and India"; "On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan"; "The Kitab Literary Festival, and a disquisition on boots"; "On Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners"; "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret"; and my Books of the Year roundups for 2006 and 2007.

And from 2006: "A year of the Middle Stage".

Saturday, April 12, 2008

On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul

Biographies always have to navigate between small and large concerns, between the humdrum detail and the world-changing intervention. But rarely is the gulf between high and low as vast as it is in The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s long-awaited biography of V.S. Naipaul. On the one hand, we make an intimate acquaintance with the oddities, infidelities, and perfidies of an exceptionally egotistic and unreasonable man, a man suffered rather than loved even by those closest to him. On the other, we see that the larger journey of this man (from provincial outpost to metropolitan centre, and thereafter eagerly, restlessly, back and forth across the newly decolonized world) is the story of the 20th century in miniature: the story of mass migration, of failed nation-states, of changing race relations, of multiple personal histories and affiliations.

French’s biography is exemplary on the details of Naipaul’s childhood, and later on his troubled (and troubling) conjugal life. One of the best sections of his book is the early one on Trinidad, tracing the Naipaul family story all the way back to the first arrival of indentured Indian labourers in Port-of-Spain in 1845. As Naipaul has himself said on many occasions, his father Seepersad, the son of an agricultural labourer who taught himself to read and write and became a journalist, spurred his dream of becoming a great writer. But French also shows how Naipaul’s projected sense of himself as a Brahmin, a lover of learning with a native sense of entitlement, fastidious about details of food and clothing, is in a way a disguise, as Seepersad was probably not a Brahmin.

Brought up in a fractious joint family, the details of which he would later use in his fiction, the young Vidia longed to escape from Trinidad and set about studying for the scholarship to England that would allow him to do so. Naipaul later saw his arrival in England in 1950 as being at the vanguard of “that great movement of people that was to take place in the second half of the 20th century”. At Oxford, he was to meet his future wife Pat, who offered support for his ambitions and soothed his insecurities about being a brown-skinned man in a predominantly white country.

After Oxford, Naipaul worked grudgingly at a variety of jobs (as a presenter on the BBC programme Caribbean Voices, as a book reviewer, even as a clerk), married Pat, and produced the brilliant early works of fiction (The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, A House For Mr Biswas) that won him acclaim in England as a promising writer from the Caribbean. French is particularly acute in his analysis of how, in his late 20s, realizing that the vogue for Caribbean fiction in England was dying, Naipaul reinvented himself as “a displaced, unaffiliated, un-Caribbean writer” and inserted himself into what the Indian publisher Ravi Dayal called “the mainstream of history”.

Thus began his travels around the world. A commission from the Trinidad government led him to write a short, critical book about the island; he journeyed to India with Pat in 1962 and produced his unsettling and controversial book An Area of Darkness; an offer from a university in Uganda became the launchpad for a series of books on Africa. Naipaul’s life settled into a pattern. He visited several countries, travelled widely with the assistance of local guides, spoke to people, transcribed his notes every evening, came back home and wrote up a book in a burst of focused work. His books, which almost always stoked controversy, tried to unveil the deep structure and crippling malaises of these civilizations through a combination of keen observation and recorded testimonies.

Meanwhile, Naipaul’s relationship with Pat had swiftly degenerated into a scene of relentless egotism and volatility for one, and suffocation and self-abnegation for the other. Sexually unfulfilled, he took to visiting prostitutes. Then, on a trip to Argentina in 1972, he met and instantly fell in love with an Anglo-Argentine woman called Margaret Murray, a mother of three. There began immediately a bruising affair, in both the figurative and the literal sense. Over the next 25 years, Naipaul and Murray loved and lacerated one another without ever coming close to marrying or living together, which was what Murray wanted.

Naipaul could not bring himself to leave his wife, the first reader of his manuscripts, yet, pitilessly, he told her about Margaret and often flew out to meet his lover in different parts of the world, leaving her to deal with her grief. French’s book is as much a biography of Pat as it is of Sir Vidia. He quotes often from her diaries, which are housed in a vast archive of Naipaul’s papers at the University of Tulsa, and closely tracks her attempts to make a life for herself during her husband’s absences. In one of the book's most heartbreaking moments, French shows us Pat living by herself in London, researching, of all things, an anthology of love letters at the invitation of a common friend of her and her husband, the historian Antonia Fraser. French’s narrative ends in 1996, with a moving description of Pat’s death and the scene of a tearful Naipaul and his new wife, Nadira, scattering her ashes in the woods near their country estate.

French beautifully mines and marshals the sources all biographies are made of - entries in diaries and notebooks, letters, recorded interviews, reminiscences of people close to the subject. Sometimes glimpses of a figure - an anecdote, a memory - can tell us more than pages of analysis can. French's narrative is full of such glimpses, which allow us to put together a private picture of Naipaul (French wisely eschews the kind of moralising commentary and retrospective judgments that mar so many biographies).
Moni Malhoutra, an IAS officer who assisted Naipaul with An Area of Darkness, recalls that Naipaul "was very athletic and he used to do a particular movement with his leg, he used to pick it up and bring it up towards his head from the back. It's the kind of posture which you'll see in some sculptures in the Tanjore temples...He loved to do that." Asked to judge a literary competition while serving as a writer-in-residence at a university in Uganda, Naipaul, we are told, "awarded only a third prize". A harried manager of the Taj Hotel in Bombay writes to his demanding guest: "Dear Mr.Naipaul, thank you for filling in the Guest Comments form and bringing to my notice the flaw in the design of the Tea-pots." A journalist requesting an interview with the master is rebuked: "Dear Mr.Bellacasa, Nothing in your questions suggests any knowledge of my work. An interview would be a considerable waste of my time and energy." (That word "considerable" is the funniest part of that sentence).

Naipaul himself gave his consent for the project, and revealed freely of himself to French. “Of all the people I spoke to for this book, he was outwardly the frankest,” writes French of Naipaul. “He believed that a less than candid biography would be pointless, and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility.”

This seems an astute judgment, and French’s biography is certainly candid. But for this very reason, long sections of it make for depressing reading. The darkness of Naipaul’s attachments (if "attachments" is the correct word) is not offset, in French's narrative, by the excitement of the work—and there must have been such an excitement on an almost daily basis, given Naipaul’s ambition, talent, and dedication to his craft.

For instance, since French was given access to all the Naipaul records and papers at the University of Tulsa archive, he had an opportunity to look at the draft versions of Naipaul's books and tell us by what stages they came to acquire their distinction (authors are never more interesting than when revising their work). As Naipaul himself has said, "The value of a literary archive is that it takes us as close as we can get to the innermost self of the writer who produced the work." French does, I think, not fully exploit the potential of the material to which he had access.

In the same way, French does not tell us enough about how Naipaul came to perfect his pellucid, ringing style - the unmistakable sound of his writing voice. Nor is there very much about Naipaul's reading, or the kinds of things he discussed with other writers. Glimpses of Naipaul's attention to the minutiae of composition appear here and there, as in a letter to Random House's Sonny Mehta in which he complains about the work done on his text by a copy editor: "I don't want anyone undoing my semi-colons, with all their different shades of pause; or interfering with my 'ands', with all their different ways of linking."

But the paucity of such material means that French's biography is finally somewhat unbalanced. The World Is What It Is exposes the many skeletons in Naipaul's closet, but it leaves the secrets of his books in the dark. Or to put it another way, French's book is too sexual, and not textual enough.

And two old posts: on Naipaul's book A Writer's People, and on an unusual experiment in literary biography, the Spanish novelist Javier Marias's Written Lives.

Update, April 21: I neglected to mention in my piece that about a third of the Naipaul archive - the notebooks, diaries, and letters of his early career - were inadvertently destroyed by Ely's, the firm which had been storing them. As French writes, "Ely's, instructed to destroy files marked NITRATE (belonging to the Nitrate Corporation of Chile) had taken those marked NAIPAUL as well." This loss would have caused French some difficulty in attending to questions of Naipaul's development as a writer.

A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Clay Sanskrit Library in India

I've just received Random House India's 2008 catalogue, and I'm delighted to see that Random House will soon be distributing the new and old releases of the Clay Sanskrit Library series in India. You will soon be able to buy these titles in your local bookstore at Rs.500-800 each.

As I've mentioned in earlier reviews of individual CSL titles, the Library is one of the most significant publishing projects of our age, bringing under one imprint a massive corpus of a millennium-worth of secular literature in Sanskrit, in new translations by some of the foremost scholars of our day.

The beautiful green hardback editions are small enough to fit into a handbag or even a good-sized pocket, and durable enough - in both the physical and the textual sense - to be enjoyed by your grandchildren.

Among the most enjoyable features of the editions are that they are facing-page translations (the original Sanskrit is presented in Roman script on the left-hand page), which makes it possible for the reader to get some sense of the sonic qualities of the original (and even teach himself or herself a bit of Sanskrit). Also, each edition is copiously annotated by the translator; textual cruxes are explained, and connections are made between the text and philosophical and aesthetic theories of the time.

For instance, in one text a character is described as being thirsty for battle, when the usual way of expressing this sentiment in English is "hungry for battle". The translator remarks that perhaps this difference in the metaphorical phrasing of a state of want and eagerness reflects "the desires of a hot and dry climate versus a cold and damp one". I have spent many enjoyable hours just browsing through these notes, one set of which is here.

A full list of Clay Sanskrit Library titles in alphabetical order is here (their Mahabharata will run into 20 volumes and their Ramayana to seven), and their April 2008 releases are here. Also, here is the essay "Seduced by Sanskrit" by Willis Regier ("Why care about Sanskrit literature? It is candid about sex, appreciates the power of money, and confronts the duplicities of war and religion. Its indispensable word is 'dharma' - duty, calling, or moral law.") and Robert Goldman's long introduction to the Ramayana.

And two older posts, on Kalidasa's Shakuntala and Dandin's enthralling pan-Indian adventure story Dasakumaracharita.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Some recent reviews, and thoughts on the interpretation of scripture

Some recent reviews in Mint: on the late Benazir Bhutto's Reconciliation (a vastly dull book, but with one good and very useful chapter ), Ramin Jahanbegloo's The Spirit of India (from which I'd earlier quoted a passage here), and Jose Saramago's sublime Death By Intervals, which with David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk is the best novel I've read so far this year.

Interestingly, Jahanbegloo's book contains an assertion the demonstration of which is worked out in Bhutto's long meditation on the Quran with the help of many progressive voices in the Islamic world. Jahanbegloo's idea is that: "In the long run, there is no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' religions. There are only 'hard readings' and 'soft readings' of religious texts." That is, the work of textual interpretation of scripture is as significant as the (often ambiguous) words of the text itself. Or, as the liberal Iranian theologian Abdolkarim Soroush puts it in this essay, there is a way of understanding religious texts that sees them as "immutable and changeable at the same time".

An an older post on the memoirs of General Pervez Musharraf, a work in which the word "army" is as central as the word "democracy" is in Bhutto's book, and is possibly used more sincerely. The feature common to both books though is that both writers see themselves as absolutely central to the rehabilitation of Pakistan's fortunes. That is to say, both Musharraf and Bhutto saw themselves, and only themselves, as solutions, and therefore were in no small way part of the problem.

I have not read LK Advani's just-released memoir: I wonder if there is a key word in it and if so what that is. Perhaps "Hindu"?