Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Middle Stage's Books of 2009: Fiction

A survey of the best non-fiction of 2009 is here.

The Tamil writer Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan) tells the story, and the stories, of a group of women who belong to a Muslim trading and landowning community in a small village in Tamil Nadu. Each one of these characters is vividly brought to life, and the narrator beautifully negotiates multiple visions of love, truth, justice, sorrow, anger, belief and desire: the novel is a magisterial exercise in the working out of point of view. The focus is primarily female, but not exclusively so. We are for time to time catapulted into the lives of patriarchs, husbands, and brothers, and often the predicaments of these men are just as tenderly observed. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation often leaves some of the vocabulary of the Salma’s Tamil world intact, thereby making us enter a world as much on its own terms as on ours (readers cannot always demand the rights of consumers). Not the least of the novel’s pleasures is the quality of its thinking about God, who appears sometimes as a source of succour for the miserable and the helpless, sometimes as justice and at other times a perversion of justice, sometimes only as a question or a blank space – and therefore always human, in the sense of always appearing to us filtered through a human imagination. To my mind one of the greatest of Indian novels.

The leisurely and beautifully weighted stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House in India, Norton in America, Bloomsbury in the UK) take what has become a convention in short fiction – the stories of interlinked characters conceding primacy to each other – and raise it into an examination of the many currents of life emanating from the decaying estate of an aging landowner in feudal Pakistan. This world appears, like Salma’s, grossly patriarchal, but we find to our surprise that most of Mueenuddin’s stories are about women, and these women often exert a power over men that pierces the hearts of the heartless. Mueenuddin is often an astute psychologist, as when he shows us an estate manager throwing all caution to the winds in a love affair because he has so carefully calculated his rise that now, for once, “he deserved to make this mistake.” Some of the prose effects of this book are too vivid for description in a single paragraph. Longer essay here.

Orhan Pamuk’s long-awaited The Museum of Innocence (Knopf is America, Faber & Faber in the UK) proved to be a love story that, not for the first time, found a channel that made readers ask: why didn’t we think of this before, the idea of an actual museum for a relationship? A 30-year-old business scion, Kemal Basmaci, falls in love with his beautiful teenaged cousin Fusun and is vividly transported into the wonders of a private and shared vision, even as he about to make what society would think of as “a good marriage” to an attractive and accomplished woman of his same class and standing. Kemal cannot bring to a halt his drift in either direction, and becomes, to his own anguish, a resident of two camps. 1970s Istanbul and its streets, consumer objects, and mores are beautifully worked without any theoretical debris into this highly pleasurable story, the many fine moments of which invite the same rapture as the real experience of love itself.

Narrative swiftness and weightlessness – pure fictional skills, in a way, in which no sentence seems significant enough to be quoted but the story glows with an easy confidence in itself – were also a feature of works of fiction by two old masters: Nocturnes (Knopf in America, Faber & Faber in the UK), a collection of stories about music, memory, and dreaming by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Middleman (Penguin India), a novel set in the discontented Calcutta of the 1970s by the Bengali novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, or “Sankar”. Both writers are very adept at dialogue; indeed, since Ishiguro’s stories are all in the first person, they all aspire to the register of talk. Both writers also love plot. Ishiguro likes to move his stories on with little tremors of disbalance or revelation; we are never allowed to settle comfortably into our knowledge. Sankar’s tightly worked story expands just enough around a morally hazy landscape to carry a violent sting in its tail as we witness the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. Eudora Welty once observed: “A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which may be answered.” Sankar is one of those writers who knows the truth of this, and revels in the power of story to make meaning through a narrative arc. Arunava Sinha’s translation was expertly thought out. Longer essays on these two books are here and here.

A novel explicitly about politics and then about all those things that politics, no matter how omnivorous it is, cannot possess or destroy, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (Knopf in America, Fourth Estate in the UK) tells the moving story of a family of a young woman sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary activity in a fictional city in China in the year 1979. As with Salma’s novel, a number of characters, most of them on the margins of society, seem to draw the text out behind their trajectories, and the novel’s amplitude and artistic balance often rouse the reader to wonder. Longer essay here.

Aseem Kaul’s Etudes (Tranquebar) was the work of a truly independent sensibility: a book of 75 very short stories notable for their pellucid observation, dazzling metaphors, and jettisoning of the conventions of realist storytelling (which, in default mode, as it is used by so many practitioners, especially in popular fiction, can be absolutely wearying). A longer essay on Etudes is here. This was only one among several distinguished works of short fiction published in India this year, the others being Jahnavi Barua’s Next Door (Penguin, longer essay here), Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar, longer essay here), and Nighat Gandhi’s Ghalib At Dusk (Tranquebar, longer essay here).

Sudarshan Purohit’s translation of Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist (Blaft) brought into the house of Indian fiction in English, for the first time, a colossus from the Hindi pulp-fiction scene, and was a worthy successor to the same publisher’s The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (2008). Longer essay here.

For a while now the translator Sandra Smith has been bringing to readers English, almost year by year, the vivid and striking novels of the French writer Irene Nemirovsky, who when at the height of her powers was captured by the Nazis and killed in Auschwitz in 1942. This year's Nemirovsky release was The Dogs and The Wolves (Chatto & Windus in the UK), which follows the stories of three cousins, one rich and the other two poor, across Russia and France and across two decades. Nemirovsky's passionate and questing protagonists, her shrewd eye for human vanities and hypocrisies, simmering plots, and intensely dramatic and economical style always make her sound like no one else you have read. Longer essay here.

A friend of mine, flipping through the copy of Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring An Iranian Love Story (Knopf in America, Little, Brown in the UK) lying on my table, expressed shock that I had scored out so many passages of this book with a black pen. This was an unintentional compliment to perhaps the most unusual novel of the year, in which the love-story of two characters, Dara and Shirin, in Tehran, is intercut with the narrator’s own battle to defend the integrity of his text against an army of guideline-obsessed cultural censors (who, even when they find a female character sweating and saying “It’s hot”, immediately set about slashing and burning). Art literally fights for its life in this clever and jazzy postmodern tale, even as the author finds his own two creations rebelling against him and the storyline he has thought for them. When, towards the end of the novel, Dara and Shirin meet and are fulfilled, we totally understand, and are moved, when the narrator begins to speak of “my own loneliness”. A salutary deconstruction, and reconstruction, of fiction as it is conventionally understood. Longer essay here.

Good wishes for 2010!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Middle Stage's Books of 2009: Nonfiction

Here are The Middle Stage's favourite nonfiction books of 2009:

MG Vassanji's A Place Within (Penguin in India, Random House in Canada) was a brilliant meditation on history, religious identity, and Indianness by a novelist turning the questions of his fiction upon his own life and traditions. A member of an old, syncretistic faith, the Ismaili Khojas, Vassanji (who was born in Africa and later migrated to Canada) returns to the Gujarat of his ancestors and to the many Delhis to history to think about where he stands on some of the most vexing issues of our time. “It is always instructive,” writes Vassanji at one point on his travels, “to remind oneself of the obvious fact: The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.” And in a more personal mode, confessing to an inability to feel the belief of the true believer but also the skepticism of the agnostic: “At any dargah, a shrine of this kind, and even at a temple before a priest, I cannot but help but allow in me a solemn feeling, some respect and humility, for I stand alongside others in a symbolic place that it some manner reflects human existence and frailty, or smallness and exaltedness, and our striving for understanding.” To my mind this is the best Indian travel book of this decade.

Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice (Penguin in India and the UK, Harvard University Press in America) was, at one level, a highly technical and specialised work grappling with key questions in the theorisation of justice, most notably the landmark work by John Rawls on the same subject. But Sen's book also offered, to any intelligent lay reader interested in being led out of his comfort zone by a very astute tour guide, page upon page of brilliant thinking on both the plural nature of what we think of as "just" or "fair", while simultaneously insisting that these ideas be rigorously tested in the practical domain of "redressable injustice" instead of only aspiring to a theoretical, almost mathematical, beauty. Sen contests many ideas that have acquired a general currency in the world today, arguing here against rational choice theory and its "remarkably miniaturised view of human rationality", there against "the propensity [of theories] to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible", and holding a candle for "the plurality of reasons that a theory of justice has to accommodate." "Reasoning is central to the understanding of justice even in a world which contains much 'unreason'," Sen writes. "Indeed, it may be particularly important in such a world." The use of that understated and yet somehow reproving phrase "may be", which actually leaves the reader filling in a stronger word, offers a clue about what it is about Sen's style that makes his work so persuasive.

Hooman Majd's The Ayatollah Begs To Differ (Doubleday in America, Penguin in the UK) richly deserved the accolades it won for being one of the best books available on the complexities of modern Iran. One of the very charming features of Majd's book is that we are brought up close not only with Iran, but also with Majd himself: his love of life's little pleasures, his sunny nature and love of jokes and absurdities, and his alertness to very subtle nuances of social conduct. I read his work as a meditation not just on how to live when one goes to in Iran, but on how to live. Also perhaps the best book title of the year.

Chaturvedi Badrinath's The Women of the Mahabharata (Orient Longman) was simultaneously a brilliant philosophical inquiry and a work of subtle and polished literary criticism. Badrinath's book focuses on twelve significant women in the Mahabharata and the place of their stances and actions within the larger web of meaning embedded in the epic. "In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition," writes Badrinath in one of his moments of flight around the idea of story,"the Mahabharata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning." Both epigrammatic ("Irony is the laughter of truth") and expansive (it quotes at great length from the text), this is a book which deserves a world and not just an Indian audience. Badrinath is also the author of The Meaning of the Mahabharata.

Another book which offered a brilliant interpretation of key cruxes in the Mahabharata, as well as other questions raised by the Ramayana and that of many other texts in the library of Hinduism, was Wendy Doniger's magnum opus The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin). Doniger's title gestures at an ambition to write a more comprehensive and inclusive history of Hinduism than the standard narrative allows, concentrating in particular on of women and lower-castes and their modifications of received traditions, as well as the vast internal diversity of Hindu thought itself on any of the big questions. Like Sen, Doniger is happy to accept the plurality of approaches towards the resolution of complicated academic debates; like Majd, she likes a good joke and is not shackled by ideas of scholarly decorum. I was particularly amused by her assertion that Emperor Ashoka's equivocations and hedging on the subject of non-violence "“is the expression of a man who finds himself between a rock edict and a hard place”.

Jonathan Bate's Soul of the Age (Penguin in the UK, Random House in America), a biography of Shakespeare by one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, beautifully organised its copious material around Shakespeare's own famous conceit of the Seven Ages of Man. Bate, who is also the author of the excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare, shows us Will the boy, youth, theatreperson, householder, and businessman against the background of a richly realised world of sixteenth-century reading, rhetoric, politics, statecraft, and even botany. Some of Bate's readings of individual plays, particularly of King Lear and its vision of human love and folly, showed how literary criticism is not just a response to literature and a meeting of two minds over one text; it is itself a form of literature, and can tint older works with new colours.

Tzvetan Todorov's Torture and the War on Terror (Seagull Books) was a short, eloquent and trenchant book about the vitiation of both inteliigence and dignity by the use of torture to grill suspects, whether in America's war on terror in particular or war in general. Todorov refutes various arguments made in support of torture, such the widely circulated "ticking bomb scenario", and suggests that the long-term damage of torture that is sanctioned by both states and societies that is, you and me are far greater than its apparent payoff. "Institutionalized torture is even worse than individual torture," writes Todorov, "because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?"

Harsh Mander's Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre (Penguin India) was a compassionate and morally lucid account of what happens to a society in this case Gujarat after 2002 for weeks, months, and years in the wake of a genocide. The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people.” As much as the trials of those who orchestrated large-scale murder and carnage in Gujarat in 2002 are about punishing the guilty, they are also, argues Mander, a way “for the victim to reestablish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy.” Mander describes the work done by himself and his volunteers on behalf of those deprived of their livelihoods, families and dignity in the carnage of 2002, but he always sees them as human beings first and victims second, even if this means that they choose not to fight the long fight in the courts.

Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin in the UK, Pantheon in America) was a beautifully composed meditation on the idea of work as imagined and lived out by 21st-century human beings in a range of situations, from fishing in the deeps of Maldives to the backroom operations of supermarkets. De Botton is less a reporter, more a writer; he is no Barbara Ehrenreich, infiltrating the sites that he wants to investigate. One of the criticisms offered of his book was that he is rarely seen getting his hands dirty, and approaches the work of labour from a certain remove. But it seemed to me better that the writer made this clear, and mined his own mind and intuitions for the significance of what he was seeing, instead of committing himself to a more detached and perhaps quantitative engagement with the situations he was entering. One of the book's many pleasures was the distinctive filamented cadences of de Botton's language.

Many excellent meditations on both life and literature were brought together in The Essays of Leonard Michaels (Farrar Straus Giroux). One of the joys of reading Michaels is his emphasis on how writers are as interesting as the thoughts or ideas for which we know them, and that to understand a writer's ideas we must first and foremost read his sentences, not just seek out his arguments. "Because the sentences from Hegel and Blake also have a form in which their intuitions, and preserved against rational analysis, it is not easy to explain them without letting their pleasure and energy bleed away," he writes at one point. Elsewhere, in a beautiful meditation on the human face, he writes, "A face is the thing we most consciously bear or carry into public view, while it remains invisible to ourselves; and it is also the thing we contemplate endlessly in others, in the tremendous variety and subtlety of their moods, desires, and meanings....A face is revealing and at the same time a disguise....Whatever we say, our face says it first, or differently, or withholds part of the meaning. It betrays as much as its expresses." The cover of this book features, appropriately enough, a striking photograph of Michaels.

Dearest Father (Oneworld Classics), a new translation by Richard and Hannah Stokes of a long letter written well into middle age by Franz Kafka to his dominating father Hermann, but never sent, showed us the contorted emotional world and murky artistic wellsprings of one of the greatest of modern writers as perhaps no biography or work of interpretation could. Kafka casts himself and his father as permanently warring but poorly matched antagonists, and his life as one long series of failures presided over by the older man. "I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle," writes Franz. The sense of human powerlessness which is everywhere in Kafka's fiction is evoked here as a grown man's inability to see himself in any other way than as a despairing and unworthy child.

The fiction and poetry list follows next week.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Coming up: The Middle Stage's Books of the Year

Coming up over the next fortnight on The Middle Stage: as in 2008, two long essays on the best fiction and the best non-fiction that's come my way this year.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On Written For Ever: The Best of Civil Lines

Like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the literary journal Civil Lines has for many years been an entity thought by most to be dead, even as a few of the faithful still insist it is alive and kicking, and merely waiting for the right moment to return to public life. Five issues of this journal of (to quote the editors) “fine unpublished writing” came out between 1987 and 2001, each edition, published and priced like a paperback, a celebration of the essay, memoir, long-form reportage, and the short story, while at the same time impervious to the charms of writing in translation, literary criticism, interviews, or poetry.

The magazine’s idiosyncracies of taste, irregularity of publication, somewhat cliquish circle of contributors, and lack of either a precise editorial manifesto or a market ambition were all repeatedly explained by the editors (perhaps a little too emphatically) as a symbol of their devotion to no other deity but quality. Since the last edition of Civil Lines appeared at the far end of this decade, might one then interpret this long hibernation as a damning comment on the state of Indian writing in English today – a kind of literary criticism of silence, just as vipassana is of the world of empty talk? Could be.

Alternatively, and much more realistically, one could attribute the disappearance of Civil Lines to financial issues, unsteady support from publishers, the involvement of the editors in more urgent projects, and the vacation air inherent to the magazine’s modus operandi from the very beginning (this when literary magazines usually begin with nothing less than a plan for world domination). In the same way, if one takes some of the editorial preening and pompousness on offer with a pinch of salt, (the introductions to each issue are included in the book, usually directed towards such revelations as this one from CL 5: 'We think that the seven stories in this issue add up to the best and most diverse collection of short fiction you're likely to read till...well, till Civil Lines 6 comes along) one might find plenty to enjoy in Written For Ever, a compilation of some of the best pieces published in the journal as chosen by one of its editors, Rukun Advani.

It is immediately clear from Advani’s anthology that the magazine published some outstanding non-fiction in its heyday (the late eighties, when three issues came out in quick succession). Dilip Simeon’s “O.K. TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution”, an essay about a truck driver who discovers that his khalasi, or helper, is a Naxalite, evokes life on the road in the most sumptuous detail, while Ramachandra Guha’s “An Anthropologist Among The Marxists” describes with a giddy devotion the author’s first-hand knowledge of the various Calcutta factions of Marxism gleaned as a doctoral student in Calcutta. Alongside Pankaj Mishra’s “Edmund Wilson in Banaras” (published elsewhere), these essays must rank as two of the greatest in modern Indian prose. Indeed, Simeon’s piece deserves further praise for the acuity with which it transforms the substantially non-English world of truckers into an English that never seems incongruous. Here is a passage from his essay: here we see the driver, Hardip Singh, meeting his prospective khalasi Partap for the first time, after which there follows a description of a khalasi's duties:

The youth was a bit of a greenhorn and seemed delicately constructed to the driver. He was already on the truck when Hardip approached its owner, a Punjabi lala in his mid-twenties from a Partition refugee family in Delhi's Rohtak Road area. The khalasi seemed to go with the vehicle, though he had only been on it for a couple of month or so, he said. Hardip didn't care. One khalasi was as good as another so long as they kept awake on night journeys, were quick on their feet, and good at massaging one's back and legs. Most drivers' apprentices were teenagers and aspired to become drivers themselves. Glad invariably in grease-stained cotton knickers in summer and threadbare pyjamas or pants in the winter, they were human appendages to the trucks, odd-job hands who leapt out at brief stoppages bearing tyre levers, with which they knocked at the tyres to hear them ring (to confirm they were not punctured), rushed out at octroi barriers to pay the clerks, leaned out of cabin windows slapping the door in city traffic and yelling at rickshaws, two-wheelers, cyclists and pedestrians (here insults could be exchanged and colourful abuse hurled depending on speed and distance), stood behind the vehicle when it was being reversed shouting affirmatives, wiped the smudges of shattered insects off the windshield at night, washed the truck at long halts (hence their other appellation, clean-der), supervised loading and unloading, spread the onboard tarpaulin on to consignments by tying it down with the onboard rope, performed hard labour with jacks and roads during tyre changes, checked engine oil and radiator-water levels, stayed awake all twenty-four hours unless instructed to sleep, and were honoured occasionally by being asked to take the wheel.

This is someone who really knows how to write a sentence, laying into its folds bright, memorable details (knocking at the tyres to making them ring), little jokes ("shouting affirmatives"), and delicately ironical remarks (working all twenty-four hours a day unless given leave) just as efficiently and suavely as the khalasi is supposed to do his job.The essays by Simeon and Guha are easily worth the price of the book, and there are a number of other good essays: a charming memoir about animal-watching by M.Krishnan; a tribute to his father by Brijraj Singh; Advani's own introduction, mostly an account of the origins of the magazine; and and a very funny “prelude to an autobiography” by Amit Chaudhuri in which the writer sets himself up against none other than Shobha De.

In the realm of fiction, however, the magazine's record appears in hindsight more modest. Other than Manohar Shetty’s diverting tale of Goan gossip, “Lancelot Gomes”, it is a struggle to find fiction here that is formally inventive, aesthetically satisfying, or in any way “written for ever”. A number of them work within a narrow palette of first-person reminiscencerealism; while this method can lead to many good things, many stories here are sunk by cliched descriptions of states of mind and feeling. One love story ends with “two anonymous beings at the edge of a sea that threatened every moment to engulf”, while in another story we are told that “Yet out of the blue a new twist did appear, irrevocably changing the status quo of 'Neelu and I.'” This is itself status-quo storytelling. Narrative artistry is a rare quality at the best of times, and the editors’ skepticism towards work in translation – the only example here is a translation by Amitav Ghosh of an unbearably mawkish story by Rabindranath Tagore called "The Hunger of Stones" ("Where had she lived and when, this ravishing, ever-changing beauty? Where was she born, in which palm-fringed oasis, by which desert stream? Who was the tented nomad who brought her into this world?") – seems to have meant a kind of willed fishing in shallow waters, or, to move the metaphor from sea to street, a refusal to engage with any place very far away from the comfortable Civil Lines of a city. Some of the stories collected here supply, I suppose, serviceable descriptions of conditions like immigrant life, society's callousness towards women, or personal angst. Very few work as story.

Civil Lines 6 is apparently to be published next year by Tranquebar Press. It may be very different from its predecessors, but more likely it won’t; journals are usually as stable, in a broad way, as the people who run them. In that case, there will still be much about the Civil Lines to enjoy. But the literary values and assumptions held by much Indian writing in English the late eighties and early nineties seem slightly musty when aired today, and given how much has changed about that literature in this decade, the journal might find itself today, in a far more diverse and energetic literary scene, more to the fringes than it would like or, even with its deliberately contrarian air, can be proud of .

And here is an older post on a recent anthology of essays on Salman Rushdie: "Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Diaspora."

A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge.