Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A long interview in Interjunction

This week I have a long interview, in which I discuss Arzee the Dwarf, writers I love, reading, and The Middle Stage, up on the web journal Interjunction here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Remembering Jose Saramago

The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, one of the twentieth century's greatest writers, passed away last week. I first came across his work as a student in England in 2000, when I bought most of his novels, in beautiful paperback editions published by The Harvill Press (now Harvill Secker, and not quite the same thing), in a garage sale. They seemed to me to express a wholly original sensibility and a fruitful impatience with many fossilised novelistic conventions, and this taught me a great deal. The last Saramago novel I read, and delighted in writing about, was the wondrous Death At Intervals, in which he gave body, life and voice to that spectre that flits in the margins of our consciousness all our lives, death.

Here is an old post on one of Saramago's most charming books, "Jose Saramago's Unknown Island", and here is a link to his lovely meditation on literature delivered when he won the Nobel Prize in 1998, "How Characters Became the Masters and The Author Their Apprentice" ("Now I can clearly see those who were my life-masters, those who most intensively taught me the hard work of living, those dozens of characters from my novels and plays that right now I see marching past before my eyes, those men and women of paper and ink...").

Thursday, June 17, 2010

On Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows

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

Any history of twentieth-century Russia must open by marking and comparing two groups of citizens within the former Soviet Union. There were, on the one hand, those Russians who adapted their lives successfully to the dogma and paranoia of the perennially looming, all-consuming Soviet state, and on the other, those who fell afoul of it and were made to serve in labour camps, jailed, or killed.

As Vasily Grossman’s scathing and sorrowful novel Everything Flows shows, these two groups were not independent of each other. Often a man might make a move up in his own life by writing a “denunciation” that suspected, and merely by alleging went a long way towards proving, the conspiracy or treason of another.

People thus feared not only the state, but also their own neighbours. In the “people’s state”, the most innocent words were sounded in whispers, and the simplest freedoms disabled. Everything Flows, which was still being revised by Grossman when he died in 1964, is an unforgettable examination of both the perverse machinations and the moral agony of a hollowed-out humanity.

Like Rip Van Winkle, the protagonist of Everything Flows, Ivan Grigoryevich, leaves society a young man and returns elderly, bowed, and perplexed. His exile, though, has not been one of sleep, but of thirty years in Stalin’s Gulag for a trivial offence. His life has been shredded by the state: his mother is dead, his lover long ago married someone else.

In a striking passage, he goes to Moscow to see his cousin, the prospering scientist Nikolay Andreyevich. Nikolay offers him a confused welcome, while his wife Maria Pavlovna worries that “if Ivan did use their bath, they’d never be able to get the bath properly clean again, neither with acid, nor with lye.” That last qualifying phrase about acid and lye might have been left out by a lesser writer, but it is precisely this that brilliantly brings alive Maria Pavlovna’s pinched hospitality. The detail is cleanly double-sided, managing simultaneously to be both a justification and a condemnation of Maria Pavlovna's conduct. We begin to see how fiction can really be made to work in a layered, mind-expanding way.

Grossman was a bold, unconventional writer, and the form of his book echoes its title, ingeniously employing a variety of narrative lenses as it winds in and out of the corridors of a society feeding upon itself. One chapter unforgettably describes the days of a young mother in a labour camp; another is a meditation on a thousand years of Russian history and the country’s “slave soul”; and a third supplies an intriguing study of Lenin’s personality. This is a genuinely visionary work of art, and a worthy sequel to Grossman’s magnum opus Life and Fate.

An excerpt from Everything Flows, published in the Russian-English literary journal Cardinal Points, is here. A long interview with Grossman's translator Robert Chandler, whose services to Russian literature are immense (he is also the translator of works by Pushkin, Nikolai Leskov, and Andrey Platonov) is here.

And some other essays on Russian literature: on Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat", "A Kiss in Chekhov", "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam", "On Hamid Ismailov's The Railway", and on EE Cummings's Russian travelogue Eimi.

And two longer essays on what the work of translation means for literature in general and for Indian literature in particular are, respectively, here and here.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

On The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction 2

Curses that last for generations, haunted houses occupied by flickering apparitions both good and evil, the human body invaded by restless spirits, skulls collected from burning ghats, murderous voodoo and protective lemons, patients who use the art of “Persian sorcery” to kill their doctors, voluptuous damsels both chaste and randy, killings by the dozen and a fair amount of rapes – all these perfectly routine, humdrum activities comprise the subject matter of the stories of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction 2. Like its predecessor, which came out to warm reviews in 2008, this book too picks up some of the racy stories from the cheap books and magazines with lurid covers of the world of Tamil pulp fiction, and brings them over to English in a splendidly designed and weighty paperback.
Every story in the world possesses a plot, or what the literary theorist Gary Saul Morson calls “narrativeness”. This is a quality of moving forward or backward in the time-field of the story, and a dramatisation of the contingency of life, whereby we experience the pleasure of story (even when we know, for instance, that it is going to have a happy ending) by contemplating “the excess of possibilities over actualities” set up by the writer. Will the young prince die because of the curse, or will he find some way of beating it? What will happen when this family visits the old dilapidated house on the banks of the river? We want to know, and we read on.
In genre fiction, or pulp fiction, we might say that this quality of narrativeness, understood in a limited but effective way as meaning narrative speed (as encapsulated in the word “pageturner”), is privileged over all the other aspects of storytelling, such as rich and subtle language, close insight into the psychology of individuals, manipulations of point of view, or even a refusal to bring a story to a finished, tied-up close. Because of this, pulp fiction is often the site of one of the guiltier pleasures of reading, that of skipping. The eye often leaps across two or three paragraphs to sneak a peek at what has happened, because we can’t wait to know. When this happens, we might say that the story is a success on its own terms – the writer has drawn us in.
Certainly this feeling of being gripped by narrative pleasure and curiosity is often evoked by the first and longest story chosen by the translator Pritham K Chakravarthy, Indra Soundar Rajan’s “The Palace of Kottaipuram.” This tells the story of conspiracy and intrigue over several generations on a samasthanam, or feudal princely estate, not far from Madurai. Soundar Rajan gives us a charming pair of protagonists: the young and good-hearted regent Visu (cursed, like all the men in his line, to die before the age of thirty) and his smart and sexy girlfriend Archana, whose physical charms are always emphasised (“Archana’s bout of laughter ended with a jiggle of her firm breasts”). Archana and Visu begin to suspect that the curse might not be as fixed in the supernatural realm as it appears, and thereby set the story in motion.
Also prominent on the feudal estate are the Noorukudis, a tribe of bonded labourers who have been bound to, and sometimes preyed upon by, the royal family for centuries. Soundar Rajan loves the conventions of crime fiction, of the good guys enwebbed in dangers of which they have no comprehension (“Far away, on the balcony of the top floor, a pair of eyes was watching them”). But the complex social structure and history set up by him means that the story is always both advancing and expanding.
Overall, though, the new anthology is a disappointment when compared to the first volume. More than one story of the seven chosen is just a meaningless pile-up of blood and gore. Not only are the characters as flimsy as playing cards – something we accept – but often they have very little agency either. The evil spirits that invade their worlds and do gruesome things to them (thereby stimulating or titillating the reader) are finally, and a little too easily, trounced just in the nick of time by other spirits, or by the protection of some powerful goddess or deity. This is just a lazy way of writing, happy to feed off a larger attitude in the culture that believes that there is a divine hand behind everything and that any crisis requires a puja and a mantra to be solved.
One might say these are merely the conventions of the genre and a sign of how it has its ear to the ground, responding to the religiosity of the culture to which these books are addressed. But, no matter the circumstances, it is always disappointing to see stories take the path of least resistance in this fashion. Only Indra Soundar Rajan’s story offers some critique of blind faith and superstition. A tribal woman in his story is suddenly possessed by a vengeful spirit, blurts out a number of prophecies, and collapses, a small streak of blood seeping from her mouth. We are told: "The women in the crowd rushed forward, each taking a spot of the blood and applying it as vibhuti on their foreheads." Later Archana discovers that the "possession" was merely a charade organised by the conspirators in the palace, the better to ensure that they have their way. It is people like those women in the crowd, we realise (as a result of this small observation made at the time of the incident by the narrator) who ensure that these acts of theatre carry the force of supernatural revelation.
The spectrum of human emotions on display in this volume is very small, as if the writers have worn out their sympathies churning out hackwork. Nowhere in this volume is there the tenderness, the realism, or the insight into a troubled heart of a story like Pushpa Thangadorai’s “My Name Is Kamala”, which tells the story of a South Indian prostitute’s attempt to escape from a northern brothel, from Volume 1. Women are seen, whether benignly or in a matter of fact way, as if this were but natural, as sex objects. Again, this may be how pulp fiction generally sees the fairer sex (it seems somehow right to use this cliche), so it is pointless to ask for a more developed understanding of gender issues. What is more interesting, rather, is that for all their apparent coolness and disregard of conventional morality, these stories can't bring themselves to fully embrace the violence and savagery of their material.
In Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning", we see a young woman, Nadia, a blue film and then, aroused, sexually exploiting a visiting technician by threatening to foist a rape charge upon him if he resists. Nadia later is given her comeuppance for this immoral behaviour when she is herself sexually assaulted: suddenly abducted, drugged, and raped on camera. As this scene is pictured, the writer suddenly steps back from the lurid world he has so enthusiastically set up (giving it far more attention that the murder that, when solved, ends the story), and says only that the rapists were “lying on either side of her, toying with her body, strumming it like a rudra veena.” Why this coy, romanticising, falsifying description of something so horrific? Why is Rajesh Kumar so shy of saying, "They fucked her brutally one after the other"?
Now that the novelty value of Tamil pulp fiction in translation has receded, it is harder to see feel so enthusiastic about this second offering of work from his universe. It may be that these stories need a supporting extra-literary narrative – that of the great fame of the authors in Tamil Nadu, the vast number of books they have written, the millions of copies sold, the heat and excitement of this publishing sub-culture – for an English-reading audience to believe in their magic. But surely stories which are intrinsically fluent and gripping should shake off such a crutch once we enter their worlds. This, one finds, is not the case. Despite their sensational subject matter and Chakravarthy’s idiomatic, confident translations, there is just too much narration, dialogue and plotting that is dull, simplistic, and unskilled in Tamil Pulp Fiction 2.
And here is an old post on another Indian work of pulp fiction: Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist.