Why fiction is necessary, according to Arundhati Roy, and me.

I have heard research shows it is mainly women who read novels now. I have heard multiple men say before that they do read, but only nonfiction. As though fiction is somehow frivolous. This grieves me.

It shows ignorance of all that fiction can teach you, and inspire you to reach for further learning, as they knit together complex realities in a way only an imaginative product can.

“Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine,” author Arundhati Roy told The Guardian after the publication of her new novel.

“We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.”

In 1997, this woman’s first novel, The God of Small Things, astonished people around the world. It won the Booker Prize, which had never before been given to an Indian who actually lived in India. Or an Indian woman for that matter. It’s now sold 6 million copies.

It followed the lives of a woman embroiled in an illicit, intercaste love affair, and of her twin children: how, as it says, “they all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.”

It created the twins’ childhood world in a voice so individual it has haunted me for the past two decades. It remains a standout of my reading life.

But Roy is primarily a nonfiction writer. She’s spent the 20 years since The God of Small Things’ release embroiled in politics, producing essays on topics such as major government dams, the  2002 state-sanctioned massacre of as many as 2000 Muslims in Gujarat and the brutal suppression of tribes whose land is being mined. These will be published in collected book (i.e. brick) form next year.

The news she was publishing a second novel was exciting for the book world; I finally opened The Ministry of Utmost Happiness with the greedy happiness of someone who has a box of chocolates all to themselves.

I soon realised the story unfolds against a vast backdrop of modern Indian history that I frankly didn’t understand.

Here’s four paragraphs I wish someone wrote for me before I started:

  • ‘Partition’ means the division of British India in 1947.
  • It divided three provinces, based on district-wide Hindu or Muslim majorities, to create India and Pakistan.
  • This displaced over 14 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises and large-scale violence, with up to two million dead.
  • It created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that continues now.

Or, as Roy put it,

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbors turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens in Delhi in the 1950s, where Partition still reverberates.

The first part follows a transgender outcast called Anjum who lives in a graveyard. There, she has set up a funeral home and guest house, and dreams of motherhood.

Yep, you read all that correctly.

On her first night in the graveyard, after a quick reconnaissance, Anjum placed her Godrej cupboard and her few belongings near Mulaqat Ali’s grave and unrolled her carpet and bedding between Ahlam Baji’s and Begum Renata Mumtaz Madam’s graves … her desolation protected her. Unleashed at last from social protocol, it rose up around her in all its majesty – a fort, with ramparts, turrets, hidden dungeons and walls that hummed like an approaching mob. She rattled through its gilded chambers like a fugitive absconding from herself.

The stories of Anjum’s life are brilliant in themselves.

Anjum called her guest house Jannat. Paradise. She kept her TV on night and day. She said she needed the noise to steady her mind. She watched the news diligently and became an astute political analyst. She also watched Hindi soap operas and English film channels. She particularly enjoyed B-grade Hollywood vampire movies and watched the same ones over and over again. She couldn’t understand the dialogue of course, but she understood the vampires reasonably well.

But after a while I began to wonder where it was all going.

Then the book enters its second part, with an abrupt switch in setting to Kashmir, a region Partition plunged into territorial disputes between India, Pakistan and China that continues today, resulting in almost continuous warfare and civil unrest.

It also switches to a second protagonist, Tilo, an architect who gets involved with Kashmiri independence fighters.

Between these two parts, both told in third person, a first-person narrator is introduced: a drunk hiding out in Delhi while he’s supposed to be in rehab, and one of three men who see Tilo as the love of their life.

I have constructed myself around her. Not around her perhaps, but around the memory of my love for her. She doesn’t know that. Nobody does, except perhaps Naga, Musa and me, the men who loved her. I use the word love loosely, and only because my vocabulary is unequal to the task of describing the precise nature of that maze, that forest of feelings that connected the three of us to her and eventually to each other.

The narrator dips in and out once or twice more alongside a huge cast of secondary characters. While Tilo and Anjum provide some humanity, some whimsy that lightens the darkness of the political setting and the horror and trauma of the country’s warfare and politics, they are never fully revealed psychologically in the way novels conventionally develop characters.

Instead, they form what The Guardian calls an “extraordinary and visceral state of the-nation”.

It was peacetime. Or so they said. All morning a hot wind had whipped through the city streets, driving sheets of grit, soda-bottle caps and beedi stubs before it, smacking them into car windscreens and cyclists’ eyes. When the wind died, the sun, already high in the sky, burned through the haze and once again the heat rose and shimmered on the streets like a belly dancer. People waited for the thundershower that always followed a dust storm, but it never came. Fire raged through a swathe of huts huddled together on the riverbank, gutting more than two thousand in an instant. Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You.

I spend most of the novel loving this writing, but overall baffled, following gamely along and waiting for it all to come together. The two parts of the narrative do join in the end, and a bit of happy redemption takes place. Yet I’m left still grasping for meaning.

Roy told The Guardian: “What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city? … can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed?”

She sure can.

“It’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place,” she goes on. “Writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous.”

The Atlantic reckoned she went too far, criticising her for a lack of self-editing, confusion about point of view and a lack of humanity for “the very people she tried to humanise.” It called the book a “fascinating mess”.

But she’s still a must-read for me. I’ll probably open her third novel with equal excitement, but more wariness. Like it might either be a box of pralines or a bomb.

Because her writing is still astonishing, like no other writer I can name. It’s not just the magic realist style; it’s like she’s invented her own language. And while it doesn’t mesh as harmoniously with these characters as it did in The God of Small Things, it’s still delightful. Sentences becomes sandcastles, sweet and ephemeral, just existing for the fun of it.

Two men – one white, one Indian – go past, holding hands. Their plump black Labrador is dressed in a red-and-blue jersey that says No. 7 Manchester United. Like a genial holy man distributing his blessings, he bestows a little squirt of piss on to the tyres of the cars he waddles past.

Look, unless you adored The God of Small Things I won’t recommend this. Especially if you’re one of those men who have given up fiction. Starting with this would scare you back off for life.

But it challenged me. We need to be challenged. And if you do read it, now you know at least one person who’d be happy to discuss it with you afterwards!

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac part 15: The Famished Road (Ben Okri, 1991)

Books left: 11. Weeks left: 16 (don’t panic; just for God’s sake, stop reading Booker winners and start on the pulp.)

I  heard the earth trembling at the fearsome approach of a demonic being.

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

Azaro is an abiku, or spirit child. Abiku are supposed to only stay briefly upon the earth as real children before returning to their real, permanent existence in the spirit world. As mortal parents mourn their passing, the spirit-children are reborn to another set of unsuspecting parents, only to break their hearts in turn.

When Azaro betrays his companions by falling in love with life and with his parents, his spirit companions are jealous. Manifesting as spectacularly malformed creatures visible only to Azaro, they strive to lure him into situations that will cause his death and therefore his return to them. But he sticks to his decision, though he sees them everywhere he goes and the temptation to go with them floats before him always.

A curious terror, like arms grabbing you from out of a trusted darkness, swept over me.

Each time these horrendous beings manage to trick Azaro and sweep him away, he escapes and returns to his parents, ordinary Nigerians beset by a poverty verging on the desperate, but passionate about each other and about their son.

Meanwhile, politics first seeps, then floods into their world. A Party for the Rich and a Party for the Poor, each with identical promises and brutal methods of persuasion and an army of thugs to prove their points, close in around this previously sleepy village as the army of monstrous spirits gathers unseen around Azaro and his family. White men appear, bringing with them the novelties of motor cars and electricity, and the forests through which Azaro is accustomed to wander begin to recede.

The world was changing and I went on wandering as if everything would always be the same. It took longer to get far into the forest. It seemed that the trees, feeling that they were losing the argument with human beings, had simply walked deeper into the forest.

Meanwhile, the spirits pursue Azaro with ever-increasing ruthlessness towards a climax that will endanger not just him, but his parents as well.

At times, this is like a collection of mad folk tales, with an exhilarating mysticism and power of invention. Each outlandish sentence is stranger than the last and they wash over you like a rapid, bubbling stream. Much of it is beautiful. But after the first quarter it begins to drag. I start to feel trapped, reading barely-varying dreamlike sequences over and over; temptation, near disaster and then new beginnings for Azaro. I begin to wonder, rather desperately, what will be the circuit-breaker.

It arrives too late. I have largely lost interest and am racing through the end, conscious of my looming deadline (which, of course, is not Okri’s fault but that of too many nights on the couch watching Agatha Christie’s Marple) and just wanting to know the outcome.

Though I appreciate the scale and poignancy of the metaphor Okri has spent the whole book crafting, by the time I get to the final pages in which it all comes together I am not appreciating it as much as I feel I should. And there is nothing to kill enjoyment of a novel like the feeling of “should”.

If you are a fan of magical realism or postcolonial narratives or creepy spirits, read this; look, many, many people absolutely loved it. It got the Booker. But for God’s sake, don’t give yourself a time limit. And note there is a sequel.

Keep or kill? I will pass this on, since I can’t say I enjoyed it anywhere near as much as the last Booker winner in the project. To me, I’m afraid it had the unmistakable flavour of a university assignment.

Note: According to Wikipedia, Radiohead’s Street Spirit (a song I have loved since my brooding teen years) is based on this novel. I haven’t the foggiest whether this is true, but if it is, that’s very cool.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 13: The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch, 1978)

Books left: 13. Weeks left: 21 (not ideal)

I let loose my own demons, not least the sea serpent of jealousy.

Iris Murdoch - The Sea, the Sea

 

Celebrated theatre director Charles Arrowby abandons his glittering London life and glamorous friends to retire in obscurity in an English country coastal town with the intention to write his memoirs and live a simple life.

But the sudden appearance of an old love – not to mention an increasingly perplexing stream of visitors – threatens the peace he thought he found.

The story begins with happy meandering about his new life, which revolves around swimming, pottering about, observing the local flora and eating.

Many passages are devoted to food (resulting in some of the most amusing culinary quotes I have seen, which though too long for this forum would be spoiled by cutting) and to Charles’ new, spartan surroundings, for instance

… A large remarkably hideous green vase, with a thick neck and a scalloped rim and pink roses blistering its bulging sides.  I have become very attached to this gross object.

Compared to all of this, the story of how and why he came to be in this lonely seaside shack is at first cursory and almost entirely enveloped by his meditations, quite besides the food and the decor, on the sea in all its moods.

It is evening. The sea is golden, speckled with white points of light, lapping with a sort of mechanical self-satisfaction under a pale green sky. How huge it is, how empty, this great space for which I have been longing all my life.

Later:

The sea is a choppy dark blue-grey, an aggressive and unpleasant colour. The seagulls are holding a wake. The house feels damp.

But the sea is not as calm and benevolent as it seems, and neither is he. Each have horrors lurking beneath the surface and the turn events quickly take is all the more startling because of the book’s gentle beginning; they plunge suddenly into a madness that have me reading with eyes wide and toes curled, filled with shock over each successive twist.

Charles is revealed as an obsessed anti-hero, and his view of people as possessions becomes more and more sinister with each turn of the page.

The demon of jealousy befouled the past and left my mind no place to rest. Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it discolours the world.

Yet I want for Charles what he does for himself, identifying with him against my will as happens similarly with Nabokov’s nastily compelling predator in Lolita. I am nervous throughout, seeing him hover on the brink of some unnamed disaster. At one point, flabbergasted by what I am now getting into when I thought I had been reading a nice pretty novel about the ocean, I actually shake the book and shout at Charles, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

This rather alarms the Ministry, sitting next to me at the time.

Despite my disgust, I am held in thrall and beside myself with suspense over how it could all possibly end – though it is clear at least that it’s not, at any rate, going to end well.

I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be.

As it turns out the book ends not with a bang but with a whisper, like the sea settling after a storm, and I race through its 25-page denouement with fascination and not a shred of doubt that Murdoch richly deserved the Booker Prize the work won her.

Its magisterial use of language and the awful fatality in its relentless description of a great, impossible love reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; but equally it is its own story, not to be diminished by likening, and I daresay overall a more enjoyable read than the tale of poor doomed Gatsby.

Keep or kill? Look, it’s probably obvious that I’m keeping it, BUT, look at all the M-author sacrifices I’m making instead, in order to appease the vengeful gods! These are good ones, too, and I won’t deny that there’s a little twinge of reluctance. Sometimes I feel a bit like Smaug, sitting on his pile of gold, that he’s not going to use, but doesn’t want anyone else to touch.

Pile of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrew McGahan, Toni Morrison and Andrei Makine.

Check my gumption.

Curious about The Curing of a Bibliomaniac? Click here.

Life of Pi (Yann Martel, 2001)

The film version of Life of Pi has now been released.

I read this (Man Booker Prize-winning) novel when it was first published in 2001, but remembered loving it so much – and had my interest so piqued by the technicolour preview of the movie – that I felt it necessary to be have all my mental ducks in a row and refresh my memory.

Of course, now it turns out the novel is just as impressive as I remember, this may make the film proportionately more disappointing.

It promises to be visually spectacular; sweeping and majestic, as it should. But densely woven themes of religion, love, identity, and the nature of humanity, story and truth?

How can these be communicated in a movie that must devote equal attention to giving a sense of achingly long passages of time, minutely detailed accounts of survival at sea and journeys into fantastic worlds?

I am almost sure a film will not (cannot) do this story justice within a couple of hours. This is one of those stories that can be trimmed without suffering a fatal loss of lifeblood. And really, who wants to see a movie that’s much longer than a couple of hours?

(Side note: went to see Les Miserables on the weekend, and by golly Tom Hooper did a pretty good job of it. But the length, though necessary and justified, is punishing. Whose bladder is up to such a task?)

To return to the point, Life of Pi is another of those books that leaves you staring into space, blinking, your brain working furiously, for several minutes – if not several days – after you turn the final page.

Immediately my mind had returned to reality, I hungered to watch the movie, no matter how inadequate it may prove to be. I turned to imdb.com, which reports that 50,000 people or have combined to rate it, on average, 8.3 (spot price).

Thus encouraged, I looked up what Roger Ebert had to say and was amazed to see praise heaped upon the film. He calls it a “miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery … [a book] many readers must have assumed was unfilmable.”

He calls it one of the best of the year.

Now I’m REALLY EXCITED!