Oscar Wilde and Abanindranath Tagore

A few years ago, while wading through Oscar Wilde’s essays, I came across his discussion of the relationship between art and life in The Decay of the Art of Lying. Written in the form of a dialogue between Cyril (the interlocutor) and Vivian (the aesthete), the essay first lays out Wilde’s objections to the traditional Aristotelian aphorism, that “art imitates life”  (or, the allied claim, justifying naturalism/realism, that the role of art is to faithfully imitate life), because that “would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass.” Through Vivian, Wilde then develops his own counter-view, i.e., that “life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality.” Cyril is, naturally, disbelieving. Vivian explains:

“A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher… Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Scientifically speaking, the basis of life–the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – -is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained… Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”

I understand Wilde to be arguing that our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind, and that this mediation involves the process of imposing meaning (or patterns?) upon pure sense-impression. That, in turn, is derived from prior experiences and, primarily, experiences of art. In a sense, I think the argument is similar to the one about how language both creates and limits the possibilities of imagining and constructing the world. For instance, as this fascinating piece argues, part of the project of the Surrealist writers (through the idea of automatic language) was to ensure the liberation of the mind by causing “language, its traditional structure (syntax, morphology, semantics and phonology, to varying degrees) and expectations… to be destroyed and rebuilt… their words create a derangement of the senses (to borrow Rimbaud’s idea), and of the status quo, because the traditional order of language, of the written word, has been almost completely eviscerated.” Thus, also, later in the essay, Vivian memorably remarks, “I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also.

Today, while wandering through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, I came across a quotation by Abanindranath Tagore that reminded me powerfully and vividly of Wilde. Tagore writes:

“I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to the garden or a riverbank and start painting the tree, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you realise that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within. Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa’s poetry, ten lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the ever-fresh cloud messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki’s description of the sea and then proceed to paint a sea of your own.”

The similarities are interesting. Wilde and Tagore both take a categorically anti-realist position. Both of them think that what is all-important is beauty, and that beauty does not lie in the world, but in how we imagine the world through the medium of art. And they both argue that art is aesthetically anterior to the world, to nature, and to life. “Life imitates art.”

At the NGMA, Abanindranath Tagore’s style of painting was compared to expressionism. It set me thinking about the contrast with impressionism. Zola described Monet as opening “a window into nature.” It is written that for impressionism, ‘the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his vision.’ (Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists) So while the impressionists broke with tradition in attempting to capture movement and rhythm, “the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composd as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light, and life” (Mallarme), it was still an attempt at accurately representing the world. Expressionism aimed at the opposite effect. It made me wonder about the exact nature of the connection between Wilde’s aesthetics and expressionist art.

 

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2014 in Books

Halfway through this year, I moved back to India. The most tangible change in my life was the immediate loss of access to two of the world’s most well-stocked libraries, which I’d been enjoying for the last three years: the Bodleian and then the Sterling. It’s hard to describe the strange sense of loss that you feel when you read about an interesting book online, and suddenly realise that you can no longer step outside your door, and embark upon a five minute walk to take it down from the shelf where it is certain to be – a loss compounded by frantic  searching on Flipkart or Amazon, and the sinking feeling on seeing the prices. Kindle (and torrents) help sometimes, but what is that compared to the sound of rustling paper and the feel of a book in your hand?

I left the United States in the middle of reading Arab novels, and also realised that – barring the odd Naguib Mehfouz – Delhi bookstores carry next to nothing of Arab writing. Per force, my exploration of that genre had to stop, but perhaps fortunately, there was no accompanying dearth of Latin American fiction, which I turned to, determined to carry on a thread begun with Borges a few years ago. Here is 2014 in fiction, with a five-star system of (admittedly reductive) ratings, as ever.

 

Arab Writing

Elias Khoury, Little Mountain: **** and a 1/2 Khoury’s surrealistic, first-person description of Lebanon during the civil war is a beautiful and harrowing read. It has a wonderful introduction by Edward Said, who discusses how and why Khoury’s writing contrasts with the realism of Mehfouz.

Hoda Barakat, Tiller of Waters: *** Also set in Lebanon, also about the civil war, the context here was a little too thick for me to be able to enjoy it as much as I did Khoury.

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North: *** and a 1/2 The canonical post-colonial novel, moving between Sudan and England in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, a great example of political critique through personal narrative.

Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain: ***** Perhaps the book I loved most of all this year. Set in a fictional Jordan, treats the eternal themes of revolution, youth, poetry and memory in a deft and moving way that no other book I’ve read comes close to doing. Traces of Kundera (and a marked reference to Life is Elsewhere).

Naguib Mehfouz, Children of the Alley **** and a 1/2: From Palace Walk to Miramar to Children of the Alley - Mehfouz varies his style and themes and is yet so effortlessly brilliant. Children of the Alley is a gorgeous retelling of the Creation Story, Fall onwards, all set in a Cairo alley.

 

Latin American Writing

Carlos Fuentes, Inez: *** Enjoyed it while it lasted, but a little too brief, and the characters a little too under-developed, to make a real impact.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: *** Probably a heretical thought, but I really don’t think that Marquez does love very well. This book started off wonderfully, but had begun to drag towards the end, and some of the last few scenes were deeply disturbing – but not really in a positive way, like One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter: **** Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel of a hilarious, riotous relationship between 18-year old writer/newsman Vargas and his 32-year old Aunt Julia, punctuated by “radio plays” written by a once-brilliant, now rapidly deteriorating creative mind, is just an unabashedly fun read.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat: **** and a 1/2: Much darker, much grimmer, the retelling of the day that Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator, was assassinated, and the reverberations of his regime decades later. Reads like a thriller, but for all that, Llosa’s done some wonderfully painstaking historical research.

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz **** and a 1/2: The story of Mexico’s long civil war and its aftermath, retold by the dying Artemio Cruz, revolutionary-turned-ruthless-landlord, through thirteen flashbacks of memory. Reminiscent of Pedro Paramo at times, and Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. A heartbreaking section about the Spanish Civil War as well.

Ariel Dorfman, Heading North, Looking South: ***** Hands-down my book of the year. Dorfman’s memoir about living with his American and Latin American roots, struggling with the competing pulls of bilingualism, and above all else, his wonderful description of the last days of the Allende regime make for a devastating read. Language, history, political memory, personal reflections all combine, and not a word feels out of place. Here is a paragraph:

“That Spanish out there contained my future. It contained the words of Garcia Lorca I would say to Angelica one day, Verde que te quiero verde, the lover-like green of desire, and the words of Quevedo I would say to my country, Mire los muros de la patria mia, watching the walls of my fatherland crumble, and the words of Neruda I would say to the revolution, Sube a nacer commigo, hermano, rise and be born with me, my brother, and the words of Borges I would whisper to time, los tigres de la memoria, the tigers of memory with which I would try to fool death once again. I would realize one day that the word for hope in Spanish, the word esperanza, hides within its syllables the sound and meaning of esperar, to wait, that there was in the language itself a foretelling of frustration, a warning to be cautious, to hope but not to hope too much because the experience of those who forged those syllables tells them that we end up, more often than not, being violated by history.” 

Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden **** and a 1/2: Well, after that memoir, anything would have felt a let-down, but Death and the Maiden came darn close to matching it. A short, intensely-written play about the after-effects of torture upon the individual, and the after-effects of a fraught transition to democracy upon the survivors and the perpetrators of the old regime.

It’s rather interesting to have dipped into Latin American writing immediately after Arab writing, and to spot similarities and differences. I found both sets of novels to be intensely political (which is unsurprising), and also – in some way – speaking to, or trying to deal with, a history of dictators or, at the very least, crushing State power over the individual. Every writer is unique in his own way, both in asking the questions, and in deciding how and whether to answer them, but sometimes the similarity in thought, and even in expression (Nasser and Fuentes on memory and nostalgia, for instance) is startling.

 

South African Writing

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace **** and a 1/2 An absolutely wonderful novel about race and human relations in the post-apartheid world-turned-upside-down.

 

European Writing

Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler **** This, I suppose, might be called magical realism, and Calvino’s hypnotic writing accentuates the magic and makes us forget about realism.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities: **** and a 1/2 One of my favourite books of the year. Marco Polo’s descriptions, to Kublai Khan, of all the cities he has traveled to (real or imagined?) is best summed up by a word I learnt recently: “hiraeth” (‘homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire…’)

Carlos Luis Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind *** An utterly disappointing ending was a substantial let-down after some great suspenseful storytelling about books, book-burning, Barcelona and young love.

Leonardo Sciascia, Equal Danger ****: A completely compelling detective/mystery novel about politics and corruption in mid-late 20th century Italy. Featured one of my favourite lines this year: ““It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”

Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich **** and a 1/2 A darkly brilliant set of loosely connected short stories (reminiscent of Koestler, at times) about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarian governments. Most of Kis’ characters are ordinary people, easy to relate to, who turn collaborators – which makes this novel seem frighteningly prophetic.

 

Indian Writing

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess *** and a 1/2 The story of the massacre of Kilvenmani, retold 45 years later, is worth a read simply because of the intriguing meta-fictional style, which doesn’t always work, but is brilliant when it does. Also, through its self-conscious, self-aware style, raises important issues – a la Jean Genet, of authenticity in narration, appropriation, “speaking for vs speaking of”, and so on.

Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozshah Baag: *** More heresy. I couldn’t really relate to Mistry’s detailed descriptions of life in a middle-class Bombay Parsi housing colony, and – like with Tiller of Waters – I felt that the context was too thick to allow me to really soak it in and enjoy it.

Ismat Chughtai, Lifting the Veil **** A wonderfully curated collection of short stories and essays, still as relevant as they were sixty years ago, and the eponymous title story is, of course, a classic for all times.

Mirza Waheed, The Collaborator *** and a 1/2 Waheed’s story about the “collaborator”, who stays behind in the Kashmir Valley while his friends cross the border to join the war, and makes his living stripping killed fidayeen for identity papers and more, stays with you a long time after you’ve put it down. Perhaps it was the effect of reading this book soon after watching Haider, but echoes of Hamlet were everywhere – in particular, ambivalence, delay, obloquy and the failure to act being the burdens carried by the protagonist.

 

American Writing

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint *** I sometimes wonder if the detailed descriptions of sexual, excretory and other graphic acts would have felt brilliantly subversive in the 1960s, because reading it in 2014, I often had the feeling that it was simply graphic for the sake of being graphic. Some brilliant moments, nonetheless.

 

Australian Writing

Bruce Chatwin, Songlines: **** I’m aware that this book has been heavily criticised, but I loved reading it. The concept of “songlines” – singing the land into existence as you go along, the connection of places, events and histories through music, and music as the underlying language of all creation – it might be reductive, but there’s something so very appealing about all this.

 

English Writing

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest: **** What to say? Nobody has a way with words quite like Oscar Wilde.

 

Postcolonial Writing

Aime Cesaire, A Tempest **** A wonderfully subversive retelling of the timeless Shakespearean play, in which Prospero is the coloniser, Caliban the resisting native, Ariel the ambiguous mulatto, and the conquest of language plays a crucial role.

 

Classics

Lermontov, A Hero of our Time **** Finally got around to finishing this book. Lermontov’s Byron-esque, half-nihilist protagonist is disturbingly easy to relate to, and his grand, sweeping style is ideal for the geographical backdrop – the Caucasus Mountains.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed/Demons **** Didn’t quite rip my heart out by the roots, a la Brothers Karamazov but – like vintage Dostoevsky – left me unwilling to get up and start the day, for a few mornings.

Leo Tolstory, Anna Karenina I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t finish this book. The scenes with Anna and Karenin were brilliant, but the long, unending descriptions of Russian farming simply bogged me down. I will try again.

Flaubert, Madame Bovary **** Unlike Zola, who I found extremely hard going, Flaubert turned out to be a solid, well-paced read, and even the awareness of how the book was going to end did little to dilute its pathos.

 

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne **** The compulsory, annual re-read.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We **** The novel that began the genre of futuristic totalitarian dystopias, the precursor of 1984Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451. Written in Soviet Russia in the first decade after the Revolution. Often, while reading, I’d pause and say to myself – “such a cliche!” before suddenly realising that this book was the first time that it was being used!

Howard Jacobson, J *** and a 1/2: Reviewed this for Strange Horizons – a grim, disturbing and wonderfully-written story about the creation and destruction of identities and narratives, set in a futuristic semi-dystopia, which somewhat resembles Sheldon Wolin’s ‘inverted totalitarianism‘.

Patricia A. McKillip, Ombria in Shadow ***: Like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the point to McKillip is not plot, structure or character, but simply lush prose and a fabulous, atmospheric style. It can’t always carry the novel, though.

 

 

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“We all need witnesses of our lives in order to live them…”: Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’

Artemio Cruz, sometime revolutionary hero, later exploitative landlord, is on his deathbed, “an old man whose features are fragmented by… uneven squares of glass.” His unloved wife and daughter hover around, attempting to extract the location of his will; a priest tries to get him to repent, while his secretary is ever-present with a list of his most corrupt dealings. In the midst of this cacophony, Artemio Cruz feels himself slipping into “nostalgia, which is another form of growing old, more ancient, going back.” As he dies, the scenes of his past flash into memory, in the form of discrete events that shaped his life. There is no coherence or structure to his last, disjointed thoughts, and his reminiscing alternates with keen awareness of his failing bodily functions, and resentment for the pseudo-solicitous individuals making his last moments excruciatingly painful.

Through the rambling recollections of one man, Carlos Fuentes’ novel describes the Mexican revolution, its promise, its failure, and its cynical betrayal by those who made it. Two hours before being summarily executed during the fag end of the long revolution, Cruz’s jail-cell companion speaks in the voice of the author: “those who want a real, radical, intransigent revolution are, unfortunately, ignorant, bloody men. And the educated ones only want half a revolution, compatible with the only thing they really want: to do well, to live well, to take the place of Don Porfirio’s elite.” Cruz proves him right by surviving, returning to dispossess his aristocratic father of his lands, marry his sister against her will, and create a political/economic empire as brutal and exploitative as that of the aristocrats.

In Fuentes’ novel, it is often difficult to separate the authorial voice from the voice of Artemio Cruz. Fuentes’ anger at the betrayal of the revolution is palpable, and often it spills out onto the pages, which crackle with a rage and intensity that the dying Artemio Cruz is quite beyond the capacity to feel. Normally, this would detract from the quality of the novel. But in The Death of Artemio Cruz, with its rotating narrators, one more voice added to the already existing medley hardly strikes a discordant note. Amidst the universe of characters that populate fifty years of Mexican history, “a country incapable of tranquility, enamored of convulsion“, Fuentes can simply take his place as another individual living it all, rather than an author imposing his point of view from on high.

To the extent that the story of Artemio Cruz is the story of the revolution betrayed, its very inception seems to foreshadow its ultimate failure. In the beginning, it appears that the story of Cruz is your run-of-the-mill story of disillusionment: the idealistic young revolutionary is heartbroken and permanently embittered when his first lover, who would meet him in each town after the fighting was done, is summarily executed during the war and left hanging from a tree for him to find; from that day on, ideals are shattered, love is banished from the world, and he lives to inflict injury upon his fellow beings. But matters are not so simple, because it turns out that the origins of their love were anything but pure:

“He would return. Where? To that mythical beach that never existed? To that lie about the beloved, to that fiction about a meeting on the beach invented by her so that he would feel clean, innocent, sure of being in love? He threw the glass of mescal to the floor. That’s what mescal was really good for: destroying lies. It was a beautiful lie… he would have to believe that beautiful lie forever, until the end. It wasn’t true: he hadn’t gone into that Sinaloa town as he had so many others, looking for the first unwary woman he’d find walking down the street.”

And he had raped her.

The suggestion seems to be that there was never a time of innocent revolution, a time before betrayal and corruption, a time when there was a possibility that things might turn out differently. To which origin? Cruz – or Fuentes – or someone else – asks at another time. “... no one wants to return to the phony golden age, to the sinister origins, the bestial grunt, the struggle for bear meat, for the cave, for the flint, return to sacrifice and madness, to the nameless terror of the origin.

And the matter seems to be sealed by the death of Cruz’s son in the Spanish Civil War, fighting beside the anti-fascists, just a little distance from safety beyond the French border. The only way for the revolution to remain uncorrupted, it seems, is to be defeated, and the only way for a human being to remain uncorrupted is death.

In its polyphonic structure, uncertain chronology, corrupted protagonist, and acute historical awareness, The Death of Artemio Cruz has drawn comparisons with that other great Mexican novel, Pedro Paramo. Certainly, there are similarities; but while Pedro Paramo recounts without judgment, The Death of Artemio Cruz is – to paraphrase Sartre – a “committed novel”. By the end, Fuentes has made it abundantly clear that Artemio Cruz (and, by extension, Mexico) has betrayed… someone, or something, although (apart from the enigmatic jail-cell speech excerpted above), we’re never quite told what.

Below all that, however, there is an undercurrent of something else: that Artemio Cruz’s actions are understood – if not justified – by the raison d’etre of all revolutions, that elemental human passion: of shaping the world in one’s own image. “It was an invitation to adventure, to plunge into an unknown future in which procedure would not be sanctioned by the sanctity of custom. He invented and created everything from below, as if nothing had happened before, Adam without a father, Moses without the Tablets of the Law. Life wasn’t like that, the world ordered by Don Gamaliel wasn’t like that.” And Artemio Cruz rejects guilt because he refuses to adjudge himself guilty of sins against a morality that he did not create, but found already made.

Despite all his anger, Fuentes insures that there is enough complexity, in history and in the character of Artemio Cruz, to render easy judgments impossible. Something has been lost, we keep feeling, both by Cruz and by Mexico, but again, it is difficult to say quite what they could have gained.

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“She has always been fascinated by the strange directions memory takes…”: Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat

On a morning in 1961, Rafael Trujillo begins his preparations for another day as absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On an evening in 1961, four men wait in a parked car by the side of a road to assassinate the absolute dictator of the Dominican Republic. On a day in 1995, a woman returns home to Santo Domingo after thirty-four years abroad to speak to her incapacitated father, deprived of all his motor functions by a cerebral hemorrhage. So begins Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a reconstruction of the last day in the life of Rafael Trujillo, soon segueing into a meditation about power and its slow, inevitable corruption and destruction of the human spirit.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize citation speaks of his “cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.” The Feast of the Goat is perhaps that novel which most accurately exemplifies this terse tribute. The three intersecting plot-lines, separated by three-and-a-half decades, which start apart, merge, coalesce, and come apart again, are ultimately bound together by a detailed exploration of the structures of power and their interactions with individuals. Trujillo’s last day demonstrates his messianic control over the country’s military, politics and secret police. Meanwhile, his would-be assassins reflect upon their own personal transformations from Trujillo’s most ardent devotees to his most implacable enemies. And in a one-sided conversation with her comatose father (followed by an interrogation with her family), who was once one of Trujillo’s closest associates until his inexplicable fall from grace, Urania Cabral recalls the events from thirty-five years ago that permanently estranged father and daughter.

As in any novel about a repressive, absolutist dictatorship, The Feast of the Goat has its secret police, its executions and its tortures, its rituals of denunciation, confession, repentance and liquidation, and its stark depiction of suffocating, uncertain life under the regime. At various points, one is reminded of Animal FarmDarkness at Noon, The General in his Labyrinth, and other powerful novels on the same theme. Indeed, The Feast of the Goat is located firmly within the tradition of the Latin American “dictator novel“, a form of writing that has emerged out of the long endurance of military dictatorships in the region. For me, the unique brilliance of The Feast of the Goat lies in its exploration of how the dictatorship, over time, creates a dull compulsion that normalises even the most brutal and shocking of events. As the book moves towards its climax, bit by bit, the event that caused the estrangement between Urania and her father begins to emerge, as though hidden behind a slowly-dissipating mist. The event itself is extremely disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is the terrifying inevitability about it. In the elder Cabral, we see, close-up, the impact of the dictatorship upon the mental and moral faculties of a single individual, up to a point at which there is a sense that his actions are no longer his own, but are willed by the iron logic of the dictatorship (which itself is more than simply the personality of Rafael Trujillo).

This is also a theme that has been explored elsewhere, in books such as A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (and also Darkness at Noon), where ultimately, what is most frightening about the relationship between power and the individual is not the crushing of his resistance, but the deprivation of his ability to take moral choices and actions. This is what differentiates it from a book like 1984, where Winston Smith’s resistance is broken down by a very systematic set of human actions.  In Llosa’s novel, there is also a system, but it is cold and impersonal, obeying a logic that seems impossible to stand against, because it isn’t a human creation in the first place.

The Feast of the Goat weaves the personal and the political together with great skill. Each of the characters – from Urania to Dr Cabral, from the Dictator to his chief of Secret Police and his pupper President to each of the assassins – stand out as distinctly individual and unique. And it is through their stories that Llosa captures the sweep of history – from the initial rise to power of Trujillo, his CIA-supported rule, and his ultimate fall. Like much of Latin American writing of this type, the narrative structure is loose and disorganised, there are constant shifts of voice and point of view (I was reminded if Pedro Paramo at various points, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz), and above all else – as in much of Marquez – there is a sense of historical urgency, the urgency of a committed writer who – to quote Marquez – must tell his story before the historians have time to arrive.

Lastly, in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and in The War at the End of the World, I found Llosa’s writing to be wonderfully atmospheric – and he has lost none of his skill in The Feast of the Goat. The darkness of the book is punctuated by some brilliantly sensual descriptions of Santo Domingo (often reminding me of Delhi!), which makes the city come alive to the eyes, the ears, and the nose. Here is an example:

On the ground floor of the Jaragua, she is assaulted by the noise, that atmosphere, familiar by now, of voices, motors, radios blaring at full volume, merengues, salsas, danzones, boleros, rock, rap, all jumbled together, assailing one another and assailing her with their shrill clamour. Animated chaos, the profound need in what was once your people, Urania, to stupefy themselves into not thinking and, perhaps, not even feeling. An explosion of savage life, immune to the tide of modernisation. Something in Dominicans clings to this pre-rational, magical form: this appetite for noise.” 

Among the dictator novels, the Feast of the Goat is perhaps the one reconstructed most painstakingly from actual historical events. With the exception of Cabral, his daughter and their family, the fictional protagonists (if they can be called so), the action takes place upon the historical stage. Sometimes, while reading, one gets a strange sensation of having had a window opened into the interior landscape of famous (or notorious) historical figures, and it is testament to Llosa’s skill that fiction and history blend seamlessly throughout the novel, and that there is never a note of dissonance.

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“He was a creature given to short-lived, contradictory, but invariably sincere enthusiasms”: Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with Llosa. Books have been started, but for a variety of reasons, remain unfinished. The War at the End of the World was left behind on the back-seat of an auto rickshaw, 120 pages in; The Dream of the Celt was interrupted by a change of continents, and the consequent loss of Blackwell’s Bookshop, which allowed you to take books to their cafe and read them cover to cover. This time, I took up Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and – thank heavens! – managed to finish it. Actually, it is a hard book not to finish. Unlike Llosa’s other writing, which is characterised by dense prose, indubitably complex, multi-faceted plot-lines, and a proliferating cast of characters, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a racy comic novel, an unabashed farce with, of course, a very distinctive Latin American flavour.

Aunt Julia, set in Lima during the mid-20th century, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story about 18-year old Vargas, part-time news-editor for Radio Pana-mericana and part-time Law Student, who falls uproariously for his 32-year old, divorced Aunt Julia (an aunt, but not a blood-relative). At around the same time Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian script-writer and actor, with an implacable hatred for Argentines, arrives to take over the production of radio plays for the organisation. As their courtship progresses, from hand-holding and long walks to an improbable bid for marriage, via fights and reconciliations, stiff filial opposition (including a gun-toting father) and much help from friends, Pedro Camacho’s radio plays grow zanier and zanier, with characters appearing and re-appearing, dying and being resurrected, until a final genocidal climax, which also coincides with the climax of the courtship.

Apart from its memorable characters (including the sidekicks, who often steal the show) and delectable twists and turns, Aunt Julia contains some hilarious (and hilariously sharp) reflections about the writing life. Pedro Camacho, an unabashed caricature of the classic literary genius immersed in his work, dresses up as his characters while he writes, so that he can get into the feel of things. Vargas himself is an agonised writer-in-waiting, who dreams about living in a garret in Paris, and wants to write a story called The Qualitative Leap, which – in a quite brilliant one-line portrayal of the anxiety of influence – will be “as coldly objective, intellectual, terse, and ironic as one of Borges’s – an author whom I had just discovered at that time.” When he first meets Aunt Julia, and is attempting to impress her without even knowing it, he explains to her, in classically endearing 18-year old fashion, that:

“… love didn’t exist, that it was the invention of an Italian named Petrarch and the Provencal troubadours. That what people thought was a crystal-clear outpouring of emotion, a pure effusion of sentiment, was merely the instinctive desire of cats in heat hidden beneath the poetic words and myths of literature.”

… before immediately conceding to his audience that he doesn’t believe a word of it. Vargas, as a character, is splendid: cocky without being cocksure, headstrong, but not annoyingly so; self-conscious but not to a fault; reflective, but never consumed by his own interior world. It is difficult not to see at least parts of one’s own 18-year old self in him, and almost impossible to refrain from caring very intensely about his fate, which for most of the novel, seems as precariously balanced as a pig upon a beanstalk.

Aunt Julia is a book of multiple narratives. The main story – the courtship of Vargas and Julia – is punctuated, after every chapter, by a Pedro Camacho radio play, recounted in third-person, like a story. Being reductive, one can say that the book is composed of one novella, broken up by many short stories, none of whom bear any tangible resemblance to each other. For a long time, I attempted – unsuccessfully – to work out the relationship between the main storyline and each of the radio plays (potboilers filled with incest, murder, insanity, betrayal and everything else  that Baudelaire would maintain ought to splash the canvas of our lives with their colours). This review quotes Llosa as saying that one of his intentions was “to prove that his own early world and the world of soap opera were not so very different from each other”, and goes on to compare the main storyline (set in the real world) with the plots of a soap opera, especially in its explosive climax.

There is, admittedly, some truth in that; and there are a couple of places in the novel where Llosa deliberately blurs the line between “real-life” and a Camacho soap opera. But I feel that that is not entirely convincing. The Pedro Camacho soaps have just that extra layer of exaggeration, that hint of the grotesque and the weird, that places them in the realm of fiction. The story of the deranged rat-killer who may or may not be eaten by rats at the end, the story of the good-for-nothing lad who becomes the greatest football referee in Latin America, and so on – for such stories, at the end of the day, it is difficult to entirely suspend disbelief, while the Vargas-Julia episodes suffer from no such infirmity: they are entirely, viscerally believable. Of course, real life and soap operas hardly mirror each other – and Llosa himself said he wanted to prove they were “not so very different”.

Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that perhaps it is best not to look for connections. Perhaps Aunt Julia simply shows us that the novel and the short story can exist together in a book, that can be enjoyed as  a book with multiple, unconnected narratives, and nothing more.

 

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Filed under Latin American Fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa

“What matters besides happy endings?”: Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

“Time satirises even the sublimest things.”

In synthesising the creation myths of the three great religions of the Book, with an added dash of modernity, into one allegorical tale about the history of a single Egyptian alley, Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley must surely rank as one of the most artistically ambitious – and perhaps, impudent – novels ever attempted. From the expulsion of Adam to the invention of dynamite, Mahfouz’s canvas covers every syllable of recorded time, but his minute brush-strokes, tell the grand, sweeping story by painting in minute details about the lives of individuals and families. Allegory nestles within allegory – circles within spirals – so as to reduce an infinitely complex story into its component parts. The effect is a madly bewildering – but ultimately, very gratifying – read.

The story starts with the mansion at the head of the alley, and its gardens of Eden. Adham – the youngest of the four sons of the patriarch Gabalawi – is responsible for the administration of the estate. Gabalawi’s decision to overlook his three elder sons infuriates his first-born, Idris, who – after refusing to abide by his orders – is exiled from the mansion. Years later, Idris has his revenge when he comes in supplication to Adham, and begs him to take a peek into Gabalawi’s book of “Ten Conditions”, to ascertain whether he has cut Idris out of his share of the inheritance. Upon the goading of his wife, Adham sneaks into Gabalawi’s chamber, is discovered by the patriarch, and exiled from the mansion. Out in the desert, strife and bloodshed dog the footsteps of Adham, Idris and their children.

With a few twists, the story is unmistakably that of the Exile and the Fall (with Idris doubling up as Cain and the serpent). Instead of the apple as being a representation of “knowledge”, here is the real thing – a Book, which deals directly with the futures of the inhabitants of the mansion – that is at stake, a knowledge that the patriarch guards with jealous fury. After the exile of Adham, the “Ten Conditions” – the commands of Gabalawi regarding the sharing of the estate – are never known, and it is left to the leaders of each generation to impose their will upon their fellow-inhabitants of the alley.

The casting of Gabalawi – a classic feudal overlord – as God strips away the obfuscating divinity from the story of Genesis, and reveals the arbitrariness and cruelty that is at the heart of the creation myth. Much like God, Gabalawi plays an ambiguous role throughout the story. The gates of his mansion – with the gardens within – are perpetually shut to the denizens of his “alley”, even as its denizens – the “children of Gabalawi” live a life of squalid want and poverty, and oppress and kill each other without compunction. Every succeeding generation, when things are strained to breaking point, Gabalawi makes a cursory “appearance” to a Chosen One – Gabal, Rifaa and Quassem (whose lives, deeds personalities reflect Moses, Jesus and Mohammad), who attempt reform in their own different ways, and leave behind divided legacies and neighbourhoods at war with each other, each under the thrall of its local gangster. “He acknowledged our relationship with him in the desert“, tell the newly-emancipated followers of Al-Gabal to other alley sufferers, who have come to them for aid. “Not yours!” is, of course, the underlying, unsaid subscript, a sharp jab at the exclusionary nature of the religions of the Book. And at all times, shorn of the God Exception, God (as Gabalawi), who could stop all the suffering with a deed and a gesture, but refuses to do so, and continues to shut out the alley’s inhabitants from his mansion, appears despotic and indefensible.

(Spoilers Alert)

The great twist comes in the last section, when Arafa, a “magician” (who vaguely represents the promise and the horror of science), determines to find out the content of the “Ten Conditions” by sneaking into the mansion by night. In his attempt to do so, he stumbles upon an old servant guarding the Book, in Gabalawi’s inner sanctum, and kills him. The death of the servant, it is reported next morning – shocks the aged Gabalawi into the grave. In true Nitzschean fasion, it is announced the next morning: “Gabalawi is dead.” But Arafa’s attempts to rid the alley of mob rule by selectively deploying the superior weapons given to him by his study of science end in tragedy, and the book finishes on a depressingly nihilistic note.

(Spoilers End)

In its “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, its inherent pessimism about human nature, and its thin – almost unsubtle – references to the lives of the Prophets, Children of the Alley - on a few occasions – totters on the cusp of mediocrity. A good example is the line delivered by one of his characters, in the generation after Rifaa-Jesus:

“This building is in Rifaa. Everyone who lives in it is of the Al Rifaa. They belong to Rifaa, and every night the poets remind us that he lived and died for love and happiness. And we have breakfast every morning listening to their screaming and fights.”

Indeed, more than once, I had a distinct sense that Mahfouz’s vaulting ambition had overreached itself, and was about to fall on the other side. But I think what definitively lifts this book above the realms of the pedestrian is Mahfouz’s inimitable prose style, and his knack for imagining and expressing things in a way that is both novel, and yet so right. “Beauty” is “insolent”, the heart is “scorched” with mysterious love, “heavy footfalls stir[red] misty memories”, and “tomorrow [was] wrapped in yesterday’s shroud.” As I found in Palace Walk and Miramar, Mahfouz’s touch is incredibly deft and light, but his words are haunting, and remains with you long after the last page has been turned. Like Darwish’s butterfly, his footprints leave no trace, and yet are not to be erased.

Apart from the beautiful writing, the novel is enriched by Mahfouz’s subtle political reflections, delivered incidentally, almost off the cuff, but brilliant in their forensic precision. “… for the women in the mansion,” he writes in the narrator’s voice, in a line that would also be right at home in the ultra-realistic Palace Walk, “were like the internal organs which a man knows of, and thanks to which he lives, but which he never sees.” Every tragedy, however great,” he tells us later, “eventually becomes a fact of life.” Musing upon how, after each generation of the reformers, the situation in the alley returns to its oppressive, unequal default position, one of his characters reflects: “people worship power – even its victims do!” And perhaps the best of all, eloquent in all that it says in the space of a sentence, and all that is left unsaid, worthy of being a Nietzschean aphorism: “Time satirises even the sublimest things.

As far as Mahfouz’s works go, I think that Miramar is the greater novel, with more sustained genius. But despite the occasional flaws in its execution, Children of the Alley is brilliantly conceived, and has enough moments of exaltation, to be – in the last analysis – a deeply enjoyable book.

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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz

Patterns: Wilde, Kerouac, Baudelaire

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most about reading literature is spotting patterns across genres, cultures and times. It’s fascinating to see how great writers and poets, separated by wide chasms of every manner, are struck by the same abstract thought, and then crystallise into words, depending upon the dictates of their own personal voice. Yesterday, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s bitingly funny The Importance of Being Ernest, when I came across this line:

“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”

When spoken by a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, these words are more than half-jest. I’ve found that quite a few of Wilde’s most profound insights are delivered in the language of jest. In any event, this immediately reminded me of two other writers, each as different from the other as they are from Wilde.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”  These words are written (or perhaps more accurately, spoken) about a woman he has met, quite literally, on the road, two minutes before. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is a world away from Wilde’s clipped, manicured and elegantly-constructed lines, and yet the sentiment is quite identical.

The unique tragedy of a transient meeting, where – paradoxically – the depth of feeling depends upon its very transience (because of the supreme scope it leaves to the imagination!), is – in my view – most beautifully described by Baudelaire, in the famous A Une Passante (‘To a Passerby”). The last six lines of the sonnet – which is about a single glimpse of a woman, which the poet catches in a passing crowd – are:

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Previously, I’ve discussed how this poem’s sentiment resembles the troubadour concept of “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”), where the very strength of desire is founded upon the impossibility of its fulfillment. Walter Benjamin, writing about this poem, says that “this is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment”, and that “the never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.”

Benjamin also says that “it is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.” The idea of an eternal parting, that follows upon a moment’s communion, is the other, dominant sentiment of A Une Passante, and this is where the obvious similarities with Kerouac and Wilde come in. In many ways, this is akin to non-fulfillment. Both situations involve a paradox – things that we think are antithetical to love or desire here become their apotheoses. Both are, ultimately, about the failure of passion to achieve its goal – and that is exactly the point. And yet, the sentiment is subtly different. In amor de lonh, and the first reading of A Une Passante, desire is defined by the very impossibility of fulfillment. In Wilde, Kerouac, and the second reading of A Une Passante, it is, on the other hand, the tantalising possibilities that a moment’s meeting allow the imagination to play with, that form the core of the feeling. Both, in their own way, count pain as an essential component of true depth of feeling.

The richness of A Une Passante – and how it gives one new things to think about on each reading, and how so many diverse writings seem to lead back to it – never ceases to amaze me!

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Filed under Beat Generation, Charles Baudelaire, England, French poetry, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde