Dead on arrival – Anis Shivani


Anis Shivani

BY now, anyone who knows anything about the literary world is aware of the almost daily incidents that roil us in America. To outsiders having nothing to do with the literary world, these frequent outbursts of indignation about something insulting someone has said about someone else, followed by a wave of abject apologies by the accused, seem to have something of the ceremonial feel of Stalinist or Maoist purges. The literary world cannot seem to work itself into a pure enough froth to get on with the actual business of writing.

Let me briefly mention a few incidents to provide a taste of what’s been going on.

American writer Lionel Shriver, who likes to write about cultures and peoples other than her own, put on a sombrero hat to provoke the audience at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. She railed against those who are offended by “cultural appropriation” — the idea that writers should not imagine characters and incidents outside their own immediate experience. An activist in attendance named Yassmin Abdel-Magied got so angry that she walked out of the lecture after 20 minutes, writing in the Guardian that Shriver’s words are just the kind of thing that lead to “genocide.” Abdel-Magied argued that Shriver did not have the right to “exploit” other cultures for fictional purposes.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programmes (AWP), the leading literary association of the US, draws upwards of 10,000 people to its convention each year, offering hundreds of panels and presentations, most of which seem to be about political correctness in some form or the other — writing, learning, and teaching seen from the point of view of different racial or sexual minorities. Publisher Kate Gale of the Red Hen Press in Los Angeles wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in the Huffington Post, satirising the insatiable demands made upon AWP by those living and dying by identity politics. Her own writers of colour withdrew their manuscripts from the press or otherwise disassociated themselves from her.

Calvin Trillin has been writing on politics and penning terrible ‘humorous’ verse for the New Yorker, The Nation, and other liberal magazines for more than half a century. He saw fit to write an ironic poem about the multicultural cuisine choices overwhelming the typical white American bourgeois. Though he is a respected food critic, he was charged with racism evoking the darkest fears of the “yellow peril,” as calls went up for firing this harmless octogenarian versifier.

A white Midwestern male writer named Michael Derrick Hudson had the notion that he’d have a better chance of publication if he passed himself off as a Chinese writer named Yi-Fen Chou. Indeed, he got into The Best American Poetry anthology, a most prestigious annual compendium, guest-edited by Sherman Alexie, a Native American writer. Alexie was in a bind once Hudson revealed his deception, twisting himself into a pretzel with his apologies. But he was accused of having played an insidious role in a racial crime, depriving a deserving author of colour of his rightful place in the anthology. Hudson was charged with benefiting from stereotypes of Asians; he was racist anyway for thinking that minorities have an easier time getting published.

Not only are these frequent call-outs and ritual self-criticisms and purges limited to the literary world, but they now constitute a major part of all public discourse.

I have been warning for about 15 years that identity politics, divorced from economic issues, was a deadly game that was bound to lead to the white majority eventually claiming for itself victim status and engineering a neo-fascist revolution. Precisely this outcome, which I have been consistently predicting, has now come about in Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The economically insecure white majority feels that it, too, should play identity politics because it is the only game in town.

Indeed, liberals tried to convert the 2016 election into a national referendum on ‘rape culture’— the signature issue in the literary world for quite some time now — but it backfired badly; the country was not in the mood to put aside genuine economic grievances. The white working class was excluded from liberal discourse as irredeemable deplorables, and they duly extracted their revenge by electing someone who claimed to be their tribune. The entire reactionary campaign was based on political incorrectness personified.

So identity politics in the literary and intellectual world is no mere sideshow. It has already had dire consequences for the health of the body politic. It has become self-fulfilling, as minorities have chosen to segregate themselves intellectually, feeling that to empathise with their condition, even in literature, is an act of racism or cultural appropriation.

To appreciate literature today, one need not be concerned with any traditional aesthetic criteria — whatever has been the substance of criticism from Aristotle to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to T.S. Eliot. The only thing that matters today in judging literature is how well it performs the rhetorical functions of political correctness, if it provides minorities with the boost of self-esteem that they deserve. And since, by definition, a writer of a particular identity cannot possibly empathise with someone of another identity, writers should only write about themselves.

Following from cultural appropriation, there have been such developments as mansplaining, whitesplaining, and straightsplaining. The idea is that any member of a dominant culture cannot possibly speak to someone of an opposed minority, and if they do so it is only to assert their intellectual superiority.

There is the pervasive worry about microaggressions. These refer to subtle, unconscious, deeply rooted stereotypical insults in every discourse; the only issue is to identify and root them out.

Trigger warnings are multiplying everywhere, for example the argument that in order to create safe spaces, or educational environments free of hostility, students should be warned any time something likely to trigger trauma — discussion of rape, sexual assault, or violence — is about to come up in the classroom. Indeed, students at liberal arts colleges have been demanding that trigger warnings be affixed to classic literary works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (suicide trigger warning) or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby(domestic abuse trigger warning).

One notices that trigger warnings are never demanded for discussions on hunger, malnutrition, economic violence, imperialism, environmental destruction, or even death. Only personal sexual traumas seem to get people worked up. Now imagine that any new piece of writing has to contend with this matrix of assessments: it must not trigger any negative feelings in the reader, it must not unconsciously offend any sensibility, it must present likeable characters ascending the neo-liberal economic order with their hard work and personability and optimism, and so on.

The first thing to understand about how this terrible state of affairs has come to pass is that literary writing has been almost completely assimilated into academia. Most literary writers do not make their living from selling books in the marketplace; they live by teaching would-be writers in creative writing programmes numbering in the hundreds. So if academia, over the last 30 years, has been transformed into a bastion of cultural diversity, and has been riven by controversies over speech codes and censorship, literary writing, too, finds itself remade into the platform the liberal academy has conjured up. Again, call-out culture never engages with class issues. When dealing with aggrieved subjects, such as undocumented Hispanic immigrants, the issue of class injustice of any sort is never the focus of liberal tirades. This is not coincidental.

I have long held that multiculturalism (or identity politics or political correctness — the terms have indistinguishably blended into each other) is a devil’s bargain offered to previously excluded minorities: you shut up about class, and we will give you formal cultural recognition so that you can move ahead economically, provided you follow the example of quiescent model minorities everywhere. Just don’t ever bring up economic revolution, or even economic justice.

The first wave of political correctness took off on American campuses around the time the Cold War was ending, reaching critical mass in the 1989-1992 period — precisely the period when the Soviet Union and its satellites were unravelling and putting the dream of socialism to rest in our lifetimes. I believe it was the helplessness, the sheer impotence and powerlessness of liberal academic elites including authors and artists, which compelled them to make the linguistic turn at that time.

Literary deconstruction had already put in place a theoretical framework for the wider academic world to latch on to. Instead of action on the streets or in the workplace, instead of demands for economic equality, the literary world turned to demands for linguistic fairness, rhetorical justice acted out in the classroom or the textbook, novel or poem. In the succeeding quarter-century, as identitarians threw in their lot completely with the neo-liberal Democratic party, they staked everything — the health and vitality of democracy itself — on this one gamble of identity politics, shunning any traditional political economy ideals.

During the George W. Bush years, political correctness reached new heights in writing and in the classroom, even as immigrants, Muslims and minorities were being assaulted in real life on a massive scale. In the age of Trump, too, political correctness, the only weapon of the defeated, will escalate to new levels. Crimes against humanity will begin anew, while literary folks will feel righteous as they wear safety pins to acknowledge solidarity with Muslims and immigrants, volunteer to register as Muslims should there be a registry, and hunt out every linguistic offence among the avant-garde.

It is usually not the conservative troglodytes who are the targets of the call-out culture — they are irredeemable, after all — but those whom one expects to be sympathetic to the cause of racial and economic justice. It is always the truest of believers — writers, editors, critics — who come in for the worst expressions of rage on the part of the literary vultures.

This is no longer a harmless fad restricted to the literary world. Political correctness in the Obama years expanded wildly and prolifically. Having elected the first black president, liberals took a pass on economic or social justice because white guilt was easily assuaged. This is the kind of trap identity politics leads to: the drone warrior par excellence who refused to close Guantanamo and who did not wish to pursue war crimes retribution, was given a free pass because of who he was, not what he did.

The same thing happened with Hillary Clinton. The entire literary world (and I mean everyone who’s anyone vocally supported her) fell in line with the warmongering neo-liberal candidate. She stood for for mass incarceration, banking deregulation, illiberal trade agreements, the erosion of welfare, anti-immigrant and anti-terrorist paranoia, and she never met a war or an assassination or a surveillance tool she didn’t like. But to criticise Hillary was to be a misogynist, or even a sexual predator by default since she was taking on the “sexual predator” Trump. Meanwhile, the literary world mocked the genuine democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Playing the convoluted game of identity politics, which reminds one of nothing so much as communist doctrinal labyrinths, has life or death consequences.

It is important to talk about what just happened in politics because literature in America has volunteered to be a handmaiden of politics. In its university incarnation it explicitly claims to have no objective independence, no aesthetic ideals, aside from the pursuit of certain pre-designated neo-liberal Democratic-party goals.

You may still be an independent writer, particularly in the genre of fiction, or you may be one of the last remaining literary writers operating outside the academy, in which case you are free to pursue any aesthetic vision that strikes your fancy. But if you’re like most literary writers, established in the academy and deriving your livelihood from teaching, then you cannot go against the identity politics consensus; you cannot help but support the neo-liberal narrative.

This is a desperate, increasingly totalitarian situation for the arts in America. The entire establishment thinks as one. The force of public condemnation immediately descends, violently and unforgivingly, upon anyone who dares to question the orthodoxy. If the ritual purgations, confessions, and rehabilitations sound eerily similar to what went on in Stalinist and Maoist cultures, it is not coincidental — this is the pattern such upheavals follow.

The political economy of writing, the sociological grid in which writers are caught up, explains why there have been hardly any American novels of note in the last decade. Mohsin Hamid, Joseph O’Neill, Aleksandar Hemon and some others have done excellent work, but they tend not to have been born and raised in America. They tend to be ‘foreigners’ who have a tough time with political correctness, which they see as too close for comfort with the authoritarian political systems they may have left behind or are familiar with.

Consider the novels and poetry collections from Muslims or Hispanics or African Americans that come down the pike from the country’s big and small publishers. The subtext for approval seems to be this: I, the writer, have rooted out every element of false consciousness, every subterranean prejudice and hankering. I have considered my moral options vis-à-vis our public consensus and here I take my stance, via this text I am offering you.

The texts in question offer clear dividing lines between the good and the bad (immigrants, Muslims, various sexualities), setting up juxtapositions and conflicts to arrive at the ‘right choices’ to progress in a neo-liberal meritocracy. In effect, it’s a colossal propaganda effort, the vast publishing and media apparatus shunning the complexity of human reality. The neo-liberal corporate overseers couldn’t be more pleased.

The aesthetic values of the actual text have ceased to matter; what matters is the verbal performance of ritualised loyalty to politically correct ideals that precedes and follows publication. Publication lives in oral memory, if you will; writing is almost besides the point. What matters is the politically correct persona of the author vouching for his or her text, vouching for the ‘marginalised’ communities for whom the author speaks.

So the next time you hear of a calling out, a burst of moral righteousness — as if human desire could be reduced to politically correct regulations, minutely defined for possible violations of code — know that this is not something benign or of limited application. It is the rude, hard, clashing sound of a dead intellectual culture coming up against its own limits, rising in anger at its own impotence, mocking and harassing and condemning, in a spirit that seems to me the antithesis of why anyone would want to get into the forgiving, humane, open-minded vocation of writing in the first place.

These are very scary people, these politically correct social-justice warriors. I, for one, want to stay as far away as possible from their madness if I am to have any hope of not having my imagination crushed, infected by their fantasies of a totalitarian order where the only words that can be heard are the ones duly approved by the moral authorities, and the only texts written are the ones that are censored before the fact, offending no one, and therefore dead on arrival.

Anis Shivani is the author of Karachi Raj and Soraya: Sonnets. His next book of criticism, Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations, will appear in early 2017.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016

Children of Gebelaawi – Naguib Mahfouz


“Our plague is forgetfulness.”

To think that an attempt was made on Naguib Mahfouz’s life for writing this book is beyond ridiculous. It shows that those who want to shut up books aren’t really bothered with actual offensive material but react to perceptions of insult to their ideology in a world in which they are becoming increasingly outdated and irrelevant, hence all this mindless sensitiveness.

As to the novel itself, I had a hard time with its two-dimensional characterisations and insufficient conflict. We have a brutal world headed by Gebelaawi, the timeless arch-ancestor of the human settlement who fathered and brought into world various tribes, and who lives in seclusion in the grand house shielded by everyone and everything, ruling his estate – the world – in absentia. God in other words, or the Abrahamic idea of it.

The story revolves around the struggle between his succeeding generations modeled on various Biblio-Quranic figures such as Abel and Cain, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, who were chosen to be sent to their tribes when the human condition became intolerably dark. Mahfouz leaves us in ambiguity as to whether the prophets were actually chosen by Gebelaawi or whether they came to believe in their station by some extraordinary natural agency that set them apart from the sheeple.

The same story repeats itself like a broken record. Every reform movement descends into the chaos as soon as the leader of the tribe turns his back on the temporary abode that is the world. It is as though Mahfouz is saying that nothing ever changes; things do not get better for ever; evil overpowers good at the first opportunity. One prophet comes, fixes things, gives people a simulacrum of justice and happiness, only for them to go back to fighting, killing, pillaging, and the oppression and injustice that comes with the abuse of power. Might the implied failure of various leaders have caused offence to the deranged extremists living in a perfect golden age of their imagination? Who knows eh.

I mentioned its lack of subtlety above, but I’m tempted to see the narrative voice as imitating the Quranic storytelling told in dry, exhortative, repetitive, fear-inducing tones for maximum effect. The good and evil are portrayed in absolute terms even though the prophets are brought down from their infallible station in myth to the level of humanity with their personal flaws. We do have room to see it as ironical. This is a promising idea for a story superimposed on the historico-mythical figures, only if Mahfouz had handled it with more tact. But there’s no mistaking what he’s getting at:

I myself have seen this wretched state of affairs in our own day – a faithful reflection of what people tell us about the past. As for the bards, they tell only of the heroic times, avoiding anything that could offend the powerful, singing praises…and celebrating a justice we never enjoy, a mercy we never find, a nobility we never meet with, a restraint we never see and a fairness we never hear of.


First published in Arabic 1959
Reviewed February 2016


Catullus: The Poems

Your Saturnalian bonne-bouche.”

I’m bubbling with a lot of writing, at least a dozen reviews are raring to spill forth; it would be a shame to let this heat slide off into a deadened feeling you get when you remember a book read long ago but retain nothing of it, because you had not taken the care to record your impressions. Over the years I have discovered that the best way to remember a book is to write about it. This doesn’t always materialise though. Life, you see.

I read this Penguin edition of Catullus’s poems (tr. Peter Whigham) side by side Peter Green’s translation. I have no hesitation in saying I prefer the latter, not because I am in any way able to compare it with the original Latin, but seeing the parallel text I can see that Green has endeavoured to remain faithful to metre, length and the rhythm of the original. This stands in contrast to Whigham’s translation with its arbitrary enjambments and unruly line-breaks, where some poems are summarily translated, others are bloated (over-translated?), perhaps to give clarity to the vagueness of the original. However, Whigham’s love epigrams are more spontaneous, direct and urgent compared to Green’s.

I do not object to artistic recreation in translation when its purpose is to convey the tone and spirit of the original, and to give a sense of the language even if it means bending the rules of idiomatic English, especially when it requires an intelligent rendering of satire. But I think if you take too much liberty with the original you end up turning it more your own creation and less that of the writer you’re translating. FitzGerald’s and Omar Khayyam come to mind. I have since long refused to call it a translation. Rubaiyat is FitzGerald’s reworking of Khayyam, a work that should be seen as Rubaiyat of Edward FitzGerald.

Entry #8 serves as a good example of Catullus’ angry love poem. It’s aimed at his lover, the wife of another man, whom he refers to as Lesbia in his poems. Catullus hates her for abandoning him and also hates being in love with her, but can’t bring himself to concede. I’m quoting both translations to highlight the difference between Whigham and Green. (All italics belong to the translators)

Peter Whigham translation

“Break off
fallen Catullus
time to cut losses,

bright days shone once,
you followed a girl
here & there

loved as no other
shall be loved,

then was the time
of love’s insouciance,
your lust as her will

Bright days shone
on both of you.

a woman in unwilling.
Follow suit

weak as you are
no chasing of mirages
no fallen love,

a clean break
hard against the past.
Not again, Lesbia.

No more.
Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you.

He won’t crave it.
It is cold.
But you will whine.”

Peter Green translation

“Wretched Catullus, stop this tomfool stuff
and what you see has perished treat as lost for good.
Time was, every day for you the sun shone bright,
when you scurried off wherever she led you
that girl you loved as no one shall again be loved.
There, when so many charming pleasures all went on,
things that you wanted, things she didn’t quite turn down,
then for you truly every day the sun shone bright.
Now she’s said No, so you too, feeble wretch, say No.
Don’t chase reluctance, don’t embrace a sad-sack life-
make up your mind, be stubborn, obdurate, hang tough!
So goodbye, sweetheart, Now Catullus will hang tough,
won’t ask, “Where is she,” won’t, since you’ve said No, beg, plead.
You’ll soon be sorry, when you get these pleas no more-
bitch, wicked bitch, poor wretch, what life awaits you now?
Who’ll now pursue you, still admire you for your looks?
Whom will you love now? Who will ever call you theirs?
Who’ll get your kisses? Whose lips will you bite in play?
You, though, Catullus, keep your mind made up, hang tough!”

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m eschewing a more detailed comment on Catullus’ longish (and excellent) poems mixing elements of tragedy and epic, so I’ll round off the note on translation by saying that I have been unhorsed along with my hoary perceptions about ancient Roman poets. “Beautiful” is not a word that comes to mind when you read Catullus, no; he is witty, sardonic, playful, deeply personal, highly offensive, almost autobiographical. He does not mince words when he is up to denouncing whom he does not like: his Lesbia whom he repeatedly accuses of turning into a whore with a multitude of lovers, all for having spurned his love(!), the poets of habit, time-wasting rhymesters, and his foes whom he abuses without a blush: his preferred revenge is to drive his equine male organ through the foully malodorous bog land of other people’s backsides. Not a man you would want to know in real life! Suffice it to say that Catullus startled me, amused me, shocked me, and gave me plenty to laugh through the sweet (& sour) time I took in reading both translations.

For Vibennius he has this to say. Poem #33

“Oh you cream of the con men in the bathhouse,
Pop Vibennius, and your son the bum-boy –
Dad may have a dirtier right hand, but
Juniorʻs got a more voracious backside –
why not just sod off to exile in some
hellhole, since Dadʻs larcenies are public
knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly
asshole, no, not even for a penny!” (Green)

Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics series I have discovered quite a few world greats which otherwise it would have taken me a long time to discover, independently. I was introduced to Catullus with this collection: I Hate and I Love, enjoyed it thoroughly and immediately sought out the full collection. Here are a couple of samplers to get a better (bitter?) taste of Catullus on your poetic palate!

Poem #16: Catullus rebukes his critics and detractors who most probably had objected to the content of his poems, as many still would! (I have no idea what the first and last lines mean)

“Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity…
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitalia are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses.
You deduced an effiminancy there.
You were wrong. Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.” (Whigham)

Poem #78B

“…but what irks me now is that your filthy saliva
has soiled the pure kisses of a pure girl.
You won’t get away scot-free, though. All future ages
shall know that, and ancient Fame tell what you see.” (Green)

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

For a long time I could not find words to write anything on One Hundred Years of Solitude, for Marquez mesmerised me into a silence I didn’t know how to break. But I have been commenting here and there on Goodreads and now it is good time, finally, to gather my thoughts in one piece. But this somewhat longer review is more a labour of love than a coherent attempt to review his opus.

Marquez resets the history of universe such that the old reality ceases to exist and a new parallel world is born in which things do not conform to obsolete, worn-out laws. Everything in this world is to be discovered anew, even the most primary building block of life: water. Macondo is the first human settlement of Time Immemorial set up by the founding fathers of the Buendia family. It is a place where white and polished stones are like ‘prehistoric eggs’; an infant world, clean and pure, where ‘many things lack names.’ And it is natural that here, in the farther reaches of marshland prone to cataclysmic events, the mythscape of One Hundred Years of Solitude should come into existence.

The tone of this epic and picaresque story is set ab initio. Take a gander at this:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

It is not long before fateful human activity mars the innocent beauty of creation. The more they discover the more they are sucked into the inescapable cycle of life. The primordial myth that moulds and shapes their destinies does not let them advance in their efforts to defeat the infernal solitude of existence, whatever they might do, however they might try. History gets back at them again and again and every generation is but a repeat of the past. It is to emphasise the cyclical nature of time, in my opinion, that names of principal characters are repeated in every generation, sometimes to the confusion of the reader, easily rectified by going back to the family tree provided in the start of the book.

An external, portentous, disastrous, evil-like power guides and transforms the lives of people in the hamlet of Macondo. The sense of foreboding pervades the whole story: the rain continuing for many days and inundating the streets, the unceasing storm before the arrival in town of a heraldic character, and the fearful episode when townspeople begin to suffer a terrible memory loss, so that to remember the names and functions of things they write it down on labels and tie those labels to objects like chairs and tables. It tells us that we cannot hope for a future if our past is erased from the slates of our collective consciousness. Past may be a burden but it is also a great guiding force without which there’s no future.

The only way to retain your sanity is to remember your history and cling to it, or prepare to go insane. When one Jose Arcadio Buendia loses the memory of things, he goes mad:

“Jose Arcadio Buendia conversed with Prudencio Aguilar until the dawn. A few hours later, worn out by the vigil, he went into Aureliano’s workshop and asked him: “What day is today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” Jose Arcadio Buendia said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” On the next day, Wednesday, Jose Arcadio Buendia went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” That night Pietro Crespi found him on the porch, weeping for…his mother and father. On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed,…he spent six months examining things, trying to find a difference from their appearance on the previous day in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.”

The town is threatened when the change taking place in the outside world begins to spill over into Macondo. Here we have a metaphor for the struggle of Maruqez’s native country and continent which is passing through internecine wars on its way toward externally imposed modernity. Divisions that hitherto did not exist come to define the inhabitants of Macondo and of towns farther afield. One of the Buendias, Colonel Aureliano, takes up a piece of metalwork as new and strange as a gun to mount a revolt and bring the promised glory to his land. New lines are drawn. New alliances are made. Old friends become enemies and enemies, partners. Colonel Aureliano Buendia, when he is about to kill him, tells General Moncada:

Remember, old friend, I’m not shooting you. It’s the revolution that’s shooting you.

The scene above captures the mechanistic element of their revolutionary war; the one below bares the meaninglessness of the conflict, so pertinent to the 20th century militarisation of the whole continent and its endless armed strife led by colonels and generals of all hues and shades.

Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”
What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”
You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride.”
That’s bad,” Colonel Gerineldo Marquez said.
Colonel Aureliano Buendia was amused at his alarm. “Naturally,” he said. “But in any case, it’s better than not knowing why you’re fighting.” He looked him in the eyes and added with a smile:
Or fighting, like you, for something that doesn’t have any meaning for anyone.”

Although I tried to avoid getting into this discussion, but a review of this work is not possible without throwing in the inevitable buzzword – magical realism. Although the book gets high praise from most readers, it is to be expected that some readers would take a disliking to the basic ingredients from which Marquez draws his style and narrative devices. I want to address in particular one argument from the naysayer camp that pops up again and again: it is not realistic; it can’t happen; this is not how things work. So I ask (and try to answer): what is it with our obsession with “realism” that makes some of us reject the conceptual framework of this novel?

Aristotle in Poetics argues that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The stress is not on what can physically happen but on mimetic persuasion. This is why some novels that follow every bit of convention, every bit of realistic element in them turn out to be unbelievable stories with unbelievable characters. You want to forget them as soon as you finish the book – and toss it aside. But on the other hand Greek tragedies populated with cosmic characters pulling suprahuman feats continue to enthrall generations of readers. How realistic are those stories? It is the writer’s task to convince us that this could have happened in a world he has created and set the rules for. In that Marquez is more than successful, and this is the basis of the enduring appeal of this work.

The distinction fell into place for me when I replaced ‘realism’ with ‘truth.’ Kafka’s haunting stories are so far from the 19th century convention of realism we have come to accept as the basis of novel-writing. His The Metamorphosis is not a representation of likely human activity (how could a human transform overnight into a large insect?) but it is nonetheless a harrowingly truthful story that advances existential dilemmas and makes a statement on human relationships, familial in particular. We say this is how it would feel like to be an outcast from one’s family. Or consider Hamsun’s Hunger in which a starving man puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. In the ‘real’ world Kafka’s, Hamsun’s and Marquez’s characters cannot exist but the effect of their existence on us is as truthful and real as the dilemmas of any great realistic character ever created.

Marquez, like a god, has written the First Testament of Latin America, synthesising myth and magic to reveal the truth of the human condition, and called it One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(First published in Spanish 1967; in English 1970)

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

“What happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?
“How would I know?”
“You would know.”
“I would?”
“How I would know?”
“Because you read it.”
“Did I?”
“How do you know?”
“It is on your shelf.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you have read it.”
“Oh I have.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing happened.”
“Why did nothing happen?”
“Because they were waiting for Godot.”

Waiting and nothing – I could take these two words and use them in as many combinations as the rules of probability allow to create a ‘review’ that is as much meaningful as it would be meaningless. I could draw upon the elusive symbolism of the text in the manner of a perspicacious hermeneut whose convoluted exegesis would only serve to frustrate him even more. Or like a blurb-writer I could summarise the four-and-a-half characters, the austere landscape, the leafless tree, the role of the taut rope and jangling bucket, and the heap of nonsense, but what would that achieve?

Suffice it to say that the sheer speed of bare dialogue makes you want to slow down and look for something queer happening between the lines, but nothing happens. Yet something very important happens: everything happens. Aye. Beckett in his frugal minimalist brilliance has created in every reader’s mind a throbbing sense of meaningless wait. The act of wait which is an act of life, since every moment of human life is spent at the same time in a concurrent act of waiting – whether it is waiting in the womb of your mother for nine months or waiting for nine hours for your lover to turn up. Or just waiting at the bus stop for a vehicle that never arrives. You wait for things to happen; but nothing happens; yet life happens.

The best review I have read said, “This is a very interesting play.” Which is to say that the best review of Waiting for Godot is precisely the one that is not written down.

(First published 1953)

Thinner Than Skin – Uzma Aslam Khan

After the success of The Geometry of God and Trespassing, I expected Uzma Aslam Khan to build further on her reputation as one of the eminent novelists chronicling the lives of contemporary Pakistanis but this novel has come as a disappointment.

It started well enough, with two lead characters, Nadir and Farhana – the former a Pakistani in the United States struggling to build a life of promise in a country his parents had sent him to study; and the latter, a mix-raced Pakistani-German who wants to discover the Pakistani side of her identity by ‘returning’ to Pakistan which is now gripped in turmoil. Through their uneasy love we see the uneasy love Pakistanis carry for their homeland, which they have many reasons to despair for and leave behind. And the promise of the new lands of the West, which, despite it glitter and glory, cannot fully satisfy the needs of those who have shunned their homelands.

Parallel to it runs the story of Maryam and her family who are herders for generations. Through them the author has painted a grim picture of the situation the locals of the mountainous north of Pakistan have found themselves in. Hemmed in by all sides in a conflict that spills across borders – trouble in Xinjiang, violence in Central Asian states, perennial instability in Afghanistan, oppression in Kashmir – all this spills into the once peaceful mountainous regions of Pakistan where the state and its rebels fight out each other at the cost of the local people.

The fates of Nadir and Farhana get entwined with that of Maryam and her family when an accident happens during their visit of discovery to the Northern Areas. They are sucked into a conflict which is as much personal as it is public and political.

Our story stalls after the accident, the manner in which the author shows both parties dealing with the accident is…very lacking. There are lots of monologues the characters address to themselves, that do little but confuse the reader. If the author was attempting unreliable narration, it certainly didn’t work.

Maryam’s story and the characters that populate her world, in my view, do not talk and behave as northern mountain people do. An air mystery surrounds Maryam’s family which is not dealt with cleverly. She is also depicted as following some strange pagan cult, even though they are clearly shown to be Muslims, albeit holding on to some ancient mountain rituals for which they get plenty of scorn from Muslims who purport to follow a more ‘purist’ form of Islam. Bluntly put, the writing on Maryam’s family is not intelligent – it has little to hold your attention; it is more like a long and repetitive ramble.

The last part of the novel did not satisfy me. The thread of the plot is lost after the accident takes place. From that point on the story only drags and ends abruptly and nonsensically.

I vacillated between giving it two stars and three stars. If I had given it two stars, this would have been quite harsh of me; if I had awarded it three, this would have meant I liked it more than I had. So I settle for 50/50; I rate this novel as halfway between acceptance – a 2.5 stars out of 5.

(First published 2012)

Sula – Toni Morrison

“Hell ain’t things lasting forever. Hell is change.”

It is time for change; slowly, painfully, but inexorably the spirit of the age sheds old rags and dons a new garb. The mutes are beginning to discover a voice that had been trapped in their windpipes; eyes see things that they had hitherto only watched; and hearts ache with a new throb of hope mixed with fear of which no one can tell which is greater. From this sense of foreboding out comes Sula.

The excluded community confined up in the hills outside a small Ohio town is made, through centuries of social conditioning, to see themselves as different and separate from the white people. They know who they are and they also know they are not the same as the people who live in the town down the hills. They aredifferent, in every imaginable way. You could see that.

They are scandalised when Sula, one of their own, embarks on a path that’s opening up out there, a path of education and mobility, of employment and relocation, of mingling with the white folks as their human equal, if not racial, social or political equal. Gods be good, the black people are offered to live their lives like the white folks!

“It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

When she returns home after a long absence Sula is transformed into an unintelligible mass of thoughts and actions her people find difficult to square: It’s like a white girl in black skin. Or so people think. Unpardonable. Outrageous. Her community is devastated; nothing is more sacrilegious than dressing like white people, speaking like them, behaving like them, being like them. And what’s more, Sula has taken a white man for a lover. Sula, we’re not the same. Ah, what an incredible fact of human psychology that even if you do not lose a sense of identity and self-respect, you eventually come to accept the role to which your oppressor designates you.

Sula becomes a pariah in her own community, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. The ominous signs that lend her a preternatural aura testify to something strange. People see those signs in retrospect, from her birth to childhood, from her growing up as a daughter of a woman abandoned by her husband, from the way she looked at them when she was a child, the way she walked and sat, ate and gestured. Sula, they reach on a terrifying conclusion, is not a young black girl but a phantom implanted from a world of shadows. She is almost a witch, and if she really is not, she ought to be one.

Sula’s character is a symbol (self-contradictory, torn, divided, compartmentalised, unmappable) of the conflict borne of the changing values that had held together isolated, nebulous, inward-looking black communities across the United States in the age of institutionalised racism. Values constructed so carefully over centuries when challenged elicit a response that’s always out of proportion. Sula is a couldn’t-care-less woman whose threatening individuality alienates her from her community. For this she is taken to task. Her own dealings with her family and the community bespeak a cruelty she’s picked up in the course of her contact with the outer world. She, a black woman, treats her own kith and kin with a shade of contempt with which they had always been treated by the White Others.

Her character elicits mixed reactions. Sometimes you want to blame her, sometimes blame her family, sometimes you want to blame the sudden rush of new ideas that has thrown the whole social equation out of balance.
Was it the new life among the white folks that turned her against herself? Or was it to do with her troubled early years, living as she did with her mother who had taken to selling sex as the most natural vocation a woman might take when her husband walked out on her, causing a rupture in relations with the community? Or did her people, unable to take her novelty, pushed her to the wall, turned her into an alien in her own skin?

What made Sula, Sula? This is a question you’ll be grappling with by the end of the novel.

“You have been gone too long, Sula.

Not too long, but maybe too far.”

(First published 1973)

I Take This Woman – Rajinder Singh Bedi

We are used to reading fictions from the Subcontinent (much of it below par) that seem perennially to swing between the two psycho-social poles of pre and post-marriage lives, with all its unsavoury offshoots – a long, never ending A Suitable Boy. The former is spent under controlling parents who consider it their inviolable right to make every important (and unimportant) decision of your life and the latter wasted under the burdens of connubial anti-bliss from whose poisonous claws the only safe escape is death, natural or brought forward (Throw in a love story to make all this palatable). Both lives are bound together by a shared thread of entrapment and women characters, naturally, lead those stories.

There is no gainsaying a mindset that views children as human properties whose relationship with their parents is given idealised treatment in filial caricatures reminiscent of master-disciple relationships of mystical tales: smiling, submissive, sacrificing, histrionic, conforming – ready to leap into the fire on a subtle hint of the nod. Maa, tu kahe to main jaan de doon.This is supposed to be out of love, respect and duty. And if there’s anyone who thinks marriage is not a fixed point of reference in a life-calender from which the BCs and ACs of one’s existential trajectory are measured, then one should pick up this novella and see for herself that a desi life can almost be reduced to a formula: birth, marriage, death. (Who knows, this in part may also account for the extremely fecund wombs of our women. My grandmother were 16 brother and sisters, none of them half)

One reason for the proliferation of these themes is the massive influence Progressive Writers’ Movement exercised on writers who led the Indian literary scene from 1930s onwards. They focused, inter alia, on social realities they believed were incompatible with the spirit of the time that valued social justice and battled gender inequality. Underprivileged people, especially women and poor, were made the subject of countless stories. So much was written with so much speed that women found themselves trapped between conflicting and competing ideas of male reformers about the role women should have in society. But on the bright side this literary exercise did much to raise popular consciousness. A debate was set going that couldn’t be stopped.

Rajinder Singh Bedi was an integral part of the new movement and a stalwart Urdu writer on social issues. He knew how to draw out emotions without dragging the protagonists through a sentimentalist swamp. Here in this novel he elicits sympathy through careful blending of tribal ethos with Rano’s simple desire for familial happiness that has fallen apart when her husband, Tiloka, is murdered. She is no angry intellect soliloquising endlessly in utter disbelief, an easy and once famous way to get a story out of a literary midget, but a sorrowful heart bracing the blows of widowhood with her strength of character; the unique situation she is faced with brings out most prominently the absurdity of her conundrum: in her best interests she is required to marry Mangal, her dead husband’s younger brother, who is many years her junior and whom she had raised like a son.
Rano’s complete silence adds to the sheer confusion of young Mangal whose simmering romance with a village girl he’s supposed to marry is common knowledge. Family elders ‘ask’ Mangal point blank to sacrifice his love to offer male protection to Rano who, of course, could not survive on her own as a widow with young children.

Whether or not they escape this trap is for the reader to find out, but it turns out that men, too, are victims of the same system that puts them above women.

(First published in Urdu 1967; translated by Khushwant Singh)

Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

A metaphor of rotting and unappreciated beauty. Deep in the frozen reaches of the Snow Country a geisha waits out her days for a man who would give her the life of love and dignity that she believes she deserves.

Geishas in the Japanese society enjoyed similar social prestige as the Courtesans of the Indian Muslim culture. They were the connoisseurs of culture and art; they exerted political influence through their patrons; they decided the fates of people who desired their services; they made and broke marriages – they were a soft power centre in the Japanese society.

But in the backwater of the Snow Country only a perception of this power remains. The Geishas there live under crushing poverty and hopeless surrender, maintaining a façade of self-importance but in reality are no more than prostitutes offering affordable services to travelling men.

This novel is a heartfelt depiction of that culture, told through the story of a Snow Country Geisha, Komako, who meets a rich idler from Tokyo, Shimamura, who comes to the town to enjoy the hot springs it’s famous for. Shimamura knows immediately when he sees Komako that she is unlike other Geishas of the town. They develop a relationship but it never goes anywhere. The rich city idler is as though unable to reciprocate the love of Komako who, despite something special in her, is only a hot spring Geisha in his eyes. He tries to involve himself emotionally but can’t stop himself from looking down upon her.

The novel reads like a dream with disjointed and abruptly changing scenes fusing into one another. The writer’s stylistic method is to juxtapose two opposing and contrasting characteristics as in old Haiku: light against dark, sound against silence, being a sex selling Geisha who has a clean and fresh countenance, the whistle of the teapot against the continuous sound of the silence…. and there are beautiful evocations of the stark nature of the Snow Country and the frugality of its people, their lifestyle, travails and their aspirations.

I liked the way the story builds up into a high emotion in so imperceptible a way, without any loud noise-making plot twists. I enjoyed the novel a lot.

(Written during 1935-37; translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!

When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.

I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!

There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.

Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:

Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…

In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.

But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’

From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

And further on:

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

And if you go on:

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)