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Terrorist

Terrorist, by John Updike

Terrorist, by John Updike

Terrorist
by John Updike

In a 2006 review for the Atlantic Monthly of John Updike’s last novel, Terrorist (which I read for the first time yesterday), Christopher Hitchens claims to have sent the book “windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance.” This, of course, is a lie; not to mention a cliche. Hardbacks can be heavy and destructive — so why are they always flying across the reading rooms of disgruntled critics?

The quibbles which Hitchens raises, however, are accurate enough: the plot of Terrorist is soap-bubble thin, the characters are patched-up hand-me-downs, several of the pop-cultural phrasings are “pitchy,” as an American Idol judge would put it.  But what sort of spine, I wonder, has the fluids to spasm in boredom over such trivial failings while reading a book about the hydra-headed Pep-Boys: Manny, Moe and Jack?  Or those inflatable attention-getters in front of New Jersey car lots, made of “weirdly lifelike segmented plastic tubes that when blown full of air from underneath wave their arms and jerk back and forth in torment, in constant beckoning agitation.”  Rising, falling, and — God bless America, God bless Levitra — rising again like an old man’s member.

With its “Terrorist” title, yes, the book compels lesser minds (and critics) to look for the same facile “explosions of some latter-day, dumbed down thriller” which 64-year-old Jack Levy watches at the movies, still holding his wife’s hand after 40 years of marriage despite the “coldly calibrated shocks of adolescent script mocking their old age.”  Like his character — and unlike many reviewers who actually misidentified Terrorist as a thriller — Updike always cared less about the popular projection of life than its flesh and blood texture.

Terrorist is a book about insects and worms and slime trails; about long brown stains from dripping faucets, “oval eyes of dubious toilet water,” crumbling macadam and asbestos, sooty churches, painted-over graffiti, the “rusting rails of abandoned freight car spurs,” cattails in brackish water, gutters “mint-green with age,” dying ad-starved daily papers, plastic flyswatters, Shop-a-Secs, Duncin’ Donuts,  Prime Office Suites, 1-800-TEETH-14, shops with tire-flattened styrofoam take-out containers in the driveway, lobster joints with the lobsters “still advertised but no longer served up steaming,” Subaru station wagons with Bondo-patched fenders and “red enamel abraded by years of acid New Jersey air” in another “pathetic attempt to join the easy seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream.”

It’s about the creation one finds in decay — and about Updike’s own decay after 74 years of embodying the golden age of American prosperity (that perfect life-time, 1933 to 2009).  Pressed to find the eponymous terrorist in Terrorist, I’d point to a little black beetle lying on its back, a miniature Gregor Samsa with his kicking legs, which frightens a young boy named Ahmed (the least terrorizing character in the book) the day before he, Ahmed (not Gregor-the-Beetle), sets off to blow up another three-headed, American Hydra — the Lincoln Tunnel.  Ahmed looks around for something with which to flip the little creature over, like “the dark little cardboard, for instance, used to give the two parts of a Mounds bar integrity, or to reinforce a double Reese’s Peaunut Butter Cup.”  Ahmed finally flips the insect over with the very C-class driver’s license he requires to deliver the bomb, but the beetle was already in its death throes, and, upright at last, remains still — “leaving behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.”

Does a mind which reacts to such a brilliantly observed novel, such a fine work of art, by sending it windmilling across a room in annoyance and boredom resemble in some way the mind of a weedy, misguided fundamentalist breaking through the asphalt cracks of America in fits of desecration, or a truckload of explosives?  Probably not.  But let the idea soak in.  “One of the worst pieces of writing since 9/11,” says Hitchens of Terrorist, granting Al Qaeda their calendrical synecdoche (perhaps their greatest conquest of all).  Updike died before Faishal Shazad tried to blow up a seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream Isuzu Trooper in Times Square, or before the events that really did change the world on 4/20, but he — as much as Kafka and the greatest of writers — has left behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.

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Episode One of Kamal Audio Now Live

Kamal, Episode One, can now be downloaded from most the major online retailers — iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, eMusic, IMVU, Amazon MP3, Lala, Shockhound, Amie Street, LimeWire Store, and Nokia.

To hear this first track, click the image below, then click the play button. If you like the track, we’d appreciate your purchase (and positive review!). The audio track can be purchased for as little at 99 cents at most online retailers. Thank you!

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Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 705 pages

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike

Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, by John Updike

Is there a living writer whose achievements are so much taken for granted as John Updike’s? History is fertilized with unknown masters; but what about recognized masters who are under-appreciated? What happens to such fruit? How can any literary award’s committee sit down to discuss the world’s best – Lessing, Pamuk, Pinter – without someone muttering a single spondee — “Updike” — to quickly settle the matter?

There’s a terrible imbalance here: On its “Also by John Updike” page, Due Considerations lists 21 novels, 15 short story collections, eight collections of essays and criticism, seven books of poems, five children’s books, a play and a memoir; and Due Considerations itself contains no less than 146 articles of considerable stylistic, metaphorical, critical and intellectual weight. One’s reminded of Alexandre Dumas, a factory of a writer, a brand name, but Updike has chosen every word himself, written it all, while averaging an astonishing five beautiful sentences out of every six, with an equally impressive batting average of perfect words (whereas most popular writers these days hit no more than one sentence out of ten; and some no more than one per book).

Now compare this profound and prolific oeuvre, compare Updike’s scintillating talent, his steadfast devotion to testing “the limits of what I know and what I feel,” his implacable “homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness” and most amazingly, the fact that he’s still among us, still writing, still knocking sentence after sentence out of the park, compare this unrivalled writer to all the recognition he’s received so far — including Two Pulitzer prizes, the National Medal of Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a reference to Updike on the Simpsons – and you begin to understand exactly how much merit is lacking. It’s just not enough. Can it ever be enough?

In his review of William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, Updike inadvertently stumbles upon a possible explanation: “It all came down to one book,” he writes of Proust’s A la Recherche due Temps Perdue. “No wonder it had to be vast. Posterity tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books than on a raft of smaller ones.” And there’s the rub for someone like Updike. Perhaps he’s written too much.

The bigger problem, of course, is us.  We’re easily distracted.  We’re quick to watch the caped daredevil parachute off a skyscraper while neglecting the urbane-looking chap who always, for some reason, floats beside us, inexplicably, an inch above the ground. Updike makes a daily habit of his American genius; it follows readers around, especially men: to poker games, movie theatres, baseball diamonds and YMCA swimming pools and the everyday wooing of dollars and cars.  “Small wonder,” he wrote in a short story inspired by his love for a ‘55 four-door Waterfall Blue Ford sedan, “the [American] landscape is sacrificed to these dreaming vehicles of our ideal and onrushing manhood.”Onrushing manhood. The suburban bedroom. The desperate housewife’s predecessor – desperate husbands.  Sex has bedevilled Updike throughout his life. Like few other American writers, he’s proven to be endlessly fascinated by America’s (and therefore his own) fascination with sexual liberty, forever comparing one decade’s behaviour with another’s, as a museum curator might compare different schools of art (The inclusion in Due Considerations of his frivolous essay “Ten Epochal Moments in the American Libido” is a case in point).

This obsession of Updike’s, I speculate, may cause readers to dismiss an Updike novel as passé while ignoring the deeper beauty of its craftsmanship; and perhaps the sex-obsession itself is an Americanism many Americans, at least the more international-minded, are outgrowing these days.  He seems to recognize the broader truth in old age, noting somewhere in Due Considerations – can’t find the exact quote – that sex in the late, pre-liberated 1940s had its own special codes and secret charms, and these were just as thrilling to the libidos of onrushing manhood as any activity in less prudish times to come. 

Updike’s lush style of writing is deceptively well-trimmed, impeccably-dressed.  He’s as prudent and delicate with his details with he is dismissive of dogma.  Notice his recollections of childhood summers: “I liked the freedom of shorts, sneakers, and striped T-shirt, and I liked the way I looked in the mirror, with freckles and a short hot-weather haircut.” Now notice the “perhaps” in the sentence that follows these details: “We love easily in summer, perhaps, because we love our summer selves.”

And we love such observations, perhaps, not just for the mirrors they present us, or even for the clarity of their reflection, but for the fact they’re conjured by a 73-year-old master of his art with the ability to astound us all the more – by travelling still farther through memory and time – the older he gets.

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Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part III

Mind you, ELECTRA (not to be confused with Freud’s misinterpretation of the goddess), although lacking in most Indian customs, is not a bad place to live.  Joyce, Proust, Melville – the world’s finest writers have vacation homes there.  But these writers, writers who really have composed enormous tracts of their native landscapes, do not take well to a poorly sketched character “feeling a glow of happiness” or faces that work like emoto-meters, as in the case of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s howler, “On the faces of Mr and Mrs Kairon could be discerned a daze, an initial shock, and an inchoate ethnic guilt.”  Therefore many of the writers whose subject matter doesn’t appeal to the Indian audience would be as quickly turned away from ELECTRA and humiliatingly redirected to collegiate writing programs in middle America.

Categorising by readership or amorphous ideas of nationhood, of course, is as absurd as categorising by surname.  One should question this need to drape nationalistic sashes over the shoulders of writers and turn their fiction into pageantry.  I cannot help but attribute the impulse to the fundamental disappointment many of the ELECTRA-type Indian-English writers must feel, when, after having their personal visions of India so warmly embraced by western editors, they come home to relatives who know nothing of their art, family members who – as you read them a page or two of your latest novel, editing out the sex bits and translating the difficult words as best you can – interrupt to ask, so how much money are you making?  Isn’t it time you got married?  Or worse, the book is set afire by angry Indian mobs and banned by the Indian courts.

Your natural reaction is to raise your awkward oriflamme of Indian ancestry and proclaim that your art and your self are inseparable, that because your self is as Indian as any Allahabadian Sandman or Delhian Sylvie, your art must be Indian too (never mind that it speaks a language the majority of Indians don’t understand).  And look, just look at the growing number of other Indian-English writers — a whole collection of them! — who are carving out a similar territory, graphically describing all sorts of previously unspoken material (most of it pulled, coincidentally, out of a very British-American sexual closet), making an impact on the English literary scene, winning international awards, creating, as Rushdie puts it, “the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

But what a tremendous contribution India would make to the world of cooking if Indian mothers would just start serving their pappadams with ketchup and cheese dip.

You might even say India has made a valuable contribution to the world of beauty since its  string of successes in the Miss World and Miss Universe contests – never mind that the traditional Indian concept of beauty would easily fit two modern beauty queens into the same traditional dress, or that the average Indian female wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a swimsuit.  When the German-Indian rap star Apache Indian sang his hit song, “I am an Indian” (the video of which, interestingly, became a kind of national anthem on Indian television because of its “unity-through-diversity” theme – hey, everyone’s an Indian!), he was not singing about the Indian identity, or even the German identity, because he was performing like a young American.

And thus the Indian-English author, in trying at once to serve the recipe of India in the dining room of English literature, faces a conundrum, the most common solution to which is the Indianization of the performance — the tuxedoed waiters serve fried samosas and chutney-covered canapés, the punch bowls are filled with mango lassi and todi juice, the candelabras fitted with bright Divali sparklers, and all the while the writer entertains the company with clever conversation, an endless stream of cross-cultural teasing and wordplay.  But the general shape of the literature, the reason, form and purpose behind the entertainment – the aforementioned celebration of self — remains fixed; in fact it becomes more entrenched, more exclusive, because now it is suddenly rejuvenated with a new and exotic party game.  Like Karoke.  Or Bangra music.

Which is why the indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a more Tagorian creature in which an image matures entirely outside the English literary imagination – the base of a banyan tree spread like the sari of a seated women, a river rising to embrace a village with the passion of a young wife returning for the first time to her parent’s home — is such a rare and endangered species.

Apart from some whispers sounding like “neem leaves brushing the sandstone ceiling” (Parera’s second indigenous Indian-English metaphor, a record-setting two in five pages), I didn’t find another specimen in the entire Rushdie-West collection.  I admit to having skimmed much of Firdauz Kanga’s most exasperating “Trying to Grow,” (Up?) which, reading like an Internet chat session, is as misplaced in Indian Writing as Nehru’s spoken piece of non-writing.  Amitav Ghosh’s reflections on his anthropological study of a village in Egypt squirms uncomfortably in this Rushdiesque reserve and betrays the false nativity of the collected subject matter.  The sample could as easily fit into a collection of Egyptian-English Writing, or Bangladeshi-English Writing, and Ghosh – usually quite suspicious of border-defined states – would have been wise to follow V.S.Naipaul’s example and disallow the patriotic representation of his craft by forbidding Rushdie and West to capture his work altogether.

The chapter excerpted from Arundhuti Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things could be said to contain an indigenous Indian-English metaphorical conceit – the comparison of human sperm to those syrupy soft drinks sold in Indian movie theatres and carnivals.  But here we have a case of an Indian packaging of a foreign commodity.  While sperm may tropologically inhabit British and American phraseology, one doesn’t often hear it mentioned in public Indian-English discourse – although perhaps I mix with the wrong crowd.  To her credit, of all the demonstrations of, as Devani puts it, “fascination of the male anatomy” (no less than five of the stories include descriptions of penile emissions), Roy’s may be the most artful.

Since publication of The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, another decade of novels and poetry written by Indian nationals has emerged in numerous languages and styles, and I expect I’ll comment on some of these eventually, but my initial impression is thus: India’s trade liberalization policies since Indian Writing’s appearance, the huge increase of London- and New York-based literary agents representing India-based authors, the mass influx of foreign tourists and businesses into India over the last decade, the availability of the Internet and cell phones across the country, satellite television, foreign ownership of Indian media, the explosion of young Indians wanting to be writers, filmmakers, artists, entrepreneurs and so forth (rather than the civil servants of old), the Indian-English accent on the telephone support call, the newfound sense of career ambition and the whole amusing illusion that our fast-expanding world is somehow shrinking – all of this will likely transform India, in Rushdie’s mind, into an even larger presence, a greater contributor to the world of books; but it’s unlikely to help infuse English literature with anywhere near the richness, the beauty, the immensity of life which India, the country, is capable of.  For every Indian author who navigates the treacherous migration to an American or British readership, an unknown number of beauties will fly into windscreens or find themselves left with nowhere to feed.

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Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part II

By contrast, for a writer like G.V. Desani, whose excerpt from “All About H. Hatterr” is more healthily represented (twenty-eight pages) as entry number four in Indian Writing, the English literary cathedral cannot be ignored.  It is an overwhelming feature of his imagination, his task being to redecorate it with personal artefacts.  The issue at hand is the “dhobin; viz., my Indian washerwomen,” who H. Hatterr believes has “a crush” on him, and his friend Bannerji is now responding to the revelation:

“Good luck to her.  Whereas, I deplore and deprecate sensual love, I am wholeheartedly for romance.  Is her name Priscilla, or is it Daphne?…I am anxious to know if you could concur with the bard Walt Whitman, and sing to her, As I lay my head in your lap, camerado?…it might be a genuine Darby and Joan feeling.  If so, Mr. Robert Bridges rightly protests, Quit in a single kiss?…Does she suffer from a morbid fascination of the male anatomy?  Is she an Elephant?”

Like his dialogue, Desani’s prose leaps and dances – an almost spontaneous exuberance which was cloyingly repeated by such Indian writers as Rushdie, I Alan Sealy, Shashi Tharoor, Kiran Desai and many others not included in this collection.  Here, the affections of an Indian dhobin are cast into a flashy mosaic of Greek Mythology, 18th century love ballads, the quotations of 19th and early 20th century American and English poets.

Throughout his H. Hatterr, Desani refers to an array of Indian settings, characters, fashions and foods, but describes them in foreign terms — opera, bull-fighting, African music, beer, champagne, European literature and sport.   I did encounter two possible indigenous Indian metaphors in these twenty-eight pages of play: 1) a man approaching the narrator like a “wild elephant’s trunk with the intent to pounce,” and 2) a swarm of mosquitoes making an “Indian pipe-like sound.”  I left them alone, however, because the first, apart from being mixed (half elephant, half cat), was unnaturally glossy, stolen perhaps from a travel brochure; while the second was not at all native.  An Indian pipe in India would not possibly be called “Indian” – it would be called a sannai, or a nadaswaram, or an instrument certain barbers in certain villages will play at weddings.

Born, raised, fed on India, you spend all day cooking a traditional Indian meal for some foreign guests, diligently mixing spices so that the butter chicken, the menthi dal, the Hyderabadi rice taste exactly as they did when the Moghul Emperor Akbar ate them in the 17th century. You are showered with compliments, of course, but dipping your pappadams (which you bought at a store) into the dal, like nachos into a dip, your guests — attempting only to flatter – say you could make a lot of money if you marketed them as a kind of potato chip.

Rushdie’s argument – common amongst many expatriate Indian authors – that his writing is Indian because he is Indian steps in perfect time with much of the popular English literary parade, a gaudy collection of forced individuality in which one’s writing should express one’s self, the uniform one wears should provide insight into the character underneath it.  (I see Narayan sitting worn out on a bench, having marched that street in a different era, wearing a suit and tie because the local tailor from his village insisted the great writer look impeccable for such an important “English” occasion).

Rushdie also knows that once you accept his premise, as most modern critics do, his argument settles well with the climate of his mother-country.  India is a plurality, after all, a unidiverse, a kind of protean battlefield strewn with the remains of one invading culture after another; and the passports of the naked sadhu who buries his head in the sand of Kanyakumari and the wealthy transvestite hairstylist in Delhi named Sylvie will bear the same three-headed lion embossed on the covers.  Indeed, how can we possibly define, question or refute one’s Indianness?

But what if we define Indian writing another way – not by the people who write it, but by the people who read it?  I suddenly see most of the writers in this volume haggling with visa officials at the Indian Writing High Commission, growing irate and finally being tossed out by dutiful guards.  Only six writers out of the thirty-two in the Rushdie-West collection would be granted permanent citizenship — Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Kamala Markandaya, Saadat Hasan Manto (who has written one of the best “Partition” pieces I’ve read), Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Satyajit Ray.

A few writers, such as Vikram Seth and Anjana Appachana, are offered the option of dual citizenship, a remarkable compliment, really, to their story-telling ability.  But the rest — Rushdie included — are hastily told to apply for nationality at, well, let’s call it something like the English Literary Establishment of Cultural Transience, Rebellion and Alienation (ELECTRA), down the road, where their themes of intellectual angst, so-called self-discovery, religious disillusionment, familial breakdown, bodily liberation, alcohol and sexual abuse will be met with greater appreciation.  (…continued…)

Go to Part III — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

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The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West

Part I

Let us now commemorate, or at least acknowledge the 10th anniversary of this 50th anniversary collection of Indian English writing first with a review of the book itself, and then, later perhaps, with a comparative look at whether Indian English prose continues its loud and triumphant parade toward early extermination.

I want you to imagine Jim Corbett, India’s legendary tiger hunter and conservationist, returning from the dead to visit the few remaining hectares of India’s jungle a century after spotting his first big cat as a small boy.  Like the ghosts of rural England, India’s tigers are so rare and endangered that their fiery eyes and fearful symmetry, once roaming as poetically in Rajput kingdoms as in art, now exist only, albeit quite dramatically, in the story-filled tea-stall chats of India’s remotest villages.

Welcome to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, where “fifty years of Indian Writing” – what should be the literary equivalent of 50,000 Bengal tigers inhabiting a wilderness as large and unconquerable as Moby Dick’s (a billion people, 16 official languages, a few of which, excluding English, offer some of the most remarkable writing on the planet) — is like a tattered signpost pointing the way to “Tiger Reserve.”

And only when we enter this domesticated literary parkland does our talented tour guide, Salman Rushdie, inform us that herein lies the “best possible selection from what is presently available [in India] in the English language.”  In other words, a safely-enclosed, second-rate safari where the tired animals can be fed through car windows.  For as much as Rushdie’s literary agent might wish otherwise, Indian English writing does not, nor will it ever, represent Indian writing (an argument I will wrestle with later);

My own search for the indigenous Indian metaphor, specimens of which I’ve been collecting for years now, took me 186 pages, about one-third of the book to a sentence by Padma Parera, in her finely observed story, “Dr. Salaam”:

The only sound then was of the wind lifting the branches of the neem trees – gently, as a woman will lift her hair with her hand to cool the nape of her neck.

To reach this sentence – admittedly a poor specimen given that I’ve seen a similar gesture animate sunburnt, bikini-clad blondes on Californian beaches, but indigenous in its adorning all females with lengthy tresses — I had to trudge through a dry, empty, desolate terrain.

The tour began with a misplaced piece of political rhetoric, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst With Destiny,” the speech immortalized not for being a piece of Indian writing at all, but quite the opposite — a spontaneous, heart-felt example of brilliant oration.  As if to emphasise the mood, Nehru’s historic speech is immediately followed by Nayantara Sahgal’s nepotistic, hagiographic memoir about India and its founding fathers (her uncle Nehru and his close friend Mahatma Gandhi).  Their inclusion here as a thematic trailhead helps clarify the misbegotten purpose behind Rushdie’s and Elizabeth West’s collection — not so much Indian writing as fifty years of a place called India.  Thus triply confined – 1) written in English, 2) conceived by people with Indian surnames 3) heeding Nehru’s call “to work hard…to build a noble mansion of free India” – the ensuing samples of prose seem pitiably unnatural in this artificial landscape, what could also be called Rushdie’s Theme Park.

After the patriotic intro, my pursuit of the indigenous Indian metaphor took me through eleven more entries, including the masterful works of such legendary writers as Nirad C. Chowdhury, Mulk Raj Anand and Satyajit Ray – but oh how defeated they looked!  Their tender, careful renditions of deified rivers, rhapsodical servants, the Jurassic adventures of a simple pair of Calcuttan Babus (Ray, as with his extra-terrestrial story “The Little Martian,” once again scooping Spielberg) seem covered with a kind of mange, forced as they are to coexist with the scabrous angst of comparatively minor specimens by such writers as Upamanyu Chatterjee, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Arundhatti Roy and Kiran Desai.

And how pale and emaciated dear R.K. Narayan!  India’s greatest English author confined to seven pages.  Had all 578 pages of the collection contained only Narayan’s work the cover might then have merited the hyperbole “Indian Writing,” for here is a writer who truly represents a place, a people, a culture (something, ironically, the country itself has trouble doing).

In the Rushdie-West selection, a sunny, refreshing meadow of a story entitled “Fellow Feeling,” Narayan’s gentle, god-fearing protagonist tells an irascible, bullying train passenger that if he doesn’t behave,

“I will slap your right cheek and at the same time tug your left ear, and your mouth which is now under your nose, will suddenly find itself under your left ear, and, what is more, stay there.  I assure you, you won’t feel any pain.”

You can see Narayan’s familiar paw-print in the words, “your mouth, which is now under your nose,” because in Narayan’s world, where characters are so dependent on the people around them that if you separated them they would die within a week, some men need to be reminded where their mouths are.  This kind of affectionate portrayal, where characters are composed of and celebrated for their deficiencies, runs counter to the general post-Joycean literary trend in which characters operate their bodies with the entire universe stuffed inside their bellies, their borborygmus playing the music of the cosmos, the act of going to the toilet or masturbating producing a wealth of philosophical compounds.

Nor does metaphorical fauna flourish in an environment where English is a language of class affirmation, bureaucratic negotiation, neighbours trying to act “uppity.”  Too much art in the English medium would only ostracise a writer like Narayan (who, like a good author, suffered from every deficiency except the ability to record timeless stories) from the people he met and talked to during his ritualised morning walks in Madras.  Too much stain and artistic design in the window, no matter how Indian the colours and patterns, would only draw our attention away from Narayan’s native pastoral view to what, for Narayan and the people he writes about, is an alien art form. (…continued…)

Go to Part II — The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997; Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, Vintage Publishers, 1998, 576 Pages

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Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, by Barbara Reynolds, I.B. Taurus, 2006, 466 pages

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, by Barbara Reynolds

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, by Barbara Reynolds

Not acting, or anything George Clooney might identify as the true tincture of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” could ever make Dante’s Commedia a memorable film.

As Barbara Reynolds observes in her careful and convincing study of Dante and his works, even in the 14th century it was the special effects of the great poet’s language and attention to detail that transformed the Commedia into the monumento magnifico of Italian literature; his use, for example, of Italian double consonant rhymes – ViddiCariddiriddiintoppatroppapoppa – to convey the clashing and hurtling of boulders in Inferno, or the contrasting vowel sounds that make the snapping of a twig resonate with such injury and despair, or the way the monstrous Geryon flies in the Seventh Circle, “like a helicopter,” writes Reynolds, “rolling slowly off the roof of a tall building and hanging in space” with upward currents of wind anticipating “Galileo’s discovery of invariance.”

We might say, in fact, the Commedia works more as a kind of video game than screenplay, that Dante was as much a brilliant programmer as musician (using numerology, “mystic additions,” symmetries, trinities and tetrakises that would confound Dan Brown), and that today’s joystick journeys through the levels of DoomDiabloDungeons and Dragons and countless other computer-generated underworlds owe much to the levels of difficulty – in monsters, morality and the violence of the quests – found in Dante’s three-dimensional poetry and arcade style, outwit-the-demons gameplay.

But Dante the technician, architect, builder, engineer, Dante the landscape artist and mind mechanic, however brilliant, could never compete – or so Reynold’s portrayal suggests – with Dante the performer, dramatist, showman.  One gets the feeling from Reynolds that if Dante were forced to choose between literary immortality and a single gay night of poetry reading, he’d immediately write a fresh canzone and beckon the musicians, dancers, acrobats and servant boys to accompany him at the banquet.

Rather it was fate, that is, his exile from Florence during the factional feuds between the “White” and “Black” Guelfs at the end of the 13th century, that compelled Dante to pass through the gates of hope’s abandonment and mingle, however self-promotionally, with Homer, Horace, Virgil, Ovid and Lucan.  As talent agency, Exile (and its partner agents Poverty and Lost Love) boasts a remarkable portfolio of lyric writers, not just Virgil and Ovid, but Voltaire, Byron, Pushkin, Hugo, Nabokov, Brodsky, Soyinka, Arcady – and this is just a sampling from the A-list.

Now before leading us through those infamous gates of hell, Reynolds, one of the world’s leading Dante scholars, is too experienced a guide not to provide us with the necessary footwear, knee-pads, rope (as the poet’s hero-Dante carried), helmet with halogen lamp, and everything else we’ll need to fully examine the devils and she-wolves, the giants and demons, serpents, sorcerers, ditches, rings, castles, cornices, boiling rivers, bubbling pitch, shuddering mountains and all the diseased, eviscerated, headless, burning, freezing, rotting, bleeding, wailing souls within.  Her instruction on Dante’s early life, his political education and exile, the workings of his La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio, his lecturing style, love of pageantry and masques, his studied invention of the terza rima – not to mention, of course, the most important carabiner of our climb, the death of his first love, Beatrice – all come to our aid at some point or another in Reynold’s tour of the Commedia.

“Anticipating the damnation of people still alive,” as Reynolds politely puts it, Dante’s Commedia is Dante’s vengeance upon a world he feels has cheated him – that is cheating him even as he writes.  It’s not the afterlife that matters to Dante, but the life of Verona and Florence, empires and papacies, and the common Italian dialect in which his mind exists.  This must have proved startling to his audience and if Dante didn’t so shrewdly and abundantly mix the non-fictional dead with souls from literature and myth, the Commedia might never have passed the censors.

As it is, we owe much to Boccaccio (who first called the Commediadivina”) that Dante’s work survived at all.  He was the first to grasp its significance, and now, seven centuries later, the Commedia’s place in literature is so immense that it’s produced an ever-expanding cataract of enigmas and puzzles, which Reynolds, often it seems for her own enjoyment more than ours, can’t resist solving.  I believe her when she claims Dante’s reference to wisdom being found “tra feltro e feltro” (“‘twixt felt and felt”), a famous conundrum amongst Dante scholars, refers to paper making and texts; nor is there any shortage of wisdom in the paper text that is Reynold’s account of why Dante still deserves the attention he receives today.

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The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond, Penguin Press, 2003, 506 pages

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

Whether Anne Salmond’s history can be turned into a screenplay directly, or whether it requires a fictional treatment first, the subject matter cries out for (or blows a Maori conch shell for) Peter Jackson’s talents.  Mel Gibson, with his Apocalypto, gave us a mysterious jungle society — a new skin over familiar feelings – but could never shake free of the contemporary, or make us feel as though we’ve left a recognizable humanity behind, as does, say, the 1992 Mexican movie, Cabeza De Vaco, set in a similar time and place.

Jackson, however, could pull it off – not with 16th-century South America and the Conquistadores, but in the 18th-century conquests of the South Pacific with the peerless Captain Cook.  The primordial island scenery, the volcanoes and breadfruit, the fleets of canoes, the war dances, shootings, spearings, lashings, kidnappings, beheadings, human sacrifices, half-eaten body parts, cannon balls that skip across the surface of the sea, fireworks and water-rockets, icebergs and storms and illnesses, “lusty” naked (and sometimes pugilistic) nymphs, the greed for the power of guns and red feathers and sex and nails and mana, the pull and anguish of discovery, the families and rivalries and aristocracies that energize cultures as far apart as Tonga and London – Jackson could capture it all without allowing us to ever feel quite comfortable amongst the tribes we meet and the discoveries we make.  This, of course, is the thrill of all great adventures and all great art.

Salmond catalogues a tremendous amount of voyaging and I suspect she wearied at times of writing phrases like “shot a musket ball through the bow of the canoe” or “traded yams and a pig for a nail and a cloak.”  But we grow used to it, like waves at sea, and the lull of repetition, of waiting, recording, measuring, sounding, charting, bartering, of anchoring in quiet harbours, of floating on pinnaces, canoes and tall ships and hardly ever standing on solid ground, makes the encounters with the abrupt, abrasive substance of people so much more fascinating. Like the sailors at sea, we grow to crave and relish the human touch.

Captain Cook himself stands as aloof, dogged and unintelligible as any of history’s greatest figures. An early ethnographer and man of many mistakes, he found three weeks of a secure, well-paid country life in England — after many years at sea — more than he could tolerate and quickly returned to his South Sea adventures, not for the laurels (which he’d already received), or the lithesome lasses (for whom Joseph Banks so yearned), but for the sweeter flesh of scientific pleasure.  That such a man, the son of a farmer, was chosen by committee — as opposed to some freak of fate — to pilot the Endeavor and lay down his weapons, undress and bow before alien chiefs (or, contrarily, to plunder an entire Mo’orean village in revenge for a stolen goat), inspires us not just to appreciate Cook’s role in history, but to acknowledge the astonishing range of consideration of which a society is capable.

Salmond’s Cook is boyish, fastidious, passionate and detached, creative and sterile and reminds one of Abraham Lincoln in his inability to turn off the sub-woofer bass of his higher-calling which reverberates in his every word and action.  In Tahiti a group of importuning beauties jeered at his refusal to sleep with them – impotent old man! – but their mistake was simple: Captain Cook was not a man.  And he wasn’t really a captain, either; and when, while in New Zealand, he’s mistaken for a slave (taurekareka) – because he didn’t avenge the killing, and eating, of ten of his companions – the Maoris are perhaps more correct in their presumption than history credits them.  Cook was slave to his convictions.

Salmond does as best she can to present both sides of these cultural encounters (though she generally rides, like most her sources, inside the officers’ cabins of Cook’s ship), and amongst the islanders we find, in a kind of looking glass world, the mirror images of Cook and Banks and Webber and many other of the European big-wigs.  The islanders, too, have their own philosophers and philanders, their thieves and theists, crooks and kings, artists and adventurers – some of whose journeys, epics in themselves, Salmond allows us to closely follow; and their performance of taio, or name-exchanging, with Cook and his crew provides an apt anchorage that holds these repellent symmetries, however briefly, together.

O how great our enchantment when nothing is as it seems!  What differentiates a boat from an island?  On viewing Cook’s ship, the Hawai’ians gaily clambered aboard and started tearing off the iron bits, just as Cook’s men feasted on their island fruits and felled their trees.  And some of the island men even mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and jauntily pursued them to a secret place for coupling only to emerge bewildered yet wiser and more careful in formulating assumptions next time – like all great scientists and historians, amongst whom Anne Salmond sails with the same sense of endeavour and endurance, skill and passion for knowledge as Cook himself.

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