Nazi Literature in South America and India

Roberto Bolano in his recently translated novel Nazi Literature in the Americas weaves an entire literary universe filled with imaginary writers and their writings.Not all writers were,however, fans of Hitler or other Nazi leaders or even their ideology. Bolano’s biographies of these imaginary writers, inspired in a way by Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, are short- the longest runs into a few pages, the shortest about a page in length. Marked by sharply etched portraits of the writers and of their equally imaginary writings, the novel reads like a racy potboiler, except that there is no evident plot in the novel. Only the last story (which readers of Bolano’s novel Distant Star will be familiar with because it is a summary of the same novel) is somewhat longer and has Bolano himself speaking in the first person and somewhat gives the clues to the underlying impulses behind the novel.

In this he recounts the story of Ramirez Hoffman, a Chilean air plane pilot who seemingly heralded a ‘new era’ in Chilean arts after the coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Hoffman’s poetry is written in the sky using smokes from his air plane thus announcing the new blend of technology and arts as Chile was ‘recovering its manhood’ under a military dispensation.Some of Hoffman’s poems, all one liners written on the skies, read as follows:

“YOUTH…YOUTH”
“GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE IN DEATH”
“LEARN FROM FIRE”
“Death is friendship”
“Death is Chile”
“Death is responsibility”
“Death is growth”
“Death is communion”
“Death is cleansing” and so on till “Death is resurrection” and the generals themselves realize that something is amiss. It is, however, something far more macabre that leads to his downfall.

Bolano’s prose is marked by the alacrity of flash fiction (which to me is one of the most important developments in literature in the internet age), but nevertheless carries forward the tradition of the serious novel. The absence of an explicit plot in the story does not mean that there is no plot- as a post- modern reading would suggest. Instead, the plot is hidden below the surface, like an underground river.

The point that he makes is that Nazi- like brutality has a long lineage, and it resides perceptibly and imperceptibly in literature as well. Literature is, therefore, a battlefield in the recovery of humanity and is not outside the realm of politics, and neither is politics outside the realm of poetry and literature.

Reading the novel, I could not but relate very much to India where, interestingly, it is rather normal to have politicians, in the tradition of rulers of the past like Bahadur Shah Zafar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, to double up as poets and writers. It is therefore not unusual that two major contemporary politicians- Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister and a present Chief Minister of Gujarat respectively, belonging to what is easily the closest we have to a fascist political movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have some claim to being poets.

To look for Nazi literature in India, one does not need biographies of imaginary writers. In India, they live among us, in our times. The question of literature and politics being separate also does not arise. They are so intricately tied up that both are the same. The nightmare and the muse.

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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“A mud hut, but full of books”- Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech

Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled ‘A Hunger for Books’ is devastating to say the very least.

Read the full text here, or see the video of the speech delivered on her behalf (she could not attend the ceremony in Sweden). Windows Media Player required to see the video.

I reproduce the second part of the lecture where she makes her point with a beautiful, touching story. If you are in a hurry, at least read the last line, and come back later to read the entire speech.

I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.

Continue reading ““A mud hut, but full of books”- Doris Lessing’s Nobel Speech”

How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira

First published in Spanish in 1998, Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun was received with critical acclaim. It’s English translation became available last year.

The novel is about the story of a six year old girl caught in the body of a boy, who tastes strawberry ice cream only to fall into a state of mental delirium emerging from it at the end by having to taste the same ice cream again, this time culminating in a macabre end.

Like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girlpublished earlier this year in its English translation, that too has got impressive reviews, I feel disappointed by Nun after having been bedazzled by Aira’s two previous works translated into English till now- An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare.

The only passage that I found noteworthy, however does not appear in any of the online reviews, that is where Cesar Aira (the six year old girl/ boy protagonist) listens to the radio broadcasts about the astrological predictions of the day.

If the short novella was intended to, as other reviewers have noted, explore the inner workings of the mind of an artist or a writer and their capacity to imagine, the novella is not convincing, even distracing at places.

Other
reviews. The one that I agree with is the one at NYT.

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A Novelist of Early Globalization

(On the 150th birth anniversary of Joseph Conrad that seems to have gone largely unnoticed today)

Joseph Conrad’s works written in the early part of the 20th century were unbelievably perceptive of his times and deeply insightful into the 19th century globalisation phase in world history that came to an end with the Great War.

Early twentieth century had seen an upsurge in the East West encounter in literature. This was caused primarily by the colonial expansion of the Western world over the East. Joseph Conrad was an outstanding author who wrote much on this from first hand experience.

Born in the Russian part of Poland, Conrad spent twenty years on sea before settling down in England. From the age of thirty eight, he wrote a number of novels that established him as a novelist of import in English and in which he wrote about the East- including the psychologically penetrating and prophetic Under Western Eyes about the Russian revolutionaries of the time.

He also wrote about Africa, the Far East and Latin America (in The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo respectively) in which he painted a rather dreary picture of the East. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that Conrad’s perceptive insights into the limits and ability of Western ideas to break down the physical as well as mental structures in the East sound quite true. During those times, however, this truth was less visible, even as critical a thinker as Marx had expressed the hope in his famous phrase about British colonialism in India creating the world in its own image.

As we are drawn by the wave of renewed imperial expansionism under globalization, Conrad’s works help us to reflect again on the East- West encounter.

Conrad remained, with the influence of his father’s revolutionary ideals, a sympathetic liberal, though his works on Africa have been criticized by no less than the great African writer Chinua Achebe.

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”

His novel, The Secret Agent that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year was a study of anarchism and the psychology of its adherents. Conrad’s prognosis of his times was rather dark.

One of his finest works is Under Western Eyes, a prophetic successor to Dostoevsky’s The Devils that pre- empted the developments of the Russian Revolution by a couple of years (I think it was published in 1914, three years before the Russian Revolution.)

A large number of Conrad’s works, including the complete texts of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are available here.

An appraisal of the writer in The Guardian and The Independent.

Update: A defence of Conrad’s allegedly ‘racist’ viewpoints by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian’s arts blog (and a very good discussion in the comments section).

Also check out ‘Conrad through the movies’ by James Hynes (link via Maud Newton)

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Don Quixote for the 21st Century

Don Quixote for the 21st Century is incarnated as Donkey Xote in this animation movie to be released next week in Spain. Do all great literary characters, like all great historical events, have to end the first time in a tragedy, and the second time in a farce? One will have to wait to see the movie but the trailer seems to indicate that this is indeed so.

Donkey Xote features stars of film, TV and radio as the voices of the eponymous hero, his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, and assorted animal companions as they set off to fight a duel in Barcelona over Don Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea del Toboso.

The adventures of Don Quixote may take up hundreds of pages in Cervantes’ classic, but the film’s producers have by necessity played fast and loose with the story in their adaptation. Squeezing the novel into 80 minutes, it gives starring roles to Don Quixote’s trusty steed, Rocinante, and Sancho Panza’s donkey, Rucio – who bears a striking resemblance to the donkey from the successful Shrek series, voiced by Eddie Murphy. (Guardian report)

Youtube link

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The Year of Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano’s posthumous onslaught on the US literary scene continues. Boston Review has published a poem My Life in the Tubes of Survival.

Dreaming
That the saucer and I had finished our ridiculous dance,
Our humble critique of Reality, in a painless, anonymous
Crash in one of the planet’s deserts. Death
That brought me no peace, so after my flesh had rotted
I still went on dreaming.read the full poem

The New Yorker has a superb short story about a fictitious Argentinian author:Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey.

It has all the elements of a Roberto Bolano story- fast paced sequences written in exquisite prose and an ending with a dramatic twist. A short extract from the story:

But the action of that sinister and eminently sardonic character Time has prompted a reconsideration of Rousselot’s apparent simplicity. Perhaps he was complicated. By which I mean more complicated than we had imagined. Or, there is an alternative explanation: perhaps he was simply another victim of chance.

Such cases are not unusual among lovers of literature like Rousselot. In fact, they are not unusual among lovers of anything. read the full story (about 10 pages long)

Related posts on Roberto Bolano on this blog.

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The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel The Bad Girl is unlike the typical Llosa. The structure is linear and he avoids the interplay with time and space that he normally brings into the novel and that is his hallmark. Perhaps because it is meant as a kind of 20th century Madame Bovary, a novel that Llosa admires much and has written a whole book on (The Perpetual Orgy.)

Llosa’s The Bad Girl, unlike Flaubert’s immortal creation, is unlikely to be counted as among the most significant of own novels- part of the reason is that despite its occasional flashes of brilliance and a most dramatic and contemporary theme, the novelist expects too much from the reader to believe in the many coincidences in the story, and there are just too many pages of dark prose.

I read it over a weekend and it was only my fawning admiration and confidence in Llosa’s previous works that kept me going (this is the 18th book by Llosa that I read, not counting 2 incomplete ones.) The prose is good in the beginning of the novel and towards the end, and while it is rather dreary in the big middle chunk, he manages to keep the determined reader engrossed in dramatic- or perhaps over dramatic- sequences leading to its ominous and disturbing end.

Not bad for a weekend read.

Review of The Bad Girl at SFGate (link via SPLALit).

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“Scent of Chile at Daybreak”

“Scent of Chile at Daybreak” by Marjorie Agosín

this daybreak
here on a foreign
shore
on the other half
of the world,
and on another ocean
I felt that the sea
smelled like Chile
after the ruthless
rains,
or the days of fog
when ghosts
and those blessed by miracles come out
to haunt among the hills

and I smelled my little homeland
with its fissures like stories
and I sensed the old women of the town
returning in the afternoons to gaze at the sea

little by little
my homeland
opened up for me
like a diaphanous
bouquet
like a path
to travel
in the delight of the air

and this sea that smelled like Chile
brought back childhood and fear
the violence of the flight
the violence of the return . . .
but also this
intangible thing called
home
kitchen
precious scents
intangible memories

here on the coasts of Maine
I returned to Isla Negra
to those encounters with poetry and
his words rocking gently between the waves
the sea smelled like Chile
I write it now in order to speak

[Marjorie Agosín’s family migrated to the US to escape the military coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s Socialist government and inaugurated the long dark years of Augusto Pinochet]

(Translated by Roberta Gordenstein)

The Virginia Quarterly Review’s Fall issue is on the theme Latin America in the 21st Century. Among other writings is an excerpt from Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

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Doris Lessing

To be honest, I haven’t read any works by Doris Lessing and for some reason always thought that she is from South Africa. This extract from the Guardian’s profile of Lessing explains it.

Over the course of more than half a century, Lessing has used fiction to explore racial, sexual and social divides. She was born in 1919 to British parents in what is now Bakhtaran, Iran, but six years later, the family moved to farm in Southern Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – an event that would inform much of her work. Although she moved to England in 1949, her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which was published a year later, examined the relationship between a white Rhodesian farmer’s wife and her black servant. Africa also formed the backdrop to her semi-autobiographical Children of Violence series of five books spanning 1952 to 1969.

Her outspoken opposition to apartheid in South Africa made her persona non grata there and she was banned from the country between 1956 and 1995. Never afraid to embrace politics, she became a member of the British Communist party in the 50s and campaigned against nuclear weapons.

It is also reassuring to see the tradition of the Nobel prize for literature going to someone from the Left. This year, like in the past few, I was almost afraid that it would go Mario Vargas Llosa, a writer whom I much admire, but one who fought the Peruvian elections as a candidate of the Right.

As for Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize, it augurs well that peace is now implicitly equated with the threat of environment degradation.

Update: A fine review of Lessing’s political engagement in her works: The Political Doris Lessing at The Nation.

The Shortest Story

One of the best short stories is just one sentence long- The Dinosaur by Augusto Monterroso. Here it goes:

When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.

This enigmatic short story, considered to be the shortest one ever written, has inspired many a doctoral thesis!

Mario Vargas Llosa, the master Peruvian storyteller, uses the story as an illustration in some of his Letters to a Young Novelist. Here is an extract from the letter titled Levels of Reality.

What is the point of view in terms of level of reality in this story? You’ll agree that the narrative is situated in the plane of the fantastic, since in the real world you and I inhabit, it is improbable that prehistoric animals that appeared in our dreams–or in our nightmares–would turn up as an objective reality, and that we should encounter them in the flesh at the foot of our beds when we opened our eyes. It’s clear, then, that the level of reality of the narrative is an imaginary or fantastic reality. Is the narrator (omniscient and impersonal) situated on the same plane? I’d venture to say that he is not, that he establishes himself instead on a real or realist plane–in other words, one that is essentially opposite and contrary to that of the narrative. How do I know this? By the tiniest but most unmistakable of indications, a signal or hint that the careful narrator gives the reader as he tells his pared-clown tale: the adverb still. The word doesn’t just define an objective temporal circumstance, indicating a miraculous occurrence (the passage of the dinosaur from a dreamworld to objective reality). It is also a call to attention, a display of surprise or astonishment at the remarkable event. Monterroso’s still is flanked by invisible exclamation points and implicitly urges us to be surprised by the amazing thing that has happened. (“Notice, all of you, what is going on: the dinosaur is still there, when it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be, since in true reality things like this don’t happen; they are only possible in a fantastic reality.”) This is how we know the narrator is narrating from an objective reality; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t induce us through the knowing use of an amphibious adverb to take note of the transition of the dinosaur from dream to life, from the imaginary to the tangible.

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A Short Story By Roberto Bolano

Long time readers of this blog may be aware of the admiration that this blogger has for nearly all the works by Roberto Bolaño that have been translated into English. A poem by Bolaño appeared here a few posts below. This week’s issue of the New Yorker carries a story by the late Mexican, Chilean, Latin American writer who died prematurely at he age of 50 in 2003.

This short story, like much of Bolaño’s works, lies at the intersection of literature and politics and the ease with which the personal and the political blend effortlessly in his hands, as indeed they do in real life, is amazing.

I would not rate the story as one of his finest ones, but the prose is imaginative and exquisite and that alone would make it worth reading. Here is an excerpt:

When the lawyer’s two or three close friends asked him why he remained single, his response was always that he didn’t want to impose the unbearable burden (as he put it) of a stepmother on his offspring. In Pereda’s opinion, most of Argentina’s recent problems could be traced to the figure of the stepmother. We never had a mother, as a nation, he would say; or, she was never there; or, she left us on the doorstep of the orphanage. But we’ve had plenty of stepmothers, all sorts, starting with the great Peronist stepmother. And he would conclude: Of all the countries in Latin America, we’re the experts on stepmothers.

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Urdu in the time of Plagues

Museindia’s July- Aug issue has a focus on contemporary Indian Urdu literature. The selection of the poetry is lackadaisical, certainly, I believe, because of the laboured translation into English. Some of the short stories are good, like this one by Joginder Paul:

Hero

What could I really do?

We need a few new faces for our latest feature film, and our producer Appa sahib had said, “You can cast any one for any role, but the hero will be my man.”

The man Appa sahib had chosen to be the hero, was by nature a villain. Perhaps I was still in search of a hero or who knows what, I cast someone as the villain, who actually appeared to me as sensitive, innocent, and well-intentioned, just like my hero.

“But …. I …..” the young man said hesitantly.

“What do you mean by that? Who is going to accept you as a hero unless you have made a complete villain of yourself.”

The essay “The Situation of the Urdu Writer” by CM Naim, written in 1994 is still as relevant as it is scathing. Reading it, I recalled my own sisyphean endeavours at learning Urdu via a distance education program of the Jamia Milia Islamia University. I used to receive lessons by post and was supposed to complete exercises within a fortnight. The initial ones were duly examined and marked by an anonymous mentor. After the third or fourth instalment, the mentor apparently lost interest and I stopped getting the responses back. When I told this to a friend, a writer and playwright who had himself switched from writing in Urdu to Hindi, he commented wryly “Your mentor must be thinking why lead this young enthusiast astray? What has he himself achieved by learning Urdu?”

Naim echoes the frustrations, like that of my friend’s, of writing in Urdu today, and yet, why it needs to be written.

If, however, you are not in with the ignorant bureaucrats or their imbecilic advisors from academia, you have no choice but to publish the book yourself. Average first edition: 400 to 1,000 copies.

Congratulations!  You now have a book out, but will it sell?  A lucky first edition sells in two or four yeas. That is the end of your book, unless someone brings out a pirated edition in Pakistan. In fact, you secretly long that someone will. How else will you reach that other audience of yours?

Of course, while all this was going on, you were also trying to find and hold a job, to raise a family. Then one day your daughter comes home from school and tearfully shows you her Hindi or history textbook.  It says that the Muslims were aliens in India, that they only destroyed temples and persecuted the Hindus and made no positive contribution; that they must be ‘brought back into the main stream of Indian life’. Or your son tells you how he was taunted by some boys who called him a ‘Babur’s son.’ (Babur was the Central Asian prince who conquered parts of northern India in 1526 and laid the foundation for what later came to be known as Mughal dynasty.)  What do you say to them?  Or perhaps you have the experience yourself when you go to the corner store and find written on its wall in crude letters: ‘Babur’s  children / Go to your graves or to Pakistan!’. Should you then not find it amusing that even the ugly slogan aimed at you was written in Hindi while, conversely, it used a jingle form that imitated Urdu?  Perhaps not.  Hashimpura, Maliana, Bhagalpur, Meerut, Bhiwandi, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bombay, Surat, Bhopal – what happened in these and many other places was far from amusing.

So, you return home and write a story, in Urdu. For writing in Urdu in India is now definitely a political act. It may not empower you much, but it still lets you assert the fact of your existence. You authorise yourself. In a time of plagues, that is enough.

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The Die is Caste

The Little Magazine has its recent issue on the theme: “Reservation: Die is Caste“. Below are two extracts, the first is a short story by Rajendra Yadav translated from Hindi.Two in the next world

Brothers, I have found ease in the next world. Let’s set aside the complicated question of whether this is heaven or hell. Suffice it to say that the doctors bought me my ticket from the hell of this world to that of the next.

It happened like this — I was scheduled to undergo a complicated operation. A government surgeon would handle it. But I learned that he was from the reserved quota. In other words, there was no question of him being either capable or skilled. I sought the protection of a young, presentable and clever doctor in a famous nursing home. The fees and other charges took the starch out of me. But my family decided to gamble on it. If my life could be saved, they reasoned, I would get it all back. But I died on the operating table. Just bad luck, I suppose…

Now, in the next world, I have learned that the young doctor had made his way through the medical course by greasing palms with lakhs in cash and grabbing the feet of ministers and officers. And the day he graduated, he had collected a dowry worth crores and set up this nursing home overnight. Who knows where he had found the twenty-odd doctors who manned it. He must have recruited them in the hope that they would not be like him.

The doctor’s young wife had committed suicide because she could not extract enough from her parents to meet her husband’s needs. The day the doctor operated on me, he also made an alliance with a highly placed and prosperous family for his second marriage. And yes, the drugs which he had prescribed for me were fake. They were from a chemist’s shop conveniently located in the nursing home, established so that patients would not have to rush hither and thither to get their medication. So you see, I was fated to die.

Anyway, I’m fine here now. I think I’ll look for the doctor’s first wife and strike up a friendship with her. Poor dear, she must be somewhere hereabouts.

Translated from the Hindi story ‘Do Divangat’ (2006) by Pratik Kanjilal

Following is the poem What would you do? by the leading Dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki.

What would you do?

If you

Are thrown out of your village

Cannot draw water from the well

Are abused

In the screaming, echoing afternoon

Told to break stones

In place of real work

Are given leavings to eat

What would you do?

If you

Are told to drag away

Animal carcasses

And

Carry away the filth

Of a whole family

Given hand-me-downs to wear

What would you do?

If you

Are kept far from books

Far from the threshold

Of the temple of learning

If you are hung up like Jesus

On a blackened wall

In the light of an oil-lamp

What would you do?

If you

Have to live

In a hut of mud and straw

Which can be flattened by a breath

Or swept away in a night of rain

If you are told to sleep

In knee-deep water

What would you do?

If you

Have to swim against the current

To open the doors of pain

And do battle with hunger

Send your newlywed women

To the landlord’s mansion

On the first night

What would you do?

If you

Are denied in your own land

Made slave labour

Stripped of your rights

Your civilisation burned away

The pages of your glorious history

Torn to shreds

And thrown away

What would you do?

If you

Cannot vote

Are beaten bloody

Beaten in the name of democracy

And at every step reminded of

How insignificant your race is

If your life stinks

If your hands are raw

And yet they tell you

Dig canals, dig drains

What would you do?

If you

Are insulted in public

Your property is snatched away

In the name of religion

Your women told

To become devdasis

And made prostitutes

What would you do?

Your fair complexion

Would be burned black

Your eyes would be dry, dead

You could not write on paper

Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram.

Descendant of the gods, you

Would be lame, a cripple

If you had to live thus for ages

Like me

What would you do?

Translated from the Hindi by Pratik Kanjilal

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“I am a Hindu”

Indscribe has a post on the controversy in the Hindi blogosphere on the collection of short stories Main Hindu Hoon (I am a Hindu) by Asghar Wajahat. Shah Alam Camp ki ruhain (The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp, pdf) is a collection of mini stories about the Shah Alam Camp set up in Ahmedabad after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. Asghar Wajahat’s play directed by Habib Tanvir Jis Lahore Nahin Vekhiya, o jamiya nahin (One that has not seen the grand city of Lahore, is not yet born) was a scathing indictment of the the partition and the frenzy that followed it.

One of the mini stories from The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp:

A political leader asks a spirit who has come to visit Shah Alam Camp: “Do you have a father and mother?”

“No, they were both killed.”

“What about brothers and sisters?”

“No.”

“Any other relatives alive?’

“No, they’re all dead.”

“Are you comfortable here?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you get enough to eat?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you have clothes on your back?”

“I do.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“No, nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

The leader is pleased. He says to himself, “The lad is bright. Not like other Muslims.”

Translated by Rakshanda Jalil at The Little Magazine

Another short story from a different collection by Wajahat:

Hariram: Gurudev, is Pakistan our enemy?

Gurudev: Yes, child, it is our enemy.

Hariram: What does Pakistan want?

Gurudev: It wants to destroy us.

Hariram: And what do we want?

Gurudev: We want to destroy Pakistan.

Hariram: Then we are friends, not enemies.

Gurudev: How Hariram?

Hariram: We have the same intentions.

Lies Half Told

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Milan Kundera: A “Second Reading”

Central European literature is one of the literatures that fascinated me briefly- a short stopover as it were, on the journey from Russian classics to contemporary South American literature that continues to mesmerize.

What did appeal then was Good Soldier Svejk and Franz Kafka but not the contemporary writers- one reason possibly was what I perceived was their anti- socialist underpinnings. A believer in “existing socialism” then, I gave up reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being after a hundred pages or so.

Jiri Travnickek’s “second reading” of the novel makes me consider a “second reading” myself. At that time, I was dismissive of its departure from social realism. Hopefully wiser, perhaps I am less likely to do so now.

A further realization I made at the time was that a novel had to be narrated in a manner that simultaneously generates illusions and breaks them down. Through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera equipped us with the conviction that you can’t tell a love story any old way, even if it is integrated into major historical events. You have to make your narrative method one of the themes of the narrative itself

…As a novelist, however, he never accepted the radical narrative techniques of Broch’s The Sleepwalkers or The Death of Virgil. He never managed to be as uncompromisingly ascetic and story-defying as the Austrian novelist. Where Broch decided to serve experimentation and nothing else, Kundera remains more moderate, more compromising in his narrative. If Broch is obsessed with composition and style, Kundera manages to pay more attention to story and characters. While Broch puts himself wholly at the service of the modern novel (with an emphasis on the word modern), Kundera’s writing remains more in the service of the novel as such. And The Unbearable Lightness of Being reveals that the novel cannot be ordered around from the outside, that it has its own needs, tradition, methods of establishing contact with its readers. In other words: its own wisdom. Aesthetic imperatives belong to programmes; to the novel belongs a search for the centre, for balance – between narrator and characters, story and composition, narration and thought.

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The Novelist as an Essayist

Jonathan Rée reviews (The Democracy of Don Quixote) four books- all books of essays written by novelists: Touchstones by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Curtain by Milan Kundera, Inner Workings by J.M. Coetzee and the posthumous collection by Susan Sontag, At the Same Time.

In or around 1605, European literature changed. No one realised it at the time, but when Don Quixote set off to save the world, a new kind of writing was born. The old forms of storytelling—the epic, the romance, the oral tale—would from now on be pitted against a boisterous young rival. Before long it would be universally acknowledged that a reader hoping to enjoy a good story must be in search of a novel.

The novelty of the novel is of course connected with the rise of printing, and the growth of a literate public with time and money to spare. Beyond that, the sheer scale of the form allows storylines to be extended and multiplied as never before, crossing and re-crossing each other with ample scope for coincidence, surprise and contingency, and hence for the depiction of characters with whom, as William Hazlitt put it, the reader can “identify.” But the most momentous way in which novels distinguish themselves from other kinds of storytelling is that they give a central role to a supernumerary character—the narrator—whose task is to transmit the story to us. All kinds of stories invite us to imagine the characters they portray, and involve ourselves in their fortunes and their follies; but to engage with novels we need to go one step further and imagine the people telling the story, or even identify with them.

The art of reading a novel involves a dash of experiment, conjecture, even risk. It requires readers to try out different narrative perspectives, styles, even personalities, and so to explore the inherent variousness of experience, and to recognise the vein of arbitrariness that runs through any possible version of events. Novels, in short, are implicitly pluralistic. In this respect they resemble essays, which, as it happens, came into existence at more or less the same time (Montaigne launched the form in 1580, with Bacon following in 1597). Essays tend to be classier, more learned and more demanding—there is no essayistic equivalent of the “popular novel”—and even when written in a perfectly casual style, they are likely to be strewn with half-concealed quotations or allusions to flatter or perhaps annoy the smarter class of reader. As exercises in hesitation, exploration and experimental self-multiplication, they are like novels, only more so. You might even say that the novel aspires to the condition of the essay, and there is certainly no shortage of novelists who have aspired to be essayists too. Think of Eliot or Henry James, Woolf, Forster or Orwell, or Mann, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus and Mary McCarthy. And as the four recently published books now lying open on my kitchen table demonstrate, the essay-writing novelist is still a literary force to be reckoned with.

Link via Literary Saloon

What is a Novel?

Hermione Lee reviews books on the novel as a literary form, in this insightful essay.

The novels which haunt me are those that give the effect of a journey continuing beyond the end of the book: Isabel Archer going back to her prison at the end of The Portrait of a Lady; the lovers walking away into the crowd in Little Dorrit and disappearing into everyday humanity; the lonely narrator, all storytelling spent, looking out at the burning stars at the end of I Married a Communist; the reunion of the son and the father, coming through the utmost humiliation, impoverishment, and abjection, on the last page of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

Related link: Terry Eagleton on the Nation and the Novel