Saturday, August 26, 2006

On Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

[A slightly different version of this review of Vikram Chandra's novel Sacred Games appears today in the Scotsman.]

THE CITY OF BOMBAY (or Mumbai, as it is now called, and even there lies a story) is a case study both in dysfunctionality and the power of the human will. Almost everything about it is made to break the spirit, and yet it pulses alarmingly with life. Its 15 million citizens know it well - indeed, they are never allowed to forget it - as both dreamland and shanty town, a hustler pushing them ever closer and hurrying them on ever quicker, and a theatre of stirring scenes and nightmare grotesquerie. Like all great cities it has a distinctive social and moral temper, mores that bewilder the uninitiated, air smoggy as if with milling human hopes, a colourful bastardised tongue, and a secret order behind the chaos. Nothing is as it appears at first glance, and this is one reason it is so attractive to writers.

"If you want to live in this city you have to think ahead three turns, and look behind a lie to see the truth, and then behind that truth to see the lie," declares a character in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Chandra's novel itself might be thought of as an attempt, through the entirely appropriate genre of the cops-and-robbers tale, to explore what it means to survive and succeed in India's great metropolis, and to unravel its elaborate network of truths and lies.

Sacred Games is set in the Bombay of the 1990s, when the city's underworld and police played out intricate games of war and peace. It throws together the stories of the notorious gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the city's self-appointed potentates, and the dashing police inspector Sartaj Singh, who, although he works in a police force full of preening egos and greedy dreams, thinks of himself as only a small player. Some readers will remember Sartaj from Chandra's 1997 book Love and Longing in Bombay; he appears there in "Kama", a story in which his collapsing inner life as he faces a divorce is revealed with astonishing richness. The Sartaj who appears here is older and more weary, his self-image shrunken, and his language coarser, as if from the snuffing out of his family life.

Chandra is very curious, and very thorough. In its documentary impulse - its continuous mapping of links and connections, and its curiosity about the methods and motivations of people inhabiting a liminal world - Sacred Games is reminiscent of a recent work of non-fiction about Bombay, Suketu Mehta's wide-ranging and widely praised Maximum City. (Indeed, Chandra appears in one scene in Mehta's book as "my friend Vikram, who is writing a novel about the underworld".) For instance, both books have a long description of the code words Bombay gangsters use, rich with metaphorical associations, for guns, cash and women. But in Sacred Games the journalistic is a pathway to the novelistic. The book's wealth of real-world detail is always refracted through the consciousness of the two protagonists, Gaitonde and Sartaj.

The Gaitonde sections are the brightest flares in this book: there is a continuous hum in the air of these long passages. Gaitonde's story can in fact be read as a classic Bildungsroman, the story of an individual's development and his gradual integration into society. He recounts how, as an alienated youth, he began as hired help to a small-time gangster, bumped him off and stole his gold, set out in business himself, full of doubts and fears, and moved upwards step by step, knocking each new obstacle out of his way, noting and learning all the time. "I felt my force extending across Bombay like electricity," he exults, "because of me women and men were talking, running moving in patterns I had set in motion, I had thrown the net of my self wide."

Gaitonde's account records, as powerfully as anything in contemporary fiction, the excited surge of the self, its growing awareness of its power and strength, the heat given off by its clenched resolve and adversarial hunger. When he is caught and jailed, Chandra is inspired to provide a magnificent account of life in prison and its memories of lost freedom.

And juxtaposed against Gaitonde's swelling self is a crumbling self: the figure of Sartaj, in physical decline, lonely, weary of his burdens, and rueful as he contemplates the past. Gaitonde thrills at the prospect of power: "The truth is that human beings like to be ruled. They will talk and talk about freedom, but they are afraid of it. Overpowered by me, they were safe, and happy." For Sartaj, all things spill out of control: "Every action flew down the tangled web of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again. There was no escaping the reactions to your actions, and no respite from the responsibility."

"I am quite useless, Sartaj thought, and felt very bleak." That is the characteristic register of Chandra's precisely tuned English (in his sentences the word "and" always does a great deal of work, serving often to build, not merely to connect). But that register, the narrator's register, is supplemented in Sacred Games by the more novel sound of languages casually mixing, which is supplied by the protagonists and is often revelatory of character. "Under the grey sky they walked up and down, counting, and while this ginti was going, I discussed my plan with my two controllers." Readers tired of the familiar cusses of gangster-speak will also be relieved to find that, here, Chandra has chosen instead to deploy Hindi's sonorous roster of swear words. Some sections of this novel - especially the "Insets" that fan out into the lives of secondary characters, as if in search of an even greater amplitude - can be heavy going, and some plot turns are not entirely persuasive. But the book is rooted in something unmistakably powerful.

At one point Gaitonde watches a gangster movie by one of India's top directors and declares, "It was true, just like life" (notice that he does not simply say that it was true to life). Sacred Games might be said through its great labours to have earned just that very compliment.

And here is Chandra's long essay in the Boston Review early in 2000, "The Cult of Authenticity", which touches on several important issues relating to Indian writing in English. Chandra talks about the writing of Sacred Games in a good long interview with Jai Arjun Singh here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The zany fictions of Etgar Keret

The short stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret are among the more unusual pleasures in contemporary fiction. They really are short, often no more than two or three pages, and while writers from Keret's land are supposed always to be dealing with Serious Things, Keret's characters are more likely to be found playing cards with dwarfs, getting stuck onto ceilings with Superglue, or buying their fathers gold-plated navel cleaners on their birthdays.

Mostly Keret's stories are triumphs of "voice". The film writer Rick Groen once wrote of the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (The Man Without a Past, Drifting Clouds) that a Kaurismaki film was "invariably a whole lot easier to appreciate than to describe", and that is what made it so intrinsically a film - its power could not be experienced except by seeing it. The same could be said of Keret's stories - the pleasure lies not so much in any summarisable content, or plotline, as in a quirky attitude towards life expressed sentence by sentence through the individual details of the narration.

So here, in its entirety, is the Keret story "Pipes", in Miriam Shlesinger's translation from the Hebrew:


When I got to seventh grade, they had a psychologist come to school and put us through a bunch of adjustment tests. He showed me twenty different flashcards, one by one, and asked me what was wrong with the pictures. They all seemed fine to me, but he insisted and showed me the first picture again—the one with the kid in it. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked in a tired voice. I told him the picture seemed fine. He got really mad and said, “Can’t you see the boy in the picture doesn’t have any ears?” The truth is that when I looked at the picture again, I did see that the kid had no ears. But the picture still seemed fine to me. The psychologist classed me as “suffering from severe perceptual disorders,” and had me transferred to carpentry school. When I got there, it turned out I was allergic to sawdust, so they transferred me to metalworking class. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. To tell the truth, I didn’t really enjoy anything in particular. When I finished school, I started working in a factory that made pipes. My boss was an engineer with a diploma from a top technical college. A brilliant guy. If you showed him a picture of a kid without ears or something like that, he’d figure it out in no time.

After work I’d stay on at the factory and make myself odd-shaped pipes, winding ones that looked like curled-up snakes, and I’d roll marbles through them. I know it sounds like a dumb thing to do, and I didn’t even enjoy it, but I went on doing it anyway.

One night I made a pipe that was really complicated, with lots of twists and turns in it, and when I rolled a marble in, it didn’t come out at the other end. At first I thought it was just stuck in the middle, but after I tried it with about twenty more marbles, I realized they were simply disappearing. I know that everything I say sounds kind of stupid. I mean everyone knows that marbles don’t just disappear, but when I saw the marbles go in at one end of the pipe and not come out at the other end, it didn’t even strike me as strange. It seemed perfectly ok actually. That was when I decided to make myself a bigger pipe, in the same shape, and to crawl into it until I disappeared. When the idea came to me, I was so happy that I started laughing out loud. I think it was the first time in my entire life that I laughed.

From that day on, I worked on my giant pipe. Every evening I’d work on it, and in the morning I’d hide the parts in the storeroom. It took me twenty days to finish making it. On the last night it took me five hours to assemble it, and it took up about half the shop floor.

When I saw it all in one piece, waiting for me, I remembered my social studies teacher who said once that the first human being to use a club wasn’t the strongest person in his tribe or the smartest. It’s just that the others didn’t need club, while he did. He needed a club more than anyone, to survive and to make up for being weak. I don’t think there was another human being in the whole world who wanted to disappear more than I did, and that’s why it was me that invented the pipe. Me, and not that brilliant engineer with his technical college degree who runs the factory.

I started crawling inside the pipe, with no idea about what to expect at the other end. Maybe there would be kids there without ears, sitting on mounds of marbles. Could be. I don’t know exactly what happened after I passed a certain point in the pipe. All I know is that I’m here.

I think I’m an angel now. I mean, I’ve got wings, and this circle over my head and there are hundreds more here like me. When I got here they were sitting around playing with the marbles I’d rolled through the pipe a few weeks earlier.

I always used to think that Heaven is a place for people who’ve spent their whole life being good, but it isn’t. God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that. Heaven is simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth. They told me here that people who kill themselves return to live their life all over again, because the fact that they didn’t like it the first time doesn’t mean they won’t fit in the second time. But the ones who really don’t fit in the world wind up here. They each have their own way of getting to Heaven.

There are pilots who got here by performing a loop at one precise point in the Bermuda Triangle. There are housewives who went through the back of their kitchen cabinets to get here, and mathematicians who found topological distortions in space and had to squeeze through them to get here. So if you’re really unhappy down there, and if all kinds of people are telling you that you’re suffering from severe perceptual disorders, look for your own way of getting here, and when you find it, could you please bring some cards, cause we’re getting pretty tired of the marbles.
"…cause we're getting pretty tired of the marbles" - there's the Keret voice at its most typical (Note also that "Could be." in paragraph six). Most of Keret's stories work in this fashion. People are stressed-out and long for diversion or escape, reality melts seamlessly into the fantastical, and everything proceeds swiftly in a inexorable fashion like a dream, held together by the rise and fall of the speaking voice. If there are deeper meanings to be found in these bagatelles, then it is we who have to do the work of finding them. Here are some more brilliant Keret stories: "Shooting Clint", "My Lamented Sister", "Island Getaway", "The Nimrod Flip-Out", "Stupor In Our Time", and one curious tale in which we find the writer, or character, Etgar Keret in Moscow, being plied with drink by his hosts till he passes out.

But Keret's not just a sophisticated joker, a miner of the absurd. That is just his fictional persona, the vantage from which he opens out the world in his books. While his characters may long to escape from a troublesome reality, Keret himself has demonstrated a willingness to engage with that reality in all its complexity, especially the intractable Israel-Palestine problem and its many repercussions. Reading his essays, I was struck by the lucidity, moral force and breadth of reference of pieces like "The Sins of the Few", in which he protests against a decision by academics in England to boycott Israeli institutions over the Palestine issue, and "The Way We War", a recent essay in the New York Times on the Israeli government's strikes on Lebanon. Keret writes of Israel's new war:

Suddenly, the first salvo of missiles returned us to that familiar feeling of a war fought against a ruthless enemy who attacks our borders, a truly vicious enemy, not one fighting for its freedom and self-determination, not the kind that makes us stammer and throws us into confusion. Once again we’re confident about the rightness of our cause and we return with lightning speed to the bosom of the patriotism we had almost abandoned. Once again, we’re a small country surrounded by enemies, fighting for our lives, not a strong, occupying country forced to fight daily against a civilian population.
Keret's new book of stories The Nimrod Flip-Out appeared earlier this year. An archive of his pieces for the journal LA Weekly can be found here. He speaks at length about his stories in a very good interview conducted by the radio-show host Ramona Koval here. The blogger Lisa Goldman has a post on meeting Keret here. A review of Gaza Blues, a literary collaboration between Keret and the Palestinian writer Samir El-youssef, follows soon.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Uncertain time in Javier Marias

The work of the Spanish writer Javier Marias is notable for its attention to the nature of the temporal, to our experience of time and our puzzlement with time, thoughts that all of us spend a great deal of time thinking. This has earned him comparisions with Proust, though, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in this recent piece, these are often very perfunctory comparisions, simply presented rather than argued.

In Marias we feel the pressure of time upon us in two ways. His narrators often not only think, wittily and cogently, about time, but they are also shown thinking in time. That is, their thoughts are presented to us as if in real time - it is not thought recollected in tranquillity and presented in cleanly grammatical sentences, but thought picked up as it is generated, in run-on sentences that swell with clause upon clause. We feel we are watching thought taking a walk without knowing where it will go and what associations it will bring up, which is of course how thought operates, often taking its own thinker by surprise. Some of Marias's signature moves can be found in a story, "In Uncertain Time", that both replicates the trancelike patter of thought in narrative time and deals explicitly with a curious moment in time in the life of the protagonist, a Hungarian footballer called Szentkuthy playing for the club side Real Madrid in Spain.

The story (which appears in the 1999 collection When I Was Mortal) begins with the narrator, an unnamed man, recalling the first time he met Szentkuthy, in a discotheque:
It was in the Joy discotheque, very late at night, especially for him, you imagine that a footballer should go to bed really early, always thinking about the next game, or just training and sleeping, watching videos of other teams or their own, watching themselves, their successes and failures and the missed opportunities that go on being missed for all eternity in those films, sleeping and training and eating, living the life of married babies, it's good if they have a wife who can be a mother to them and supervise their timetable. Most take no notice, they hate sleeping and hate training, and the really great players only think about the game when they actually run out onto the pitch and realize that they had better win because there are a hundred thousand people who have spent the whole week thinking about the confrontation or wanting vengeance against their hated rivals.
Note already: the missed opportunities that go on being missed for all eternity in those films, the players's resistance to a timetable, and their sudden awareness of responsibility and obligation as they run on to the pitch, an alarm bell rung by the awareness of other people's perception of the moment and how long they have been anticipating it. The narrator, who admires Szentkuthy's style of play greatly, engages the player in casual conversation, but avoids the subject of football. Like many successful athletes Szentkuthy is openly boastful about his sexual conquests, joking that, "A different woman for every goal, that's my way of celebrating". But he reveals that he is still pursued by an old girlfriend in Hungary, who seems to have taken literally the promises of fidelity he had once made to her: "As far she is concerned, I will always be hers, always". Szentkuthy resents that 'always'. For him time is a cavalcade of different treats and there is a pleasure in not knowing what will come next. But the woman appears to want only one thing from time, and seems sure she will gain it.

The narrator speculates that the woman will eventually win, because - and here we are witness Marias's acute powers of generalisation - people who know what they want "will always have the edge over those who don't know what they want or only know what they don't want. Those of us in the latter group are defenceless, we are afflicted with an extraordinary weakness of which we are not always aware and so we can easily be destroyed by a stronger force that has chosen us, and from which we only temporarily escape…" His guess is later confirmed.

But the core of the story comes later, in the description of a fantastic incident - soon to become the defining image of his career - in which Szentkuthy "stops" time in an important European Cup game, by delaying and holding off what is an absolute certainty, a thing already taken for granted as having happened. His team requires a goal to win the game, and with a few minutes remaining Szentkuthy, rallying forward on his own, shakes off two defenders and rounds the advancing goalkeeper. Now all he must do is slot the ball into the empty net, but even as the whole stadium rises to respond to the goal, he refuses to shoot. Instead, he advances, and stops the ball right on the goal-line. Then, we are told, as the goalkeeper and the two defenders throw themselves at him, "Szentkuthy rolled the ball an inch or so forward and then stopped it again once it was over the goal line".

What is all this? Szentkuthy displays the arrogance that people feel, very rarely in life, when they have absolute control over a result and over time. "He had thwarted imminence," says the narrator, "and it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain, as if he were saying, 'I am the instigator and it will happen when I say it will happen, not when you want it. If it does happen, it is because I have decided that it should.'" Certain of his power over the moment, Szentkuthy exercises it by perversely making that moment uncertain for the thousands of people just as certain as him: "I can't remember," recounts the narrator, "a more suffocating silence inside a stadium." Szentkuthy's action is somehow intensely disturbing, for "it pointed out the gulf between what is unavoidable and what has not been avoided, between what is still future and what is already past, between 'might be' and 'was', a palpable transition which we only rarely witness".

And Marias's curious story, in which even that which appears totally certain is halted and made uncertain by a human being transformed almost into a god, beams a ray of light over our lives that seems to expose to us how fragile our hold over circumstances is - how the experience of the present and of life, for each one of us, is that of perpetually living "in uncertain time". It is only in the past, in memory, that time appears to take on a solidity and a kind of arc of inevitability, and all our lives we attempt, often erroneously, to extrapolate from the "certain time" of the past to help us confront the uncertain time in which we are perpetually wading.

Marias's novel Dance and Dream, the second highly lauded work of what is to be a trilogy called Your Face Tomorrow, has just been published in a English translation by Margaret Jull Costa (who is also the translator of "In Uncertain Time"). A good profile of Marias by Aida Edemariam can be found here, and an old Middle Stage post about his own collection of literary profiles Written Lives can be found here, with links to other pieces by Marias.

And in this recent interview with Christina Patterson, Marias remarks of the novel that it is "the genre, or even the art, in which you can do more unlikely things with time. What interests me in a novel is to make exist the time in life that life doesn't allow to exist at all".

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The heresies of John Gray

In a recent essay the British philosopher John Gray writes, about the new series brought out by Atlantic Books, "Books that shook the world":
Drawing up a list of books that have changed the world is a tricky business. We see in the past what engages us in the present, and many books that were once hugely influential are now almost forgotten. In the history of ideas as in history as a whole, our view of the past is prone to a kind of optical illusion in which we mistake what is closest to us for the dominant feature of the landscape. There is a powerful tendency to imagine that if a book has disappeared from view then it can never have had much of an impact. In fact, many books that once shook the world are today unread.
And, going on to consider the first set of titles in this series, on works by Plato, Marx, Paine, Darwin and on the Qur'an, he concludes:
The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.
This is an extreme claim - the "secular prophets" still have a great deal to say to us, and probably always will. And one hopes there is - or at least there should be - room enough within the worldviews of most people for both the great religious and the great secular works. This essay is an example of what I feel when I read the work of Gray - I never feel in total agreement with him, and I certainly feel a great deal more hopeful than him, but I am always curious to hear what he has to say. For some years now his essays and reviews in the New Statesman have been attracting a wide audience, and some of those pieces are available in a book with a characteristically provocative title, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.

Reading Gray is like taking a bitter pill with no water to wash it down - he is a relentless skeptic, though never a nihilist. None of the thought systems in which most people find some kind of positive meaning - whether religion, the humanist belief in progress and in a better world, free-market economics or of communism, left-wing or conservative politics, rationalism - are of much use to him, perhaps because he has done time in many of these camps. One writer has described him as a "postideological pilgrim", and that may be a good way of seeing him. His work is full of sobering thoughts and curious formulations that pinch sharply.

For example, from Heresies, "In science progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition.[…] The human animal may yearn for peace and freedom, but it is no less fond of war and tyranny. No scientific advance can alter the contradictions of human needs. On the contrary, they can only be intensified as science increases human power." Or, "To think that democratic values will ever be universally accepted is a basic error.[…] Today, as in all previous times, regimes are legitimate to the exent that they meet vital human needs - needs such as security from violence, economic subsistence and protection of cherished ways of life."

Some have read such observations as arguments for political passivity, although Gray's intention perhaps is only to be a cautionary voice - among the inevitable things about human nature that he is always pointing out is surely its need to embrace what he thinks of illusions. Gray is not even prepared to accept that what we think of as the self is a stable, understandable entity. In a piece on Peter Watson's Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, he writes:
[Watson] concludes with some interesting thoughts on the failure of scientific research to find anything resembling the human self, as understood in western traditions. He asks whether the very idea of an "inner self" may not be misconceived, and concludes: "Looking 'in', we have found nothing - nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive - because there is nothing to find."

This conclusion is also mine, but it was anticipated more than 2,000 years ago in the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or no-soul. The thoroughgoing rejection of any idea of the soul was one of the ideas through which Buddhism distinguished itself from orthodox Vedic traditions, which also viewed personal identity as an illusion but affirmed an impersonal world soul: an idea that Buddhists have always rejected. For them, human beings are like other natural processes, in that they are devoid of substance and have no inherent identity.

The view of the human subject suggested by recent scientific research seems less strange when one notes how closely it resembles this ancient Buddhist view. Modern science seems to be replicating an account of the insubstantiality of the person that has been central to other intellectual traditions for millennia.
Gray's talents are exhibited best in his book reviews, an archive of which is available on the website of the New Statesman. As a sampler of his work one might read his pieces on Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence ("...while freedom may be a universal value, it is far from being an overriding human need. Humans want freedom but they also fear it, and in times of insecurity they tend to retreat into closed, hostile groups. Reason can help us understand this process, but it cannot be reasoned away."), on Terry McDermott's book on the 9/11 hijackers ("For these men, becoming jihadists - not in the sense in which jihad refers to the believer's struggle for his own soul, but rather that in which it enjoins incessant struggle against unbelievers - resolved a chronic existential crisis. From being drifters, they became warriors." This is also the sense advanced by the good early section of Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier, in my opinion the only valuable portion of that book.), and on Francis Fukuyama's State Building ("In State Building, Fukuyama approaches weak states as soluble problems in institutional engineering.[…]Legal and educational systems are not pieces of machinery that can be programmed to deliver results approved by international banks or development agencies. They are human practices shaped by diverse ethical and religious beliefs. One large reason why the attempt to re-engineer the world's economies on the model of the Anglo-Saxon free market is bound to fail is that economic life is not a system of rational exchange that can be installed anywhere. It is a tissue of meaning that grows locally. The same is true of law and education - and of the state.") There are many things here worth thinking about.

And here are two other essays by Gray: "The Global Delusion", on three recent books on globalisation, and "Will Humanity Be Left Home Alone?". An account of Gray's life and work can be found here in this piece by Andrew Brown, and a long interview with him posted by Jonathan Derbyshire here. A critique of Gray's thought can be found in this piece by Danny Postel, "Gray's Anatomy".