The Tamil writer Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan) tells the story, and the stories, of a group of women who belong to a Muslim trading and landowning community in a small village in Tamil Nadu. Each one of these characters is vividly brought to life, and the narrator beautifully negotiates multiple visions of love, truth, justice, sorrow, anger, belief and desire: the novel is a magisterial exercise in the working out of point of view. The focus is primarily female, but not exclusively so. We are for time to time catapulted into the lives of patriarchs, husbands, and brothers, and often the predicaments of these men are just as tenderly observed. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation often leaves some of the vocabulary of the Salma’s Tamil world intact, thereby making us enter a world as much on its own terms as on ours (readers cannot always demand the rights of consumers). Not the least of the novel’s pleasures is the quality of its thinking about God, who appears sometimes as a source of succour for the miserable and the helpless, sometimes as justice and at other times a perversion of justice, sometimes only as a question or a blank space – and therefore always human, in the sense of always appearing to us filtered through a human imagination. To my mind one of the greatest of Indian novels.
The leisurely and beautifully weighted stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House in India, Norton in America, Bloomsbury in the UK) take what has become a convention in short fiction – the stories of interlinked characters conceding primacy to each other – and raise it into an examination of the many currents of life emanating from the decaying estate of an aging landowner in feudal Pakistan. This world appears, like Salma’s, grossly patriarchal, but we find to our surprise that most of Mueenuddin’s stories are about women, and these women often exert a power over men that pierces the hearts of the heartless. Mueenuddin is often an astute psychologist, as when he shows us an estate manager throwing all caution to the winds in a love affair because he has so carefully calculated his rise that now, for once, “he deserved to make this mistake.” Some of the prose effects of this book are too vivid for description in a single paragraph. Longer essay here.
Orhan Pamuk’s long-awaited The Museum of Innocence (Knopf is America, Faber & Faber in the UK) proved to be a love story that, not for the first time, found a channel that made readers ask: why didn’t we think of this before, the idea of an actual museum for a relationship? A 30-year-old business scion, Kemal Basmaci, falls in love with his beautiful teenaged cousin Fusun and is vividly transported into the wonders of a private and shared vision, even as he about to make what society would think of as “a good marriage” to an attractive and accomplished woman of his same class and standing. Kemal cannot bring to a halt his drift in either direction, and becomes, to his own anguish, a resident of two camps. 1970s Istanbul and its streets, consumer objects, and mores are beautifully worked without any theoretical debris into this highly pleasurable story, the many fine moments of which invite the same rapture as the real experience of love itself.
Narrative swiftness and weightlessness – pure fictional skills, in a way, in which no sentence seems significant enough to be quoted but the story glows with an easy confidence in itself – were also a feature of works of fiction by two old masters: Nocturnes (Knopf in America, Faber & Faber in the UK), a collection of stories about music, memory, and dreaming by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Middleman (Penguin India), a novel set in the discontented Calcutta of the 1970s by the Bengali novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, or “Sankar”. Both writers are very adept at dialogue; indeed, since Ishiguro’s stories are all in the first person, they all aspire to the register of talk. Both writers also love plot. Ishiguro likes to move his stories on with little tremors of disbalance or revelation; we are never allowed to settle comfortably into our knowledge. Sankar’s tightly worked story expands just enough around a morally hazy landscape to carry a violent sting in its tail as we witness the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. Eudora Welty once observed: “A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which may be answered.” Sankar is one of those writers who knows the truth of this, and revels in the power of story to make meaning through a narrative arc. Arunava Sinha’s translation was expertly thought out. Longer essays on these two books are here and here.
A novel explicitly about politics and then about all those things that politics, no matter how omnivorous it is, cannot possess or destroy, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (Knopf in America, Fourth Estate in the UK) tells the moving story of a family of a young woman sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary activity in a fictional city in China in the year 1979. As with Salma’s novel, a number of characters, most of them on the margins of society, seem to draw the text out behind their trajectories, and the novel’s amplitude and artistic balance often rouse the reader to wonder. Longer essay here.
Aseem Kaul’s Etudes (Tranquebar) was the work of a truly independent sensibility: a book of 75 very short stories notable for their pellucid observation, dazzling metaphors, and jettisoning of the conventions of realist storytelling (which, in default mode, as it is used by so many practitioners, especially in popular fiction, can be absolutely wearying). A longer essay on Etudes is here. This was only one among several distinguished works of short fiction published in India this year, the others being Jahnavi Barua’s Next Door (Penguin, longer essay here), Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar, longer essay here), and Nighat Gandhi’s Ghalib At Dusk (Tranquebar, longer essay here).
Sudarshan Purohit’s translation of Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist (Blaft) brought into the house of Indian fiction in English, for the first time, a colossus from the Hindi pulp-fiction scene, and was a worthy successor to the same publisher’s The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (2008). Longer essay here.
For a while now the translator Sandra Smith has been bringing to readers English, almost year by year, the vivid and striking novels of the French writer Irene Nemirovsky, who when at the height of her powers was captured by the Nazis and killed in Auschwitz in 1942. This year's Nemirovsky release was The Dogs and The Wolves (Chatto & Windus in the UK), which follows the stories of three cousins, one rich and the other two poor, across Russia and France and across two decades. Nemirovsky's passionate and questing protagonists, her shrewd eye for human vanities and hypocrisies, simmering plots, and intensely dramatic and economical style always make her sound like no one else you have read. Longer essay here.
A friend of mine, flipping through the copy of Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring An Iranian Love Story (Knopf in America, Little, Brown in the UK) lying on my table, expressed shock that I had scored out so many passages of this book with a black pen. This was an unintentional compliment to perhaps the most unusual novel of the year, in which the love-story of two characters, Dara and Shirin, in Tehran, is intercut with the narrator’s own battle to defend the integrity of his text against an army of guideline-obsessed cultural censors (who, even when they find a female character sweating and saying “It’s hot”, immediately set about slashing and burning). Art literally fights for its life in this clever and jazzy postmodern tale, even as the author finds his own two creations rebelling against him and the storyline he has thought for them. When, towards the end of the novel, Dara and Shirin meet and are fulfilled, we totally understand, and are moved, when the narrator begins to speak of “my own loneliness”. A salutary deconstruction, and reconstruction, of fiction as it is conventionally understood. Longer essay here.
Good wishes for 2010!