On discovering Chinua Achebe after his death

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

[W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming]

Six and half years ago, I wrote a post about reading Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had just finished the book, and had discovered that someone named Chinua Achebe had called Conrad a racist. My view – then, as now – remains that the Marlow, the narrator of The Heart of Darkness did come across as a laconic white traveler who regarded the natives as pathetic and subhuman animals. Thus, while it was quite clear that Marlow was a racist, I wasn’t sure whether the accusation is transferable to Conrad. One of the blog’s readers, Max,  explained in a comment that Achebe’s view was not based just on the isolated example of The Heart of Darkness, and recommended that I read some of Achebe’s works, particularly Home and Exile and Things Fall Apart.

From then on until the month of March 2013, I thought of The Heart of Darkness very rarely, once I think, while reading The Lord of the Flies. In March, however, as I drove into my apartment’s parking lot, news came over the radio that Chinua Achebe had died. I hadn’t heard the name in a long time, but fortunately remembered the context in which it had first come to my attention. In the ensuing interview, the radio host spoke with an African theater director about Achebe and, in particular, about Things Fall Apart. That was how, I came to know that  “someone named Chinua Achebe” was a rather important figure in African literature, and that was how I came to pick up this remarkable and beautiful book.

Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart]

Set mostly in the tribal African village of Umofia, Things Fall Apart is the tragic story of Okonkwo – a mighty wrestler who has worked hard to build a life of prosperity and esteem. The story is set in motion when, in response to the judgment of the tribal Oracle (arbitrary as such human-endowed pseudo-dieties tend to be), Okonkwo joins some male villagers and kills a teenaged boy who had long considered him a father figure. Okonkwo’s life is riddled by guilt and frustration and begins to slowly unravel. In the commotion, ardor and music of a funeral ceremony, his gun fires by accident claiming the life of a young boy; he loses his place of prestige within his clan and is forced to go into exile in his mother’s village of Mbanta for seven years. These seven years coincide with the arrival in the two villages of British colonizers and evangelical Christian missionaries. One by one, either by the explicit design of the armed and modern colonizers, or by the clan’s suspicion of the religion of the white man, the society of Okonkwo and his forefathers is rent apart.

It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.  He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. Nwoye’s callow mind was greatly puzzled.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart].

It is unfortunate that Things Fall Apart is not more well-known, for Achebe is a writer of surpassing brilliance. In a short span of two hundred pages, the reader lingers briefly but vividly on patriarchy, feminism, religion, culture, and race – never passing judgement but staring each one full in the face, before walking slowly back from the scene alone, eyes unblinking and bloodshot from a small  oasis of clarity in the vast desert of unknowing. Okonkwo is the novel’s African conscience, and we watch his life unfold while simultaneously experiencing the changing epoch through his eyes and his fierce, stubborn, chauvinistic heart. In so doing, we become aware that — underneath our differently colored skins, and behind our differently veneered civilizations, and below our variously fantastical gods — underneath all the variegated baggage that we have accumulated since we left our ancestral homes in Africa all those tens of thousands of years ago, we haven’t really changed very much at all.

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Musings on Tolkien: Art, Myth and Religiosity

The books of J. R. R. Tolkien comprise one of my fondest literary experiences during the time I have spent outside India. I have come at the works in a sequence that the venerable professor would probably not approve of, reading first The Lord of the Rings, followed by The Hobbit, and now The Silmarillion. Over the years, I have often wondered why I love the books, and the movies and most of the art that derives from Tolkien’s works so much. I have often put this fascination down to a love of language of a certain musical kind, and an attraction to myth and story. Indeed, it is impossible not to admire JRRT’s dedication and artistic drive in creating multiple languages, landscapes and cultures to hold together a mythology of such intricate detail that it was never complete and was being refined to the very end of his life.

Many of us, especially readers of fiction, also identify with the attraction to story and myth. In the telling, Tolkien’s stories flow in the manner of tales handed down the ages, not so much in written form, but in the form of song and verse. This quality of his prose first became tangible to me when I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, specifically the part in which the company journeys into Lothlorien after losing Gandalf to the Balrog of Morgoth. In my mind, that attraction of song-lore extends outward from the books and into derivative artwork, including the beautiful and distinctive styles of Alan Lee and John Howe, and the blockbuster movies that – some would hasten to point out – changed the book far too much. I do not mean to say that I like everything in the movies, but even with the ridiculously extended movie adaptation of The Hobbit, my fascination with the original work does not yet brook snobbery at the mercenary imagination of film-makers.

Now, as I read The Silmarillion, I become even more conscious of the incongruence of my fondness for Tolkien’s work. The professor was a devoutly religious man and the influence extends to the fictional world that he created, with  God (Illuvatar), the angelic powers (the Valar), and creation of Arda (Earth) as an expression of the music of Illuvatar. I don’t subscribe to any supernatural creationist view in real life, and am extremely uncomfortable in religious settings, or when asked to perform any religious activity [1]. Yet, I am enthralled by Tolkien’s descriptions of the creation of Arda, the music of the Valar, the discordant notes of Melkor. The only obvious explanation I have for this is that I compartmentalize Tolkien’s world as being distinct from reality, and that within it, these unscientific things not only make sense, but do so beautifully, musically, and bravely.

Embedded in these tales is Tolkien’s love for simplicity and goodness that most of us aspire to. What exactly constitutes simplicity and goodness is admittedly a tough question, but it is fair to say that we find those ideals more difficult to attain in our technologically augmented world. There seems to be in Tolkien’s work, a component of the moral fable, such as that found in Aesop’s stories or The Panchtantra [1]. And like the great religious epics of Europe and Asia, there is a more or less clear demarkation of good and evil, instances in which good turns to evil, and few (if any) cases in which an evil entity redeems itself; In day-to-day existence, I am quick to repudiate such a black-and-white characterization of human personality and human activity. Yet inside the pages of the Silmarillion, compartmentalization happens effortlessly as I read – sometimes aloud as if I am reciting the words to someone else – of the doom of the Elves and the proliferating darkness of Morgoth and his hordes.

——-

[1] I recall reading that Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit as moralistic fables, so he would not have liked the above characterization, despite the parallels with the other myths of our time. He was creating an alternative world, as consistently and meticulously as he could and that, it appears, may have been more important to him than any allegorical interpretations.

On Translation

“I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves—forgive me, I mean ourselves—as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so. Is this sheer presumption, a heady kind of immodesty on our part? What exactly do we literary translators do to justify the notion that the term “writer” actually applies to us? Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the [translation] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers. This is the translator’s grand ambition.”

[Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters.]

Grossman has translated – among other books – two incredible novels that I read in English and would probably never have encountered if not for laborious and generally unheralded profession of translation: Love in the Time of Cholera, and Of Love and Other Demons.

The full introductory chapter of the book, Why Translation Matters is available at  Words Without Borders.

A long story that could not (would not) be cut short

To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.
[- Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.]

Isn’t it ironic that, while reading a book manifestly about memory, my brain has so clouded over that I cannot remember  the exact moment when it came to be in my possession? All I can reliably determine is that P made me a gift of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children a very long time ago. Our names are spelled out in full on the title page, that’s how I know it was quite a long time ago. My estimate for the time is 2007, a now-faraway year of innocent beginnings when, among other things, our most cherished stories began to enter our conversations.

That’s a long time to finish reading a book, wouldn’t you say? Well, it certainly is the longest I have ever taken to finish a novel. It took some time for me to get hooked. There was a false start in 2009, and then another in 2010 until something clicked inside my head and I began to realize that the book’s strange prose was a result of Rushdie’s devious imagination writing a novel in several Indian languages that repeatedly went peekaboo though the curtain of English words. So it was that, in my inertial frame of reference, Aadam Sinai’s gigantic nose bled three drops of blood in 2009, and then it bled again in early 2010. Saleem and Shiva and the children of midnight were born in late 2010, and the saga of nose-and-knees lodged itself in my head, never to leave. I’ve packed the book on my travels, read it on airports and airplanes, and in hotel rooms across three continents if not four, yet it became like that other great book One Hundred Years of Solitude; a book that grew stranger in the telling, grew pages on the right even as I pushed more pages to the left, a book with no end in sight.

It wasn’t just because I am a slow reader. It wasn’t at all because I was frustrated with the book, as P. said of some friends who were undone by the frequent and recursive flashbacks. Indeed, I thrive on flashbacks, and wallow in nostalgia and have been chastised for that more often that I care to admit. It was that my head became too full of thoughts, too consumed by words, too awed at their power, too full of memories that weren’t my own, just too full to breathe properly unless I set the book down for a bit. Midnight’s Children is a novel about India’s recent history – a history with which I have a layered but inconsistent familiarity, an epoch that began from before independence up until the dark days of the Emergency, which was lifted in 1977. The novel was published around 1980, and that fact is one reason why the Emergency figures so prominently in the last quarter of the book – the scars were deeply felt, even as Rushdie was writing the story.

… and whispering through the wall came the tale of their undoing, the tormented cry of children who had lost their magic: she had cut it out of us, gorgeously with wide rolling hips she had devised the operation of our annihilation, […] now fishes could not be multiplied nor base metals transmuted; gone forever, the possibilities of flight and lycanthropy and the originally-one-thousand-and-one marvelous promises of a numinous midnight.

As was the case with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which spun a rambling but delicate yarn through 1950’s India, I was simultaneously reading a novel and reliving a past – a past that I didn’t live myself, but which lives in me through the experiences, traditions and customs of the people and places in whose midst I grew to adulthood. It was an India that has, for the most part, stopped existing; blown away by globalization, software and the resultant sudden – if uneven – prosperity. We used to be a subcontinent of mutinies both external and internal, of struggles against the British Raj, of wars against China and Pakistan, of the bleakness wrought by the Emergency. Today, there is freedom and relative peace with the neighbors and the battles of citizens are internal: Each election renews a Faustian bargain with the future, through a choice between a largely corrupt, secular but ineffectual Left and a less corrupt, somewhat effective, but fundamentalist Right. Rushdie’s story weaves masterfully through the extrema of India’s history, and it is given an incredible – nearly impossible – immediacy by Saleem’s deep conviction that he, Pied Piper of the midnight children, was ultimately to blame for India’s fate.

In that mood of inebriated reading, the novel morphed in 2011 from being a story that wouldn’t end, to one that I did not want to end. I began to ration my reading, making sure to stop at the slightest sign of tiredness, or whenever the story switched it’s powerful gears through space and time and three newly created countries which were previously one. P must surely have wondered in our conversations about how long I was taking with this: but she remained patient and didn’t spoil the story for me. This year, the book wound to its vivid and fatalistic climax – from the Sunderbans of Bangladesh to the ghettos of Delhi to the seedy nightclubs of Mumbai (via Benares), while Indira Gandhi’s Emergency broke Saleem as comprehensively as it broke India. A story that stays with you, stays out of your bookshelf for so long, has to affect your daily life – it could not be otherwise. I read the denouement in a weird schizophrenic state, alternating between a suffocating horror at its events and little paroxysms of laughter at the relentless wit of the narrative. It wasn’t just literary mischief (though there is plenty of it), it was that these linguistic games amplified everything in the novel – the mounting despair; the unexpected happiness of long-awaited reunions; the bristling, snarling yet ultimately futile anger at the murder of hope.

I finished the final chapter in early October after having read the story for more than three years. Much has happened since P gifted me the book. We had long phone calls on many lonely nights; visited each other and each other’s families; argued a lot and patched-up a lot; learned things about ourselves and each other; and even got married (at midnight, no less).  Last week, when the book ended, we talked about it some more, and she expressed the desire to read it again. My thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the novel were not quite incoherent, but I became aware of two aspects about realizing that I have finished a great novel. First, there is an implicit admission that I am emotionally wiped out and will need a recovery buffer before I pick up a novel again; Second, I know that it is going to be difficult for the next book that comes along to enthrall me in the same way. So, a great novel is often followed by a longish drought. That is probably what I shall experience for some time: A bit of emptiness in the wake of Midnight’s Children. It is probably just as well.

The polyglot novel

The trouble with the phrase magic realism, is that when people use it, they tend to hear the magic and not hear the realism, whereas in fact one of the things about going to the world of García Márquez is that you discover he is telling the truth. He is not exaggerating; he is understating. And that’s really what I thought about India. You can’t tell the truth about India; it’s too weird; nobody would believe it. So, these books which people call fantasies are actually mild understatements of the truth.. [Salman Rushdie]

My last few weeks have been spent in the vicious unyielding grip of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – Sweet irony and  bitter romance, horror and history, fountains of blood and stains of mercurochrome all mixed together in this tour de force of magical realism. I am reading slowly now, not wanting the story to end, and not wanting to forego one of the magical aspects of consuming this novel:  the impression that it is written simultaneously in English, Urdu, Marathi, Hindi, Sanskrit and host of other languages that I cannot guess. This is a story about my country and culture, and I sense an incommunicable pleasure in swimming through it; a conspiratorial feeling of being in on the writer’s mischief. Because of this, the plot – intricate as it is – throws unpredictable flashes in all directions and lodges itself more vividly in my head.

For I smile to myself repeatedly during this book. My smiles, some of them happy giggles, others pursed and wry, and still others sad and unexpressed, have to do with knowing suddenly that the strange “fool from somewhere” is actually “pagla kahin ka”, and “dung-lotus” refers to a goddess who grew out of Vishnu’s navel in a colorful Indian myth. “Really truly?”  puts me in mind of a letter in my closet, full of pain and love; And “hot chana hot” takes me back to smoke-filled gas-lamped evenings on Indian railway platforms with the hiss of steam engines and their sore throat whistles. I have become aware of only a few of Rushdie’s turns of phrase. Being unschooled in Sanskrit and Urdu, and having stayed away from the day-to-day collision and collusion of Indian languages and subcultures for more than a decade, I may have missed some of the landmines embedded in his dense prose. (I note joylessly, that if the novel’s many-tongued expertise extends to choice gutter language, then my familiarity with Hindi and Marathi swear words and their oddly musical English translations has remained  unsettlingly fine.).

Quite by chance, I came across a 1989 interview of a young Christopher Hitchens – hale and hearty and no less articulate – talking about The Satanic Verses, and the fatwah that drove Rushdie into exile. I recommend the entire interview for a sense of that politically charged time, where the Ayatollah’s power was seemingly in its last throes, and as if to say that he wasn’t finished, the religious despot saw fit to let loose a messianic bounty hunt for the infidel writer’s head. But, in the context of my current reading experience, the following extract was surprisingly a propos:

…Rushdie is a genius with language, … but there is a difficulty which if you are starting the book today, you should bear in mind. He’s got an absolutely magnificent ear, and his ear is brilliant at catching the nuances and the turn of people who speak in Indian or Pakistani subcontinental English. He is fantastically good at this, makes almost poetry out of the prose … Unfortunately, that is not very well understood here [The United States] as it is in England, there aren’t that many people from the subcontinent in America…

This makes me wonder about some of the translations that I have read. How far and how deeply have I understood them, beyond the structure suggested by their plot, and beyond their English approximation? How much of the music, playfulness, taboo, triumph and defeat from the original language has seeped – or been assiduously woven by a perspicacious translator – into the English version. It is true, especially of the great novels, that their themes are universal and on that account they profoundly affect readers of all stripes, but I cannot help but wonder what I may have lost because of my ignorance of the local. I think of the perceived contrast between the books of García Márquez which I loved immediately and devoured as if in a feverish trance versus Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum which – after the unforgettable beginning of Joseph Koljaiczek’s refuge under a four-skirted Kashubian peasant girl – I could admire but not come to love. How much does it have to do with my – however minimal – familiarity with Spanish as opposed to my complete ignorance of German language and culture? Perhaps this is another post on another day. Or perhaps, a second reading of The Tin Drum is in store.