Crystalline triangle of humanity
THE experience of beginning a novel could be compared with boarding a boat. One starts to row ( the act of reading) in the hope that the narrative, the current, is going to take you somewhere you haven’t been before: slowly, as in Proust; steadily, as in the great Victorian novelists; or, as in Hemingway or Graham Greene, at speed.
When I went aboard The Red Book and started sculling, I hardly moved. The novel is almost entirely in the form of collage, involving three characters who move backwards and forwards in place and time so confusingly that I had to do a chart, rowing very hard indeed. But the aching muscles are worth it because it was soon obvious that Meaghan Delahunt is a beautiful writer: clear- sighted, crystalline and calm.
The Red Book is centred in India, and these virtues are what India requires. India overwhelms and, unless, like Salman Rushdie, you can overwhelm back, only lucidity will see you through. Delahunt’s trio consists of Francoise, an Australian photographer; Arkay, a Scots alcoholic; and Naga, a Tibetan refugee. Each tells the story from their point of view and each tells it with such clarity that one can peer deep into their secret selves.
The Red Book By Meaghan Delahunt Granta, 291pp, $ 29.95
Francoise, like the author, grew up in Melbourne. She has an eye that shapes and focuses everything she sees, and when her skills gain her an arts residency she decides to use them in Bhopal, 20 years after the gas leak at the Union Carbide factory that killed thousands. She wants to take advantage of ‘‘ the ability of a photograph to stop time. The terrible ability to call up the dead for us.’’
Arkay, the strangely named Scot, desperate to slip off his formidable alcoholic self (‘‘ At 17 I could drink 20 pints’’), is also drawn to India. He starts on the Buddhist path in a monastery and it’s there he meets the most remarkable member of Delahunt’s trinity, Naga. Born in an army truck while his parents were fleeing across the mountains from Tibet, Naga faces the greatest challenge of his life when he goes to Bhopal immediately after the disaster and finds that all his family, save for an ailing sister, are dead.
Naga gives the shifting planes of the book a moral centre. Anger at the devastation in Bhopal challenges the foundation of his beliefs, yet somehow he turns these negatives into positives. He’s a powerful and persuasive figure, and Francoise and Arkay are drawn to him ( though his sayings can have a frustratingly gnomic quality: ‘‘ The mind is awareness, but the watcher is illusion. Like a knife cutting itself, or fire burning itself.’’).
This summary is simplistic and sequential, and The Red Room is neither. The collage technique, the overlapping planes, result in confusing shifts. Perhaps it’s an illustration of one of Buddhism’s central truths. (‘‘ All was change. This was the answer and the question. This was the only pattern.’’) Perhaps it’s the postmodern belief in the mosaics of juxtaposition: ‘‘ like objects abandoned in a hotel room’’, as the world champion fragmenter, William S. Burrows, put it.
Whatever the rationale, it soon had at least this reader’s little skiff drifting, despite strenuous work with the oars. Then, rather too late, things start to converge. Francois and Arkay fall in love, then separate. (‘‘ I loved him. But it wasn’t enough. With the drink, the way he was, and the dreams.’’)
Separated, their problems mount. Francoise is stunned to find she’s pregnant. Worried that this
will jeopardise her artistic career, she’s tempted to abort, but resists.
Arkay’s troubles are worse. Determined to find Francoise again, he leaves his monastery, but his abused liver is in terminal decline.
It’s the redoubtable Naga who manages to reunite them for the last time. At his urging, Francoise finds Arkay in a tent in a Delhi slum and moves him to the guesthouse where she had spent her first weeks in India. They prepare him for death. ‘‘ To speed his consciousness,’’ as Naga puts it, ‘‘ to a pure place.’’
Arkay’s death, in the Buddhist way of things, purifies Francoise and Naga. He burns the terrible files he has collected about Bhopal and forgives the manager of the factory, who fled to the US and apparently still has not been indicted. And she will make a book of her photographs for the coming child.
‘‘ ‘ Take it, it’s yours,’ I’ll say. ‘ This book. My gift to you.’ ’’
These last sections are as beautifully written as the earlier ones, with one crucial difference: they build, they follow on. To sound like Naga for a moment: keep rowing, until the current picks you up and takes you somewhere you haven’t been before. You’ll also see why In The Blue House , Delahunt’s first novel, won so many prizes.
Journeys, the fifth collection of stories Barry Oakley has edited for Five Mile Press, is out now.