Family life in all its frailties and force
Family Life By Akhil Sharma Faber, 224pp, $27.99 DESCRIBING Akhil Sharma’s new book as a fictionalised memoir or a story of loss would only be part right. Whittled down from 7000 pages over 12 painful years, Family Life is explicitly based on his family’s experience of emigration, and the tragic event that destroyed — and defined — them.
Like VS Naipaul, Jhumpa Lahiri and others before him, Sharma’s modest but acclaimed oeuvre is devoted to the enigma of arrival. Much Indo-Anglian literature (Indian writing in English) dwells — for want of a better word — on what’s lost in translation: not just from India to the West, or from the past to the present, but also those ineffable silences between the words of different languages, whether spoken in Hindi or English — and especially between parent and child.
Although in his nightly conversations with Ajay, the narrator, based on Sharma himself, God transforms from Krishna, blue and fluting, to Clark Kent, crosslegged in grey slacks, the hot water, hot-dog fairy tale of America becomes a prosaic nightmare in a matter of three crucial minutes.
“I had the sudden realisation that probably we would never go back to India, that we would live in America forever,” says Ajay. “The realisation disturbed me. I saw that one day I would be nothing like who I was right then.”
But Family Life also draws on a longer tradition, where fiction is not only drawn from life, but where the boundaries between fiction and fact are increasingly blurred.
From Naipaul’s A Sort of Life to JM Coetzee’s Scenes from a Provincial Life — much less Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle — authors have long fictionalised their lives and those around them. But as Sharma acknowledged in a recent New Yorker essay, “I didn’t feel as confident as I usually do about [writing because] I kept comparing fictional reality with factual reality and finding the former wan.”
So what makes it fiction? Unlike Knausgaard, whose work overspills with infinitesimal description (no matter how unrealistic it might be that an adult might remember what sandwiches he ate as a child or the weather on a particular day), Sharma’s prose has no extraneous detail. In its spare, incisive, insightful style, it’s reminiscent of another roman-àclef with a similar theme, Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.
Frustrated by translating life’s random “plotlessness” into a compelling narrative, his discovery that “somehow, in fiction, sound, texture and smell are stickier, lingering more than visual details … I began rewriting the book with these constraints, and found that … without [them], the reader moves through the narrative rapidly and so asks different questions about why time is collapsed or not collapsed, or why a scene is dramatised or summarised.”
To a degree. Despite many reviews summarising its plot in the manner of nonfiction, like other fictionalised memoirs such as My Struggle, or, closer to home, Michael Sala’s The Last Thread, there’s an irony shadowing the book. What’s been lost? Who’s been changed?
But as these “novels drawn from life” have shown, the distinction between fact and fiction,
June 14-15, 2014 especially in writing, whether fiction or memoir, based on something as unreliable as memory — itself sometimes indistinguishable from imagination — is perhaps pointless.
And despite its apparent plotlessness, Family Life is richly textured and nearly wholly captivating. Despite the lack of particular sensory details (which echo its central drama), Sharma’s impeccably controlled prose is hardly bleak or sterile: paradoxically, its silences and gaps are engaging and evocative, revealing even greater emotional truth: “guilt and sadness were like wearing clothes still damp from the wash.’” But unlike Coetzee or later Naipaul, it’s often funny, weaving hysterical humour into the darkness.
“Every night, my father would stand before the sink, the sky full of stars, and brush his teeth until his gums bled. Then he would spit the blood into the sink and turn to my mother and say, ‘Death, Shuba, death. No matter what we all do, we will all die.’
“‘Yes, yes, beat drums,’ my mother said once. ‘Tell the newspapers, too. Make sure everyone knows this thing you have discovered.’ ”
With this dark comedy, profound, unjudging humanity. For all their frailties and flaws, Ajay and his parents and everyone — even the most eccentric or misguided — are never caricatured, no matter how lightly they’re sketched. Ajay and his parents are inspiring, frustrating, perplexing, sympathetic and utterly believable.
His parents, who had “bothered each other as long as I could remember”, bicker, banter, pray, drink, joke, cheat at cards — and, understandably, ignore their younger son in their grief and misplaced hope. Overwhelmed by expectations and regrets that will haunt and change him forever, he fights and lies and finds consolation in books — especially biographies of Hemingway, which he reads before he’s even read any of his novels.
This isn’t to say it’s perfect. Ajay’s conversations with God and his musings on writing seem incongruous in comparison to the powerful elegance around them. And although one can only praise what’s left from Sharma’s lifesapping drafts, one can’t help wishing that some messiness hadn’t remained. Still, can you remember the last time you read a book you wished had even 10 more pages?
These are small quibbles for a book that at once exposes language’s inadequacy to describe the unspeakable, and fiction’s power to reveal deeply human truths, even as it offers no answers.
“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” said Czesław Miłosz. Yet with this perceptive, entertaining, moving book, Sharma has brought his family and their loss to real, visceral, heartbreaking life.
Akhil Sharma’s prose has no extraneous detail