Fam­ily life in all its frail­ties and force

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sunil Badami

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

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