Overde­scrib­ing, over­ex­plain­ing

Booker prizewin­ner Arund­hati Roy’s polem­i­cal in­stinct is far more de­vel­oped than her art The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Eileen Bat­tersby TOM MORIARTY EILEEN BAT­TERSBY BRIAN MAYE

By Arund­hati Roy Hamish Hamil­ton, £18.99

How to be­gin? Well, the ac­tion, such as it is, of Arund­hati Roy’s chaotic sec­ond novel largely takes place in a grave­yard. It is a busy base camp and home to An­jum, one of the cen­tral char­ac­ters. Tow­er­ing drama queen An­jum moved there af­ter years of liv­ing in the Kh­wab­gah with the other Hi­jras, ex­otic trans­gen­der crea­tures born to give sex­ual plea­sure to oth­ers, while re­ceiv­ing none in re­turn. At the age of 46, she goes to live in the grave­yard “like a tree”. She had be­gun life as Aftab, a much wanted son; her lov­ing mother un­der­stood her dilemma. Her schol­arly fa­ther merely lamented fate’s cru­elty, seek­ing com­fort from poetry.

Within pages of this messy and su­per­fi­cial but good-na­tured nar­ra­tive, a sen­sa­tion of deja vu takes over. It be­comes ap­par­ent that Roy is gamely striv­ing for a Rushdie-like con­coc­tion while fail­ing to repli­cate his trade­mark bom­bas­tic flour­ish.

True to her cam­paign­ing in­stincts, Roy the ac­tivist is soon re­fer­ring to the tragic his­tory of her coun­try. “Then came Par­ti­tion. God’s carotid burst open on the new bor­der be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan and a mil­lion peo­ple died of ha­tred.” The grave­yard, as is ob­vi­ous, is a metaphor for In­dia. But then ev­ery­thing is ob­vi­ous in The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness.

De­spite the vi­o­lence and the bru­tal­ity, reli­gious tensions and em­pha­sis on vary­ing dark­ness of skin colour, the un­der­ly­ing tone is hope­ful, which should be ac­knowl­edged as the nar­ra­tive is so ram­shackle and ran­domly con­ceived, a reader could eas­ily lose in­ter­est – and prob­a­bly will.

About the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect is Roy’s de­ter­mined cheer­ful­ness. That is not to sug­gest the book is funny or even amus­ing; it is not. Roy is not witty al­though the prose is slangy and of­ten achieves a sit­u­a­tion com­edy-like ban­ter. Yet it is far less pon­der­ous than her over­rated de­but, The God of Small Things, which un­ex­pect­edly won her the Booker Prize in 1997 ahead of Jim Crace’s out­stand­ing bi­b­li­cal epic Quar­an­tine, not to men­tion Tim Parks’s Europa and Bernard MacLaverty’s limpid Grace Notes.

For fear this review reads as a grudge match, it seems only fair to men­tion that months be­fore its Booker suc­cess, which duly made it an in­ter­na­tional best­seller, The God of Small Things struck me as a sen­ti­men­tal pop­u­lar ro­mance, sus­pended be­tween the grotesque and crypto-magic re­al­ism. It cen­tres on the ac­ci­den­tal death by drown­ing of a half-English lit­tle girl and how it af­fects the sub­se­quent lives of her cousins, fra­ter­nal twins who are re­united in their 30s. Added to this is their ex­tended fam­ily, a clan of car­i­ca­tured An­glophiles straight out of cen­tral cast­ing. It did have a plot, sort of.

At best, The God of Small Things, with its rhetoric and strained lyri­cism, ar­rives at a level of de­signer ex­otic. Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is lim­ited to phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion such as “she had ab­surdly beau­ti­ful col­lar­bones”. This time bod­ies are more grotesque, and hair also fea­tures. Roy’s ma­jor dif­fi­culty as an artist is that her polem­i­cal in­stinct is far more de­vel­oped than her art.

By con­trast, many lead­ing, if far less fa­mous, In­dian writ­ers work­ing in English are superb stylists blessed with comic flair. Only the year be­fore her Booker tri­umph, Roy’s coun­try­man Ro­hin­ton Mistry was Booker short­listed for A Fine Bal­ance, a com­pelling, baggy mon­ster which lost out to Gra­ham Swift’s Last Or­ders. Any­one con­sid­er­ing read­ing The Min­istry of Ut­most Hap­pi­ness might pre­fer in­stead to look to­wards Mistry, a su­pe­rior writer.

Roy’s new book res­onates with the con­fi­dence of a writer aware she can now get away with any­thing, and has, so the nar­ra­tive slides be­tween the two-di­men­sional char­ac­ters and stark fac­tual anec­dotes such as “. . . the news from Gu­jarat was hor­ri­ble. A rail­way coach had been set on fire by what the news­pa­pers first called ‘mis­cre­ants’. Sixty Hindu pil­grims were burned alive. They were on their way home from a trip to Ay­o­d­hya where they had car­ried cer­e­mo­nial bricks to lay in the foun­da­tions of a grand tem­ple they wanted to con­struct at the site where an old mosque once stood . . . the po­lice ar­rested hun­dreds of Mus­lims – all aux­il­iary Pak­ista­nis from their point of view – from the area around the rail­way sta­tion un­der the new ter­ror­ism law and threw them into prison.”

Else­where, there are beat­ings and in­hu­man rape at­tacks; so much death and aban­doned ba­bies. It is a world of poverty con­fronted with jaunty sur­vival and fel­low­ship.

The third per­son yields to a first per­son voiced by one of three men be­sot­ted by the beau­ti­ful, un­worldly ac­tivist Tilot­tama, or Tilo, who lives on air and “had al­ways re­minded” one of the trio, Naga, whom she mar­ried, of singer Bil­lie Hol­i­day. “Not the woman so much as her voice. If it were pos­si­ble for a hu­man be­ing to evoke a voice, a sound, than for Naga, Tilo evoked Bil­lie Hol­i­day’s voice – she had that same qual­ity of lim­ber­ing, heart-stop­ping, fucked-up unex- pect­ed­ness to her.”

Tilo may be the pre­vail­ing con­scious­ness of the nar­ra­tive as An­jum, who en­joys pee­ing in the street, proves in­suf­fi­ciently ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a di­rec­tion­less novel des­per­ately in need of even a few to­ken set pieces. Highly po­lit­i­cal and heroic, Tilo puts pen to paper: “Dear Doc­tor, I am wit­ness to a cu­ri­ous sci­en­tific phe­nom­e­non. Two bulls live in the ser­vice lane out­side my flat. In the day­time they ap­pear quite nor­mal, but at night they grow tall – I think the word might be ‘el­e­vate’ – and stare at me through my sec­ond-floor win­dow.”

Else­where Tilo ques­tions the ethics of breed­ing gi­ant trout, and won­ders who will feed them. Her mind races: “These days one is never re­ally sure” if “an ear of corn is ac­tu­ally a leg of pork or a beef steak”.

There is rel­a­tively lit­tle dia­logue, as Roy prefers to overde­scribe and over­ex­plain. The grave­yard is a neigh­bour­hood as well as a school and a zoo. Kash­mir, the en­vi­ron­ment, na­tional se­cu­rity, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, fem­i­nism and the out­rages com­mit­ted against chick­ens in the name of in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity all fea­ture. “To tell a shat­tered story,” claims Tilo in one of her poems, one should slowly be­come ev­ery­thing.

“Ev­ery­thing” is not quite the same as “any­thing” – and “any­thing” cer­tainly sums up Roy’s sto­ry­telling. The kind­est com­ment to make about this form­less, over­hyped and con­ven­tional per­for­mance is that read­ing it is com­pa­ra­ble to spend­ing years knit­ting a gi­ant sweater only to dis­cover that it ac­tu­ally has three sleeves.

Eileen Bat­tersby is Lit­er­ary Cor­re­spon­dent and au­thor of Teeth­marks on My Tongue (Dalkey Ar­chive) By Zachary Leader Vin­tage, £20

Less is more doesn’t res­onate with Leader, whose del­uge of re­search (much of it al­ready known), dili­gent right­eous­ness, ex­tra­ne­ous de­tail, di­gres­sions and petty score- set­tling waged against pre­vi­ous bi­og­ra­pher Charles At­las amounts to an overblown raid. It brings Bel­low only to the age of 49 and the pub­li­ca­tion in 1964 of his mas­ter­ful Her­zog. John Quinn Ver­i­tas, ¤16.99

The di­verse voices from John Quinn’s ra­dio pro­grammes speak to us from the page; each de­scribes a spe­cial place. Child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences leave the deep­est im­pres­sions: a fright­ened Sea­mus Heaney starts school in Ana­ho­r­ish; Eibh­lís de Barra roams with her gran among the lo­qua­cious fish­wives of Cork’s Coal Quay; Katie Mar­tyn runs bare­foot along­side her mother bring­ing food to the work­men in the fields on Is­land Eddy. Dark­ness in­trudes: Don Baker de­scribes his mis­er­able years in Daingean Re­for­ma­tory; John Lon­er­gan takes us on a bleak tour of Moun­tjoy Prison; the au­thor vis­its Auschwitz.

My favourite is the artist Paddy Gra­ham’s im­mer­sion in the sum­mer si­lence of West­meath: “noth­ing here like Kil­lar­ney or the Grand Canyon, but a l i ved- i n rolled- up land­scape that folds in on it­self like whipped cream”.

Leader tracks Bel­low’s fam­ily from Europe to Montreal and on to Chicago. At­las got t here f i rst i n a much crit­i­cised hit- and- run study in 2000. Bel­low hated the book, yet re­mained on speak­ing terms with At­las, a Chicago Jew. Leader, also Amer­i­can, has spent most of his life in Bri­tain and doesn’t look to Bel­low’s Amer­ica or the bus­tle that so in­spired him. Un­like At­las, Leader has the en­tire life to ex­am­ine, plus all the let­ters, ac­cess to his sec­ond wife Sasha’s un­pub­lished mem­oir, and el­dest son Greg Bel­low’s Saul Bel­low’s Heart, a lov­ing, bit­ter ac­count of his self- ab­sorbed fa­ther. Yet still Bel­low eludes him.

Tragic Shores: A Mem­oir of Travel to the Darkest Places on Earth

Thomas H Cook Quer­cus, £20

“I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life.” What an open­ing line to this un­usual travel book, a mem­oir of vis­its to “dark” places at some of which ter­ri­ble deeds were done. Some are well-known; oth­ers less so, such as Machecoul in Brit­tany where “Blue­beard” sodomised and slaugh­tered hun­dreds of boys for 14 years; or New Echota, cap­i­tal of the peace­ful and in­dus­tri­ous Ge­or­gian Chero­kees, so wrongly de­prived of their an­ces­tral lands and forced to take the “Trail of Tears” to the wastes of Ok­la­homa. One of the darkest places vis­ited is Auschwitz; its grim les­son is that “we can have no con­fi­dence in the moral stead­fast­ness of our­selves” if faced with stark choices. Cook writes mov­ingly, per­cep­tively, ful­fill­ing his as­ser­tion that “there is much to be gained where much has been lost”.

Roy’s new book res­onates with the con­fi­dence of a writer aware she can now get away with any­thing, so the nar­ra­tive slides be­tween two-di­men­sional char­ac­ters and stark fac­tual anec­dotes

The Life of Saul Bel­low: To Fame and For­tune 1915 to 1964

This Place Speaks to Me

Arund­hati Roy: striv­ing, but fail­ing, to be like Rushdie. PHO­TO­GRAPH: SATISH BATE/ HINDUSTAN TIMES VIA GETTY

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