Under my byline

Voices from the past

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 1 June 2008

Less story, more memory: new fiction looks back to re-imagine the past

Memory is in. It’s the renaissance of the memoir, the biography and autobiography. Even fiction these days is read, and possibly written, as real life-stories transposed to a fictional context. Relationships, the messier and more awkward the better, regularly trump “story” in award-winning novels, and are happily picked apart by reader, reviewer and academic alike.

Indeed, so thoroughly has story (where the narrative is organised by events-in-progress rather than what’s going on in the protagonist’s head) been sidelined from grown-up books that when it does show up the critics make it a point to praise (or dismiss) the author for his old-fashioned faith in mere events.

Less story also means more focus on the craft of writing, and these days it seems to be measured by skill at description, how effectively the author can place the reader in the experience. Its like virtual reality. And perhaps because “What was it like to be there?” is the motive question behind historical fiction, that, too, is making a roaring comeback.

Oddly enough, historical novels are where the modern reader is guaranteed to find story. History has already fixed the timeline, decided the events and sequence, and it remains for the author to pick a period and fling his characters against their immovable fate. (But they do tend to pick the winning side.)

So, these seem to be the big fish circling in the pool of contemporary literary inspiration: memory, history, personality, relationships and, also, politics. All these are visible in the books that follow, listed for your reading pleasure in this hot season.

DORIS LESSING, Alfred & Emily
Fourth Estate, pp 288

Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeagh were the real-life parents of Doris Lessing, last year’s Nobel Prize winner. In this really quite unusual new book she reconstructs their lives, not as they were but as they wanted them to be. So, there is no Great War and Alfred does not lose his leg to shrapnel; the two meet but do not marry; Emily marries the (other) man she always thought might have been the one for her. Lessing takes away some of their regrets, of course, but gives them others. It’s a spectacular and unsettling performance.

THOMAS KENEALLY, The Widow and Her hero
Sceptre, pp 272

A secret wartime operation to help oust the Japanese from Singapore went horribly wrong, and most of the small team of waterborne commandos were killed or captured. This really happened — and Keneally builds his story on it. The central character is Leo Waterhouse, a young officer killed in the attack, led by the charismatic and manly Major Doucette. Waterhouse’s wife Grace is one of those left behind, and 50 years later Keneally has her write, “What is so precious about the heroic impulse? Why do ordinary lusty boys love it better in the end than lust itself?”

SEBASTIAN BARRY, The Secret Scripture
Faber and Faber, pp 300

Roseanne McNulty is a long-term resident of the Roscommon mental hospital in Ireland, which is soon to be demolished. Using the journals of McNulty and her psychiatrist Dr Grene, the author reveals the history of her family in 1930s Ireland, and the doctor’s misery after his unhappy marriage and the death of his wife. As recounted memories, the narrative is often jumbled and fragmented, and only slowly is the difficult truth revealed.

JOHN PRESTON, The Dig
Penguin, pp 240

In summer 1939, Edith Petty hires an archaeologist to dig up her Sussex estate, Sutton Hoo, in search of Anglo-Saxon treasure. The resulting find triggers a conflict of ownership. The author has various characters involved in the digging narrate the tale — including historical ones such as his real-life aunt Peggy Piggott. Clearly a great deal of research went into this, but the erudition is lightly worn.

HANIF KUREISHI, Something to Tell You
Faber and Faber, pp 352

This new novel from Kureishi is almost unable to contain all the many characters and lives he throws into it. Jamal is a Freudian psychoanalyst trying and failing to deal with his own issues (not to mention a failed marriage and a friend in love with his sister), which include an unabated love for his first girlfriend Ajita. When he is psychoanalysed himself it is a catharsis, but doesn’t end his troubles. Set in London, as is usual for Kureishi, the novel is about guilt, and desire in all its various forms and destructive capacities.

EMILY PERKINS, Novel about My Wife
Bloomsbury, pp 288

Tom Stone is a writer in his early 40s, short of cash and inspiration and envious of more successful people. After the death of his wife Ann, he sets out to recall everything that was unique about her, from her hard youth scarred by teenage abortions, waitressing, drugs and general bad living to the end of her life, when a train derailment in the London Tube left her unmoored. Doing this, the author also gets inside the head of Tom Stone to give us a portrait of his (and, broadly, male) fears and insecurities.

AMITAV GHOSH, Sea of Poppies
Penguin Viking, pp 480

Ghosh calls this his magnum opus, and its scale is certainly enormous. Covering three continents and two centuries, this is the first part of his Ibis trilogy, which will follow the lives of the passengers, crew and stowaways of the East India Company ship Ibis. It starts in the 1830s in opium-growing Bengal, just before the Opium War. Characters include an opium addict’s widow, a bankrupt zamindar and an American mulatto freedman; once on board ship, the ties of caste and class fade fast. Among the many things Ghosh does in this heavily researched book is recreate/invent a pidgin English lingua franca of the sea.

M T VASUDEVAN NAIR, Naalukettu: The House around the Courtyard
trans. Gita Krishnankutty, OUP, pp 208

A new translation of Nair’s 1958 novel, set in his village Kudallur. The protagonist, Appunni, is a boy suffering an unhappy childhood, without a father and excluded from his own naalukettu tharavad (Kerala’s big old joint-household homes). Humiliated in rejection, he works his way up and eventually buys the same tharavad, only to find that his victory is not sweet, and that the one supportive adult of his adolescence was the man who killed his father. In this book Nair, a great star of Malayalam literature, shows us Kerala’s feudal family structures beginning to give way.

TIM WINTON, Breath
Picador, pp 216

Two boys, Pikelet and Loonie, growing up in a small seaside town in Australia, take to surfing to impress the girls. They find an older, professional surfing mentor named Sando, who pushes them harder and harder to learn and eventually to test themselves against huge waves in shark-infested waters. The competition breaks the friends apart, and Pikelet’s dangerous sexual initiation by Sando’s wife (think “breath”) doesn’t help. This is a finely crafted novel about risk as a drug and about coming of age.

GHALIB LAKHNAVI and ABDULLAH BILGRAMI, The Adventures of Amir Hamza
trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Random House, pp 984

A long-neglected epic dating from the seventh century, its central character is Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet. In oral narrative his adventures were embroidered over the centuries until they became this fantastical story (a cousin of sorts of the Arabian Nights), which was put down in Urdu by the two authors named. Farooqi’s translation more than does justice to this story and its roots in the dastaan storytelling tradition, and does not prudishly exclude the profane bits which make the story so vital and true to context.

MEHR AFSHAN FAROOQI, ed., The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, vol. 2, Fiction
OUP, pp 384

This new collection covers a century and a half of the finest Urdu fiction and includes the best-known names in modern Urdu literature, right up to Salam Razak in the late 20th century. There are short stories as well as extracts from novels and novellas. (The first volume of this OUP series covers non-fiction as well as poetry.) No modern Indian should be ignorant of the literary giants of Urdu — and Ghalib wasn’t the last.

CHARLES SIMIC, That Little Something: Poems, Harcourt, pp 96

Sixty Poems, Harvest Books, pp 108

Monster Loves His Labyrinth, Ausable Press, pp 128

Declared the 15th Poet Laureate of the United States last year, Simic started writing poetry only a few years after he learnt it, as a Serbian refugee in America from the Second World War. (“Hitler and Stalin were my travel agents,” he says.) He’s written more than 20 collections of poetry, essays, translations and a memoir. In these three slim new volumes, Simic does what he does best — write tersely and with superb visuality about observed objects. His poems are never obscure, and sometimes they are unforgettable.

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