Sunday, June 19, 2005

Book review: Surface

(Published in Outlook, June 2005)

[I admire people who can compress everything they want to say about a book like Surface into 300-odd words and walk away satisfied that they've addressed all the issues neatly and tidily. Me? I get five paragraphs, each worth their weight in gold in these days of shrinking print, and it still isn't enough: there was a lot about Surface that needed to be placed in context, queried, held up for closer scrutiny, etc etc, and no, this review didn't get the whole job done. Something tells me there's a reason why I'd never make it as an ad copywriter...]

Siddhartha Deb
Picador India
Rs 495, 262 pages

In his first novel, The Point of Return, Siddhartha Deb wrote: "History, dragged so far from the metropolitan centres, from the rustic mainlands, will tell you nothing. In the North-East, the way I remember it, history lies defeated…"

The only possible protagonist for a novel set in a region where the past has no meaning is a man for whom the future holds no promise. Amrit, the narrator of Surface, is a journalist who has passed beyond discontentment to indifference. A stray "foreign contact" offers him a faint glimpse of redemption, if he can write "a portrait of the mystery and sorrow of India". It's an improvement on the first assignment he was offered, the story of shit in Calcutta: "a wonderful reduction of the city I lived in to one choice epithet". Now, more nobly, Amrit has to uncover the truth behind the photograph of a woman identified as a porn actress and paraded by an insurgent group in Imphal as a warning against immorality.

His journey is briefly interrupted by the tale, preserved in an old journal, of the suicide of Jim, a British soldier who saw action in Burma. Jim doesn't survive his discovery of the great secret of empire, how it's "wonderfully arranged, all straight lines and precise rules and stiff spines, and how that all becomes a big lie when you move to the edge of the empire and run loose in the jungle with guns and knives".

It's the only truth that Amrit will surface with, as he moves through a dismembered world of betrayals and lies: "…[The] region had been forgotten by the world, and in the absence of connections with what lay beyond, an entire society was trying to recreate itself from selected memories and incomplete knowledge."

Nothing is as it seems; the motives of the rebels, the story of the woman in the photograph, the promising foreign contact, even the shining hope held out by a mysterious effort called the Prosperity Project. There are no easy conclusions in Surface , just the dwindling prospect of redemption. And in the heart of this darkness, Deb finds a new set of horsemen for the apocalypse: dereliction, amnesia, corruption and apathy.

Speaking Volumes: Adaptations

(First published in 'Speaking Volumes', Business Standard, June 14, 2005

Most book purists would agree with Charlie Kaufman on the subject of turning a book into a film: "I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that, it just isn't."

But as most film lovers know, Charlie Kaufman, who struggles so hard to turn a novel about flowers, heavy with interior monologues, into a film is a character who wasn't even in the original book that was turned into Adaptation. It's this way: Adaptation was meta enough to satisfy the most carping of critics, being a film called Adaptation about turning a (genuine) book called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orleans into a (never made, except in the film about the film of the book) film called The Orchid Thief.

Charlie Kaufman was an invention of film, if you like: the tormented screenwriter whose desperate search for a way to turn an internally driven, beautifully written novel into 120 pages of screenplay while avoiding action-packed cinematic clichés leads him to pursue the novelist into an action-packed final sequence. Nicely ironic, and three years after it was made, Adaptation is still something of a cult favourite on the circuit.

Kaufman's grumble--"The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that, it just isn't"—may be voiced by a character of the cinematic world, but it's the book lover's grouse against film adaptations to a tee. What happens when book meets film? And why do we care so much?

Let's start with the assumption that there are two kinds of book purists. The first kind is more puritan than purist, the sort who has "Do not tamper with the text" written on his heart. If you love books, shun the book puritan: his mind is closed to the idea that every reader brings her own interpretation to any great work of fiction, and that sometimes the best readers are the most creative interpreters. Anthony Minghella's English Patient is not Michael Ondaatje's English Patient ; it doesn't follow the book slavishly, but neither does it distort the book. Because Minghella read and understood the book so well, he was free to translate his notion of it onto celluloid.

As the director of the film, he worked roughly on the same lines that Gregory Rabassa does when he's translating the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rabassa doesn't reproduce Garcia Marquez's text in another language; his method is to internalise the novel and then to virtually rewrite the book all over again.

To some extent, this is what directors as different as Kurosawa and, at another level, Vishal Bhardwaj have done with Shakespeare's Macbeth . I've seen some productions—chiefly theatrical, not film--of Macbeth that suffer because they're obsessed with the need to be faithful to the text to the point where they stifle the play. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood works in part because he saw clearly how bringing the Scottish play to medieval Japan might deepen his personal reading of the play. And Bhardwaj's Maqbool is a brilliant reinterpretation because he understood how easily a play about kingship, treachery and hubris could be adapted if it was set in the Mumbai underworld.

Fidelity to the text can only take you so far. There's a reason why recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons played as it would have been on the instruments of the time are curiosities. The "original, authentic" way grates on our modern ears, now that we've grown used to a different reading of the music. Some theatres do performances of Shakespeare, Marlowe and company in the style of the era in which they wrote the plays; again, these are far more satisfying as literary history than as theatre. For works to remain classic, each generation needs to continue interpreting them in different ways.

That disposes of the book puritan: but the purist is a different matter. The book purist is usually open to wide-ranging, even iconoclastic, interpretations of the books that matter to him—and the emphasis here is firmly on books that do matter in themselves, and how well the interpretation works. Gurinder Chaddha, for instance, had a good thing going when she decided to remake Pride and Prejudice and set it in contemporary India, where Austen's interest in the politics of arranged marriages and property settlements is keenly shared by thousands of families. It's another matter that she didn't do it very well, producing a film that was deeply tedious by both Bollywood and Hollywood standards.

On the other hand, Coppola did Mario Puzo a favour with The Godfather trilogy, by lifting a decent, fast-paced, unusual bestseller into the ranks of art with his cinematic interpretation—his frames packed far more punch, frankly, than Puzo's workmanlike prose.

Some books lend themselves more easily to film because they carry relatively little baggage. What if the film versions of The Namesake , based on Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, and The Mistress of Spices , based on Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee's book, aren't "good" adaptations? I probably wouldn't carp much: neither book means as much to me as The Hours , Michael Cunningham's novel. I watched the film version with enjoyment—and great relief because I loved both The Hours and the book that inspired it, Mrs Dalloway , so a bad adaptation could have wrecked two books for me.

But Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas was soap opera going for baroque with a vengeance, held together by torn shreds of Sharatchandra's plot. Like many fans of the book and at least one of the previous film versions of Devdas , I was incensed at Bhansali's production because the book he claimed to have based his film on had all but vanished under the weight of his lavish sets and his larger-than-life melodrama.

With Sharatchandra's Parineeta, Vidhu Vinod Chopra's adaptation takes sweeping liberties with text and time, filling out one character's story in intricate detail where the text had nothing but silence, and shifting the scene from turn-of-century Bengal to 1960s Bengal. But Sharatchandra's original novel was a relatively slight, mannered work, one of those books that still enjoys a readership without inspiring the kind of devotion and loyalty that a work like Srikanta or Devdas does. It's a novel where so much is implied in so many absences that it offers a blank canvas to the right director, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra's retelling is refreshing in its own right. The book isn't like that: but it might have been.

The BS column: The writer in his labyrinth

(First published in 'Speaking Volumes', Business Standard, June 7, 2005)

It is a naïve confession to make, but until I was in my late teens, it didn't occur to me that the Nobel Prize in Literature was judged by mere mortals. Most of the relatives and friends whose homes I visited had libraries that shared a strange eclectism.

Amitav Ghosh, examining his uncle's "odd assortment of books", defined this: "The principles that guided my uncle's taste would have been much clearer to me had I ever had an interest in trivia. To the quiz-show adept the link between Grazia Deledda, Gorky, Hamsun, Sholokov, Sienkiewicz and Andric will be clear at once: it is the Nobel Prize for Literature."

Most of the readers I knew had a Nobel shelf, if not a Nobel bookcase. And most accepted without question the impression that the Nobel Prize carried an authority that went beyond human writ. The idea that the Academy in Stockholm might choose the right author for the wrong reasons or vice versa, smacked of the heretical, even when it was finally admitted into my adolescent mind.

The Nobel Prize for Literature still draws the mantle, however tattered, of secrecy around it, and still functions in the manner of the highest court of the land, its opinion final and beyond appeal. The Man Booker International Prize, in contrast, has been set up in an age that demands at least the appearance of transparency, for an audience of readers who believe that no judgement is so final that it cannot be questioned.

Unlike the Nobel, where a few names leak from the shortlist every year without the actual list ever being announced, the shortlist of 15 authors is up on the Man Booker website. We know the names of this year's judges-Professor John Carey, Alberto Manguel and Azar Nafisi. Unlike the confusing terms of Alfred Noble's will, with its controversial directive that the Nobel Prize be awarded to "ideal" literature, the Man Booker is clear: "Worth £60,000 to the winner, the Man Booker International prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language."

We know the judges' struggles, too, the absurd impossibility of picking just 15 writers from a shortlist of 200, and then just one to be declared first among equals. Carey likened the process of judging to Plato's noble and necessary lie, Manguel drew parallels with the absurd prizegiving in Alice in Wonderland, and Nafisi was keenly aware of the absentees, from Achebe to Ishiguro to Rushdie. She writes: "We had to be thankful that, unlike some political leaders, we as literary judges were neither God, nor even his representatives, but fallible mortals, ready to question and be questioned..."

Unencumbered by the magisterial seal of authority, it's easier to get past the petty questions: instead of asking why the judges didn't award Garcia Marquez, or Kenzabura Oe or Muriel Spark, we're free to look at this year's winner, Ismail Kadare, and his place in the pantheon.

Kadare grew up during the Second World War in Albania, and saw his country survive several invasions, make a break with Soviet Russia and come under Hoxha's repressive regime. Kadare discovered an anchor in literature; one of the anecdotes most often told about him is how he was so taken by Macbeth at the age of 11 that he copied the whole play out by hand. In the Greek dramatists, he found a theme that he would explore on and off in his work, the tribulations of "a dissident writer facing a totalitarian state".

He made his compromises; in an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled: "From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet, and therefore a "friend" of writers. ..In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter...." Hoxha never persecuted Kadare directly, but four of his books were banned by decree; other books were "half-banned", meaning that they could not be discussed in newspapers or magazines. "It was as though they had never been written," Kadare says.

When Hoxha's regime fell, Kadare and his family emigrated to Paris, where he now lives. His books have often been hard to find, and readers in English see his works through the lens of a "double translation": the English is translated from the French translation of his works, a process that has sometimes muffled his voice. The General of the Dead Army, a first novel written after he had already earned a formidable reputation as a poet, was a dark, moving tale of a general sent to Albania to discover and repatriate the remains of soldiers who died in WWII: "I have an entire army of dead men under my command." I read the novel years ago, but its protagonist stayed with me, his futile quest a metaphor for those who seek to dig up the bones of history when their own history has been ripped from them.

The Palace of Dreams, a slightly later work, offered one of the most powerful visions of how far tyranny might go: it's an allegory of a world where dreams are collected from the furthest corners of Empire, as though the true tyrant has a need to own even our most unconscious thoughts.

Kadare has suffered a fate common to many writers in translation, the fate of being simultaneously known and unknown; his name has travelled much further than his books. He is often referred to as Albania's best-known writer, but the Man Booker International might make us see him as a writer for the world.

It's like the journey he makes in one of his poems, Longing for Albania, which begins with a description of a very specific homesickness and ends with these lines, applicable to exiles everywhere:

"How far and how beloved you are, my country .
The airport will tremble with the droning,
The mists will hang in suspense over the chasms.
Surely those who invented the jet engine
Must have been far from their country once."
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