(Written for India Today, April 2006)
Irwin Allan Sealy
Rs 495, 344 pages
Byline: Nilanjana S Roy
Black and white should never have been allowed into a book called Red , but there it is: a black-and-white reproduction of Matisse's The Painter's Family , serving as introduction to Irwin Allan Sealy's dazzling new novel.
It is not a happy painting. The painter is absent, represented only by a bust of himself ("Serf"); the wife, in a corner, and the boys are in the background. The central figure is of Matisse's daughter—her mother was his mistress, not his wife—who exudes a nervous, violent energy. Families are complicated, hydra-headed creatures, Matisse seems to be saying; do you really want to look deeply into the nature of the beast?
All this information, naturally, is cribbed directly from Red , and it serves as an indication of the strengths and weaknesses of this formidable and thoroughly entertaining book.
Red is an abecedary: a book arranged in the form of an alphabet. You start with Aline—a woman so in love with Matisse that she will rip his canvases apart (only she knows if it's a genuine Matisse or a clever reproduction that's being dismembered) in order to see how he reached his colours—and move to Zach, a musician for whom the world in all its colours, is audible, a shifting soundscape. Almost exactly in between is the Narrator, who lives in a town called—this will sound familiar—Dariya Dun: "In the middle station of life, middle class, middling build… A foothills man, neither plainsman nor Montagnard."
Aline and Zach meet at The Hermitage, one worshipping at the feet of Matisse—bourgeois painter, but a revolutionary in a tie all the same; one ready to genuflect at the altar of Aline. The chance encounter leads them to Dariya Dun, where N is a friend of Zach's. Here, like live wires finally corralled in the same space, they make connections, shoot off sparks, create electricity and danger.
The Dun is in transition, the quiet valley transformed by better electricity connections, cybercafes that now allow the wonder of paintings downloaded pixel by pixel, in sleazy, worn-out booths where the previous occupant has been surfing porn. Zach and Aline are not the only art-lovers in town: there is a gang of Blackshorts, small-time thieves who worship a snake goddess and take the rites of crime every bit as seriously as art connoisseurs take line and colour. They're led by Gilgitan, an artist twice over—a master criminal, and an amateur but instinctively talented painter of trucks, signs and tiles.
The Narrator grapples with his own problems—a meeting with a daughter he hasn't seen for years, who brings the same energy and disruption into his life as Matisse's illegitimate daughter must have brought into his. Zach moves in steady rhythm between the music that absorbs him to the exclusion of all else and the women who capture him completely, if only for a brief moment in between compositions. Aline, foreigner to the Dun, to the unspoken barriers of caste and class, is the one who makes the most direct connections. She sees little difference in essence between the sophisticated musician who travels the world and Gilgitan, the raw, untaught painter who romances a pig-girl (in one of the few unconvincing sections of Red ) and falls in love with a paintbox.
Sealy tackles huge questions here: how do you recognize good art from bad, what makes us canonize Art with a capital A and dismiss other kinds of art in lower case, can an artist, a dealer in visions from elsewhere, inhabit the real world? Red may seem daunting, but it is also one of Sealy's richest, most comfortably experimental books yet.
He romps through the alphabet, never forgetting the other meaning of abecedary—a primer, the first principle or rudiment of anything—but allowing himself the freedom to include the following: his own poems, a brief explication of the uses of spray paint in lovemaking, imaginary books (The Nagatarangini, the Annals of the Black Codpiece Society), elaborate games with fonts, misleading definitions.
Red may frighten off readers unwilling to follow the labyrinth that leads from Matisse to the deadly repercussions of the Blackshorts' thefts, but for those willing to stay the course, this might be Sealy's finest novel yet. It's a pity Red is available only in old-fashioned book form: in an ideal, hypertext-friendly world, this is the kind of book you'd want only two keyboard commands for: Press Enter, Play Game.