Archive for September 24th, 2011

September 24, 2011

I am completely half afraid to think.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I read or reread much of Flann O’Brien’s work this year – as is obvious I’ve been hopelessly behind when it comes to actually writing about what I’ve read. But the first thing I reread was also the first book by him I’d ever read: The Third Policeman.

The story- at the beginning of the book our nameless narrator gets into a creepy, hostile, co-dependent relationship with a man named John Diveney. He allows Diveney to convince him to conspire to kill a rich man and steal his wealth. But only much later does Diveney to reveal (or so the narrator thinks) the location of the loot- in the house of the man they’d killed. When our narrator goes to collect it, strange things begin to happen. He encounters the ghost of his victim, develops a conscience (called “Joe” for convenience) and is led in mysterious ways to a police station where everyone is obsessed with bicycles. A series of strange events follows.

The narrator is also a scholar of the works of the (fictional) scientist/philosopher de Selby. The book is full of references and footnotes about de Selby’s crackpot theories – for example that nighttime is the result of accumulated black air from volcanic pollution, or that sleep does not exist – instead we go through a series of fits caused by said black air. Other theories of de Selby concern his conviction that by reflecting oneself in a series of mirrors it is possible to see one’s own childhood self, and his insistence that he had mastered time travel.

This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.

The de Selby sections are the best, the most absurd, and the funniest in the book. And though de Selby has no real relevance to the plot (in this book nothing does, so it hardly matters) his interpretations of science and philosophy work well within the logic of the world the narrator enters. This is, after all, a world in which a policeman spends his time making a series of otherwise identical boxes that fit into each other, even now that the more recent boxes are so small as to be invisible. A world in which the movement of atoms means that people who ride their bicycles too frequently become, in time, part-bicycle themselves.

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

This leads to all sorts of complications. When such a man dies, do you bury his human form or his bicycle? What degree of perversion is inherent in riding someone else’s bicycle (or fooling them into riding your own)? And since shunning the bicycle and walking means turning to clay, what is the safest method of transport?

All these very serious issues are discussed in some of the most elaborate, high-flown dialogue you could hope to encounter. It’s glorious – particularly when (this made my second encounter with the book even more joyous than the first) you’re hearing it all in Irish accents.

The end of The Third Policeman explains away the silly science logic of the previous pages with an equivalent of an “it was all a dream!” ending that has ruined so many other books. It doesn’t spoil this (though I remember being disappointed by it when I read it some years ago). I’m not sure why this is, but I think it may be because a book can’t betray its own internal logic when it has none. Or something. Or maybe the rest of it is so incredible that nothing could spoil it? Either way it’s magnificent.

September 24, 2011

Shailaja Bajpai, Three Parts Desire

In last week’s TSG. I’m rarely this entirely negative about a book but I didn’t get along with this one at all. On the paper’s website here, or slightly edited below:

 

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Is it possible to write a successful novel in which the main characters have no names? (Yes). Is it possible to write a successful novel in which practically all of the characters are unpleasant? (Yes). Is it possible to do both of these things while writing a saas-bahu saga? At this point it all breaks down.

Shailaja Bajpai’s Three Parts Desire is a multi-generational saga about the life of “Didi” (her only name, given to her by her maid and lifelong companion Sita), the daughter of “Mem”. As a young girl Didi travels to America, where she tastes freedom (in the form of friends, movies and champagne) and has a brief affair with an American boy before returning to India to be forced into an arranged marriage. Confessing her carnal experience to her new husband Purushottam, or Purush (literally “man”; even he cannot be given a real name) turns out to be a bad idea. By the time Didi’s daughter “Baby” has been born, the marriage has fallen apart.

When the story opens, Didi has been separated from her husband for some years, and is living with Sita in a small house on a hill station. Skipping back and forth in time the novel moves between Didi’s disastrous marriage and (the now adult) Baby’s attempts to understand the events leading up to the point where her mother left the family home. There is no great mystery involved here; knowing what we do of Didi’s past life, at least part of the story is obvious.

Simultaneously the novel explores Baby’s relationship with Karthik, whom she meets at university. Karthik is almost unique in the book in having a name of his own. He is also probably the closest this novel comes to a sympathetic character, and he is almost excruciatingly worthy. Baby is perpetually angry, Sita’s narrow-minded moralising is grating rather than endearing, Purush is repulsive and Didi and Som Devi, both complex characters, are frustratingly under-explored.

Characters talk like no one on earth. Didi is curious about how Karthik “[met] that beautiful but self-willed daughter of mine”. She describes her own sindoor as her “red signpost […] it tells everyone who I am”. The difficulty of creating an authentic sounding speech in English literature for characters who are clearly speaking a different language has produced some howlers in the past, and it does so here again. Som Devi’s speech is peppered with “I am telling”, and Mem insists that her husband must be “here-there” before calling the domestic help “an ulloo, Hari Prasadji, bilkul ulloo!”

Matters aren’t helped by Bajpai’s apparent fondness for the most jarring of similes. Karthik’s life “had been abruptly disconnected like a telephone line with an unpaid bill”. Later, when his hand is injured, “the blood was smeared ketchup on finger chips”. Baby goes one up (and again we have the awkward switch from one language to another) when she licks his bleeding knuckles. “’Karela,’ she observed, ‘your blood tastes of bitter gourd’”.

Then there are the overwrought bits of symbolism (for example, a long paragraph in which Baby watches a bird dithering between security and freedom before it chooses to commit suicide by flying into a tree trunk).

And there are turns of phrase from the narrative itself that are bizarre. On the very first page of the book we meet a shop assistant with “a charcoal smudge moustache and an Adam’s apple straining out of his neck”.

An un-likeable character is not necessarily a bad one and there are good stories to be told here. We are told little of Baby’s time in America, but the little we do know makes her character far more complex. Karthik’s difficulties with his family and his desire to do the right thing could make for a good character arc. Didi and Som Devi, as I mention above, are grey characters deserving of a lot more insight. And insight is what this book lacks the most – there are characters and relationships that may seem inconsequential on the surface, but are worthy of exploring; yet the book seems uninterested in doing this. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is that the novel and its author are interested in doing. The choice to give these characters universal names might imply a deliberate movement away from focusing on their individual personalities, but why? Three Parts Desire meanders through the lives of these unlikeable people, telling us next to nothing about them. For a novel that is quite long (over four hundred pages) it has very little to say.

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*Do I need a glossary for this? Briefly:
“Didi” – older sister; “Purush” – male; “sindoor” – this; “bilkul ullu” – literally a complete owl, but she just means he’s an idiot; “karela” – bitter gourd; “saas-bahu” – mother-in-law–daughter-in-law dynamics, but no glossary is enough to really explain this.