Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Eduardo Galeano: 'My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia'

Most mornings it's the same. At the breakfast table Uruguayan-born author, Eduardo Galeano, 72, and his wife, Helena Villagra, discuss their dreams from the night before. "Mine are always stupid," says Galeano. "Usually I don't remember them and when I do, they are about silly things like missing planes and bureaucratic troubles. But my wife has these beautiful dreams."
One night she dreamt they were at an airport where all the passengers were carrying the pillows they had slept on the night before. Before they could board officials would run their pillows into a machine that would extract the dreams from the night before and make sure there was nothing subversive in them. When she told him he was embarrassed about the banality of his own. "It's shaming, really."
There is not much magical about Galeano's realism. But there is nothing shaming in it either. This septuagenarian journalist turned author has become the poet laureate of the anti-globalisation movement by adding a laconic, poetic voice to non-fiction. When the late Hugo Chávez pressed a copy of Galeano's 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent into the hands of Barack Obama before the world's press in 2009, it leapt from 54,295th on Amazon's rankings to second in just a day. When Galeano's impending journey to Chicago was announced at a reading in March by Arundhati Roy, the crowd cheered. When Galeano came in May it was sold out, as was most of his tour.
"There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature, with book writing at its zenith," he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais recently. "I don't agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years now, but I trained as a journalist, and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world."
Those realities appear bleak. "This world is not democratic at all," he says. "The most powerful institutions, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank, belong to three or four countries. The others are watching. The world is organised by the war economy and the war culture."
And yet there is nothing in either Galeano's work or his demeanour that smacks of despair or even melancholy. While in Spain during the youth uprisings of the indignados two years ago, he met some young protesters at Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Galeano took heart from the demonstrations. "These were young people who believed in what they were doing," he said. "It's not easy to find that in political fields. I'm really grateful for them."

Saturday, 12 April 2014

“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai

As a child in India, the only thing Anita Desai wanted was to see her books on the family bookshelf, sitting next to those by Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Wolf. Seventy years later, and living in New York, Desai is now a long way from her childhood home. But with a career that has spanned sixteen novels, and most recently, a collection of novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance (2011), one could make the claim that, in a way, Anita Desai has fulfilled her childhood dream.
This past October Desai came to Pittsburgh as a featured writer with the Prague Writers’ Festival‘s first appearance in the United States. On October 16 she also read selections from her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay at a salon-style reading hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
On the day of the Prague Writers’ Festival kick-off, Desai spoke with Sampsonia Way in the lobby of Pittsburgh’s William Penn Omni Hotel. In this interview she discusses her childhood of writing and reading, her creative process over the years, her state of hereditary exile, and the complicated perspective on India and the West that it has afforded her.
How did you discover you were a writer?
From a very young age I knew that this was I what I wanted to do. Before I could even spell I was putting letters together to make words. We also had lots of books in our home and everyone read a lot. My family would see me sitting in a corner, scribbling all the time, so they used to address me as “The Writer.” I just wanted my books to be on the bookshelf too.
What was the first thing that you wrote?
A little piece that was published in a children’s magazine when I was nine. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky to have such a closed vision so early on in life. I see others trying many things before they set out on their life’s work, and I never had that. While I wish I could do more, I’ve been incredibly happy just being able to read. For me, as a child, the greatest joy was getting my pocket money for the month and racing off to the bookshop to see what I could buy.
What were you reading at that time?
In my early years I was influenced by the British classics of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. Those are the ones we read, but as I progressed I also discovered Russian authors. It was a great revelation to learn that as a writer you could delve so deeply into the human mind and experience. People like [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Leo] Tolstoy write with such a range of human experience, but the one I particularly love is [Nikolai] Gogol. He wrote some of greatest short stories that have ever been written. There’s an abstract element to his work that seems somehow mysterious, and a little vague, so I keep returning to try and discover those secrets.
Your most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas that was published two years ago. Are you working on anything right now?
I’ve been absorbed in [Kiran Desai] my daughter’s work, seeing her through the difficult stages of the novel she’s writing. But in the process I’ve been remembering that it’s hard to keep up my stamina through a long piece. I was very happy while working on The Artist of Disappearance because I restricted myself to the limited form of the novella and could do it with ease. In the future I’ll try to write more novellas. The novel takes a lot out of me.
Do you have a routine when you write?
I spend at least three hours at my desk every morning, whether I’m working on a book or not. I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need. I like to have a window and a view too, but I mostly need to be alone when writing. I also write by hand and don’t use the computer until the end of the process. It’s fine for editing, but not for writing.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Aravind Adiga - Interview

In both your Booker-winning debut, The White Tiger, and new book,Last Man in Tower, you analyse the depredations of India's dash for growth. Is that how you see it?
I don't see myself as criticising what is happening in India. India and China, both ancient civilisations, are becoming new kinds of nation state. This is happening through processes that a columnist might write about - global trade, civil society, law and order. And it's also happening through the release of tremendous amounts of amoral energy, that of new kinds of entrepreneurial figure. My position is chronicling this as a writer, and it's perhaps different from the kinds of fiction in English we've had from India before. I find some of that a bit sentimental.
Does it frustrate you when your novels are treated as artefacts of social criticism rather than as fiction?
To some extent, yes. I didn't intend with this new book for there to be an obvious message, or any obvious resolution to the problems. I'm in two minds about what's happening.
I grew up in a very different India. My life then was very much structured around shame and guilt; it was a very conservative society. But that India has gone.
You said there's no obvious hero in this book. Doesn't Masterji count as one?
This figure of the man who says "no" - I never meant for him to be the hero. I hope I've written it well enough for the reader to wonder if he's saying no out of idealism, or even a kind of nihilism. The hero, if there is one, is the city of Mumbai.
How long have you lived in Mumbai now?
I came here in late 2006. But I've spent some time away, in Bangalore. I've never had a job in this city, so I'm free all day. If you have a job, you tend to see less and less of the city.
You say it has changed even in the relatively short period you've been there.
The interesting thing is that Mumbai is growing more slowly than many other cities in India. There's a very palpable anxiety that Mumbai has been misgoverned for many, many years. It takes for ever here to build roads and bridges. The city is not the centre of India's technology industry - that's Bangalore. And New Delhi has much better infrastructure and people see it as the great Indian city of the future. So while Mumbai has changed, it perhaps hasn't changed fast enough. And that's the kind of anxiety that's present in the book - that it will take people like Mr Shah to get things done.
Another anxiety concerns China.
It's a dangerous comparison, because you can't go about crushing individual rights in a quest to grow faster than China. I would like things to get done faster, but I worry what price some people in this country will have to pay. There's a danger that the process of industrialisation and growth can ignore the rights of many weaker sections of society.
Have English writers like Martin Amis had any influence on you?
I wish I could write like Amis. He strikes me as the most Dickensian writer around, in terms of style. He's astonishingly good [in his] native command of sentence structure. On the other hand, he often forgets that he has to tell a story.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

What Muriel Spark Saw

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip.
To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.
But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.
The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.
What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.
Spark was fond of pointing out that as a child she never mothered her dolls. They were puppets, at her command; so too are her characters. They are broad types, complete with catchphrases: “I was Mrs. Hawkins,” “I’m in my prime.” We cannot “enter” them, as the dreadful phrase goes. They don’t excite empathy. They don’t, in fact, differ much from one another. With a few variations, your Sparkian heroine will be a large, intensely clever woman, an editor or a writer, a bit lonely, a bit criminally inclined. Above all, she’s a superb “sighter,” as Spark would say. A watchful woman talented at teasing out secrets. Put simply: imagine the young Muriel Spark.
These characters, these editors and writers, frequently call attention to their implausibility—that is, if they don’t discover that they’re characters in a novel and stage a mutiny, as in “The Comforters,” in which a young writer realizes that Muriel Spark intends to make a fictional character out of her and tries to leap from the frame by changing her travel plans at the last minute or missing appointments she thinks are important to the narrative. To read Spark is always to read about reading. By populating her novels with memoirists and poets, cranky publishers, well-connected hacks, all of them arguing about what makes a character, what propels a sentence, and did you hear about so-and-so’s advance, she draws our attention repeatedly to the artifice of the novel. She loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure. That’s the point of all those catchphrases. Every time Jean Brodie tells us that she’s in her prime, it’s Spark’s voice we hear, and we’re reminded of who wields the puppet strings.
But why torture these poor puppets so voluptuously? Spark loves to make us watch, and we feel that she wants to make us better at watching, so completely must we surrender when we read her. She makes sighters of us, too, Sparkian solitary sighters stuck at the margins, growing gravid with everyone else’s secrets. We learn how powerlessness can make you an expert in the art of appraisal—in assessing someone’s market price down to the penny. Think of how the women in the boarding house in “The Girls of Slender Means” memorize each other’s measurements: they literally have each other’s numbers. In this world, everything is transactional, and everything is currency. The girls of slender means keep a careful accounting of their assets, from their faces to the last nub of rationed soap.
Spark set these imbroglios in female-only spaces: boarding houses, girls’ schools, abbeys, the ladies’ wing of a nursing home. “The strongest men on all fronts were dead before I was born,” she told her biographer, Martin Stannard. (Not that she was ever at ease with her own sex—or, for that matter, her species. “She went through people like pieces of Kleenex,” the writer Ved Mehta said. Like Patricia Highsmith, with whom she shared a healthy interest in sadism, and, briefly, a little black cat named Spider, she was a creature apart, not of us but living among us with lively disdain and mistrust—rather like, well, a cat.) Women were just where the action was, but to be “womanly” was another matter. “There’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur,” a character says to our heroine in “Loitering with Intent.” “You’re not really womanly.” This irritates Fleur, who tells us, “To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily. After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Amrita Pritam: A Letter

File:Amrita Pritam (1919 – 2005) , in 1948.jpg

Me—a book in the attic.
Maybe some covenant or hymnal.
Or a chapter from the Kama Sutra,
or a spell for intimate afflictions.
But then it seems I am none of these.
(If I were, someone would have read me.)

Apparently at an assembly of revolutionaries
they passed a resolution,
and I am a longhand copy of it.
It has the police’s stamp on it
and was never successfully enforced.
It is preserved only for the sake of procedure.

And now only some sparrows come,
straw in their beaks,
and sit on my body
and worry about the next generation.
(How wonderful to worry about the next generation!)
Sparrows have wings on them,
but resolutions have no wings
(or resolutions have no second generation).

Sometimes I think to catch the scent—
what lies in my future?
Worry makes my binding come off.
Whenever I try to smell,
just some fumes of bird shit.
O my earth, your future!
Me—your current state.


Amrita Pritam was a Punjabi poet and novelist who recorded the trauma of Partition in her best-know poem, “I Call upon Varis Shah Today.” Denis Matringe’s French translation of her novel, The Skeleton, was awarded the La Route des Indes Literary Prize (2005). Among her other honors were the Jnanpith award (1981) and the Padma Vibushan (2005).

The Origins of Paul Scott's Vast Masterpiece The Raj Quartet, The epic of colonial India

I first met Paul Scott at Firpo’s bar on Chowringhee in Calcutta in 1944. I was an NCO in what was euphemistically described as “Special Duties,” that is, intelligence, but more often meant taking on any odd job for which no one else could be found; Paul was an air supply captain who had been commissioned into the Service Corps, unkindly known to the Rifle Brigade or the Gurkhas as, in the words of his biographer Hilary Spurling, “the Rice Corps, Flying Grocers, or Jam Stealers and generally considered to be about as low as it was possible to get in the Indian Army.” We eyed each other’s shoulder-chips with sympathy over drinks, and got on extremely well. I did wonder at the time whether he might not have been trying to pick me up, a suspicion that Spurling’s biography and the new collection of Scott’s letters have done nothing to dispel.

A decade later, with Cambridge behind me, I was trying to break into the London literary world, and decided I needed an agent. Summoned for an interview at the firm then known as Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, I found myself facing, across a desk, an elegantly suited gentleman who—I suddenly realized at about the same moment as the penny dropped for him—was none other than my Rice Corps bar companion. We both exploded with laughter, and I became his client on the spot.

So began a literary friendship that lasted, in person or by correspondence, until Paul’s tragically early death in 1978. For six years, until he gave up his job to become a full-time novelist in 1960, Paul was my literary agent. We exchanged innumerable critical letters1 (quite a few of which have found their way into Janis Haswell’s collection) about work in progress, together with a kind of running commentary on the rare splendors and all-too-frequent miseries, mostly financial, of the writer’s life. We lunched with each other regularly at Paul’s favorite Soho tavern, the Dog and Duck. He was pleasant, competent, sardonic: nice to know, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I moved to the country and came up to town on weekly flying visits, I occasionally stayed with him and his wife, Penny, and their two school-age daughters in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

But from 1963 until 1971, my family and I were living in Greece, and after that I took up an academic post in the United States, so that during this highly important late period of his career my friendship with Paul was in essence restricted to letters. It was then, in the early 1960s, that Paul finally discovered his great theme—the twilight and eclipse of the British Raj in India—and retreated further and further, during the decade that it took him to sweat out the four long volumes that emerged as The Raj Quartet, into a kind of creative solitude where the fictional world of British India that he conjured up became, more and more as time went on, virtually his sole reality.

The physical and emotional cost was appalling. It was, essentially, as his daughter Carol saw, the prime cause of his alienation from Penny, the break-up of his long marriage. By the end he was (as he told a doctor) eating little, sleeping less, and drinking a quart of vodka a day. When I finally saw him again, after the completion of the Quartet—we had invited him to lecture at the University of Texas—I was shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1975, though still only in his mid-fifties, he was a dying man, and knew it. The completion of that vast and complex project had exacted a horrendous price, of which perhaps the saddest aspect was that Paul never lived to enjoy the fame and success that it brought him.

Paul himself had put it on record, very early, “that I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” Yet there is nothing about his early suburban life—or, indeed, much of his pre-Quartet fiction—that presages the power and the scope of the Indian tetralogy. The son of a commercial artist (the family claimed descent from the engraver Thomas Bewick) who fell on hard times, he was removed from his private school—a far from classy one—at the age of fourteen and set to train as an accountant. He began writing poems and plays that were, as he agreed later in life, better forgotten. The turning point was his army career, which took him to Bengal, Imphal, and Malaya; but the seed then sown took years to come to fruition, and not before several not-quite-right attempts, such as Six Days in Marapore and The Chinese Love Pavilion, had been painstakingly hammered out. After the war, having qualified as an accountant, he got a job keeping the books for a new publishing firm, and from there moved on to the literary agency where I met him again. All the time he was writing, and fiction by now was slowly beginning to oust poems and plays.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Out of India - Rabindranath Tagore

For a long time, the word kavi, Sanskrit for “poet,” was synonymous for me with a man named Kuvempu. He was the Rashtra Kavi, the national poet, of people who spoke Kannada, the language of the part of South India where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kuvempu’s verse—lucid, patriotic, nature loving—was taught in primary schools and sung on the radio; when you drove into the countryside, you found his poems painted near waterfalls and framed in the midst of rose gardens. Even as a boy, I knew that where Kannada-speaking territory ended, so did Kuvempu’s fame. Our neighbors spoke Tamil—a very different language—and they had their own national poet, a man named Subramania Bharathi. As far as I could tell, each of India’s many languages had such a Rashtra Kavi, around whose verse a powerful subnational identity had coalesced. Overarching all these Rashtra Kavis, however, was a man called the Vishwa Kavi, the universal poet, who spoke to all Indians.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) began his career as the poet of an Indian province—fertile, densely populated Bengal (divided today between India and Bangladesh); then, through a combination of exceptional talent and good fortune, he grew into something that no other twentieth-century poet could have hoped to be. Modern India’s first international literary celebrity, Tagore, in 1913, became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many in the West and in India, his great silver beard and dreamy gaze made him a present-day incarnation of an ancient Hindu mystic; many Indians still call himGurudev, divine teacher. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem, photographs of him hang in public libraries, and he is a key element in the liberal, progressive pan-Indian culture that is even more important than democracy or the army in keeping the country united. Tagore helped make modern India, but he also transcends it. When the part of Bengal awarded to Pakistan broke away to form its own nation, Bangladesh, in 1971, it chose a song by Tagore as its national anthem, thus making him the only man to have composed the defining patriotic verse of two nations.
Yet, as the writer Amit Chaudhuri notes in his fine foreword to The Essential Tagore, the poet has become a “static emblem” in India: worshipped everywhere, but not widely read outside Bengal. Like most Indians, I cannot read Bengali; Tagore’s verse came to my school in South India in an archaic and sometimes Orientalist English that left me with no desire to read more of his work. Young readers in other countries must have felt the same. One of the world’s most famous writers in the 1920s and ’30s, Tagore traveled from Argentina to Java to meet admirers; today, his international reputation has all but vanished. How surprising, then, in my mid-twenties, to watch Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) andCharulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), two films by the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray that were based on Tagore’s stories; to feel that the man who wrote those stories was not a silver-bearded bore but a restless young writer, someone I could have spoken to about my own worries about politics or love; and to wonder if, beneath the Tagore whom I had had to learn in school, there was another one, waiting to break out and speak to me. That is why this new anthology, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, is so welcome, because it starts the process of freeing Tagore for a contemporary audience.
The first thing that strikes you about The Essential Tagore is the diversity of its subject’s talents: In a career that stretched over seventy-three years (he finished his first poem when he was seven, and was composing a story on his deathbed), Tagore wrote novels, plays, literary criticism, political essays on the iniquities of the British Raj, and descriptions of his travels in Persia and Japan. Yet it is to the poems that one turns immediately. The range is dizzying—Tagore composed devotional, patriotic, erotic, and nature verse—and is tackled here by a phalanx of gifted translators, including Chaudhuri. Most of the translations are lucid and lively, although it is only rarely we feel that we are eavesdropping in on the original Bengali:
Chaitra nights, I sit alone, once again, it becomes visible—
among trees and branches, the illusion of your curved hand
in new-sprouted leaves by some error they return your
old letters.
To heighten the standard problems of translation, many of Tagore’s most famous compositions are lyrics; they have as much power in English as Ira Gershwin must have in Bengali. If the core of the poetry might never be retrievable for the non-Bengali reader, a wild, celebratory power keeps breaking through in the English translation, as when Tagore promises us, “Again and Again you’ll regain your right to be in the world.”