Monday, 31 March 2014

In search of meaning Kamila Shamsie - A God In Every Stone

Kamila Shamsie is among the brightest stars in the firmament of Pakistani writing in English. Author of five novels, including In The City By The SeaBroken Verses and Burnt Shadows, Kamila has placed many of her novels in Karachi, depicting various facets of the city; Her latest novel is A God In Every Stone.

Pakistani writing in English has generated much interest of late, which, Kamila says, has been a recent phenomenon. “When I first published my novel in 1998, it was actually when things were starting. Nadeem Aslam published his first novel in 1992. Mohsin Hamid’s first book came out in 2008. Uzma Aslam Khan’s first book came out in 2001. There was already a feeling that something is beginning. I want to see more women. The writers you hear most about are writers who are men, and they are fantastic, but we need more women writers.”
A God In Every Stone is set in Peshawar between 1914, the beginning of World War I, till 1930. It follows the lives of Vivian Rose Spencer, a British archaeologist, who comes to Peshawar in search of an archaeological artefact; Qayyum Gul, who has just returned from War and his scholarly younger brother, Najeeb. A story about love, betrayal and injustice, A God in Every Stone also brings to focus lesser-known historical events, including the 1930 Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre and the Khudai Khidmatgar, a non-violent movement, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as frontier Gandhi.

The elegant Kamila, who was in town recently at the British Council for the launch of A God in Every Stone, says the idea of writing the novel came to her when she was in Karachi in 2009, to promote her novel Burnt Shadows. “At that point things were very bad at Peshawar. There were bombs going off everyday. And I would go to all these talk shows to discuss my book, and the person right after would talk about all these bombs. At a certain point I realised I had a clearer image of Japan than I had of Peshawar as Burnt Shadows is set partly in Japan. It seemed wrong. I had an interest in Peshawar. I knew it had this ancient history. I thought let me do some research and see if I find a story. I started looking at ancient history and discovered this traveller called Scylax. Very early on, there was an image of a grave which might not have a body.

The novel really started with the idea of these archaeologists in the late period of the Raj looking for a piece of history.” Though Kamila doesn’t consider the novel a history book, research was important for her. “I try as hard to get the facts right, particularly around the 1930s Massacre. It was a horrible and important event, but now even in Pakistan, we don’t know about it much. In Peshawar they remember, but in the rest of the country we don’t. One of the things I want the novel to do is to remind people of this.”

Woven within the narrative is an important history of the Pathans that few know of. “The Khudai Khidmatgar was not some tiny blip in history. Ghaffar Khan remains the most popular political leader. But we just talk about the Pathans as though they are fundamentalists and extremists. If they were like that, then in Peshawar they would have welcomed the Taliban with open arms, whereas they’ve resisted and they’re getting bombed everyday. It’s a real travesty what is being said about the Pathans. The worse part is that it starts in Pakistan than the rest of the world.”

Vivian is interesting for the way she’s been portrayed by Kamila. She lives on her own terms and defies the conventions imposed on women at the time.

“That period was such a period of change for English women. Around the 1930s and 1950s, English women understood constraints on other women much more. Viv sees a woman in a burqa and all the women in the street are looking out of these latticed windows with grills and it reminds her, which is true, that at the time in Parliament in the UK, the women’s section had a grill up so that the men wouldn’t get distracted by the sight of the women. In 1915, there was kind of purdah in Parliament,” she says, laughing.


Friday, 28 March 2014

Wang Wei: White Hairs


 Once a tiny child now an old man. 
 White hairs to match the soft down. 
 How the heart gets hurt by life. 
 Beyond the Gateless Gate’s 
 Where craving ends.

Wang Wei  (699-759) and also known by other names such as Wang Youcheng, was a Tang Dynasty Chinese poetmusicianpainter, and statesman. He was one of the most famous men of arts and letters of his time. Many of his poems are preserved, and twenty-nine were included in the highly influential 18th century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems.

The Spectacular Seth

A Suitable Girl, the much anticipated follow-up to your most famous book, A Suitable Boy, is scheduled for publication in 2016. Why the sequel?
The success A Suitable Boy enjoyed led my publisher to suggest, some 20 years back, that I write a sequel to it. But at that point in time I was somewhat written out and needed to lie fallow. Other things rose to the top of my mind: I wrote An Equal MusicTwo Lives, and I really thought that I was finished with the characters in A Suitable Boy—despite the fact that there are hints in the book to the contrary. A few years ago, confronted by the political turmoil in India, and the whole region, I got to thinking what Maan or Lata would make of these events. I realized Lata would be 80 years old and Maan would be much the same or older. I thought that instead of taking up the story from the 1950s, which would bore me, why not set the sequel in the present. As a result of that I could not only talk about the changes or non-changes in India from the first general election to what would now be the 16th general election but also write about a life well-lived, or badly lived, with Lata looking back on the last 60 years as well as also looking forward—while at the same time advising her grandson, who maybe doesn’t have that good an equation with his parents so he talks instead to his grandmother about the possibility of his finding a suitable girl.
Will the sequel be as voluminous as the 1993 original?
I hope not. I don’t approve of long books myself, but A Suitable Boy needed to be the length that it was simply because I got very interested in my characters and I needed to find out, for instance, whom Lata was going to end up marrying, which got me to actually finish the book because that was the only way I was going to find that out. I divided the 150 or so original chapters into three or four parts each. So while the book is still a bit of a long slog, it’s in bite-sized chunks. I was surprised the book turned out to be as big a success as it was. It was a bit weird in the sense that I discovered quite quickly that fame is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I was exhausted after a while and all I wanted to do was go home, but then there was one [book] tour after another that had to be done.
Boy is often compared to War and Peace for the grandeur of its scale. Was Tolstoy an inspiration?
My own inspiration when it comes to long books comes from the Chinese novel The Story of the Stoneby Cao Xueqin. When it comes to these inflated comparisons to dead novelists I tend to take them with a pinch of salt. If you really start believing all this, you’ll never be able to write another book and, besides, you’d make yourself intolerable to yourself and to everybody else. What matters more is if a book stands the test of time—whether it rings true to the reader—that is the true compliment a writer lives for.
Some critics have suggested that your writing has served to resolve your own feelings toward the Partition of India.
I do have strong political feelings, but I don’t think I would go to the extent of writing a book to make a political point. The best way of espousing a certain philosophy, in my view, is by doing it through one’s characters and in a convincing way so that the reader should not feel that the table in some sense is being tilted by the writer’s bias. Of course, my feelings about religious tolerance and about women’s rights do come out in my work, but I feel these shouldn’t be too overt. When it is time to speak up, I do—like I did when the Babri Masjid issue came up, when I and other citizens brought out ads on the front-pages of Indian newspapers against the injustice that had been done. Every writer has the right, as well as the duty as a citizen, to speak up about patent injustices or idiocies that their government or society is involved with.
English-language fiction from South Asia has found global resonance. How do you view the criticism that some South Asian writers are merely explaining this part of the world to a bewildered West rather than being genuine to their reality?
I feel very strongly that if a story does not ring true with the society that it purports to portray then it fails in its purpose. If The Golden Gate had not resonated with the people of San Francisco and it had been praised on the East Coast or in India or England I would still consider it an artistic failure. You risk artistic credibility with books that don’t make sense to the people about whom they are written. Although I must admit that if a book is fun to read then it can succeed at some level; it may not be a true revelation but if it’s a rollicking good read then so be it. It’s only when it’s both boring and untrue that it cannot be redeemed.
How cutthroat and competitive is the publishing world
It has become very cutthroat. Just last year I had an ugly experience with Penguin Books U.K. which so outraged me that I wrote a book about it. [Seth was asked to return the $1.7-million advance for reportedly not meeting the deadline for A Suitable Girl.] I wanted to get the record straight about the incident, which dealt with my work in particular and which exposed the sleazy business practices in the publishing world. People with such a hardened and cynical business approach ought not to be in publishing at all. Granted, publishing is a business that has to earn a profit, but there has to be some kind of rationality with respect to the product you’re dealing with, and at least a modicum of ethics. You need people in publishing who care about books and words, but many of these publishing firms are now run by financial types who couldn’t care less. For them it’s just a product. The book that I’ve written [on publishing] is at the moment around 250-pages long. I would like to narrow it down to 100 pages—just to leach it of too much indignation and yet describe things as they really are, describe a writer’s life to people in general: how the inspiration comes, where it suddenly disappears, how writers live, how they negotiate, what having an agent is all about, how publishers treat writers and each other, etc. It’s a tough world out there and writers should know what it’s really like when they’re starting out with all this idealism and enthusiasm and trust.
You’re also an award-winning poet. Why is poetry less financially successful than prose?
I have always thought of myself as more naturally a poet and was surprised to find myself writing prose. Poets, if they do gain any eminence, hardly ever gain financial eminence. For instance, most of the English poets of the 19th century, one way or the other had private incomes. Earlier still, both in Europe and in India, poetry, like classical music, mainly flourished owing to the patronage of a court or an emperor. Often, however, poets were left to languish—despite the fact that poetry, more than prose, is what is remembered by people; for example, it’s much easier for us to quote a couplet from Mir Taqi Mir than a passage from a letter by Ghalib. We read or recall poetry for consolation or amusement or stimulation or enlightenment. It’s about rhyme and meter and a tightness in the choice and arrangement of words which captures the essence of one’s mood.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Vikram Chandra: Love and Longing in Bombay (extract)


Considering the length of Subramaniam's service, it was remarkable that he still came to the Fisherman's Rest. When I started going there, he had been retired for six years from the Ministry of Defence, after a run of forty-one years that had left him a joint-secretary. I was young, and I had just started working at a software company which had its air-conditioned and very streamlined head offices just off the Fountain, and I must confess the first time I heard him speak it was to chastise me. He had been introduced to me at a table on the balcony, sitting with three other older men, and my friend Ramani, who had taken me there, told me that they had been coming there for as long as they had worked and longer. Subramaniam had white hair, he was thin, and in the falling dusk he looked very small to me, the kind of man who would while away the endless boredom of his life in a bar off Sasoon Dock, and so I shaped him up in my mind, and weighed him and dropped him.
I should have noticed then that the waiters brought his drinks to him without being asked, and that the others talked around his silence but always with their faces turned towards him, but I was holding forth on the miserable state of computers in Bombay. The bar was on the second floor of an old house, looking towards the sea, and you wouldn't have known it was there, there was certainly no sign, and it couldn't be seen from the street. There were old trophy fish, half a century old at least, strung along the walls, and on the door to the bathroom there was a picture of a hill stream cut from a magazine, British by the look of it. When the wind came in from the sea it fluttered old flowered curtains and a 1971 calendar, and I was restless already, but I owed at least a drink to the courtesy of my friend Ramani, who understood my loneliness in Bombay and was maybe trying to mix me in with the right circle. So I watched a navy ship, a frigate maybe, wheel into the sun, sipped my drink (despite everything, I noticed, a perfect gin sling), and listened to them talk.
Ramani had been to Bandra that day, and he was telling them about a bungalow on the seafront. It was one of those old three-storied houses with balconies that ran all the way around, set in the middle of a garden filled with palms and fish ponds. It sat stubbornly in the middle of towering apartment buildings, and it had been empty as far back as anyone could remember, and so of course the story that explained this waste of golden real estate was one of ghosts and screams in the night.
"They say it's unsellable," said Ramani. "They say a Gujarati seth bought it and died within the month. Nobody'll buy it. Bad place."
"What nonsense," I said. "These are all family property disputes. The cases drag on for years and years in courts, and the houses lie vacant because no one will let anyone else live in them." I spoke at length then, about superstition and ignorance and the state of our benighted nation, in which educated men and women believed in banshees and ghouls. "Even in the information age we will never be free," I said. I went on, and I was particularly witty and sharp, I thought. I vanquished every argument with efficiency and dispatch.
After a while my glass was empty and I stopped to look for the bearer. In the pause the waves gathered against the rocks below, and then Subramaniam spoke. He had a small whispery voice, a departmental voice, I thought, it was full of intrigues and secrets and nuances. "I knew a man once who met a ghost," he said. I still had my body turned around in the seat, but the rest of them turned to him expectantly. He said, "Some people meet their ghosts, and some don't. But we're all haunted by them." Now I turned, too, and he was looking straight at me, and his white hair stood clearly against the extravagant red of the sunset behind him, but his eyes were shadowed and hidden. "Listen," he said.
On the day that Major General Jago Antia turned fifty, his missing leg began to ache. He had been told by the doctors about phantom pain, but the leg had been gone for twenty years without a twinge, and so when he felt a twisting ache two inches under his plastic knee, he stumbled not out of agony but surprise. It was only a little stumble, but the officers who surrounded him turned away out of sympathy, because he was Jago Antia, and he never stumbled. The younger lieutenants flushed with emotion, because they knew for certain that Jago Antia was invincible, and this little lapse, and the way he recovered himself, how he came back to his ramrod straightness, this reminded them of the metallic density of his discipline, which you could see in his grey eyes. He was famous for his stare, for the cold blackness of his anger, for his tactical skill and his ability to read ground, his whole career from the gold medal at Kharakvasla to the combat and medals in Leh and NEFA. He was famous for all this, but the leg was the centre of the legend, and there was something terrible about it, about the story, and so it was never talked about. He drove himself across jungle terrain and shamed men twenty years younger, and it was as if the leg had never been lost. This is why his politeness, his fastidiousness, the delicate way he handled his fork and knife, his slow smile, all these Jago quirks were imitated by even the cadets at the Academy: they wished for his certainty, and believed that his loneliness was the mark of his genius.
So when he left the bara khana his men looked after him with reverence, and curiously the lapse made them believe in his strength all the more. They had done the party to mark an obscure regimental battle day from half a century before, because he would never have allowed a celebration for himself. After he left they lolled on sofas, sipping from their drinks, and told stories about him. His name was Jehangir Antia, but for thirty years, in their stories, he had been Jago Antia. Some of them didn't know his real name.
Meanwhile, Jago Antia lay on his bed under a mosquito net, his arms flat by his sides, his one leg out as if at attention, the other standing by the bed,'and waited for his dream to take him. Every night he thought of falling endlessly through the night, slipping through the cold air, and then somewhere it became a dream, and he was asleep, still falling. He had been doing it for as long as he could remember, long before para school and long before the drop at Sylhet, towards the hostile guns and the treacherous ground. It had been with him from long ago, this leap, and he knew where it took him, but this night a pain grew in that part of him that he no longer had, and he tried to fight it away, imagining the rush of air against his neck, the flapping of his clothes, the complete darkness, but it was no use. He was still awake. When he raised his left hand and uncovered the luminous dial it was oh-four-hundred, and then he gave up and strapped his leg on. He went into the study and spread out some maps and began to work on operational orders. The contour maps were covered with markers, and his mind moved easily among the mountains, seeing the units, the routes of supply, the staging areas. They were fighting an insurgency, and he knew of course that he was doing good work, that his concentration was keen, but he knew he would be tired the next day, and this annoyed him. When he found himself kneading his plastic shin with one hand, he was so angry that he went out on the porch and puffed out a hundred quick push-ups, and in the morning his puzzled sahayak found him striding up and down the garden walk as the sun came up behind a gaunt ridge.
"What are you doing out here?" Thapa said. Jago Antia had never married. They had known each other for three decades, since Jago Antia had been a captain, and they had long ago discarded with the formalities of master and batman.
"Couldn't sleep, Thapa. Don't know what it was."
Thapa raised an eyebrow. "Eat well then."
"Right. Ten minutes?"
Thapa turned smartly and strode off. He was a small, round man, not fat but bulging everywhere with the compact muscles of the mountains.
"Thapa?" Jago Antia called.
"Nothing." He had for a moment wanted to say something about the pain, but then the habit of a lifetime asserted itself, and he threw back his shoulders and shook his head. Thapa waited for a moment and then walked into the house. Now Jago Antia looked up at the razor edge of the ridge far above, and he could see, if he turned his head to one side, a line of tiny figures walking down it. They would be woodcutters, and perhaps some of the men he was fighting. They were committed, hardy, and well trained. He watched them. He was better. The sun was high now, and Jago Antia went to his work.


Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Palimpsest Regained - The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. Fourteen ninety-two was the year, too, when the Jews of Spain were offered the choice of baptism or expulsion; and when Columbus, financed by the royal conquerors of the Moor, Ferdinand and Isabella, sailed forth to discover a new route to the East.
From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.
Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.
Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.
In Rushdie’s hands Abraham is little more than a comic-book villain. Aurora, however, is a more complex character, in many ways the emotional center of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”
Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text or texturation over it like gauze.
But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”
Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he is a prodigy, with a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals. Kept apart from other children, he receives his sexual initiation at the hands of an attractive governess and soon discovers he is a born storyteller: telling stories gives him an erection.
Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then—after some complicated stage business involving true and false poison capsules—in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group whose off-duty evenings sound like Brownshirt get-togethers in Munich, with “arm-wrestling and mat-wrestling…[until] lubricated by beer and rum, the assembled company would arrive at a point of sweaty, brawling, raucous, and finally exhausted nakedness.”
Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfill itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.
Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.
Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

Monday, 24 March 2014

An Interview with Alice Munro

The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro’s collection of stories forthcoming from Knopf in November, will be her twelfth volume in a distinguished career that has spanned more than fifty-five years and has garnered resounding international acclaim. Her fiction has helped to extend the known boundaries of the short story genre and our appreciation of its potential. “Alice Munro deserves the Nobel Prize,” proclaimed Time magazine, upon listing her name in its 2005 roster of the world’s one hundred most influential people. Munro, according to Mona Simpson, author of Time’s profile, “understands reality in a complex, capacious way, leaving intact its dimensions of dream and wonder, its shadings of the fantastic.”
Munro’s eleven previous collections of short stories include: Dance of the Happy Shades; Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; The Beggar Maid (first published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?); The Moons of Jupiter; The Progress of Love; Friend of My Youth; Open Secrets; Selected Stories; The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage;and Runaway. She is also the author of a novel, Lives of Girls and Women.
In the course of her illustrious career, Munro has received a wide array of awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards, two Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England’s W. H. Smith Award, the United States’ National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literature, a US prize previously accorded to such literary stars as Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Toni Morrison, and Nadine Gordimer. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and her collections can be read in thirteen languages.
Alice Munro, née Laidlaw, grew up in Wingham, in Huron County, Ontario, on the banks of the Maitland River, called Meneseteung by the native Canadians, and by Munro herself in her short story of that title in Friend of My Youth. She published her first story at the age of nineteen, in 1950, while a student at the University of Western Ontario. One year later she married Jim Munro, and by the age of twenty-six she was the mother of two daughters, with another to follow. That she continued writing at all, at a time when most women were expected to content themselves with home and family was, in itself, a small miracle. That she eventually penetrated the US market in the 1970s was an even greater miracle.
By 1977, when the author’s work was appearing in the New Yorker,Munro was already a celebrated author in Canada and had raised three children, divorced, become economically independent, and remarried. Her depiction of emotional ambivalence in her stories is mirrored in her daughter Sheila’s memoir, published in 2001, in which the younger Munro finds her own voice through examining and embracing the complexities of her relationship with her famous mother. At present, Alice Munro and her husband divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, just thirty-five kilometers from her girlhood hometown, and Comox, British Columbia, where she lives close to her daughter and grandchildren.
*  *  *  *  
As I prepared to speak with Munro about The View from Castle Rock, I thought about omitting one of my questions, in which I had paired Munro’s depictions of pioneer women in her stories with those of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie, a book I admired and had recently read to my children. I wondered whether an author of Munro’s stature might be offended by my linking her mature works to an example of young people’s literature, even though I knew she had written an afterword to L. M. Montgomery’s children’s classic, Emily of New Moon, and that she considered it “one of the best books in Canada.” Yet I reminded myself that one of the qualities I most admired about Alice Munro was her courage to take risks in her work, and I decided I would ask my question. Maybe.
I needn’t have been concerned. First, her memory is as astonishing as it is reputed to be. Even taking into account that Munro was freshly familiar with the territory I was covering, as she had just written a book on the subject, the precision with which she remembered the minute details of long questions she was hearing for the first time gave me new insight into her ability to write fictive reality with such authenticity. When I posed a question, she would listen intently, then reply without pause in seemingly simple, elegant sentences that matched exactly the shade of meaning of what I was asking. She spoke in a neighborly tone, in crisp cadences that echoed the rhythms of her stories.
And of course, being Alice Munro, early on in the interview she made a point of complimenting me on having asked a good question, and so before I knew it, I was launching into my query involving Little House on the Prairie, to which she responded with the same serious consideration that she had accorded every other question I had asked. Thank you, Alice Munro.
*  *  *  *  
Q: The View from Castle Rock draws upon material relating to both your paternal ancestors and your personal recollections. In your 1994 “Art of Fiction” interview with Paris Review, you spoke of how William Maxwell had written about his family in Ancestors,and you said: “He did the thing you have to do, which is to latch the family history onto something larger that was happening at the time—in his case, the whole religious revival of the early 1800s. . . . If you get something like that, then you’ve got the book.” Might you comment on this in regard to your new collection?
A: I think that that’s very helpful, because otherwise what you’ve got is family history, and that’s very interesting to you and other members of your family perhaps, but not generally. This book has a lot to do with a certain part of Scotland which had also undergone an interesting religious phenomenon, although not exactly a revival. The Protestant faith there had taken hold in a very austere form, and it had a total effect on people’s lives. Also, allied with this religion, there was education, because reading the Bible was terribly important. As a result, you had what you might call an educated peasantry, a lower class who could all read, and who spent their time, what leisure they had, in a kind of exploration of what were really theological or philosophical questions. These were questions that would lead you to some pretty difficult, and even pretty crazy, conclusions. So they were wrestling with all of this material, and that in itself is interesting. This wasn’t happening in many places to people of this class. In addition, the Borders of Scotland—this is southern Scotland, below the Firth of Forth, which I’m writing about—gave rise to a period in history that’s called the Scottish Enlightenment, and there were writers and the philosopher David Hume, and the economist Adam Smith, and people like that, who started coming out of more or less the same background.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

IF you’ve never seen one, it’s almost impossible to capture the mesmerizing allure of a classic Japanese garden — and even standing for the first time in front of a bed of raked gravel can be a challenge. No vivid colors. No sweeping borders. No topiary animals. No shooting fountains. No fun, it would seem. Still, the traditional Japanese garden, esoteric as it is, has an ancient and undeniable appeal. It’s about secrets, perspectives, initiation, memory and time. It may take ages for a Japanese garden to come to maturity, to say nothing of the gardener. And yet, for all its mystery, the Japanese garden reveals itself as a capacious symbol of the human soul, replete with exactly the kinds of “borrowed landscapes” we live with. But we call them our personal histories.

The crucial action in “The Garden of Evening Mists,” a strong, quiet novel by Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian writer who now lives part of the year in Cape Town, takes place in Malaya just after World War II. The beautiful garden referred to in the title plays host to the intertwining of several lives at a period cursed with being, so the saying goes, an “interesting time.” As the story begins, decades later, Judge Yun Ling Teoh, the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court that sits in Kuala Lumpur, is retiring from the bench. In late middle age, she has been given a terrible diagnosis: she will soon lose her memory, indeed all cognitive function. She has unfinished business with the past, so the approaching obliteration of her mind sends her back, urgently, to a time she has done her best to repress.
With her beloved older sister, an artist, she had been held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp when she was 19 years old. She survived. Her sister did not. Yun Ling’s last work — her last act of judgment, perhaps — will address her own actions during that time. Why did she survive and her sister perish?
In her final days, Yun Ling drives to Yugiri, in the Cameron Highlands, about four hours from Kuala Lumpur. There she returns to the Japanese garden that has haunted her since the last time she visited, 35 years earlier. It is “a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time,” where she is struck by “the scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.”
The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of a man who had once been employed by the emperor of Japan — and, in an unlikely twist of fate, it is this gardener, Aritomo, who helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. He too is long gone. Yun Ling’s last job will be to restore his garden to its former glory.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A Death in the Family - My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard – extract

As I sit here writing this, I recognise that more than thirty years have passed. In the window before me I can vaguely make out the reflection of my face. Apart from one eye, which is glistening, and the area immediately beneath, which dimly reflects a little light, the whole of the left side is in shadow. Two deep furrows divide my forehead, one deep furrow intersects each cheek, all of them as if filled with darkness, and with the eyes staring and serious, and the corners of the mouth drooping, it is impossible not to consider this face gloomy.
What has engraved itself in my face?
Today is 27 February. The time is 11.43pm. I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am thirty-nine years old. I have three children – Vanja, Heidi and John – and am in my second marriage, to Linda Boström Knausgaard. All four are asleep in the rooms around me, in an apartment in Malmö where we have lived for a year and a half. Apart from some parents of the children at Vanja and Heidi's nursery we do not know anyone here. This is not a loss, at any rate not for me, I don't get anything out of socialising anyway. I never say what I really think, what I really mean, but always more or less agree with whoever I am talking to at the time, pretend that what they say is of interest to me, except when I am drinking, in which case more often than not I go too far the other way, and wake up to the fear of having overstepped the mark. This has become more pronounced over the years and can now last for weeks. When I drink I also have blackouts and completely lose control of my actions, which are generally desperate and stupid, but also on occasion desperate and dangerous. That is why I no longer drink. I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed: no one gets close and no one sees me. This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window …
It is now a few minutes past eight o'clock in the morning. It is the fourth of March, 2008. I am sitting in my office, surrounded by books from floor to ceiling, listening to the Swedish band Dungen and thinking about what I have written and where it is leading. Linda and John are asleep in the adjacent room, Vanja and Heidi are at the nursery, where I dropped them off half an hour ago. Outside, at the front of the enormous Hilton Hotel, which is still in shadow, the lifts glide up and down in three glass shafts. Next door there is a red‑brick building which, judging by all the bay windows, dormers and arches, must be from the end of the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Beyond that, there is a glimpse of a tiny stretch of Magistrat Park with its denuded trees and green grass, where a motley grey house in a 70s style breaks the view, and forces the eye up to the sky, which for the first time in several weeks is a clear blue.