Friday, 25 March 2011

Random Thoughts

Decline of Western Civilization

I have been watching the Channel Four four-part series, which addresses the question that is surely keeping many of us awake at night: are the days of Western dominance over; are we history, and not just history but also chemistry and biology?

The series is presented by the right wing historian Niall Ferguson, who, at his calmest, sounds like a woman forced to sing opera while trapped inside a burning tower.

Don’t get me wrong; I have time of Niall Ferguson (not a lot, though). I began reading his The Ascent of Money in the spirit of experiment, wanting to find out whether it is possible to die of boredom. I worked my way through a third of the book before I stopped, having been satisfied that reading the remainder of the book was unlikely to kill me.

The two episodes I have watched so far made me no wiser as to whether the Western civilization is about to be taken over by the Orientals and the Koran-mutterers. That is because Ferguson spent both the episodes waffling about what he chose to describe as the killer aps of the West, which, in the past 400 years enabled us to overtake China and the Ottomans: competition and science. The long and short of it was that the West got on with the clever innovations while the Turkish Sultan was busy working out when he last fucked the concubine he was fucking now (he had so many of them). I forget what the Chinese emperor was doing while the competing kingdoms in Europe were busy conquering the New World: probably building palaces with highly ornate architecture, which, as we know, is a complete waste of time and money, except when it is done in Europe.

On the evidence of the two episodes I have watched, I feel obliged to point out that the title is a misnomer. Instead of Civilization: is the West History, it should be Civilization: Weren’t We Clever Sausages.

 Cricket World Cup

I have been watching the highlights of the Cricket World Cup being played in the subcontinent. We have done well to progress as far as we have, given that our only player of international class (Kevin Pierterson) has returned home to have his hernia operated on.

Our bowling attack is below par and has been further dealt the devastating blow by off spinner Yardy’s withdrawal due to depression (remind me who he is, again?)

Geoff Boycott has come in for some stick for his blunt assessment that Yardy is probably upset because he has discovered that he can’t cut the mustard at the top level. That, as my old teacher used to say, is a view. I had a friend (in the sense he thought I was his friend on the dubious grounds that I tolerated him). He was a pretentious ass, prone to slip pointlessly into stock French or Latin phrases while speaking. He became depressed and suicidal a few years ago. The ostensible reason for his depression was his wife, after ten years of marriage, informed him over the morning cup of tea that she had fallen out of love with him and was moving out. But I thought that the wife’s desertion merely served to confirm what must have been suspicion lurking at the periphery of his consciousness for all those years: he was a tosser and a talentless bore and a total loser. It was this (belated) realization, rooted in reality, that brought on the depression in my view. (I don’t know whether he got over it because he hanged himself after a month). That said it was hasty of Geoff Boycott, who is equipped with the world’s most perfect mind (which also made him the most selfish cricketer of his generation), to suggest that spinner Yardy’s depression was linked to his lack of talent. Maybe Yardy has some deep-seated issues. Maybe his mother did not breast-feed long enough. The man needs counselling.

As I type this, New Zeeland have pulled off a sensational victory over the South Africans. When they batted the New Zealanders did a good job of making the batting look extremely difficult. I suspected that the demons in the pitch would disappear when South Africa batted and Hashim Amla began dispatching the Kiwis to all parts of the park. I was wrong: Amla was out in the first over and the South Africans choked under pressure. New Zealand is a mediocre team and I can’t believe they have progressed to the semi-finals.

Pakistan demolished West Indies in the quarter-finals. It was painful to watch the West Indies crumble (yet again). As I watched the woeful West Indians, my view of their team was reaffirmed: Chris Gayle is over-rated; and Chanderpaul is the only really world-class player they have got.

India disposed off the reigning champions, Australia, in a clinical fashion. It would be nice to see a different name on the World Cup this time. Also, it is always a pleasure to see the Australians lose, no matter to whom. If the Australians’ swagger comes down a notch or two, that would be no bad thing. The problem with the current Australian team is that they have attitude aplenty but not much talent to back it. I can’t see the Indians lifting the cup, though. Their bowling is dreadful; which means that if they have to have any chance of winning, their batsmen have to score 300 plus runs every time; and even then, as the match against England showed, they can’t defend it.

Who will win the cup? If I were a betting man I would have lost my money as I would have backed South Africa. Now I think it will be either Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Pakistan have very good bowling attacks—the life the Pakistani spinners extracted out of the dead wicket (in their match against West Indies) would have made an IVF consultant envious; but their batting is unpredictable and that is where I think Sri Lanka has an edge. 

If I am backing Sri Lanka to win it also means that I expect them to beat England tomorrow. Before you call me unpatriotic let me remind you that we lost to Ireland and they probably had to send search parties to find people to complete their world cup squad.

We shall see. I shall of course be overjoyed to be proven wrong.


Old Muammar is having a spot of bother. Have the matters come to such a sorry state that a man can’t kill his own people? Lest we forget Gaddafi is fighting for his dictatorial (I was going to say political) life, and it would be fair to say that his opponents will show him no fairness should they defeat him.

Isn’t it interesting that France, England, and America were not concerned about the loss of human lives in the initial days of what I am prepared to call an uprising against Gaddafi’s regime when it looked like the rebels were winning? They started bleating about the humanitarian crisis only when Gaddafi’s forces started pounding the opposition. 

I am also amazed by the haste with which France and some other European nations have acknowledged the rebels as the official government in Libya. Do these people not learn anything from their past mistakes? They supplied the religious nutters in Afghanistan with all sorts of weapons and money when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. What a wise decision that proved to be! And now they are supporting the rebels—a ragtag army of loafers, malcontents and (very likely) Islamists (who probably hate the West more than they hate Gaddafi) simply because they are opposing Gaddafi whom the West hates? Muammar has been in control of Libya for four decades; he has (as dictators do) not allowed any opposition. Also, whatever else he is Muammar Gaddafi  (like Saddam Hussain) is not a religious fanatic, which, you will agree with me, is something of rarity in the Islamic world. If Gaddafi  goes, there will be no democracy in Libya, there will be utter anarchy. Also, the last time I checked there was no democracy in China. What are Cameron (who exudes vanity and complacency in equal measure like pus oozing from an infected wound) and Sarcozy (who is really a monkey) going to do about it?

Is Gaddafi really a threat to the West as he once was perceived to be? Gaddafi’s image in the West is that of slightly unhinged, cartoonishly evil character. Ronald Regan described Gaddafi in the 1980s as the mad dog of Africa, no doubt because of Gaddafi’s mad policy of supporting the PLO and supplying them with weapons (as opposed to America’s sane policy of supporting Israel and supplying it with nuclear weapons). I once heard the BBC journalist John Simpson (he is one of those self-important cocks who believe, every time they open their mouths, that the world must listen; he gets on my nerves) recounting the story of how he interviewed Gaddafi during the entire course of which the colonel broke wind every few minutes and no one was allowed to make a comment. What comment you can make if someone breaks wind repeatedly in front of you? Is there a protocol about these matters? Should we wag an admonishing finger at the guilty party and tell him he has been very rude? Of course Gaddafi was being rude. That was the whole point. Did Simpson think Gaddafi had no manners; that it was OK in Libyan culture to break wind in front of others? Anyone who wasn’t up his own ass would have seen that Gaddafi did it deliberately; showing via repeated, forceful, noisy (and very probably) smelly rectal emission of gas, to the smug, sanctimonious, self-important BBC twerp that he did not matter.

What about the British ‘mission’ which entered Libya illegally, in the middle of the night, in a military helicopter, carrying, false passports and several currencies among other things? William Hague in the parliament (with Theresa May sitting next to him dressed up like a prostitute in Moulin Rouge) described this as a ‘diplomatic mission’. The ‘diplomats’ were arrested immediately upon their arrival—irony of ironies—by the rebel forces whom they wanted to help. After being held for a couple of days they were asked to get out of Libya. Hague was pretty bellicose about the whole thing and declared that the diplomatic mission had achieved what it set out to do (presumably get arrested and be made a laughing stock). Hague is unbelievable: he stares humiliation in the face and says, ‘Do I know you?’

If there is one thing that is common to all British politicians irrespective of their party allegiance, especially with regard to foreign matters—no, make that two—it is their regrettable busybody tendencies and relentless hypocrisy. The empire these days exists only in their heads. Some Tory backbenchers were apparently demanding Hague’s resignation because of his inept handling of the Libyan crisis. Now let me make it clear at the outset: I am economical with my sympathy for Hague: he has a head like a golf ball and is either not very bright or else makes no effort to appear so (and I know that he has written some unreadable books and earned a packet as a dinner party speaker, although why anyone would want to listen to this man unless it is for amusement—but surely there are more sophisticated ways of amusing yourself than listening to the witless right wing rant of Mister Potatohead—is unfathomable to me). Of course the guy is not fit to be the foreign secretary; I wouldn’t trust him to fetch a cup of coffee without spilling it, let alone weightier matter like the foreign policy. But that is not the point. The point is: the world is not exactly looking to us to handle Libya. For Christ’s sake we can’t even manage our public finances, why are we poking our noses in others' business?   

Hague is of course the missing link between the apatosaurus and rhinoceros; but I am afraid another man, say from Labour, would have behaved no differently in the circumstances. True, he might not have done the stupid thing Hague did, but he would have thought of some other equally risible way of making a fool of himself. That is because our politicians have prodigiously inflated view of their position in the big scheme of things, and make lordly assumptions about the world when they have no idea.

Monday, 7 March 2011

World Book Night, why the fuss?

May be it is in my genes, but I am not a passionate person by nature. Excess of passion, in my view, leads to general elevation of nervous energy, heightening of emotions that are frequently undesirable, and tightening of things that ought to be loose.

The list of things I don’t feel passionate about is long. For example, I don’t feel passionate about people or organisations coming up with worthy ideas. Such as the World Book night. The BBC reported that a million books were given away across the UK as part of Word Book Night. This suggests that the book night was being celebrated somewhere else in the world. Was it? No it wasn’t. I went to the website of the World Book Night, and this is what they had to say about the event:

On Saturday, 5 March 2011, two days after World Book Day, with the full support of the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild, the Reading Agency with libraries, World Book Day, the BBC and RTE, one million books will be given away by an army of passionate readers to members of the public across the UK and Ireland.’

So, if the Book Night was going to be celebrated only in the UK and Ireland, why not call it UK and Ireland Book Night? I will tell you why. That wouldn’t have been grandiose enough, that’s why. The factor underlying such grandiosity that seems impervious to reality’s attempt to make itself felt, I suspect, is a defect of perception. As a nation we believe that world lies, in its entirety, in the diameter of our ass. The empire disappeared decades ago, but it is still alive and vibrant in our heads. As I remember reading somewhere, if the Channel closes due to fog, the headlines in our papers would be: ‘Channel closed, continent isolated.’

Organisers of the event might say that London is just the beginning and that they have plans to roll out this programme in different parts of the world. (That’s what they did say, as reported by the BBC.) There is however not so much as a hint as to how they are going to do this and in which parts of the world. (I expect they wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to launch the book night in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Bahrain, to name just a few countries that randomly come to mind.)

So, let’s get one thing straight. This was not a World Book Night. It was an event limited to a few major cities in the UK. I do not know whether it was celebrated even in Ireland. (While you’d expect the Irish to flock to any event where freebies are handed out, given the state of the Irish economy, which is worse than our economy (that makes it pretty dire), the only book they would be interested in, I’d have thought, would be The Intelligent Investor.

On the day of the launch I Ioitered with intent outside the Waterstone’s for a while, hoping to get my hands on some of the free books that were allegedly being given away, even though I have all except 2-3 of the books in my collection. I didn’t buy Agent Zigzag, the account of the derring-dos of a courageous but unpredictable MI5 double agent during the Second World War, reasoning that if he was that important and useful someone would have found out about him in the past 65 years. I haven’t got the thrillers in my collection either because I don’t much go for the genre fiction (but perhaps I should); ditto for the children’s fiction. My vague plan was to go to two or three different places and collect at least 5-6 books that would include thrillers like Killing Floor, and see whether I liked them. The books that I already have in my collection, I’d have either flogged them on the e-bay or given as Christmas presents in 10 months.

I was therefore not best pleased when I didn’t detect anyone bearing gifts of free books. I was further cheesed off when, later, I learned while watching the BBC 2 programmes devoted to the World (!) Book Night that they were giving away these books in the Homeless hostels. There was a grinning idiot in Manchester whispering to two other idiots—a simpering woman who couldn’t believe she was on national television and a man whose unusual hairstyle, combined with his thick glasses conspired to give him a slightly unhinged appearance—in some flea pot, where, insofar as I could see, 3/4th of the seats were empty and some bloke in the background was reading out from a book. The faces of the few of the hosteites on whom the camera focused showed that they were dozing. I see many homeless beggars. I have very rarely seen a beggar reading literary fiction. These guys (they seem to be almost always men) usually sit on newspaper with a can of special brew in hand (and several empty cans around them) and a dog who looks much cleaner than them. Some of them are either too tired or (more likely) couldn’t be bothered to speak, and write on a cardboard in front of them (usually with not a great deal of attention to grammar and syntax) that they are hungry and homeless. Some of them politely ask you for a change and, when you ignore them and walk past, they wish you a good day. That is the other thing. They always ask for money or food. I have never met a homeless beggar who has requested the latest Margaret Atwood. Honesty, can you think of a more asinine idea than giving away books to a group of people, half of whom probably can’t read and the other half is drunk out of their faces to know what time of the day it is. I would suggest that what these people require is home, food, handy tips about personal hygiene, and a referral to Drug and Alcohol Services. What they don’t need is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The choices of other venues to give away the free books seemed equally bizarre. Apparently, the books were being given away in pubs and hospitals. I didn’t see anyone outside the pub to which I went to watch the premiership football after my unsuccessful attempt to spot a book-giver. Which was just as well. The regulars at the pub where I go haven’t struck me as terrifically literary minded. It is the sort of pub where an inadvertent glance in the direction of breasts is likely to be followed by an invitation (by the bloke who thinks he is not only the rightful  owner of said pair of breasts but also of the space surrounding them) to step out in the car park so that he can reassemble your face. These guys go to the pubs to watch football, play pool and drink lots of lager. I don’t think these guys go much for reading, which is for the Nancy Boys. May be I go to a particularly rough pub. May be there are pubs where men and women sit around in groups and discuss the literary tropes in the nineteenth century fiction, and would like nothing more than tucking into an invigorating discussion of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith; but I doubt it.

The other chosen venue to give these books away was hospitals. Has any of these guys actually visited NHS wards? If they are under the impression that NHS hospitals are quiet tranquil places where you go for a respite and, tucked into your comfy bed, reading The Blind Assassin would add to the delights of your stay that is getting better by the day, you’d be wrong. In case the news has not yet reached the British Booksellers Association, these days your only chance of getting into a hospital ward is being at the death’s door. And when you are lying there in a pool of your own vomit, drifting in and out of consciousness, you’d be a tad disinclined to read about Rachel’s Holiday.

OK, we have established that the grandiose title of the World Book Night is misleading to say the least and the choices of venues to give away the million plus books suggest that the organisers have taken complete leave of their senses.

What about the whole idea of giving away books for free? Those authors who agreed for their books to be included in the free-book list (apparently chosen by a committee of librarians, booksellers and broadcasters) and participated in the opening event at the Trafalgar Square obviously thought it was the best thing to have happened since the invention of sandwich. They thought that it would immeasurably help book sells. Sarah—Fingersmith— Waters said that the book she would choose to give to her closest friends would be Jane Eyre. I don’t know whether she was taking the piss, but Jane Eyre—a dubious choice, if you ask me, but at least she didn’t suggest the bloody Pride and Prejudice—is out of copy-right. You can download it for free from any of the internet sites; if, like me, you have not crossed over to the dark side (Kindle), you can get it for a quid. Author Philip Pullman said he would recommend The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I am having serious doubts about the judgment of this guy. As I have shown in my devastating critique of this novel on this blog, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is—how shall I put this delicately?—a book your collection could easily do without. That brings to my mind the (related) question: can the man Pullman, whose judgment with regard to the books he recommends is so faulty, be trusted in anything that he says? I think not.

There were other authors who spoke at the Trafalgar Square. They even wheeled out Edna O’Brien. I thought she was dead. Don’t get me wrong. The few books of O’Brien I have read I have enjoyed them immensely. But her comment— that if young people stopped reading banality would spread like plague—in addition to being banal, has come, you might be tempted to remind the Dame, too late. If the experience of my ex-partner, of teaching in a secondary comprehensive, is anything to go buy, the age of banality has long since gone; the age of degeneracy has arrived. But I will give Edna O’Brien the benefit of my doubt. May be the crowd at the Trafalgar had turned the old woman’s head and she did not know what she was babbling. She gave an indirect hint of the unstable state of her mind when she said that the musicians draw great crowds, authors generally don’t.’ That is correct. Authors too would draw huge crowds if they had the body of Beyonce and strut about the stage wearing as little as possible without being actually naked.

Alan Bennett drew applause from the crowd when he criticised the imminent closure of the libraries and compared it to child abuse. I can understand Bennett’s desire to make his point forcefully and taking recourse to hyperbole, the last resort, I remember reading somewhere, of every third-rate writer. However, comparing the closure of a few libraries across the country to the indescribable trauma an innocent child is subjected to seems inappropriate to me. In any case, I have mixed views about local libraries. For years I avoided them preferring instead to buy books because I like the feeling that I am the owner of the book. However, I will accept that many people who for all sorts of reasons are not able to buy books and love reading depend on libraries. I have started borrowing books from the library myself recently and buy considerably less these days than I did a year ago. That said, when I go to the local libraries (usually on weekends) I am invariably greeted with the spectacle of gaggles of teenagers with outlandish hairstyle gossiping and talking amongst themselves at volumes that would make it impossible for anyone to read in peace. None of them can be found with a book in his hand; and they talk mostly about sex. It is very annoying.  I accept that this is not a reason why libraries should be closed. A more pragmatic solution would be to chuck these obnoxious people out, although, in my local library, the staff seem ineffectual or reluctant to do that. However, as Indians in a book I read a while ago are inordinately fond of exclaiming whenever faced with a problem to which they have no solution, ‘What to do?’ The country, as Prime Minister Cameron keeps on reminding us, has run out of money; the coffers are empty, apparently. Which means something has to go. If you want the Trident, the libraries will have to close, I am afraid; and if that means banality will be even more widely spread, what to do? We should have thought about all this before wasting billions on invading countries that had posed us no threat and caused no harm. (Not only we wasted billions, we elected the war criminal for another term of office).
So, no; I can’t understand all this fuss about the World Book Night. I say this neither as a perennial grouch, forever cloaked, like an old coat, by his perpetually negative attitude towards everything, nor as a disgruntled (well, only a bit) customer who missed out on the freebies. It gives me no pleasure (well, just a tiny bit) to say this. But I will say it. World Book Night was a load of bollocks. It will not increase awareness of reading. Those who like reading don’t need these incentives, and those who don’t, won’t be persuaded because they are not interested in the first place. No amount of hammering would make a noodle go through the wall. 

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Book of the Month: The Family Tree (Carole Cadwalladr)

The narrator of The Family Tree, Carole Cadwalladr’s debut novel, is a thirty-something housewife, Rebecca Monroe, who is locked in a loveless and childless marriage to Alistair (he does not want children and pressurises her into having an abortion when she falls pregnant). Alistair is a clever geneticist with a compulsive need to theorize, and retains an adolescent enthusiasm for starting pointless debates and scoring petty points. He is also, as Rebecca suspects for the best part of the novel, having it off with a research student.

The vaguely unhappy Rebecca has left her PR consultant job and, as a mature student, is doing a PhD thesis on the popular culture of the 1970s. Rebecca has more time on her hand than a park attendant in Communist Hungary, and she spends it by reminiscing about her family— to be precise, her mother’s side of the family.  And there are more skeletons in the family’s cupboard than I have hair on my head.

Moving back and forth in time, the narrative, encompassing several decades, tells the story of the three generations of the Monroe family: Rebecca’s childhood in the 1970s—the (relatively) recent past, the story of her grandmother’s romance in the 1940s—the distant past, and the present—the here and now reality of Rebecca’s barren existence. The most riveting section of the story is the one dealing with Rebecca’s childhood. Liberally sprinkled with entertaining and informative footnotes on popular sitcoms of the 1970s (Unlike her husband, for whom genes are everything and culture is irrelevant, Rebecca believes that her story cannot be properly understood without cultural references)—both British and American—such as Dallas, Man About the House (‘Groundbreaking in its treatment of what has come to be known as the alternative family’), the Waltons (‘The programme was a means of reassuring viewers of values (God, family, marriage) that were steadily being eroded outside of the confines of the series’), Coronation Street (‘In common with other soaps relationships are more important than the plot’) and Charlie’s Angels (‘Structured around not female liberation, but male gaze’), the story of the growing pains of young Rebecca is a gripping read. Eight year old Rebecca is a curious girl—together with her cousin, Lucy, she is in the habit of reading her uncle’s dictionary of sexual nomenclatures (‘Cuissade is the half-rear entry position, where she turns her back to him and he enters with one of her legs between his and the other more or less drawn up; in some positions she lies half-turned on her side from him, still facing away’). She is also a quaint mixture of naivety and perspicacity, and has the knack of asking the most awkward questions (‘What is incest?’) at the most awkward moment. Rebecca lives in a lower-middle class suburban area with her family consisting of an elder (and bossy) sister Tiffany, who has literary pretensions (she grows up to become a newspaper columnist), her intensely class conscious mother, Doreen, who, depending on your view, is either highly strung or has manic depressive mood swings that would make Stephen Fry jealous, and her outwardly ineffectual father, whom Rebecca’s mother constantly compares unfavourably with her sister’s doctor husband. Doreen’s younger sister, Suzan, a crypto-feminist, lives with her doctor husband and daughter in the posh part of the town, and there is little love lost between the two sisters. What is more, the two sisters and their respective husbands have been childhood buddies, and Rebecca suspects that her uncle and mother might have been an item before he settled for the younger sister. Doreen’s disappointment—which she makes no efforts to hide—at her quietly spoken husband’s not having come up in life is matched by her mother-in-law’s at her son’s having married an unstable woman. There are several situations in this section of the novel which balance precariously between hilarity and uncomfortableness. A gradual sense of unease builds up and harbingers the approaching tragedy that would unleash seismic changes in young Rebecca’s life.

The other two strands of the story are disappointing, by comparison: the story of Rebecca’s grandmother Alicia’s abortive romance with a Jamaican airman, Cecil, and her eventual marriage to Harold (who has developed an unhealthy interest in his first cousin—yes, Alicia and Harold are cousins—ever since he sprouted his first pubic hair, and stealthily follows her with guile and cunning worthy of a stalker serving a life sentence in an American penitentiary) is unconvincing. The story of the present- day, adult, Rebecca suffers from an overload of popular science stories spouted by the caricaturesque Alistair. Mildly amusing at times, it does not add to the authenticity of the story. The contrast between Alistair’s deterministic genetic views—he browbeats Rebecca to volunteer in a study of mitochondrial DNA (no doubt because her mother topped herself and she herself is showing all the signs of going crackers)—and Rebecca’s views on the influence of environment in our personality make up is about as subtle as a belch.

Cadwalladr describes the female protagonists—Alicia, Doreen, and Rebecca—with a lot of sympathy, all of whom come across as interesting, vibrant, intelligent and interesting characters. Men, by contrast, are one dimensional, and would sink up to their necks on a wet tea-towel. The women, albeit from different generations, are linked by the common bond of suffering: they are all married to men they have fallen out of love with, or, perhaps, never were in love with in the first place. Alicia, the grandmother, is the only one of the three who has a happy ending of sorts when Harold drops dead unexpectedly but conveniently—the family is expecting Alicia, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (I am no expert on Alzheimer’s disease, but Cadwalladr’s description of the progress of the disease sounds a tad unconvincing, in comparison with some other depictions of the degenerative illness in literature, for example, Linda Grant’s brilliant account of her mother’s decline, Remind Me Who I am Again, or Michael’s Ignatiff’s autobiographical novel, Scar Tissue)—and, equally conveniently, Cecil—who, it turns out, was living only a few miles away for fifty years and has remained unmarried.—reappears to hold her hand and take care of her.

Cadwalladr has a quirky sense of humour, at its most lofty display in the segment relating to Rebecca’s childhood. The author also shows that she has a well nuanced sense of times and places (perhaps not so surprising seeing as she is a travel writer), which, coupled with a keen eye for parody makes The Family Tree is an almost engrossing book. Definitely a few rungs above your average chick-lit.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

More than a Mother tongue: Exphonic writing in English

Last month I came across an article published in the Guardian written by a writer named Dan Vyleta. Vyleta has an interesting pedigree. Born in what was then Czechoslovakia in a Jewish family, Vyleta moved to Germany (probably West Germany) in the late 1960s. He grew up in Germany and went to University in the UK. He lives in Canada now.  

Nothing out of the ordinary in this biodata you might say (unless the family’s flight away from the Iron Curtain is a riveting and ultimately life-affirming tale of fluctuating fortunes, fortitude, and triumph of human spirit over adversity). But that is not all. There is more to Vyleta than just continent-hopping. Dan Vyleta is also a writer. ‘So what’s the big deal?’ I hear you wondering. ‘There are many people, a proportion of whom of Jewish descent and originating from the former Czechoslovakia, must be writing fiction and non-fiction. What is special about Vyleta?’ The special thing about Vyleta is that he writes in English, which is not his mother-tongue. He has published two novels, both in English, one of which, his debut novel, was translated into 13 languages. (I wonder whether one of the 13 languages was his native Czech? Did he translate the fiction himself?)

In the article in the Guardian Vyleta talks about ‘exphonic’ writing, and gives the list of his top 10 books written in English, exphonically. I must say I did not exactly know what ‘exphonic’ meant, and I was none the wiser after I googled the word. However I cleverly deducted from the subtitle of the article that Vyleta was talking about those writers for whom English was their second language.

Why would a writer choose to write in a language that is not his first language? One obvious reason would be the writer has grown up in a culture where English is the language of the culture, and, even though the writer spoke a language different from English at home, he was also exposed to English from an early age. An example would be Kazuo Ishiguro. Born to Japanese parents, Ishiguro moved with his family to England when he was five and has lived in England ever since. Presumably he spoke Japanese at home when he was growing up, but he was also speaking English from an early age. All of Ishiguro’s novels are written in English, but it may be argued that he is not a genuine ‘exphonic’ writer. Vyleta certainly would not consider him to be an exphonic writer. Vyleta’s definition of an exphonic English language writer is quite stringent. A writing in English is genuinely exphonic only if the writer had no early (i.e. in his childhood) exposure to English. Many second generation writers of Asian stock (for example, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer award winning writer, who is of Indian descent, but, I am assuming, grew up in America) would come into this category.

Dan Vyleta probably did not learn English when he was growing up. Although it is not made explicit, he considers himself an exphonic writer. Why does he write in English? The straightforward reason is, as he makes it clear in the article, he now considers English as his own language, never mind when he learnt it. That is to say he feels comfortable and confidant writing in English. The fact that he now lives in Canada where English is widely spoken may also have something to do with it. Not all writers are prepared to take this step. The 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Elias Canetti, was allegedly very fluent in English, although he did not learn it in his childhood. Born into a family of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, Canetti came to England when he was a child; however he left England within a couple of years after the sudden death of his father, and his subsequent education was in Switzerland. Canetti was fluent in several languages, English being one of them. He however chose to write in German, which was strictly speaking not his mother-tongue. However, as we learn from Canetti’s excellent memoir, he was exposed to German from an early age. Both his parents chose to converse, even at home, in German, which they considered to be a cultured language. You might therefore say that German, though not his mother-tongue, was not an exphonic language for Canetti. In his young adult years Canetti lived in Germany. He came to England around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, and lived in this country for decades. He made his reputation as a writer of exceptional class when he lived in England, and he was a UK resident at the time of his Nobel triumph. Yet he chose to write in German rather than in English. Auto da Fe, Canetti’s only full-length novel, which I have reviewed on this blog, was written in German in the 1930s, when Canetti lived in Germany. The novel became more widely known after its English translation was published in England in 1946. Canetti did not translate the novel, but (and this is mentioned in the introduction to the novel) that he personally supervised the translation into English. Why did Canetti not write subsequently in English, like Nabokov? Again, the obvious answer is Canetti must have felt more comfortable writing in German. However, there is also the possibility that Canetti wrote in German because he believed that German was a superior language. Whatever might be the reason, I think it takes a certain amount of self-belief (in Canetti’s case it probably bordered on hauteur) to take a decision not to write in the language of the culture you live in even if you are fluent in that language. Another (slightly more recent) example would be W.G. Sebald, who tragically died in a road accident in 2001. Sebald was born and brought up in Germany, and German was his first-language. He came to England in his adulthood and decided to make his career here. At the time of his death Sebald had published a number of acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, and he was the head of the Department of European Literature at the University of East Anglia (UEA). I am assuming that Sebald, although he did not learn English in his childhood, was fluent in it. Yet he chose to write in German. He became more widely known to the English-speaking world only after his books were translated into English, which happened several years after they first came out in German.

Canetti and Sebald are two examples of writers who in all probabilities would have become, like Nabokov, great exphonic writers writing in English, but chose not to. I was interested to see Vyleta including Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in his list of great exphonic novels. Darkness at Noon, the second of the trilogy Koestler wrote, is without doubt one of the greatest 20th century novels. But it was not written originally in English. Koestler, a multilingual, wrote the three volumes of the trilogy in three different languages, the last of which was in English. Darkness at Noon was written German. I guess Vyleta included it in his list because it is a great novel and Koestler, unlike Canetti, did write in English (which was not his first language). But strictly speaking Darkness at Noon should be classified as a ‘translated novel’ rather than ‘exphonic English’.

I was interested to note that Vyleta’s list did not include a single Indian writer writing in English. I guess it is because India is a partial English speaking country and many Indian writers writing in English have been exposed to English from an early age, for example in school, and it may be argued that they are no different from someone like Ishiguro. English, for them, is not a genuinely exphonic language. I do not fully subscribe to this view. India is only a partial English-speaking country. English is not India’s national language and I do not believe that it is the lingua franca in India. In the television programmes on India, frequently, the Indians speaking to the camera or the interviewer do not speak in English. I suspect it is very much class-related. Those born into middle or upper classes probably have exposure to English from an early age. Does this mean that the Indian writers writing in English all belong to the middle or upper class? My Indian friends inform me that India has a rich tradition of literature in non-English, local, languages, and there are awards, equivalent to the Booker, for books written in local languages in each state. There is also a national award, the Janapith (you might say it is India’s equivalent of the Nobel), which is not restricted to those writing in English. The writers writing in local languages far outnumber those writing in English. These writers, I am informed, are more widely read in India and are better known.

Whether or not the Indian writers, living in India and writing in English, can be considered genuinely exphonic, the question that comes to my mind is why do they choose to write in English, as opposed to their mother-tongues? First and foremost, they must be comfortable writing in English. The second reason (I think) is that these writers desire wider recognition that goes beyond the confines of India. English is truly the world language, and you are more likely to reach out to a much wider audience (and also get more lucrative book deals) if you write in English than if you write in one of the twenty odd languages spoken in India. A writer writing in the vernacular, I should think, will not be very well known outside of his state even in India.

In my view Indian writers residing in India and writing in English could be considered as exphonic writers. The same goes for African writers who grew up and lived in Africa. It is not as straightforward, though, as that. It is probable that many of these writers were taught English at school from an early age. I should doubt very much, however, that they spoke in English outside of their class, and, were perhaps not proficient in English when they were growing up.

Are writers of Indian descent who come from the erstwhile British colonies exphonic? Should V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, be considered an exphonic writer? I wouldn’t consider Naipaul, who was born and brought up in Trinidad until he moved to England at the age of 18, an exphonic writer because, while English was probably not spoken in Naipaul’s home, he must have picked it up from an early age, as it was the official language of Trinidad. Naipaul thus is no different from Ishiguro.

What about Salman Rushdie? Rushdie moved to England with his family when he was 11-12 years of age. I would not consider Rushdie as a genuine exphonic writer either because, like Ishiguro and Naipaul, he grew up in a culture (at least partly) where English was the spoken language.

When I began writing this post I thought I would make my own list of my favourite ten books written in English by writers for whom English was exphonic. It is not an easy task though if your definition, like that of Vyleta, is very restrictive. Nevertheless I shall have a go.

The list below is in no particular order of preference.

For me, this is Nabokov’s masterpiece. I have reviewed it on the blog. Nabokov’s early novels were written in Russian. He switched to writing in English after he immigrated to the USA.

Joseph Conrad’s exploration of the darkness at the core of human mind is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. This novel too has been reviewed on the blog. English was probably Conrad’s third or fourth language.

A Bosnian, Hemon moved to America after the civil war in Yugoslavia, and switched over to English. He, like Conrad, is a truly exphonic writer. I am not sure, however, whether The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s ambitious study of the immigrant experience in America, is a great novel. However, it is very entertaining in parts, and Hemon summons English to convey his ideas in an interesting way, much the same way, I think, as Tibor Fischer (who is not included in this list because, although of immigrant stock, Fischer grew up, proabaly was also born, in England).

Like Hemon, Ha Jin is a truly exphonic writer, who moved to America after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and taught himself English. Whether Waiting is great novel is a matter of opinion. I read this novel a few years ago. I don’t remember much about it; but neither do I remember thinking it was an awful novel. Also, I can’t think of any other novel I have read and liked that is written exphonically in English.

A bitter-sweet memoir and travelogue (two for the price of one) of a girl who grew up in Communist Bulgaria. Eminently readable.

I can’t think of any more exphonic English language writers (I ought to read Dan Vyleta to improve the numbers). So I am going to relax my rules and let in a few Indian and African writers to complete the list.

Achebe’s portrayal of the devastating effect of modernising European influence and Christianity on the customs and beliefs of Africa is one of my most favourite novels. Achebe is Nigerian and for the best part of his life lived in Nigeria; hence he is an exphonic writer.

Anita Desai is one of the most under-rated writers writing in English. This story, of a relationship between a poet who is clearly past his prime and his hapless put upon fan, is one of her best. It was also made into a film by Merchant & Ivory productions. Born to Indian father and German mother, Desai was brought up in India.

Adchie’s 2003 novel, thematically similar to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is a powerful portrayal of the clash of religions and culture in post-colonial Nigeria. Adichie who lives in Nigeria went on to win the Orange Prize for her subsequent novel, thereby proving that her debut novel was no flash in the pan. She is one of the most exciting new talents writing in English.

Family Matters is a moving account of a Zoroastrian family in Mumbai struggling to cope with an infirm and bed-ridden father. A Zoroastrian born and raised in Mumbai, Mistry moved to Canada in his young adult years. All his published novels which have India / Mumbai as the backdrop were written and published in Canada. I have included Mistry in this list because he migrated to Canada as an adult. Therefore he is an exphonic writer.

An entertaining and readable account of the death of a man called Vishnu in a building in downtown Mumbai. Born and raised in India Suri is now settled in America. I don’t think that he is a ‘full-time writer’, as he holds an academic position as a mathematician.

Graham Greene’s favourite author, Narayan was also the first writer from India to achieve international fame. The simple world he depicted in the fictional town of Malgudi (published in a series of novels published in an omnibus entitled Malgudi Days) is a pleasure to read. I am including Narayan in this list because he lived in India all his life.

Another non-fiction book in the list. I came across this book while browsing through a second-hand book shop. A great piece of political and literary detective work, it tells the story of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation. It is a superb book; reads like a thriller, a real page-turner. Malgonkar, who passed away last year at the age of 97, was a contemporary of R.K. Narayan, but started writing rather late in life. When I googled him I discovered that he had written a number of novels in English, all of them out of print and available at prices I can’t afford from second hand book sellers.