Was having an interesting discussion with MinCat yesterday about Amitav Ghosh.
I have always felt that he is an author I should like. In my mind, he forms part of the triumvirate of Indian authors – Salman Rushdie at the pinnacle and then Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth as the two underpinnings. So much so that I think I tend to confuse Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth. Like I just said to myself, maybe because they are both Bengali – but I’m not actually sure Vikram Seth is Bengali (though Wiki tells me he was born in Calcutta).
I’m definitely a Vikram Seth fan. I enjoyed A Suitable Boy (though not sure if it deserved a Booker) but I thought The Golden Gate was his crowning achievement (I mean, a novel in sonnet form, come on!). I loved An Equal Music and more recently I read a non-fiction work by him, Two Lives, which I also loved.
When I try to think of an Amitav Ghosh novel that I absolutely loved, I’m hard-pressed. (Belatedly, I remembered The Shadow Lines. Yeah, I liked that one, but I thought he was doing something similar to Rushdie there though not quite at Rushdie’s level). I definitely like the covers and the titles and I rush to acquire his books with the same enthusiasm as I do Vikram Seth’s but the question I am asking myself now is… why?
Take Sea of Poppies which as usual I felt obliged to read. I suddenly realised why I find Amitav Ghosh hard going. I think it’s because the narrative style and the writing is too simple (with maybe the exception of The Shadow Lines and The Calcutta Chromosome; the latter still left me cold). It took be back to 19th Century literature. I don’t remember the last time I read something quite so straightforward.
MinCat’s point is that this is exactly why she loves Amitav Ghosh. That he is simply telling a story and telling it well. She questions why all writers today feel the need to be obtuse.
I agree to the extent that there should definitely be a space for people to simply tell stories. And people do I’m sure. Bookstores are full of books that tell stories. But.
Amitav Ghosh is not your run-of-the-mill storyteller, not even just a popular bestseller novelist. He is a little more feted. He is generally accepted as literary, his books are studied in university (Thankfully, the one we studied was The Shadow Lines).
And thus we come back to the age-old question. What is literature? What qualifies as art?
For me the definition is the Russian Formalist one. Art exists to “make the stone stony”. As one of my professors put it, many of us may want to write about poverty. But poverty is such a tired subject, most people have stopped noticing it even in the streets, even starving children don’t make news. So how do you get people to notice poverty? How do you make the stone stony?
That is the purpose of art – to jolt, to surprise, to move, to outrage. And sometimes the content is not enough. Poverty is no longer surprising as a subject matter, for example. So you have to experiment with style, so that the form of your work of shakes up the viewer. You have to provoke with your technique so that the viewer is forced to think.
A novel written in straightforward narrative, however competent, is to me like those paintings of women with saris with pots on their head. It certainly takes some skill to execute those paintings. But are they Art, with a capital A (and I am aware that I risk fetishizing art here)? Do they make me think, except in some vague nostalgic way? Do they make the world new? I think not. That’s why the women with pots on their heads are they hanging in some middle-class home while Piet Mondrian’s work hangs in a museum.
This is not to say the simple cannot be art. Piet Mondrian is a case in point. In the literary world, Chinua Achebe might be an example (though I am actually not a fan of his). He writes in an excruciatingly straightforward idiom but it could be argued that he is making a point – he is using it as a counterpoint to the hegemony of complexity and the monopoly over the right to Africa’s stories held by the West. He is reclaiming.
One could also take a bygone style and use it to discuss a modern subject, like those redone Mona Lisa paintings. There is a jarring there that makes the viewer sit up.
There is also something to say for taking a narrative style – from whichever era – and executing it flawlessly. I have a feeling this was why Vikram Seth won the Booker for A Suitable Boy – for taking the form of the novel and writing it in the Indian context, the finest example of Great Indian Novel so to speak. At least this is why I hope he won, because otherwise it would just be because they wanted to give the prize to an Indian.
I guess this is what Amitav Ghosh is doing in Sea of Poppies at least, and having finished the novel, I have to grudgingly admit he does it well. Though it is a narrative style that I just cannot feel engaged in anymore, if I ever could. This is just a personal thing.
I have to admit that I found the content of Sea of Poppies intriguing. I really knew nothing about the opium wars – or even that India was the big opium supplier though the poppy seeds in Bengali food recipes makes sense now. I am in awe of the research that must have gone into it. I am once again appalled by the hypocrisy of Western powers, that built their fortunes on forcefeeding another nation drugs (apart from forcing the growth of poppy for the purpose on their colonies), who get all sanctimonious about it now. I am back to being angry with the British more than a little bit. There is a line in the book that sums up my attitude – every nation will do whatever it takes to make itself more powerful; what is intolerable is when they try to act all virtuous about it.
But back to narrative style. While writers are free, of course, to write however they want, we live in a world in which we are constantly jumping back and forth in time and space, in which technology has shaped how we experience things. Our way of seeing and experiencing the world is different. It would be weird if we continued to write the same way as people did even a decade ago. And maybe that’s why some of us cannot even read the same way.
MinCat pointed me to this review in the New York Review of Books. I have little to say about the overall point of the piece but I found this bit interesting:
Shields admits that Franzen’s “might be a ‘good’ novel or it might be a ‘bad’ novel,” but that “something has happened to [his] imagination” such that he simply can’t find a desire to read such books any more.
I think this is what I am trying to say. Something has happened to my imagination…