Archive for December, 2014

Some Thoughts Upon Reading Jose’ Saramago’s All the Names

December 31, 2014

I’ve long intended to read Saramago, and by a curious chance I came across mention of his book “All the Names” (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) somewhere on the internet.  I was having a difficult day; I performed various necessary tasks, trying to put the book out of my mind.  But the description of the book on the internet was too compelling.  So last evening I made my way to that temple of words and worlds, the public library, and returned triumphantly bearing the book in question.  I sat down to read it yesterday evening, intending to get a taste of it and then set it aside for other things.  Instead I read the whole thing in one sitting.

It is a slight book, physically speaking.  The story, at first sight, may seem slight as well, given weight only by eccentricity of concept.  Senhor Jose’ is a middle-aged bachelor, a clerk in the unnamed city’s Central registry.  Alone in the world, his sole interest outside work is to collect clippings of famous people.  A chance mistake leads him to the birth certificate of an ordinary woman, a stranger.  Like a thread that has come loose from a great weave, this small record of an unimportant life among millions of similar lives is something he feels compelled to follow, to unravel.  His journey across the city in search of this woman is paralleled by his secret nocturnal trips into the labyrinth of the Central Registry after dark.  Appearing in his life from moment to moment are other people who are part of the unknown woman’s story.  The enigmatic figure of the Registrar hovers in the background.  The story sounds Kafkaesque but I don’t think it is, despite superficial resemblances.

The idea of the thread that is unraveled, or the thread that must be followed to lead the way into the darkness, is written into both form and content.  The story confounds the usual rules and conventions of the novel – sentences go on and on, conversations are not separated by quotation marks, and there is no attempt to ‘hook’ the reader with sex, or violence, or even an irresistible first sentence.  Yet I found I could not put the book down.  It begins prosaically enough, with a description of the Central Registry of Births and Deaths, but each sentence is a thread leading into the darkness.  Ariadne’s thread, which was given to Theseus in the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth, is explicitly mentioned in the book, and in fact employed by Senhor Jose’ when he must venture into the darkness of the section where records of death are kept.  This is a book about loneliness and love, and compassion, and the tenuous, yet undeniable connections between strangers.  It is heart-rending in a very quiet way, taking one’s own defences apart fibre by fibre during the act of reading.  I found my tea grown cold, the hour advanced to nearly midnight, and the stereo had long since stopped playing.  Today my day was filled with small reverberations, little aftershocks and resonances from the story that I cannot quite explain or articulate.

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Writing in a World of Sorrows

December 24, 2014

Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase).  I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit.  I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters.  We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion.  We are helpless before the horrors of the world.  What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change?  When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay?  It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction.  Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.

But I am a writer.  And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world.  I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art.  But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours.  So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.

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American Indian Writers of Children’s Literature!

December 2, 2014

I’ve argued before and I’ll say this again — there is no substitute for authors from a particular culture or community writing from their own perspectives, whether they are writing SF or something else.  So I just want to give a shout-out to this website for American Indian Writers of Children’s Literature.  It has some famous names like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, but there are many, many more!  While I’ve appreciated, every once in a while, the writing of a white author about another culture, even the good outsider writers can’t speak in the voices of those who grew up in that culture.  What an outsider sees or fails to see is entirely different from the gaze of the insider.  And when the culture being written about has been subjected to colonialism and related ills, all the more reason for its own writers to speak out and own their histories, their stories, their words.

I am not saying that people from one culture, dominant or not, should not write about any cultures than their own.  Writing shouldn’t be a ghetto divided into watertight compartments.  But white writers in particular and outsider writers in general should approach such writing with care, and recognize that however wonderful and important their works might be, they cannot do what the insider writer can do, cannot see what they can see.

I am increasingly conscious of my own responsibility in this as I write — increasingly — about cultures and geographies outside of India.  And part of that responsibility is to bring to the attention of the world (or at least to whoever reads my blog) the works of the great insider writers from various cultures.  I’m particularly interested in Native American writing.  So watch this space!