God Help the Child Posts

Yann Martel, “The High Mountains of Portugal” and Kent Haruf, “Our Souls at Night”

Yann MartelLove is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for telling one’s secrets or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are rooms for the new members of the household. Love is a house in which plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill. Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof. ( p23-24, The High Mountains of Portugal)

Three widowers, Tomas ( 1904), Eusebio Lozora (1938) and Peter Tovy ( 1981), are the protagonists in three loosely interlinked stories — “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”. These are in Yann Martel’s latest offering, The High Mountains of Portugal. There is a sense of loneliness and despair. The three long stories are the ways in which the men come to terms with losing their beloved. With Tomas it is walking backwards and then going off to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a church relic. For Eusebio solace is to be found somewhere in the space of living and the dead, usually during the many hours he spends conducting autopsies in his office. And for Canadian Senator Peter Tovy it is buying a chimpanzee from a laboratory, Odo, and creating a life for themselves together in Portugal, Peter’s country of origin. The three stories are connected unexpectedly but these links do not strike as jarring a note as one would expect. Funnily enough these magic realist tales are incredibly soothing to read, particularly “Home”. It is inevitable comparisons will be made between  Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as was done by Ursula Le Guin in her book review. ( The Guardian, 27 January 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/27/the-high-mountains-of-portugal-yann-martel-review ) Yet the detail and incredible amounts of research it must have required to write this story are masked completely by the sensitive and movingly told relationship between Peter and Odo. But then the idea of a journey, self-growth of the narrator and with a wild animal as a companion is not a unique idea for Yann Martel.

Yann Martel was incredibly lucky when his second book, Life of Pi. It sold over 4 million units and continues to be in print. ( The success of this novel is indicated by placing it as a qualifier beneath Yann Martel’s name on the new book cover as “Author of Life of Pi“.) It is a an enviable luck. But what is even more striking is how the luxury of money allows the writer the time and artistic license to play with ways of storytelling. With a seemingly traditional and old-fashioned opening in “Homeless” Yann Martel moves on surely and steadily to tickle the imagination and challenge the reader to engage with the text such as the image of the ape, Peter and his son trying to read Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in Portugese, together. It is an extraordinary experience and not to be easily forgotten.

Juxtapose this with the late Kent Haruf’s heartbreakingly tender tale OurKent Haruf Souls at Night. It is about two elderly people — Addie and Louis. Both single having lost their spouses a little while earlier. Both have children who have left the small town they live in for better pastures in the big cities. It is about their unique friendship. Of spending time together at night chatting quietly, lying side by side in bed, neatly sidestepping traditional roles and expectations. This  gives them much solace since they are past the age of caring what others think. Yet it sets tongues wagging amongst the locals and upsetting their children considerably too who return to check upon the parents.  Both, Addie and Louis, have reasons to grieve but have worked out that they derive immense happiness in this unexpected way of life. Even for the short duration that they are responsible for the caregiving of Addie’s six-year-old grandson they come across as a contented family unit.

Our Souls at Night The High Mountains of Portugal are stories that gently but magnificently delve into that very moment immediately after the death of a spouse — loved or not is not necessarily always the question. But the sheer loss of losing someone with whom you have co-habited and existed for decades leaves a devastating hole in one’s life that is not always easily comprehended by family. These two books that despite being heartbreakingly tender are surprisingly very comforting to read. It is worth spending time with them. I hope many copies are sold. Question begs to be asked. Do readers have the space to read mature stories especially that are at a lower pace and dwell on old age? Nowadays there is so much of the angry new novel and baring one’s heart and soul, where do these beautiful novels find their readership?

( Two other novels I would put in the same category as these novels are Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover  and Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. )

Yann Martel The High Mountains of Portugal Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 332. Rs.599

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night Picador, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 180. Rs 550

24 March 2016

Literati – “Readers return to book fairs” ( January 2016)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My column, Literati, has been published online on 16 January 2016 and will be published in print in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 January 2016. I am c&p the text below. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-how-readers-are-returning-to-book-fairs/article8113687.ece 

Publishers across languages were taken aback by the phenomenally positive response at this year’s World Book Fair

“Because I have time to spare, and for the first time in my life nobody expects anything of me. I don’t have to prove anything. I’m not rushing everywhere; each day is a gift I enjoy to the fullest.”

                                                                                                                                           Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, ( Simon & Schuster) is a breathtakingly elegant novel, full of quiet grace, about ageing, love, and friendships across generations. There is violence in the story, plenty of it. It is impossible to escape it. Allende writes about her Jewish protagonist Alma Belasco who flees from Nazism in Poland as a young child, the setting up of camps for Japanese families in America after Pearl Harbour, and the devious rings of online child pornography, which Irina Bazili, a refugee from a Moldovan village, experienced. Yet, surprisingly, The Japanese Lover radiates peace. It is written by a 73-year-old novelist who is herself no stranger to violence, having fled Chile during General Pinochet’s coup. As in Toni Morrison’s stupendous God Help the Child, ( Penguin Random House) these two writers come to terms with the fact that there are hardships, but it is important to treasure life one day at a time.

It is this spirit that across during the World Book Fair this year. The fair was brought forward by a month since the country of honour, China, had requested it. Many Indian publishers were apprehensive about the move as they were not very sure about the impact it would have on sales. Yet publishers across languages have been taken aback by the phenomenally positive response.

Piyush Kumar, Publisher, Prabhat Prakashan, whose family has been selling Hindi books for many decades, was astounded by the response. He noted with happy astonishment, “After the crowds left on Sunday evening, our stall looked as if it had been looted. My father who started this business has never seen such record sales.” Across publishers and languages, everyone is reporting unprecedentedly brisk and healthy sales.

At the CEOSpeak on 10 January, organised by FICCI and NBT, Le Yucheng, the Chinese Ambassador, stressed that “books matter in bilateral exchanges”. The presentations focused on translations, digitisation, volume printing and paper trade. But the shocking rates offered by Indian publishers to translators needs to be addressed before such bilateral publishing programmes can be explored.

For instance, the range varies from no payment to an absurd 0.25 paise per word (which has no value given that the denomination is no in circulation) to an acceptable sharing of the author’s royalties. The Translators Association of UK recommends that translators be paid between £80 and £90 per 1000 words but it is still an uphill task to ensure that publishers pay this fee.

Talking of healthy sales, some reasons publishers gave for the phenomenon was that readers are now shunning online stores because of the fluctuating discount structures, the improved connectivity to the fair with the Metro, the fair being organised at the beginning of the month before household budgets are exhausted., the excellent weather, Delhi schools being shut to implement the odd-even traffic rule, and the discernible long-term impact of government programmes like ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ that have encouraged literacy and reading.

The size of the Indian publishing industry is estimated at Rs. 260.7 billion (2013-14) with a CAGR of 20.4 per cent. Manisha Chowdhury of Pratham Books remarked, “India is a country of more than 780 documented languages, 66 scripts, only 22 scheduled languages and we have lost 250 languages in 50 years. Sixty per cent of books published are for education. Children’s books are at 30 per cent. We do have a book hunger in this country where there is only one book available for every 20 children. Publishing for children is important only for textbooks whereas every child’s childhood should find a reflection in their literature.”

Having said that, at the book fair, children and adults were seen buying all kinds of books or attending conversations at Author’s Corners with equal enthusiasm. Online conversations like this, “M not into reading but my son is … nd he is after my lyf for wbf .. nd finally gng tmrw” are popping up often on social media newsfeeds. As a publisher said to me, “The glitz and glamour in Delhi is a mirage; people in this city are poor too, so those who come to the fair today may be on a budget, but they come to spend.” They live life to the fullest.

16 January 2016 

Toni Morrison “God Help The Child”

God Help the ChildI wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do, I really do. I think she understands now. I think so. 

Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of bold and confident. Each time she came I forgot just how black she really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes. 

Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget. She’s got a big-time job in California but she don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long.  ( p43) 

It has been more than a month since I read an advance proof of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Yet, I cannot get any of it out of my mind. Bride or Lula Ann as she was named at birth, is successful in the cosmetics industry. She is known for her beauty, enhanced considerably by her black skin contrasted by the sharp white garments she wears. As the designer she consulted for her makeover, Jeri, told her, “You should always wear white, Bride. Only white and all white all the time. … Just you, girl. All sable and ice. A panther in snow. and with your body? And those wolverine eyes? Please!” ( p.33-34)

Despite being a very successful professional, Bride as she prefers to be known, is haunted by her unpleasant memories of her childhood. For instance the innumerable instances of shadism or of child abuse such as witnessing the rape of a young boy by their landlord.  As an adult too she is abused and comes across other victims such as Rain. It is as if this cesspool of violence coexisting with “normal” life is a given. There is a moment when Bride ( innocently) hopes that she can “right” a “wrong” she did in her childhood with a repercussion she did not anticipate. While recovering from the episode, Bride decides to set off on a quest in search of her boyfriend, Booker, who disappeared from her life.

God Help the Child is a fine blend of all that is familiar in Toni Morrison’s novels and interviews. Her preoccupation with portrayal of women, Black culture and history, race and child abuse. Her fine expertise as a master craftsperson shows in the novel. There is a hint of magic realism in the storytelling along with the confident play of different narratives, juxtaposed in a manner that jolt the reader into realizing none of the narrators can be relied upon. Yet, every voice that tells their version of events is a strong personality. It is possible to envision the speaker, especially the women, clearly whether it is Booker’s elderly and kind aunt Queen, Bride’s mother Sweetness, ex-convict Sofia, or child prostitute Rain.  The ending of the novel is chilling with its disturbing note, ironically couched in circumstances that offer hope.

Toni Morrison began writing God Help the Child as a memoir a few  years ago, but abandoned it midway. She resumed working upon the manuscript recently as a work of fiction, deciding never to write her memoir. Instead of critically analyzing this literary fiction masterpiece threadbare, it may be worth considering the story as wisdom being shared by an 84-year-old woman who has packed in many lifetimes into one. It has a tired (but angry) tone of an elderly woman and an award-winning writer, who after having written 11 novels and edited many other well-known writers, marking her stamp as a formidable force in American Literature, sees little change in the modern world. The publication of this novel is timely when USA is preoccupied with issues of racism and riots such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland or that of 51-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston. For Toni Morrison “Race is the classification of a species…and we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the moneymaker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.” In her NPR interview she makes it clear that her emphasis on Bride’s dark colour was to make the distinction from race, the preference and hierarchy for skin colour being a social construct and responsible for racism.

In a delicious interview where Junot Diaz interviews Toni Morrison at NYPL , December 13, 2013. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5kytPjYjSQ ), Diaz says that upon reading Song of Solomon at Rutgers University, “the axis of my world changed and never returned”. Eight novels later, it holds true with God Help the Child. Toni Morrison retains the magic to tell a story and making the reader think.

Read it.

Some links:

1. “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison New Yorker, February 9, 2015 issue ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/sweetness-2 ). This is the first chapter of the book, an extract published in the New Yorker.

2. Toni Morrison in the New York Times. “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH,  APRIL 8, 2015. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 )

3. ‘I Regret Everything’: Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life, NPR, 20 April 2015. ( http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400394947/i-regret-everything-toni-morrison-looks-back-on-her-personal-life )

3. A glowing review http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/19/god-help-the-child-review-toni-morrison

4. An ambivalent review http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/18/toni-morrison-spins-a-lame-fairy-tale.html

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Chatto & Windus, London, 2015. Hb. pp.180 £14.99

21 April 2015