Some Indian readers may still revere the Booker prize. Fifteen years ago, it represented the zenith of commercial possibilities for Indian writers working in English — prestige, tens of thousands in foreign currency, a welcome bump in sales, an international audience. There were a couple of obstacles: you had to write something called ‘literary fiction’ and write it well enough to convince inscrutable, whimsical judges. Still, for a time, it seemed like just being Indian was enough. Aravind Adiga won, man, you told yourself. Aravind Adiga.
But by then Chetan Bhagat had also happened. And, some years later, Amish Tripathi. You could, if you cooked up the right mix of ancient values in an urban setting, or urban values in an ancient setting, rely on the domestic market alone to get rich. You didn’t even have to write well.
Even the critics despairing at the poverty, spiritual rather than literal, of writers like Bhagat, have to admit that Indian commercial writers were brave enough to do what Indian literary writers, with honourable exceptions (Upamanyu Chatterjee, say), never quite could: write for a local audience. Of course, here I mean the more recent, post-Rushdie boom writers, not the likes of RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand. By temperament as much as design, upper-middle-class Indian literary writers have their faces turned to London and New York, the great capitals of the English language. It is in these cities that Indian literary writers, members of the international, globalised class, have their natural audience: like-minded readers looking to have their values reflected back at them buffed to an ersatz cosmopolitan sheen.
The ‘global novel’ has come in for some recent ribbing. For a couple of years, the critic, translator and novelist, Tim Parks has been inveighing against the ‘internationalisation’ (my ugly word, not his) of the novel, the way in which the likes of Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Roberto Bolano and Ian McEwan have become a global elite of writers proving entertainment for a global elite of readers. Writers have become brands, markers of a certain international standard of quality.
It’s the inevitable flattening effect of globalisation. The Dutch photographer Hans Eijkelboom showed in a series of photographs five years ago just how similar Paris, New York and Shanghai had become, from the clothes people wore to the public art. “Globalisation,” he wrote, “combined with the desire of cities for visually spectacular elements, is leading to the appearance everywhere of city centres that look the same and where identical products are sold.” Pankaj Mishra, in a recent essay, wrote that the contemporary novel “seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis.” The Man Booker prize’s controversial decision to include American writers in its considerations from next year, Mishra added, “is one more sign of the steady erasure of national and historical specificity.” The decision was inevitable, a rubber stamping of the already prevailing conditions. This year, the shortlist is being celebrated as the most diverse in Booker history, comprising a woman from New Zealand, one from Zimbabwe, a Bengali-American born in London, a Canadian national with one Japanese and one American parent, and more conventionally, an Irishman and an Englishman.
The anticipated invasion of American writers, the cause of so much sturm und drang, has already happened. Three of the writers on the Booker shortlist are resident for much of the year in the US, while another received an MFA from the University of Iowa, that most sought-after credential in contemporary American letters. Phillip Hensher sneered in The Guardian that a “superficial multicultural aspect” to many of the novels on the shortlist “concealed a specifically North American taste.” By this he (presumably) means that for all the “exotic” trappings of the ‘American’ novels on the shortlist — Jhumpa Lahiri’s, NoViolet Bulawayo’s and Ruth Ozeki’s — they are ultimately most at home in the American suburbs. Far flung backdrops, in other words, can still result in parochial novels.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s concerns have always been narrow and parochial. I mean this is as a compliment. She is an American writer. Whatever her gestures to India or, more specifically, Calcutta, her concern is with life in America, with the pain, grief and stoic dignity with which her educated Bengali migrants hew their unaccustomed earth, the homes they make for their sometimes bewildered, sometimes ungrateful, sometimes uncomprehending American children. Lahiri’s world is not rootless, not “multicultural” as Hensher might put it. Her primary concern is the setting down of roots, fitting her very specific characters and their very specific circumstances into a wider American tradition.
The Lowlands continues in the rich vein Lahiri tapped into with Unaccustomed Earth, her 2008 collection of short stories. There is none of the occasionally arch satire of the stories in her Pulitzer-winning debut The Interpreter of Maladies or of her first novel, The Namesake. Instead, Lahiri has stripped her prose bare so that it resembles one of those jagged, sea-beaten rocks on her chilly, forbidding Rhode Island beaches. Lahiri’s restraint is the opposite of the excess that supposedly characterises the global novel, the sort of excess of style you might find in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being, another of the Booker shortlist, or to a less irritating extent in Eleanor Catton’s assured, dazzling The Luminaries. What she does share with them, though, and with so many contemporary novels, is an aversion to politics. This, despite Lahiri setting The Lowland largely during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Calcutta, like most of the rest of the world, was in the grip of revolution. It is a pointed choice, a declaration — if Lahiri can ever be accused of doing something so vulgar as making a declaration — of her lack of interest in political movements except for their effect on individuals.
Satyajit Ray, like Lahiri, feels most sympathy, in his brilliant film Pratidwandi (set in the same period as The Lowland’s catalysing event) not for the revolutionary but for his passive brother. Ray’s character Siddhartha, though, is a modern, that is to say modernist, creation — alienated, disgusted by decay and moral corruption. Subhash, another of Lahiri’s long-suffering fathers, is too passive to be angered or disgusted, too willing to swallow strong emotion and press on, shoulder the great burden of what he sees as his duty. It is his brother, the irrepressible Udayan, the Naxalite shot by the police in front of his wife, who is neglectful of his duty, selfish and cavalier. The Lowland is, of course, about many things, but chief among them is selfishness: the selfishness of joining a political movement, the selfishness of migrating to another country, the selfishness of abandoning your child to save yourself.
Gauri, Udayan’s wife, is Lahiri’s most radical character capable of emotional terror, of emotional violence as devastating as any political violence in which Udayan participates. She is as angry, as wracked, as irrevocably damaged by grief as Mary in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, the shortest and to my mind the best of the Booker-shortlisted novels. She, Mary, is mourning the loss of a son whose name she cannot bring herself to speak for fear that “something will break in me”. Tóibín’s Mary, like Gauri, is tormented by memory, by intemperate grief, tormented too by her abandonment of her child. Tóibín shows us a Mary nothing like the nurturing cipher we know from the New Testament: the sweet, silent sufferer.
She is still provoked to rage, two decades on from the death of her son, by the senselessness of his death, by his followers’ desire to take her story from her, to take her anger and suspicion and shame, the solace she finds in the pagan goddess Artemis, and twist it into something they deem appropriate for their grand narrative. These men she hates, some of them at any rate, are her son’s disciples. She looks on with horror at the believer’s capacity to delude himself. She also has the writer’s need to tell her own story, to stay true to her own memory. Mary wants to retain her story’s strangeness, wants to be honest about her personal failure, when all the gospel writers want is a smooth, rounded tale in which uncertainty has no place.
If there is a criticism I have of The Lowland and Catton’s often extraordinary The Luminaries, it is that desire to control the narrative too tightly, to want to create too perfect a shape. Perhaps it’s unreasonable, but I want to be discombobulated by a novel, perturbed by it. I don’t want to finish it, as I did Lahiri’s, with an understanding sigh, the saccharine aftertaste of the ‘wisdom’ of it all. As for Catton, it’s like watching someone juggle a football. You can admire the skill, even marvel at it, but it won’t get you out of your seat, your fists clenched, your neck tense, like when you’re watching a real game, a game where there is something at stake.
The Betting favourite for the Booker is Jim Crace’s Harvest. The winner will be announced on October 15 and having read the books on the shortlist, I would be surprised if it’s not Crace, though my personal pick is Tóibín and there’s plenty of smart money, apparently, on Catton. The thing that impresses me about Crace is that, somewhat like Tóibín, but unlike Ozeki, Lahiri, Catton and Bulawayo, he is unabashedly political. When he is invited to join his roommate at a protest against the war in Vietnam, Subhash demurs. You’re not angry about the war, the roommate asks. No, says Subhash, it’s just not his place to object. Too few novelists, particularly American ones, see it as their place to object. They may complain, as Jonathan Franzen does so tediously, but it’s not the same thing. The popular American literary novelist is simply too comfortable, too secure to want to cause offence, to want to subvert the benign complacency of his largely affluent readers.
Crace may not engage as directly with politics in his novels as he would like, he has said in interviews, but there is no mistaking his sympathies. Harvest is set in an unnamed village in England, in an unspecified century, perhaps the 17th, on a ridge and furrowed fields soon to be transformed into a sheep farm. Of course, the workers who plough those fields will lose their ancestral homes. It’s a strange, ominous novel, not a historical novel in the manner of Hilary Mantel, or a pastiche in the manner of Catton, but not crudely allegorical either. Certainly, Crace wants to make points about contemporary England, about xenophobia perhaps, about immigration, about the loss of a way of life, about justice, about the ways in which the ruling classes stick together, about land rights. It’s a novel of big themes and ideas that manages to be intensely local, parochial if you like.
That said, the global novel, as the Booker shortlist shows, is inevitable in a world in which leaving home is increasingly normal, increasingly necessary. But the globalised world is a fraught, unjust place, the sort of place most contemporary novels, ‘global’ or not, fail to take to task. Sometimes, as in Harvest, you need a novel that is willing to raze things to the ground. To burn everything.