International Booker Winner: Tomb of Sand

After hearing the author Geetanjali Shree and the translator Daisy Rockwell speak about this book at the Southbank Centre a few days before the International Booker Prize was announced, I immediately bought it. It sounded really different, unexpected and fun. Now that I have finally read it (for the London Reads the World Book Club), I can confirm that it was surprising, not at all what I expected, and funny in parts, although ultimately a serious and sad novel.

The cover was designed by translator Daisy Rockwell, who is also a painter and a descendant of American painter Norman Rockwell

It is a shapeshifter of a novel. Just when you think you have grasped in what direction it is going, it suddenly chops and changes. It’s a family saga, a story of friendship, a political novel, a mystery, a quest for freedom, a parable about ageing and loneliness, all of the above and none of them. To me, it seems to be predominantly about storytelling. What is the border between fiction and non-fiction, between tradition and modernity, between Western and Eastern literary paradigms? Is there ever one single way to tell a story? How can we incorporate all of the additional variants and interpretations?

A tale tells itself. It can be complete, but also incomplete, the way all tales are… Women are stories in themselves, full of stirrings an dwhisperings that float on the wind, that bend with each blade of grass… The story’s path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.

Although the tale has no need for a single stream. It is free to run, flow into rivers and lakes, into fresh new waters. But for now, we must insist on not straying, so for the time being we simply won’t.

This approach to the story – as a living being, who can always surprise us, take us on diversions, refuse to budge at certain points – is so different from what we expect of a novel in the Western literary tradition – or at least not in the present-day (I can think of some 18th and 19th-century novels that are all about the digressions). It is also full of cultural and linguistic references (including untranslated terms) which probably went completely over my head. This maximalist approach to storytelling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. At times, it defies close reading, and I will need to return to some passages to grasp their full meaning.

It takes 190 pages for Amma, the beloved grandmother mourning the death of her husband, to leave her bed, as one of our book club members pointed out indignantly. I enjoyed the family visits, contradictory opinions, squabbles and rivalries, which reminded me so much of Romanian families too, but I can see how many readers might feel the story is taking too long to get started.

The middle part is told more from the point of view of Amma/Ma’s daughter, Beti, who prides herself on her modern, tolerant, bohemian attitudes and lifestyle, but finds herself occasionally at odds with her mother, especially when her friend Rosie starts having what she considers a disproportionate amount of influence on her. Rose is a hijra (third gender) person and is yet another example of Ma (and the author, probably) protesting against the artificial, destructive, small-minded erection of borders where none existed before.

The final part is about a road trip to Pakistan, perhaps the most mysterious, brutally unexpected, but also satisfying section of the book. It also features butterflies and a crow, but it’s extremely hard to explain how it all hangs together. The prose throughout the book is vivacious, funny, perfect at capturing different voices, but in the last part it becomes very poetical, colourful, imbued with the qualities of a fairytale or legend. And throughout, we have the political engagement of Ma (and the author, I believe), although this could apply to the distance between two people too. As someone who was once living in a closed-in country, this passage on borders was particularly meaningful to me (it goes on for a few pages, but I will just quote from the first couple of paragraphs):

A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape. It adorns an edge… It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish… A border stops nothing. It is a bridge between two connected parts. Between night and day. Life and death. Finding and losing… A border is a horizon. Where two worlds meet. And embrace.

I’m still not quite sure how this book ended up nearly twice as long in English as it is in the original Hindi, but it is an amazing and unforgettable book, one that challenges all our preconceived notions of ageing, Indian families, Partition history and, above all, what makes for compelling storytelling.

By complete coincidence, I finally read Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner this weekend and realised that the premise reminded me a lot of Tomb of Sand. That too is about an older woman (was 47 in the 1920s the equivalent of 80 nowadays?) who turns her back on her family and decides to pursue her own interests and find new friendships and passions.

Even though it is a much shorter book, it has a similar structure: the first part might be perceived as boring and stultifying by some readers, as it describes the dull, prescribed and circumscribed life that Laura leads, losing her own name (becoming Aunt Lolly, just like the main protagonist in Tomb of Sand becomes Amma or Ma), having the family talk about her rather than addressing her directly, making decisions on her behalf. The second part describes the move to the village of Great Mop, an unsuccessful attempt at freedom initially, when her much-loved but stifling nephew Titus shows up. This is very similar to the occasionally pleasurable but often tense living together of Ma and her daughter. The third part describes the release at last, in what should perhaps be as dramatic a moment as in the Indian book (after all, what could be more dramatic than making a pact with the devil? Goethe got lots of mileage out of that!), but is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact, even amusing way, yet you sense real passion lurking underneath (Laura’s speech about women being active yet invisible, sticks of dynamite ready to ignite). I felt the same hair rising on the back of my neck moment there as I did when reading the scene where Ma asks the soldiers to hit her so she can learn how to fall – and then realise why she is doing that.

I am perhaps too prone to see parallels here, but these two books worked perfectly in tandem for me, and both left me with an explosion of joy but also a deep sadness that freedom has come so late for these women, and that for many it does not come at all:

In vain she had tried to escape, transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform… They had let her run a little way – that was all – for they knew they could get her back when they chose.

French in June: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman Destroyed, transl. Patrick O’Brian.

[Also Book 1 of my #20Books of Summer – I forgot to add her to the original list. Honestly, not cheating!]

I strongly identified with Simone de Beauvoir ever since the age of ten or thereabouts – she was a powerful role model to me. Of course, upon growing up and reading more about her life, I realised that there were plenty of contradictions too. But aren’t we all flawed? Isn’t there always a gap between what we profess and the aches of our heart? Nevertheless, I still love her intellect and her writing. Above all, I love her psychological insight. She can see right through into the hearts of women, even the darkest, most secret nooks which we want to hide from others.

This book is a collection of three novellas, all featuring women at a later stage in life, all facing old age, rejection, and loss of filial or spousal love.

The Age of Discretion is the story of a mother whose son has not turned out the way she would have liked him to be. At the same time, she faces the prospect of aging, regrets, coping with obsolescence in both the personal and professional realms. At times she seems almost content with her long years of experience:

I have discovered the pleasure of having a long past behind me… a background to the diaphanous present: a background that gives its colour and its light, just as rocks or sand show through the shifting brilliance of the sea. Once I used to cherish schemes and promises for the future; now my feeling and my joys are smoothed and softened with the shadowy velvet of time past.

But she has to learn to cope with the limitations of her body, her intellect, her family, and her ability to shape people. She has to learn to not look too far ahead, to live a short-term life, to cope with loneliness in a strange world that we no longer understand and that would carry on without us.

No, he did not belong to me any more… It was I who moulded his life. Now I am watching it from outside, a remote spectator. It is the fate common to all mothers; but who has ever found comfort in saying that hers is the common fate.

Because he was very demanding I believed I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined I had created him in my own image… I was the one who knew the real Philippe. And he has preferred to go away from me, to break our secret alliance, to throw away the life I had built for him with such pains. He will turn into a stranger.

She cold-heartedly turns him away because she feels she cannot respect his life choices anymore. He is the one who demonstrates unconditional love. It is a shocking story because of her intransigence about her son and his choices – an unfashionable attitude nowadays, but perhaps more common for that generation:

This is what her son says (quite rightly, it seems to me):

For my part I have never wondered whether I respected you or not. You could do bloody-fool things as much as ever you liked and I shouldn’t love you any the less. You think love has to be deserved… and I’ve tried hard enough not to be undeserving. Everything I ever wanted to be… they were all mere whims according to you: I sacrificed them all to please you. The first time I don’t give way, you break with me.

The Monologue, the second story in the volume, reminded me of one of Dorothy Parker’s tour de force monologues, which reveal all of the deepest fears, foibles, and insecurities of the woman speaking. In this case, we have a frankly rather unpleasant, bitter woman left all alone on New Year’s Eve, resenting her neighbours for celebrating. Her lover has abandoned her, she was estranged from her own daughter (who subsequently died), and considers herself to be wronged by all around her. A real howl of a rant, a mix of pity and disgust – but it also makes us wonder if we are judging her more harshly because she is both middle-aged and a woman. Once again, we encounter here fear of abandonment and loneliness – if the first narrator at least had a partner in old age, this one does not.

She’s dead and so all right what of it? The dead are not saints. She wouldn’t cooperate, she never confided in me at all… Blind with fury just because I was doing my duty as a mother. Me the selfish one when she ran away like that would have been in my interest to have left her with her father. Without her I still had a chance of making a new life for myself.

The third, longest story is The Woman Abandoned, describing the breakdown of a marriage in the form of a diary over the course of several months, as the narrator seeks to come to terms with her husband’s affair, to keep the marriage going, while her two grown daughters have moved away – one to the States, one in a bourgeois marriage. A woman who, while not entirely blameless or likable, is certainly more relatable. She has tried her best to be accommodating and understanding, but constantly questions herself and ends up losing everything. Her sense of desolation is so beautifully conveyed:

Every night I call him: not him – the other one, the one who loved me. And I wonder whether I should not prefer it if he were dead. I used to tell myself that death was the only irremediable misfortune and that if he were to leave me I should get over it. Death was dreadful because it was possible; a break was bearable because I could not imagine it. But now in fact I tell myself that if he were dead I should at least know whom I had lost and who I was myself. I no longer know anything. The whole of my past life has collapsed behind me, as the land does in those earthquakes where the ground consumes and destroys itself… Even if you survive there is nothing left.

I have to admit I could not help but identify with some of the dialogue in this:

The worst thing you did was to let me lull myself in a sense of false security. Here I am at forty-four, empty-handed, with no occupation, no other interest in life apart from you. If you had warned me eight years ago I should have made an independent existence for myself and now it would be easier for me to accept the situation.

‘But Monique!’ he cried, looking astonished, ‘I urged you as strongly as I possibly could to take that job as secretary of the Revue medicale seven years ago.’

This is a powerful description of her descent into depression – no longer able to distinguish between day and night, not washing, not going outside, drinking, smoking, lying in bed all day, wanting to die. Nothing escapes de Beauvoir’s unsentimental eye, for example, the limited amount of sympathy or interest that friends can conjure up for you.

They are all sick of me. Tragedies are all right for a while: you are concerned, you are curious, you feel good. And then it gets repetitive, it doesn’t advance, it grows dreadfully boring: it is so very boring, even for me.

In summary, not the cheeriest of reads, but so insightful and so well written. Simone conquers my heart all over again!

Julian Barnes: The Only Story

I tend to mix up some of the middle-aged white male Anglo-Saxon writers. Philip Roth with Saul Bellow, Updike with DeLillo, Martin Amis with Will Self, David Foster Wallace with Brett Easton Ellis. I have read some of their books, mostly in my youth, but I would not make great efforts now to seek them out (Saul Bellow is perhaps the one I remember most fondly out of the lot). One writer I do not confuse with any of the above is Julian Barnes. I haven’t loved all of his books, but he is more often a hit than a miss for me, even though he too can go on a bit about midlife crisis and middle class problems. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – quite a few readers are in that category, including me, so can relate to all that! – it’s just bad when those are the only kind of books to get published or to win prizes, when they become (forgive the pun) The Only Story. But hopefully all that is changing now!

I admired it but was ever so slightly disappointed by Barnes’ previous novel, the reimagining of three key moments in Shostakovich’s life, but here he goes back to familiar territory, an older man musing on the loves and choices of his youth. 19 year old Paul falls in love with an older married woman – they settle down to live happily ever after, but things don’t work out like that. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it doesn’t do justice to that beatiful sense of yearning, of missed opportunities, of gaining wisdom but losing passion.

Barnes has such insight into human beings, into those stories we tell ourselves, the justifications we use, but is bitingly honest about what lies underneath. At times, it can feel like an extended meditation about regrets and growing older, but it’s full of quotable passages and tangential rants (which nevertheless suit young Paul well).

What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening…… their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval of anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents, the suffocaitng noise they made when agreeing with one another…

It seemed to me, back then… that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and it if was not, then it was not love.

I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us…

… by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life… the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been drive out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart.