Monday, April 27, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS” by Kiran Desai (first published 2006)

I usually write these “Something Olds” by going to the extensive notes I’ve taken in my reading diaries over the last twenty-or-so years, and then writing them up in readable form, sometimes doing a little extra research as I do so. In the case of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, however, I am not going to do this. The Inheritance of Loss is one of the best Booker winners of the last decade, and I recommended it emphatically when I reviewed it for the New Zealand Listener in the year it appeared. So I am simply going to serve you the review I then wrote.
Before I do so, however, a few of my usual words on the author. As many people noted when she won the Booker, Kiran Desai (born 1971) is the daughter of another distinguished novelist, Anita Desai, who has been three times Booker-shortlisted but who, unlike her daughter, has never won it. The Desais (mere et fille) are of Bengali and German ancestry, so the themes of racial and cultural identity, especially as they relate to India, and of the impact of different cultures upon one another, are natural themes for both of them. Anita Desai now teaches literature at an American university. Kiran Desai moved from India as a teenager (aged 15) and has also largely been resident in America ever since. Apparently Kiran Desai is a meticulous and slow writer. The Inheritance of Loss took her seven years to write and was only her second novel. She is the youngest woman to have won the Booker.
And what follows is simply, and unaltered, the review I wrote for the Listener (18 November 2006):

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About two-thirds of the way through The Inheritance of Loss, there’s an ironic and sad scene where upper-class Indians are buying in essential supplies, so that they can barricade themselves in their homes to ride out a period of civil strife.
Essential supplies include reading matter from the local club library. One Anglophile woman states her preference for the novels of Anthony Trollope “Old fashioned books is what I like,” she says. “Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of… free-floating plasma.”
As drawn by Kiran Desai, the speaker is a shallow fool. But I’m sure that Desai approves at least in part of her sentiment. The Inheritance of Loss is modern in the sense of having a lively apprehension of different cultures and their relativity, a sharp ironical eye and multiple narrative points of view. But it also has a clear beginning, middle and end – the sort of firm structure that is absolutely essential for real impact in literature.
In Kalimpong in Darjeeling, bang up against India’s border with Nepal, retired judge Jemubhai Popatlat Patel thinks nostalgically of his days in the (British) Indian Civil Service and pretends to be a cultured Englishman. But in his dreams he relives racial humiliation in England and knows how much his Englishness has been compromised.
Meanwhile down in the servant quarters, the cook imagines his son Biju is making a great success of himself in the new global power, the United States. But we know better. Biju lives a precarious existence in New York without a Green Card, toiling for exploitation wages in fast-food joints and restaurants that are, says Desai, “perfectly first-world on top, perfectly third-world twenty-two steps below.”
Between the judge and the cook is the judge’s orphaned teenage granddaughter Sai Mistry, old enough to be falling in love, and beginning to get sentimental over her Maths tutor Gyan. But Gyan, frustrated and poor, is drawn to be part of a local nationalist insurgency.
The novel is set in the mid-1980s, when Indian-Nepalese are about to demand separate statehood in a violent way. It moves between the consciousness of Judge Patel, Sai, the cook, Biju and Gyan. From the opening page we know bad things are going to happen to its wealthier characters when young men break into the judge’s house and steal firearms in the name of an independent Gokhaland. The novel observes closely, but ploughs a clear narrative path.
Kiran Desai (Indian-born, American-resident) satirises the unreal memories that expats often have of their homeland and the unreal images that the colonised often have of their overlords. Western tourist views of India get a pasting, but Desai is equally merciless about the religious snobberies, class distinctions and ethnic barriers among Indians. She loves India, but observes its pimples without postcolonial whining.
If cultural and political matters are part of a novel, there’s a temptation to reduce it to a list of Important Themes. I admit to peeking at Pankaj Mishra’s review of this novel in the New York Times, and I discover that it is apparently about Globalisation, Multicuturalism, Economic Inequality, Fundamentalism and Terrorist Violence.
Indeed it is about all of these things. In part. But if they were the whole of The Inheritance of Loss, it would be more tract than novel. The inheritance of Loss is as much about Desai’s excellent style, ability to sum up character in a phrase and eye for a telling image. Phrase for phrase, it is a rich work.
Like all literary prizes, the Booker has an uneven track record. It’s sometimes gone to brilliant works (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist), sometimes to duds (James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late) and sometimes to what seem consolation prizes for writers whose better work had missed out (Ian McEwan’s trite Amsterdam). Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss was this year’s [2006’s] Booker winner. In this case, the judges got it dead right.

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