The house had been built long ago by a Scotsman, passionate reader of the accounts [of India] of the period. [...] His true spirit had called to him, then, informed him that it, too, was wild and brave, and refused to be denied the right to adventure. As always, the price for such romance had been high and paid for by others. Porters had carried boulders from the riverbed - legs growing bandy, ribs curving into caves, backs into U's, faces bent slowly to look always at the ground - up to this site chosen for a view that could raise the human heart to spiritual heights.
Of all the novels I've read so far from this year's Orange Prize shortlist, I found Kiran Desai's Booker-winner The Inheritance of Loss the most alienating, the most difficult to get to grips with. This is a function more of form than subject matter, I think - even though alienation is, unambiguously, the book's major theme. It's the combined effect of a largely retrospective narrative structure, a treatment of character that is a little overfond of the eccentric and exaggerated - and a wry, distant, and at times pompous authorial voice. Not having read Desai's first novel, I have no idea how many of these things are deliberately rendered so for this story. All I can say is that they are very effective ways of exploring the central theme; perhaps rather too much so, at least for this reader, as I found the result striking, unusual, and (usefully) unsettling - but also at times mannered, callous, and actively resistant to any reader engagement bar a rather cold and arid contemplation.
The story, set in the 1980s, has an unbalanced bipartite structure; its focus is split between Kalimpong, in the north west of the Indian subcontinent, where a small group of individuals (Indians, Nepalis, various ex-pats) are caught up in separatist unrest, and New York, where Biju, a prodigal son of Kalimpong, struggles to make a life as an illegal immigrant. The latter strand is by far the stronger.
In both settings, the sense of place and atmosphere is very strong indeed. It is best evoked through the half-glimpsed detail and circumstance surrounding the characters' lives - the food shared (or not), the ground walked on, the natural and artificial light seen by, all the unconscious rituals and assumptions of daily life. When Desai steps out of the individual and collective lives to paint larger pictures, however, the prose is pretty but the tone tends to be distancing. Sometimes this doesn't matter: the (lovely) opening paragraph lacks the specificity and experiential feel that works so well elsewhere, but it fits the 'far peak' being described:
All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Where it is more of a problem is when this tendency combines with Desai's fondness for making jarring, programmatic statements about her two settings (as shall be seen below), or when she uses it to brush over matters that might best be explored through the characters' own reflections, as in the several, slightly cursory overviews of what stirs the Nepali unrest, or in the thumbnail sketches of lives peripheral to the main narrative.
Where Inheritance is at its most compelling is in the arc of Biju's tale. As we follow him from one underpaid, squalid job to another, Desai deftly universalises Biju's experiences, bringing out a host of connections and tensions between him and the other immigrants - whether sinking or swimming - he meets. Biju's reflections on the path that led him to the US shade in the details without hammering home the points; we see his father's hopes for a better life for his son, the network of favours and lobbying needed to get a visa (a scene in the US embassy is particularly vivid in its depiction of the desperation and venality at work, on both sides), and the various culture shocks and little betrayals involved in living and working a city that simultaneously hates and needs immigrants. Biju's subsequent slide from great (and, needless to say, hopelessly inflated) expectations to downtrodden disillusionment, and his spiritual malaise amid the cult of individuality and materialism, is well drawn; his eventual decision to leave America is bitter, but not entirely a measure of his defeat:
Year by year, [Biju's] life wasn't amounting to anything at all; in a space that should have included family, friends, he was the only one displacing air. And yet, another part of him had expanded: his self-consciousness, his self-pity - oh the tediousness of it. Clumsy in America, a giant-sized midget, a big-fat helping of small... Shouldn't he return to a life where he might slice his own importance, to where he might relinquish this overrated control over his own destiny and perhaps be subtracted from its determination altogether? He might even experience that greatest luxury of not noticing himself at all.
Of course, this isn't the kind of book where returning home is an instant cure-all; Biju's yearning, idealised image of India-the-spiritual-motherland, where everything is invariably more authentic and worthy simply by being Indian, is sharply undercut by both plot developments and authorial commentary. His misty-eyed recollections of home are followed up immediately by a gloss from Desai, to the effect that Biju's memories are selective (forgetting, for instance, why he was driven to seek a new life in the first place); on his arrival, moreover, he is quite literally stripped of the trappings of American culture, and his remaining dignity, when he is robbed by insurgents. This, after all, was what he was hoping to escape:
She had died seventeen years ago, when Biju was five, slipping from a tree while gathering leaves to feed the goat. An accident, they said, and there was nobody to blame - it was just fate in the way fate has of providing the destitute with a greater quota of accidents for which nobody can be blamed.
By and large, the milieu of which Desai writes, both in India and America, is poverty: the crunching inevitability of what life has in store for the powerless in a world so thoroughly weighted towards the powerful. When privileged ex-judge Jemubhai's house (the one referred to in the opening quotation) is raided by militants in the first chapter, the vulnerability of the victims is felt and expressed most viscerally by the family's cook:
"Please living only to see my son please don't kill me please I'm a poor man spare me."
His lines had been honed over centuries, passed down through generations, for poor people needed certain lines; the script was always the same, and they had no option but to beg for mercy. The cook knew instinctively how to cry.
Desai is a touch heavy-handed, here (and elsewhere), in her rush to convey her Message, but the point is well taken. Jemubhai and his niece Sai, while they are no less afraid or humiliated than the cook (who at no point during this encounter is given a name, only a label), are afforded some measure of protection by the ex-judge's social and economic status. Their deaths would be investigated by the authorities; the cook's would, most likely, not be, unless Jemubhai demanded it. Before the novel ends, this protection is itself upset, as the high status marks this and other affluent families out as targets, and as the benefactors of systemic injustice:
Just when Lola had thought it would continue, a hundred years like the one past - Trollope, BBC, a burst of hilarity at Christmas - all of a sudden, all that they had claimed innocent, fun, funny, not really to matter, was proven wrong.
It did matter, buying tinned ham roll in a rice and dal country; it did matter to live in a big house and sit beside a heater in the evening, even one that sparked and shocked; it did matter to fly to London and return with chocolates filled with kirsch; it did matter that others could not. They had pretended that it didn't, or had nothing to do with them, and suddenly it had everything to do with them.
Nevertheless, we can well imagine that, once the dust has settled, there will once again be a hierarchy of powerful/protected and powerless/vulnerable. Different people may occupy the relative positions, but the relative positions themselves will always exist. Gyan, Sai's Nepali maths tutor and sometime lover, recognises the same thing even as he is drawn into the separatist fervour (again, the link between the character's experience and what the author wishes him to realise is somewhat forced, but again the point is well taken):
The patriotism was false, he suddenly felt as he marched; it was surely just frustration - the leaders harnessing the natural irritations and disdain of adolescence for cynical ends; for their own hope in attaining the same power as government officials held now, the same ability to award local businessmen deals is exchange for bribes, for the ability to give jobs to their relatives, places to their children in schools, cooking gas connections...
Gyan provides our only insider perspective of the Nepali unrest. This is unfortunate, because Gyan morphs into a petulant boy at the first whiff of insurgency, something Desai chooses to convey via the caps lock key and an excess of exclamation marks (instead of say, tone of voice, body language, or simply trusting in the dialogue to get the point across). To Sai, for example, accusing her of that most terrible of crimes, acculturation (to erstatz westernised norms, here):
"Copycat, copycat. Don't you know, these people you copy like a copycat, THEY DON'T WANT YOU!!!!"
He's not the only character in the book to read like a thirteen-year-old on his first foray on an internet message board, but he's by far the most persistent with it, and it rather obscures his (undoubtedly confused, and therefore interesting) motivations. Since the bluster is rarely alleviated with anything that sounds like his own - as opposed to the author's - thoughts, the whole episode feels like something of a waste; up close his storyline, so interesting in the abstract, lacks the vivid, deeply-felt bite of Biju's.
The same might be said of most of what takes place in Kalimpong. There's a much larger quotient of larger-than-life eccentrics on the Indian side of things: lots of noise and colour, signifying nothing so deep as is apparently aimed for. Jemubhai, who was educated in England and has internalised a contemptuous, colonialist view of India and Indians, is a fascinating character, and comes the closest to generating real sympathy (too many of the others feel almost cartoonish in both their foibles and their plight). Still, there are some leaps in his backstory, and his pathological self-hatred never quite feels justified in terms of what is shown to us; again, he never feels as real and rounded as Biju.
Just time - since Vicky is here, and dropping increasingly irritated hints about me getting ready to go into London (for the Orange Prize ceremony and all that ;-)) - for a brief note on the prose style, which borders on the pompously arch (or archly pompous?). The authorial voice is very mannered, sometimes irritatingly so; see the follow-up to the image that opens the book (quoted above), for example:
...despite, ah, despite the mist charging down like a dragon, making ridiculous the drawing of borders.
Or the tendency for characters' thoughts to be framed with 'one', even when the characters in question don't seem the type:
Biju went out and came back in. "They say they will try your home address now." He felt a measure of pride in delivering this vital news. Realized he missed playing this sort of role that was common in India. One's involvement in other peoples' lives gave one numerous small opportunities for importance.
While we might take this a sign of Biju's aspirations, the laboured tone strikes through even the most intimate passages:
He weighed her hand.
"Light as a sparrow. The bones must be hollow."
These words that took direct aim at something elusive had the deliberateness of previous consideration, she realized with a thud of joy.
Right. Really should go. Watch out for us on the podcast of the ceremony tonight!
(who blames Vicky & Esther if this post doesn't make any sense - amazing how hard it is to blog coherently while drinking vodka and being HARASSED* by importunate friends...)
*allcaps in tribute to Desai ;-)