Ruminations. People were Taking Stock. Tokyo tomorrow night that means I miss the connection the next one is Thursday which means I have to spend a couple of days there God I've always wanted to see Tokyo! The snowstorm was like a wall across a highway that brought cruise control to a whiplash standstill: but as you thought about it there were ways around it, through it even, and the other possibilities started to seem more, well, felt. Fists and tempers were still shaken at the blatant injustice of it all, but around the airport hall the mutant seed of force majeure was already sprouting up through the edifices of cherished Plans, cracking the walls and floors until they crumbled in a cloud of dust which, as it cleared, revealed something new.
Picking up where I left off almost a month ago: another book that made the list of last year's favourite reads was Rana Dasgupta's dazzling (and often gleefully surreal) story-suite Tokyo Cancelled (2005). The frame-tale has a group of passengers stranded in an airport overnight, after bad weather sees all flights to Tokyo cancelled. As the initial annoyance and worry fades, the group's minds turn to how they might pass the time; as the excerpt quoted above demonstrates, I hope, Dasgupta does a skilled job of sketching the dynamics of the crowd and its skittering trains of thought through playful metaphor and snatches of half-heard dialogue. Like Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims or Calvino's castle guests, the travellers hit upon storytelling as a solution.
Well, not unanimously, at first; someone feebly protests that they don't know any stories, to which someone else fires back, all run-on sentences in his breathless enthusiasm,
Everyone knows stories! I just told you I slept in the same bed as my wife every night for the last fifteen years in the same bedroom of the same flat in the same suburb of Tokyo - and look at all you different people! You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it's a fable! it's a legend! Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required.
Someone spoke: I have a story I can tell.
Simple, just like that.
And just like that, a treasure trove of Story is opened to us. Befitting the airport setting, the settings range wildly - Paris, Delhi, Frankfurt, Istanbul, New York, Lagos - but certain key themes and motifs are shared. One of these is the crossing of boundaries: between countries, between individuals, between inside and outside, between sleeping and waking, between the body and its surroundings.
In 'The Billionaire's Sleep', for example, we meet a captain of industry named Rajiv Malhotra, who is locked in a feverish need for constant activity. When he tries to sleep, "horizontality" proves to be "some kind of strange excitant that would send his exhausted mind scampering aimlessly around labyrinths of irrelevant problems to which he needed no solution". Searching for fresh stimulation - and for something on which to spend his money - he pays for an experimental treatment to create clones of himself and his wife, to give them the children they have never managed to have. Naturally, this being a sort of fairytale, the result is twins; equally naturally, to Rajiv's horror, one twin is adorable perfection while the other is born "shrunken, misshapen". He orders what he calls the "creature" removed from his sight - a retainer ensures the boy is raised, in safety and love, far away - and takes his perfect daughter home, where she rejuvenates all who see her with how pretty and content she looks.
As Sapna grows up, however, it becomes apparent that her rejuvenating effects are not confined to people, or indeed to animate objects at all. In a lovely, surreal passage, we're shown how, all around her, things spontaneously grow:
[A] morning visit was met by a room full of white seeds that drifted lazily on the air currents from floor to ceiling, spores emitted by the geometric rows of spiralling grasses that had sprung overnight from the antique Persian rug on the floor of Sapna's room. [...] They moved her into another bedroom, where a wicker laundry basket burst overnight into a clump of bamboo-like spears that grew through the ceiling and erupted into the room above. Wherever Sapna slept, things burst into life: sheets, clothes, newspapers, antique wardrobes.
So does her adolescent womb; Sapna is discovered to be pregnant. Before too long Rajiv has locked his perfect daughter up in a castle (well, a former mental hospital). She, in turn, sets out to defy the restrictions placed on her; like many tales in Tokyo Cancelled, 'The Billionaire's Sleep' shifts focus from one character to another partway through: it starts out seeming to belong to Rajiv, before switching allegiance to become Sapna's story. As her long-lost brother, Imran, becomes a reality-TV star and then plays the part of Ravana in an adaptation of the Ramayana, Sapna uses her music to reach out beyond the hospital walls:
The more she perfected her system, the more it seemed that time was the lost secret of European classical music. When she sat, eyes closed before her piano, waiting for the precise instant of the day (about 6.02 in the evening) for which the opening bars of Beethoven's last piano sonata were intended, when she struck out, astonishingly, into its angular chords, it made everything anyone had heard before sound like the indistinct irritation of hotel lobby soundtracks. [...] Crowds would come to listen outside the tower where she played; they would sit in silence in the street and feel that they were experiencing 6.02ness as they never had before.
A plant also transgresses the expected in 'The Changeling', although this time it does so by growing inside a person, rather than in the rooms around them. Our viewpoint character, but largely a witness to events rather than an actor within them, is a changeling named Bernard. The explanation of who Bernard is, as it happens, provides a neat little example of Dasgupta's method of creating a sense of the surreal: wherever possible, he skips a step or three, not bothering with introductory-level orientation, instead going straight for the incidental details that take the fantastic for granted. This is the sort of book in which our narrator opens not with 'changelings exist' or 'this is what a changeling is', as we might expect, but rather, "Parisians have traditionally treated their changeling population with resentment".
There is some initial discussion as to the humanity of changelings: supporters claim they're "more human than the rest of us", since their humanity is not gifted to them at birth but achieved through "supreme, self-conscious effort of will", but many fear and envy them, and Bernard's wife separates from him once she realises what he is, and therefore that he will not only outlive her but remain young even as she ages. But as in 'The Billionaire's Sleep', the real story lies elsewhere, with unrest in the streets of Paris, and a man Bernard rescues after seeing him collapse in the street, before discovering there's much more to him than meets the eye:
He was staring instead at the deep lesions that covered Fareed's entire body: swellings and pus-filled weals that scarred his chest and legs, eruptions like molehills that grew from either side of his stomach, black scabs that cut across his thighs like some knobbled mountain range on a relief map. He looked as if his entire envelope of skin was bursting open in every place, as if he was about to cast it off painfully, perhaps to emerge anew like some glistening reptile.
"Some rare plant is growing inside my body," Fareed explains; "its flowers are bunching under my skin". (Even in extremis, Dasgupta's characters are never short of slightly beyond-the-ordinary turn of phrase; I like the choice of 'bunching' for the verb, here.) It is Fareed who captures the mood as Paris goes into lockdown because of a smallpox epidemic, and Fareed who kickstarts a whole new cultural movement with his poetry about death.
Another human body repeatedly blurs the lines between life, death and unlife in the more light-hearted and silly 'The Store on Madison Avenue'. In New York, a secret son of Robert de Niro meets the lovechild daughter of Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rosselini - again, the use of precise detail to create the atmosphere of the surreal - and they fall in weird, adorable love, expressed via dialogue consisting largely of big, declarative statements that read like overly literal subtitles:
"I am a secret to the whole world. The only people that know are you and her."
"Why did you tell me?"
"Because you are not ordinary either. You can understand."
"But I grew up in an airport the son of immigrant workers."
"Nonetheless. I can see it in you. We will be friends. Come: let me teach you kung fu."
Together, Pavel and Isabella discover some magical Oreos - stay with me - that she can use to shapeshift. Into a shop. Specifically, "a store on Madison Avenue" that does really good business.Yes, really. All is going swimmingly until one day some gangster disrupt Pavel in the middle of the regular ritual to turn Isabella back to human. Then it all goes really bonkers, with Pavel failing to find money to pay off the mob and having to go on the run, while also calling a hilariously deadpan Oreos helpline to try to find a way to change Isabella back (the operative suggests he seeks medical attention; Pavel points out a doctor won't even realise she's human - "She is lying here looking like a demolished building, bleeding all over her car" - but to no avail). Finally, Pavel manages to "master the transubstantiation of matter and to turn it - in blatant patent infringement - against his enemies". Genius.
Interestingly, one of the few times where our narrator(s) breaks in with a direct plea to the reader to set aside disbelief, it is not for something supernatural at all. 'The Rendezvous in Istanbul', a moving little romance about a pair of lovers separated by a shipwreck, tries to get us to believe in something far more improbable - love at first sight:
Listen closely: for there are some moments when another's life breaks the rules of what is familiar, and they cannot be followed with the humdrum attention we usually grant to the world – and these are the moments that make that life unique. And let us also be careful how we tell this; for what Natalia saw, in what order, is important to understand. She knew she was passing a coffee shop, for she herself had drunk so many dainty coffees there; she looked at the window and saw the reflection in it of a man on the other side of the street who waved with his arms at a van as it reversed into a narrow parking space (whether this is significant for what followed is only a matter for speculation); and hazily, behind this crystal reflection, in the half-light of the interior and mostly veiled by the glass, she saw – in outline only, for the details were hidden and were only filled in later in her mind – she saw the gesture of a man (and even his gender was mostly a suspicion), a man who – let us state it as baldly and simply as it was – raised a coffee cup slowly to his lips and sipped. Perhaps it is difficult to believe, for such sights surround us every day and they tell us so little about anything at all, perhaps it will be difficult not to feel that there are other facts that are not being recounted; but that is the problem – at the risk of repetition – with assuming that the lives of others are just rearranged versions of our own: for before Natalia could see anything else, or even understand what she had seen, she had fallen suddenly, and breathlessly, in love.
Again the forensic level of incidental detail, piled up to create the effect of reality, but this time notes of doubt are sounded - the narrator's keen urging, of course, serves to highlight the fictionality of the moment, while at the same time asking us to recognise this, and embrace it anyway for its emotional truth. By the time Natalia's beloved, Riad, has coughed up a living bird and it has walked - since Riad's shipboard cabinmate cut its wings off, the cad - all the way from Marseille to Odessa to signal to her that he's still alive, I was so swept along by the whole thing I was more or less ready to believe anything.
An altogether more disturbing tone can be found in 'The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker'. This is yet another tale that wrong-foots the reader, shifting its focalisation - and sympathies - part way through. It begins as the story of Klaus, a young German who gets himself lost in the Anatolian desert, and who initially seems to be the one in peril - or at least the one whose future looks precarious - when his car breaks down and he is stranded without water. Rescued by a local woman who lives in a cave nearby, he seems to have stumbled into a typical dangerous fairyland bargain: the woman offers to help him if he agrees to marry her mute, telepathic daughter. Klaus refuses, citing his unsuitability as a match in an apparent display of humility and sensivity ("I am not the kind of man you would wish for your daughter"), but at length he has no choice but to agree.
Dasgupta builds the sinister atmosphere with all the hallmarks of one type of story: the stranger in a strange land, beset by a canny, manipulative woman coded as a witch, and pressganged into accepting what looks like a classic sting-in-the-tail 'gift'. But then we return to Frankfurt with Klaus, and the woman's daughter, Deniz, joins him in his house via a long, literally underground journey of illegal immigration: she has travelled entirely through sewers between Turkey and Germany (the surrealist metaphor here is perhaps a bit too literal). Now we discover that the power and the malice lie not with Deniz and her mother, but with innocent abroad Klaus. He gives Deniz instructions on how she must remain in his house at all times, before admonishing her, "And do not go into the room at the top of the tower. That's my private room. Don't go there on any account."
The story, in other words, has become 'Bluebeard'. Deniz's freedom and identity are gradually stripped from her - boxes of baklava keep appearing spontaneously under her bed, but he disgustedly rebukes her when she tries to offer him some, and so she's forced to hide it in future - and when she defies his ruling about the tower her transition from powerful, magical figure to trafficked victim is completed, as Klaus effectively sells her off to indentured servitude at what must be the creepiest hotel in all existence:
The deal is complete. Klaus will whisper to his friend: "I don't want her in my house all day. Prefer her to be here where someone is watching her. As you can see, she can't talk. But still: I don't want her mixing with anyone. Forming friendships, alliances. Things can get out."
Mysterious body bags - and, er, some escaped monkeys - inevitably follow; much is conveyed through glimpses and hints rather than full explanation, and it's all the more effective for it. Of all the stories in the book, this one has stayed with me the most, albeit mostly to make me shudder a little whenever I think of it.
There are thirteen stories in all; not all are as successful as those discussed above, but most are still hugely enjoyable. 'The Tailor' is a 1001 Nights-style morality fable about a prince getting his come-uppance for cheating a tailor; 'The Memory Editor' sees a directionless young man in London picked by a company that deletes bad memories from people's minds because of his "unusual empathy with the past". 'The Doll' strays a little close to the cultural stereotype bone at times in its portrait of an overally driven Japanese businessman who creates a living doll for himself to be the ultimate accommodating girlfriend, but the jabs made at the expense of one-sided, exploitative relationships are nonetheless snarkily effective. He likes the doll's "uncomprehending" voice and imagines as "loving" (as opposed to, y'know, programmed) the way she sits beside him as he works. As she breaks her programming and starts demanding (amongst other things), more money and autonomy, she treats his whiny "Sometimes I think you don't love me for myself" with the contempt it so richly deserves, coming from a guy who tried to mould her to suit his needs and keep her entirely dependent on him. The thematic strands are pulled together - and, in a very light-touch, low-key way, some of the plot threads are nodded back to, as well - in 'The Recycler of Dreams', about a man who runs a homeless shelter in which people pay for their bed and board with a dream.
The whole thing is endlessly imaginative and marvellous fun, deftly negotiating an impressive variety of styles and tones - and drawing on a wide range of global storytelling traditions - in the creation of modern fables. Highly recommended.