Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Arundhati Roy : The God of Small Things

The state of Kerala, that sliver of lush plains on the south western coast of India is so over-teeming with life, it seems that humans are just one more outrageous species of large, carnivorous, tropical insect.

And this novel is just as whacky as this one about Kerala that I read last year.

The basic story is utterly banal: violence results from a single, middle-class mother having a fling with a young man from a much lower class. It's analogous to a sexual/racial conflict in the American south c. 1920.

And all of the characters are ugly, damaged, or both. They're all big insects that someone has stepped on and injured - made even more grotesque by the baby-talk, sing-song language that permeates this humid story like the tendrils of a fungus.

The narrator seems to be one of those bright adolescents, like Holden Caulfield, who can see right through all the phony adults as the self-serving creeps that they really are.

Which would make this stew too horrible to taste - except that the insights feel so crisp and real - like this wonderful description of a relationship that got off to a bad start:

"Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge"

And this passage that gives the book its name:

"He didn't know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own in-consequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much"

Is that how you spell a-l-i-e-n-a-t-i-o-n ?

Obviously, the author's got it herself, as you read about her passionately confused public life. This may remain her only work of fiction, something of a testimonial of how the world appears to her, who is also from a broken Syrian Christian family in Ayemenem, Kerala.

History House

The god of small things keeps things small by sucking everything into the vortex of memory. There's no such thing as moving on and benefiting from experience. In this story, the past is always present -- so indeed, the first chapter can only be comprehended after reading the last. Nobody gets out, nobody gets any better -- which, as the author says in an interview (found here ) was her greatest fear about the world in which she grew up.