The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

the-ministry-of-utmost-happiness-620x345

A second novel is a tricky thing. If your first novel was a barnstorming global sensation that won the Booker Prize, doubly so. If you then take twenty years to produce that elusive follow-up, well. With the weight of all that expectation, you could sink. Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, does not sink. It is in many places gripping, moving, and fueled by a burning rage at India’s human rights record. If it doesn’t entirely float, either, that is due not so much to the inclusion of political material per se as to the sheer quantity that Roy is willing to include, a proliferation of detail that doesn’t always pull its weight within the framework of the story.

Roy opens with the birth of a Hijra: born as Aftab, our protagonist is quickly found to have two sets of genitals—one male, one female. Though Aftab’s parents attempt to raise their child as a boy, by the time Aftab is old enough to be aware of difference, he knows that he’s a she. A chance sighting of a famous Hijra who goes by the name of Bombay Silk sparks a series of reactions that finish with Aftab’s name change (to Anjum), a move out of her parents’ house and into the house known as the Khwabgah, or House of Dreams, where other Hijras live and work, mostly as specialist courtesans. For a while all is well: Anjum has a career, a chosen family, and adopts a small child whom she finds in the street one day, naming her Zainab. A visit to a shrine in Gujarat, however, coincides with the massacres being perpetrated upon Muslims in the area at the time, and results in trauma that Anjum, upon her return to Delhi, refuses to discuss. Her internalised distress forces her to move out of the Khwabgah and into a nearby graveyard, which she slowly sets about turning into a complex of rooms to which she refers as the Jannat (“Paradise”) Guest House.

Anjum’s story intertwines with the story of Tilottama, or Tilo, a trained architect who becomes a political activist, and the three men who love her: Musa, who takes advantage of the rumours of his death to become a major figure in the Kashmiri insurgency; Naga, a respectable official whom Tilo marries in order to ensure her own safety; and Bilqab, the least assuming of the three, who works in the Intelligence Bureau and engineers Tilo’s release when she is captured by the sadistic captain Amrik Singh. In this strand, too, an unclaimed child generates redemption: Tilo adopts a dark-skinned baby found on the street during a mass protest. The child is named Miss Jebeen the Second in honour of Musa’s daughter, shot by police while on the fringes of a Kashmiri martyr’s funeral.

There is a sense in which Roy’s inclusion of many characters and forms of oppression is generous, giving the reader many points of view from which to access the story. “How to tell a single story?” Roy muses near the end of the book, in a paragraph reproduced in its entirety on the back of the proof copy. “By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” It is an admirable idea in theory, but there are pitfalls to that approach from which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not exempt. It is extremely difficult, for example, to differentiate characters. Writing the previous paragraph, I had to pause and think, long and hard, about which lover was Musa, which was Naga, and what Bilqab had to do with it all. There are many minor characters so similar to each other that they might as well be the same person: Saeeda and Nimmo Gorakhpuri, for example, both of whom are flamboyant and confident young Hijras known to Anjum. Both appear, and are named, throughout the book, but there is no sense of each woman as a separate, rounded entity. There is a young man called Saddam Hussein who lives in Anjum’s graveyard and ends up marrying her daughter, but by the end of the book it’s a challenge to recall why he’s there, what narrative function he is fulfilling.

In a way, this might be precisely against the point. Questions of literary efficiency—of narrative function, of plot rationalisation, of what a given adjective or character or event is actually doing in the novel—are mostly absent. That kind of novel, one where every word is weighed carefully, every action accountable for, doesn’t seem to be the kind of novel that Roy is writing. She has said in interviews that she wants to “wake the neighbours”, and if your ultimate goal in writing a novel is to raise awareness, then indeed it can seem entirely right to leave in as much as possible. By following this strategy, Roy achieves inclusivity, but she also gives the novel the appearance of ticking a lot of boxes. Homelessness amongst Delhi’s transgender population? Tick. Drug addiction? Tick. Blameless (indeed, mentally disabled) martyr? Tick. Rape and torture? Tick.

I’m not leveling charges of gratuitousness at The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; quite the opposite. Roy treats these topics seriously and renders to her characters a level of dignity generally not afforded them by Western writers of atrocity porn. To write a good political novel, though—and it is more than possible to do that—you need an emotional core. Roy gives us plenty of personae and detail, but in opening up the focus of her story, she diffuses it. Perversely, an authorial choice that was clearly motivated by a desire to provoke empathy obstructs the fiction reader’s ability to empathise.

This review originally published in Litro.

Advertisements

One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel

I’d seen him whip my mother with a belt before. The difference was: she deserved it.

32995545

I know—it’s not a very promising quotation to start a review with. Don’t run away. The ugliness of that “she deserved it” is the point; it’s where everything you need to know about this novel is located, and what you need to know is more complicated than simple, shopworn misogyny (although that’s a large part of it.) Magariel’s debut novel is told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, whose name we never learn. As the book opens, he and his brother—also unnamed—are driving to New Mexico with their dad. They’ve won “the war”, their father’s name for the divorce and custody battle they’ve just gone through, and they’re about to start afresh. Except, of course, that they aren’t, or rather their father isn’t; he is simply moving the boys to a place where nobody knows them, where they’ll be isolated and easier to manipulate and control, and where he can fuel his cocaine habit unbothered by family or acquaintances. The reader clocks all this within the first chapter. The boy takes much longer, and the book—it’s very short, almost a novella at 165 pages—is about his journey towards understanding his father’s abusiveness and being able, finally, to reject it.

Unsurprisingly, this makes for tough reading. The reason it’s bearable is, largely, because it’s so short; this is no A Little Life, no relentless slog through hundreds of pages of sadism and misery. This is short sharp shocks: like that “she deserved it”, like the bizarre scene where the boy skips school, flirts with an older neighbour at the swimming pool and is nearly indoctrinated by her into the world of sex, like the father’s ability to flip from tender protectiveness to beating his naked child with the buckle end of a belt in the space of a second. The reader learns to be on edge, our constant bracing a mirror image of the permanent strategising going on in the boy’s brain.

The father is perhaps the best drawn character in the book. He is, of course, terrifying: Magariel shows us violent rage in ways that will make people who’ve experienced this sort of thing shake.

I was pulled from my brother’s body by my hair. My father’s backhand sent me staggering across the room. I crashed into the coffee table. Glass shattered around me, which seemed to send my father into a fury. He screamed that this was exactly what our mother had meant to do—divide and conquer. How had we forgotten? Why were our memories so short? Why weren’t we on his side? […] “Tell me you’re sorry. Tell me you’ll never do it again,” he said.

Upsetting though the physical violence is, it is not the most disturbing element of One of the Boys; that’s the last sentence in the quote above. Tell me you’re sorry. Hitting someone is one thing; trying to create a mindset that forces them to apologise to you for having been hit by you is a whole different level of manipulation and—although I don’t often use this word—evil. The incredible thing about One of the Boys is how it complicates that evil, how it acknowledges it and also shows us the father as, essentially, still a child himself. That doesn’t mean that he bears no responsibility for his actions, but rather, allows us to see that he isn’t an undifferentiated Big Bad to his children. “He could be so good to us sometimes,” the boy says, in heartbreakingly wistful retrospect. And he can: he often presents as a classic dad figure, providing fun and mischief and guidance. Even while the reader recognises that the father gets a self-aggrandising kick out of these sorts of performances, the appeal is obvious.

The father’s assumption of the heroic role is dependent on his making a villain of the mother, of course. He’s aided in this by the fact that she’s demonstrably imperfect: a weak-willed drunk whose immaturity apparently rivals his. Magariel makes the same point, with greater punch, that Emma Flint makes in Little Deaths: a woman needs to deviate only slightly from a norm in order to be open to charges of monstrosity. This is doubly the case when approval from a father is the reward for hating the mother; the boy notes that his mother’s approval never even seemed relevant to him as a child. There are some painful flashbacks to a moment when the boy and his brother decide to punish their mother in their own way: they throw water in her face and scream “We hate you! Fuck you!” That they’re doing it to demonstrate their loyalty to a man who repays perceived disloyalty with brutal physical assault doesn’t make it any less horrifying.

All the more of a relief, then, is the book’s ending: the boy has an opportunity to save himself and his brother by presenting himself, purple and bloodied from a recent beating, to a police officer. That’s where Magariel leaves us: blinking into the light along with our protagonist, hoping that this final act of “disloyalty”, this refusal to be “one of the boys”, complicit in his own destruction, will be enough to save him. As readers, we’ve seen the poisonous effects of silence and solidarity, but we haven’t yet, in this book, been taught to distrust the state. Where many books about abuse zero in on the indifference of police, children’s homes, and teachers, One of the Boys gives us reason to hope that these figures of public authority – unlike the private authority figure of the father – will do their jobs.

Which makes Magariel’s book, while definitely about the experiences of one particular child, also about something bigger: the abuses perpetrated more generally by a toxic ideal of masculinity. The boy and his brother are silent for so long because they want to belong to a social unit that is the familial equivalent of a treehouse with a NO GRILS ALLOWED sign. The father’s attempts to mould his children’s lives into a narcissistic male utopia is immature and destructive, but it recalls so much else: the worst of college fraternities. The worst of organised sports, with their “locker room banter” and their internal cruelties. The worst of private schooling. The worst of the military. These are worlds built on hierarchy and loyalty, on creating an image of a family, blood or chosen, allegiance to which is more important than individual lives. In showing the madness of this attitude through the microcosm of a family, Magariel offers a different way to be a man: sometimes the way to step up is to ask for help.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Granta for the review copy. One of the Boys was published in the UK on 6 April.

Am I a sexist reviewer?

Since deciding in March to make this blog a full-time book review/list site, I’ve read twenty-eight books. Of those, thirteen have been by men and fifteen by women, a pretty close split. I’ve written and posted thirteen full-length reviews since then (not counting Superlative posts or plugs for articles over at Quadrapheme or Shiny New Books). Of those reviews, only three have been of books by male authors.

The stats are interesting because they suggest that my actual reading habits are pretty evenly balanced. When I was devising my Classics Club list, I even deliberately made the gender split half-and-half, with twenty-five titles by male authors and twenty-five by female authors. The numbers seem to be saying that I pick up books by men and books by women at a roughly equal rate. This pleases me: I’m bucking the depressing trend of reading mostly male authors, while also avoiding the overcompensation of not reading anything by men at all.

The problem is that I don’t seem to be reviewing those books.

It’s not clear to me why this is. I’ve read several terrific books by men in the last month—Grits by Niall Griffiths and The Nightingales Are Drunk, by the Persian medieval poet Hafez, spring to mind—but for some reason that hasn’t translated into writing about them. Going back to look at my books-read list since March, it’s clear that some of the lacunae are explicable. David Reybrouck’s epic history of the Congo was too huge for me to be comfortable reviewing when I read it, since I’d only started blogging reviews that month; Mark Doty’s Deep Lane I reviewed in Quadrapheme, and Christopher Bollen’s Orient was reviewed there too, by my colleague Martin Cornwell, so I didn’t want to steal any thunder by reviewing it here. The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham, I really should have written about, but I found that it infuriated me too much to want to spend any more time in its company. On the Beach At Night Alone, by Walt Whitman, was a similarly exhausting reading experience, one I didn’t feel the need to return to for a review; two of the other male-authored books were also poetry collections, which I haven’t yet started to review here, mostly out of laziness. Of the remaining books by men, I will be reviewing one this month in Quadrapheme (Tightrope by Simon Mawer), have reviewed another here (The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson), and the third (the aforementioned Grits) seems to have just slipped through the cracks in what turned out to be a very deadline-heavy month.

Setting aside all those male-authored books which had reviewing conflicts, the three that jump out at me are the Whitman, the Maugham, and the Griffiths. All three were impressive in their own ways, but the Whitman and the Maugham in particular were sort of tiresome: Whitman for being so irrepressibly wide-eyed and earnest and lustful, like a poetic Labrador, and Maugham for writing a character whose supreme arrogance enwraps him so completely that there’s not much you can say about him, other than throwing your hands up in disgust and bewilderment. This is a bit of a problem for a reviewer. I want to be able to engage with a book on a much deeper, more fundamental level—what does its structure say about its author’s intent or politics or beliefs? What questions does this book require that we ask of ourselves and our lives and those of the people we know?—and being stymied in this way doesn’t help.

Compare to, say, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years—which captures an image of an era in a manner totally open-handed and empathetic; hers are all characters you can picture, personalities you can grab hold of—or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, with its insistence that we recognize transcendent beauty and mystery and terror. Compare to Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which bares to a reader’s gaze the futile, pathetic, self-defeating cruelties of stifled women, and the incredible physical violence that underpins those cruelties, a topic which very few authors are willing to engage with. Compare to Simone Schwarz-Bart’s steely tale of persistence and resistance, The Bridge of Beyond. These are all books you can sink your teeth into. They’re books that I want to discuss.

This isn’t to say that men don’t write books like this; I wrote a long review of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, which raised a lot of major moral dilemmas and deserved to be thoroughly considered, and obviously he is not the only man to produce such work. It remains true, though, that many of the books I read that have the more interesting questions in them happen to be by women. Books like The Moon and Sixpence do raise questions (such as, “Is it moral to leave your wife and children with no explanation and never speak to them again in order to nurture your own artistic genius?”), but more and more these days, I find myself bored by these questions; I even find them, frankly, self-indulgent. (What are we meant to say to Maugham, “no”? I would quite like to say “no”. But instead we get two hundred pages.)

You may, of course, think that I ought not to worry about reviewing equal numbers of men and women writers at all. Male authors have comprised the canon for so very long, and even social media campaigns like the Year of Reading Women, or Kamila Shamsie’s proposed Year of Publishing Women, can only go a little way towards recovering a debt that has been accruing for literally millennia. But I want to read the best of what there is, I want to think hard about the best of what there is, and it seems to me that the best way to do that without succumbing to unconscious bias of one sort or another is to make a profound effort to be as balanced as possible. If 50% of the books I read are by men, but male-authored books constitute only 23% of what I review, that’s a balance I need to look at more closely.

It seems to be general practice to finish a post like this with a resolution. I won’t do that. Partly I think that resolutions provide a false finality to issues that should really be dealt with in ever-evolving ways. Partly I don’t know what conclusion I ought to be drawing from this. I don’t think I am sexist in my reading habits; the gender bias in my reviewing habits is not evidence or proof or the foundation for an argument of anything in particular, simply an observation. A field note, if you will. Something to keep an eye on.