The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

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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.

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May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.

6 Degrees of Separation: Never Let Me Go

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. This month, we start with Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s completely heart-rending near-future tale about love, death and cloning. I read it in my first year of university, during Hilary term.
  2. The only other non-coursework book I read that term was Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, by Belle de Jour, which was utterly excellent and was made into a less excellent miniseries starring Billie Piper.
  3. The most recent literarily-inspired miniseries I watched was The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel about a Victorian shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in an anarchist group’s plot to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
  4. Modern-day terrorism is beautifully written about by Hassan Blasim in his collection of short stories The Iraqi Christ, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and explores the effect of war on Iraqis from all walks of life.
  5. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize merged with the Man Booker Prize this year, to become the Man Booker International Prize. It was most recently won by Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, a delicately written and highly disturbing book about a woman whose vow to eat no more meat has far-reaching consequences.
  6. Han Kang’s UK translator, Deborah Smith, has started her own press which focuses on translated fiction (especially by women). Their new release, Panty by Sangeeta Bandyophadhyay, is a disorienting short novel about sex and identity as well as religion and nationalism.

From dystopian future England to modern-day Calcutta by way of nineteenth-century London, Baghdad, and Korea: hooray!