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This Could Have Become
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B : challenging, but certainly of interest
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Subimal Misra presents these two works flat-out as 'anti-novels', suggesting an upending of traditional and familiar form -- not so much the very opposite of but in actual opposition to what (and how) we generally think of as novels.
Of course, the novel is an amazingly malleable form, but Misra does mean to challenge conventions: this is fiction that is 'experimental', in the sense that it tries to go beyond the (oh-so) familiar, to shake things up -- rules and expectations -- and engage the reader in novel ways.
the very highest stage of description of events, portrayal of character, or explanation of mind had been crossed long ago in Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov, or in The Puppet's Tale [sic] [by Manik Bandyopadhyay] in recent times.'The writer' figures in both of these novels -- occasionally but not always as 'I' -- and both works are concerned with the act of writing, including with finding the appropriate form (and style) for the content. As the title of the first, This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar's Tale, already suggests, the novels are also about process -- about telling a/the tale, and what the tale becomes; unsurprisingly, the novels remain indeterminate; Misra never settles -- on a style, an approach, a method; in every way, the novels remain works of (and in) flux.
Late in When Color is a Warning Sign, Misra offers a summing-up bit of self-analysis:
A writer's rivalry is with his successful predecessors but also with his ego, together with arrogance, laziness, bits of cunning, and an apparently brave fearfulness. He does not leave out anything, truth is concrete to him, greatly so. Every writer has his own way, if he is a conscious writer, and possibly there's no fixed formula for this. It is dangerous to ask someone to write in a specific way because one doesn't learn to write in this way, rather one is taught to imitate.Misra very much tries to avoid writing in that/any 'specific way', seeking rather the appropriate -- novel -- form for what he wishes to relate. If not exactly writing unlike any other -- everything's been done before; if you've read enough you've seen variations on pretty much all of this before -- but still distinctive, with an emphasis on marrying form and content beyond what most writers are willing to risk.
At one point in When Color is a Warning Sign the writer gives his manuscript to a Nirmal Gupta, who runs a small magazine -- finding then: "that Nirmal-da was becoming entangled in the text". (The writer's observation that this happened: "to my surprise" is a rare case of Misra playing things too coyly; surely, nothing could be less unexpected.) He quotes at length from Nirmal's letter commenting on the work, a good summing-up of just what Misra presents to readers:
In your writing, there are no such things as sequential events, it appears outwardly to be only floating images and to my eyes quite disconnected. Employing selected clippings from newspapers, an amalgam of politics and sex -- something that mixes everything together. I won't say that I was fully able to accept the writing. That's because there are so many of your angles here which are of an attacking nature -- as well as the ignoring of these same questions -- demolishing popular beliefs, arriving at an unpredictable conclusion, which apparently is not even a conclusion. It's not certain where the writer wants to go, or at least it's unclear -- I became confused reading it, and I have no hesitation in saying that most of the time I am confused by your writing. You have a tendency to debate everything, in some parts mixing a bit of French humor -- there's no certainty anywhere, no care to reach a conclusion -- this apparent cynicism compels me to be confused. In the middle of disciplinelessness, sometimes a discipline peeps in, although discovering it is arduous. And this has to be searched for amid the wrecking of form, use of elegiac language and ongoing experimentation.Fair warning to readers: Nirmal pegs Misra's writing precisely. These novels do not unfold like anything resembling conventional stories, with a clear (or even just a semblance of some) arc of plot. This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar's Tale does have a sort of story-foundation: Ramayan Chamar is a central and repeatedly mentioned figure; actions in and around which he is involved are presented (with the writer even acknowledging getting carried away by his character: "Ramayan is the beloved creation of my pen, my inheritance. As I write, I can see that it has become an obsession. I'm unable to discard a single scenario"). But (a major) part of the point of the novel is how and why this winds up not simply and just being Ramayan Chamar's tale.
In a section asking: 'Are You a Marxist, Subimal Babu ?' the writer suggests:
I don't know whether my writing is Marxist or not, but I do know that my fundamental inclination is to investigate.In his letter, Nirmal had observed as much, too -- "Throughout the writing there is a predilection towards investigation at work, a continuous search, which is at the same time sensational too". Misra is very much a political writer, and his fiction engaged literature; as part of that it is full of poking and prodding (of conventions, incidents, ideology, history, etc.) -- investigative, in every sense. Much in these novels is, more or less, documentary: accounts, in various forms -- from mere headlines to full accounts to commentary -- of actual events. The focus is on the Indian (and, often, specifically the Bengali) condition (though there are also international examples), a system that fails the vast majority of the population.
The novels are full of examples of injustice and outrageous crimes -- with, all too frequently, the authorities turning a blind eye. The police can rarely be bothered to investigate, certainly not at first; the privileged classes act with impunity; the vulnerable masses have practically no protections against even the most outrageous forms of abuse and inequity (extending, in one example, to the mortgaging of wives).
Early on, Misra observes:
One of the distinctive features of capitalist art and literature is to push contemporaneity as far away as possible, and to make it seem as if all that is written is permanent -- an eternal truth for all time that they alone have discovered, suitable for all classes of people.In contrast, so much of what Misra presents is in and of the moment; these novels are exercises in immediacy. So also Misra does not focus on sequences of events, a chronological path: part of his point is that in the present-day (the early 1980s in this case) there is no path forward or out for the characters -- and class of characters -- he is writing about. (Among the shocking things, reading the novels almost four decades after they were written, is how much still and again mirrors actual conditions in India and the world.) A deeply ingrained and unchanging system holds everything in place -- an order that is crushing for the vast majority. Clinging to caste and religion, the system holds a huge pool of humanity fast, often leaving them treated as less than human. Examples suffice, hence the documentary feel of much of the novels: from the absurd -- the delaying of the swearing in of government ministers because an astrologer finds the stars are not well-aligned -- to outrageous abuses of body and person, there's no need for commentary or hand-wringing. That conditions are unacceptable is obvious -- and yet the presentation reminds us that, despite that, so much of this taken almost casually for granted.
Misra means to shake to reader out of passive apathy; at one point he even wonders: "how much can a piece of writing wound the reader". Part of the challenge he sets himself is:
The main thing is the reader's active participation, or else the writing only manifests futility.Certainly, the form challenges readers. These novels do not lend themselves to passive enjoyment; the reader who merely wants a story to unfold for them will be sorely disappointed -- though hopefully also shaken up by what Misra presents (and how it is presented).
Both novels do offer readers points of easier access. This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar's Tale is, to some extent, framed as a writing-of story. True, as the narrator suggests right at the start: "nothing occurred according to rules", and the novel does grow considerably beyond this initial basis, but it does help give some shape to the narrative. The early chapters of When Color is a Warning Sign -- short, self-contained episodes and incidents -- are, arguably even more accessible -- but here, too, the narrative changes shape, right down to the conclusion in which the text size literally expands and explodes.
Misra does eschew strict realism; even as much that he presents is naturalistic or outright documentary, there's a very conscious effort at a Brechtian-style alienation effect. (Brecht, unsurprisingly is one of the artists repeatedly referred to in these novels.) In When Color is a Warning Sign he includes a brief anecdote about the sculptor Rodin, who early in his career made a human statue that: "was so immaculate and realistic that people who saw it did not want to accept that it was his own work. They said: this is definitely modeled from a living man" -- i.e. they saw it only as an (ultra-) realistic reproduction of a real-life example, not as a work of art fashioned by an artist. So: "After that, whenever he made any statue, he made it either larger or smaller than human size". Misra, similarly, even in presenting the actual and real, adjusts and alters to go beyond mere reproduction of the facts.
Misra does repeatedly remind himself and readers of what he is trying to do. A diary entry, from "ten years ago", suggests both that Misra has been dedicated to this programme (as one might call it) for a very long time as well as that it bears repeating, so as not to lose sight of these standards:
Not merely left or right politics, my battle is against anything connected with every kind of establishment -- which suppresses people and does not let them be fully human.Both these texts are, in a sense, works-in-progress: works in which the reader is shown what goes into them and how they take shape, as well as being works that are part of a larger project: Misra's writing is, as it were, all of a piece, and these are merely some of the variations of it; (large) fragments, in a way, more than distinct wholes.
As he acknowledges, his texts are searching works -- indeed:
Until now, it is the search, rather than reaching a decision on anything, that I'm more enthusiastic about. I am always aware of my sense of incompleteness, and the inclination to search arises from this sense of incompleteness.Misra does see the lure of the popular: there's a bit where he considers the works of James Hadley Chase (ubiquitous in the India of that time) and Harold Robbins, and at one point he has some of his characters in conversation: "in bestseller style", but of course there's no question of him and his writing being part of the system. No, as he made clear very early on:
I do not want my writing to be converted into capital, or be capable of being digested by the intestines of middle-class babus. I want to make my writing into a weapon against this repression-based civilization.One can argue about the extent to which he succeeds, but he certainly gives it all he's got. It makes for works that certainly do not offer the satisfactions of conventional fiction -- and have no interest in doing so. But there's a lot to be said for this kind of provocative and political writing, too.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2020
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Bengali author Subimal Misra (সুবিমল মিশ্র) lived 1943 to 2023.
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