THE WATCH Interview 1
Q. What came first, the idea of using the Antigone myth, or the decision to write a novel about war?
A. I've long followed the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, I suppose, I decided to break my own sense of helplessness by sitting down to write a book about the Afghan war. The Antigone myth provided an elegant structure, a peg, if you will, on which to hang the narrative of my novel. Fiction can do this, it can simplify, without rendering simplistic, a very complex historical and political situation, by reducing the difficult macrocosm into a representative microcosm. So the answer to your question is that I decided to write the novel and then picked up the Sophoclean tragedy because it fit.
Q. How did it fit?
A. The Antigone character in the novel, the young Pashtun girl, Nizam, is the perfect representative of the refusal of her people, the Pashtuns, to either collaborate with, or accept in any way the enticements held out by the Western occupiers.
Q. But why use the Antigone story at all? Why not write a straight narrative?
A. I'll offer a number or reasons. First, there's my personal fascination with the story, which I first read when I was a teenager. I've returned to it many times since, in different versions. The main reason I've been fascinated is her dedication to the ideals of family and community as opposed to the nebulous values of the state and its rules of law. Antigone is convinced, as much as the Muslim Nizam, that her moral values are categorical, and nothing else compares to those values - values upon which she bases her right to bury her brother. She believes that family ties are superior to any abstract external laws, and I think all of us ought to be able to identify with her reasoning regardless of what culture we come from.
Second, I wanted a strong female protagonist to anchor the novel, both as a rebuttal of the overwhelmingly male trope of war fiction, but also as a counter to the misogyny of Pashtun culture. My main source of daily news about the Afghan war has been the invaluable website run by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA - http://www.rawa.org), an organization founded by in 1977 a brave woman who was subsequently assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in Quetta, Pakistan; but her inspiration lives on, and, in my Antigone figure, I wanted to represent the spirit of Afghan women in surviving thirty years of war.
Third, Sophocles' Antigone has exercised a unique fascination in the centuries since he wrote the play, with numerous variations on the theme, and the reason is simple. It appeals to the spirit of individual freedom when posited against the abstract laws of the state, whether in Thebes some two thousand years ago, or in Afghanistan today. Consider, in this respect, the twentieth century adaptations by Anouilh, Brecht, Orff. I'm extending that tradition into the new century by placing it, for the first time, in a non-Western context, which is quite appropriate and overdue, I think, because the ancient Greek culture incorporated many "Asiatic" aspects, the worship of Dionysus being the most prominent.
Fourth, I use Antigone quite deliberately as a bait to lure the Western reader, much as the American soldiers in the combat outpost believe Nizam is the bait to draw them out to their deaths. In fact, my original title was Antigone in Kandahar. And I use this bait to communicate the values all cultures have in common, whether Western or non-Western.
Fifth, I've long been disturbed by the partial use of classical Greek mythology to justify contemporary Western prejudices. The most common culprit in this regard is the Iliad where the face to face warfighting is used to propose a "Western way of war", as opposed to an "Eastern way of war" as represented, for instance, by the Parthians, who ride away from their enemies while unfairly firing arrows to which there can be no commensurate response. I call this the benefit of a partial education, but one that is used by pseudo-historians to build a disturbingly racist foundation for parodies like the movie 300 where perfectly sculpted Spartans battle literally monstrous Persians. In opposition to this, Sophocles' Antigone presents a humane face of ancient Greek culture, one that could, in contemporary terms, be considered antiwar.
In short, Antigone is an archetypal myth that contains some core truths about human nature - about individual morality - and the need to stand up for those truths. It's a story about courage, and that is timeless.
That said, I'd like to emphasize that not knowing Sophocles's play does not take away from The Watch - knowing it simply adds an extra layer to your enjoyment as a reader.
Q. Is The Watch an antiwar novel?
A. Absolutely. I see the combatants on both sides as trapped in a situation which has its own logic - and that logic, with all its built-in uncertainties, makes a mockery of any attempt to impose order. That was the message of the original Antigone as Creon was left to face up to the desolation of his family at the end of the play, and it is the message of The Watch.
I've no grudge against the soldiers who fight these wars. My target is the institution of war itself, and the easy resort to war by our political masters.
Q. Is that why you've invited American military veterans to read with you in your book tour?
Q. Could you draw out further the distinction you're making between the soldiers and the political leadership?
A. On the American side, combat soldiers are being constantly short-changed by the political leadership, who've adopted war as a political tool. This is a real tragedy because it constrains long-term strategic military planning with the imperatives of electoral cycles. And this will continue unless there is a political leadership that truly understands the costs and consequences of war.
On the side of the Muslim fundamentalists, the Wahabis, Salafis, and so on, there's the cynical use of young men brainwashed in religious schools as cannon fodder. How many of these so-called religious leaders would risk their own lives or those of their children in suicide attacks? What we're seeing here is the rampant abuse of religion to advance a regressive worldview, one that is based on violence and discrimination.
Q. Could you give an example of American political decision-making that interferes with long-term military planning?
A. That's easy. The announcement of the drawdown and withdrawal of troops way in advance, which announces to the enemy how long they can hide out in safe havens across the border and wait out the departure of the ISAF troops.
Q. Why write fiction on these wars when there is already a wide range of non-fiction, both journalistic accounts and soldiers' memoirs, that explores the terrain you're seeking to cover?
A. I believe that fiction and non-fiction are complementary, but fiction can import a proximity by virtue of its creative licence. There's certainly excellent non-fiction on the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the ones that will survive, I think, are the soldiers' memoirs - I'm thinking here of the accounts by Sean Parnell and Marcus Luttrell, especially - rather than the journalistic overviews which tend to be superficial. But non-fiction is limited by its end date. In other words, the narrative ends the day the manuscript goes to the printer. Only the most exceptional non-fiction on war, such as Michael Herr's Vietnam-era Despatches, manage to transcend this built-in limitation. But fiction, done well, can make a particular context universal. Antigone itself is a case in point. I also like to use the example of Tolstoy's War and Peace which continues to be read avidly whereas journalistic accounts of the time are largely forgotten.
Q. When you step back from your book and consider it objectively, what do you think makes it different from other novels about these wars?
A. The Watch gives voice to the people outside the wire, the people who live in the countries the US invadesThese are the people who often wind updead or horribly injured by American armaments, the civilian collateral damage we hear about. So the narrative of The Watch narrative revolves around the fulcrum of a Pashtun woman. That's a first. For whatever reason, Western writers have shied away from giving voice to the Other, especially in the context of wars imposed on the Other. American novels about American wars focus on American soldiers and their travails. The Watch includes their voices as well, and intimately, but makes them constellations to the central Afghan figure.
It was my explicit purpose in writing the novel to make the voiceless - Afghan, and woman - the fulcrum of the narrative. I'm from that part of the world and I'm fed up with my people being rendered faceless because they're not Western and follow different mores.
Q. Before you wrote the novel, could you have anticipated that the American military veterans of these wars would be equally faceless in terms of your contemporaries among writers of literary fiction.
Q. You're obviously sympathetic to the plight of the Pashtuns, while at the same time clearly opposed to their religious leadership.
A. Not all Pashtun belong to the Taliban, which, in any case, is an umbrella group with many competing interests united for the moment in their opposition to the Karzai regime and the ISAF that props it up. And it is the corruption and inefficacy of the Karzai regime that has driven many Afghans, both Pashtun and non-Pashtun, to oppose the ISAF occupation.
Q. Is it ethical, do you think, to write fiction about an on-going war?
A. Is it ethical, do you think, to wage war?
Q. So you're opposing the word to the sword?
A. I wish I could aspire to those heights, which, in the nineteenth-century, at least, were taken for granted. My intent is humbler. It's a restoration of the place of the word at a time when its scope is increasingly circumscribed, more often than not, by its practitioners. We witnessed this kind of self-censorship in Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. I think the present forms of self-censorship by Western writers are subtler in that most of them are probably completely unaware that that is what they're practicing. But then again, perhaps I credit them with too much conscience. One writes about what one cares about, and perhaps they simply don't care enough. Less than one percent of the American population fights these wars and bears their brunt, and, on the other side, Iraq and Afghanistan are simply too far away and the corporate media has been massively successful in limiting the sort of exposure to the wars that eventually doomed the American war on Vietnam.
Q. The burdens of that war were also more widespread owing to the draft.
A. Right, and the moment the draft is re-instituted you can bet there'll be greater awareness and creative opposition to war.
Q. Where are the contemporary Norman Mailers among American writers?
A. Good question. And the answer is obvious, isn't it? When Jonathan Franzen was asked, on the Charlie Rose Show, what he thought about Obama, he answered: "I love him." That's an exact quote. And this, against the background of amped-up troop levels in Afghanistan. Can you imagine Mailer saying that about Johnson or Nixon at the height of the Vietnam War? Or Dickens about Disraeli, Victor Hugo about Louis Napoleon? Can you imagine any contemporary Western novelist going to prison or going into exile as a result of his or her political opposition to the reigning powers? The very possibility appears ridiculous, doesn't it? What does that say about the place of fiction in contemporary society?
We live in an age of fiction that whispers. In the concluding paragraphs of A People's History of the United States, the great American historian Howard Zinn included creatives writers as kept creatures of the establishment, and that was years ago. Not much has changed since his time, and I don't think I can improve upon his definition.
Q. What do you think of the current crop of Vietnam novels written by Americans?
A. The Vietnam War ended in 1975, more than forty years ago. I find it sad that an entirely new generation of Americans, with no experience of having lived through those wars, will be discovering the country and culture of Vietnam through the lens of a war long over. Most Americans don't travel, and a surprisingly high number don't have passports. Do you see what I'm getting at?
Let's just say that I'm waiting for the American novel that addresses the long-term effects of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam, or even on the American veterans of that war.
Novels written about wars fought years ago serve the same purpose as histories. They're usually revisionist.
Q. What about historical fiction?
A. The novels are highly entertaining, aren't they?
Q. You're written The Watch in many voices, with a chapter to each voice. Are any of these voices closest to yours?
A. The characters have full autonomy of expression: I don't believe in being a puppet master, and dislike books where you can see the talking head behind the words.
Q. Nick Frobenius, the First Lieutenant in the novel, is the American counterpart to your Pashtun Antigone, isn't he? And yet, the imposition of a classical background on him is ungainly, isn't it? Was it really necessary? How many American soldiers are familiar with the Greek classics?
A. More than you'd guess because the classics address elementary aspects of life - and death - that are close to the soldier's way of life. The inspiration for Frobenius was a lieutenant in the Marines who majored in the classics in Dartmouth, along with the journal of a young soldier killed in Iraq in a remarkable book written by his father. I'm talking about Last Journey: A Father and Son in Wartime, by Darrell Griffin Sr. and Darrell "Skip" Griffin, Jr. In other words, Frobenius is based on real life instances, though I must admit I've been asked this question repeatedly during my book tour Stateside. It's blindsided me, almost as if there is an element of inbuilt disbelief among civilians that their military counterparts might actually be interested in things like the classics.
Q. So you've written your novel in the form of a tragedy; is that where you see actual events headed in Afghanistan?
A. I'd like to hope differently, but I'm afraid the NATO occupation will end in a bloodbath.
Q. A trillion dollars spent for what?
A. For what, indeed? Can you remember the last time the political leaders of the West spelt out their objectives in clear and believable terms? Afghanistan under Zahir Shah's fifty-year-long reign was a golden land - perhaps the land that time forgot, but still golden. And then it became the pawn of competing great powers and the land of orchards turned into a dust bowl, its people reduced to paupers, its age-old norms and values tossed aside.
But this is also a land of incredibly resilient people who've withstood thirty years of bloodshed. Perhaps there is some hope in that - hope in the courage of its people. People like Nizam.
THE WATCH Interview 2
Q. Before we begin, a question. I've had to pursue you for over a month, through an astonishing sequence of innumerable e-mails, in order to pin you down for this interview. Why are you so reluctant to talk about the book?
A. Don't you think it's rather ironic that after writing the thousands of words that constitute a book and, in effect, exhausting all that can be said about it, one is then expected to talk about it?
Q. So, a contrarian reticence?
A. I don't know about that. It could be that I've been in Afghanistan inside my head these last two years, I've done my tour of duty, and I've done it from both sides. When you return from a war, the last thing you want to do is to talk about it: ask any returning soldier. I think the same applies to most writers at the end of a project.
Q. So here we are, sitting in your second floor writing studio, with a long bank of windows overlooking dense woods, innumerable Oriental rugs on the floor, all sorts of antique, what are they - Indian? Moroccan? Syrian? - furniture, a mahogany Victorian writing desk with a hutch, racks upon racks of books, cats, cats everywhere, a squirrel with a fractured leg in a tiny cast, a massive German Shepherd at my feet - and I must confess that I've never conducted an interview with one sleeping kitten on my lap and another on my shoulder. If I didn't know where we were, I wouldn't have a clue, if you know what I mean.
A. Except for the gunmetal sky outside: that's inescapably New England in winter.
And, by the way, the kittens are sleeping on you because you're occupying their spots, as it were, while Neva's rather thoughtfully warming your feet.
Q. Point taken. Gunmetal sky ... What drew you to Afghanistan?
A. I'll paraphrase something by the poet Iqbal by way of an answer: Afghanistan is the heart of Asia, and when Afghanistan suffers, Asia bleeds.
It's a wildly beautiful country, with a wildly beautiful people, and one of the last places in the world that appears to have successfully held its own against misguided outside influences. What's not to love?
Look, I live in the countryside because my soul needs it. And I wrote about Afghanistan because I needed to dwell, if only for a while, in one of the world's last truly remote places.
Q. Even now? Even after thirty years of war, I mean?
A. Especially now. These wars will pass. The people will live just as they have for centuries. We've tried to help them: we've failed. Our failure says as much about our society's civilizing influences as it does about our own personal limitations.
Q. Western readers are going to be especially interested in your relationship with the US Army officers who helped you write the book. Could you talk a little about that?
A. They didn't help me write the book. I wrote the entire draft without recourse to experts, and I believe that anyone who's followed the wars of the last three decades will have gained a relative degree of expertise about these things. But the officers fine-tuned the manuscript and corrected my many bloopers, without a doubt.
Q. You're fulsome in your praise of their efforts in your Acknowledgments.
A. I'm an anchorite. I keep to myself. And I keep people away. But my friends in the US Army - and they are friends, in the true sense - surprised me. They're part of my life now. I feel an intense loyalty to them. I'd rather give them pride of place in my book tours than stand behind a lectern, because it's their rightful place, I've only borrowed it.
Q. Why were you surprised?
A. Their openness astonished me; their modesty humbled me. Any corporate institution the size of the US Army is, by nature, impersonal, but these were some of the finest individuals I've ever met. They're not the reason the Americans are losing the war.
Q. Why are they losing, then?
A. A lack of cultural understanding combined with terrible political leadership and disastrous policies. It takes a special brand of political genius to announce beforehand how long you intend your campaign to last and precisely when you plan to pack up your troops and leave: you undermine the efforts of the boots on the ground from the get-go. But that's the cesspool of long-distance politicking. And then there's the Karzai administration, which, after the 2009 election debacle, was the worst possible partner with whom to establish and maintain a functioning democratic regime. The all-round corruption would be farcical if it weren't tragic.
Q. Tragic. Is that what made you decide to buttress your novel with an ancient Greek tragedy?
A. Not just any Greek tragedy, but Antigone, who, for me, transcends time and place, quite literally.
Q. So, a personal fascination?
A. Partly. I first read Antigone when I was a teenager, and I've measured all the women I've met since against that yardstick, to our mutual detriment. But I've also taught the play and was fascinated by her hold on my students.
Q. But why a Pashtun Antigone? Why Afghanistan?
A. I needed a protagonist who could serve as a moral yardstick of the degree of injury done to the Afghans by outside powers. A woman who simply has no interest in compromising with the folks who've slaughtered her family and devastated her country. She rejects their overtures in their entirety, and, in that, becomes a microcosm of the rejection by the Pashtuns, especially, of all the material temptations offered by Western civilization - in her specific case, both physiological and therapeutic rehabilitation; and, in the case of her people, all the material detritus that will be left behind by the Americans following their inevitable (and increasingly precipitate) withdrawal.
Q. Slaughtered; devastated. These are strong words. It would imply a taking of sides. And yet, in the novel, you are remarkably even-handed in your depiction of the viewpoints of both the Afghan and the American characters.
A. I'm a novelist and I don't believe in taking sides as I write: that's the task of the propagandist. My personal beliefs and private opinions do not matter within the covers of the book. I've no interest in either betraying my characters or holding the reader's hand and telling her how to think, even as I realize the latter will not make me popular with a readership increasingly accustomed to being thereby directed. What can I say? I'm old-fashioned.
Q. One last question about the politics of the moment. Do you see the Americans following in the Russians' footsteps?
A. The Russians left behind a functioning regime with some rudiments of modern government; that regime held out even after the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. In contrast, I'll be very surprised if the Karzai regime can outlast an American exit.
Q. Do you think the Afghans will ever be able to sustain a modern state?
A. That would depend on definitions of modernity and statehood, wouldn't it? They did pretty well before the new Great Game began in the 1980s. If there's one thing the last thirty years of bloodletting have accomplished, it's the hardening of ethnic fault lines between the Pashtuns and everyone else. Societies heal after horrific genocides because they're resilient; but ethnic fractures cast long shadows, especially in a place like Afghanistan where the people have fixed conceptions of honour and very long memories. A possible future would be the Balkanisation of the country, with the Pashtun south setting up separately. But that would require the consent of Afghanistan's blighted neighbours, primarily Pakistan, and, to a lesser degree, Iran, and that's a different story altogether. And then, of course, there's the witches brew imported by the Wahhabi Saudis, America's 'ally' in the region.
Q. You haven't been to Afghanistan, you've never served in a military capacity, and, by your own admission, you've never held a gun. And yet, we have this book which is steeped in all those things. How will you defend yourself against accusations of subterfuge?
A. I write fiction, remember? My primary tool is my imagination.
Q. Still ... it's a relevant question, isn't it? Familiarity leads to fidelity.
A. Oh, I don't doubt that, but I hadn't realized that only vampires, for instance, are permitted to write about vampires.
Q. Touché. On a slightly different tack then, what made you decide to write through the first person viewpoints of seven different characters?
A. First of all, I needed to get myself out of the picture altogether and I realized that a good way to do this would be to let each character speak in order to enable the reader to see through their eyes, as it were. It gave the characters their necessary autonomy and made my own work easier. That's the terrific thing about writing fiction, it allows me the freedom to do this. It's entirely subjective, it engages the heart of the reader as much as the head, and for my own intents and purposes it's more effective than journalism's ostensible objectivity.
Q. You don't think journalism can be objective?
A. The moment anyone puts a pen to paper it becomes a subjective exercise. That's why I like the phrase creative non-fiction: it's accurate.
Q. I assume you did quite a bit of research in the course of writing the novel. Can you tell us about your research - how long did it take? How many soldiers did you speak to in the course of your research?
A. It would be difficult to give you an exact time span, given that I've been following these wars ever since they began years ago. I suppose I've always been fascinated by military culture. But I wrote the first draft in ten weeks, sending each completed chapter to my friend and agent, Nicole Aragi, who is also my first reader. As for my conversations with the army officers, that commenced after the book was complete, and it helped that I knew exactly what I wanted from them so as not to waste their time.
Q. Are any of the characters based on real people?
A. Nick Frobenius is a composite of a Marine Captain and an Army Captain, both of whom are fabulous writers - and intensely intellectual. The rest are invented out of whole cloth.
Q. What was the most memorable experience you had as part of your research?
A. Innumerable heart-to-heart sessions with my army mates. More specifically, there was the time I went to see how a halal animal had its throat slit and came away repulsed and physically drained, though the episode did find its way into my book.
Q. Did anything in your research overturn your expectations or force you to reassess what you thought you knew? Did anything you discovered shock you?
A. I'd had an idea about the degradation of women in Pashtun culture, but the magnitude and degree shocked me. I must say that this, more than anything else, influenced my decision to have a strong Pashtun woman as the protagonist - both as a standing rebuke and as an aspirational ideal.
Q. If an interested reader were inspired, upon reading The Watch, to want to know more about the country and the war, what books would you recommend?
A. I'll mention a few. Olaf Caroe's The Pashtuns, which remains bafflingly out of print; Arley Loewen and Josette McMichael's Images of Afghanistan; Marine Colonel Bryan P. McCoy's Passion of Command: The Moral Imperative of Leadership; Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes' The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century; Robert Johnson's The Afghan Way of War: How and Why They Fight; Ahmed Rashid's Taliban; and Anna Badkhen's Peace Meals and Waiting for the Taliban. Finally, if you have French, then the poetry of Sayd Bahodine Majrouh is a must.
Q. No fiction?
A. The only works of fiction I can recommend are not set in contemporary Afghanistan, because there aren't any. They're set in Germany and the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and they are The Stalin Organ and Payback by the German novelist Gert Ledig. He's my measure of a writer who's understood - completely - the horrors of modern warfare.
Q. Why do you think novelists in the West have kept away from the Iraq and Afghan wars?
A. That's a question best addressed to them, don't you think?
Q. You don't think it could be a matter of indifference, timidity, provincialism, excessive deference, absence of empathy, cowardice? Why are you laughing?
A. You want to put words in my mouth?
Q. No comment, then?
A. One reason I can venture is class. The so-called volunteer army in the US, at least, doesn't overlap with the class that reads and writes literary fiction. The army offers the average soldier a way out of a dead-end economy. And as for the officer class, it's a small, elite, often hereditary caste. Most of the men I know who're officers come from army families. It's a tradition with them, and they don't want to talk about it.
Q. So it's easier for your literary fiction writer to write about - oh, I don't know - baseball, suburbia, the Ivy League ...? What about the fact that the Vietnam War continues to be well-represented in contrast to what's followed since? I mean, there was Matterhorn a couple of years ago, and Tree of Smoke before that, and so on.
A. The Vietnam War ended nearly forty years ago. The post-Vietnam generation - my generation, if you will - has been pretty much ignored by writers. Why? Once again, don't ask me. All I know is that it would take a special brand of moral blindness to ignore these wars in which your compatriots are dying and write about something else instead.
Q. Perhaps it's easier to write about war from the distance of hindsight?
A. Yes, I've heard that argument being made and I think it's nonsense, quite frankly. That's the task of historians. As a novelist, I'd rather try to make people empathize and understand present reality in an attempt to influence it. It's easy and fashionable to write about the Great War, but how many people are left who lived through it? I'm not arguing against historical fiction, but the need of the hour begs for something different. Art was supposed to be ambitious. Writing was supposed to aim higher than book tours and sinecures in writing programmes with office hours and regular salaries.
Let me misquote Saint Catherine of Siena here: these wars are in our souls and our souls are in these wars as the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish. I simply don't understand how creative writers can turn their backs to them, especially when poets, playwrights, and film-makers have done so much better. When did fiction become the most conservative of the creative arts?
Q. You're bitter.
A. Do you blame me? On the one hand, think of the soldier who returns home in the dead of night to a country that's left no space for him. And, on the other hand, think of the hundreds of thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan who're no more than statistics. Who's writing about them? Who's commemorating - in the classical sense - their deeds and memories?
I mean, how crazy is it that after more than a decade of the longest American war, St. Louis becomes the first city - this January! - to hold a parade for returning vets?
I've wept for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's passive. If I didn't have these books to write, I'd have gone mad a long time ago. They're my link to sanity.
Q. Let's turn to something else. The Watch is steeped in music. You cast a wide net all the way from Mozart's Requiem, through the blues and metalcore, to the Pashtun tunes that your protagonist plays at night. For me, personally, they knit the book together in a way I hadn't anticipated. What induced you to accompany your words, as it were, with music?
A. The Afghans, as with all people within the Persian cultural sphere of influence, are an intensely musical people, which makes the banning of music by the Taliban yet another alien Salafi accretion imported from Arabia. As for the American boots on the ground, music is the safest place of escape from the relentless mindfuck that constitutes their tour of service in Afghanistan. So music was a logical choice of accompaniment.
Q. What's on your personal playlist at the moment?
A. Hm, let me see. Cat Power, The Dead Weather, Thursday, Caretaker, Ministry. Some Iranian classical music.
Q. Ministry? Really?
A. You asked.
Q. Do you listen to music when you write?
A. I listen to music before I write. I find myself incapable of writing a set piece until I've found the exact soundtrack that establishes the right mood; and once I do, I listen to that piece of music obsessively until I'm ready to break the ice.
Q. And then you write with earplugs on?
A. Yes. I need complete silence in order to forget where I am.
Q. The cats comply?
A. Oh, they're essential: I couldn't write without them, and, especially, without their reminders every twenty minutes to get up from the keyboard and stretch.
Q. And how, exactly, do they remind you?
A. They lie down on the keyboard; it makes it rather difficult to write.
Q. What are you writing next?
A. I'm in the process of revising the manuscript of my next novel. It's called Babylon, and, as you've probably guessed, it's about Mesopotamia in all its guises. It's a journey through time and space from Gilgamesh through the Baghdad Caliphate and into the future.
Q. Are there any contemporary novelists you especially admire?
A. I admire Michel Tournier, Andrzej Stasiuk, Marta Morazzoni. Also Patrick Leigh Fermor and Julien Gracq, both of whom passed away quite recently. And I'm a massive fan of Shalom Auslander - true heir of Kafka, he brings a corruscating wit and insight to a genre especially distinguished by sanctimonious banality.
Q. So here's your stock question. You're on an island and allocated four novels. What would they be?
A. Let me think. Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, The Idiot, and The Devils.
Q. Finally, what do you hope readers will take from the book?
A. Greater empathy and comprehension - both for those who fight these endless wars and for their victims - than when they began the book.
THE WATCH Interview 3
Q. You want me to conduct this interview in pitch darkness?
A. Hold on, here are candles. There we go.
Q. It's still dark.
A. Yes, but it's a candled dark, and eminently appropriate for a discussion of Antigone, don't you think?
Q. When do you write?
A. When do I write? No fixed hours, really. Whenever I feel the need.
Q. No discipline then?
A. Ha, I suppose you could say that. Come to think of it, I write mostly at night. It's a good time to lose oneself.
Q. Have you ever wanted to write non-fiction?
A. There's no such thing, really, is there?
A. I've practised essays on this and that. I don't see the point if I can't enjoy myself. It doesn't challenge me creatively, and I like being challenged.
Q. You don't seem to have a fixed style.
A. Ought one to have a readily identifiable style? I don't know. I write according to the needs of the book, and that's varied, on the evidence. I suppose I don't really think too much about things like style ... I just go with it, and the sentences accumulate. Sometimes I surprise myself when I've pounded away at the keyboard without really being conscious of what I'm writing and suddenly there's seven or eight pages. On a good day.
Q. Ideas leading to other ideas and so on.
A. More like words and images in my case. I'm a visual writer; the words need to fit the image I have in my head. Sometimes, of course, one has a very specific thing one tries to communicate and then it's a question of writing and rewriting until you get it right, and that can almost seem accidental. I've difficulty with describing people, so I find myself writing up this rather tacky paint by numbers kind of prose and then by the end I've erased almost everything until there's hardloy any description left-and strangely, that often feels right. But I'm a compulsive rewriter. The original writing almost never survives.
Q. How do lose yourself in characters as diverse as Immanuele in The Gabriel Club, the storyteller in Marrakesh, and someone like Nick Frobenius in The Watch? They're all such different people, and all written in first person.
A. Well you can lose the authorial self more easily in the first person, or, at least, that's the way it's been for me. I enjoy it. I enjoy putting on that skin and being someone else. It's a kind of tightrope walk, really, between the parts that are you and the parts that you want to be someone else, I suppose. I get out of the way, I step into the background and let this other person take over, you know? It's a matter of respect. I hate being a talking head, and I dislike writers who show you the strings they're pulling to move the machinery, so to speak. It's uncouth. And it betrays a colossal absence of imagination. But the more one gets out of the way, the more precise the writing-the outlines of characterization are sharper, stronger.
Q. In writing The Watch, did you work on the different voices simultaneously, going back and forth as you worked out the action, or was it more linear?
A. A bit of both, really. I worked on the first draft in a linear manner, and then successive drafts were more all over the place. That's usually the way with me, it helps me be freer.
Q. Do you run into situations where you're dead tired at the end of a session and have to call it a night even though the thought's left unfinished?
A. All the time. It makes for very restless nights, I can tell you.
Q. Does one book lead to another?
A. Hmm, interesting question. The Gabriel Club was supposed to lead to a Russian book that didn't get written because that, in turn, led to the German book that's still being written.
Q. Can you foresee where the book is going, and especially how it's going to end?
A. With the first book, I didn't, I allowed myself to wander, partly because I was still a full-time academic and didn't take writing fiction all that seriously, I suppose. It caused no end of problems at the editorial stage, I can tell you, but I've learned my lesson since. I like to have the ending quite clearly resolved before I begin the book these days. It makes the writing easier, like driving towards a definite destination rather than scrambling all over the place.
Q. You didn't go to a writing program?
A. No, my graduate education was in the humanities and the social sciences. I've reservations about creative writing programs, and the evolution - if one can call it that - of writing as a career track, as a profession, as it were. I think it leads to a certain element of domestication; it blunts sharp edges.
Q. Were you aware of Virginia Woolf's preoccupation with the Antigone theme before you wrote the novel?
A. I was, but at the time I wrote the novel, I'd no idea it would be published by the relaunched Hogarth imprint-because the impetus for the relaunch was not even in its planning stages.
Q. Reality is always stranger than fiction, isn't it? Quite appropriate that the lead title in the relaunch should deal with something so close to her heart. Have you read The Voyage Out, the first novel in which she takes up the theme?
A. It was also her first novel, wasn't it?-and no, I haven't read it, but I have read her essay 'On Not Knowing Greek' in the The Common Reader, First Series, where she brings up Antigone, and also her passionate anti-war tract, Three Guineas, where she returns to the Antigone theme. And one of my military readers, in the Marine Corps, said there was an underlying reference to Polyneices in a dream sequence in The Years, which I also haven't read.
Q. What do you think she'd make of The Watch?
A. I'd like to think she'd appreciate it if only because she herself wrote so eloquently against the institution of war. So I think she'd get The Watch. Her generation of writers in Britain - and just off the top of my head I can think of Olivia Manning, Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Spender, and Orwell, of course - were intensely aware of the larger world and wrote powerful fiction about the spilling over of war and violence into the general consciousness. This, in somewhat marked contrast to our own time where - and I read this statistic somewhere - up to 80% of contemporary American fiction is autobiographical; so we've a different, pinched understanding of the world and the novel, to our own detriment.
Q. Do you feel that writers of fiction have an important role to play in revealing truths about contemporary society?
A. Absolutely. It's long been a source of distress for me that contemporary writers of literary fiction appear to have determinedly turned their backs on the real world - on war, economic distress, political misdirection, the return of colonialism under the guise of globalisation - in favour of books that either wallow in a mythical past - the recent trend in Edwardiana being only a case in point - or restrict themselves to narrow genres under the guise of "writing only about what one knows best", thereby leading to a plethora of novels situated in academia, for instance, where the sinecured writers no doubt diligently collect salaried cheques.
Q. How did you go about making the descriptions of battle in The Watch so authentic?
A. I'm Indian, and there are enough similarities in topography and culture between India and Afghanistan that made it easier for me to visualize the stage for The Watch. As for authenticity of the descriptions of battle, I've long been a student of military history and was able to draw upon on a considerable amount of research to work out a credible fiction.
Q. A captured Taliban fighter, just sixteen-years-old, says: "To permit you to terrorize our land is a matter of shame, a dishonor greater than death", and a number of the American troops also describe their actions as a matter of honour. Is this all either side has left?
A. The Pashtun concept of honour is as intrinsic to their culture as the classical Greek concept of kleos was to the Homeric Greeks. As for the U.S. military, it's useful to remember that the present leadership of the American armed forces operates under the very long shadow of the Vietnam War, where their honour was sullied in significant ways that make its restoration almost a matter of necessity. More irony, then, that they've managed to lose every "small war" they've fought since the Vietnam debacle, and in Afghanistan, especially, seem bent on repeating the very mistakes that doomed them in South-East Asia.
Q. The Lieutenant's Journal suggests that he is writing it because of his father's words, that he would "need a place to bury the graveyard that war becomes when the dreams of glory dissipate". Which of your characters, presuming they were to survive, do you think would best be able reassimilate into civilian life?
A. I'd like to pin my hopes on the African-American First Sergeant, but I've spoken to enough veterans of these wars to know that reassimilation is always a very long shot.
Q. At one point a number of soldiers approach their Captain, trying to persuade him to release Antigone's brother's body to her for burial, but he is insistent that their mission is military rather than humanitarian. Is he right?
A. I don't really think the Captain has a choice, given the situation. But, if I were to play along with your question, there would probably be two strictly military (as opposed to moral) responses, really. Under the more orthodox application of the COIN doctrine by General Stanley McChrystal, which combined counterinsurgency with very restrictive rules of engagement in order to "win hearts and minds", the Captain is on shaky ground; but then again, he clearly doesn't believe in COIN and says as much. And under the version of COIN applied by McChrystal's successor in Afghanistan, David Petraeus - ironically, the author of the U.S. Army's COIN doctrine - he is probably right. I say probably because I've yet to meet a line officer who can exactly enunciate what COIN is and how it can be best applied in the Afghan context.
Q. The figure of the medic is distinct from most of the other characters: he is articulate, curious about the local culture and more willing to question the wisdom of the American presence. Does he represent an idealism that originally persuaded many to sign up or is he more of symbol of naivety?
A. A bit of both, really, though in his case both idealism and naivety have been tempered by his years of service. The medic is representative of the kind of officer - and there are many in the U.S. military today - who've realized that a doctrine of war predicated purely on technical superiority, and without significant cultural training, is doomed to failure.
Q. Are you at all optimistic about Afghanistan's future once NATO troops are withdrawn, bearing in mind the promise of a continued American presence of some kind?
A. Well, I've written a three-hundred page response to that question, haven't I?
Q. You've referred to quite a few Antigone translations in your Notes at the end of The Watch. Did you have a particular reason for using more than a single translation?
A. The version I used the most was a performance edition which had a certain economy appropriate to the stage. It's also the only version that is demarcated from my own writing in the novel. The others I worked into the text because they were more verbose and I could play with them.
Q. Are there any versions of Antigone, apart from the original, that influenced you in writing The Watch?
A. I wouldn't say it influenced me, but I greatly admire Friedrich Hölderlin's Antigonä because I think he really gets close to the spirit of the original. Much more so than Goethe and Schiller, who laughed at his attempt, by the way, but then again, in many ways we live in a world closer to Hölderlin's strained consciousness than we do Goethe's ideals.
Q. Whom do you most admire in the realm of modern writing and why?
A. Julien Gracq, who refused the Goncourt, and Jean Giono, who preferred his rural Manosque to the careerism of Paris. Their writing affirms both the poetry of their existence, and their artistic integrity, always a quality in short supply in the literary world.
Q. Many artists set themselves ambitious goals. What are yours?
A. That I can make a difference in perception of the Other-of the world I come from by the world I now live in, and vice versa.
Q. Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
A. Nothing can substitute integrity. Hone your personal vision in the privacy of your writing desk, and always, always resist safe choices.
THE WATCH Interview 4
THE STORYTELLER OF MARRAKESH
Q. You were formally trained in philosophy. Why the turn to fiction?
Love. Passion. Passionate love of reading, love of writing, love of unfettered spaces, the mind, for instance.
Q. And you didn't get that with philosophy?
Philosophy opened the door to fiction. I studied German philosophy, the Idealists and then the Romantics. Vast imagined spaces. The Kantian critiques, Hegelian phenomenology, Nietzsche. After that, what follows in philosophy, barring Wittgenstein, is a lost cause. The turn to fiction was inevitable. Besides, there's quite a bit of philosophy -- and politics -- in what I write. Choice of milieu and topics, for instance. But I suppose that, at a certain point, I did succumb to the desire for a "narrative of life" that was distinct from the desire for philosophical understanding.
Q. Very different mental spaces, one would think.
Not so different. Look, Basho wrote: every day is a journey, and the journey is the home. And I think that applies to both fiction and philosophy. For me, every page is a journey, and my home is on the page.
Q. Does that explain why, as an Indian writer, you've yet to write about India?
Perhaps. I write about what interests me primarily. When my first novel The Gabriel Club was published, I was strongly advised Stateside to write "that Indian book". So, with an eye to contemporary analogies in the States, I spent the next six years writing "Homeland", a 2400 page novel set in inter-war Germany. I'm stubborn.
Q. You were born in India, but have lived for long periods in Europe and are now in the US. Has India had any formative influence on your writing?
Certainly. Sense of place. Sensory immediacy. The magic of the tactile. I love getting under the skin of things -- animate and inanimate -- and conveying their sensory impressions. I like to sniff out colours, smells, textures. So I like writing from the inside, so to speak, and I enjoy it. I don't describe rain: you're in the downpour getting soaked. I think one needs to have experienced the full force of an Indian monsoon to know what that really means: "soaked". Then one attempts to capture the sensation in words so that it comes alive, has independence of spirit. Everything in my books enjoys that kind of autonomy -- the autonomy that I demand of myself. Without it, the writing would be dead.
Q. Growing up in India contributed to this?
Immensely. But not in a self-conscious way. Remember that I came to writing very late, in my thirties, when I'd literally tried my hand at everything else.
Q. You mention the "magic of the tactile." Do you find this more present in non-Western countries?
I don't think I'd put it quite as starkly, but I have wondered whether there's been some degree of diminishment in such sensory pleasures in industrial, technology-driven societies. I also see it gradually affecting the non-Western world as technology spreads, by the way. Does one find the same joy and wonder in the feel of an i-Pad as someone might with, say, their Persian rug? I don't know, but I think it's a valid question in terms of where we are today, and where we're headed.
Q. Was there a particular Eureka moment when you realized that you were to the manner born where fiction was concerned, so to speak?
More like a Eureka year, actually. After witnessing the 1989 Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe at close quarters, I kept a journal, but it wasn't satisfying enough to recapitulate memories, thoughts, questions. Fiction turned out to be the natural outlet: the journal morphed into a novel.
Q. And you'd never tried your hand at fiction earlier?
No, as a matter of fact. I'd always been a voracious reader, but writing was something other people did, the privileged ones.
Q. Were you an avid reader growing up?
Oh yes. Picture an eleven year-old boy bicycling four miles each way to a grocery store in a small town in eastern India where the owner has the dastardly habit of taking apart and renting out parts of in-demand books to young readers. In other words, one might expect to rent the first fifty pages of a book for a few days and then return to find that the next fifty pages have been borrowed by someone else, but pp 100- 150 are available, and so on. In this manner, I read Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard" and much of Tolstoy and Dostoievsky out of order, and I think that that early formative trauma, if you will, eventually convinced me, many years later, when I'd exhausted the list of books that I really, really wanted to read, to extend my mental library by writing my own.
Q. The Gabriel Club was a political novel about dissidents in Eastern Europe; Homeland is a political novel about dissidents in Nazi Germany; and now we have this three-book cycle set in the Islamic world. Is there anything that knits these books together? Do they share a common theme?
I think each book is in its own way a restatement of an artistic manifesto that emphasizes intellectual integrity and independence. They may be packaged, as in The Gabriel Club or The Storyteller of Marrakesh, as mysteries, but that's a vehicle that uses fiction to interrogate the nature of art, mind, life in art. There's more in common between the oral Berber storyteller in Marrakesh and the urban writer and poet in Baghdad or Budapest or Berlin, for instance, than may be immediately apparent. But then again, this is what I do with my fiction, I challenge the reader to dig beneath the surface of the writing and engage, if you will, in a quest for meaning -- a personal philosophical quest -- under the guise of fiction. That's one reason why I don't specify immediate resolutions or answers but rather suggestive avenues that are situational and character-driven and that demand the reader's commitment. It's pretty Socratic: my writing invites the reader to constantly ask questions in order to gain unexpected insights: fiction as catalyst. I plant the seeds of questions about the nature of writing (and art) in the mind of the reader in the hope that the conversation will continue even after the book is finished. It encourages re-reading, for one, which is a habit that I heartily recommend for all books that make an impact. So I suppose I'm not the sort of writer who holds your hand and tells you where to go: you have to find out for yourself.
Q. Make an impact. Is that why you situate your book in exotic locales?
Oh, I don't know if the locales are particularly exotic. I mean, exotic to whom? Certainly not to the locals, the people who live there, and most of my characters aren't visitors, they're inhabitants.
Q. You were born a Hindu and are agnostic by choice. Why this cycle of novels set in the Islamic world?
Let me answer by momentarily transporting you somewhere else -- because that's what we novelists do, we take you away. For instance, imagine yourself for a moment as accompanying me down the steps of an immense state library named the House of Wisdom, then down the length of an entire street block, before turning left and entering a one square mile art district filled with bookstores, fashionable indoor and outdoor cafes, art galleries, and large and small hotels. One of the most popular meeting places in this area is a gallery where, in return for endless free cups of tea, contemporary poets spontaneously chisel verses on broken potsherds and autograph them. Some of these sherds are then sold at enormous prices at auctions. I am describing 10th and 11th century Baghdad at the height of the caliphate.
Now for a different example.
The oldest continuously running academic degree granting university in the world was established in 859 by a Tunisian noblewoman grateful for the hospitality shown to her by the city's inhabitants. It remains one of the major educational centres of the world, with a long history of producing Muslim and Jewish scholars. I am referring to al-Qarawiyin in Fes.
In the last decade in the West, we've witnessed a seamless transition from a Cold War era where fanatical communists were held up as an existential threat to the present time where fanatical Muslim fundamentalists have taken their place. Without going into the political simplifications involved, I think that, as individuals, each one of us has the moral responsibility to fight these caricatures. In my case, the modest result is a cycle of novels that seeks to enlighten, through the medium of fiction, the positive cultural aspects and heritage of the Muslim world.
With this in mind, the first book, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, has the Muslim tradition of communal oral storytelling as its focus. The second book, The Book of Baghdad, traces the long history of the Muslim caliphate & its patronage of books and the book trade, and uses that as the backdrop to its story -- derived from al-Ma'arri and Dante -- of two contemporary writers' travels in the afterlife. And the third book, Like a Perfect Circle Drawn on Water is a love story set in Isfahan that centers around Persian calligraphy and poetry (Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Saadi, etc). All three books, moreover, emphasize the dominant moderate stream in Islam (its many Sufi offshoots) rather than the current extremist minority highlighted in the West.
There are hundreds of Sufi shrines in India where people from all religions worship. What I am trying to do with my books is to replicate their welcoming space. And this is the sort of thing one can do in fiction without being didactic.
Q. Why Marrakesh?
Ah well, that's a love story. Here's a medieval city with one of the largest market squares in Africa that then transforms into a different world at night, the ultimate performing space, a veritable Cirque du Soleil, if you will, but one that's hundreds of years old and has managed to remain more or less unchanged. So the combination of history, Africa, magic, timelessness: I admit it, I didn't have a chance, it was love at first sight, and I don't think I've really recovered from that encounter. Marrakesh and the Jemaa el Fna opened a portal in my mind and my heart to the Muslim world and I've been traveling there ever since.
Q. Hence the Jemaa el Fna as the woman described in The Storyteller?
Precisely. A woman of inexhaustible enchantment.
Q. Is there a resolution to the core mystery in the book?
Oh absolutely. I'm pretty old-fashioned where that's concerned. But you have to read carefully to find it. And the resolution is different from what you'd expect according to the strictly Western definition of the term. Remember that the novel takes a traditional art form as its narrative template.
Q. Why the "Storyteller" of Marrakesh?
I'm fascinated by the centrality of orality (as opposed to literacy) in traditional (tribal) cultures. The theme of orality has topical significance in our world where we are now dealing with a paradigm shift from literacy to a visual web-dominated culture, just as 2500 years ago there was a shift from orality to literacy, as recorded, for instance, by Plato, one of the foremost cheerleaders of the new writing culture as evidenced by his Republic. What's relevant here is that all civilizations began with oral epic cultures, but the Muslim countries are the last bastion where fragments of living orality survive, as in the few remaining traditional storytellers of Marrakesh, Fes, Tomboktou, Damascus, Anatolia, Kandahar, Tabriz, Samarqand, etc.
Q. What is the difference between oral and written traditions of storytelling?
There are at least two dominant traditions of oral storytelling. The first, and older, has the storytellers making up the story as they go with the help of a few framing themes or phrases. This is the practice of the oral storytellers in tribal Muslim societies. The second comprises of recitations that follow a fixed frame of reference and are exercises in memory, handing down narratives that combine culture and history. In the context of the latter, the American ethnographer Milman Parry witnessed Balkan rhapsodes in the 1930s engaging in recitations that went on for days on end. It gave him an inkling of what it must have been like to listen to the rhapsodes who recited the Homeric epics. Similarly, pre-Islamic Jahiliya poets in the Arabian peninsula recited from memory the odes they'd composed.
Writing introduces, almost immediately, the impulse to amend, refine, edit. Every story births multiple commentaries; every storyteller many more scholiasts. Soon the scholarship smothers the imagination and fetters it. Was it Plato again, in a different context, or more precisely, Socrates in the Phaedrus, who is a critic of writing and accuses it of training / draining the imagination?
Q. Why do you think the oral traditions are dying out all over the world?
The onslaught of new media forms, of television primarily, and before that, radio and film. And now there's the internet, the bane of focused concentration. Consider this. The ethnologist Aisha Ahmad, in her wonderfully evocative Pashtun Tales, tells the story of searching for the last living Pashtun storyteller for months on end before finally tracking him down. His name, appropriately enough, is Qissa Mar, or Story Maker. His memorized repertory of some five hundred stories then forms the spine of the book that follows, but he's the last of his kind, and it's a sadly familiar refrain across much of the Muslim heartland.
Or to give another example, consider The Guardian of the Word, by Camara Laye, about African griots. Then there's the case of Jewish tradition, where it was considered a tragedy when the oral law had to be written down because human memory was failing; also, the Icelandic Sagas and characters like Egil Skallagrimsson, who weren't exactly storytellers, but whose lives sometimes depended on their poetry.
Q. So is The Storyteller of Marrakesh an elegy for a dying tradition?
Hmm, not so much an elegy as a reminder of what is being lost, a commemoration, and a call to arms to save that tradition.
Q. Will readers learn anything new about Marrakesh after reading your book?
They're certainly going to know it better, and I'm hoping it will prompt them to visit. It's an extraordinary place.
Q. Your imagination seems excited by communities throughout history that mirror your intense love of art, language, ideas. If you created a Map of Desires, what other communities would appear on it?
That's a brilliant question. Well, I've long had in mind a novel set in Pushkin's city, St. Petersburg. Homeland, of course, is still a work in progress and takes us all the way from Prussia to Tuscany, the Balkans, Greece, Troy, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey. I'd love to write a novel, perhaps a sequel to Marrakesh, set in Tomboktou and with the backdrop of the Sahara and the Sahel. And there's always India ...
Q. So there will, eventually, be an Indian novel?
THE GABRIEL CLUB Interview 1
LH: As a person and as an author - do you see yourself as Indian, American, a citizen of the world?
JRB: I see myself primarily as a writer. To me a writer has no nationality and his identity, to the degree that it isn't subsumed by his writing, lies within the page. "To be in the book," as Jabés writes, "is to be able to say: The book is my world, my country, my roof, and my riddle. The book is my breath and my rest."
LH: With your background, why Eastern Europe as a first topic? And why Budapest?
JRB: When I first came to Eastern Europe in 1989 as a student of political philosophy I was fascinated by the importance of literature, at the time, in affecting politics and society. For the first time I understood why the state mistrusts literature; because literature insists on the freedom of choice: or rather, the individual's duty to choose. This was in marked contrast to my experience in America where literature was (and is), at best, entertainment. And I realized that matters must be in a sorry state indeed if I needed to be jolted awake to this utterly obvious fact in an environment less complacent than the West.
My first day in Budapest was a submarine morning in 1989: rain pouring outside. After spending the better part of the morning indoors I decided to venture into the streets with a borrowed umbrella that promptly broke apart. Reading the signs I spent the next three days in the rain, walking the wet streets of the city. Wandering in a strange city in the rain for extended periods of time can lead to a state nearing hallucination. Crossing the Chain Bridge on the third day I think I glimpsed Immanuele leaning against the railings on the other side, looking down at the river. Another startled glance and there was no one there. I left the city two days later, but both she and the river and the rain were to find their way into my book and dominate the proceedings.
I came to Central Europe for the first time that year more in retreat from an overly materialistic West than with any deliberate intent. I felt instantly at home: the air was richer, warmer, and Clio, that erratic muse of history, was almost frenetically overactive. In-between celebrating the downfall of yet another petty Red satrap I followed in the footsteps of Schulz, Hasek, Csáth and Witkiewicz.
Subsequently, I returned to Central Europe in the summer of 1990, and I kept coming back every summer for the next few years. In the midst of all this travelling back and forth, the decision to write The Gabriel Club was not a conscious one. One night in 1991 I had a dream, a nightmare, featuring Budapest and the Danube and poisoned birds and fish floating on the water. I wrote the dream down after it recurred a few weeks later and it went on to become an integral part of the novel. (Now, of course, I read about the Tisza disaster and wonder about the long-term clairvoyance of the subconscious.)
A month later Immanuele's diary was found by the river and I began to piece together the entries as they floated to the surface one by one. I was interested in the truth of what happened to her, and, by extension, the story of what transpired in Hungary during the forty years following the last war. In that quest the fact of my own particular nationality or background had little importance.
LH: Were you not apprehensive to plunge into an environment (Eastern Europe) that might be altogether strange to you?
JRB: Although my doctoral specialization was in philosophy, I was already a student of Mitteleuropa when I introduced myself to the Gabriel Club. Elective affinities, as Goethe points out, are difficult to explain. More difficult still is an explanation of lasting passion. In 1992, in an attempt to try to explain things to myself, I took a sabbatical from my graduate program and travelled down the Danube with the sketchy first manuscript of the book in my backpack and Magris's recently published Danube as my guide. In Bratislava I bought a worn English edition of Kafka's Diaries in the Muir translation. Both the Magris and the Kafka survived the trip and accompanied me to the end of my travels in Romania, but I forgot the manuscript in a trolley-car in Vienna so I had to start again from scratch.
Later, once I was back in the States, Immanuele's diary found its present form with an exercise designed to illustrate Hegelian dialetics to my undergraduate students. One evening, after teaching class, I remember writing the dream scenes that might or might not have occurred, to illustrate the thesis-antithesis-synthesis mode. Those scenes combined with my travel jottings to eventually form the diary.
LH: You took the unusual step of giving up teaching philosophy in favour of writing fiction. Was there a significant reason for the decision?
JRB: I gave up teaching because at the time I found that writing demanded my full attention. I love teaching and hope to return to it one day. Meanwhile, the contents of my books incorporate a number of my concerns in studying and teaching philosophy. Free will, for instance. The place of art and aesthetics in the modern world. The place of ethics and ideals.
LH: Do you have a special interest in any particular branch of philosophy?
JRB: I studied German Romanticism and Idealism. For a very long time I was fascinated by the idealism of Immanuel Kant and the system of ethics and aesthetics he devised, which is really the foundation of modern thought. I still go back to his works on a pretty regular basis. Lately, I've been studying Wittgenstein and Heidegger. My present concern is to accurately understand what was going on during the turn of the last century on the eve of the First World War and philosophy is a good entry into that particular area.
LH: This is in preparation for your next book?
JRB: Yes, for both the books I'm writing at present. One is set in Russia and is more or less an investigation into the formation of the modern mind with its clear emphasis on rationality. The other is set in Germany during the Second World War and examines the role played in a society by irrationality and myth.
I alternate work between the two books. When I get tired of working with Russia under Lenin and Stalin, I turn to Germany under Hitler. I suppose there must be a strong masochistic trait in me.
LH: Let's turn to The Gabriel Club. If I were to ask you to summarize it in one sentence, what would that be?
JRB: The Gabriel Club is a book about memory.
LH: May I ask you to elaborate?
JRB: I use a dialectical structure in The Gabriel Club primarily with an eye to interrogating memory. When does memory begin? What does it mean for an individual? A people? How does memory sublimate? Resurface?
When I wrote the novel I thought about it as a spiral. A spiral which resolves the conflict between chaos and form into a state of being that is poised in suspension between the two states. Memory's growth and expanding consciousness can be traced from the first dream that begins the book along the turns of a spiral trajectory that encompasses successively greater territories, from the obsessive confinement of Immanuele's house in the Prologue, to the recurring meetings and conversations by the river between the various protagonists, the city of Budapest, the river, the countryside, and eventually the seasons, the seagulls, rain, Central Europe, the world. This process involves both recurrence and progress as more and more of the plot reveals itself, a process reflected in the structure of the text itself as passages recur in recognizable ways both over short segments of the chapters and over the span of the entire novel. Even whole sections recur, if you've noticed. This makes the book more than simply a miscellaneous set of memories in linear time. Rather it is a network of interlocking images and symbols that continually return. The reconstitution of memory is meant to occur as actively for the reader as for the writer, since one is constantly experiencing déja vu in terms of passages that have gone before. However, these passages recur not in exactly the same form but always with changes, accretions, developments, and in a new context where they gain new meaning and indicate a clear evolution in the narrative. In this way, I hope to convey the growth in understanding as we move through Immanuele's dissolving world, initially frightened and confused by the seeming chaos we observe, but later coming to interpret it in more overtly historical terms.
LH: And what about the plot of this very subtle novel? Do you agree when some critics call it an intellectual mystery?
JRB: I'll answer the second part of your question first. I've no reservations about pinning a larger political message to the more evident narrative vehicle of a mystery. It's what Camus did with The Stranger or Robbe-Grillet with his many books. And in the West, at least, reductive labels like 'mystery' lend themselves to selling. That said, I do have serious reservations about some of the larger British vendors selling the book exclusively as a mystery or thriller, which does it an enormous disservice. I'm glad the continental outlets haven't followed suit but it worries me; the book was written in English, after all.
Now for the first part of your question. One reviewer has compared the book to a Chinese box, another to an Escher puzzle, and I like both analogies. That said, I'm going to cheat and plagiarize from the reviews to somewhat (tangentially) respond to your query.
The story deals with a group of young dissidents in 1970s Budapest who come together to form a loose and idealistic fraternity intended to keep the machinations of the communist state at bay. Initially organized along the lines of a clandestine 'club', the members of the group begin to withdraw into themselves under the influence of their enigmatic founder. They become obsessed with the unattainable specter of freedom, even at the risk of cutting themselves off from the lifeline of the dissident underground. Eventually, it is their independent lifestyles rather than their actions that draws upon them the wrath of the state, with tragic results. Written in two disparate parts, with very different narrative styles, The Gabriel Club charts the journey of four young artists from latent dissidence to violence, grief and oblivion.
On the most literal level, The Gabriel Club is about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of the members of the club in Budapest in the 1970s, but it is also about a doomed romance involving a triangle of lovers. There are several possible resolutions to the mystery: that the victim was murdered by the secret police or by one of her intimates and the body done away with; that the victim died a natural death caused by starvation or drowning in the Danube and was disposed of in a manner that remains unknown to the reader; that there was no crime because the so-called victim does not exist.
LH: So the ambiguity is intentional?
JRB: Yes, the ambiguity and open-endedness is completely intentional and it has to do with how I see the reader-writer relationship. I would like to think that in my book, the way events are perceived and assessed becomes a central issue of the narrative: the act of interpretation itself is presented to the reader for interpretation. This is in keeping with my belief that a writer has a responsibility not to interfere with the reader's gestält. I've written the book, my task is done, and I emphatically don't want to get in the way of how each reader perceives the book, imagines the characters. I've written it, it's out in the public realm, now the primary relationship is between the reader and the book. I don't want to be the talking head superintending that relationship.
LH: As you pointed out, you've placed memory in a pivotal place in your book. How much of The Gabriel Club is based on your own experience?
JRB: Quite a bit, and then again, not a bit. This is a work of fiction, not a fictional biography. I do believe in making a distinction between fact and fiction, between seriousness and poetic license. Many people have told me I've written a disturbing book, but that's alright with me. I'd rather write a book that disturbs than an idyllic work that has no connection with reality. I've expressed the same idea differently in my book. An idyllic book fills me with reservation because I can see through the author's intention and recognise that in reality things are completely different.
LH: And the Danube? A river of memory?
JRB: In as much as any river is a lasting conduit of a culture's sense of itself.
LH: The Danube looms immense in your book, both in seductive and destructive roles. I am sure you have read Magris's Danube, but it would not explain the power of the symbol as you have created it. What inspired you?
JRB: Some people take their existential orientation from oceans, others from mountains. For me, it's rivers. Perhaps it's because I spent my childhood in the eastern part of India growing up by the banks of a river with a lot of character: tremendous flash-floods during the monsoons, extended dry spells during the hot season. Subsequently, I've lived in cities traversed by great rivers, a tributary of the Ganges in Calcutta, the Thames in London, the Delaware and the Hudson in America. When I travel I am drawn first of all to the nearest river. With the Danube the recognition was instant, and I would like to believe, mutual. I've walked miles beside it, drunk from it, swum in it. If it figures as a character in the book, it's only natural.
Rivers give me a sense of place and provide the nucleus, symbolic and otherwise, for my writing. In the two books I am working on now, for instance, the leitmotives are provided by the Neva (for St. Petersburg) and the Elbe (for Dresden).
LH: You mention the word `symbolic'. You introduce your book with a citation from the painter Odilon Redon. Would you call yourself a symbolist writer?
JRB: I'm certainly interested by Redon and Huysmans, and some of the religious imagery, especially in Immanuele's diary, comes from La Bas and The Cathedral, and some of the aesthetics probably echoes Against the Grain. I would like to believe that the awareness of the fin de siecle is very strong in my work, and the symbolists, the French symbolists, at least, were haunted by the turn of their century. I'm also studying the Russian symbolists, now, as a matter of fact, in preparation for my Russian novel, and I'd have to say I'm closer in spirit to Balmont and Merezhkovsky and especially Andrei Bely than the French.
LH: What do you perceive as a writer's principal responsibility?
JRB: To provoke, to challenge, to denounce, to make people think.
LH: What must a writer have for you to admire him?
JRB: Integrity. Reticence. A sense of commitment. Gravity.
LH: Which writers in Europe and Eastern Europe most attract you?
JRB: In the interest of brevity, I'll restrict myself to the present. In that sense, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Claudio Magris, Edmond Jabés and Michel Tournier are the writers who've given me the greatest sense of direction. Bernhard for his unsparing honesty and relentless stamina. Sebald for his exploration of the mystery of being human. Magris and Jabés for their poetry and their introspection. And Tournier for his marriage of philosophy and fiction.
Although I write in English, there is very little in English or American writing that I think bears serious consideration. J.M. Coetzee from South Africa and the earlier fiction of John Banville are notable exceptions, but there is very little else that will survive the test of time. In my opinion, the only person from the English-speaking world who comes close to capturing the present malaise is not a writer but a painter, the Irishman, Francis Bacon.
In terms of Eastern Europe, I will unfortunately have to restrict my consideration to those who've had their work translated into English and this, I realize, is a very small fraction of the entire output. From that restricted pool, I choose Konwicki, Szczypiorski, Huelle, Klima, Skvorecky, the late Danilo Kis, Ugrosevic, and, of course, Nadas, Orkeny and Esterhazy in Hungary (although, I must confess that in the Hungarian context it's the poets rather than the writers that speak to me, and here the list is much more dense - Pilinszky, Weores, Orban, Faludy, Tandori, Agnes Nagy.) Indeed, it was a poem by the inimitable Gyula Illyes that first suggested the sibling relationships in my own book. Here are the relevant lines from "Brother and Sister":
Fi a lánytestvért - úgy öleltelek,
ós vágy izével enyhitve a búnt,
igy aludtam el - leghúbb kedvesed,
mire az elsó éjjel tovatünt.
Of course, I played this out in The Gabriel Club in two ways, in the relationship between the twins and in the stillborn relationship between Immanuele and Gabriel.
LH: Would you say that your influences are predominantly twentieth century?
JRB: Yes, I'm fascinated by our century and I relate most to these people because their concerns mirror mine. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't relate to Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Zola. I do, but I'm closer in spirit to the people who are closer to my time. If you consider the boundaries of my writing, there's prose, painting, cinema, music and poetry, and in each of these spheres I have my idols: Thomas Bernhard, Francis Bacon, Andrei Tarkovsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and Paul Celan. I think about their work and it gives me perspective. These are people I can love and respect unconditionally. They inspire me to go on.
Celan, especially, with his introspection, his sense of loss, the care with which he compunds words to express a complex of feelings. Consider a single word: Beilschwärme, hatchetfeelings. You can take days exploring that or else it's crystal clear in an instant. I'd like my readers to take time with my book, and to go back to it repeatedly for second meanings because it's been written that way.
My fascination with Celan probably explains the roots of my formative influence in poetry than in prose. But another more prosaic aspect draws me to Celan, and that is the fact of exile and this wandering between East and West. To paraphrase him, the circumstances of my life, living in the domain of a foreign tongue, have meant that I deal much more consciously with language.
LH: What does cultural memory mean to you, in the light of the book you've written?
JRB: In the months before her death in exile in London during the war, the French theologian and philosopher Simone Weil feared that the death of memory would mean the beginning of the end of what it means to be human. She wrote about memory, and the act of remembering, as a long, slow, and often painful accretion of the smallest details to make up the sense of a people's particular identity. I find that definition remarkable in the light of the kind of homogenization and cultural simplification unleashed by the Western media. It's out of control in America, particularly, already a place without deep historical tradition. I've seen it take its toll in Western Europe, and in England especially. What causes me especial concern, though, are the inroads being made into places like India and Indonesia. It's hardly an original thought; the French have been erecting barriers against that kind of influx for years now, and I'm not sure they've been very successful. But the costs of this kind of globalisation are immense in terms of the onslaught on a culture's unique memories.
LH: Do you see the impact of this on global publishing?
JRB: Oh, absolutely. Decisions about publishing are increasingly about market slots and economies of scale. In terms of market slots, outside of the usual Anglo-American genres the patterns are almost comically identifiable: there's Latin American magic realism, there's African primitivism, Asian exotica, the difficult Irish childhoods, and so on, so that eventually very little room is left for works that are different and original and perhaps of much more importance in terms of cultural distinctiveness. I fear that if this goes on for much longer we will all be reduced to living in a world filled with cultural clichés.
LH: By the end of your book, memory has given way to silence. What does silence mean to you?
JRB: Some time ago I spent a night on a lake deep within the Adirondack mountains in northern New York state. I remember crossing the lake in a rowboat and looking up and seeing more stars than I could recall seeing in a very long time. The Milky Way was low over the lake, almost a band of white that cut a swathe through the black sky. Everything was perfectly still, not even the sound of oars against water was audible. I was suddenly aware of how seldom I see stars any more, condemned as I seem to be to living in cities. But the silence stayed with me more than anything else.
LH: In your book you've called it the silence of the centuries. Is this the silence that reigns over us at the end of our historically exhausting century? Are you trying to say this is all that's left to us at the end of the millenium?
JRB: The silence at the end of the book is the silence we have lost to modernity, the quality of silence that's been one of the major casualties of the cacophony that surrounds us. Perhaps I'm more sensitive to this denuding than others because silence is the grass of exile, but I think part of the reason why I reach out to Europe and the Old World is because there are people there who still privilege the enlightenment query about what it means to 'be human' over the postmodern obsession with 'being realistic'. "When the last corner of the globe has been conquered by technology and has finally become exploitable, when each and every event at each and every place at each and every point of time has become easily accessible, when one can simultaneously 'experience' an attempt to murder a king in France and a symphonic concert in Tokyo, when time is nothing but speed, immediacy, simultaneity, and when time as history has disappeared from the life of all nations, when the boxer is valued as the great man of the nation, when the mass meetings of millions are a triumph - then, yes, like a ghost, the spectre of the question will haunt us: What for? -- Where to? -- What now?" This was written, of course, by Heidegger in the 1930s and it is perhaps even more true in our internet age than it was in his day.
Recently I've been reading aloud from various translations of the Iliad and imagining the results as comparable to those of competing singers at the Panhellenic Games. Of course, the tradition of oral poetry that reached its apogee with Homer died out soon after the introduction of a systematic written script. It makes me wonder if we are now seeing the next big tectonic shift - the gradual eclipse of the written creative tradition in its turn as it has been enshrined as `literature' for centuries. For instance, these days when I walk into a bookstore in New York City it's like being at the intersection of a busy street-crossing. So many ephemeral books, so much traffic rushing by, making sound and signifying nothing. As a strategy of survival I've taken to closing my eyes and ears and turning aside to retreat to the refuge of my own library. And I'm not even taking the internet into account when I say this.
The endeavor of such literature that remains then becomes to write against the grain, to arrest the flow, to write for the few discerning readers who still make time to think as they read. Because the alternative is far too depressing.
I realize all this might sound rather gloomy but the danger is real, I believe, and needs reiterating.
LH: Will you eventually write a book based on your country, India?
JRB: One of the fascinating things about the kind of research I do is the historical parallels it brings up. When I read European history I am constantly surprised by how much different cultures have in common. They repeat the same mistakes.
LH: Finally, to conclude on a more prosaic level, is there anything particular that attracts you to Hungarian culture, as opposed, say, to other Eastern European countries?
JRB: I'm a great fan of Hungarian cuisine which, as you're probably aware, has startling similarities to Indian cooking.
I'm also passionate about contemporary Hungarian classical music. Bartók and Kodály aside, you've produced some of the greatest classical composers of the late twentieth century, a list of names that would make any country proud: Sándor Veress, Miklós Rozsa, György Ligeti, György Kurtág. In terms of folk music, during my last visit here in 1998 I discovered Ferenc Sebo and he's been one of my lasting pleasures since. On a lighter vein you've also got some of the best rock bands in the region and Locomotiv (of course) and East are two of my favourites.
THE GABRIEL CLUB Interview 2
Q. You were born in India, you live in America, you write in English and your subject matter is Europe. Is there a connection we're missing?
A. I think the missing link is philosophy. I'm a student of the Enlightenment and its dangerously single-minded pursuit of reason. Everything I write about eventually makes its way back to that point of departure.
Q. Why Budapest?
A. I was a graduate student in the States when the Velvet Revolutions took place and I was fascinated. I decided to go to Central Europe and fell instantly in love with the place -- the people, the cities, the countryside, the rivers, churches, marketplaces -- how do you explain passion? I felt completely at home in a way I'd never felt in the West. Budapest, ironically, was the one city in Central Europe I spent the least amount of time in, and that was deliberate. The moment I was there I knew instinctively that this was where I'd base my first novel, and also that I didn't want to come back and distort my initial impressions until the book was entirely written. So I stayed for a sum total of four days before returning to America and setting out to write the book. And I didn't return to Budapest until seven years later, in 1998, when the novel was completed.
Q. And were your initial impressions accurate?
A. Well, yes, given the fact that I'd gone on to buttress those four days' worth of impressions with years of research. As I tell my friends, I must've walked millions of miles in Budapest inside my head. The Gabriel Club is a work that's based on personal empathy, not personal experience. There is a difference, and I think that communicates in the way I've imagined and written about the place. The Danube is in my blood -- I can't really think of any other way of expressing it.
Q. Tell us about how the writing of the book.
A, It was written in many drafts, too many to count, really. The first draft was written in Philadelphia way back in the summer of 1992. Subsequent drafts followed me around Central Europe, then America between research and teaching assignments.
Q. Any guiding ideas/ideologies behind your fiction?
A. I have little patience with fiction that works on a purely narrative level. What an incredible waste of time and trees. To that end I suppose I'm quite old-fashioned in my belief that fiction must support ideas. It explains my attraction to the Russians. I'm not concerned with "telling a good yarn for the sake of the yarn" if there's no underlying content in what's written down. Kafka wrote that a good book forces the reader to read it more than once. This isn't merely a case of getting all the allusions, but if a book works on various levels, it's the only way to do justice to it.
Q. What are some of the influences underlying your fiction?
A. My primary influences in this book, at least, drew from my formal training in philosophy. I decided to have some fun. The point of departure for The Gabriel Club, for example, was Hegel's Phenomenology. There's some form of dialectics or other working throughout the book. But that probably doesn't explain why some people find that the book works for them as a mystery or a thriller - and this regardless of the fact that I personally find the endeavor of pure philosophy to be quite thrilling).
Q. Are there any writers who've served as your literary influences?
A. Well, I can list some twentieth-century writers in a sort of intellectual topography that shows where I come from, and, hopefully, where I'm going: Bernhard, Bulgakov, Csáth, Platonov, Tournier, Cortazar, Malaparte, Magris, Gombrowicz, Lampedusa, Gracq, Giovene, Cioran, Ceronetti, Pessoa, Pilinszky. There must be more, but I can't remember off the top of my head.
Q. There don't seem to be any Anglo-Saxon or, indeed, Indian writers in this rather extensive list of influences. Is that deliberate?
A. I think the poets express the present condition better - the sense of unease, the impossibility of silence. I find contemporary prose writers - especially the Americans - to be somewhat verbose, to be perfectly honest.
I'm impressed by the sheer number of Indians writing in English about India, but I'm coming from a different tradition.
Q. A more European tradition?
A. To the extent that one can lump it together in that term, yes. I believe there's very little being written in English today that can match up to the work, for instance, of Thomas Bernhard in Austria, Michel Tournier in France, or Julien Gracq in France.
Q. It's been remarked that you "don't write like an Indian". Your use of language - where does that originate?
A. I look primarily to poetry. I'm enormously influenced by someone like Paul Celan or Ingeborg Bachmann. And, of course, the twentieth century Russians.
Q. People have noted the visual quality of your writing. Where does that come from?
A. My head. But seriously, the visual influences come both from film -- primarily the work of Tarkovsky and Bergman -- and from the paintings of Bacon, Richter and Kiefer. Bacon connects me to someone like Dostoyevsky or Gogol in manifesting the same kind of urban desperation.
Q. And what about the frequent musical references throughout the book?
A. I can't write without music playing in the background. Indeed, the point of departure for me is to find a particular piece that sets the mood, so to speak, of the place I'm at in the book, and to take it from that point on. When I mention a particular piece in the text, that's probably what I was listening to at the time.
Q. Any real life influences?
A. I love big cities; I love walking in big cities at night. There's a sense of being on the edge that frees up my mind. Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, New York, London, Philadelphia. I compose most of the set pieces in my head as I walk and the interesting thing is the random events that occur during these walks and then work their way into my fiction. I feel like a big sponge, soaking up my environment. It's a very heady, very liberating feeling.
Q. The study of philosophy appears to be quite integral to your writing.
A. Oh, absolutely, and in more ways than immediately apparent. For instance, French novelist, Michel Tournier, whose philosophical roman Les Météores first convinced me to try my own hand at fiction, studied German philosophy at the Sorbonne and Tübingen. I'm enormously influenced by him.
Q. And the Danube?
A. Ah, that's different, and personal. I have this love affair with rivers, you see. For instance, my next book, set in St. Petersburg, is as much about the city as the Neva, the river that runs through it.
I think my fascination with rivers might have something to do with the place I grew up in, Jamshedpur, situated in a river valley in eastern India. The town was built at the confluence of three rivers, and one of them, the Suvarnarekha, was especially turbulent during the monsoons. Every year there'd be bridges swept away and stories of people drowning, including a couple of classmates from school. That left an indelible impression.
Then we moved to Calcutta when I was fifteen and of course it's impossible to ignore the Ganges in that city.
I first encountered the Danube in the pages of a book, Il Danubio, by the Italian writer, Claudio Magris. It was a revelation both in terms of the meaning of rivers as well as the meaning of writing. It prompted my own foray into fiction and the first of many trips to discover one of the great rivers of the world. In so many ways the river and the book restored the meaning of my own world to me.
Q. Your next novel, Through the Mirrors of Strangers, is about Russia?
A. Well, more explicitly about St. Petersburg. The book takes as its backdrop the comparatively modest endeavor of charting the last one hundred years of Russian history. Melded with a case study of multiple personality syndrome, the book explores basic questions about truth, fact and fiction, and about knowledge, history, and identity. There are echoes of The Gabriel Club in this, of course, albeit on a larger canvas, the endeavor being to find out how men with ideals become men without ideals.
Q. Why Russia?
A. The answer's simple, isn't it: consider the history of Russia this past century. What novelist could ask for better material?
And then of course there's the challenge poised by the material. Look, we're ending the twentieth century on a note of complete confusion. We've ended the century, and indeed the millenium, with a spectacular failure in our attempts to rationally order the affairs of peoples and societies. The Soviet experiment has terminated in disarray, and the American one is fast approaching the time of its own reckoning, despite its triumphalist assertions to the contrary. I believe we will soon see a turning away from the sort of rationalistic determinism that has driven the project of Western enlightenment, towards a new quest for meaning. We're on the brink of a time of troubles, and without sounding overly millenerian, the renewed search for a reasonable community may well begin precisely in those places where the idea of community still resounds.
Q. India, for instance?
Q. What is your nationality?
A. I'm a citizen of India.
Q. Do you see yourself as an Indian writer? I'm asking you this because there's been some comment about the fact that you've chosen not to debut with a novel about India ...
A. I see myself primarily as a writer. I think that's a nationality in and of itself.
That said, of course I see myself as an Indian writer. I am a product of India, but I don't see myself as being particularly "Indian" in the sense that one can at all apply that unitary term to the crazy amalgam that's India. Indeed, I find it particularly anachronistic that in this day and age of increasingly relativistic identities and the strident "postmodern" rhetoric that accompanies the same, one must be asked to identify oneself as either this, that, or the other. Why the need for reductive labels? If I do have a home, it's on the page. As a writer that's enough for me, for my sense of who I am.
Q. Given your proclivities, do you ever feel a sense of displacement?
A. Oh, yes, I suppose I am a self-imposed exile of sorts. For one, the physical distance from my motherland haunts me. For another, there's the language I work in -- English -- despite the fact that this is the language I've always spoken and continue to most closely identify with. It's probably the language I dream in. And yet ...
Q. And yet?
A. Well, I suppose the only way to describe it is to paraphrase Kafka, who described Jews who wrote in German as trapped beasts. They lived, he wrote, with three impossibilities: "the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently."
Q. Kafka suggested a fourth impossibility as well, didn't he: the impossibility of writing?
A. Yes, he did, but I'm not there yet. It's not yet that extreme.
Q. To close on that note, is there an Indian book on the cards?
A. Book 4, possibly 5. I'm still too close to India, in an existential sense, to feel comfortable about writing an "Indian novel". I lack the necessary detachment.
- Copyright © Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
- Website By Tony Romeo
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- Patrick Whitehorn,
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- Tal Goretsky
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