The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: A Conversation with Julian Barnes

- | 3

Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair.

“No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.”

I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.”

I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties.

Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant.

“Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.”

And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse.

“I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight.

The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns.

When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony.

He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy…’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.”

“Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage?

It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it.

“The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.”

Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it.

Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage…Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.”

Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.”

However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.”

The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything.  “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster.  Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general.

“I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood…But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998…I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.”

“And the French love you,” I interjected.

“I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn’t issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”)

He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he’s not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.”

As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.”

“It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.”

“That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived.

I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried.

Image credit: FNPI – Joaquin Sarmiento

Salman Rushdie Meets Super Mario

- | 8

A religious tyrant decides that Salman Rushdie should die for writing a “blasphemous” book. For ten years he is forced to flee from one safe-house to another with no one for company but his bodyguards and an increasingly estranged wife. How does he pass the time?

How about video games?

In his newly released memoir Joseph Anton, which is narrated in the third person, Rushdie briefly describes how he went through a phase when he found himself immersed in Super Mario Bros, the popular Nintendo game that his son Zafar taught him to play.

Those were dark days for the 41-year-old writer. Every morning brought fresh reports of either The Satanic Verses being burnt or him being burnt in effigy. Then came the chilling news that the police had foiled a group of assassins dispatched from overseas to execute the fatwa. If it sounded straight out of a bigoted video game, well, it wasn’t – or not yet, at least. But more on that later.

Given Rushdie’s lonely and claustrophobic circumstances in what his late friend Christopher Hitchens called “the time of the toad,” it was scarcely surprising that the fantasy-loving novelist whose favorite childhood stories were The Wizard of Oz and The Arabian Nights should occasionally transform himself into Mario the mustachioed plumber and run away to Mushroom Kingdom. The magic console was the next best thing to a magic carpet or magic lamp, and it quickly became the “Genie-come-lately” in his fantasy arsenal. It helped that in this digital world of magical mushrooms and fire flowers, he was hunter rather than hunted. A vital role reversal, even if his wife didn’t think so.
Marianne came around and scolded him for playing video games. Thanks to Zafar, he had grown fond of Mario the plumber and his brother Luigi and sometimes Super Mario World felt like a happy alternative to the one he lived in the rest of the time. “Read a good book,” his wife told him scornfully. “Give it up.” He lost his temper. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” he exploded, and she made a grand exit.
And, gleefully, a few days later:
Alone at Hermitage Lane he reached the end of his Super Mario game, defeating the big bad Bowser himself and rescuing the insufferably pink Princess Toadstool. He was glad Marianne was not there to witness his triumph.
Rushdie’s triumph must have dissipated quite rapidly, however, when reality intruded with cruel irony in the form of a flesh-and-blood West Indian plumber who showed up at the shoddy safe-house to fix the central heating, forcing him to scurry out of sight and “hide in the bathroom for several hours, drenched in the now habitual sweat of shame.”

But no experience is wasted on a writer who is a compulsive memory-miner, and Rushdie put his video-game expertise to good use in the two children’s novels he wrote for his sons, though the second, Luka and the Fire of Life, is more directly indebted to Mario and Luigi than the first. The first, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was dedicated to Zafar and written during the fatwa years, investing it with an immediacy that gave it a haunting power. Easily the most enchanting of Rushdie’s many novels, this allegorical tale about the war between Storytelling and Silence was an acutely topical portrayal of the synchronous real-world battle between free speech and fanaticism. In the novel, one of young Haroun’s tasks is to rescue the talkative and tuneless Princess Batcheat (baatcheat is the Urdu word for conversation) from Khattam-Shud, the emperor of Silence. Was the chatterbox Princess a reincarnation of the “insufferably pink Princess Toadstool?” And did Mario inspire the character of the mustachioed water genie Iff, who uses his plumber’s wrench to turn on and turn off the faucet through which the Stream of Stories flows via “a P2C2E” (Process too Complicated to Explain)?

It certainly seems like it. But where the impact of Super Mario bursts forth in full bloom is in Luka and the Fire of Life, which Rushdie wrote for younger son, Milan. (Incidentally, Rushdie, with an over 4,00,000 Twitter following, is quite the Geek Dad. He plays Angry Birds on his iPhone and when asked by the Wall Street Journal how he, living in New York, had managed to tell his boys in London bedtime stories, he replied, “There’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime.”) Luka is an Arabian Nights-meets-Nintendo novel in which “Super-Luka” is cast as a modern-day Prometheus who sets out to execute “the most deliciously Disrespectful Deed in All of Time.” Namely, to steal the fire of life and carry it back home in order to wake his beloved storyteller father Rashid Khalifa from his fatal coma-like sleep.

The young boy’s quest is constructed almost exactly like a Super Mario video game. He is given 999 lives, and has to pass through several levels of increasing difficulty to reach the magic fire. Each level is given a suitably video game-sounding title – the Respectorate of Rats, the Mists of Time, the Great Stagnation, the Inescapable Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths and the Great Rings of Fire. Each time an enemy pots him with a loud BLLLAAARRRTT!, Luka loses one or more of his lives and bursts into “millions of shiny fragments” that join up again with “loud sucking noises.” Each time he clears a level, he saves his progress by punching a gold ball, which makes a loud and satisfying Ding. Eventually, after going through many “bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels” and P2C2Es and magical M2C2D (Machines too Complicated to Describe), the plucky fire-thief and his friends ding their way to victory.

Naturally, a punster like Rushdie couldn’t pass up the temptation to game with the word “console.” Early in the novel, Luka’s mother, Soraya, who disapproves strongly of her son’s love of video games, angrily asks her husband if all these “hedgehogs and plumbers” will help improve their son’s poor handwriting. Rashid, a genial stand-in for Rushdie, is actually quite sympathetic about Luka’s gaming passion. Which is bad enough as far as his wife as is concerned, but then he makes the additional mistake of correcting her mid-rant to say that the right term for the “pisps” and “wees” her son is addicted to – “Such names! They sound like going to the bathroom or what” – is console. At which point, she stages a grand exit from the room (like Marianne?) declaring over her shoulder: “I am in-console-able.”

On a more serious note, video games seem to hold a special appeal for Rushdie for reasons that go the very heart of his writing. First, as glorious purveyors of an “infinite number of parallel realities,” they fit perfectly into his exuberant mosaic of magical realism in which everything from the mythological and historical to tabloid headlines jostle for space. Which other writer can give you Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Akbar, and Angelina Jolie in one line? And what other game allows the player to become a “plumber” or a “zooming hedgehog” or even an “Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles?”

The other reason is the discursive narrative architecture of a video game, a non-linearity which he finds fascinating. Rushdie’s elliptical, story-within-story, detour-friendly, digression-heavy style is anything but linear. It can be maddening when he overdoes it, and he often does, but also richly rewarding if one just goes along for the ride. His books are not clean, blue Olympic swimming pools where each story has the good manners to stick to its own lane. Rather, they are an unruly and inquisitive and shape-shifting Ocean of Stories, into which hundreds of rivulets from different centuries and cultures – or streams of our collective sub-conscious, if you like – pour to pollute and mingle and fertilize one another.

Over the last few decades, with the exponential growth in the popularity of video games, writers have often been asked about the impact of these games on the future of the novel. Few have responded with as much insight as Rushdie did two years ago in this excellent Big Think interview. It’s worth listening to it in full. While he agreed that the concerns are legitimate and that too much gaming could have a dumbing-down effect and perhaps even erode man’s ancient attachment to the story, he made a powerful case for the new form. It interested him, he said, because of “the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided. He doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time. There are all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find mini stories to stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. I think that really interests me as a storyteller…To tell the story sideways.”

It’s no coincidence that one of the trickiest levels that Luka has to pass through is called The Trillion and One Forking Paths. This was Rushdie doffing his cap to Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” widely credited with having predicted hypertext on the Internet. “I’ve always thought of the Borges story of the garden of the forking paths as a kind of model,” Rushdie said in the same interview.
It’s a story whose author has gone mad because what he’s tried to do is to offer every possible variation of every moment. So boy meets girl, they fall in love or they don’t fall in love. That’s the first fork. And he wants to tell both those stories and every variation of every moment down both those lines. And of course it’s like nuclear fission. The possibilities explode into millions and billions of possibilities and it becomes impossible to write the book. It seems to me, the internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad possibilities offered at the same level of authority, if you like. I think that’s one of the ways storytelling could move. These games, these more free-form games, where the player can make choices of what the game is going to become, is a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility.
To loop back to the fatwa years where it all began, it’s quite strange that video games should continue to pop up in the relationship between Rushdie and Iran. Though the fatwa was lifted more than ten years ago, the present government evidently has no qualms about stoking the old death diktat. Earlier this year, the government-sponsored Islamic Students Association in Iran, as if determined to prove that history repeats itself as farce, announced that it had completed initial production on a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and Implementation of his Verdict. Two years ago, Rushdie told Big Think that in his opinion the great conflict in the world today is not so much the conflict between the West and the Islamic world but the conflict within Islam, between modernity and tradition, between the youth and the greybeard mullahs. This held true for Iran too, he said, and joked: “I often think the best way to liberate Iran is to drop Nintendo consoles from the air.” On second thought, perhaps not.

Publicity image via nintendo

Edward Lear, the London Olympics, and the Power of Absurdity

- | 4

Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony was a literary romp and a cultural riot. One giant limerick.

Rather than overwhelm his audience with grand formations and laser beams, the filmmaker chose to tell us the story of his country — and season it with a very British sense of the absurd. Or, in the words of England’s master of nonsense verse, Edward Lear, “pure, absolute nonsense.”

When the old girlie (the Queen) sate upon a whirly and the man in tails (Mr. Bean) ran slower than a snail, one could almost hear old Lear’s ghost chortle into his bushy beard. Like any good limerick, Boyle’s had music and rhythm, and for all its choreographed barminess, was underpinned by a surprisingly sound logic. Perhaps most crucial of all, it was a collective effort. The best nonsense poetry, George Orwell once said, pointing to the literary form’s folk origins, is that which is “produced by communities rather than by individuals.” And what else was the London opening but a terrific display of team-work, with thousands of volunteers  rehearsing for months in the rain and snow for no fee, but just the fun of it?

The Olympics have opened in the middle of Edward Lear’s bicentennial. And though he is being commemorated in England and Europe,  the celebrations have all but been drowned out by the obsessive focus on the other birthday boy, Charles Dickens. Having the bad form to be born in the same year as a literary rock star is a fate the self-ridiculing Lear would have accepted with a joke and a shrug. The 20th in a brood of 21 children, he was a bronchial, epileptic child who never got the attention he deserved or fame where he craved it most. History remembers him as a writer of limericks who gave us unforgettable characters like the Jumblies, the Qangle-Wangle, and the Pobbles, or even as a brilliant ornithological painter second only to Audubon. But this versatile Victorian’s great love was something else — landscape painting — and his gravestone in Italy simply reads: “Landscape painter in many lands.”

Again, the “many lands” we associate him with are not those he painted — Corfu, Italy, England and Egypt — but fictional ones he dreamed up to amuse little children. At the Olympics ceremony, when the parade of 204 competing nations marched around the stadium, some of the tinier countries sounded as if they had been plucked straight from Lear’s crazy cartography of places like Buda, Tring, Ischia, and Chankly-Bore, peopled by eccentric old men and women doing silly things like waltzing with cats and making tea in hats, and constantly vexing their straitlaced neighbors, always referred to by that ominous and slightly rude pronoun, “They.”

Fortunately, Lear hasn’t been completely forgotten by London’s Olympic mandarins. One of the events commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad is an opera based on his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat. The opera was staged on a barge that floated down London’s rivers and canals and was open to the public. In an inspired choice, the Royal Opera House asked Monty Python member Terry Jones, now 70, to write the libretto. Jones’s energetic opera works as a prequel to the poem — what were the circumstances, he asks, that brought these strange lovers together? — and crosses Lear’s quaint Victorian nonsense, which Jones complained had no drama worth the name, with a more Pythonesque brand of postmodern comedy. Fans of Monty Python may recall how they once conducted their own Olympics, with a traditional 100-yard race except that it was open only to athletes with no sense of direction. Consequently, the sportsmen ran all over the place in an earnest display of silliness that no doubt Lear, who once expressed a wish to hop around on one leg, would have heartily loved.

Anyone less confident than Terry Jones might have blushed at the generous use of the word “pussy” in the poem — when Lear wrote it, it meant cat, not twat — and even attempted to substitute it with something hideous like “kitty.” To cite a related example of censorship, in the BBC’s recent adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the young heroine, who in Dickens’s unfinished novel is always referred to by her nickname, Pussy,  is called Rose, which is her real name that no one uses. Un-hustled by these displays of political correctness, Jones has stuck to Lear’s ballad, and in his production, too, the elegant fowl strums on a small guitar and sings those marvelous lines, “Oh beautiful pussy, oh pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are, you are. What a beautiful pussy you are.”

Apart from being one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, Lear’s endorsement of an inter-species marriage fits right in with Boyle’s Olympian theme of multicultural inclusiveness, something that he literally spelled out by flashing Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web motto of “This is for Everyone” in towering letters across the stadium. Reacting to the opening ceremony, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a fearless and outspoken critic of his own government’s totalitarian ways, put his finger on the zeitgeist when he said that only a free country could have pulled off this kind of an idiosyncratic entertainment that reflected the character of a free people rather than the marketing vision of a police state.

Freedom, or a mousy longing to be free, is at the heart of Edward Lear’s writing. It is this radical element that made Aldous Huxley, an altogether more serious wit, turn to Lear again and again in moments of depression. There is a certain freedom in being completely inconsequential, and Lear offers no dearth of unadulterated silliness. But his nonsense verse, though light-hearted on the surface, also has a persistent and often violent pattern of rebellion that slips in and out like a dark ripple. His Book of Nonsense, for instance, is full of pain and death, grotesque conflict and romantic heartbreak. Michael Rosen, Britain’s former children’s laureate and Lear admirer, calls it a pattern of “disruption.” Lear, he says, not only delighted in disrupting language by conjuring up new words, he also reveled in disrupting bodies and dress and notions of propriety in an age where morality and sexuality were suffocatingly corseted. So his old man on a hill runs up and down in his grandmother’s gown; another old man with a poker paints his face with red ochre; and yet another prances around in an outlandishly oversized ruff. Not only does the moral majority, the nameless “they,” frown on these men in drag, they are subconsciously so afraid of them that they take matters into their hatchet-happy hands and serve out punishment. So the old man of Whitehaven who dances with a raven gets smashed, as does another old man who incessantly bangs on a gong. The courageous young lady of Norway, who is bold enough to sit in the doorway, gets squeezed by the door. In each case, the harmless eccentric pays dearly for being different.

Which is what makes The Owl and Pussycat so extraordinary. Here, finally, Lear gives his inner demons the slip, and goes for a full-on happy ending. We leave the blissful and quince-and-mince-fed newlyweds in a trance of happiness, dancing hand in hand in the moonlight. Rosen calls it one of the “purest” love poems in the English language — which is a lovely irony given that it celebrates a gender-ambiguous, bird-beast union that the “they” would no doubt condemn as a gross impurity straight out of “Leviticus.” With quiet cunning, Lear withholds the gender of his two lovers. Perhaps the owl, who serenades his beloved, is male; but then Pussy is the one who proposes, which makes it rather confusing. The Owl and the Pussycat was published in 1871, in an era when homosexuality and miscegenation were serious crimes. In one of Lear’s most ruefully direct political limericks, we are told of the man from Jamaica who married a Quaker: “But she cried out, ‘Oh, lack! I have married a black!’ Which distressed that Old Man of Jamaica.” If even a Quaker — a denomination known for their progressive social views — balks at a black husband, think of how the dreaded “they” would react to such a union. Or to that of raptor and feline.

So is The Owl and the Pussycat Lear’s vehicle to assert in a charmingly inoffensive and anthropomorphic way that marriage is a many-splendored thing? That in a perfect, fantasy world, the word marriage — something which the real world is struggling with today — could embrace a same-sex, trans-species love as well as a more conventional inter-sex, same-species one? “All great humorous writers show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests,” writes Orwell in his essay on nonsense poetry. “Boccaccio treats Hell and Purgatory as a ridiculous fable, Swift jeers at the very conception of human dignity, Shakespeare makes Falstaff deliver a speech in favor of cowardice in the middle of a battle. As for the sanctity of marriage, it was the principal subject of humor in Christian society for the better part of a thousand years.”

The laws of love and marriage are the windmills Lear chooses to tilt at. The owl and the pussycat overcome society’s marital taboos by resorting to one of the oldest tricks in the book, elopement. Lear’s characters frequently run away — whether it’s the Old Person galloping away from the people of Basing or the heartbroken Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo racing across the ocean on the back of a turtle — and they usually run away to sea — sometimes in a sieve. The sea is a symbol of endless adventure and freedom, so instead of going to Gretna Green, the runaway couple hops into a pea-green boat and sails far away to a land where the Bong-tree grows. But it’s not as if convention is completely flouted — wisely, they take with them plenty of money, some food and a famous spoon, and make sure that their marriage is sealed with a ring and by a religious minister, even if, parodically, the ring is a pig’s nose-ring and the minister is a gobbling turkey.

This tension between flouting the establishment and accommodating it is an accurate manifestation of Lear’s conflicted personality — one replete with inner longings that he never really had the courage to pursue. Like the young lady of Portugal whose ideas were “excessively nautical” but who didn’t have the gumption to leave Portugal, Lear never really broke the rules the way his characters did. So he lived vicariously through them, and in this poem he seems to be telling us that fowl and feline may come from two very different worlds — even if, as Terry Jones helpfully points out, they both eat mice — but with some smart planning and a little luck, omnia vincia amor— love can conquer all.

Love didn’t play much of a role in Lear’s lonely and wandering life. Many scholars have dwelt on the phallic imagery in his poems and drawings and his suppressed sexuality — the fact that he never married and had only one middle-aged romance that ended badly and made him flee into himself like the poor Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. Orwell says “it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life.” Several biographers have suggested that he was “spiritually or emotionally homosexual.” In her biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, Vivien Noakes describes Edward as a “rather ugly, short-sighted, affectionate little boy” frequently given to bouts of depression which he called “the Morbids.” He also suffered from epilepsy, which was debilitating enough without the cruel belief at the time that it was a curse caused by masturbation. The shame must have destroyed young Edward and deformed him emotionally. As for that sigh of sadness that runs through even his funniest verse, what else would you expect from a man who, as a little boy, was taken to see the clowns and began to sob uncontrollably?

Image Credit: Flickr/Nick J Webb

Literary Tourism: At Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern

- | 6

The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.

Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.

Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.

The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.

Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”

Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.

Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”

Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.

To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Exit, Pursued by a Tiger

- | 10

In the lead story of Rajesh Parameswaran’s acclaimed first collection, I Am An Executioner, a Bengal tiger escapes from an American zoo and runs amuck. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is hair-raising, but all I could think of while reading it was: Not one more tiger-escaping-from-zoo story?

Tiger Lit has never been so popular. Look at the number of award-winning fictions in the last decade in which tigers escape from zoos. There’s Rajesh Parameswaran’s story (the collection may well win a prize); Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife; Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Carol Birch’s Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie; Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winner The White Tiger, in which the tiger’s escape is a metaphor for breaking out of the cage of poverty; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which also bagged a Booker. And we’re just talking tigers here, not animals-escaping-from-zoo fictions, which would give us Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and no doubt several others.

All kinds of besotted, bombed-out, starving, mangy, metaphoric and misunderstood man-eaters are now on the loose. Not since Humbert Humbert got into his car with a different sort of lust have our literary highways been more unsafe — or more exhilarating. From the roars of approval that have greeted each new work, it would appear that critics and jurors, having tasted blood, can’t get enough of this killer app generously spattered with words like rippling, rolling, muscular, tawny, fiery, flaming, red, pink, orange, carrot, golden, amber, yellow, black, musky, sour, and, of course, stripe-lashed.

The grandfather of modern escapee Tiger Lit is probably the noted Indian writer R. K. Narayan, whose A Tiger for Malgudi, published in 1983, ends with a former circus tiger and a yogi wandering companionably into the hills. Ironically, very few contemporary Indian writers in English would dare to write about tigers today (except metaphorically like Adiga did) for fear of being pummeled for peddling exotica — Adiga got pummeled anyway for peddling poverty — even though the tiger, widely worshiped for its unlimited power and fertility, is about as exotic to India as poverty is. All the fictions mentioned above are essentially Western (Adiga’s apart), despite a dander of Indianness, in that either the writer or the tiger is a person of Indian origin (except for Téa Obreht who is Serbian-American and her tiger Siberian, but whose novel evokes India through its frequent invocations of Kipling’s The Jungle Book). Both Rajesh Parameswaran and Rajiv Joseph are Indian-American, and all the cats are Bengal tigers  — Joseph even specifies, with what one hopes is parochial satire, that his cat is from the Sunderbans in “West Bengal”, thereby ruling out any chance of it being Bangladeshi.

The tigers are a mixed bunch ranging from the mangy to the magnificent. Some of them are regular chaps with a healthy disdain for man, others are Blakesian creatures tormented by their dietary preference for juicy children. Indeed, a spiritual subtext runs like spoor through these works, deepening the roots of textual kinship beyond that of a common plot line. Perhaps this braiding of reality and fable into a meaty mysticism is inevitable in stories where tigers are orphans, atheists, metaphors, stowaways and ghosts; where they fall in love with their zoo keeper and are petted by little boys, deaf-mutes and derelicts; flee German, American and NATO bombs; catch flying fish alongside a young boy on a lifeboat; bite the hand that feeds them and, in an aching passage on what war does to caged animals, chomp on their own legs to assuage their hunger.

At the raw, red heart of this literature beats the central question: where do animals fit in the social contract? Do they fit in the deadening comfort of the zoo, where they are fed pounds and pounds of glistening red meat and organs without having to raise a whisker? How do displacement and captivity deform their souls? What happens during war? In every story, the wild and jagged chiaroscuro of the tiger’s stripes is offset against the leaden symmetry of its cage. “Captivity and freedom,” says Parameswaran in an interview to Granta, “are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Obreht says that she felt a sneaking sympathy for Kipling’s universally reviled Shere Khan, and that her own tiger was a kind of corrective to that mean, buffoon image. Clearly, she speaks for her pack. When the various tigers break free, and the killings begin, authorial awe is palpable in the treatment of the way this endangered predator discovers its primitive natural instinct, its livid sense of smell, and the unbelievably sweet taste of freshly killed meat.

Despite occasional lapses into sentimentalism and garrulity — tiger spiritualism can get tricky — these imaginative and empathetic fictions go a long way to deepening our understanding of the shared mammalian impulses of love, violence, freedom, and above all, a lust for life.

“The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran
This story could easily be called “Lost in Translation.” Ming the tiger is in love with his bald, chubby zoo keeper Kitch. But then Kitch mistakes Ming’s love for aggression and smacks him on the nose with a thin, long stick that he always carries but has never ever used before. Hell hath no fury like a tiger scorned. Ming pounces on Kitch, and love bites him like a vampire, “just once, hard and quick” in the neck. But never having hurt a man in his life, Ming is clueless about his own strength and is aghast at what he has done. He tries desperately to lap at Kitch’s neck to stanch the flow, and then, in a spine-tingling introduction of menace, realizes that he can’t stop licking because “Kitch’s blood was delicious.” In that one line, a killer is born. Ming breaks free, and feels a “strange and terrifying euphoria.” The story continues in this darkly comic vein with the bungling, well-meaning tiger trying to help a human cub (even though it smells terrible) by using his giant mouth to provide “a warm, comforting womb for it,” only to be filled with self-loathing when he realizes that he has “stupidly, inadvertently, recklessly suffocated it.” He even roars encouragingly at it from his “hot and humid lungs” but it refuses to stir. Parameswaran’s prose has the tender-savage texture of a rare steak veined with blood, and even though one feels a juddering revulsion when Ming the merciless chomps blissfully on fresh viscera and declares, “I have never felt so much love in all my life,” it also feels utterly and helplessly right.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Jamrach’s tiger is trigger rather than theme of Birch’s Victorian-era novel. He stars only in the first few pages of the story, when he breaks out of his cage and meets dreamy, young Jaffy Brown. That brief encounter in a filthy London market, during which Jaffy strokes the tiger on the nose and is gently picked up by the scruff of his neck, radically changes his fortunes. By the time Jaffy is carried home to his mother, his head, which a few minutes ago, was smaller than the tiger’s paw, now feels larger that “St. Paul’s dome” and is bursting with tiger love. Not only is this regal tiger-man cub encounter (based on a true event) an inversion of the Shere Khan-Mowgli hate-fest, but Birch gives us with what is easily one of the most eloquent descriptions of a tiger’s face as seen through a boy’s wonder-struck eyes. Her calm, Zen-like paean has resonances of Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, but instead of the dread hand of fear, an intense stirring of awe is what one feels.

Here’s Jaffy talking about his tiger:
The Sun himself came down and walked on earth…This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders. He was gold, and the pattern painted so carefully all over him, so utterly perfect, was the blackest black in the world. His paws were the size of footstools, his chest snow white…He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I had no fear. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes. His nose was a slope of downy gold, his nostrils pink and moist as a pup’s. He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed…Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose. Even now I feel how beautiful that touch was. Nothing had ever been so soft and clean…he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet. It was like being felled by a cushion.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph’s brutal play was inspired by a bizarre but true news report of a tiger in a bombed-out Baghdad zoo biting off the hand of an American soldier. This scathing critique of the Iraq war uses grotesque comedy and magic realism to devastating effect. Joseph’s tiger chomps the right hand of a soldier who is sweetly but stupidly trying to feed it a Slim Jim. The tiger is then shot dead with Uday Hussein’s gold gun which the solider has looted along with a gold toilet seat he plans to flog on eBay. Tiger becomes a mangy, ghetto-mouthed ghost who stalks through the city saying “motherfucker” and gets completely spooked by the “burned and skeletal” animal topiary in Uday Hussein’s private garden, an eerie stand-in for a perverted Eden. “I mean, what the fuck is this supposed to be?…Vegetative beasts?…People. First they throw all the animals in a zoo and then they carve up the bushes to make it look like we never left.”

The tiger hates the fact that his ghost has been condemned to wander this burning city, and thinks of himself as Dante in Hades. In a broader examination of war and man’s affinity for violence, he recalls how he had once devoured a girl and a boy, and wonders if that makes him evil, only to solemnly conclude: “It wasn’t cruel, it was lunch.”

The only reason this damning play managed to be staged on Broadway – which loves bombshells but hates bombs – was because it had the crowd-pulling cat on its cast. Unfortunately, the tiger’s precious monologues are the one off-key note in this otherwise pitch-perfect play. Like the one-handed solider who pays a young Iraqi prostitute to stand behind him and help him jerk off because his new robotic right hand can’t do it and his left hand  can’t get the angle right, the tiger’s belabored intellectual masturbation has the same cack-handed feel.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Obreht’s novel has one main tiger (the titular husband) and two in walk-on roles, though walk-on is a cruel term for Zbogom (Freedom) who, crazed with fear and hunger during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, begins to “eat his own legs, first one then another,” in a bloody metaphor for the fragmentation of the country.

The main tiger is another war victim, but of the German bombs that pounded Belgrade in 1941. By the time he breaks free, he is mangy, missing teeth and a “host for leeches.” The streets are littered with corpses, so he feasts on “the dense watery taste of the bloated dead” until he makes his first kill, a juicy young calf, and is sent into an ecstasy of longing for fresh meat, bovine or human. He begins to haunt a mountain village, and the villagers, who have never seen a tiger before, are convinced that a yellow-eyed devil has descended. The only two who are unafraid are the narrator’s grandfather, then a young boy addicted to Jungle Book, and the butcher’s wife, a teenage, deaf-mute Muslim girl with large eyes and a runny nose, whom the butcher calls bitch and beats to a pulp.

Obreht’s novel is deeply political but curiously nameless — there are no Serbians, Bosnians or Allied Forces, and the country is not identified. The only two outsider-enemies who are identified are the tiger and the Muslim girl. A brief and wondrous kinship ignites between these two outcasts. She steals out at night to feed him meat from the smoke house, and when the butcher mysteriously dies and she turns out to be pregnant, the village is convinced that she has become the tiger’s wife. This fable was inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and Obreht is on the mark when she says that the tiger’s voice “came very naturally to her and felt right.” With crafted, velveteen prose, she evokes the tiger’s mythic presence, his warm, sour smell and “big red, heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs.”

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Balram Halwai, a desperately poor man from rural India, and the titular character of this unsparingly harsh novel, is employed as the chauffeur of a corrupt feudal family in Delhi. Servant and master represent the two Indias — the India of darkness and the India of light, and Balram is consumed by an almost deranged desire to escape his India, haunted as he is by the memory of his tubercular rickshaw-puller father. Nor is he satisfied with the bones that have been thrown him — a new uniform and regular meals. “In the old days,” he says, “there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”

The predatory analogy recurs when he compares the plight of the poor to hens in a chicken coop. “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Balram doesn’t want to be eaten. The law of the jungle says that the only way not to be eaten is to become the eater, the tiger. But not any tiger. He realizes this when he visits the National Zoo in Delhi, where he sees that rare and special beast, a white tiger, pacing restlessly in his pen like “the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.” The tiger, he says, was “hypnotizing himself by walking like this — it was the only way he could tolerate his cage.” Suddenly, the tiger stops, turns and looks him in the eye. In that piercing, epiphanic moment, so potent that he faints with rapture, Balram realizes that he “can’t live the rest of his life in a cage.” If he has to kill to break free, well, the India of Light has gotten away with murder.

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A garrulous, funny, and moving fable of faith and survival, which Barack Obama called “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling.” But first things first. Martel’s talkative narrator, the Hindu-Muslim-Christian Pi Patel, should get a gold medal for coming up with the most extravagant analogies ever used to describe a tiger’s bits and pieces — including its feces.

Pi’s heightened observations are the result of him being shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. So here goes. The “flame-colored carnivore” has paws larger than “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica” and a round head larger than the “planet Jupiter;” his mouth is “an enormous pink cave” with teeth like “long yellow stalactites and stalagmites” and a tongue “the size and color of a rubber hot-water bottle;” his ears are “perfect arches;” his feces (which hungry Pi tries to eat and spits out) “a big ball of gulab jamun but with none of the softness;” his mating cry “as rich as gold or honey and as spine-tingling as the depth of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees;” and his leaping body “a fleeting, furred rainbow.” Want more? Pi is positively rapturous on his first-mate’s “carrot-orange face:” “The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese.”

For 227 days, during which he swings between boredom and terror, Pi and the Kathakali-Chinese butterfly coexist. They make it because Pi manages to cow the horribly seasick tiger with shrill blasts from an orange whistle and keep them both alive by catching turtles and flying fish, having cannily divined that the zoo tiger looks upon him as a food provider and will spare him if he continues to provide. As his salt-encrusted body blisters and burns and his clothes fray to shreds, the vegetarian Pi discovers the joy of drinking “the fresh-tasting fluid from the eyes of large fish.” He goes from being sick with fear of Richard Parker to the realization that without him for company, he will lose the will to survive. Eventually, his prayers to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Vishnu are answered and the two mammals are saved. But Pi is devastated, when, without so much as a backward glance Richard Parker slinks into the Mexican jungle. For the rest of his life he is haunted by this cold-hearted desertion, the lack of a proper goodbye. Perhaps Pi might derive some consolation from what the Indian poet Eunice de Souza has to say about Richard Parker’s haughty species in a poem called “Advice to Women:”

 Keep cats
 if you want to learn to cope with
 the otherness of lovers.
 Otherness is not always neglect –
 Cats return to their litter trays
 when they need to.
 Don’t cuss out of the window
 at their enemies.
 That stare of perpetual surprise
 in those great green eyes
 will teach you
 to die alone.

Image Credit: Pexels/Blue Ox Studio.