(2016) The Year in Books – Interpreter of Maladies

interpreter-of-maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

This is another in a long line of ridiculously lucky ‘picked off a bookshop shelf on a whim’ choices – a process that’s introduced me to at least a dozen amazing authors and only ever given me one actual dud (Oe Kenzaburo’s absolutely terrible The Changeling, in case you’re looking for recommendations of books to definitely not read). I’m a little embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of Jhumpa Lahiri before, but after reading Interpreter of Maladies and her similarly impressive novel The Lowland, I’m excited to explore the rest of her bibliography.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that largely concerns itself with the lives of Indian-Americans, sometimes first, sometimes second generation, with a handful of stories set in India itself. Now, as a well-establish, dyed in the wool white boy, albeit one with ‘heritage’ outside the UK*, I obviously don’t see a great deal here that’s directly relatable to my own experiences. But despite an instantaneous knee-jerk reaction against any media that doesn’t feature someone almost exactly like me in the starring role, I quickly fell in love with Interpreter of Maladies, as it manages to do what only the best literature can do – show us a deep, universal emotional truth we recognise in a life we don’t.

On a smaller scale, Lahirir’s moment to moment writing is consistently sharp and understated, and she shows a genuine, thoughtful insight into the complexities of her characters. Every story in this collection is special, but here are some of my favourites:

‘Mrs. Sen’s’ focuses on the suffocating sense of isolation that comes from packing up and moving one’s entire life to somewhere completely new and alien. In its titular character we see what happens when someone isn’t given the means to integrate into a new culture, as well as how the prospect of integration can itself come to seem suffocating in its own way.

‘Interpreter of Maladies’ follows a family of Indian-Americans visiting India on vacation, exploring how children of immigrants can be purportedly part of a culture yet have nothing to do with it whatsoever. And as well as this – how we can sometimes convince ourselves we have such a strong connection with someone; know someone so well and imagine the arc of our joined lives, only to be jarred back into the knowledge that we have nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Finally, ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ follows a Pakistani professor working in the US on a research grant while his family remains back home in the buildup to the Bangladesh Liberation War. In it we see the pain of being separated from one’s family and one’s culture, especially when looking on in safety far away in a time of crisis, and the comfort a shared culture can bring after so long isolated from one’s home.

I figured I should put something here to avoid this post from just trailing off, but I don’t really have anything else to say except to reiterate that you should read Interpreter of Maladies. It’s a genuinely great book. It even won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so you don’t even have to trust my notoriously unreliable opinions, and instead can trust those of much smarter people – people with degrees in literature and double-barrelled surnames and finely manicured side-partings, probably.

* (I don’t think any white person has ever felt comfortable using the word ‘heritage’ when talking about themselves without adding quotation marks)

 

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(2016) The Year in Books – The Goldfinch

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The Goldfinch is the long and twisting story of Theodore Decker. On an ordinary day in his almost-obnoxiously New York childhood (we have an hour to kill before meeting with your principal – let’s ride a cab a few blocks and go see an Old Masters exhibit at a fancy gallery), Theodore is caught in a terrorist bombing. Shell shocked and bleeding in the aftermath of the explosion, unable to find his mother, Theodore finds something else instead – an Old Master painting, undamaged by the explosion. For reasons he can’t explain, he takes it, and hides it away for himself. Then, after finding his way home he waits for the call to come telling him his mother’s been found and taken to hospital. After an agonizing wait, he receives a call, and is told that his mother died in the blast.

At first he stays with a friend’s family. Foster care is discussed, but eventually he’s sent off to live with his estranged, addicted-to-everything-from-Class-A-drugs-to-high-stakes-gambling father in Las Vegas. From there Theodore’s life continues to ping pong out of control, before finding a degree of stability back in New York, at the home of an art dealer he met after the terrorist attack.

Throughout the bulk of its 700+ pages The Goldfinch is a fairly standard bildungsroman, following Theodore’s adolescence and early adulthood, and leaving the priceless stolen painting hidden under his bed all but forgotten. But periodically we’re reminded that that it’s still there. Years later Theodore finds himself unable to get rid of it, despite the very real, years-in-prison danger of being caught with a priceless missing painting.

Eventually the novel finally veers into a world of art thieves and underground crime. A lesser novel would have fallen apart under the strain of this  jarring shift, but by that point Theodore is so well sketched, so deeply understood by the reader that the high stakes crime-caper denoument meshes surprisingly well with the more slow-paced introspection of the earlier sections. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Theodore’s early life is arguably far more compelling than the bulk of his adult years, with the deadened, discomforting aftermath of the terrorist bombing an especially strong testament to Tartt’s status as one of the best writers of pure narrative prose around.

But even above that, to me the most special aspects of The Goldfinch are found during Theodore’s early adolescence with his father – and more importantly his friend Boris – in Las Vegas. Boris – a rough, alcoholic, troubled Ukrainian boy – quickly becomes Theodore’s best, essentially only friend. The relationship they share comes to dominate much of the novel, and it’s one of the most well-realised, closely-observed friendships I’ve seen in fiction (Elena Ferante’s Neapolitan Novels also do a wonderful job, in its own vastly different way (cough cough)).

The two spend their days skipping school, shoplifting, drinking and taking drugs to the point of unbelievable, dangerous levels of intoxication. And then they do it again and again and again. And in doing so they become the only island of stability in each other’s horribly disfunctional lives. At times it feels like they share every waking minute together. Their gangly childhood affection mixes with intense jealousy, violence, and those handful of unspoken-of moments that, when recalled years down the line feel both sharp and imminent, but also entirely unreal; that cause you to wonder at 26 years-old – ‘my God, was that really me?’.

Are we still talking about The Goldfinch, here?

I loved the entirety of this stupidly long book, but this was the part that really stuck with me. Theodore feels real and alive and close at hand throughout the novel, but its during these years in Las Vegas that Theodore becomes Theodore. And it’s in its depiction of that turbulent, drug-addled example of teenage chaos that The Goldfinch really captures something special: that awful, wonderful (, awful) intensity of adolescence. And the people that come to mean so much to you, to shape you in such unexpected ways, before disappearing, in some cases, forever.

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(2016) The Year in Books – The Vegetarian

the-vegetarian

I’m not sure why, but every time I heard someone recommend this book they described it as the story of a woman who decides to stop eating meat, only to then deal with the social fallout as her friends and family fail to understand this decision. Well, fancy my surprise when I get to the bit where someone starts talking about turning into a tree.

Sure, The Vegetarian starts off with its protagonist Yeong-hye, a regular housewife in a regular (well…let’s call it ‘semi-functional’) marriage, deciding to abstain from meat after a particularly disturbing nightmare. And sure, a hefty section of the book describes the unsympathetic reactions of those around her. Her literally-good-for-nothing-all-around-terrible-person husband flies off the handle when she refuses to cook him anything containing meat. His coworkers and their families come close to outright bullying as she refuses to eat meat at a dinner party. And her family go way past the point of bullying as they at one point literally force meat into her mouth and try to make her swallow it. (side note: this inability to understand someone’s choice to be a vegetarian might sound really strange to you. While I’ve never lived in South Korea it does seem to have something common with my current home Japan – a country where vegetarianism is decidedly Not A Thing, and where restaurant staff have been known to respond to requests for a dish with ‘no meat’ by recommending meat stock-based dishes, just with the actual huge slices of meat removed (occasionally with little flakes of meat still in it because that’s not really meat after all).)

But it’s about a hell of a lot more than just vegetarianism, even if its treatment of Yeong-hye’s situation is indeed insightful and at times slightly sickening. Divided into three sections, The Vegetarian starts to wriggle itself apart at the seams as it transitions from the first into the second. The uncaring, borderline sociopathic narration of Yeong-hye’s husband that focuses on his wife’s decision gives way to Yeong-hye’s neurotic, increasingly unhinged brother-in-law as he obsesses about his art projects, which one day come to centre around an equally unhinged obsession with Yeong-hye herself. And at a moment of unbelievable climax it transitions again into its third part, where again our viewpoint shifts. This time the narrator is Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, as she tries to care for both Yeong-hye and her own troubled family.

In trying to write about The Vegetarian these past few paragraphs I’ve sort of come to understand why everyone just told me it was about a vegetarian and left things at that: it’s almost impossible to talk about it without giving everything away. And while it’s not a mystery story, or even particularly dependent on keeping secrets from the reader, some of the power of The Vegetarian would definitely be stripped away if you were to go in expecting all its weird twists and genuinely insane sucker punches.

I will say, however, that what it does it does incredibly well. Han Kang’s prose (and of course Deborah Smith’s translation) is simultaneously sharp and deadened. It captures something sad and awful about ordinary lives in Yeong-hye’s marriage, her relationship with her family, and society in general. There’s a heavy, suffocating atmosphere hanging pregnant over the whole thing (pregnant with dread), which only becomes more heavy and much much much much more suffocating as the book continues and Yeong-hye’s life begins to fray at the seams.

But also, wow, that middle section. While not exactly throwing off that heavy, suffocating atmosphere, it also temporarily manages to escape it – shooting suddenly upwards into the mania of an artist completely absorbed in their own work. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a sad, strange character, but it’s also shockingly easy to find something to recognise and, perversely, even root for in his abandonment of his ordinary life for his weird and increasingly unhealthy obsession with a single aesthetic desire. And this holds true, even as things culminate in what could very well be the emotional and sexual exploitation of someone with severe mental illness. In a book otherwise so harsh and dread-pregnant, this manic break in the middle feels strangely positive, even as you know what Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is doing is 99% definitely morally wrong, even as you know it can’t possibly last. And when it inevitably all falls apart, and the impact knocks us into the long, trying, but still very worthwhile final third of the novel, it makes everything feel so much worse.

The Vegetarian is a very special book. It’s strange and depressing, and reading it somethings actually feels unhealthy, and that’s exactly why I love it so much, and exactly why you might also like it but might end up really hating it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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