Tuesday, January 27, 2009

#1: The Inheritance of Loss

There is a frisson of danger in every reading venture. It sharpens as you grow older and begin to understand that reading does not last forever; you will lose your eyesight or your money or your mind; and eventually some book -the thought of it roils my gut- will be your last.

It's an Apocalyptic notion, the end of reading, and in its wake trot the four horsemen of bibliophiliac anxiety. You will read something bad. You will read something unpleasant. You will read something not as good as something else. You will read something you don't like, and meanwhile your book -the book that will scrub you, turn you inside out, hang you up to dry- remains undiscovered.

It's especially dangerous, then, to pick up a book you're afraid you won't like. This month, for the first installment of my year of reading dangerously, I inched chapter by chapter through The Inheritance of Loss, the Booker Prize-winning novel by the young Anglo-Indian author Kiran Desai.

I knew the writing would be good -the Booker Prize committee is like a really large, really intimidating literary bouncer; you don't get past the velvet rope without gleaming prose- but I had the sense that, as in so many novels of colonial and post-colonial India, bad shit would happen to the characters. And the times are few and far between when I can race eagerly across pages and pages toward the humiliation/rape/torture/death of someone in whom I've invested.

As it turned out, The Inheritance of Loss was dangerous. Just not in the way I'd guessed.

In the most northerly part of India, under the shadow of the Himalayas, seventeen-year-old Sai is raised by her sour, Anglophile grandfather and a rag-tag passel of servants and neighbors, all of whom seem to live their lives splayed between First and Third Worlds. Sai's grandfather, the Judge, was the object of scorn when he studied in England; now he indicts everything and everyone around him. Father Booty, a former Swiss monk, makes cheese and guzzles liquor with his particular (Indian) friend. Mrs. Sen and Lola grow their gardens to bursting but dream of the lives of their children in India and America. The Cook -who is never named- lives for letters from his son, Biju, who's working his way through the restaurant kitchens of America.

Meanwhile, cultural unrest in the remote province intensifies. Tibetan nationalists march in the streets and prey upon non-natives. Sai and her neighbors are caught up in the crisis, and yes, indeed, bad shit happens.

Fortunately, by that time, I didn't care. Desai writes with a finely-tuned ear and a sharp wit- too sharp. Her depictions are on-target; her language is exquisitely wielded; yet, just as a history of violence underlays every pleasure in the province, Desai treats every passage as a weapon, mercilessly flaying her characters until, stripped of all pretensions, all illusions, all dignity, all humanity, they're nothing but lumpen narrative clay.

It's a ruthless novel, a novel that gives no quarter. Every person is revealed as base, every motive as petty, every struggle as shameful. In the novel's final pages, the cook's son, Biju, is torn between returning to India or sticking with his thankless American life. He muses:

"If he continued his life in New York, he might never see his pitaji again. It happened all the time; ten years passed, fifteen, the telegram arrived, or the phone call, the parent was gone and the child was too late. Or they returned and found they'd missed the entire last quarter of a lifetime, their parents like photograph negatives. And there were worse tragedies. After the initial excitement was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all, and people, they forgot, or they became accustomed to its absence. They returned and found just the facade; it had been eaten from inside..."

The loss of the habit of affection is, indeed, dangerous. Forget how to love even the most odious of your characters, lose the trick of forgiving them, and a rich, bustling, narrative collapses into a stark account of crime and punishment.

Do yourself a favor: go back a year in the Booker Prize cycle and read John Banville's The Sea, instead. Our books are numbered.

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