Sunday, 6 July 2008

A Literary Evening

The auditorium was half full; or half-empty, depending on how one chooses to look at things. At the stroke of seven the guest speaker, accompanied by the organizer of the literary evening, arrived. The organizer, a middle-aged man with white hair and, in stark contrast, black bushy eyebrows, which gave him a vaguely thuggish look, like that of a Latin American drug baron, began mumbling introductory words, firstly about himself and what he got up to at university, and then about the guest speaker, whose name did not ring an immediate bell—I really should have done my homework, should have ‘googled’ her before turning up for the event. We were told that she was born in Poland, spent early childhood in France, was raised subsequently in Canada, and now lived in London. I was surprised to hear that she had written ten novels; I did not remember coming across any of her books while browsing in high-street bookshops, which I do frequently. The introduction continued, the organizer obviously being filled with the desire to fill the audience in about more examples of the meritoriousness of this multi-faceted woman: she had written several works of non-fiction including a family memoir which had won prestigious commonwealth awards; she had edited anthologies; she was at one time the deputy director of an esteemed art institute and at another the deputy-president of an equally, if not more, esteemed one; she had written extensively for radio and television. And, many years ago, she had co-authored a book on case-studies of Sigmund Freud’s female patients. This had a semi-familiar ring. The organizer concluded his introduction on the note that she was there that evening to read out excerpts from her latest book, a work of non-fiction, on history of mental illness and those who think they can treat it (doctors), concentrating on women, from the 19th century to the present. Throughout this long introduction the guest, a slim, wiry woman with angular features, who looked to be in her early fifties (but who, I subsequently found out, was in her sixties), sat demurely, looking at the organizer’s feet or calves, one of which, as it happened, he scratched vigorously throughout his talk. (Chronic eczema, perhaps? Or psoriasis? Or some other itchy skin condition? Or an allergy to the socks he was wearing (but why, in that case, only one, Watson) ? Or just a nervous tick?) At one stage he paused, leaned forward a bit, opened his mouth a fraction, and I was sure a burp was going to follow; but he did not, and it did not.

The organizer then proceeded to interview the author (or should I say authoress?), essentially going over the same points he had touched upon in his introduction. She let it be known (very modestly) that she was a polyglot, and nodded with an apologetic smile when the drug baron accused her of being a polyhistor. She couldn’t help being one, you see, afflicted as she was with high intelligence and executability. At one stage during the interview she let it slip (very modestly) that she read Proust, all six volumes, when she was an adolescent, and admitted, with all humility, that she used to pronounce his name wrongly. We also learned that she was a feminist (which perhaps explained why she had chosen to concentrate on women in her book on mental illness). In this context the speaker gave a short discourse, no doubt out of a sense of duty to enlighten the audience, who, in all probability, had not read the book she was about to read from, on the historical development of the concept of mental illness. Freud, she informed the audience, was absolutely crucial to the understanding of mental afflictions; the ‘talking cure’ addressed the core of the problems far better than the manipulation of brain chemicals. She recounted, having the decency to look ill at ease, how an acquaintance of her complimented her on the book which was ‘richly researched’, yet so easy to understand. The organizer, also looking ill at ease—perhaps not being accustomed to remain quiet for more than five consecutive minutes—, interjected by observing the book read like a thriller. The guest looked coyly at the audience and said that was her ‘problem’.

Finally the guest speaker read out an excerpt from her book, a story of a Scottish woman from the 19th century—the woman apparently did exist, although the author / authoress had changed her, the woman’s, name to preserve her privacy, although she, the woman, was hardly going to be embarrassed by the revelations seeing as she was dead for nearly hundred years. I am afraid my mind drifted a bit at this stage, and only the snippets of narration made an impact from time to time. The author / authoress concluded that the kind of language used by this woman, while describing her mental anguish in a letter she wrote to the superintendent of the local Bedlam with a request to be committed, proved the universality of Sigmund Freud’s theories; because she, the author, was sure that she, the Scottish mad-woman, had never been acquainted with Freud’s theories. At this stage the drug baron who probably (like me) had drifted off to sleep came back to life and informed the audience that there were individual chapters in the book devoted to famous neurotics and psychotics linked to literature and rattled out the predictable list: Virginia (yawn) wolf, Zelda (yawn) Fitzgerald, and Sylvia (yawn yawn) Plath.

The drug baron turned to the audience and asked, reluctantly, whether anyone had questions for the guest. There were a few hands raised. A distinguished looking man, probably a retired doctor, asked the guest, in an incredibly posh tone, how ‘on earth’ she managed to get hold of the confidential medical records. Either he had missed the point of the talk completely or was insinuating that the Scottish mad-woman was a figment of the author / authoress’s imagination. A trichomally challenged man in his forties—or may be he looked older because of absence of hair—asked the speaker why it was that Freud, more than any other personality from the history of the hundred and fifty years of Psychiatry and Psychology appealed more to the literati. In a self-effacing manner rivalling that of the speaker and sounding apologetic, he mentioned names of someone called Krepelin and his colleague, Alzheimer, who, he informed the audience, espoused the Medical branch of Psychiatry, which was, at the very least, as influential as Freud’s theories, around the same time and not very far from where Freud was spreading his religion. Looking around—an unfortunate move on his part because the long strand of hair he had trained across his bald top (from side to back) that glistened with sweat under the ceiling lights slipped and hung over his ear all the way down to the shoulder, making him appear slightly ridiculous—he hazarded a guess that almost everyone in the audience would have heard of Alzheimer’s dementia, but how many of them, he demanded to know, knew about Alzheimer the man; how many books were written on Alzheimer and Krepelin? The drug baron nodded and confirmed that Freud indeed was popular—“No doubt about it”—and looked expectantly at the speaker who decided that the most effective way of responding to this long query was to launch into an equally long and circuitous reply strewn liberally with clich├ęs: Freud ‘touched’ the inner life; he provided the only coherent theory to explain the long sought after questions the humanity had asked itself over millennia about the causes of human misery and suffering etcetera etcetera. The baldy did not look convinced but decided—wisely, in my view—it was getting late—, to keep his counsel. So that’s it then. That’s why Freud remains popular amongst the chattering classes: he provided answers to the questions that had remained unanswered since the dawn of humanity. Not because it allows one to be prurient and feel intellectual at the same time.

The allotted hour came to an end. The Drug Baron ‘warmly’ invited the audience to a nearby bookshop where the author would be available to ‘personally sign’ (is there any other way?) copies of her books. Wine and orange juice would be served. I decided to give the book-signing a miss. I did not have an overwhelming desire to drink canned Tesco juice and cheap wine, and risk a stomach-upset. As I was exiting, I heard raised voices from my left in the crowd. A big paunchy man wearing a crumpled jacket and, I noticed, walking next to the baldy, was talking either to himself (not very likely; he was talking loudly) or to the baldy (possible, but the baldy gave no indication that he was listening) or to no one in particular (again, not very likely; the volume of his voice suggested that it was for the benefit of those around him) or to those in the throng (likely). ‘Total bollocks!’ he shouted. ‘Never heard such rubbish in my life.’ This seemed to have little effect; no one from the throng responded or showed in any way that they concurred with the fatty’s analysis. Feeling the need to make more impact, he yelled, ‘My wife is an organic psychiatrist; I am not going to tolerate this.’ It was not immediately apparent to me (and probably not to those who were listening to the rant) what he meant by ‘organic' psychiatrist. I had heard of ‘organic vegetables’ and ‘organic chickens’. Surely, he did not mean that his wife was unadulterated by fertilizers or pesticides or any other synthetic chemicals. I thought about asking him what exactly was he trying to convey about the properties of his psychiatrist wife when he described her as organic, but thought against it. The fat man was looking around as though he would like nothing better than to wring a neck and wouldn't be too choosy about which neck his fingers wound around, and it was not as important as that, anyway. I came out of the building and took a deep breath of the cold fresh air.

Book of the Month: A Hot Country (Shiva Naipaul)

Shiva Naipaul died in 1985, when he was only forty. If he is remembered at all these days, it is as the younger brother of Sir V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Laureate. He was one of the most accomplished writers of his time. His first novel, Fireflies, was published, when he was twenty five, to great acclaim, and won a number of awards. The second, Chip-Chip Gatherers, followed three years later, and was very well received critically. Martin Amis wrote that it was exhilrating to be alive at the same time as someone who could write like Shiva Naipaul. There then followed a long silence of seven years which Paul Theroux (in his reproachful, rancourous memoir, Sir Vidia's Shadow) attributed to the Writer's Block. This was not strictly true, as Naipaul, during this period wrote the brilliant travelogue, North of South, ; Black and White , the grim story of the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; as well as a collection of short stories. Then came, in 1980, A Hot Country.

Shiva Naipaul once said in an interview that he regarded his fiction and non-fiction work as one body of work as his non-fiction research yielded experiences and information that he developed into novels. One can easily see the common motif betwwen North of South and A Hot Country, Naipaul’s last and the shortest novel to be published in his life) set in the fictional, politically volatile country of Cuyama, apparently a disguised version of Guyana.

The novel tells the story of the crumbling marriage of Aubrey St Piers and his wife Dina as the country is descending into a chaos around them and is heading towards totalitarianism. The author tackles serious themes such as the decline and corruptions afflicting many African countries post-colonialism, and the tensions between different communities and races in these countries, originally deracinated by the colonial masters and who have been co-existing harbouring deep suspicions and prejudices against each other for decades. The author’s take on the situation is relentlessly pessimistic (not unlike that of V.S. Naipaul in his African novel A Bend In The River), which, by the time you finish the novel, fills you with gloom. It has to be said, though, that in light of what is going on in many of these countries, Naipaul’s novel, written more than two decades ago, seems very prophetic. The story of the protagonists and the supporting characters take a subservient position to these grander themes that are clearly very close to Naipaul’s heart; indeed some of the charaters such as the English journalist Alex seem to have been introduced only so as to allow the author to make the point that what goes on in these colonies hold very little interest for their ex-masters, although they have, from the historical perspective, sowed the seeds of the discord.

What makes this novel a joy to read is Naipaul’s language which is precise, elegant, acutely observant and brilliantly evocative. This is a literary book which strives to make serious points, and offers (as the author has done in his other non-fiction work) explanations which may be frowned upon by the politically correct.

In Sir Vidia's Shadow, Paul Theroux dismissed Shiva Naipaul as a poseur who aped his much more gifted elder brother. There are undoubtedly many similarities between Shiva Naipaul’s thematic concerns and attitudes, as reflected in his work of fiction and non-fiction, and those of V.S. Naipaul: the social and political conditions in the African third world countries, especially the former colonies. Both tend to take a rather stark view of life (V.S. Naipaul more so in his later works) and are not overly indulgent towards mediocrity. Neither of them is shy of telling unpalatable truths, and, unsurprisingly, not everyone likes what they write.

A Hot Country is a fine novel. And when one considers it with the rest of Shiva Naipaul's (slim but very impressive) oeuvre, it is impossible not to wonder how he would have developed had he lived longer.