Monday, 4 May 2009

J.G. Ballard: An Appreciation

In 1946, a young man of 17 joined Kings College, Cambridge, to study medicine. He was born in Shanghai to British parents and had spent his childhood and adolescent years in China, a good many of which were in a prisoner camp during the Second World War, when the Japanese captured Shanghai. The family returned to England when the war ended. The young man found life in England ‘cold, grey and dull’ and, he would later recall, he survived the school in Cambridge his parents enrolled him into only because of his earlier experience of the hardships of the internment camp in Shanghai. The young man wanted to be a psychiatrist. He also believed he had flair for writing, and had written some short stories. He disliked Cambridge. The academic snobbery around him left him underwhelmed. (Later in life he would describe Cambridge as an academic theme park). He plodded on for two years but got increasingly frustrated, as he found that the demands of the medical course were so onerous that they left him with little time and less energy to write stories, his first love. When one of his short stories (Violent Noon) won a short story competition held by the Varsity (the Cambridge student newspaper), he believed he had found his calling in life—and that was not medicine. He was going to be a writer. He switched to London University to study English (but dropped out after a year). After a brief stint in a trade magazine, he decided to become a full time writer, and followed no other vocation. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain. The young man’s name was James Graham Ballard, who went on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his generation and enjoyed cult following.

Ballard is widely hailed as a new age science fiction writer, although he was apparently not very comfortable with this label, preferring instead to describe himself first as a ‘speculative’ and then as an ‘apocalyptic’ writer. Nevertheless, the label stuck, and more than one obituary when he died, paid glowing tributes to his contribution to the science fiction genre. Ballard certainly had passion for the genre. A close friend (and a science fiction enthusiast) reminisced how in the 1960’s he and Ballard attended a Science Fiction convention and how Ballard was disappointed by the pedestrian and commercial interests that seemed to drive many of the SF writers who attended the convention. Ballard published, in the 1960’s, many short stories—his first breakthrough came with the story Terminal Beach— which, while they were not in the typical SF genre, used, cleverly, many of its tropes to generate his unique narrative structure. It would be fair to say that Ballard was never a hard-core science fiction writer; his interests lay more in the realms of crumbling of societal fabric, dehumanisation and such other dystopian themes. Many of his narratives during this period are compiled in Atrocity Exhibition. He also wrote the serial Equinox for the New World magazine, which was later published as the novel The Crystal World, which, together with Crash, he was best known for before the publication of his fictionalized autobiographies (or autobiographical fiction, if you prefer to look at them the other way). It was because of this groundbreaking work (which later came to be known as the ‘New Wave Science Fiction’) that Ballard was hailed as the spiritual Guru of the cyberpunk movement of the eighties. In 1973 he published the surreal Crash (which was made into a film decades later by David Kronenberg) based on the outré concept that modern society found car crashes erotic. According to Ballard’s friends, as a young man he had great interest—bordering on obsession—in assassinations, car crashes and psychosis (probably the reason why he toyed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist). One publisher allegedly found Crash to be so disturbing that he considered Ballard to be beyond psychiatric help (Ballard himself commented, years later, that the novel was written in a state of ‘willed madness’). While there was something of being deliberately provocative and shocking about Crash, Ballard can never be accused of being outrageous merely for the sake of it—most of what he wrote had the larger goal of making the readers re-examine their preconceptions. In an introduction to the French translation of Crash Ballard wrote that the only ‘reality’ left for the writer to offer ‘in a world ruled by fictions of every kind’ was ‘the contents of his own head, he offers a set of options and imaginative alternatives’. Another classic from the Ballardian cannon was The Day of Creation. In a densely atmospheric novel, in his hypnotic prose, Ballard, in paragraphs after paragraphs, constructed a moody, allegorical and eerie world of occult fear and imperceptible horror.

For those of us not conversant with science fiction, J.G. Ballard is best known for Empire of the Sun. The novel, a heavily fictionalized version of his childhood in Shanghai during the Second World War, was totally different from what Ballard had written until then. The book was a instant bestseller and, although it failed to win him the Booker, earned him world-wide audience. It was made into a highly successful film (by the same name) by Stephen Spielberg, and it is likely that it is this novel that has ensured that posterity will remember Ballard as one of the greats. A sequel (Kindness of Women) followed a few years later, which was a moving fictionalized account of Ballard’s later life, and drew high praise from critics.

Towards the end, Ballard’s writing took another turn as he became increasingly preoccupied with the structures created by modern technology, multinationals and into what abyss they were leading the world. Super Cannes, published in 2000, was not just a crime novel set in a business park (although it could be enjoyed at that level), it was also an indictment of the eve-of-millennium technological complacency and smugness. Millennium People, published three years later, tells, possibly foretells, the story of once-complacent middle-class and upper-middle class people, who, realizing how little they have, decide to start, of all things, a revolution. Kingdom Come, published in 2006, expounded further on these themes and looked at the meaning of middle class existence in the consumerist world of ideal homes and endless sporting events. These last novels, which can be considered as a trilogy of sorts, showed that Ballard had lost none of his inventiveness and still had the ability to suck readers into his world by his mesmeric prose.

J.G. Balard died in April 2009 after a long and stoic battle against prostate cancer. More subversive than Philip K. Dick and at least as shocking and radical as William Burrows, the prodigiously talented Ballard has left behind a vast cornucopia that captures the world in perpetual transit. Novelist Will Self, reacting to the news of Ballard's death, spoke about the influence of Ballard's work that transcended different arts, and described him as one of the writers that had inspired him the most, not in the sense that he wanted to ape Ballard's style or themes, but in the sense that reading Ballard in his formative years made him want to become a writer. A truly great writer has died.

Book of the Month: Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece. First serialized in 1899, the story was published in a book form in 1902. Since then the fame and influence of the book have increased exponentially. Hailed as one of the greatest novels of twentieth century, Heart of Darkness has influenced several works of art including films (most notably Apocalypse Now), novels and poems; one encounters either direct or oblique references to the novel and its themes in journalistic articles and novels (for example, Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep).

Heart of Darkness centers around Marlow, an independent minded sailor who is generally sceptical of those around him, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurtz, an enigmatic man reputed to be of great abilities. Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the Company, a Belgian concern organized to trade in the Congo.

Marlow arrives at the Central Station, run by the general manager, an unsavoury, conspiratorial character. It is here that Marlow first hears about Kurtz, an apparently idealistic ivory trader, who works at a remote outpost of the company (Inner Station); he is rumoured to be ill, and needs to be fetched back from the Company’s outer post. Marlow also learns that the manager regards Kurtz as his rival. The steamboat Marlow is expected to command has been mysteriously wrecked, and the repairs take several months. Marlow is appalled by the rapacity, brutality and cruelty of the Europeans; the native inhabitants of the region are living and working in subhuman conditions, suffering terribly from the ill-treatment at the hands of Europeans. The cruelty and squalor of imperial enterprise contrasts sharply with the majesticity of the jungle that surrounds the European settlements. The ship is finally repaired and Marlow, together with the manager, a few of the Company’s agents (whom he gives the ironic sobriquet ‘pilgrims’ because of their strange habit of carrying long, wooden staves wherever they go; it is made abundantly clear that they are anything but ‘pilgrims’), and a crew of cannibals sets out on a long and difficult voyage up the river, to the outer post. On either side of the river is dense jungle; the atmosphere is oppressive, unsettling and disturbing; occasional glimpses of ‘native’ faces through the bush and the sound of drums add to the eeriness. At one stage during the journey the steamer is attacked by an unseen band of natives and Marlow’s helmsman gets killed by a spear.

Finally Marlow and his crew reach the Inner Station, where they encounter degringolade. A half-crazed Russian trader, who meets them as they come ashore, assures them that everything is fine. The Russian claims that Kurtz has enlarged his mind and cannot be subjected to the same moral judgments as normal people. The Russian also reveals to Marlow that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack on the steamer to make them believe he was dead in order that they might turn back and leave him to his plans. Kurtz, in fact, is dying and apparently deranged. He has achieved a God-like status among the local Africans. He is no longer an idealistic man; he participates in diabolical rites and leads the Africans into pillaging expeditions in search of ivory. The collection of severed heads adorning the fence posts around the station attests to his “methods.” Marlow somehow manages to bring Kurtz back on to the steamboat, and the return journey begins. Kurtz, his health rapidly deteriorating, discourses at length, which only serves to reveal his megalomania and madness.

Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including an eloquent pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a scrawled message that says, 'Exterminate all the brutes!' Kurtz dies, uttering his last words—'The horror! The horror!' Eventually Marlow returns to Europe and goes to see Kurtz’s 'Intended' (his fiancée). She is still in mourning, even though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death, and she praises him as a paragon of virtue and achievement. She asks what his last words were, and Marlow not being able to shatter her illusion of Kurtz, tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.

Heart of Darkness is intense, subtle yet profound, compressed and, above all, proleptic in its vision. It is not just a condemnation of a certain type of adventurer who could easily take advantage of imperialism’s opportunities; Conrod is exploring, exposing, the hypocrisy of the Imperialism, in a manner that is as complicated as it is confusing. By the 1890s, most of the world’s ‘dark places’ had been placed at least nominally under European control, and the major European powers were stretched thin, trying to administer and protect massive, far-flung empires. Cracks were beginning to appear in the system: riots, wars, and the wholesale abandonment of commercial enterprises all threatened the white men living in the distant corners of empires. Heart of Darkness suggests that this is the natural result when men are allowed to operate outside a social system of checks and balances: power, especially power over other human beings, inevitably corrupts. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as 'trade', and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of 'civilization'. The reality, starkly described by Marlow, is torture, cruelty and slavery. Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words 'suppression' and 'extermination': he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa. The book, at the very least, offers a harsh picture of colonialism.

Madness is an important theme in Heart of Darkness. The theme serves two purposes. Marlow is told that Kurtz is mad, yet his madness is only relative: his actions, brutal and ‘crazy’ as they are, are qualitatively not much different from those of the 'sane', manager; indeed, the only difference between Kurtz and the rest of the Company agents is that Kurtz is not fork-tongued. Is there such thing as insanity in a world that has already gone insane? And, if Kurtz is indeed mad, is his madness the result of him being removed from his social context, and, on a remote African island, being allowed to be the sole arbiter of his actions? Kurtz has no authority to which he answers, but himself, and this is more than any man can bear.

The book is also about moral confusion. Marlow, Conrad’s protagonist, rejects the concept of accepting the lesser of the two evils. What is worse: the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy, or the openly malevolent, rule-defying Kurtz? During his journey Marlow witnesses a number of absurd situations to which the Company subjects the natives: at one station, for instance, he sees a man trying to carry water in a bucket with a large hole in it. At the Outer Station, he watches native labourers blast away at a hillside with no particular goal in mind. The absurdity and inanity to which the natives are subjected are as terrifying as Kurtz’s homicidal megalomania.

Darkness is obviously important enough conceptually to be part of the book’s title. The title, though, is ambiguous. Does it mean the centre of the dark place? Since the narrative takes place in Africa, is Africa the ‘darkness’ and is Marlow journeying to its centre, its heart? But London, too, is described as 'the centre of brooding gloom', and the 'White Sepulchre' is clearly Brussels. Or is it the case that darkness described in the book metaphorical? The inability to ‘see’ another human being and failing to form any sort of sympathetic communion with him; the sinister, mysterious, obscure ‘heart’—the dark? The ‘Whiteness’ is associated not just with civilization, but also with hypocrisy, ivory, cruelty, and death. The title appositely introduces the paradoxes and enigmas of the tale. Fog, which Marlow repeatedly encounters during his voyage, seems like a corollary to darkness: fog not only obscures, but also distorts.

It is interesting that while the story takes place in Africa, the Africans, themselves, remain peripheral. Beyond outward, physical description of their activities and appearances, Marlow provides no insight into their minds. He is not interested in them. For him they are objects—at one point he describes his helmsman as a “piece of machinery”—that provide a mere backdrop to the moral and philosophical themes Marlow wants to ratiocinate. This has not gone down well with some African critics. According to Achebe, Conrad was 'a bloody racist', who 'eliminated Africans as a human factor' and the result was 'an offensive and totally deplorable book', a racist or colonialist parable in which Africans are depicted as 'innately irrational and violent', and in which 'Africa itself is reduced to a metaphor for that which white Europeans fear within themselves'. 'The people of Africa and the land they live in remain inscrutably alien'. This kind of dehumanisation, Achebe argued, is far harder to detect than colonial oppression and open racism. While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that, for some, is more troubling. Feminists, too, have attacked the novel for the portrayal of women in it: they occupy the traditional places of domesticity (for example Kurtz’s fiancée), and are almost never present in the narrative. Also interesting is the setting of the book. Conrad, who was born in Polish Ukrain, became a naturalized British citizen in 1886, and all his books, beginning with Almyer’s Folly which appeared in 1895, were written in the language of his adopted country. His decision to set the book in a Belgian colony and to have Marlow work for a Belgian trading concern probably made it easier for British readers to avoid seeing themselves reflected in Heart of Darkness.

Beautifully written, atmospheric, and powerfully, Heart of Darkness vividly evocates the sense of desolation and bleakness Marlow encounters in Africa. It is also remarkable for its intellectual subtlety, satirical boldness, and linguistic verve. This is all the more impressive, as Joseph Conrad, born Josef Teodor Korzeniowski, in the Polish Ukraine, never studied at university and did not begin to learn English, which was his third language, till he was in his twenties. The styles employed in the book are as varied—colloquial and conversational, philosophical and sophisticated, and lyrical—as they are confident. The linguistic virtuosity of the book is breathtaking. Heart of Darkness is the work of a genius.