21 February 2009
…about a quarter of the novel – and stuff is happening. It happens in those confusing multiple timelines that family sagas are prone to: the birth of the twins, which isn’t the first thing mentioned; the return of Rahal, the girl twin, in adult life after years away – to find her brother almost lost in his own world, mute, and in the habit of walking for miles all over the place; the lives of their parents, grandparents, uncle, mother; episodes from the twins’ childhood, from the time when they seem to be having the same thought simultaneously, or when one feels the rain falling on the other outside….
Why does Roy have to make it so complicated? Obviously, nothing happens in the adult world that doesn’t have its origins in childhood… so to have things happening 20 years apart but side-by-side on the page, like some kind of collage, might make one thing bounce off another, leading to some little revelation or epiphany. Well, maybe, but epiphanies are a long time in coming. I first read this novel years ago, and what I remember is not some delicate archaeological unpicking of cause and effect, but confusion.
Bu..ut, it’s early days. If one cause of the twins’ adult unhappiness is clear, it’s that they were brought up by idiots. There’s something in the genes, and it’s not good: the ‘Baby’ great-aunt who largely brings them up is almost pathologically small-minded: she thrives on petty point-scoring and, in later life, on watching any TV her satellite dish picks up. Their grandfather was a bully, their uncle is a pompous buffoon, and their mother lives out her eternal regret at the awful marriage that ruined her life. Inevitably, they’re appalling snobs – and we‘ve just reached a point in the narrative – when they‘re stuck for hours at a level crossing – when we find out that’s somewhere along a different timeline, someone brings scandal to the family by becoming too friendly with an Untouchable. We don’t actually know about it yet – it’s been presented obliquely, as you’d expect – but someone (I can’t remember who) witnessed something and, well, y’know.
This is presented in the context of the other thing we get in Chapter 3: politics. As the family are marooned in their big car they are surrounded by activists on a march. They are forced into encounters with people they would never normally meet, to the excruciating embarrassment of the adults. But it doesn’t bother the children: Rahal greets one of the marchers, an Untouchable they know but, obviously don‘t acknowledge. Roy diverts the narrative into his story. He’s a talented carpenter, and would have done much better if he’d been born into a different caste. It’s during this narrative’s time-line that Roy scatters dark hints about how his refusal to stay inside caste boundaries will end in tears….
So. We’re in an exotic society where things happen differently from in our own. But there’s nothing particularly unexpected happening: it has the familiar feel of an Indian Subcontinent Man Booker Winner.
Part-way through Ch 4…
…which is the bit where Estha leaves The Sound of Music so he can sing the song without complaints. I’ve just had one of those deflating moments when you just feel – what? – a bit disappointed. Ok, we already know that Arundhati Roy is fond of describing male genitalia – we’ve had the meat and two veg of at least three men presented for our inspection before the scene in the cinema lobby. Now, well… is it a Booker Prize trope to have an innocent boy forced to masturbate a middle-aged man? I’ve recently re-read Anne Enright’s The Gathering in which exactly the same thing happens – and ok, Roy got there ten years earlier, but I just felt a bit let down. I suppose I’ll get over it. (I’ve just remembered that we find out about Billy Prior’s childhood experiences of sex in The Ghost Road, the last of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy which won the Booker two years before Roy. Billy does it with a Catholic priest – which, I suppose, is a 21st Century trope, as in Doubt, which I’ve just seen – but, unlike Estha and the boys in The Gathering and Doubt, Billy welcomes the experience and takes it up, so to speak, professionally.)
Before that, the first bit of Chapter 4 contains sexual oddness of a different kind: the adult Rahal looks at the naked body of her brother, drying himself off after being caught in the rain. They were separated in childhood, before any embarrassment between different-sex siblings has had time to grow. Now Rahal is fascinated, not by his genitals but by other things, Including the childish ‘buns’ that all men have, unlike the load-bearing buttocks of women…. This novel is about sexual awakenings of various kinds, obviously. Rahal is the one who seems to have learnt things early, whilst Estha seems, well, so slow off the mark he’s stationary. Are we to take it that what we’ve just read in Chapter 4 has had something to do with it (just as the childhood events in The Gathering and The Ghost Road fucked up different characters in a different continent)? Seems that way.
Chapters 4 (cont)-8
Rahal’s return to the town in adulthood is, I now realise, a framing device for the rest of the story. So, in Chapter 4, her view of Estha’s childlike bum returns the reader to a time before embarrassment – and to the two weeks that changed their lives. Arundhati Roy has given us hints about this: she’s mentioned the wait at the level-crossing, and Sophie Mol’s arrival – and subsequent drowning – before Chapter 4 begins. Now we get the real flesh of the story, or stories, presented from points of view that change or mutate unpredictably. Some of it feels like the workings of Rahel’s memory: when they go to the airport to pick up their uncle’s ex-wife and their daughter Sophie Mol, a lot of it is described as seen by the young girl. We get the feel of the snap of knicker-elastic, the interesting kangaroo-shaped waste-bins and, most clearly of all, the worry she feels when her mother suggests her bad behaviour might lead to her not being loved so much….
But that’s not all we get. For a start, most of Chapter 4 is told from the point of view of the wretched Estha, feeling degraded and dirtied by what happened in the cinema. And the man who did it knows where he lives, and has suggested he might come over for a visit. We also get, holding it all together, the assured voice of the impersonal narrator, simply presenting us with what the different adults feel. Which, as I’ve suggested already, is usually paltry and self-serving.
I’ve realised while writing this that these central chapters are mainly about threat. We know why Estha feels threatened – and we’ve seen how, from the first moment, he has to hide the dirtiness he feels, take it down into himself. Rahal feels threatened by her mother’s rebuke: will she withdraw her love? Will everybody love Sophie Mol more? We get an insight into why their mother might appear so insensitive: Roy is happy to take a diversion along a different time-line, to an incident when, as a completely arbitrary and unfair punishment, Ammu’s tyrannical father ritually cuts up her favourite boots. It’s an almost childish bit of power-wielding – but I suppose Roy chooses it because in the eyes of the child, all things are childish. And anyway he, and his long-suffering wife (now the near-blind grandmother), were no role-models for the girl.
Sometimes Roy focuses all her attention on to Ammu. We already know about her disastrous marriage, the rumour that the twins are illegitimate – and that she will die young. (In one of the time-lines she’s already been dead for years, of course.) She will die wretchedly and alone, having nightmares of being pilloried as a prostitute. In Chapter 9 Roy drops broad hints about revelations yet to come. Velutha, the Untouchable is the only adult in the book who seems well-rounded and likeable – and Ammu notices how attractive he is. (So do the children – but that’s only to show us what a nice chap he is.) During the fateful fortnight that will end with the drowning of Sophie Mol, something will happen between these two. The wrath of the mean-spirited town will fall on both of them – and if you think Ammu’s fate is bad, Roy lets us know, you wait until you see what happens to poor Velutha. It sounds as though he’s going to get all the blame for Sophie Mol’s death.
They fuck you up. Not just your mum and dad, in this novel, although the parents don’t do a bad job; it’s everyone. And if anybody rises above the customary level of mediocrity and banality, well, he’d better watch out. When these worms look at quality, all they feel is a kind of vengeful envy, and it enrages them. Growing up with this, Roy seems to be saying, the twins never had a chance. And there’s still over a third of the book to go for her to make the point even more vigorously….
Chapters 9-13 (?)
…which is what she does: makes the point even more vigorously. We’ve known since some time in Chapter 7 or 8 that Velutha is doomed. By the end of those chapters Roy has already given us a preview of the scene in which the copper in charge of finding out who is to blame takes oleaginous delight in deriding Velutha’s sexuality: he’s delighted to have the opportunity to be as nasty as he likes to the upstart, the one who’s had it coming for a long time. This is one of the things Roy does with all the time-lines, particularly this one, that she has always let us know would turn out to be pivotal in everybody’s lives. We’ve known since the earliest chapters that Sophie Mol would die; we even get Rahal’s girl’s eye view of the church décor at the funeral (typical of those details that occur throughout the novel, grounding it in the consciousness of children). Now, in her own good time, Roy has let us know that things look bad for Velutha.
So what is the last third of the novel for? Not that I’ve read to the end of course, but, well, we’ve known from the start it will end in tears. Is it the inevitable working out of a tragedy? The best tragedies, after all, are never about how it will end, but the process of getting there…. Well. That’s what we get. The main time-line has moved on in these chapters to the hours and days after the drowning – not that Roy feels constrained, of course: she’s happy to flip the calendar back, for instance to the moment when Estha suggested the fateful boat-ride.
The key players turn out to be the aunt, Baby Kochamma, and the cops. One of the most convincing sections is when Baby Kochamma tells the inspector about Velutha, how she threads together shreds of truth with her own prejudice – and, crucially in terms of convincing the reader, with the humiliation she felt when confronted by one of the marchers when she and the others were stuck in the car. Velutha – who, of course, was only demonstrating against clear injustices – comes to represent all the dangerous forces of change in Baby Kochamma’s imagination, with criminality and animal lust thrown in. And when it turns out that the only concern the copper has is to do with whether anyone with any power might step in to support Velutha – his crony tells him not, even though the crony knows Velutha is innocent – we see prejudice at a personal and legislative level come together like the parts of a perfect machine. The fat arses of the policemen who make their way to arrest the innocent man are covered by the most well-pressed, well-starched shorts. Of course they are.
Like any tragedy, this one has a protagonist who could have saved himself by behaving differently. What Roy is careful to show, however – and she succeeds – is that Velutha did nothing wrong. It was only the tawdry expectations of others – represented in these chapters by Baby Kochamma but, by implication throughout the novel, shared by others – that he should behave like an abject worm. Of course, we’ve always been on his side: Roy makes it impossible for us not to like him, as we see in the middle chapters. And readers of a novel published in the 1990s see Velutha’s sin – of daring to have sex with someone of a higher caste – as no sin at all. But, by having it modulated through the vision of Baby Kochamma, we can see exactly why it’s the final straw that will break hijm utterly. It’s superbly done.
If I have a quarrel, it’s to do with Velutha’s presence, or lack of it, earlier in the novel. Sure, Roy introduces him reasonably early: it’s Chapter 4 when we find out what an all-round good egg he is – and that he’s going to end up completely screwed. But he’s a marginal character, seen at a distance or present only, heavily disguised, in Ammu’s dreams. Even the well-oiled working out of his tragic fate is marginalised: these chapters are just as much about Sophie Mol’s death and its effect on her mother, about Chacko’s fat ineffectuality, about Estha’s continuing trauma – about those characters that this novel focuses on most of the time. Velutha might be the eponymous god of small things, but I bet if you ask anybody who’s read the novel they won’t remember that.
What they will remember, I suppose, is what Roy has focused on all along: the parallel tragedy of Rahal and Estha. It’s a disfigured mirror image of To Kill a Mockingbird, another novel based on childhood memories in which society’s prejudices lead to a terrible injustice. Tom Robinson in that novel is, at one level, the mockingbird of the title, just as Velutha is the god of small things. But Tom is only ever a minor character – and, ultimately, that novel is optimistic: the author has a human rights agenda, and her characters learn because they have Atticus, the teacher; all Estha and Rahal have is a mother who is as screwed by society as Velutha himself and a set of buffoonish relatives. How much they are going to learn remains to be seen: I haven’t finished reading it yet.
Chapter 14 to part-way through Ch 19
I stopped reading at this point almost two weeks ago. Or I stopped listening to the audio book, because… because I was incensed by what Roy was doing to her characters and, at one step removed, what she was doing to the reader. I can only remember one other time when I had to simply stop like that, and an audio book was involved that time as well. I was listening to a Thomas Hardy – it doesn’t matter which one – and, well, I objected to the experience I was being forced to endure. Hardy’s characters, famously, are often like flies to an Aeschylean god, and… and there’s something unbearable about having to listen to a reader delineate the horrors they endure one by one. Roy’s plotting is Hardyesque: the twins fetch up on the further shore of the river, Sophie Mol having been swept away, at the moment when Velutha has sought refuge there. He’s burning in the humiliation of having been ostracised for the crime of behaving like a human being towards Ammu – and we already know about Baby Kochamma’s invented story of Velutha’s threats of violence, and of the inspector’s response to it….
By the time we get to Chapter 18 it’s as though Roy is saying, You know this is going to be horrible, but you have no idea just how horrible. And, sentence by sentence, she catalogues the atrocities the police perpetrate on Velutha. Even two weeks later I feel revolted and enraged by the way we’ve been manipulated. Because she doesn’t stop there. In Chapter 19 the police begin to realise there isn’t really a case against the man they’ve just reduced to a dying cripple – which is where Rahal and Estha come in. Velutha isn’t the only fly having its wings pulled off by this particular god: we’re about to find out that the twins have led a blighted life not because of what happened to them on this night, but because of something, in their innocence, that they themselves perpetrated. The police’s questions about Velutha confuse them so they don‘t know what they are saying about him… and that’s when I had to stop.
But, well, it’s time to finish reading the novel now. I’ve got the print version, and it’s always easier to accept the atrocities a writer perpetrates when you can skim over the offending words with your eyes.
To the end…
…and the final chapter is a kind of inverted version of the horror chapters we had previously. Roy’s been dropping hints for about two hundred pages about how wonderful the forbidden love affair is/was/will be – and, as a kind of consolation prize for having sat through the earlier nastiness, the reader is rewarded by some rather beautifully described lurve. So, despite about eighteen or nineteen reminders during the chapter that their short-term bliss will lead to complete apocalypse, well, it’s nice while it lasts. And that’s how the novel ends.
Before that, we get the real villain of the piece doing her worst. Baby K, full of her fraudulent and self-serving version of Catholicism, forces guilt down the throats of the twins – doing them permanent damage that Roy is keen to emphasise – then forces Estha, the more vulnerable and malleable one, to identify Velutha as a murderer and child abuser. Ah. Wouldn’t anybody become an elective mute after that little show?
Reader, don’t be fooled. Baby K is just Roy’s stoolie, taking the rap for what Roy is putting these characters through. I was too annoyed by the stage management of all the plot elements earlier on to let her get away with the invention of an avenging angel to fix it all in place. The way that Roy brings everything together on the day of the drowning is clever, astounding in a first novel, but baby K is too pantomimey even for the lurid melodrama of this plot. She’s behind you….
Yes. Astounding. I know I’ve been critical of this book, but it has some truly remarkable elements. The assurance of the children’s-eye-view is my favourite thing about it, the way dozens of little leitmotifs – jingles, clothing, hairstyles – build up over hundreds of pages into a convincing picture of what it’s like to be seven or eight years old.
The other trope is Roy’s approach to giving the reader any information, We get it in miserly dribs and drabs – so that when we get the whole story in the last few chapters nothing is new, but everything is a surprise. For me, it’s not as sure-footed as the childlike language, and the restlessness of the narrative flitting to and fro along its different time-lines just got me down in the first half of the novel. But the way that three of the stories reach their climaxes together – the love affair, the several strands of the day of the drowning, and the failure of the adult Rahal’s attempt at redemption for herself and the annihilated Estha – is extraordinary. Graham Swift did something similar in Waterland – more successfully, I think – but I can’t think of any other novels that attempt this kind of simultaneous culmination of different narrative strands. In a first novel it’s gobsmackingly ambitious.