— February, 2009
A Fine Balance — Rohinton Mistry
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the “fine balance” referred to in the title is the tenuous line between hope and despair. Most of us have walked that line at some time in our lives, even if only briefly, but it is the daily condition of existence for those I can only refer to as the “less fortunate”—most of the world’s population, sadly.
But no matter how fortunate our lives may be, we dwell on an existential plateau between hope and fear—and justified fears, too, in most cases, about sudden evils that might destroy our own unknowable future state of health or financial security, and potential tragedies that might strike down us or our loved ones. For some people, that gauge swings a little farther past fear, into the shadows of despair. The people of a country like India, say, face dire struggles at every turn—against starvation, disease, and natural disasters, flood, tsunami, drought, and famine. Such people exist in a fragile balance between hope and despair, and these are the people Rohinton Mistry writes about.
He was born in 1952 in Bombay (as the world knows after the recent slaughters by murderous maniacs—I mean religious people—we are now supposed to call that city Mumbai), and A Fine Balance is set in mid-’70s India, after the Bangladeshi War for Independence had further disrupted an already impoverished region, which includes neighboring Pakistan, “Partitioned” by the British in 1947 to be a separate, Muslim nation. In that violent, desperate time, and again in the 1970s, refugees were sent scrambling, and many who could escape emigrated to Britain, Canada, and elsewhere.
Mistry himself emigrated to Canada in 1975, and has written several award-winning story collections and novels drawing upon those experiences. Now he is justifiably celebrated as a great Canadian writer, and is a worthy voice to add to our national literary choir.
The novel’s epic narrative portrays the vast majority who remained in India, in a time called the “State of Internal Emergency.” Mistry draws his characters from the lower levels of Indian life, people whose castes and misfortunes doom them to lives of privation and humiliation (at best), people who exist on the fine edge of survival.
In the spirit of show-don’t-tell, the author’s compassion for his characters is implicit—obvious because he has chosen to write about them—but there is no sentimentality. He merely describes the conditions, and the people, and permits them to react to each other. It is up to the reader to feel the outrage, as it should be.
The characters are fully drawn, with virtues and flaws of the usual human variety, and another admirable quality that stands out in Mistry’s writing is the difference in the ways in which the characters are changed by the events in their lives. Their own particular balance of virtues and flaws is forced into a different alignment by the changing currents of life, and when bad conditions become even more trying, some characters (in the broadest sense) become better—others do not.
Mistry portrays the social underbelly of that convulsive place and time, the struggling people and the corrupt predators who use and abuse them, and in that way A Fine Balance might be compared to a Dickens novel. However, Rohinton Mistry’s palette is both darker and deeper—he does not deal in caricature and sentimentality.
In Mistry’s India, no one is any better than they ought to be, and the poor are as likely to be evil as the rich. Beggars are maimed in childhood in specific ways considered more “marketable;” grim forced-sterilization camps arise out of well-intended efforts to curb population growth; sweatshops seem, in the context of this story, to be a blessing, a source of hope (and food) for a pair of struggling tailors and an independent-minded widow, trying to get along without the help of her meddlesome, small-minded brother.
The country’s political corruption is shown to have roots more complicated than simple venality, sometimes originating with apparent innocence out of local customs, local prejudices, and local loyalties. That aspect is reminiscent of the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah’s classic novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, in which he illuminated the complexity of the corruption of post-colonial West African life—how paramount loyalty to one’s village, or one’s tribe, would oblige anyone with any kind of power to favor their kin, however apparently “unjust.”
Like the characters, the variety of settings is richly varied, and economical descriptions bring to life labor camps, rural villages, shantytowns, teeming Mumbai streets, and idyllic mountain “hill stations” left over from British rule—and not immune to the ruinous cancer of “modernization.” One character’s family home in northern India is described as being secured to the mountainside by cables, and he thinks how precarious it appears, as if ultimately doomed to crash into the valley below.
In symbols like that, or a quilt made by the widow that contains scraps of a shared life, the novel is carefully designed, balanced among the characters, and holding them suspended between hope and despair—and sometimes giving way. The ending scene mirrors the opening in a skillfully wrought denouement that seems both shocking and inevitable.
For anyone who would like not only to understand more about India, but more about the world—more about life—I recommend this book. (With thanks to the waiter at the Biltmore Estate; see “A Winter’s Tale of Summers Past.”)
Late Nights On Air — Elizabeth Hay
Another Canadian author, and another masterpiece.
I might as well state up front that I just loved this book. Late Nights On Air is a novel set around a small radio station in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. As I was drawn into the story, one quality that soon set it apart as something special was that I began to feel the characters in the novel weren’t only characters, they were people.
That is a valuable distinction, and Elizabeth Hay’s writing is so fine that you come to not only visualize the people, but feel them, know them. They are complicated and sometimes self-defeating, their behavior often overwhelmed by urges they don’t recognize or understand. Psychology is at work here, and an underlying philosophy embracing a kind of idealism, but oh-so realistic. I often think of Paul Theroux’s great observation, “A cynic is a disappointed idealist.”
The universal flaws, and the occasionally heroic triumph in people overcoming their defects and “behaving better than they are,” are a worthy measure of humanity—not how imperfect we are, for we have all been scarred by events we did not choose, and in ways we hardly comprehend. Our chance at goodness—defined as something more than doing no harm—often lies in simply rising above our flawed humanity and doing what we ought to do, instead of the selfish weakness human frailty might urge us toward. Thus, a “realistic idealism.”
In the background of the human story, and often directly affecting its events, Elizabeth Hay evokes the Far North as few writers have. The long summer days that only fade into brief twilight for an hour or two, the last spark of the sun tracing along the southern horizon fleetingly until it rises again. The unimaginable deep freeze of dark winter nights, too cold for snow, too cold for wind, when columns of woodsmoke rise straight up in the brittle air, and shifting curtains of colored light play across the black velvet sky.
The story gathers strength as the characters interact, coming together and apart, yearning and despairing, loving and betraying. A canoe trip into the wilderness becomes a beautifully evoked combination of an apparent northern Eden and its inherent menace. The weather, landscapes, and wildlife are finely rendered, in rich sensory detail, and the struggles of the travelers against mighty Nature bring them to revelations that the reader can share.
As I finished the book, I felt a wave of deep emotion—not only for what had happened to the people in the story, but because of what hadn’t happened to them. No one, it seemed, had got what they wanted.
But the psychology is subtle. In some cases, it was like that old Rolling Stones song—people might not get what they wanted, but some ended up with what they needed. And perhaps that’s not so bad, after all.
Not ideal, but, alas, oh so real.
Man Talking — Mike Heppner
Talk about a story surrounding a book—everything about this prose work is a whole other story. My part in that story began a couple of years back, when I chanced to read Mike Heppner’s second novel, Pike’s Folly, and gave it a good review in this space (which of course only publishes good reviews).
Mike appreciated that review, and got hold of me. We began writing to each other occasionally, and met once when the band was playing near Mike’s home in Boston. His two novels (the first titled The Egg Code, which I also enjoyed) were published by a prestigious house, Knopf (insiders know to pronounce the “K”), and then it was the usual story: the books were well received, but sales were modest, and for some reason, no one saw the movie potential in both novels that I do, so he was denied that possible breakthrough, too.
When Mike finished his third novel, Knopf declined to pick up their option, and despite the best efforts of Mike and his agent, he met the same rejection from every other major publisher (don’t get me started—they almost make the record companies look far-sighted. Almost). Mike kept working, and completed his fourth novel, only to have it suffer the same fate—written, but homeless. Now what?
Mike supported his young family by teaching creative writing at Emerson College (like so many aspiring or disappointed authors have to do—it’s a living, and many respected musicians do the same: supplement their meager performance earnings by teaching). Still, what Mike most wants to do is write, and to have an audience for his writing, so he needed to publish . . . somehow.
Small Anchor Press, a producer of limited edition, handmade books, brought out an elegant edition of Mike’s poignant story, “Sleeping Together.” That made a good piece of art, but it was modest by definition—a “small” press; a “limited” edition—though it seemed to be the only place he could get into print.
With inspiration born of despair, Mike began planning something new: a four-part work that would contain four novellas, each published separately, in several different media.
The first novella, Talking Man, was published by Small Anchor Press in a handmade edition. The third part, Man Talking, appeared second, as a free download on Mike’s Web site (an increasingly attractive medium for modern writers, including this one, though the “making a living” part is problematic for struggling authors).
The reader is invited to check out the free download at mikeheppner.com—satisfaction or your money back. Typical of the larger work, I consider it an artful examination of modern life, and modern love, with perfect dialogue, wry humor, psychological insight, and descriptions rendered in a handful of seemingly tossed-off words—a room, or a street at night, sketched like a watercolor or pen-and-ink drawing. One such vignette that stays with me is a crowded restaurant in winter, the hanging coats still emanating the cold of the outdoors. Truth and beauty.
The second part, Man, was released in an innovative way. Late in 2008, Mike sent out 500 photocopies to friends around the country. They (we—as of course I immediately volunteered) were asked to leave single copies in places where random readers might find them. On the front page of each copy was a letter asking the reader to respond to Mike, telling where they found the work, and what they thought of it.
Those responses, along with the results of a survey among Mike’s writer friends, will be combined artfully, and eventually make up the fourth part of the work, Talking, which will be published . . . somehow or other. (I think I got all that right—it’s confusing!)
Mike sent twenty copies of Man to me in Los Angeles, and I planned my “drops” carefully—inspired by the notion of engaging in acts of “subversive art,” and a boyish fantasy of a Hardy Boys plot, with secret messages and hiding places. At local coffee shops and supermarkets I slipped single copies inside the Sunday New York Times Book Review; inside issues of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter in Westside outlets, where movie people might find them (still trying to score that movie deal for Mike that would set him up as an independent author); in bookstores, inside large-format books (I thought Watching the Watchmen was a good bet, for the recipient of a hip gift), or in the shelves under “He-” (beside Hemingway), where a novel by Mike Heppner would appear if it had been published conventionally; and even in Death Valley National Park Visitor Center, inside the picture books that a literate tourist might pick up.
To date, out of those 500 copies dispersed around the country, Mike has only received two responses—neither of them, I am disappointed to report, from Southern California. But I like to think that maybe one copy is still kicking around some movie executive’s desk, waiting to be picked up one day and “discovered.”
Thus we return to the fine balance between hope and despair . . .