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The history of pleasure

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 09, 2018
Eye of the beholder: Visual art such as Pablo Picasso’s ‘Lovers’ (1904) informs Kumar’s narrative

Eye of the beholder: Visual art such as Pablo Picasso’s ‘Lovers’ (1904) informs Kumar’s narrative   -  Wikipedia

The Lovers; Amitava Kumar; Fiction; Aleph Books; ₹599

The Lovers; Amitava Kumar; Fiction; Aleph Books; ₹599

Amitava Kumar’s latest novel is a dazzling treatise on the nature of reality, fiction and desire — told through the malleable lens of a campus novel

For reasons that I shall keep to myself, Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting plays a pivotal role in the story of my life. Not only for the fevered month that I read it in (the marginalia preserve strategic mouthfuls), but also for everything else that happened after. There is a year in my life that I cannot revisit without recalling phrases, moments, even entire arguments from the book; I suppose this is in line with the French author’s numerous laments on forgetting.

To unpack — reality is based, at least partially, on memory. And if, wandering amidst the detours and unmarked lanes of memory, one leans on literature or cinema (even documentaries that function within a self-conscious ‘realism’) to create meaning, does this devalue the ‘reality’ or mean that the memory isn’t ‘authentic’? Amitava Kumar’s novel The Lovers asks this question of its readers, playing both sides effortlessly until the very last act. Even there, it peers over Franzenesque glasses (an actual description in the book) in truly professorial fashion, and answers, with a knowing smile, “Depends on who’s asking”.

Kumar’s story, ostensibly, is about Kailash, a professor of literature and creative writing, who, we learn at the beginning of the novel, has recently resigned under humiliating circumstances. Kailash’s back story is told mostly through the filter of his relationships with three women — Jennifer, Nina and Cai Yan, in that order. Kailash is given a different name by his American friends; he is called ‘Kalashnikov’ or ‘AK-47’. AK, of course, are the author’s initials, and this is the first of an escalating chain of metafictional deceits, set-pieces that place the book alongside those by Teju Cole, John Berger and WG Sebald (all of whom are name-checked).

Broadly speaking, these set-pieces fall into three categories. The first category is vignettes that investigate how visual media has changed the nature of remembrance — that is, situations where pictures now serve a role traditionally reserved for words. At the beginning of the book, Kailash confesses that he found the film Gandhi to be “insufficiently authentic”, but, “more crucially I felt insufficiently authentic myself”. In another scene, his professor Ehsaan Ali (modelled on the real-life Eqbal Ahmad, thus adding another layer of artifice) comments upon the fact that for most students in his class, including Kailash, memorabilia from home meant a stack of photographs (as opposed to the dead soldiers whose letters they were reading in class; men who treasured old watches, fragments of clothes, even soil from back home). Throughout the story, there are well-timed interventions by visual masters like Pablo Picasso and Satyajit Ray. It is little surprise to us that Kailash first notices Nina’s “little lies” when she lies to him about The Silence of the Lambs; she has seen the film before but hides this because she wants to watch it again with him.

The second kind of vignette, conversely, complicates the nature of language: situations where words are pictures, so to speak. Thus we have Kailash reminiscing about “the only public mentions of sex” in India, namely, advertisements painted “on the brick walls near the tracks (…) large white letters in Hindi urging you to call a phone number if you suffered from premature ejaculation”. At a different point in the book, he talks about Nina lying naked in bed, “a lovely creature stretched on the dark sheet: on the inside of her thigh, in deep red lipstick she had written Here”. These vignettes tend to be sexual in nature, in part because of what Joseph Alter calls India’s ‘direct indirectness’ about sex, a complex semiotic network of textual and visual cues that reveals even as it obfuscates.

These two symbiotic frameworks contribute to the novel’s central rhetoric: can we separate ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ like shirts on a clothesline? (No) Are there scenarios where ‘fiction’ reveals more ‘truth’ than ‘non-fiction’? (Yes, kind of) If we go about removing ‘fictions’, like weeds from our mental gardens, what foliage will we be left with? (not much, apart from shame and self-loathing).

The Lovers manages to say all of this while sounding, simultaneously, like a campus memoir, a treatise on exile, and a how-I-fell-from-grace story. This is a testament to Kumar’s ease at shifting register. There are shades of Philip Roth here, especially in the Portnoy’s Complaint-like italicised rhetoric, addressed to an ‘offstage’ judge. “Memories translate experience, and when we write about these memories a double translation takes place. This book, too, is an example of this uncertain process, Your Honour. I cannot claim any particular fidelity to facts.” There are moments when you feel you’re inside a David Lodge novel being radio-adapted by Jorge Luis Borges (characters interviewing Judith Butler, watching Grace Paley make a speech, or attending Bach concertos by Edward Said).

Kailash, by the time he begins to teach, puts together a curriculum for a course called “In-Between Novels”, featuring works like Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee, 10:04 by Ben Lerner and Speedboat by Renata Adler (Kumar has taught this course and these books at Vassar, New York) — books that take the mingling of fact and fiction very seriously indeed. These are challenging texts, but the rewards for the reader are also proportionately higher. The Lovers, through its virtuosic blend of metafiction, cultural commentary and confessional writing, belongs to this shelf of hybrid wonders.

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Published on August 11, 2017
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