Monday, December 20, 2010

Some Post Post Postcripts on Mistry's A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance: I suppose it's a tad pathetic even trying to say something useful about a book that was an Oprah choice nine years ago, and that gets 621 Amazon reviews, but I feel obliged to catch a few thoughts on paper,* at least to nail down a couple of points in my own mind.

For starters: I'll sign on that it is, as a multitude of endorsers testify, that it is at least a very good book--remarkable in a book with so much awfulness.   It's like standing at Trafalgar Square and waiting for the car wreck, and it happens only this ti\me it is a thousand car wrecks and they all  happen.  You get an odd sense of closure, perhaps driven by the observation that you knew it was going to work out that way and it does.

There's also the artistry of the telling--the art-that-conceals art, as Mistry delivers some 600 pages of almost unadorned narrative, striking almost never a wrong note.  This, I surmise, is far trickier than it looks, especially remarkble in one who really did not have a huge bedrock of experience to call upon.  It took Verdi--what?  17?--operas to hit his stride; Mistry makes a hole in one on his second shot.

But I want to leave a couple of points about style, or perhaps better his relationship to his material.  One--this will seem a silly thing to say about so unremittingly glum a story.  But in an odd way, Mistry's novel is too nice.  Yes: for all the doom and gloom, there are a number of interludes of solace and calm, a number of characters who you'd like as friends, hope for as next door neighbors.

These emollient eddies are certainly a relief from all the misfortune and disappointment, but as a strictly artistic matter, I'm not sure it quite works.  There are times when you feel like you've wandered into the set for a Bollywood version of M*A*S*H, where (as they say) it's Autumn in the 4077th and the whole gang goes crazy.

I can think of several possible reasons for this.  One is, he just wants to give the reader a break (I think it is Alan Furst who says he sends his characters to Paris every so often because the reader deserves a bit of fun).  A second--I don't quite believe this, but it's a thought--it's a bid for Oprah.  Hard to believe she would have taken 600 pages of pure gloom with no relief.

But I think perhaps a more basic reason might derive from the situation of the author himself.  I know just about nothing of the other except what I learn from his novel and Wiki.  But my guess is we are dealing here with a guy who is writing (and writing well) of a life he observed but did not really live.  Let's see: Parsi, check;seems to be of good family, check; good schooling, check, and finally, escape to Canada.  This is someone whose sense of the wretched of the earth comes at second hand.

That sounds like a dismissive sneer. I don't really mean it so.  He is who he is and I should take him so. But it leads, perhaps, to my second point about his relationship to his material.  A number of readers have asked: what exactly is Mistry trying to prove?  And the most plausible answer seems to be: nothing at all.   He has no moral, no messsage.  He stands and admires.

This, too, is not at all intended as a slur.  No law requires that he have a message.  Or if there is a message, perhaps no message is itself that message.  As Dina Auntie reflects, in a voice suspiciously authorial:
Where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure; and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all.
There, that's it.  Not said with great artistry, but no matter: most of the time he doesn't tell, he simply shows.  And few have done it better.

==*Metaphorically.  Actually, I use obsidian chips on sandstone.

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