Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Valley of Masks

By Tarun Tejpal

Tejpal has attempted an Animal Farm. Or a 1984. The Valley of Masks is a fable in the Orwellian fashion, of a society that breaks away from the real, messy, filth-ridden world to create a Platonian Utopia. A world of perfection where everyone is equal, there are no possessions, there is no sense of self, only a striving towards an elimination of self.

The narrator is one who breaks away. And as he waits for his retribution, he tells his tale. It’s a fast paced tale, fascinating and thriller-like, and as he recreates the perfect Utopian world he comes from, you can see in it facets of all the religions and all the big ideologies – Jesus, Marx and the Buddha, the Gita and the Koran. And you can see in it all the fallacies of the quest for the one right way.

Tejpal, in the voice of Karna (born Karna, but growing into a Wafadar with a name with 2 numerals and 1 alphabet) describes his birth and growing up in a society where there are no mothers, only the motherhood, where you are taught to eschew anything to do with ‘I’, where individuality is subsumed under the collective ‘we’, where ‘purity’ of thought and action is valued over anything else, where the truth of the Aum is deemed greater than Aum himself. Aum is the prophet, the great one who led his flock to the Promised Land. And his disciples understandably, set up Utopia.

Of course the Utopia gets dystopian. The quest for perfection is flawed. Because there is music (“We sing and we hear song, and we understand and we forgive, and our great unhappiness slowly drains out of us, like pus from a boil, and we sheathe our knives and bury our axes, and we are saved.”) and there is love. Because there are ideas and there are men, and there is a difference. Because the absolute cannot survive doubt. Because Utopia is by definition horrific.

The fall is swift. After years of worshipping the Utopian ideal, Karan comes face to face in a horrific way, with the personal toll it takes. And it is then that he realizes the folly of it all.

Tejpal does not tell a new tale. We have read it before in Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. But he tells it well, with passion and unrepentant sentimentality, the way an Arundhati Roy would.

I liked The Valley of Masks. Because at its heart, it espouses a thought I totally buy into. The thought that “…the one word, possibly greater than music or love. Doubt. That should forever alternate with faith as day does with night.” Check this earlier post of mine.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Sport and a Pastime

James Salter

France in certain American novels and movies is beguiling. There is beauty, casual beauty, beauty in the everyday food and the conversation and the women and the clothes and the cold and the countryside and even the poverty. Think Last Tango in Paris, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Before Sunset, Moulin Rouge, Hemingway’s novels…

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is charming France all over again. It’s Philip Dean’s charmed existence, a Yale dropout spending time in France, searching for authentic France driving around in the French countryside with a young French girl Anne Marie, learning about love and sensuality and all about being young and irresponsible in that intoxicating time before you have to grow up. But it’s also about the thirty four year old unnamed narrator seeing in Philip Dean all that he can never be – the insouciant rebel who does not feel the need as he himself did, to ‘do everything properly.’ And so he becomes the voyeur, playing the peeping Tom, imagining the erotic, sensual life of Philip and Anne Marie, seeing the villages they drive through, the everydayness of their life that is always tinged with the extraordinary, a life more ‘lived’ than he can ever imagine. It’s a paean to sensuality, in a way that I imagine Nabokov’s Lolita was, not just in the way the love making is imagined and described, but also in the way the French countryside is and the French food. It is all the more poignant because you know it will end. It has to end. You even know how it will end. That Anne Marie will grow old, marry, have children and will, with her husband “walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.” And of course we know the irony of that, when we juxtapose that with the memory of that one magical year of Philip and Anne Marie.

Salter’s writing is quite different from usual. He uses the present tense most times. And his sentences are not always complete, especially when he is describing places and moods and feelings. It’s like an impressionistic painting. Here he is describing Autun, the French town where he is staying. “This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gillot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there is the smell of bread.” Could a painting have painted it better?

So the writing is quite a treasure –precious, delicious, to be savoured like a free afternoon in a European city. And if only for that, Salter is worth a visit.