24 February 2013

The Road to Urbino

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

 In The Flagellation of Christ, a fifteenth-century painting by Piero della Francesca, three men stand in the foreground, looking unperturbed, almost as though they are discussing a game of golf, while the Biblical episode of Christ’s flagellation takes place in an open gallery in the background. The enigmatic fresco has given rise to much scholarly debate regarding the identities of these three men; but to someone who looks at the painting for the first time, what is most striking is their complete lack of concern about the tragedy in the periphery. The lavish, delicate beauty of their surroundings—the clear Tuscan skies, the vibrant damask robes, the exquisite pillars, the shimmering laurel trees—reinforce, somehow, the apathy of these three men.

It is this painting that forms the centre of Roma Tearne’s fifth novel, The Road to Urbino. Lynton Rasanagium—Ras—a Sri Lankan war refugee in England, steals the painting on what seems to be nothing more than a whim. His lawyer, Elizabeth Saunders, finds that she must uncover his entire life story to understand his motivations. Her investigations lead her to Alex Benson, a debonair, selfish writer who introduced Ras to Charles Boyar, the amiable art historian responsible for Ras’s interest in the painting. Charles’s wife Delia and Ras’s daughter Lola are the objects of the affection of these three very different men.

The sinuous, intricate plot weaves these characters together through the densely knotted depositions of Ras and Alex during Elizabeth’s pre-trial examinations. The two testimonies are clear, well-told, and ponderous, each with its moments of imperfection and unreliability. What doesn’t work, though, is when, later, Alex tells Charles’s story with exceptionally detailed knowledge; Charles’s own words in the first person might have served the larger picture better.

Ras’s turbulent childhood in Sri Lanka and his subsequent displacement have a direct impact on his relationships and their many betrayals. His later melancholy, though, is more to do with his estrangement from Lola, whom he seems to love obsessively and yet not well enough. Lola is frequently described by Ras with Nabokovian preoccupation, once even referred to as “light of my life,” just as Humbert describes the eponymous protagonist in the opening lines of Lolita. Later, the analogy is sharpened when Lola falls into a quixotic affair with an older man. A quick segue into Alex Benson’s narrative runs like a parallel stream to Ras’s, with Alex’s own damaged infatuation with Delia.

The prose is scorching and lyrical. The beauty of language doesn’t come in surprising little snatches, it is everywhere, insistent. Tearne brings a painter’s sensibility to her descriptions of landscape, with rich specificity about hues and tones, layered like pigments on a mural. Each moment is profusely encapsulated with imagery that is stubbornly, relentlessly elegiac. Even the most tedious spells of nothingness are doused with poetry: “Your silence deepens like a fall of snow,” and “Time moves sideways into an air pocket of stillness.”

The world watches on as war ravages Sri Lanka; the passion of Christ is met by the mute indifference of passers-by. Ras encounters well-meaning people who gush about Sri Lanka as a tourist destination, never knowing the horrors he has experienced there. The Sri Lankan government itself seems bent on whitewashing the truth, and the people of Ras’s acquaintance tire easily of the haunting landfill of memories that claim him. As the dizzying sequence of events leading up to the theft slowly reveals itself, Elizabeth must build an argument for Ras’s bizarre crime.

War casts sharp, perverse shadows on the supporting cast of characters as well. Delia’s strangely passive curiosity about her grandfather who disappeared during the Second World War comes to gnaw at her present joys, and a preternatural remnant of the war collides perilously with the family she has lovingly built from dream to dream. Alex, Charles, and, through her tenuous connections with these men, Lola too find for themselves the tragic, detonative outcomes of wars that are far-removed from them through time and space.

Charles tells Ras that it is likely that one of the three men in The Flagellation is a ghost, for he stares meaninglessly ahead, rather than into the faces of the men speaking in front of him. The ghost, if that is what he is, holds a posture that is strikingly similar to Christ’s behind him, almost as if to say that it is just as easy to ignore the calamities that are close by as it is to ignore the distant ones.

In knowing Ras’s tale, it is almost impossible not to understand his fixation on the painting.

17 February 2013

Winter Evenings

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The author Mavis Gallant wrote in the preface to a collection of her short stories, “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”

This is good advice for a collection like Winter Evenings by Navtej Sarna. To take them all at a stretch is to do them a disservice – so light and easy and undemanding are these little vignettes that continuous attention to them is almost profligate. No story is longer than a few pages, and not one among them is a page-turner. These are everyday stories, prettily told and eminently readable, asking only for quick and diffused bouts of attention.

Each story almost seems to consist solely of its exposition. Sarna does away with such traditional characteristics of the genre as climax and resolution. In parts, he reminds one of Chekhov with his tendency for open-ended observation and recounting of details that seem to contribute in no way to plot. But unlike Chekhov, who was given to so wide a range that you could expect grotesque comedy to immediately follow high tragedy, who could stretch a moment out with a single, overpowering thread of tension, who could piercingly dissect ennui with the same stabbing precision that he drove into rising action, Sarna’s stories consist almost entirely of flat graphs.

Isolation and displacement are the overarching themes of nineteen tales in the collection, even as the stories traverse continents. Sarna writes with poise and lucidity about a world that he clearly knows well. He maintains a consistent style that is quietly reflective, austere almost, with old-school imagery and bursts of insight. There is no complexity of construction; the flowing insouciance of the prose belies tautness. And yet these are recognisable characters, homespun and rough around the edges, so unremarkable that they seem familiar, and so unsophisticated that they seem human – the married couple in “Delhi” whose relationship devolves fiercely into materialism, the honeymooners in “Sunrise at Mashobra” who are only just learning to read each other, the jaded thirty-year-old in “Brute” who looks back on a decade spent looking for joy.

“The Superintendent’s Formula” is one of the best-told stories in the collection, opening gracefully with the lines, “The evening fell quickly in Jalgaon, especially in winter. It rushed over the tiny town as if it had been hiding at the outskirts, waiting for a signal.” From there, it grows, with Chekhovian directness, and acutely unravels. It seems to be one of the few stories where Sarna has taken the plot seriously enough to give it his attention, building up to a slow and delicate conclusion.

In contrast, “Half Way Home” is a story that opens curiously enough, but simply trails off into a wooden ending that seem to have been slapped on as a last-minute idea. The titular first story, “Winter Evenings,” is the most disappointing of all, with its deliberate, almost pointed, poignancy.

There are sudden flashes of beauty: “Silences, bits of poetry, thinly fractured intimacies and half-forgotten wounds floated back to the mainland. We stood in this crowd near the railing and watched the lights on the island grow faint, the wind in our faces.” (“Barrier Beach”) These flickering junctures of loveliness give pause to notions of structure and plot, almost like an argument for the pathos of brevity and free verse.

After a point, though, the stories rather feel like faded photographs – momentarily exquisite, intricately detailed, but ultimately forgettable.