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.

No comments:

Post a Comment