Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: If I Could Tell You by Soumya Bhattacharya

“Failure stays with everyone and is a wonderful subject to write about.” That's Soumya Bhattacharya talking about his novel, If I Could Tell You, in an interview. For a novel about the failed aspirations of a writer and of the failed promises of a father, perhaps it is in a way paradoxical that the book itself is so successful — both as a story and as a narrative that has been so well put together. I believe it was also one of the most well received books when it was published.

Perhaps what worked for this gem of a book is the space it so successfully occupies and exploits — the intersections between fiction and autobiography, failure and success and the postmodern play that these interstices offer the author. For all its trappings of realistic fiction, the epistolary form, the wonderful lucid prose, this is above all a postmodern work. And a great one.

If I Could Tell You is a novel with a bare-bones plot — a father writing to his daughter to tell her the story of his life, and one which aptly uses a minimal and restrained tone to tell a bleak tale. Around this is wrapped the epistolary narrative — the story unfolds through a series of letters from a father to his daughter, and incorporates within this form a number of postmodern elements like pastiche, intertextual play, and the play between the real life and the fictional.

The play between the real life and the literary that If I Could Tell You sets up is born out of two things —Bhattacharya's columns and interviews — his career as a writer and editor, and the fact that, like the narrator of the novel, he, the novelist, has a daughter named Oishi. If I am right, Bhattacharya is the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Hindustan Times and has earlier authored two successful books on Cricket. For the Hindustan Times, Bhattacharya also writes a highly popular weekly column about the joys of fatherhood — about watching his daughter Oishi grow up. It is this information that exists outside the novel, but which is easily accessible and known in this age of information, that informs, complicates and problematizes the novel's story. Bhattacharya knowingly and cleverly exploits this teasing interplay between his real life and the one portrayed in his novel. This fact, in a truly postmodern manner, allows Bhattacharya to exploit this intersection of fact and fiction to engage with the reader (and to get the reader to engage with the story) on multiple levels than what the story would normally allow.

The first person narrative of the epistolary form that Bhattacharya has chosen to tell his story works brilliantly to underline and emphasize this play between the real and the fictional. In an interview the author is known to have said: “The letters also allow the narrative to be followed through the consciousness of one person. You are left wondering how much of it is true. . . The effect of ambiguity is deliberate and important to the structure of the book.” The narrator of If I Could Tell You is writing a novel as a series of letters — “a confessional disguised as a novel” as he calls it, borrowing from Roth. In a wonderful play (the kind postmodernism glories in), it makes Bhattacharya's work, a novel disguised as a confessional. In interviews Bhattacharya has insistently at pointed out that while the novel does take off from a point in his life, it also deviates significantly, making his effort what he calls “anti-autobiographical.” It is in elements like this that If I Could Tell You reveals itself not only as an affectionate series of letters to a daughter but also as a paean to postmodernism.

The narrative device of the epistolary form gives the novel much of its shape and postmodern complexity. The narrative device gives the novel its tone of intimacy the only way a personal letter can. The personal letters allow the narrator to convey the profound, unconditional love for his daughter. They also convey very forcefully the frustration of unfulfilled ambition as a writer and the despair of a father who thinks he has failed his daughter. The intimate first person narrative allows a narrator to poignantly convey the immense fascination of a parent for his child's little whims and fancies. Every minute detail is captured and written down with sensitivity and a tone of indulgence. The first person perspective of a letter allows an indulgent father to describe his child's palm or describe just how she holds her crayons and her parted mouth and expression of concentration when she drawing. It allows the father-narrator the scope to describe his daughter's gestures (slicing the air in disgust like her mother) and her postures while sleeping and her eyelashes that resemble inverted commas when she is being inquisitive as only a child can be. The letter also allows the father-narrator to fondly remember conversations — about his daughter telling him “How can you have a Baba Baba, only children do!”

This affectionate and captivating description of Oishi is coupled with a deep sense of foreboding. Each subsequent letter also heightens the sense of pervading doom and that a terrible climax awaits. The epistolary narrative enables the narrator to convey the frustration and realization that the continued rejection of writings only show that he has failed in his ambition as a writer. The narrative device of the letter allows for both reflection and digression. It also allows the narrator a great flexibility in time (remember, virtually most of the book is but a recollection of the past — that when we start the story, in chronological time the narrator's decision has been made and we are already close to the climax of the book) and in choosing events and the sequence in which to touch upon the events.

The first person narrative of the letter also enables the narrator to bring out his unreliability. Several times throughout the novel the narrator refers to himself as “unreliable” (“more unreliable than Ford Madox Ford’s narrator from The Good Soldier”). One suspects the narrator of the novel is here referring not to the tradition of the unreliable narrator but to the nature of the narrative itself. This is a story told by a father trying to explain himself and his life and his final choice to his daughter. It is thus a story told by a father who is taking an opportunity to redeem himself. This self-consciousness about the awareness that in the telling (writing, actually) he is “shaping” the tale to convey a particular impression of himself to his daughter is the unreliability that the narrator is referring to. One also suspects, that the author is again indulging in postmodern play here — that the author is also asking the readers to be aware that his narrator is indulging in “storification.” While all story-telling and narration is an act of storification, I suppose what Bhattacharya wants us to be aware of is that the narrator is only giving us his side of the story. That is what undermines the veracity of all the narrator has set down and makes him “unreliable.” It is also important to note that the narrator is self-reflexively aware that he is in fact an unreliable narrator.

The postmodern play in If I Could Tell You operates at several levels. The author has written the narrator and he in turn is writing the novel. This device is usually used to insulate the writer from any flaws in his narrative. Bhattacharya however uses this to indulge in clever postmodern ploy in his novel. The narrator in the book is highly influenced by masters like Bellow and Roth and quotes them often. The “telling” in fact is steeped in references to literary greats. Literature informs the narrator’s choices and also provides the framework within which he understands them. We come to know that he went to London because writers he admired went there. He tells us that he knows it is okay not to know what to write initially because Orwell didn’t either. At a decisive moment in his life he recalls Salter’s words — “for a moment he forgot he had everything”; but does not heed the warning. We soon suspect that literature also, perhaps unknown to him, corroborates his sufferings and failings — that most of the writers (and their characters) he is influenced by also wrote tragedies. Perhaps what is the greater tragedy for the narrator (and the greater success for the author) is that some of the best parts of the book are words borrowed by the narrator from the masters. Bhattacharya thus skillfully and successfully conveys the failure of a writer whose writing and whose book is doomed because it is overshadowed by the words of the very geniuses who inspired him to write. Whatever be our interpretation, what is without doubt is the love that the narrator (and the author) have for literature itself. This is a narrator for whom literature has replaced religion: “Literature was the only religion I ever had, and there was no God to turn to but writers.”

For much of the book it is the internal life of the narrator that pervades the book. There is not much beyond an impressionistic painting of the surroundings and the life “outside.” The only time when the socio-economic situation around intrudes into the story is when the global financial meltdown wrecks his investments and his nest egg. The despair and the havoc that the meltdown wrecks on his life and his ambitions gives him the final push that builds to the climax of the series of letters. What is remarkable though is the sense of restraint with which the narrator faces the pain and makes his decision: “Is this how one is supposed to feel after one had decided? Tolstoy would know . . .” The restraint in the telling creates an immense sense of quietness throughout the story. In spite of the despair and the pain the narrator indulges in no drama or self-pity. Perhaps the fact that it is a father writing these letters to his daughter that brings in the sense of quiet and calm into the book. It is a father who is trying to soften the blow of his final decision on his daughter, a father trying to cocoon his daughter in the warmth and safety of recollection while gently conveying to her his failures as writer and above all as a father.

The quietness emphasizes, in spite of the failures, the deep love of a writer for literature and writing and the tenderness of a father for his daughter. It is in this immense love towards literature and especially for his daughter that the author justifies his book, its title and in the process underscores Auden's verse: “There are no fortunes to be told, although/Because I love you more than I can say/If I could tell you I would let you know.”


Soumya Bhattacharya said...

Intelligent review. Enjoyed it. You got the postmodern bits spot on, as you did the business of the unreliable narrator.

mandar talvekar said...

Hello Soumya,
Thank you for writing in. And many thanks for taking the time to read through and acknowledging where my interpretation works.

It's a gem of a book.

Shaivi said...

awesome review...
here's my review of the book