Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World by Amitava Kumar

lunch with a bigotReading and writing are a major topic of exploration in these essays. Kumar is an advocate of writing as an expression of the real, a way to decipher and interpret the everyday — politics, identity, culture — the sacred role of fiction in making palpable these essential things. The well known strategy of the writer infusing their personal experiences and family character into the plot.

He also determines economy of language as required. Short, direct sentences. Avoidance of adverbs, overuse of adjectives, all flowery language whatsoever. Carver, Hemingway, Roth, Naipaul*. I enjoy most of the named writers and styles. Certainly I love many books determined to translate ‘the real’. Yet, I’m utterly baffled whenever anyone makes grandiose declarations of what literature should ultimately be.

I mean when I hear anyone anyone, not just this writer, say something along the lines of:

  • Writing should be a translation of real life, serious in aim, and high in pursuit.
  • Never write anything that doesn’t directly serve the story; no diversions.
  • Vampires / magic / future technology should be done in this way. (it happens in all genres)
  • Never use two words when one would do (and don’t tell Proust!).

To that I say: literature can be a million different things! Many of them good! Use ornate language even if it isn’t strictly necessary! Divert away, so long as it is interesting! Adverbs surely aren’t always so bad.

It’s this hardline notion more than anything else that makes me unlikely to read Amitava Kumar’s fiction, or of many lit critics who espouse similar. But what he does excel at is journalistic concerns — recording public events, interviewing ‘common’ people, conducting talks with filmmakers and writers. There’s some really insightful pieces here. I’ve added Indian films to my to-watch list that I would never have heard of otherwise.

Kumar does an excellent job of translating the presence and importance of great writers to the page. And also less known personages, like a muslim taxi driver who was assaulted after the Boston bombings. The words of the bigot of the title — a Hindu radical who hates and dehumanizes muslims — are chilling and well recorded, and show that extreme right wing rhetoric is basically the same everywhere, no matter how applied. And it is Arundhati Roy’s line, in an interview with Kumar, about using court injunctions as napkins that sticks with me after finishing this book.

*Kumar names some other Indian writers too, but having not read them, I can’t recite from memory. With a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of writers namedropped are men.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Book cover:  "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories."  MagHilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.

She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.

The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:

History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.

Pretty but forgettable.