Life & Letters

Death of the Reader

Tabish Khair has just published The New Xenophobia (Oxford University Press, 2016)
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Readers who ignore historical silences in fiction by authors like Zadie Smith and Khalid Hosseini are just buying into the feel-good myth of multiculturalism
Tabish Khair is a poet and novelist. His latest novel, The Thing about Thugs, has been shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a novel that a young writer can only admire, a double-decker of a narrative powered by real talent. It is also a novel that appears to make careful use of ‘history’. And yet, if one reads it from outside the celebratory space of multicultural Britain, one notices intriguing gaps and silences. Take, for instance, the case of the main protagonist, Samad Miah Iqbal, who claims to be and is portrayed by the text as the great grandson of Mangal Pande, the Indian sepoy who fired the first shot of the 1857 revolt. Samad is a firebrand— if not fundamentalist—Muslim much of the time and the sceptical reader in me could not reconcile this fact with the name of his historically authentic great-grandfather. For Mangal Pande is not just a Hindu name, it is a twice- born, pure-as-snow Brahmin one. It is difficult to imagine the descendants of the Mangal Pandes of India converting to Islam, let alone a firebrand version of it and that too after the snuffing of the last symbols of Muslim glory in 1857.

Of course this is not life, this is a novel. But because this is a novel, there ought to have been a spectacular story around this spectacular conversion. A gap like this is problematic not just in what it says or does not say but primarily in what it misses out of not saying. It is not as much a waste of or lack of speech, but a waste of silence.

A similar problem confronts the sceptical reader in another celebrated novel, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which— in spite of its solid adherence to certain textual and mainstream definitions of religions (particularly ‘Hinduism’)— is rather shaky in the field of names. Take, for instance, this extract: ‘He was a Sufi, a Muslim mystic… His name was Satish Kumar. These are common names in Tamil Nadu…’ It could be that, in the years I have been away from India, Tamil Nadu (in South India) has been invaded and colonised by people from North India, so that North and West Indian names like Satish Kumar have become common there. I am willing to allow that possibility. But I still find it difficult to imagine a pious Muslim, even a Sufi, with a Hindu name—for Satish and Kumar are both Hindu names. Once again, this is less an error of speech or narration than a failure to employ a gap, a glitch, a noise in a literary manner.

One wonders what such superfluous omissions and not-meant-to-be- noticed silences signify. Of course, one can choose not to notice them altogether. One can also answer, as Salman Rushdie did when some historical errors were noted in his excellent Midnight’s Children, that we are talking of an art form and an unreliable narrator. In Rushdie’s case, the errors—intentional or not—did consolidate the general discourse of the novel. It was, after all, a novel about history versus ‘his’ stories. I am not sure the same can be said of Smith’s or Martel’s novel, and a host of other, less celebrated or less accomplished, novels. One can of course ‘explain away’ these ‘errors’, but only by detracting considerably from the art of the novelist.

Such ‘errors’, not justified (unlike in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) by the narrative, remain problematic in two basic ways: first, and most simply, such celebrated postcolonial texts make gestures of narrative appropriation towards ‘India’ or ‘South Asia’ that show traces of discursive hegemony of a nature reminiscent of colonial texts; and second, not because of what such ‘errors’ say about the novelist, but because of what they might do to the reader. Inability or refusal to engage with the nature of such ‘errors’ can be seen as marking the death of the reader. The reader, not as a blank receptor of the intentions of the author or text, but as someone who actually reads. The reader as the critic. Here the etymology of the word ‘read’ has to be kept in mind: to read is to ‘think, suppose, guess; discern the meaning of (chiefly in read a riddle, a dream); inspect and interpret…’

...All of this reminds me of the way in which, for example, Seamus Heaney sees the act of writing. In one of his early poems, Digging, he depicts his father digging outside while he, the poet and scholar, sits at a table, writing. The poem notes the separate nature of the two acts, but also suggests that writing is a sort of digging: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.’ Reading is also an act of digging. A reader is not only someone who stays on the surface of the text, but an active thinker and interpreter. She attends to the text, but she also accomplishes and takes charge to an extent.

I use ‘digging’ to suggest an ongoing act of reading that is not solely or primarily focused on the legible, consensual and linear surface of the text. This does not, by any means, imply just an activity of postcolonial or feminist ‘fault- finding’, as is sometimes claimed by antagonistic critics, or an academic drive to ignore the ‘aesthetic pleasure’ of reading. Such a simplification is common and surprising: If one suggests that the best way to drink a good cognac is to do so slowly and perhaps insist on a glass of a certain shape and material and the appropriate temperature, and so on, in order to savour the drink rather than gulp it down, it would not be taken as a call to ignore the ‘pleasure’ (let alone the ‘aesthetic pleasure’) of drinking!

...But why this resistance—or ignorance— of the necessary role of ‘digging’ in the reading of literature, sometimes by the same people who would love to savour their cognac? Is it that we have moved from the death of the author to the death of the reader?

In 1968, Roland Barthes published the definitive obituary of the author. Writing begins, he noted, when the author enters his death. It is language that speaks, not the author, he claimed, which was not incorrect if rather hyperbolic. In proclaiming the death of the author, Barthes also proclaimed the death of the critic and celebrated the birth of the reader. The reader, he claimed, is ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed’. (Barthes, Le Degre, p. 118) The reader, he added, is ‘without history, biography, psychology’; she is simply that space in which the traces by which the written text is constituted come together.

It might be churlish to proclaim the death of the reader in the wake of Barthes’ and other theorists’ announcement of the return to life of the reader. But there is some indication that a chunk of contemporary fiction seeks to cast the reader in a rather passive and celebratory role. And it appears that it is often this kind of writing— suave, polished, talented at times— that is celebrated in many well-meaning circles.

...Another celebrated and talented novel by a major writer comes to mind: Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and its ending where the main protagonist approaches a skating rink wearing a sari. But you cannot skate wearing a sari, her friend says: ‘This is England,’ the protagonist replies, ‘You can do whatever you like.’ South Asians who, like me, hold a Third World passport, have too many experiences of troubled entry into First World spaces to be able to read such an un-ironic ending without raising an eyebrow. My history, regardless of Barthes, does not set me free either as a reader or a person. I am bound to notice names, for my name is always noticeable. I am liable to be kept from boarding the double-decker of even multicultural Britain. I cannot always do what I want. One cannot help wondering whether a line does not run from Ali’s un-ironic ending, Smith’s and Martel’s misplaced names and similar slippages in recent fiction to Barthes’ and other theorists’ critical midwifery at the birth of the Readerwithout- History. While this is somewhat unfair to Barthes, one can only imagine the Reader-without-History as a non-reader, as a passive receptor, as a simple celebrator of the text, not as someone who interprets, guesses and digs. It is at best a reader—to the extent that she is brought into being— who wants to escape from history. It is a reader who wants to feel good about being who or what she is, and a knowledge of history—even one’s own history— does not always cause one to feel good. The construction of this wilfully ahistorical reader might explain not only the upbeat ending of Ali’s novel but also the slippages in Smith’s and Martel’s novels.

Such slippages are under girded by the myth of multiculturalism in different ways: the sari and skating rink in Ali, London hybridity in Smith and a religio-aesthetic plurality in Martel, whose text chooses between two narratives on the basis of ‘beauty’ and contains lines like these: ‘…Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims’. Even as Martel’s narrator essentialises the religions, he also reaches into the core—the essence—of ‘all religions’ to assure us of the basic goodness of being. Even the brutality of the ‘natural world’—essentialised in many ways too—does not detract from the anodyne nature of the narrative.

Moreover, the very structure of the fable in Martel’s novel conforms to a common prejudice of the multiculturalist: Pi moves from a tranquil though limited ‘traditional’ (ordered) space through a journey of much conflict and upheaval to the safe domain of a more complete and fulfilling Western multiculturalism. There is little doubt that these novels lead to a certain feel-good experience, which is carefully calibrated against the horrors of existence outside the scope of the First World reader’s immediate experience, and this ‘feel good’ experience appeals to readers on both sides of the political centre. There are various reasons for this. While it connects to the general tendency to ‘spiritualise’ and ‘symbolise’ in the centre and liberal right, it also appeals to leftist readers who are aware of the harms of ‘do-goodism’ (the civilising impulse) in the colonial era. Not having the courage—or desire—to do good, they have settled for the alternative of feeling good. Hence, novels clad as history and philosophy and a general distaste for history or philosophy in such circles. Hence, the ‘multiculturalism’ of spaces where everyone buys the same things posited against the ‘uniculturalism’ of some bombarded village in Afghanistan, which is actually ripped apart to reveal Islamic terrorists from a dozen different nations speaking 10 different languages.

...Finally, in their celebration of a specific philosophy of existence (cosmopolitan West-facing multiculturalism), their defence of ‘beauty’ as a criterion of selection, their scorning of matters of ‘mere believability’, as Pi Patel puts it in Martel’s novel, their carelessness towards matters of fictional authenticity, and in the soft light of their legibility, such novels reduce the reader to the role of a nonreader, to the role, sometimes, of a reader of pulp. In the critical reception of such literature as ‘postcolonial’ and even, at times, ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indian English’, a kind of soft ‘Western multicultural’ ethos, valid in its own place, usurps the space of other South Asian realities and realisations, while enabling the First World reader to experience a fully legible (and, hence, fraudulent) otherness that again, negatively or positively, privileges the centrality of the European bridge between times and cultures.

Take for instance, another talented first novel, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. There is a lot to be admired about this novel too, even though the narrator’s Afghanistan is—as the text acknowedges—a particular kind of Afghanistan. It is the Afghanistan of people who watch Hollywood films, not of ordinary Afghans I met in my childhood, who used to watch ‘Bollywood’ films. But that is not necessarily a flaw; one has to narrate from a particular point of perception, and the perspective of Hollywood– Afghanistan is just as valid (though less widespread) as the perspective of Bollywood–Afghanistan.

The gap I have in mind is much subtler. The narrative of The Kite Runner takes us to the end of the Zahir Shah period and the edges of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then it does something strange. Except for an occasional remark or two, it skips the entire period of the Mujahideen and the US-inspired ‘Alliance’, returning to Afghanistan only once the Talibans are in place. Perhaps this gap was called for by the narrative, though I am not convinced about that. What strikes me as significant—regardless of whether the gap was demanded by the narrative or not—is that this gap makes the novel much more palatable to a Western, particularly an American, readership. That is because the West—and in particular Bush-USA, which hailed the Mujahideen as the equivalent of the founding fathers of America—had its hands deep in the gore and mud of what is Afghanistan in exactly that period. The Taliban grew out of branches of the Mujahideen. For instance, much of what the Taliban did to Afghanistani women had been propounded— and at times implemented—by the Mujahideen too.

The Taliban were just better at it, partly because they were more unified and organised—given the informal structure of Islamic schools (Madrassas) behind them—than the Alliance leaders, and partly because ordinary Afghans were tired enough of factionalism and lawlessness to accept any kind of order. After all, as a not religious Afghan refugee had explained to me when the Talibans were going strong, it is difficult to fight for human and political rights if the choice is between rape and total purdah, murder and thought control. Many people, he had added, especially vulnerable groups (such as women), might prefer total purdah to rape, dictatorial control to the constant threat of assault, robbery and murder.

So once again, if you notice this gap in the narrative, you begin to understand why The Kite Runner appeals to a certain kind of reader: it evokes sympathy without guilt, it retells ‘history’ as we would like to remember it in the West. This does not make it a bad novel, but it makes it a certain kind of novel.

Extracted with permission from Reading Literature Today: Two Complementary Essays and a Conversation by Tabish Khair and Sebastien Doubinsky, 2011, Sage Publications, Rs 295 (978-81-321-0688-3)