(Published in the Business Standard, May 5, 2009)

Over half a century of Indian writing in English has produced several contenders for the title of the defintive Partition novel; but other conflicts have been more elusive. Partition has been recorded in many Indian languages—from Manto’s classic, brutal short stories to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Chaman Nahal’s Azaadi, literature has kept pace with history.

Every few years, someone attempts to write the great Kashmiri novel, but even Salman Rushdie (with Shalimar the Clown) missed the mark. The intensity and tragedy of Kashmir has been served better by non-fiction writers than by fiction writers. A handful of novelists have tried to make sense of the Bhopal gas tragedy, of 1984 and of the Gujarat riots, but I would argue that Indra Sinha (Animal’s People), Shonali Bose (Amu) and Raj Kamal Jha (Fireproof) have been adequate witnesses, but fall short in literary terms.

In their defence, it has never been easy to write about tragedy—or to write about evil, as two recently published works demonstrate. The first, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, is a 900-plus page brick of a novel that was highly acclaimed in France before becoming a worldwide bestseller. It is also one of the most repellent books I have read in recent years—not because of its subject, but because of Littell’s perspective.

The protagonist of The Kindly Ones is Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer in the Second World War, complicit in a number of crimes, now living in retirement and working in a lace-making factory. Littell takes his title from the euphemism for the Furies, forces of merciless but exact vengeance in Roman mythology, and he takes his inspiration for Maximilien Aue’s life history from the troubled, bloody history of the legendary House of Atreus. Novelist and reviewer Laila Lalami called The Kindly Ones “a pornographic catalogue of horrors”, and most reviewers have been left disturbed, if not repulsed, by Littell’s mindlessly graphic musings.

(Speaking personally, I can’t remember ever being so repelled by a novel. Not shocked; most of Littell’s catalogue of horrors is familiar to any reader of Roman mythology or pulp horror fiction. But to read this book was to swing between boredom and deep, almost physical, distaste.)

Relentlessly repetitious, the novel presents Aue’s lust for his sister in terms that do violence to the memory of the Holocaust; he has sexual fantasises that cast her in the role of a prisoner in the camps, for instance. In her review for The New Republic, Ruth Franklin caught it best when she commented: “But The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject, which is nothing less than the most perplexing question of modernity. How could human beings undertake….an unprecedented systematic program of mass extermination against other human beings? “ It is, however, one of the most widely discussed novels of this year, chiefly for its more sensational aspects and because of the huge advance the author received.

J M Coetzee has, far more elegantly and incisively than Littell, examined the question of how one writes about evil in several of his books. In Elizabeth Costello, the title character comes to the conclusion that you can’t write about evil, or bear witness beyond a certain point, without inflicting damage on yourself as a human being. And besides, she asks, how reliable is memory anyway? She writes: “”Could there really have been witnesses who went home that night and, before they forgot, before memory, to save itself, went blank, wrote down, in words that must have scorched the page, an account of what they had seen, down to the words the hangman spoke to the souls consigned to his hands, fumbling old men for the most part, …. exhausted, shivering, hands in their pockets to hold up their pants, whimpering with fear….?”

A much shorter, much drier document manages to bear witness in its own way. In its scant 43 pages, and in the detached language of the objective witness, the Red Cross Report on Torture effectively presents evidence that indicts the US government for its treatment of suspects and prisoners at Guantanamo. From political websites to the venerable New York Review of Books, the Red Cross Report has opened up a debate on the nature of bureaucratic evil and legalised crime.

Littell offers one way to examine violence that is perhaps valid, but that is deeply repugnant: approach it through the lens of voyeurism, exaggerate the nature of evil to the point where it becomes ridiculous in its offensiveness. The Red Cross report offers a more traditional way: be a witness, write perhaps without the scorching words Coetzee (and Costello) demand, but with absolute honesty. The novelist who seeks to capture the nature of an undertaking such as a holocaust, a riot or a pogrom, must find a way between these two paths. Several Indian film-makers and photographers have found a way of telling their truth, but for the Indian writer, capturing the nature of the beast remains elusive.