The BS column: How not to write about evil

(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.

6 comments

  1. Do you think Schlink succeeds – upto a point – with Holocaust in The Reader? I liked the book more than the film (the goat also said that, after spitting out the celluloid he couldn’t digest, but let that pass). I like the tangential way, though, some writers have dealt with 9/11 – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was moving; Emperor’s Children did well in leaving much unsaid; and Netherland should have been on the Booker shortlist, at least. Not the same scale of tragedy, perhaps – 3,000 vs 2m, it is a question of scale, after all.

  2. Schlink does–and no, I wasn’t impressed by the film, it was meticulous rather than inspired. The Reader worked for me because it set a personal story against this terrible background, and made you see the intersections. Netherland, EC and Foer’s book–all brilliant. But I think often of Hersey’s Hiroshima–that kind of classic reportage is hard to find these days.

  3. Hi N. I’d be wary of conflating writing about tragedy and evil in quite this way — if only because each has very different implications for engaging the reader.It’s a relatively minor quibble, since it ultimately emphasises your point that writing about evil (especially from The Kindly Ones’ perspective) is really tough. But still.Have you read the Srikrishna Commission report on Brother Bal’s fun and games in Bombay, 1992-93? Deeply disturbing for the same ideas you write of, perhaps more so because it’s easy for many of us to connect with the places and people described.

  4. It’s a good point, Hari. Tragedy almost always contains something of evil in it, but true evil seems to be much harder to write about. I didn’t know what the word origin of evil was, and it’s interesting–the word has gained force over the centuries, but originally to be evil was merely to exceed limits, to transgress. I was thinking about Salil’s comment re scale, and perhaps that’s another point of distinction. The murder of a toddler by two young boys qualifies as a tragedy for the family, but it isn’t a shared tragedy on the global stage, though it may inspire empathy. But the actions of the two boys forces you to explore the idea of evil–evil is so much more powerful in this case than the merely tragic.Thanks for the comment, much appreciated.

  5. All this talk of depicting evil brings to mind Hannah Arendt, and the banality of evil thesis. I’ve met Thackeray a few times as a journalist, and he is at times sardonic, often calm, and almost boring; his half-awake eyes suggest his mind is elsewhere. He speaks slowly and with a precision that’s irritating, and then suddenly loses temper (in my case, once, because I refuse to echo “Jay Maharashtra” when the meeting with him ended. I was interviewing him over something. Reader’s heroine, too, is at one level banal. In my human rights work, I often come across sadists and brutal police officers, who are scary at one level – you know what they’ve done – and how they appear “normal” otherwise. I think Irrfan Khan depicts that aspect well in Slumdog – perhaps he was the best actor in that film. Somehow, while writing fiction, writers end up trying to create larger-than-life evil people – this is an unsupported generalisation probably, but when you read factual accounts of torture – Red Cross reports are perfect in this regard – and meet some of those folks later, there’s a disconnect that’s scary. Kind of stuff that keeps us up at night. What did you think of Anil’s Ghost? I ask because Ondaatje spent some time at Amnesty’s archives, researching, reading torture reporte. I wasn’t too happy with that novel.

  6. Wouldn’t you agree it is even harder to write about the kind of evil that goes largely unnoticed by the media? Take the plight of Bangladeshi refugees caught in the maze of tidal islands in the Ganges delta. These are people who couldn’t care less for (or understand) international borders and laws. Amitav Ghosh does a fantastic work of bringing their story to the mainstream audience in “The hungry tide”. The best part of it – he doesn’t judge their actions and maintains a strictly neutral tone throughout. Arundati Roy’s “God of small things” is again about social evil an evil that’s still rampant and adversely affects the lives of an unimaginable number of “low caste” malayalis. Somehow I get the feeling that the books that “capture” evil the best are those that don’t try to solve that “evil”

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