The BS column: The Visionary and The Raconteur

(Published in the Business Standard, June 22, 2010)

In 2008, a friend called, incoherent with excitement. “Jose Saramago has a blog!” It seemed ridiculous. Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel literature laureate who passed away this weekend, was then 85. Many writers avoided blogging, on the basis that it took away from the “real” writing, and Saramago’s books were a monumental, Borgesian tower of high seriousness.

But it was true. Fascinated by what he called the Infinite Page of the Internet, Saramago took to blogging with relish, unleashing rants against George Bush, Israel’s policies in Palestine and literary agents. However, he was a writer to his bones, despite his late start—he began writing only in his fifties, in retirement from his civil servant’s job—and the blog became a 21st century version of the 19th century writer’s journal. It was a pastiche of quotes, observations on books read, the nature of the Internet (“are we more companionable on the web”): Saramago, unfiltered, and sometimes hard to understand because of the vagaries of Google’s Translate button.
It seemed typical that he would engage with such gusto and verve with a new medium, though. His greatest novels defeat many readers, who cannot follow him through the thickets of prose, those impressive, long, coiling sentences that he annexed for his own uses. In his Nobel lecture, Saramago paid homage to his grandfather, who influenced his own story-telling style: “With sleep delayed, night was peopled with the stories and the cases my grandfather told and told: legends, apparitions, terrors, unique episodes, old deaths, scuffles with sticks and stones, the words of our forefathers, an untiring rumour of memories that would keep me awake while at the same time gently lulling me.”

You read Saramago to be allowed entry into the halls of soaring imagination. His first few novels were relatively conventional, though his pre-occupation with understanding and reimagining the history of Portugal showed up early. Then there came The Stone Raft (1986), where he imagines the severance of Portugal from Europe, as a chunk of the Iberian peninsula breaks off and sets sail, steered by strange forces. Perhaps his most famous work was Blindness (1995), where an unnamed city is overtaken by a plague of blindness, and the blind are feared, corralled and kept in isolation. In A History of the Siege of Lisbon, one of his later novels, a proofreader feels compelled to rewrite the story of the 1147 siege, and rewrites his own history in the process. To read Saramago was not always easy or immediately satisfying, but as with his blog, reading his books returned to the patient reader a sense of infinite possibility and deep engagement.

Earlier in the week, the passing of Manohar Malgonkar at the age of 97 went almost unremarked. Malgonkar was an enthusiastically prolific writer, and his popular fiction was a cut above the pulp fiction produced these days. He led a rich life, transitioning from big-game hunter—he was a formidable shikari—to the more sedate pastures of newspaper columnist. Many of his novels and writings dealt with contemporary Indian history, and four of the best-known remain delightfully baroque classics.

A Bend in the Ganges viewed Partition and its aftermath through the eyes of a Gandhian, a militant with idealistic views, and the militant’s beautiful sister, Sundari—exactly the kind of sprawling canvas Malgonkar loved. He believed in giving his readers blood, passion and violence, preferably all three in equal portions. Devil’s Wind was set in the time of the 1857 Rebellion and told in the voice of a Nana Saheb who had “the vegetarian’s instinctive squeamishness about shedding blood”. The Princes drew on Malgonkar’s background—he came from one of India’s erstwhile royal families—and examined the shifting fortunes of a royal family.

Perhaps his best work was The Men Who Killed Gandhi, a journalistic recreation and examination of the events that lead to Gandhi’s evaluation. Published in 1978, during the Emergency, it still remains one of the most interesting records of the conspiracy between Godse, Apte, Karkare, Bagde and Pahwa.

Malgonkar chose to spend his last decades in quiet retirement, on his farm near Belgaum, very far from the politics and the pageantry of the contemporary Indian publishing scene. He remained relatively unfeted, unlike Saramago, and lacked the Nobel laureate’s literary reputation. But he was one of the first Indian writers in English to write with a complete absence of self-consciousness, and his books often remind me of the best of Hindi and Bengali pulp historical fiction. New Saramagos emerge every so often—his mantle, for instance, passed to Roberto Bolano and a few others. But we could do with a few good Malgonkars in India.





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