V.S. Naipaul (2011 [1969]) A House for Mr Biswas.

I’d heard of V.S. Naipaul and even watched a BBC Imagine programme in which the author and Noble Prize Winner for literature was interviewed by Alan Yentob. I like to think of myself as a reader, but until I’d read A House for Mr Biswas I had read none of Naipaul’s books.

A House for Mr Biswas is described as an ‘epic’ which is just another way of saying it’s quite long. With an Introduction, Epilogue and Afterword, written by Naipaul in 2011. The book runs to 627 pages. I’d guess around 200 000 words, the average wordy novel being around 100 000 words and novellas around 15 000 to 40 000 words. 

In the Afterword Naipaul gives us the genesis of his epic.

‘The idea for the book was simple. A dying man considers the few physical objects which he has accumulated during his life, and by which he is now surrounded, perhaps mockingly, perhaps comfortingly. He reflects on the history of each object and so his life in the end is reduced to these physical objects rather than a network of relationships.’

Just as the words caught fire at a certain stage, so the material I was composing appeared at a certain stage to lift me out of myself…

I was often asked later whether what I had written was autobiographical. The answer was not as much as it might appear.

I admit I thought the book autobiographical, but there is something everyman about Mr Biswas. I too am Mr Biswas. He’s petty and venal and cowardly, and life is something that happens to him. He is a higher-caste Hindi, but his father worked as a labourer in the cane fields of pre-war Trinidad, an immigrant from India. Mr Biswas acquires a wife almost by accident. Working as a sign-writer in the Tulsi store, he sees Sharma working behind the counter and tries to smuggle a love note to her.  He may be penniless, but he is of the right Brahmi caste and in no position to demand a dowry and finds himself married and living in the Tulsi house.  ‘Cat and mouse,’ he later called it, with matriarch Mrs Tulsi as  the cat.

But he’s self-aware enough to know how it works as an institution. And everybody in the extended family that lives in the house with them works for Mrs Tulsi and the family business. He labels the two sons of Mrs Tulsi, the two gods, and Seth, married to Mrs Tulsi’s sister, the big boss and enforcer.

Mr Biswas’s Aunt Tara, sister to Mr Biwas’s dad, also prospered by marrying Ajodha. Each Trinidad family tries to outdo the other in their success stories both within and out with each family. Aunt Tara takes in Mr Biswas’s sister as an act of charity when their father dies as a serving girl. Their prosperity is based on their measured charity. They employ an aged gardener to work on their new property and promise to pay him thirty cents a day, but when the gardener takes a break in the hottest part of the day, Aunt Tara deducts six cents from his pay for a cup of tea. Similarly, Mrs Tulsi reduces a stonemason to tears by refusing to pay him and does not understand why workers are no longer willing to work for food and a few cents as in the old days. Mr Biswas does not even get to name his first child, Savi, and he tries to annotate the birth certificate with the name he has chosen to comic effect.

Mr Biswas has what would be called nowadays a mental-health breakdown. But being part of the Tulsi household means, despite family feuds, as one of them, he is taken care of. Wives and children are routinely beaten. Mrs Tulsi’s beatings of her own daughters was legendary and a source of great pride, but none of the children of the extended family starve.

The two gods were not beaten. They were above such things. Mr Biswas has literary pretensions. His short-story, not unnaturally, is labelled Escape by Mr. Biswas. And it begins and ends in the same way. At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children…     

Mr Biswas had a problem with no solution. He wanted a place of his own to live with his family, away from the controlling influence of Mrs Tulsi. But his job as a reporter with the Sentinel, while suitably prestigious, hardly covered the cost of renting from Mrs Tulis. Even a job working for the city bureaucracy with a car and expenses and salary of $50 a fortnight wasn’t enough to move without become more indebted. The reader knows, of course, he dies in debt, because this is how the book begins—with Mrs Tulsi outliving him.

The comic aspect of the novel and relationship to family is best understood with the return of the one of the young gods, Oswad, Mrs Tulsi’s son, back from studying to become a medical doctor in England, with all of Mrs Tulsi’s wealth and manipulations allowing him to become a person of substance, which he accepts, of course, as his rightful due. But Oswad finds in England that he ‘disliked all Indians from India. They were a disgrace to Trinidad Indians…their Hindi was strange…incomprehensibly, they looked down on colonial Indians. Oswad’s friend suggested because he had canvassed for the Labour Party he was one of the architects of the Labour election victory of 1945. He parrots one of the Soviet dogmas from their constitution.

‘He who does not work, does not eat.’

Mrs Tulsi repeats the sentence and her servant, Mrs Blackie said she wished they could send some of her people to Russia.  

Oswad said Russia was so modern they planted rice by shooting it from a plane instead of bullets.

Long after the little god had moved on to a new ideology, Mr Biswas was indebted, but they couldn’t stop him hoping for better, symbolised by a new home, if not for himself, for his children. A bit like the rest of us. A bit like V.S. Naipaul (R.I.P).

Boris Pahor (2020) Necroplis. Translated by Michael Biggins, introduction by Alan Yentob.

With most of the world in lockdown now is perhaps a good time to spend reading about Boris Pahor in the land of the crematoria. Spare a thought for those in refugee camps and prisons. Necropolis is a story not about them, but about us, common humanity. Pahor writes about his life not in the past, but in the present and also the future, when he’ll be like so many of his comrades.  About the stripping away of citizenship until a person becomes a thing—a number. One object among many. Pahor doesn’t just implicate the Nazis. Or the Italian Fascist Party that sought to eradicate any signs of the Slovak culture in Trieste by burning down The Slovenian National Home and taking away their language and schools, forcing them to integrate, but only as second-class citizens that weren’t to be trusted. Pahor asks questions of us.

He was born an Austrio-Hungarian citizen, a victim of arson and pogroms, without moving his home became an Italian subject. Later he became subject to internment in the Nazi military industrial complex and death camps. The familiar names of Bergen-Belsen, Harzungen, Dachau, and the smaller and relatively unknown Natzweiler-Struthof. But it is here as a post-war-day visitor, a tourist, to the concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, near Stasbourgh, but neither French, Italian or German, a former ski resort, transformed into a place of death, like other camps, gallows and crematoria combined that Pahor has his epiphanies.  

Natzweiler-Struthof is a jumping off point for Pahor.  Primo Levi asks the rhetorical question, What is a Man? Pahor lived the answer.

‘Europeans, despite their high-flown phrases, are basically thoughtless and cowardly. They become accustomed to a comfortable existence. And now if they feel shame, they drown it out in an orgy of moralising.’  

Pahor accepts his survival was a fluke, he cannot properly explain. ‘An exception was made for me throughout my life. I am never weighed on the usual scales.’

 An injured finger and gift for languages got him a job inside as a medic. But his education was in humanity.

‘In the necropolises it did not matter what depth you worked in. Barbers shaved death, quartermasters dressed it, medics undressed it, registrars entered the dates of death after serial numbers, and in the end, they all, each of them, were sucked up the huge chimney.’

Pahor’s meditation on his past life and present circumstances is a reaffirmation and warning.

‘At best I could, I give testimony to the living about those who turned into bones before my eyes’.

The hungry days of Nazi night and fog are not in the past, but bleed into the present if we let it. You embrace an evil, when you allow it—like now?  

The Man Who Saw Too Much, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer presenter, producer and director Alan Yentob and Jill Nicholls.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000bqt9/the-man-who-saw-too-much

The story of 106-year-old Boris Pahor is a eulogy to the twentieth century. The man who saw too much and experienced too much is a testament to man’s inhumanity to man. He wrote a memoir, Necropolis- City of the Dead about his incarceration in a little-know Nazi concentration camp, Natzweiler-Struthhof in the mountainous regions of Alsace, France.

He was also sent to Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Dora, Harzungen, Ironically, Natzweiler was one of the first concentration camps liberated by the Allies, but it was empty. Prisoners were sent to Dachau, but it was Natwieler he judged to be the most cruel. His account is illustrated by drawings by fellow prisoners.

Pahor’s ability to speak several languages, his native Slovenian, Italian, French and I imagine a bit of German saved him. It allowed him to get a job inside the barracks as a translator for the camp doctor an Austrian, who also trained him to be a diarrhoea nurse. Almost half of the 52 000 prisoners were executed, died of illness or malnutrition or died outside working in the granite quarry in sub-zero temperatures. A mountainous region, each step going up the graded slope to work was recalled as the equivalent of Christ on the road to Calvary.  The camp produced a particular type of red stone favoured by Hitler’s architects who created public buildings in honour of the thousand-year Reich.

Pahor was sent to the camp because he was considered to be an anti-fascist. He was arrested in September 1943.

Fascism comes from the term fasces, a bundle of rods with a projected axe blade, a symbol of the magisterial power in ancient Rome.

The neologism fascism was associated with the rise of Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain and Hitler in Germany. A megalomaniac belief in the strong-man theory of history. A contempt for the democratic process and calls for its suspension so the great man can act on behalf of the people.

Pahor, for example, recalls his upbringing in the cosmopolitan Slovenian port city of Trieste with access to the Adriatic being taken over by Italy after the first world war. As a precursor to Kristallnacht, Mussolini’s blackshirts burned down the Slovene cultural centre, closed their schools and banned the speaking of their language in public. School lessons were in Italian. Pahor, the anti-fascist was drafted into Mussolini’s army to fight the anti-fascist Allied forced.

Fascism = Capitalism.

Mussolini, the former Communist and man of the people, had a mandate to rule given by aristocracy, landowners and the moneyed classes. In contemporary terms it was based on deregulation. The bogey men of communism and working men organising themselves into trade unions was outlawed. Deregulation meant no regulation, the whip hand was with the rich and only the poor paid taxes.

King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy’s intervention in the second world war and his late backing of the Allied forces led to the arrest of Mussolini at the end of July, 1943. One fascist force replaced another. The German’s sprung Mussolini from prison and took control of the defence of Italy and split the country among fascist and non-fascist supporters.

An estimated 600 000 joined the anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy, around 70 000 of whom were women. Pahore was caught with a typewriter and accused of producing anti-fascist leaflets. So begins his odyssey in the death camps.

Primo Levi, Italian Jew, in his memoir, If This Is a Man asked a question what is it to be truly human?

Necropolis –City of the Dead is the answer. Them and us.  The ersatz category of subhuman that fight each other over a finger-tip of bread while mining pink-coloured rock that has decorative value. Capitalism in its purest form can be found here. Fascism and the strong man theory of history have made a dramatic comeback. Boris Pahor tells it like it is. He saw too much. We understand too little. This is a Boris you can trust.   

Imagine…Richard Flanagan: Life After Death. Interview by Alan Yentob

richard flanagan

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b063lywk/imagine-summer-2015-5-richard-flanagan-life-after-death

I didn’t know it but I like Richard Flanagan, even though I’ve not read any of his books. Grandson of illiterates and descended from criminals transported to Tasmania, his father revered books but to be an author was not something he expected. A drowning accident in which he seemed to understand for a moment the interconnectedness of all things changed that. He continued working, but knew at a deeper level his real job in this life was to write.

I’ll rectify not reading any of his books. Order The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Man booker prize in 2014. I know I’ll love it. Flanagan talks about his dad taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Japanese and forced to build the Burmese railway that inspired, among others tales about Hellfire Pass and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Flanagan talks about visiting Thailand were the railway passed through and also visiting one of the guards in Japan that had tortured his dad. ‘The Lizard’ beat one of his father’s friends to death, with two other guards, in front of 300 prisoners, who were forced to stand impotently and watch. Man’s inhumanity to man. The Lizard, now an old man, Flanagan describes him as affable. But he wanted to experience what it was like for him, the torturer, to be in the Japanese army of Emperor Hirohito, where senior soldiers beating junior soldiers was a common form of control. Other races such as the Chinese were seen as inferior. In the Rape of Nanking of 1937-38, for example, an estimated civilian population of between 100 000 and 300 000 were killed and mutilated with up to 100 000 woman raped. Soldiers such as the British and Australian, including Flanagan’s father, who despite superior numbers surrendered Hong Kong without much of a fight were also seen as inferior. At the bottom of this chain of command was the prison guard, a level above other guards not racially pure such as the Koreans, but miles above the men they were guarding who were regarded as expendable.   He got the Lizard to slap him across the face. A ritual form of humiliation. Yentob asks Flanagan if he found it difficult to enter into, indeed empathise with, people like the Lizard. Flanagan’s answer that he didn’t find it hard to find the monster within, which is wisdom and a watchword when the evil twins of indifference and inhumanity are let loose are they so often are in contemporary society.

Flanagan himself experienced corporate and state-sponsored hatred and persecution. In 2007 he published an article, Gunns: ‘Out of Control’ in The Tasmanian Times showing clearly the links between state and corporate interests and pollution of Tasmanian forests in which the company Gunns, which did 85% of tree felling, benefited a few select shareholders but at a devastating cost to the community and his country. His fictional account The Unknown Terrorist has its roots in that dark period in which he told Alan Yentob not only was it a terrorist offence to challenge corporate interests, but reporters reporting on those arrested for such terrorists offences could also be arrested as terrorists. Sometime fact can be stranger than fiction – and you really couldn’t make it up. Ted Genoways The Chain made similar claims about the way factory food is farmed and produced and protected by state interests in America –all in the name of jobs- but with devastating environmental and social impacts. The gagging of those involved in uncovering the hidden costs is also treated as a terrorist offence. I’ve went off track, but Richard Flanagan down under is on top of what it means to be human.