A National Literature

Keynote address given by Anjali Joseph

First presented at the Open Book Festival, Cape Town

Anjali Joseph Keynote text: “A national literature: reading and writing across boundaries”

When I saw the title of this talk, ‘a national literature’, I felt mildly depressed. It was an involuntary reaction, like the way one feels when made to fill in a form and categorise oneself: nationality, country of residence, address, that sort of thing. I immediately felt alienated at the idea of a national literature, and I don’t think this was only because I’m an expatriate Indian who lives in England. The idea of a national literature sounded massive, like the kind of entity that would have a minister or an advisory committee, and a big white building somewhere with a security guard. I felt, “Oh, no, national literature has nothing to do with me.” Or maybe it could be something I would have read in a classroom somewhere. But it didn’t speak to my experience.

Straight after that feeling of rebellion, I had another thought, which was remembering an image from a novel first published in 1928, in Bengali. This is from Pather Panchali, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The title of the novel translates as something like ‘Song of the Road’; it was made into a famous film by Satyajit Ray. It’s about the life of Apu, a young boy, and his elder sister in a village in rural Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century. They come from a poor family and they play in the forest around the village, or near the river. I’m going to read a short passage in translation from the novel. Just before this passage, Apu’s father has subscribed to a magazine called Bangabashi for them, and this is exciting because there are serialised stories in the magazine. The passage begins when Apu and his friend have gone out on the river in a small boat, and they realise an enormous storm is about to break.

He could think of nothing but the storm. His body was tense, his eyes staring straight ahead, now at the sky, now at the waves that rushed down upon them. The water danced wildly. The paddy birds were flying. The cloud mountains writhed in convulsions; and on the bank he could see the heaps of shells that the boatmen from the south had piled up. A floating island of water hyacinth swept by, so wide that it hid the water from sight. Suddenly he was voyaging to England like that man in the Bangabashi. His ship had sailed from Calcutta. Sagar Island in the mouth of the estuary was behind them, and they were threading their way through a host of little islands in the middle of the sea. The dark green line of coconut palms on the shore of Ceylon was already in sight, and on the far horizon he could make out blue mountains in a strange land, which reddened as he watched them in the light of the setting sun. Everything was different! New lands! New sights! And still he journeyed on, further and further, into the unknown.

Apu has an incredibly responsive imagination, and whenever he reads, the things he reads become a part of the place where he lives, even though they are set somewhere quite different. The river on which he and his friend are boating is a distributary of other larger rivers that finally lead to the Ganga, and then to the sea, and there is a way in which Apu’s reading, also, opens him out to a much wider world than he would otherwise know. And his story, the story of a village boy reading serial novels and daydreaming of the world, is told in a serial novel which was made into a famous film that’s known all over the world. There is a two-way movement here.

I didn’t grow up in a village in turn-of-the-century Bengal, and yet this extract feels very close to me. I think because there something universal in it: that is, the experience of what it is like to read, and find what you read weaving itself into the texture of your own life. There is a way in which perhaps each of us has at any time his or her own internal cry or thing that must be expressed, even if it isn’t ever articulated in words. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’ the poet says of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘myself it speaks and spells, /Crying What I do is me: for that I came.’ So, when we read we are looking for an answering echo of this cry in the world; we read to receive messages from the world. Sometimes we read to go on a journey, and be someone else, while still remaining ourselves. A book can be like the magical flying carpet in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

The idea of reading feels close, but the idea of literature feels abstract, in fact like the idea of a nation. These notions seem more static and fixed, even congealed. When we talk of a nation, and literature, and national literature, we are talking about classes of things. ‘This type of man.’ ‘An Indian.’ ‘A South African.’ We move away from lived experience and into the generic. In fact, we become like some of the famous bores in fiction: like Polonius in Hamlet, or M. Homais the chemist in Madame Bovary, who deal only with generalisations. Writers don’t read only their own national literatures: they form affiliations, links of choice with the writers they have read and who matter to them. Maybe that means a French novelist like Claude Simon reading William Faulkner, or a South African novelist like J M Coetzee reading Samuel Beckett, or an Indian writer reading Yasunari Kawabata. And these links matter far more than the vertical lineage of nationality.

Perhaps the label literature has a defensive aspect. Possibly it is intended to validate or protect work that may not have an immediate appeal to everyone. Suppose I like reading and someone hands me a book and I open it and read this:
To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are. And in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him.

And suppose that after reading this I feel frankly a little upset, as though I want to cry, because I can’t see the story, or the characters, or actually anything that I’m expecting, and I say to my friend who gave me the book, I don’t get it, I thought you said this was a really good book. And she says, Well, it’s by Samuel Beckett and it’s literature. Maybe then I will carry on reading the book, and maybe in its very strangeness I will find something that makes me see my own experience in a way that is quite true but which I wouldn’t otherwise have perceived; something in fact that brings me home to myself.

Because I think it is a myth that, inside, we experience ourselves in a linear way, like a nineteenth-century novel or a Hollywood film, a straightforward sequence of cause and effect where a virtuous action later results in a piece of good fortune. Maybe it sometimes feels like that, but often it doesn’t. And this is the great adventure of the modernist novel: to create an image of the soup of memory and thought and desire and urges and advertising and the internet and newspaper and television and sex in which our brains exist, and to give us back this image, so that we can recognise it, and laugh, and for a moment, be liberated from it.

There is nothing stranger than a human being. Sometimes there is nothing stranger than oneself. And sometimes these different varieties of strangeness seem quite hermetically contained, quite sealed, each inside its casing, walking around, or issuing messages through the ether, through the internet, or in print. It is a small miracle that these messages transmit and are received. And writing, and reading, are two of the most discreet, tactful, and beautiful ways in which it’s possible for a human being in a landscape to think to himself: ‘I’m here.’ And then feel lonely, and listen, and ask: ‘Is anyone else there? Can you hear me?’ And find a book, and open it, and realise, in a satisfying and internal way, ‘Ah yes, there is someone there.’ And it’s a way for a writer to sit in a room and write something, and wonder, ‘Am I mad? Does this exist?’ and for the words that represent her thoughts to be printed and later found in a book by someone else, in another country, and for the message to arrive home. And the operation of that basic magic is why literature and reading matter to us, and why we respond to them, but I think that has very little to do with national boundaries.

Copyright: Anjali Joseph, 2012