Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The lives of others, by Neel Mukherjee

Before I launch into a report of our discussion, I need to 'fess up that I didn't manage to finish the book in time so if this report doesn't make sense in places I hope others will expand on their ideas in the Comments.

The lives of others is a long book - around 550 pages - and proved to be a challenging read, although not so challenging that we didn't appreciate it. One member "kind of read it twice", while a couple of us didn't quite finish it, not because we didn't want to, we hastened to explain but because we'd misjudged the time we'd need to do it justice.

However, before I elaborate more on our discussion, it might be useful to say a little about its content. The book is set in Bengal in the mid to late 1960s and is essentially the saga of a once well-to-do family. As the novel opens, they live in a four-storey house in South Calcutta. The family comprises the patriarch and matriarch, their five sons/daughters and their respective families. Location in the house is hierarchical, with Purba, the widow of the youngest son, occupying the worst position in the house and treated accordingly. I say "once well-to-do", as the family had made a good living out of business, but things are not going so well by the time the novel opens, which of course adds to the stress in their lives.

A big Indian saga

Most of us enjoyed the book but, as already said, we all admitted to being challenged, though not always for exactly the same reasons. It's not that it's a hard read in terms of language or style, but:

  • we all found it hard to keep all the characters, whose names were not familiar to us, clear in our heads. Some of us didn't find the family tree until part way through the novel, or even until the end. This is what resulted in one of us turning right around and reading it again!
  • the novel is told in two parallel, alternating sequences - a third person story about the family as a whole, and a first person story told by a son of the family who joins a group of socialist activists working to improve the lot of poor farmers. These two sequences are differentiated by font - in the print and kindle versions, but not in the iPad version. Hmm!
  • it contains a LOT of detail, which made it dense reading for some - so much so that a few wondered, briefly at least, whether ALL the detail was necessary.
  • it is harrowing, in parts, particularly in the last 100 pages.

Like most sagas, the novel covers a lot of ground - hierarchical relationships between people (within the family, family and servants, workers and their employers, and so on); gender; religion; political rebellion; the role of education; the increasing distance between the haves and have-nots.

What we liked

We enjoyed the detailed depiction of family life and relationships, and felt that this reminded us of some of the big Russian and English novels of the nineteenth century.

We were impressed by Mukherjee's language and extensive (impressive) vocabulary.

One member shared a favourite quote:

not for the first time it struck Adi that clichés were clichés because they were truths that had been lived out by generation after generation of people before him. By the time those lived truths were inherited by him, they had become foxed, crumpled, brown and brittle with age.

We all liked this description of what happens when cliches, which spring from some sort of truth, outlive their usefulness and in, fact, outlive the truth upon which they were initially built. 

One member found the scenes describing the young socialist men working with farmers in the villages to be among the book's most powerful.

The novel's prologue effectively establishes the idea of inhumanity and inequality as main themes. 

What is it about, or, why did Mukherjee write the novel

We spent a lot of time discussing what we thought the novel was about. Some members felt it offers a pessimistic view of life and that, while it is primarily set in the 1960s, the 2012 epilogue suggests that things have not changed. Others saw it as being more fatalistic, that life is a roll of the dice, with good and bad "chances" or outcomes over which people may not always have a lot of control. While some looked for a "message" or, at least, to understand why Mukherjee wanted to tell the tale, others were happy to see it as a novel which asks questions without attempting to answer them.

We wondered how Indian readers understand the novel. A member shared an Indian critic's review which expressed concern that Mukherjee treated the escape of one "miracle boy" to America through his impressive maths ability as a one-off whereas India, and Bengal in particular, has a long tradition of intellectual achievement in mathematical thinking. What did Mukherjee mean to convey by his two epilogues - one about this escape and the other about a violent terrorist act - in terms of the meaning of the novel?

Another member shared a reviewer's summation that the book is about "the limits of empathy and the nature of political action". This resulted in quite a discussion about empathy in the book, particularly in terms of lack of empathy occurring in many of the characters, including even the so-called more enlightened ones. Political rebel Supratik, for example, showed little empathy for his family. (Is this what political idealism and action can do to people?)

We concluded by discussing this book's shortlisting in 2014 for the Man Booker prize, and that it lost to Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north (our report). Some felt that Mukherjee was by far the more worthy winner due to "flaws" in Flanagan's book, but others argued that both books have their flaws. Whatever the case, I can confirm that our discussion was lively and not always quiet - surely a sign that this was a very good choice for us to read. Now, all I and a couple of others need to do, is finish it!

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