Lots to Digest

Gabriele Annan

  • Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra
    Faber, 520 pp, £15.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 571 17455 8

‘All stories have in them the seed of all other stories: any story, if continued long enough, becomes other stories,’ declares a female hermit who is the Ur-storyteller in this Indian multi-storey story. The man listening to her imagines ‘stories multiplying spontaneously, springing joyously out of a mother story, already whole but never complete, then giving birth themselves, becoming as numerous as the leaves on the trees, as the galaxies in the sky’. So the man becomes a storyteller himself; besides, his own story is already a story within a story. Many of the stories (but not all) begin with the injunction: ‘Listen.’ Implicit in it is another injunction: let go, accept confusion. For, among other things, this 520-page novel is an Eastern challenge to Aristotelian aesthetics. This is made quite explicit about halfway through, when a well-meaning Englishman presses the Poetics on a clever Indian boy. The boy doesn’t go for it: ‘there seemed to be a peculiar notion of emotion as something to be expelled, to be emptied out, to be, in fact, evacuated, as if the end purpose of art was a sort of bowel movement of the soul.’ Clarity, order, logic and simplicity are Western demands. Forget them if you want to enjoy this riotous, sly and sophisticated saga, which isn’t, in fact, as aimless as it pretends, since it is an argument – sometimes quite a sharp challenge – deliberately aimed at Western canons, ethical as well as aesthetic.

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