You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:


You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!


Reality Minus

Had an interesting conversation with my brother recently about Sci-Fi. I’d been complaining about the new Stuart MacBride book, which is set in a futuristic Glasgow. MacBride is known to me as the author of a series of gruesome but funny (and oddly rather wholesome) serial killer novels set in Aberdeen and i’d snapped this book up assuming it was more of the same. Fool! Did i not see the initial “B” inserted into his name? “Stuart B. MacBride”, evidently his Sci-Fi alter ego.

Well no, i didn’t and i can’t help thinking that it wasn’t much of a difference to notice. In other words, i feel resentful. Sci-Fi is one genre that leaves me cold.  But why is this? Well, this is what i ended up discussing with my brother. We were both big fans of it as kids so why aren’t we now? My brother said it’s because although Sci-Fi suggests that it’s “reality plus”, an advance on the reality we know today, it’s really “reality minus”.

As soon as he said this i realised he’d hit the nail on the head. On the face of it Sci-Fi presents us with things above and beyond what we already know: futuristic technology (spaceships!), other worlds, other species. It allows writers to depict people in roles not yet open to them. It allows them to describe societies where norms differ wildly from ours. Sci-Fi can be used to explore ideas of social progress and equally it can be used to explore fears of social disintegration.

Yet, yet… something is always missing. In part this stems from the fact that the stories take place in worlds that the reader has never experienced*. Things need to be explained and described in a way that is unnecessary in a book set in the world where we actually live. And even after all that extra information, which is often laborious to read, we still never quite have the same vivid sense of reality**. MacBride’s Sci-Fi book, “Halfhead”, features lobotomised criminals and a killer missing half her face, yet it’s curiously unfrightening and uninvolving. Of course it’s not just the reader who lacks experience of the future; the author’s in the same boat. So the characters are never quite convincing, never quite complete people. Think about it: how many Sci-Fi characters can you imagine on the toilet?

We’re less bothered by these things when we’re kids because our experience of the world is shallower and our ability to imagine on the basis of minimal material much greater. We understand so little about other people – their motivations and inner worlds – that we don’t notice the lack of depth. And spaceships are cool. Really cool.

(Actually, Stuart “B” MacBride’s book is affected by another problem, one which is specific to it being futuristic crime fiction, and that’s that the less we identify/connect with the victims of crime, the less power the story of the crime has for us. )

* Even by proxy: television, the internet, etc.
** Historical fiction has a similar problem, but to a lesser extent because our current world has its roots in earlier ones.  And at least there are records, evidence, artefacts, memories.

Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)

Four Welsh poets

1. Dylan Thomas

One week, when i was around twelve years old, our local paper printed his poem “The Hunchback in the Park”. I was awestruck. I cut the poem out and pasted it into the inside cover of my scrapbook. All week i waited excitedly to see what they would print next time, but there were no more poems. I suppose they must have unexpectedly had some free space to use up the week they printed “Hunchback”; some advert or other must have fallen through and left a hole in the edition. At home I learnt the poem off by heart and marvelled over the beauty of its language. Even now one phrase in particular

wild boys innocent as strawberries

fills me with wonder. Poetry has never got more magical for me than happened that week. As for Dylan Thomas himself, i went on to buy a volume of his poetry and a biography. Most of the other poems left me cold and i found him something of a drunken bore.

2. R.S. Thomas

We only did one book of poetry for O-Level and it was nearly all drivel. I was so disappointed! The only true poem in the book was “Cynddylan on a Tractor” by R.S. Thomas, Anglican priest and Welsh nationalist. The English teacher singled it out for mockery because it wasn’t humorous or entertaining like the other poems in the book (supposedly) were. It was dark, brutal, anti-modern – and worse still, its themes were rural:

Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil,
He’s a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal and his blood oil.

Not one of the man’s greatest works, but it was real, and i understood that instinctively. Discussing this post with a friend, i discovered that she too retained vivid memories of encountering the poetry of R.S. Thomas at school. As happened in my case, the poem (“On the Farm”) was in the book they used but was passed over in class:

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

R.S. Thomas remains one of my favourite poets. I love him despite – perhaps because of – his unfriendly character. I feel a certain kinship with him in his frustrated love for Wales and the Welsh language, doomed as it was by idealism and nostalgia. Like him i have always wished i were a native Welsh speaker. Unlike me he at least achieved fluency in the language, but too late in life to achieve the creative freedom in it that is needed to write poetry. And so he was always trapped in English, always an interloper, rather like the clergyman he describes in his verse play “The Minister”. Its Welsh language epigraph describes his life well i think:

Swn y galon fach yn torri
The sound of the little heart breaking

3. Saunders Lewis

I discovered him on the poetry shelf of the public library. Most of the books were reference only, so i used to sit on the carpet and copy out their contents by hand. This was during my seventeenth and eighteenth years. Hours and hours i sat on that damn floor! Where R.S. Thomas was austere, Saunders Lewis was rich and sensual. It came as no surprise to me that learn that he converted to Catholicism. “Mair Fadlen” (“Mary Magdalene”), his poem about the Crucifixion, is the one which i know and love best. The first stanza breaks my heart in its English translation:

About women no one can ever know. There are some, / like this one, whose pain is a locked tomb; their pain is buried inside them, there is no flight / from it nor any giving birth to it. There is no ebb / nor flood to their pain, it is a dead sea without any movement to its depths. Who – is there no one – who will roll the stone away from the tomb for a time?

This is exactly how the stanza was laid out in the book, forward slashes and all. I copied it faithfully, determined not to change a single thing, so overwhelmed was i; yet sadly forgot to note the name of the translator. I was too young then to understand what is involved in translating poetry. The original Welsh, on the other hand, is beyond me (except in its glorious sound!) and probably always will be; but for anyone whose command of the language allows them to appreciate it and because these are Saunders Lewis’ own words:

Am wragedd ni all neb wybod. Y mae rhai,
Fel hon, y mae eu poen yn fedd clo;
Cleddir eu poen ynddynt, nid oes ffo
Rhagddo nac esgor arno. Nid oes drai
Na llanw ar eu poen, môr marw heb
Symud ar ei ddyfinder. Pwy – a oes neb –
A dreigla’r maen oddi ar y bedd dro?

I only discovered later how Saunders Lewis had become tainted by his refusal to support the British war effort during World War 2 and his earlier enthusiasm for the Nazis. Like many nationalists he seems to have subscribed to the notion that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. His nationalism was so tied to yr hen iaith (‘the old language’) that he refused to countenance any space for English to be spoken in the nascent Welsh nationalist party, weakening the movement as a populist force. I have read that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 70s. I don’t know if this true, but i do know that when he died in 1985 i had no idea he was even still alive.

4. W.J. Gruffydd

Finally, W.J. Gruffydd, about whom i know nothing. I assume he is the same poet who is known by the bardic name Elerydd, but i can’t be sure. For me he’s a single poem, “In Memoriam”, which i discovered in the same long since forgotten book which also introduced me to Saunders Lewis. Interestingly, this is a poem where the Welsh made more of an impact than the English so i’ll give (the first stanza of) that first and then the English (which i think is very flat in comparison):

Pan glywai Gwen o’r diwedd
Yr Angau du gerllaw
Hi gofiai am goed y Gelli’n
Diferu yn y glaw.

When Gwen heard at last
black death come near
She remembered the trees of the Gelli
dripping in the rain.

For me death is forever associated with the dark, dripping “trees of the Gelli”. And poetry with these four Welsh poets.

Cackhanded but not alone

Like most people, there are many things i wish i could change about myself. I would like to be practical, to sing in tune and to be able to breathe underwater. More than anything however i would like not to be cackhanded. I am that person who knocks over vases (“genuine Ming, don’t you know”) with the tail of my coat as i put it on or take it off. I leave as much food on the table as i get into my mouth. I shut train doors on my fingers.

My spirits soared recently therefore when i read Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country” in which he describes the disasters he’s had during his travels: from an exploding travel bag to depositing not one but two soft drinks all over the lady sat next to him:

“To this day, I don’t know how i did it. I just remember reaching out for the new drink and watching helplessly as my arm, like some cheap prop in one of those 1950s horror movies with a name like The Undead Limb, violently swept the drink from its perch and onto her lap.”

I can’t describe the thrill of realising there are others who share my affliction. I have spent my life studying the apparently effortless way in which people manage to stack furniture (without it collapsing on them), drink coffee (without it ending up all over them) or even pick up a pen from the floor without hitting their head on a nearby table. And the worst of it has always been the feeling that everyone can do this but me.

But now i know: i’m not alone!

The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

In the past week i’ve watched the film Persepolis and read the book on which the film is based. This is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who was around ten years old when the Iranian Revolution took place, ultimately bringing the Islamists to power. In both the book and the film she describes the initial optimism of her middle class but left leaning family. It sounds almost absurd now but it seems many such people seriously expected Iran to become a Communist state.

For Marjane, her family and for many other Iranians the actual outcome was a tragedy: her Uncle Anouche ended up executed, the Iran-Iraq war claimed the deaths of thousands of young men and the women of Iran, Marjane included, found that they were expected to dress and behave according to the dictates of the Islamists’ puritanical code.

I don’t dispute any of this. What i do find puzzling is that nowhere in either book or film is there any consideration of what Iran’s fate would have been if the Communists had come to power. Are we to imagine there would have been no executions of political opponents by the Communists, no curtailments of freedom? Maybe Marjane’s family would not have experienced these things. If they were part of or connected to the ruling elite – rather than in opposition to it – then perhaps they would have been protected. But another family might have suffered – an Islamist family perhaps?

Uncle Anouche, the most important Communist ‘character’, is a weary, gentle man. He is also a survivor of torture under the oppressive regime of the Shah. Of course we warm to him but surely, among those who returned from the prisons, there were also weary, gentle Islamist men? The point is: it’s rarely these naive individuals who end up in power, but rather their harder, much less innocent comrades.

In fact, even Uncle Anouche shows us a glimpse of something which doesn’t seem to sit right with his talk of democracy. In a conversation with little Marjane he tells her about his uncle Fereydoon who “proclaimed the independence of the Iranian province of Azerbaijan” and “elected himself Minister of Justice in this new little republic”. Elected himself?”

I wonder what Marjane’s feelings about freedom and leftist politics would have been if the Communists had taken power? Would she still have left? Would she have ended up an apologist for the regime? Or would she have eventually rejected it, just as some Iranian Islamists have rejected the Islamist regime? Might she even have rejected leftist politics altogether? (Note if you’re reading this that i’m not judging the left or the right. I am suspicious of all politicians).

Those who have never had power do have this sad luxury: if you have never had the chance to act then your actions by definition cannot be judged. But Marjane Satrapi, the adult, has lived abroad and seen other countries, other regimes, other possibilities, yet she never shows any awareness of this issue. The politics of Persepolis are as black and white as the illustrations themselves.