Sunday, 23 September 2012

the guide [r.k.narayan]

Last year I went to see a fairly disastrous Messiah play at the National Theatre. The premise was that people are so desperate for salvation that they will willingly adopt anyone who they see as a prophet, whether he's real or not. The play ended up collapsing under the weight of its  own idea, because the danger of the false prophet narrative syndrome is that you never get under the skin of the prophet: the narrative is about his or her effect, rather than who they really are and how they came to inhabit the role that has been thrust upon them.

A writer such as Dostoyevsky instinctively understood this and Narayan follows in Dostoyevsky's footsteps with this precise novel about a man who unwittingly finds himself revered as a guru after being released from prison. The fact that we know he has come out of prison ensures that the mystery of his origins is present from the beginning. Narayan's narrative is then divided between the prophet's gradual acceptance of his role and the telling of his fascinating backstory. Raju was born the son of a poor shopkeeper and his fall from grace is as much a result of his intelligence as his foolishness. It's his intelligence that impels him not only to want something more from his life than his parents achieved, but also to obtain it. His downfall comes when, overwhelmed by a catastrophic fit of passion, he abandons his intelligence. This same intelligence would appear to be what the 'people' recognise in him when they adopt him as a swami, or a holy man, and in a way they might be right, even though he is convinced they are not. 

Narayan conveys his tale in a fluid, pacey prose. The book explores the fine line between initiative and corruption as well as the seemingly impossible task of rising through India's class system, or at least that of the fifties. The plot remains fresh and surprising, with no shortage of twists and turns. Like Onetti, Narayan captured his country through the prism of a fictional town, Malgudi, a fictional space which allows for all of India to be contained within its nutshell boundaries. 

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