Wednesday, 2 January 2013

the romantics [pankaj mishra]

This book has an unlikely history. I'm talking about this particular book, not Mishra's book, although this is obviously a sentence which could provoke a Platonic debate. It was purchased via Amazon in London and brought to Monvtevideo in August 2010. (i don't know its history before it reached me, it may be that that too was unlikely.) In Montevideo it was, initially, not read. Rather it became a star of the stage. In the version of Pinter's Betrayal I was working on, the character Emma reads a book whilst she's in Venice through the course of the scene wherein her husband, Jerry, confronts her with the revelation that he knows about her infidelity with his best friend. The book selected was this edition of Mishra's The Romantics. Not because of its content or its title. Rather, because as a solid, red-clothed hardback, it had a suitable anonymous weight. It had sufficient presence to signal Emma's attempt to remain engaged with its pages in spite of where she suspects the conversation is headed and at the same time was suitably anonymous not to draw the spectator's attention away from the actors or the action. In this day and age, of course. she would have been more likely to have been reading a Kindle. When the run of the show came to an end the book was reclaimed and went to live on the Costa de Oro for a while, before finally returning to the Barrio Sur in Montevideo in 2012. Where I am now living, and where the book has been, at long last, read.


One of the downsides of being well-connected is that it means you are able to get that first novel, which should probably have remained in a drawer, published. Pankaj Mishra is an intelligent and informed non-fiction writer. He has ascended to one of those pan-global lives only enjoyed by sports stars, celebrity chefs or DJs or high powered cultural commentators, flitting between India, New York and London. He has, according to Wiki, been described as the next Edward Said. And good luck to him. But in a week where the conflicts latent with the 'new' India have come to the fore, (and one has little doubt that he has written on the issue), this is a tome from the past. Dealing with vapid Westerners mingling with innocent, Flaubert-addicted natives, breaking their hearts and corrupting their world views. In theory a book that drifts between Varanasi, Dharamsala and Pondicherry should have plenty to offer, but in practice there's something tired and uninspired about this maudlin tale, which lives up to its slightly preposterous (late Bertolucci) title. Had Mr Mishra not managed to make himself so well connected, with the clear backing of a powerful UK publisher, there's little doubt the novel would never have seen the light of day, and no-one would have been any the wiser. As it is, in spite of the fact that he has intimated in interviews that he would like to write another novel, one suspects that the author would be best off sticking to his undoubted strengths.

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