Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

I feel very tentative about reviewing this novel by V S Naipaul – he is, after all, a Nobel laureate, and I have no qualifications other than a love of the world of ideas and the writing of several novels that nobody wishes to publish.
The trouble is, I don’t like the book. I finished reading it, but the further through it I read, the more I was having to grit my teeth.
There are several reasons why.

First and foremost, this is a nihilistic book. It decries human aspiration and emphasises its futility. Only one character achieves his life’s goal, and that goal could be said to be bizarre: the character is an Afro-Caribbean man whose ambition is to have a perfectly white grand-daughter that he can acknowledge publicly. And he is a minor character.

The second reason I dislike the book is that it has a lack of credible emotions. The most glaring examples occur when the protagonist, Willie, is a member of a Maoist cadre in India. On one occasion he is present when his colleague blows out the brains of a man believed to have been an informant. Does Willie feel doubt? Guilt? Fear? Satisfaction? The author doesn’t tell us, doesn’t even hint. On the second occasion, he shoots dead a villager for no reason other than to terrorise the remaining villagers. Once again there is no emotion. Later on in the text, being an accessory to the first death fetches Willie a 10 year prison sentence. Does he think about the person who was killed? Not at all.
I can understand the emotionless killings in the nihilist context of the book. They could be said to be a metaphor for the lack of any value to a human life. One can imagine a psychopath being unemotional about the killings. The trouble is that later on in the novel Naipaul describes sexual relationships between men and women. In these, too, there is a lack of emotion – indeed, the only real emotion described is embarrassment.

The third thing I really dislike about the novel is the politics described towards the end. The poor are described in terms that are disparaging; they are viewed through the lens of far-right politics. This upsets me – but it’s also a flaw in the novel because it’s not true. Not merely is it not true, it neglects the genuine social progress that has been made during the period in which the novel is set – progress that in many cases arises from those who live in social housing who are so denigrated by the novel.

In the world that I see around me, people love, people hate, people feel. Love, especially family love, can work miracles. I don’t find any of that in this book.

The writing is bloody brilliant, of course…

The Owl on the Pergola – journal 190511

Mallick_Ghat_Flower_Market,_Kolkata_03

There is a sense of satisfaction and (let’s be honest) relief at having completed and printed out the first draft of my latest novel, “The Owl on the Pergola”. The manuscript is now with my most trusted reader for her verdict – fingers crossed. The first couple of chapters have elicited the comment ‘Colourful’ which is encouraging as far as it goes. The photograph shows one of the locations in which the novel is set, so colourful is probably fair!

I’ve enjoyed living with the characters day by day for the last six months, and, while I shall still be working with them as I edit the book, it won’t be in quite the same way. You see, I now know how the novel ends – yes, that’s right, I honestly didn’t know how it would end until I wrote the last page! Even if editing changes the story appreciably, I shall never again walk beside the characters as they discover who they are and what they can achieve. I shall miss that.

A milestone reached!

I have at last finished the first draft of my latest novel. The first 50,000 words were finished under the stimulus of NaNoWriMo – thank you to everyone who supports that endeavour, and to Gabi who was my writing buddy. It’s taken me since then to write the next 60,000 words, giving me a completed manuscript of 112,000 words. The working title is “The Owl on the Pergola”

Now the hard work starts – the editing!

The dove on the pergola - Holi 180731

The Owl on the Pergola

The novel is a work of literary fiction that tells the story of a young Indian woman who grows up in a very poor rural community, and moves to Kolkata when she is 16 years old. She is luckier than most, having an aptitude for study and a wealthy aunt who is prepared to sponsor her through higher education. However, she has to contend with an obsessive stalker who eventually turns violent, and with the ubiquitous prejudice that a woman’s place is in the home, serving her husband and his family. Will she have to choose between the man she loves and the academic career that she desires?

NaNoWriMo – The Dove on the Pergola

NaNoWriMo

The dove on the pergola - Holi 180731

For those of you who haven’t come across this before, “NaNoWriMo” is the (rather ugly) contraction of National Novel Writing Month, which is the (slightly misleading) title of an international writing event. The idea of the event is that you write a novel during the month of November. To qualify as a winner, you have to complete 50,000 words in 30 days. And that’s tough.

Now, in my writing CV I can claim to have completed 2 novels and half-completed a third. Additionally, at the end of October I had the plot and some reasonable research for a fourth. I was struggling, though, getting bogged down in the detail. I was also spending much writing time and creative effort on writing flash fiction, which is fun, but if that’s all you do it’s like trying to survive solely on candy.

So I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo my best shot.

The first thing I realised was that I had to write the novel. The words had to go into the text. If I didn’t average 1670 words each and every day, I wasn’t going to succeed.

What did this mean in practice?

It meant:

  • Stop plotting – you’ve got word count to meet.
  • Stop researching – you’ve got word count to meet. (Hack for this – put in a provisional word/phrase in red, so that it’s easy to check in a subsequent edit of the draft)
  • Strictly limited time for editing.

Forcing myself to stick to this was really difficult, especially restraining my urge to edit!

What do I have at the end? 16 chapters – 53,000 words – of a rather badly written novel, “The Dove on the Pergola”.

Would I have this without NaNoWriMo? Definitely not. Would I have even one well-written chapter? Almost certainly not.

So, what would I have?

A lot of detailed notes and a maze of plotting getting in the way of writing…

And, to my surprise, the simple act of writing has clarified the plot and grown the characters. So, as well as 16 chapters written, I have a pretty clear idea of what I need to write to complete the novel.

I’m going to continue with similar intensity until the first draft of the novel is complete (going to allow myself Sundays off, though). Then I’m going to leave the manuscript for a short time while I work out a plan to edit it, a plan which will set targets for achievement that will limit the time I spend editing. (NaNoWriMo have an editing programme in the New Year, I believe, and I’m going to check it out).

Then I’m going to edit the manuscript, sticking to those targets, until I have a completely edited text. At that point, and not before, I shall print out the novel, and invite my trusted reader to give me her honest and unvarnished opinion… (Judgement Day!)

Was I a winner? Yes, I was – but the big win is having completed those precious 16 chapters that are going to be the basis of my novel. And maybe an even bigger win is that I now have a better understanding of how I need to work in future.

So thank you to the genius who came up with NaNoWriMo!

And a special thank you to Gabi, for being my writing buddy during the month. Those emails gave a precious extra boost to morale when it could have flagged!

It was a great and productive experience!

 

 

The dove on the pergola – progress 180813

The Dove on the Pergola – progress 180813

This is a blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman, Makshirani, who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata.

To help me develop the characters and set them in a believable background, I am writing short stories; none, some or all of these stories may appear in the final novel. This story, “Flowers” comes from early in the novel when Makshirani has been living in Kolkata for a couple of months. 

Mallick_Ghat_Flower_Market,_Kolkata_03

© Bernard Gagnon

Flowers

The city air felt cool to Makshirani as she, Tarangi, and Neerudhi left the factory, where the operation of hundreds of machines kept the rooms hot and stuffy. Makshirani wished she had a jacket like Tarangi, or didn’t feel the cold like Neerudhi. She coughed as she breathed in the exhaust fumes that loitered in the still air.

“I hate the cold. Let’s go out and have some fun tomorrow,” exclaimed Tarangi.

“Oh, yes!” Neerudhi clapped her hands. “My horoscope says it is an auspicious day for romance. Perhaps I shall meet someone I like and my parents will approve of him.”

“You must come too, Makshirani. I won’t let you stay at home again. You’ll get dull!”

“I want to send as much money home as I can,” began Makshirani.

“We’ll go to the Millennium Park. It’s only ten rupees to go in, and the bus fare’s only eight rupees each way. Twenty-six rupees, that’s all. You can afford that I’m sure.”

Makshirani was tempted. She’d sent a thousand rupees home in her first month, and two thousand in her second. The thought of doing something different for a day was appealing.

“What’s it like,” she asked.

“It’s beautiful. It lies right next to Mother Ganga. There are trees and birds…”

“And men,” giggled Neerudhi, “and fairground rides. I’m going to go on the swing boats…”

“I didn’t know Mother Ganga was near Kolkata?” said Makshirani.

“Oh, yes, it’s one of the mouths of the delta, but the river’s called the Hooghly River here.”

Makshirani thought back to the week before she’d fled to Kolkata. Her mother, Joti, had taken her to the river, poured water on her head and prayed.

“This water with my blessing will flow down to Mother Ganga, and then down to the sea. It will bring you good fortune if you work hard to deserve it.”

‘Maybe some of my mami’s blessing will be flowing past while I’m visiting,’ thought Makshirani, as she walked with her friends in Kolkata. The idea warmed her.

“It sounds delightful,” she said, “and I’d love to go.”

Next morning, Sunday, at a quarter past six, Makshirani was deeply asleep. Her mouth twitched and her fingers fidgeted; her eyelids shivered with the movement of the eyes beneath. The room where the three girls lived was bright with early sunshine.

Suddenly Makshirani’s hands jerked forward and her eyes opened abruptly.

“Oh!” she exclaimed.

Tarangi, already dressed, turned to her.

“Namaste.”

“Namaste,” answered Makshirani, still half-asleep. “Will there be somewhere I can buy flowers on the way to the park?” She sat up, suddenly awake. “Flowers. Yes, I was dreaming about flowers. I was standing on the river bank and I wanted to give something to Mother Ganga, but I didn’t have anything. I was sad, and then my mami came smiling to me with her arms full of flowers. She gave me some, and together we cast them on the waters, on Mother Ganga.” Makshirani looked both happy and wistful.

Tarangi smiled at her.

“We’ll buy some on the way,” she said.

At Tarangi’s urging they were out of the house and on the bus by seven o’clock.

“We’re going to get off at the Howrah Bridge stop,” Tarangi said.

“Why?” demanded Neerudhi. “We’ll have to walk miles!”

“Don’t exaggerate, it’s not even one mile…”

“We’ll be exhausted!”

“It’s not even one mile, and we’re going to the Mullick Ghat flower market.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to buy flowers to offer to Mother Ganga.”

Makshirani looked gratefully at Tarangi. If Neerudhi had thought they were making the detour for Makshirani’s sake, she would have been grumbling about it all day.

It didn’t take long to reach their destination. The small footbridge in front of the pumping station was already thronging with people as they walked across it. And then they were in the market.

The scent of the flowers mingled with the smell of sap from the carpet of bruised leaves on the path. Vendors shouted, prospective buyers frowned and made gestures of negation as they haggled. Young men barged past, with great armfuls of blooms that they were carrying to purchasers’ vehicles. A trolley overflowing with marigold garlands came flying round a corner, forcing the girls to jump out of the way.

“I’ve never seen so many flowers,” gasped Makshirani, “It’s like a festival!”. There were anemones, camellias, and carnations, daffodils, tulips, and poppies, sweet peas, ranunculus and wax flowers.

Tarangi strode confidently in front. Makshirani stayed close to her; she would have loved to loiter and allow herself to be dazzled by the displays, but she was frightened of getting lost. Then Tarangi dived around a corner into a small alley and stopped at a stall.

“Namaste, Maheem,” she trilled.

The young man behind the stall looked round and beamed.

“Namaste, Tarangi! Welcome, cousin! How can I help?”

“I know you only sell in bulk, Maheem, but have you a few nice blooms that I and my friend can buy? We want to make offering to Mother Ganga.”

“Tarangi! You know my customers will lynch me if I steal their retail trade! But look here. I have some off-cuts that you could have for five rupees each.” He pulled out a couple of magnificent garlands.

“Shall we, Makshirani?”

Makshirani’s eyes opened wide. Such a beautiful offering for only five rupees! She fumbled in her purse for the coins.

“Thank you,” she breathed, as she took the garland of orange-yellow marigolds. “Oh, the scent reminds me of home and festivals!” Her eyes were lustrous with unshed tears. Maheem’s sharp, lively features softened.

“You are new to the city?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Then be welcome. Namaste!”

“Maheem, thank you. Your mami would be very proud of your generosity and piety!” Tarangi was never at a loss for the right thing to say.

Maheem grinned. He was seldom accused of piety.

“I must attend to my other customers now, ladies, or I will have a stall full of wilting flowers and an empty cash till!”

As the girls rounded the corner back onto the main path through the market, Tarangi murmured to Makshirani, “These would be at least five hundred rupees each from a shop”.

Makshirani gasped. “How can Maheem sell them to us so cheaply?”

“I expect they’re yesterday’s blooms – still nice, but you can’t sell them here if you want to build a reputation.”

Makshirani looked thoughtful. Tarangi stopped walking.

“If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anybody else?”

“Not even Neerudhi?”

Especially not Neerudhi.”

The two girls looked down the path. Neerudhi was fifty metres away, ogling some lilies – or possibly the handsome young man selling them.

“Maheem is a sort of cousin. His mother and Aunt Abhilasha are – talking together.”

“Talking together? Oh. Oh! Congratulations! Maheem is very handsome!”

“It’s early days, that’s why I don’t want Neerudhi to find out.” She sighed. “I do hope it works out well; Maheem is such a kind man, and a really good businessman. Aunt Abhilasha is so good to speak for me; I’d stand no chance otherwise.”

Neerudhi spotted them, and waved.

“Come on!” she called, “I want chai and kochuri!”

“And you shall have them!” Tarangi steered them to a stall on the market’s edge. “And there is the Millenium Park. Not so far, you see, Neerudhi!”

 

 

The Dove on the Pergola – 11th June 2018

The Dove on the Pergola – Progress 180611

This is my weekly blog post about the progress of my novel “The Dove on the Pergola”. The novel is about a young Indian woman who has lived until she was sixteen years old in a village in Bengal, and who then moves to the big city of Kolkata. 

The Dove on the Pergola 180611

If a reader is to keep turning the pages of a novel, it helps if the novel has a strong sense of direction. Some writers achieve this by planning. Others construct lively characters, put them into an intriguing situation and discover what happens as they write.

Stephen King, in his book “On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft” advocates ‘excavating’ the story. This seems to mean having an outline and then just writing, allowing the characters and plot to emerge naturally. He gives the outline of a horror story in his book, and suggests it can be used as a writing exercise.

I tried it, and it definitely freed up my story. I wrote things that I would not otherwise have imagined – I had to really, as it was a horror story, and I don’t ‘do’ horror. Just in case you’re interested, you can find the story – ‘Maureen’ – here.

‘The Dove on the Pergola’ has several storylines.

There is the story of how Makshirani gradually starts to understand the nature of love that leads to a happy marriage. This includes romantic adventures – and, of course, misadventures – that bring her to the point of betrothal. Will she? Won’t she? Not telling you! Maybe I don’t even know myself yet!

Another storyline involves Makshirani’s growing sense of personal autonomy. The subservience of women that was the rule in her village is fast disappearing in Kolkata, where she lives during the period of the novel. Fast disappearing, but not yet eliminated. Makshirani will want to be sure that she won’t become a prisoner of her husband’s family. Will this cause her to walk away from the man she loves passionately?

And then there is the story of Makshirani’s family, left behind in the village. Her departure had consequences and evoked the enmity of the richest man in the village. She sends money home, which makes enough difference to prevent the family from becoming destitute. As she makes progress, she is able to send more home, indeed, her money can support the family. But how do they feel about this? Her father has lived all his life in a culture where it is the man, the husband, the father, who provides. Is he now useless, redundant? How does his wife, Makshirani’s mother feel about the impact on her husband?

There are other storylines, too, and an unexpected revelation about identity, but these are the main ones. And I want to bring them all to the boil simultaneously for the climax of the novel.

So, this is where I’m starting the serious work on this novel; with the climax. I’m planning to use Stephen King’s technique of excavating the story, and in the process I expect to learn much more about the characters. I wonder whether Makshirani will marry? I’m really looking forward to finding out!

Hands up anybody who thinks this is over-ambitious? Okay, well that’s what the comments box is for! Write and let me know what you think!

The dove on the pergola – an invitation

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

“The dove on the pergola” – an invitation

In Kolkata, extreme wealth and abject poverty co-exist side by side. Modern thinking conflicts with traditional beliefs, and yet people remain subtly influenced by the old ways. There are people with devout religious faith rubbing shoulders with those who acknowledge no god.

In rural Bengal, by contrast, traditional values still hold sway, and family interests come before almost everything.

What would it be like, I wonder, for a young Indian woman who has grown up in a village in Bengal, to move to the big city of Kolkata?

And that is the starting point for the novel I have just started to write – “The dove on the pergola”.

Makshirani, the heroine of the novel, has to find a way to build her life in Kolkata. How will her traditional upbringing influence her choices? Will her beliefs and background give her sufficient flexibility to survive and prosper in the city?

The starkness of these questions and the consequences of failure seem to me to be much greater in India than in the Western world. That’s exciting, and it’s why I’m writing this novel.

So here’s an invitation.

Once a week, every Monday, I shall post about the progress I’m making. For obvious reasons I shall not divulge much of the plot, rather I shall be writing about the process of constructing the novel. If you’re interested in that, please follow me. And if you want to ask questions about what I have posted via the comments section, I shall do my best to provide satisfactory answers. Constructive criticism is welcomed with open arms!

Just a footnote about the writing I’ve done previously. I have written two novels, neither of which has been published. I have written well over 100 short stories, (mostly flash fiction of 100 or 150 words) that have all appeared on this blog. If you’re interested, you can find them in the archives.

Book review – “The Memory Stones” by Caroline Brothers, published by Bloomsbury

The memory stones, from CB

BUENOS AIRES, 1976. Osvaldo Ferrero and his wife Yolanda escape the city’s heat with their daughters, Julieta and Graciela, who is madly in love. On their return, the military junta stages a coup, and Osvaldo is forced to flee. Graciela is abducted and becomes one of the ‘disappeared’. Yolanda fights on the ground for some trace of their beloved daughter, while Osvaldo can only witness the disintegration of his family from afar.

Soon Yolanda and Osvaldo realise that Graciela was expecting a baby when she was snatched; perhaps they are fighting for an unknown grandchild as well.

This is a great novel, in the sense that ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by Steinbeck is a great novel. It is driven by passionate indignation that men should do such wicked deeds, it tells the story through believable characters, and it is written with quiet words that nevertheless sing.

Caroline writes beautifully, and uses some vivid metaphors. There is, for example, a three page story of the travails of a letter through the streets of Buenos Aires. It tells the reader of the appalling crime that has been committed against Graciela with a forcefulness that description could never achieve on its own.

It’s difficult to bear the sadness and loss of the central characters. There were times when, despite the enthralling writing, I picked up the book with reluctance because it hurt so much. In reading the novel, I learned that the regime’s rule of terror took more than the lives of most of those who disappeared; it also took fulfilment from the lives of those whose families and friends were taken.

I was glad that I persisted in reading. Osvaldo and Yolanda are people of integrity, determination, and, above all, love. By the end of the story, love has won some victories to set against the evil of wicked men, and those victories are important. When you read this book – and you really should, for it is a deeply enriching experience – summon up your own integrity, determination and love, summon up your courage, and immerse yourself. It’s well worth it!

You can read more about the novel at https://www.facebook.com/MemoryStones1/