Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Four Chapters by Rabindranath Tagore (winner 1913)

Another piece of melodrama today. It took me an age to get through Four Chapters, despite it being a mere 86 A3 pages. I put it down for a long while, and only just picked it back up and finished it, having lost some of the fine details of the story in the process – this is my fault, rather than that of the book, of course, but I do hold it responsible for losing my interest to begin with.

Basically, the story is that of two lovers set against the backdrop of the Indian anti-colonial movement of the early twentieth century. This provides the impetus for one of those ridiculous situations one only meets in literature – the woman, Ela, has vowed to stay single in order to devote herself fully to her country’s struggle for independence. She manages to get Atindra sucked into the whole independence movement, despite his (as it turns out) lukewarm feelings on the subject. But despite her eventual decision to throw herself on Atindra and basically beg him to marry her, his scrupulous devotion to the cause he doesn’t even believe in prevents him from allowing her to break her vow. Which is just about as ridiculous a scenario as I’ve ever heard.

One of the other major stumbling blocks to my enjoyment of the novel is the stilted ideological set-piece conversations that supposedly take place between these passionate lovers, and in fact, the writing style in general. This last is probably, to be fair, the fault of the translator, but the whole thing reads like it’s playing out in a bourgeois English drawing room, with the occasional jarring Indian reference thrown in just to keep us on our toes. This may be my own prejudices – perhaps upper-class Bengali is most appropriately translated by poncey English. Or perhaps it’s just that I am not such a fan in the first place of the whiney posh English accent this book brings to mind. Some quotations may illustrate what I mean – language such as “I do so love these horrid boys”, “cool the overheated heads of these impossible jackanapes” etc.

Ela’s language also disgusts me: she tells Atindra “I am your slave… yours to command” and calls him “my king, my god” begging him “kill me with your own hands. I couldn’t wish for a happier end… By this love I charge you – kill me, kill me! … Let the last bit of my consciousness be for you.” This from a woman who seems intelligent and likeable at other moments of the book, and frequently seems to interact on a more-or-less equal basis with the male revolutionaries who surround her. She is, we are told, even trained in jujitsu, and manages to dislocate an attacker’s wrist (albeit one who had been deliberately sent by the revolutionaries to test her). A book that sells out its heroine like this is one up with which I will not put.

There are, however, a couple of moments where the book gets away from the awful artificial dialogue and has a touch of poetry to it. For example: “Try to think… that we’re here on such a night as this, fifty or a hundred years hence. The present rings us round too narrowly. What we desire so passionately is ticketed with a high price by the tricky pen of the present. What we mourn so inconsolably is labelled “Eternal Sorrow” with vanishing ink.” But these are all too few and far between and can’t make up for the emotional falsity of the book as a whole.

PS The logo of the printer/publisher included swastikas. And yes, this was post-WWII. Normal and backwards-facing I may add.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this, and yes, I agree with your opinion of those quotes, both positive and negative. Starting to wonder, though, if there are any winners who deserve it!