Monday, November 15, 2021

Stories by Jayant Kaikini, a lost novel by Richard Wright, jittery little poems by Jean Follain - as he reassembled his black vertebrae

These books have to go back to the library.

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini (2017, tr. Tejaswini Niranjana).  The second English collection of the stories of Kaikini, a former pharmaceutical biochemist who over four decades published six volumes of stories, as well as poetry and plays and so on, written in Kannada.  He is a Mumbai specialist, and a great part of the appeal of this collection is the trip to and around Mumbai, from the 1980s to the 2000s.  I am not much for the “travel” metaphor of reading fiction, but that is what I was doing here.

Stylistically, the stories would be comfortable in the New Yorker – in fact should have been translated and published in the New Yorker all along – with ordinary people having epiphanies and so on.  The title story (2000), for example, is about a young couple working on their wedding invitation.  They are both orphans, with not a hint of a family – the man does not even have a last name – and the comedy and poignancy comes not from their poverty, since they are no longer exactly poor, but their social anxiety.  Of course they should ask for presents!  They are not exactly rich, either.

The prose has a tendency that is what I think some reviewers identify as “lyrical”:

Popat had been staring in astonishment, waiting to see where the paper ball [the crumpled draft invitation] would fall.  In that moment, the distant half-finished overpass, the iron spikes, the faraway trucks, the construction rubble, the approaching trains, all looked like children’s toys to Popat.  (259)

This is the last line of the story, where earlier elements in the text culminate in a moment of intense meaning for Popat.  As they often do in contemporary short stories.

This collection was created and translated for an Indian market, and distributed as is in the United States, so it is full of untranslated words, unexplained references, and many other things I do not know.  I loved that aspect of the book.  I have the internet.  Even the blurbs are all from newspapers and writers I mostly don’t know.  The blurbage is shockingly measured, sensible, and accurate.  It is possible!  I have now seen it for myself.

***

The Man Who Lived Underground, Richard Wright (2021, but written 1942).  Am I nuts to think that the publication of a previously unknown prime-period Richard Wright novel – written between Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) – would once have been a big event?  In, say 1981, or 1991?  Especially when the novel is as good as this one.  I thought it was quite good.  A long accompanying essay about the creation of the novel, “Memories of My Grandmother,” is perhaps even more important.  The novel was turned into a long story, and parts of the essay were pilfered for Black Boy, but still, I don’t get it.

The first sixth or so of the book is a long scene in which corrupt police torture and coerce a murder confession form an innocent black man.  It is rough going, but relevant, I would think?  People talk a lot about relevance.  I don’t know.  The victim escapes and heads into the sewers, where he deals with his trauma in a surprising way, by becoming a kind of existential visionary.  The book in in some ways an allegory, which is hardly my favorite thing, but as allegories go it is awfully concrete.

***

Transparence of the World, Jean Follain (1969, tr. W. S. Merwin).  Follain is a non-Surrealist surrealist poet, meaning he was not in a movement but the results do not look so different.  He was a friend of Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy, and based on Merwin’s selections from 1933 to 1967 a minor poet compared to either of them.  He had one great trick, a sharp break between the beginning and end of the poem that shatters straightforward meaning but suggests another, weirder story.

Imperial Evenings (1941)

The emperors have not always donned fresh attire,
but sometimes faded ribbons
and hats worn till they shone
on the door-sills of farms
in the red end of days.
During those melancholy times the children
amused themselves with earthworms
in front of the stagnant water frothed with gold,
the bees hummed no longer,
the drunkard talked to the thicket
that was being swallowed up by the night
as he reassembled his black vertebrae.

Moving the emperors to the farms in the first sentence is also a break in sense.  I love that drunkard at the end.  Why do these particular people and activities need to be collected?  Why specify that they exist simultaneously?  Why not. 

This is Merwin’s translation.  I read the French, not the English, and sometimes skipped Merwin entirely, but when I checked his versions were always better than mine.