Sunday, August 14, 2005

Futurama on authors

When it comes to reading tastes, one subject which has always intrigued me is the line of difference between popular fiction and serious literature. How exactly are these lines drawn? Is it a function of the awards - the ones that win the Booker and so being categorized as serious literature? Or is it the passage of time, which decides once and for all, which books retain their space on that rarified pedestal called literature, while the other perhaps more contemporaneous ones have been knocked out by now?

Last week, I read an article on TIME, though it possibly could have been Newsweek, about the 'great' actors of our times (the 80's to date) and who among them would qualify to be remembered 50 years on from now. It mentioned Nicole Kidman as someone whose movies are possibly talked about more than watched, while perhaps Nicolas Cage may hardly be talked about so much for himself, but maybe his movies like Leaving Las Vegas would last for a pretty long time.

I wonder if we apply the same test to writers today, who would pass. Of the authors I read recently, two come to mind as potential candidates. One was Alan Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty. The second, Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide. Both these novels have their similarities in the painstaking recreation of a time and place through language. The Hungry Tide does a fair account of the Sundarbans, a place still unknown even to most Indians. In the context of the many environmental crises taking place today, the book does justice to the relationship between the land and the communities living in the Sundarbans, sometime harmonius, sometimes conflicting. The main characters, Piya, Fokir, Kanai are well etched, demonstrating Ghosh's fine understanding of class and economic disparity in India. Where to me the novel falters is in perhaps the excessive emotional turbulence - it is difficult to understand the attraction between strangers put together under unusual circumstances. Or perhaps the story has been used so often that it is now an impossible coincidence.

Alan Hollinghurst's A line of Beauty is on the other hand a far more finely wrought work, doing a very delicate balancing act between its setting, a very English 80's England, if that makes sense and the private lives of its characters which plays out against this background without obscuring it. If anything, the background adds to the understanding of the characters, their actions, their motives. This is somewhat absent in The Hungry Tide, where Ghosh's research into the Sundarbans and its communities is obviously extensive and well chronicled, but somewhat fails to add anything to the lives of its characters. One feels Piya and Kanai could have met anywhere, the Sundarbans is just a more exotic landscape to have as a backdrop! The depiction of emotion has been carried in The Line of Beauty with a wonderful restraint, which makes even more sense considering its "reserved" British setting.

Obviously there would be many other contenders from the set of contemporary writers, but I would place a bet on Alan Hollinghurst as someone whose books you could look for on library shelves, 50 years hence!