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The Inheritance of Loss by Keiran Desai

the-inheritance-of-lossKeiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents  were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants.  Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.

It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses.  Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.

The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai.  They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.

Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York.  Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:

From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
In Germany.
In Italy.
In Japan.
In Guam.
In Singapore.
Burma.
South Africa.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
No.

These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.

Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of  public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.

‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.

The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation.  Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption.  But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.

The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.

Why I read this

The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.

Restocking the book shelves (again)

Penelope Lively My book shelves are already stuffed but who can resist some bargains? Especially one that I consider the bargain of a lifetime: a hardback edition of How it All Began by Penelope Lively signed by the author and on sale at the extraordinary price of 30 pence. Of course I had to buy it; who could possibly turn their nose at the opportunity?

This purchase was from a library sale but I’ve also been picking up a few books from various second hand book shops in Tewkesbury and Cardiff.

photo 2I’ve read only one work by Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and although I was often confused by the plot I loved his lyrical style of writing. I’m hoping Lord Jim is in a similar style. It is included in the Modern Library list of top 100 novels of the twentieth century as is The Secret Agent, both books are on my Classics Club list .

Elizabeth Gaskell is another author on my Classics Club list though not the book shown in this picture. Ruth is one of her social novels, dealing with the theme of Victorian attitudes to ‘fallen women’ and illegitimacy. If its half as good as my favourite Gaskell North and South, I’m in for a treat.

Andre Brink is a South African writer I’ve been intending to read for some years. An Instant in the Wind is his third novel and was shortlisted for the 1976 Booker Prize. Using the guise of an historical novel set in the eighteenth century, Brink shines a light on problems and contradictions of a South Africa based on apartheid. This is going to be a good companion read to Cry My Beloved Country by Alan Paton which I read earlier in the year and deals with similar issues.

And then we come to the chunkiest of my finds; Dominion by C. J Sansom. This is a departure from his Shardlake historical mystery series since it’s a political thriller set in the early 1950s where Britain has become a satellite state of Nazi Germany.

Wrapping up my little haul is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai which won the Booker Prize in 2006. Her victory was greeted with raised eyebrows because Desai had been considered an outsider among the shortlisted authors that year. In India there was an even stronger reaction  with protests in Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas whose residents were annoyed at the way their ancestors were depicted in the novel. The Kalimpong residents thought Desai’s who’s narrative dealt with a 1980s rebellion of the town’s ethnic Nepalese, presented them as little better than thieves and menial fools. Balancing that view however I’ve also seen several reviewers comment that Desai is also mocking Indians who assume English mannerisms and American capitalists. Should be an interesting novel.

Any of you similarly found some bargains this week?

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