Just Read ~ The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (1997)
December 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
All the people I talked to about it loved this book. I’m usually the book-lover and I hate being the book-skeptic but I have to say, just this once, I’m not entirely convinced. I love the title, I love the cover, but there’s this little something that stops me from saying I love this book. And it’s the kind of book I wish I could say I loved.
Some of the topics described here are more than heavy and I found myself feeling nauseous for quite a few days after reading some passages. Not that I haven’t read books dealing with tough subjects before (say for instance, in Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee), and not that difficult subjects should be banned from literature – on the contrary – but somehow, in this case, it was more than disturbing – it was disgusting. My previous encounters with ugly truths were usually done through a style imbibing a certain humble grace into the subject, a certain degree of – maybe not modesty because they were still quite crude and made me shiver and hurt, but rather perhaps colder, clinical sentences that, whilst dispensing the horror of the fact, gave it a clean varnish.
Roy is in the corporeality of the body, in its ugly ‘humours’, its waste that people tend to modestly hide. Sometimes beautiful and soft, it is generally unashamedly alive, producing sweat, feces, semen. Even in moments of tenderness, the body is something that lives, with stretch marks bearing witness to past pregnancies and kisses that leave spit on your skin. So much more could be said on this subject, and it would certainly make for a very interesting read – it might reflect a will to show us a place where the body is a lot more part of people’s lives, accepted and not hidden away under clothes and impeccable hygiene like in western societies today. But nevertheless, whether it be pedophilia, physical violence or the decaying, dead and living body, after reading some bits I had to close the book for a while. Be warned.
That is not to say that some passages are not beautiful. There are moments of rare beauty but they are spoiled – voluntarily by the author, I would argue – by the everyday, the passing of time, the disappointments of life. There is one fleeting moment, and then it’s gone. Some images strike exactly the right chord and she captures that peculiar voice or way of thinking of children very well. But something else bothers me. Some have talked about her style as ‘exuberant’; I am sorry to say that at times I would have called it forced. Her use of unusual metaphors can be very powerful and touching but it sometimes almost feels like it’s too much, like she’s trying too hard to have a peculiarly distinct voice. Don’t get me wrong, unusual metaphors are great – in fact, usually, unusual metaphors are the ones I like best. I’ve talked about this before. But perhaps one needs different points of reference, a language that is out of the ordinary to convey what is so terribly hard to understand.
Maybe it all makes sense at the end, when all the knots are tied, when the patterns weaved throughout, repeatedly, in what was barely understandable at the time, finally come together to form an – almost – coherent whole. Roy is a seamstress, weaving many, many threads at a time, and somehow, she never seems to forget where each one comes from or where it is going. It reappears, every once in a while, with its purpose, its place in the larger piece of cloth. This puzzle-like story is hard to describe and only makes sense as you read it – this patterning is so subtle and yet is the very fibre of which the work is made. One has to give her that. Roy can weave. Perhaps in a way similar to Woolf. Infinitesimal details that matter, that might be at the root of everything instead of the big things – so small and unimportant and yet absolutely axiomatic. This book is about the Small Things.
And maybe the rawness has to be there to understand how utterly shattered one can be – one’s mind and one’s body, like a glass jar dropped on the floor. Maybe the horror and the pain have to be there to delineate the beauty of a moment, so short, but worth it all? I still wonder. Maybe I haven’t loved this book. But maybe it’s not the kind of book that can be loved. Perhaps that’s not even what they meant when they told me they ‘loved’ this book. And maybe I’m starting, as I write about it, to realise what it is that they meant.