Mother’s friend departed after their weekly get-together for tea, cakes and gossip, but she forgot to take her book. It was a slim hardback with the blue and yellow banded cover of a subscription book club. It lay on the arm of the sofa for ten minutes and then, before anybody noticed, it vanished – relocated to my bedroom. I was fifteen, and this would be the first adult novel I had ever read. Its title was Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. Iris was my “first” – first adult novelist and first woman writer, and she has remained fixed in my affections over the decades. Under the Net was also Murdoch’s first novel, published in 1954. I was so naively charmed that I made a precocious promise to myself to reread it fifteen years later to see if its appeal lasted. I already knew that in the coming years I would not be rereading my previous favourites, my childhood book collections of Just William, Biggles, Billy Bunter and John Carter’s adventures on Mars. Unlike them, Under the Net had mysteries and ideas I did not yet fathom, but would need to discover.
Dame Iris Murdoch would be 100 years old this July 15 if she had lived to celebrate it, but her brilliant mind faded away in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease and she died twenty years ago in 1999. A recent article in The New York Times lamented that her reputation has also faded with time. “Distressingly, her posthumous reputation is in semi-shambles. Many of her novels are out of print. Young people tend not to have read her. She is seldom taught,” wrote Dwight Garner. Literary reputations are like the actors on Shakespeare’s stage of life, they have their exits and their entrances, but unlike the actors, they can be born again. It is difficult to say if Murdoch’s star is set to rise any time soon. Like many of her 20th-century contemporaries, her novels can seem as ancient as the Victorians. They live in a lifetime before digital watches, never mind computers and the rest of our electronic universe. Few of her characters in their whiteness, snobbery, and obtuseness are people we would find dominant in the streets or cafes of London today. Read more »
How, then, do we get from H. Rider Haggard to Anthony Bourdain? Let’s start with the easy and straightforward. Both are white men, as are Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola for that matter. Haggard was British; he was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th (1856-1925). Bourdain was American, born in the 20th and died in the 21st, at his own hand (1956-2018). It’s easy enough to interpolate the other two: Joseph Conrad, Polish-British (1857-1924); Francis Ford Coppola, American (1939 and still living).
So much for bare biography. It’s the imaginative life that interests.
Haggard wrote a ton of novels, many of them well-known. The Allan Quatermain stories, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, are said to have inspired the character Indiana Jones. She: A History of Adventure marked the beginning of a different series and is one of Haggard’s best-known novels. If not exactly a high-culture masterpiece, it has been quite influential as one of the founding texts of “lost world” fiction. Wikipedia tells us that it’s been made into 11 films and sold over 83 million copies, making it an all-time fiction best seller, and has been translated into 44 languages.
The photographer, the journalist, and the novelist: wrapped in each other’s facts, cloaked in another reality, set out to worship a city mapped in news and fiction. A peacock sways across the tiled floor brushing its iridescent tail upon black and white marble elongated squares. We slip off our shoes, the floor cool against our restless soles, bare. An unguent. A devotee presses a rose petal on the forehead of a deity’s image. The photographer refrains from taking a shot though the angle is good. Here, photographs are forbidden. But the novelist free to capture images, no matter what, imagines many more. For example, of the journalist, thinking a headline, of just facts “Three people in search of gods in hiding, who whisper: seek us and we will appear.” But knowing, that facts don’t make for good copy or sell papers, the journalist would instead spin a tale: A novelist, shot, by a bearded man, inside a mandir, on M.A. Jinnah Road.”
Bear with me, I have a story to tell, something to sort through, a record to set straight and perhaps a score or two to settle too. So, I’ll begin somewhere in the middle and work to a beginning.
I was contacted by a journalist in March 2008 when I was visiting Karachi. She wanted to interview me for my novel, A Matter of Detail. When we met, I listened with growing guilt and self doubt as she lectured me for a good half hour on how my novel should be written. Then she questioned my right to write such a novel since I no longer lived in Karachi. This done, she told me she was very interested in my novel’s focus on the Bene Israel of Karachi. She told me that she had not known before she read my novel, that there had been a Jewish community in Karachi. My book was her first inclination of this and her first introduction to the Bene Israel community in Karachi. She explained that the interview was for the Friday Times as would be the photographs she wanted to take of me. I told her that, beyond the research that I had carried out, my book is wholly imagined. It is an imagined possibility. My efforts were to create a sensation of sweetness, an essential sweetness in a cultural milieu—symbolized perhaps by the sugar that my character Hajrabai stirs into my character Razzak’s ovaltine in the novel.