Keith Garebian (essay date April 1989)
SOURCE: Garebian, Keith. “In the Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature.” Canadian Forum 68, no. 780 (April 1989): 25-33.
[In the following excerpt, Garebian contends that with Tales from Firozsha Baag Mistry has provided a significant short fiction that expresses a Parsi sensibility.]
Indian fiction in English has long passed out of its nostalgic and nationalistic phases although its truths, as V. S. Naipaul has frequently complained, have tended to be rehearsals of old myths—perennial answers to perennial questions. But with the advent of such excellent writers as Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai, the province of Indo-Anglian fiction has acquired a sophistication based more on technical accomplishment than on sociological or thematic stakes. With Midnight's Children and Shame, Rushdie redrew the Indian literary map (as the New York Times asserted), showing on the one hand, a marvelous epic sense and feeling for contemporary history, and on the other, a robust, baroque style which, while buoyantly in the tradition of Grass, Borges, and Marquez, never lost sight of its debt to earlier literary masters such as Sterne and Dickens. Desai proved with her most recent novel, In Custody, that she could more than rival R. K. Narayan in satire, while telling a more piquant truth about human comic agony.
The past year, however, has belonged to the expert Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and two relative newcomers, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry. The Golden Gate (Random House), a novel wholly in verse, has raised immense publicity in the United States, where Vikram Seth is or was working on a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Setting himself in a tight formal frame-work—sonnet sequences of unrelenting rhyme—Seth manages to invest his satire with many moments of stylish wit. His story follows the fortunes and misfortunes in San Francisco of a lonely young protagonist who, despite his outward composure, well-groomed appearance and corporate success, finds his life going to seed. Johm, an anxious neurotic, finds true love, loses it in the course of several strange configurations of fate, and then finds spiritual consolation when he makes peace with his ex-wife whom he has lost to his former best friend.
Elements of comedy, romance, and tragedy mix surprisingly easily in Seth's sonnet sequences. Imagine a Dennis Lee with adult imagination and substance, a Browning with more variety, or a Pushkin with easy wit. The literary audacity is shown by an implicit faith in feminine rhymes, enjambment, and the well-tried molds of Eugene Onegin. In a digression well into the book, Seth reveals the advance misgivings of his professional colleagues: “Professor, publisher, and critic / Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced. / A writer is a mere arthritic / Among these muscular Gods of Taste.”
Although Seth's tone is occasionally a mite too “cute,” self-conscious, and coy (particularly in the homosexual scenes) for unalloyed pleasure, his verse remains jaunty, and his frequent caesurae do not appear to affect the spirited tempo. The rhymes do flatten some of the dramatic effect of the more solemn moments and reduce the scale of events. The initial surprise at Seth's ingenuity yields to a slight tedium with the metrical grid. However, this is not to deny that the book has marvelous moments of comic fertility and satiric perception. There is a high entertainment quotient in Seth's cast of characters, from the WASP...
(The entire section is 1462 words.)