Vikram Seth World Literature Analysis
Except for the Alexander Pushkin stanzas of The Golden Gate, Seth’s narrative method is conventional. He does not manipulate time or point of view, nor does he indulge in postmodernist irony, and his characters are generally likable and believable. Seth has frequently been matched against Salman Rushdie, with some critics regretting Seth’s choice of straightforward storytelling in the Victorian fashion. Mala Pandurang has defended Seth’s technique on the grounds of his interest in social themes. Book 7 of The Golden Gate, for example, focuses on issues of nuclear power, with Phil passing out pamphlets in a crowd of antinuclear demonstrators, while Father O’Hare, “Bespectacled, short, nervous, chubby,” harangues against “man-made doom.”
One powerful theme of A Suitable Boy centers around the Zamindar Abolition Bill, which would confiscate the land of wealthy Muslim estate owners and redistribute it among the indigent. The prime advocate for the bill is Mr. Mahesh Kapoor, while one of the people who would lose heavily if the bill passes is Kapoor’s old friend, Nawab Sahib of Baitar. The plight of the landless poor emerges when Maan Kapoor accompanies his Urdu teacher, Abdur Rasheed, to Rasheed’s village home, where the superb characterizations of the village people provide a counterweight to the trivial preoccupations of the Chatterji children. Rasheed is an intelligent man, a responsible working-class intellectual, and he awakens in the frivolous but decent Maan a social conscience. Mr. Mahesh Kapoor pushes through the Zamindar Abolition Bill. However, in succumbing to the pressure of an unhappy marriage and his zeal for social change, Rasheed loses his reason and kills himself.
In a concluding note to An Equal Music, Seth says that “Music to me is dearer even than speech,” and talk of music and musicians is a common thread connecting his novels. For John in The Golden Gate (and probably for Seth), “[Arnold] Schoenberg’s an ulcer generator,” whereas a composition by Johannes Brahms creates “a continuous tenderness/ So deep it smooths out all distress.” In A Suitable Boy, Nawab Sahib of Baitar invites a friend and the nawab’s own two sons to hear the temperamental Ustad Majeed Khan sing raags. Seth tells of “The regally slow unfolding of the alaap, the wide vibratos on the third and sixth degrees,” language that in its command of its subject anticipates the intuitive grasp of Western music that shines in An Equal Music, where Johann Sebastian Bach’s the Art of Fugue and Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet become major characters in the drama. Shirley Chew has written that “Seth’s novel can be said to aspire to the condition of music, and the more specific correspondences here are with musical rather than literary works.”
Seth recalls in From Heaven Lake how moved he was by the flute player he heard in Kathmandu, finding himself drawn by the music into “the commonalty of mankind.” This same feeling for music is everywhere evident in Seth’s writings, as might be expected of someone who plays the Indian flute and the cello and sings Schubert lieder.
Children, nature, and animals all have minor roles in Seth’s novels. In The Golden Gate, Ed keeps a green iguana christened Arnold Schwarzenegger—a “Great saurian from realms primeval!”—that fascinates the neighborhood children. “Schwarz” causes no problems for Ed, but John hates Liz’s cat, Charlemagne, as much as he does Schoenberg. When Michael Holme, in An Equal Music, visits his former lover, Julia McNicholl, he meets not only her young son, Luke, but also Buzby, their “huge brown dog with a black face.” Buzby’s antics ease the potentially awkward meeting of Michael and Luke. In A Suitable Boy, a bird comes to Lata at the end of part 13 in a poem, “The Fever Bird,” from Amit Chatterji’s volume with the same title. She is profoundly disturbed by the poem, by the bird’s “call that skewers through [her] brain.” The bird is also defined six hundred pages earlier as a “hawk-cuckoo,” and its “brain-sick triple note” penetrates to Lata’s subconscious, where she is struggling to choose a suitable boy to marry.
Seth often composes lovely passages of nature description, rich with details of birds and trees. Such a passage opens chapter 4 of An Equal Music, with Michael hoping to meet Julia at Round Pond in an appropriately autumnal scene, which he calls “this season of wood.” Julia, however, does not appear, and he is left to muse on the bird song that comes to him through the “bare lattice” of a leafless chestnut tree. Section 12.5 of The Golden Gate describes spring in loving terms: The landscape is radiant with quince bursting in “shameless colonies/ On woody bushes,” while blue jays croak and Easter lilies “effloresce/ In white and Lenten loveliness.”
Seth’s diction always sparkles, but nowhere is his language more playful and witty than in The Golden Gate. He devises rhymes that Lord Byron would have admired: “volition/Titian,” “feisty/Christ—he,” and “Marx/ecclesiarchs” are representative. The outrageous epithet, “putrefied orangutan,” catches the eye, as does Janet Hayakawa’s surname commemorating the famous semanticist and politician, S. I. Hayakawa. Literary allusions are everywhere in The Golden Gate, with Thomas Mann and Saint Bede the Venerable showing up in section 1.3 and Horace’s cry “Eheu fugaces” about humankind’s fleeting years soon following. Seth also refers to Life’s Little Ironies (1894) by Thomas Hardy and Zibaldone (1898-1900) by Giacomo Leopardi, and he includes fragmentary quotations from Robert Louis Stevenson, Hannah Arendt, William Shakespeare’s character Cassius, Theodore Roethke, John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638), and Andrew Marvell. However, the most elaborate play on literary sources comes in stanzas 9.24-9.26, where the cult of comic-book character Tintin is stirred up with talk of Bianca Castafiore, Haddock, and Gorgonzola, among others. In this whole complex tissue of cultural references, which appear throughout the novel’s thirteen chapters, readers are left on their own.
The Golden Gate
First published: 1986
Type of work: Novel
(The entire section is 2639 words.)