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SOURCE: Barnes, Anne. Review of The Beautiful Empire, by Zulfikar Ghose. Times Literary Supplement, no. 3853 (16 January 1976): 65.
[In the following review, Barnes observes that Ghose's experimental prose in The Beautiful Empire is difficult to follow and detracts from the story.]
“I wandered the streets”, says the hero of The Beautiful Empire, “saying Brazil, Brazil with each step I took.” And as he does so he presents a squalid picture of the rubber trade in the Amazon jungle in the nineteenth century. Every sort of tawdry scene is crammed into the action to stress the excitement of Brazil: there is a selection of rape and brothel scenes; a great deal of blackmail; a cholera epidemic and the mass murder of an Indian tribe. Various primitive religious ceremonies are described blow by blow and so is a tame South American revolution.
The hero is a man who finds he can make enough money from his fleet of brothel boats to do things like send his laundry to Paris. His private life is made up of various episodic attachments which end with phrases like “she walked slowly away” or “I knew it was farewell”; and there is a lot of jolliness about champagne and making love to one's wife in a broom cupboard. A thin layer of great thoughts is spread over all this. It's rather hard to disengage their meaning from Zulfikar Ghose's windbagging style which involves a heavy use of double negatives, dislocated syntax and paradoxes which do not always make sense, but they are vaguely on the theme of reincarnation and the soul of Brazil. There are, it is true, interesting descriptions of the jungle and the rubber plantation, but against this backcloth the story dangles like a distracting bauble.
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SOURCE: Siddiqi, Bilqis. Review of The Beautiful Empire, by Zulfikar Ghose. World Literature Today 51, no. 1 (winter 1977): 159.
[In the following review, Siddiqi praises Ghose's ironic prose in The Beautiful Empire.]
The Beautiful Empire is a checkered history of Gregorio Peixoto da Silva Xavier's life during the rubber boom in nineteenth-century Brazil. Son of a Brazilian father and English mother, he fights for Brazil, visits his widowed father in England after the war and returns to become fabulously rich as a rubber magnate, but chiefly as an owner of luxurious floating brothels. Times change, the Amazon loses its rubber monopoly, Gregorio's beloved wife dies, and he travels south to recover from shock. He is taken for a god at one place and for the reincarnation of a long-deceased national hero at another. He is also involved in a revolution before he returns to Manaos. He is about to leave for England when he is arrested for treason—a crime, ironically, committed during the war more than fifty years earlier.
The novel is also the story of the utterly selfish and depraved world of the affluent European rubber merchants who ruthlessly exploit the natives by virtually killing them with labor at starvation wages. They treacherously wipe out the Indian settlements and publicly rape the little Indian girls for amusement. This glittering but rotten world collapses as suddenly as it had prospered. The Singletons, Hofman, Lopez Gama, the Dariers and Baron Aikman all die natural or unnatural deaths in quick succession. The ghost city of Manaos also witnesses Gregorio's betrayal by the enigmatic beauty Gloria, the wife of his childhood friend Alfredo, who is torn between love and hatred for her lover.
Underneath all this lies the deeper theme of the search for one's identity which recurs frequently in Ghose's works. Ghose's style is chaste and descriptions of scene and event exquisitely vivid. A poignant touch is added to romance and adventure by subtle irony which, intermingled with delightful humor, makes the earlier chapters the most enjoyable.
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SOURCE: Glastonbury, Marion. “Plain Terms.” New Statesman 104, no. 2686 (10 September 1982): 24.
[In the following excerpt, Glastonbury remarks that Ghose's style in A New History of Torments is trite and that his outlandish and repetitive use of symbolism is wearisome.]
The travels of Zulfikar Ghose, encompassing education in British India, a literary and journalistic career in England, and an associate professorship at the University of Texas, have also brought him to the Amazon Basin where A New History of Torments is set. This exotic version of the pastoral mode contains several wayfaring strangers who are welcomed by chance to sumptuous palaces in various parts of the forest. But, close by, native savagery re-asserts itself; fraud and dysentery are rife; adventurers fall prey to cannibals, and luscious ladies become vengeful harpies, two of whom the hero is obliged to strangle post-coitally.
The trouble with a fairy tale for the machine age is that, once you update archetypal motifs, bathos threatens. The orphaned heir, robbed of his patrimony by a wicked uncle, is sent into exile to swot for entrance to LSE. The coincidences of the plot depend on a series of technical hitches—gremlins ex machina—that suggest singular ineptitude and naiveté on the part of the worldly wise and fabulously rich. The symbolic role of the golden coach is taken by a Lincoln Continental, stuffed with smuggled bullion and radiant with Motor-Show hype. The title and chapter-headings are borrowed from poems by Pablo Neruda, who would scarcely have chosen to dignify a lurid extravaganza in which prospects for revolutionary change are embodied in an American con-man and an English yob
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SOURCE: Review of Hamlet, Prufrock, and Language and Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script, by Zulfikar Ghose. Review of Contemporary Fiction 3, no. 3 (1983): 224-26.
[In the following review, the commentator examines Ghose's distinctive use of narration, style, and grammar in Hamlet, Prufrock and Language and Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script, suggesting that Ghose's experimentation with literary form and function is an exercise toward refining his signature style.]
Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest. … Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce, out of his own insides, noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.
—G. K. Chesterton
It is paradoxical and provocative that poets and philosophers, individuals who live by the word, should be the ones most likely to doubt the adequacy of language ever to express completely or satisfactorily what must be conveyed. Such doubt, one might surmise, would lead inevitably to silence. That it does not—that writers and thinkers should not be put off by the futility of their tasks and give up, that they should strive all the harder when confronted by inadequacy—is a further paradox and no less provocative.
Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom regard the issue as an inescapable confrontation with the past, a psychological problem. While certainly agreeing with and even depending on and drawing from them, I suggest that the problem is deeper and broader than the psychological limits, reaching as it does to encompass and embody the very essence of language and philosophy—the noetic: How do we know? How do we make known? As has been suggested by Wittgenstein and demonstrated by strong writers of all periods, a concern for the inexpressible can be tantamount to an elucidation: We can “signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said” (Wittgenstein). Thus, in every age, one finds those who seek fresh images and new forms with which to sharpen their attempts at the unsayable: sometimes they revive (as in the fables of Kafka and Borges) old forms, now fresh from neglect; sometimes they even take up popular forms, seemingly without redemption as clichés—these they modify and reissue for purposes that go beyond their conventional uses (as in Cervantes' Quixote and Joyce's Nausicaa section of Ulysses).
Such writers imply by their efforts that experimentation provides the way beyond the barrier of a language-proposition that can never represent truly the perception of reality. It is as though they, in recognizing the perplexities of the paradox, had determined to proceed—not just in spite of the contradiction, but because of it—by manipulating their modes of expression. That is the precise position Zulfikar Ghose takes in Hamlet, Prufrock and Language for resolving the dilemma that is inevitable if we persist in the illusion of linguistic and epistemological infallibility:
Having the illusion that there is a necessary correspondence between language and reality, we are driven to despair when our words seem to reveal nothing. … We are left in the end with silence.
And again later:
No philosopher has ever been able to come up with a final theory of knowledge because each has ended by constructing only a new combination of words. … Like Beckett's characters, we are finally condemned to muttering endless sequences of words with no hope of arriving at a meaning that penetrates the barrier of language.
What is most suggestive about these statements is that they contain the germ of Gödel's theorem that no logical system of relative complexity can prove, by using theorems derived within the system, that it is free from concealed contradictions and, consequently, that anyone working with a system that concerns itself progresses toward paradox, which stops him; and that is the provocation. Up against the wall, he sees that language, which he had hoped would free him, is actually his prison-house.
In the 18 November issue of the New York Review of Books, Richard Ellmann repeats a relevant thought from one of Joyce's letters: “One great part of every human experience is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” What to do then if he is correct? Well, Joyce's statement of the problem implicitly answers itself. We can continue to polish and manicure by indirection in an attempt to express ourselves, or we can try something new, as Dryden's Neander puts it: We can choose “either not to write at all, or to attempt some other way,” a sentiment that should not surprise us since Jackson Bate has pointed out in The Burden of the Past and the English Poet that Dryden “is the first great European … example of a major writer who is taking it for granted that the very existence of the past creates the necessity of difference.” And Ghose, among many between Dryden and Joyce and yet others contemporary with us, offers a similar solution: We might wish to go outside the closed system of conventions by trying the new. Experiment, in other words; replace the hieratic with the paratactic; try the untried.
If it is in Hamlet, Prufrock and Language, then, that Ghose expresses such a notion, it is in Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script that he puts the idea into practice. Proceeding by a method of scenic parataxis, he sifts the detritus of popular culture and genre fiction, like some French bricoleur, for the materials with which to construct his novel: cowboys and Indians, gangsters and detectives, the clichés of uncounted movies, paperback novels, television series, and radio dramas—predictable forms selected not for their commercial value, but for the universal expectations they generate, expectations which when subverted force the reader into an unaccustomed role in order to do justice to the implicit and the unknown.
Such a method has much in common with Burke's perspective by incongruity in that it binds the events and features from recognizable yet disparate genres and creates a paradox that wrenches the reader's expectations, forces a new perspective, and allows a perception of congruity to emerge from the resulting metaphor. Unsuspected connections and distinctions, which have eluded us because we are hindered by habit, appear suddenly to the reader as the wordless insights of felt life. And this is what strong writers strive for; certainly such insights are what Ghose strives for. Indeed, his narrator's memo to H. is at once instructive and autological in guiding us to the novel's thesis by calling attention to its method—a passage both of paradox and insight:
The story can develop complications, twists, surprises, while pursuing the mule's-track of clichés down the narrow ravine of public taste. … However, you might want to investigate the what else and the unspoken but heard and the not there but seen, for there's this other dimension surely without which there wouldn't be sparkle in water or haze above the sand of the desert.
It is this other dimension—the inexpressible—toward which the novel moves, drawing its impetus from the panoply of shifting genres: detective, Western, romantic, episodic adventure, and pornographic fiction, as well as from television series and soap operas, cinematic serials and features—each of which functions like a proposition or one of Malcolm Lowry's particular moments to reveal by degrees the whole system that cannot be stated. Similar to Wittgenstein's propositions of the Tractatus, these separate moments and events serve only as elucidations that the reader, after he has used them as steps to climb beyond, will see as nonsensical and discard. Their object is to shape a vision, a possibility, out of disparate moments—to suggest, stimulate, and direct the reader in experiencing the unsaid and the not there. This sense of encountering, which occurs in all works of art, is what makes De Quincey's distinction between a literature of power and one of knowledge; it is the difference between Langer's expressiveness (that which contains the wordless insight of felt life) and the form we associate with logical discourse.
However, in proposing my neologism scenic parataxis to designate the narrative method of Hulme's Investigations, I have not meant to suggest any absence of meaningful relations (as parataxis might suggest) or a mere list of disconnected events with no real value. It would be a mistake to think Ghose fashions disjointed literary structures indifferently, for there is a great deal of rigorous attention to language in the prose of Hulme's Investigations; indeed, language qua language becomes the objective correlative of the work, suggesting the protean nature of both the novel and the so-called real world that contains the novel, the contradictions of the form representing the inherent contradictions of any self-conscious system that attempts to assert its freedom from paradox. Such linguistic, literary, and philosophic suggestions are the stuff of enrichment, raising a text above its separate parts while providing the reader with a challenging, stimulating, and imaginative interplay of rhythms and ideas. Moreover, just as all grammars by definition are rulebound, so too is Hulme's Investigations; the rules of the system, Ghose indicates, are found in the contemplation of his epigraph from Wittgenstein:
When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)
Light dawns gradually over the whole, and one need not fear ignorance of the rules any more than he need fear ignorance of grammar when he speaks. All possess, use, and enjoy a grammar; only the few possess the jargon to discuss it, and the same holds for this work. Readers can sense the organizing intelligence behind the structure without knowing the why of it; they can hear the singularity of a sustained voice through which Ghose unfolds a vision exclusively his; and that's what the act of shaping is all about—a personal, coherent, philosophic vision of both art and the world around us. Without it, there is very little else. Perhaps the idea needs no expression; what can stand repeating, however, is the notion that an individual can no more escape his unique voice and style than he can change the color of his eyes. And that is the greatest paradox of all—one's language becomes at once the means of breaching, as well as the prison-house, entrapping both the writer and the reader for the duration of the reading.
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SOURCE: Hashmi, Alamgir. Review of A New History of Torments, by Zulfikar Ghose. World Literature Today 58, no. 1 (winter 1984): 167-68.
[In the following review, Hashmi focuses on the symbolic elements in A New History of Torments and praises Ghose's imaginative poetic prose.]
Extracting elaborate narratives out of cunning riddles is a “fabulous” device. Zulfikar Ghose states that the title of the novel A New History of Torments was suggested by a poem by Pablo Neruda and that the titles of the two sections into which the novel is divided “are the two phrases in the penultimate line” in another poem by Neruda. These two section titles, “The Sealed Light” and “The Dead Labyrinth,” are reechoed by short verse quotations from T. S. Eliot and César Vallejo.
Set in contemporary South America, the novel exploits the resources of the story in multiple directions to elicit from the land a meaning for those who inhabit it. The quest for the Golden Fleece takes on exciting new forms as a Lincoln Continental is crushed and remade into a golden sheep by an artist and placed as a piece of sculpture on a man-made island; the gold of the golden sheep becomes available for a revolutionary plot, and Madeleine and Jason find at the end of their journeys that the place on the sixteenth-century map which they have been looking for is the one they already possess. A fable appears to have been expanded into a complex novel by a master storyteller.
Ghose knows how to make plain language sing, and it is good to have him back on familiar territory. The novel's “torments,” the reversals in human relationships and the ironies of circumstance, European and Indian, are chapters in the history of an increasingly somber vision. The last chapter finds the principal characters gone; there remains only an Indian woman completing the last rites. As the workers and others left Oyarzún's land, they “realized then that anyone coming on the old road and stopping where it suddenly ended would have to turn back and would never know that a land was to be found across the river which had been as perfect and as beautiful as any paradise dreamed of by man.” A powerful imagination has created it, and, unlike the land, the story of its discovery and exploration is bound to live.
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SOURCE: Ghose, Zulfikar, and Chelva Kanaganayakam. “Zulfikar Ghose: An Interview.” Twentieth Century Literature 32, no. 2 (summer 1986): 169-86.
[In the following interview conducted on August 14, 1984, Ghose describes the reasons for writing each of his novels, discusses authors and works that have influenced his writing, explains the evolution of his style, and critiques his poetic endeavors.]
Despite two decades of sustained literary activity, Zulfikar Ghose continues to remain relatively unknown in academic circles, hardly discussed in literary journals, and only tenuously linked to Commonwealth, British, and American writing. His refusal to be circumscribed by national boundaries and “ethnic flavor,” his willingness to experiment with new modes, and his propensity to create antireferential and “difficult” works may partly explain his consignment to that area of gray where neither the student nor the literary critic wishes to wander. Neither mediocre nor an obscurantist, Ghose has at least three major claims to recognition: firstly, his writings, despite their differences in narrative mode and style, possess a remarkable unity; secondly, his works reveal a complexity of texture and depth of imagination which make him a contemporary writer worthy of serious attention; thirdly, the patterns of quest he demonstrates through his fiction could offer in the future the possibility of a new poetics for the literature of native-alien experience.
The bulk of Ghose's writing is so far removed from his biographical circumstances that the reader often fails to recognize how dependent one is on the other. In fact, in order to arrive at a unified vision of his writings it is necessary to turn to biography and history, to the crucial years before and after the Independence and Partition of India, the years in which Ghose learned to love and hate the country, and to recognize his predicament as an alien in the land of his birth.
Ghose was born in 1935, and his first seven years were spent in Sialkot (a city in East Punjab, close to the Indo-Pakistani border, which became part of West Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1947), in relatively prosperous circumstances, in the midst of an extended family. Ghose remembers that “several generations of a family lived and spawned in the same house” which, despite the irony, suggests a strong sense of continuity. Sialkot in the 1930s was an industrial city, which the author remembers as an organic community untouched by modernization and held together by shared values. In contrast to this period, the next ten years—1942 to 1952—were spent in Bombay, which was at that time, as it is now, a metropolitan, predominantly Hindu city. The ten years coincided with the last days of the British Raj, and with the possibility of Independence and Partition in the near future. The Hindus and the Muslims, who had lived for centuries in perfect harmony, were beginning to slaughter each other on a massive scale. For Ghose, a Muslim in a Hindu city, this was a period of fear and uncertainty, of growing awareness of his predicament as a native-alien, of a realization that India was no longer his home.
In 1952 Ghose sailed to England, where he spent the next seventeen years. Life in England hardly resolved his personal dilemma, but it did prove productive in many ways. He studied at Sloane School, Chelsea, graduated from the University of Keele in 1959, edited Universities' Poetry, worked as a correspondent for the Observer, wrote reviews for the Western Daily Press, the Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement, served as a teacher, came into contact with several members of the Group, and published two collections of poems—The Loss of India (1964) and Jets from Orange (1967)—an autobiography, a collection of short stories with B. S. Johnson—Statement against Corpses (1965)—and two novels—The Contradictions (1966) and The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967).
Having spent seventeen years in England (interestingly, he spent the same number of years in India), he emigrated to the United States in 1969 to take up a teaching appointment at the University of Texas at Austin. The last seventeen years, from 1969 to 1986, have been crucial ones, during which he has read widely and published seven novels: The Native (1972), The Beautiful Empire (1975), A Different World (1978), Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script (1981), A New History of Torments (1982), Don Bueno (1983), and Figures of Enchantment (1986). He also produced two volumes of poetry—The Violent West (1972) and A Memory of Asia (1984)—two critical works—Hamlet, Prufrock and Language (1978) and The Fiction of Reality (1984)—and several uncollected essays, poems, and short stories.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader is that Ghose's life and his movement from India to England and Texas have little bearing on his literary works. Most Commonwealth writers who have dealt with the problem of identity and exile have done so by re-creating in their art a realistic or sentimentalized version of the land of their birth. They have felt a need to create a model of what they have left behind or lost in order to explore the possibility of creating a new identity. In Ghose's early works a correspondence along these lines could be established, but as he moves increasingly into antireferential writing, the continuities, though still present, become progressively difficult to detect.
Nevertheless, one needs to be aware that Ghose's changes in narrative mode—mimesis, stream of consciousness, picaresque, metafiction, and magic realism—are not the result of technical legerdemain so much as a consequence of the complex perception of exile. As Ghose moves from one mode to another his vision changes from displacement in a referential sense to homelessness in a philosophical sense. Inevitably this leads to a mode of writing which relies increasingly on the imagination to create its artifacts. Thus location, whether it is the Texas of Hulme's Investigations or the Spanish America of Don Bueno, becomes secondary to the fictionality of the text.
That Ghose's consciousness of native-alien experience, combined with a growing loss of contact with the historical circumstances of exile, should result in a mode of writing which is both experimental and antireferential is not surprising. The imagination that grasps and records the objective world is also inspired by the conception of home that could only be realized in art. As Ghose puts it, “one entertains / the certainty of a world that's undeniably not there” (A Memory of Asia, p. 30). In other words, the more philosophical a writer becomes in his awareness of marginalization, the more nonrealistic and experimental his writing is likely to become.
The “difficulty” or obscurity confronting the reader of Ghose's works disappears when he recognizes the philosophical underpinning that unites the author's writing. The idea of home, whether it appears as a farm, a ranch, a man-made paradise, or an Arcadian village, remains a central preoccupation and a unifying force. In the author's words: “I want to see again what I have seen to confirm former convictions and to know that a certain vision is a continuing truth” (A Memory of Asia, p. 29). And different narrative modes, with their diverse locations and characters, are multiple ways of attempting to resolve the artistic quest for “home.” The quest is a never-ending one in that the objective conditions which generate it are irreversible, but the irreversibility of the predicament of exile does not sterilize creativity; instead, it opens up new possibilities.
Thus, to limit Ghose, whose sensibility is an evolving one, to a preconceived taxonomy would be both futile and frustrating. On the other hand, to recognize the thematic unity which underlies all his writings is not only to understand the diversity and complexity of the works themselves, but also to speculate on the possibility of a new poetics for the literature of native-alien experience.
The following interview with Zulfikar Ghose took place on August 14, 1984, at the University of Texas at Austin.
[Kanaganayakam]: I have been interested in the wide range of forms you have used in your fiction and in the relation between form and idea. You have been moving from one form to another, and that appears to be a crucial aspect of your work. Don Bueno, for instance, is not like The Murder of Aziz Khan.
[Ghose]: No, not at all. This might become clear if I retrace the history that led to the writing of Aziz Khan.
Except for some occasional pieces of prose, I wrote nothing but poems as an undergraduate at Keele University—I was there from 1955 to 1959—and I had the expectation at that time that I would continue to write poems and that one day I would be a poet of some worth. When I came down from Keele, I was involved with a group of writers in London, all of them poets. In my last year at Keele, I had undertaken to edit Universities' Poetry, and had invited Anthony Smith at Cambridge, John Fuller at Oxford, and B. S. Johnson in London to be my coeditors, and the four of us began to meet in London in the summer of 1959. Fuller faded away, but Smith and Johnson became my close friends. We met often, wrote letters, showed one another our poems, talked endlessly of poetry. Then, through Smith, I became associated with the Group which met on Friday nights at Edward Lucie-Smith's house; the next wave of British poets came from the Group—Peter Redgrove, George MacBeth, Peter Porter, several others. At the same time, I became associated with Howard Sergeant, who ran monthly poetry readings at a pub in Dulwich, and with Martin Bax, who edited Ambit. In short, every aspect of my literary life centered on poetry.
B. S. Johnson became my closest friend and although he was to make his name as a novelist, he called himself a poet, even described himself as such in his passport. We were all poets in those days. Anthony Smith went to Bristol, where he began to edit the arts page of the Western Daily Press and made me his chief reviewer. That is when I began to read a lot of new novels. During these years, 1961 to 1966, I also reviewed occasionally in the TLS and the Guardian and one or two other places. I read an enormous number of new novels, and most of them were abominably bad. The moment had to come when I thought, Good God, how can anyone publish this kind of trash? And naturally the next idea that comes to you is that you can do it better, and before you know it you are sitting down and writing a novel. In those circumstances, and at that age, one is possessed by the anxiety to impress the world with one's brilliance. And so I concocted the novel called The Contradictions. Of course, I had no experience of writing fiction, I had very little reading of serious fiction behind me.
But you did some reading of fiction for your degree?
I took George Eliot as a special subject and her novels were the only ones I read for my degree. There were huge gaps in my reading. I had not read Joyce, Beckett, or Sterne. I had read little Dickens and hardly any James. I had not discovered Chekhov, Balzac, or Flaubert, without whom I do not think it is possible to write fiction. So, my first novel was written out of horrible ignorance. When Macmillan published it, I was distressed to appear in the world with such an inferior work and resolved to make amends by writing a solid, straightforward novel before allowing myself the indulgence of attempting experimental fiction. That is why I wrote The Murder of Aziz Khan.
This was the time when the nouveau roman was making its mark—Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, etc., were being translated into English. I did not read any of them at the time, in fact I did not come to them till the 1970s. However, it was a climate in which the new was being valued and I was attracted to it. I already had notions of new forms but I deliberately sat down for a couple of years and did this solid thing, The Murder of Aziz Khan. When I finished it, I thought it solid enough, but a form in which I would not wish to work again. Having proved that I could write the traditional novel, I turned to what interested my imagination, I wrote Crump's Terms.
Did this mean that you were disappointed with The Contradictions or was it the publishers …?
No, nothing to do with the publishers. I was disappointed with The Contradictions. I think it is a terrible piece of writing. I don't know why but I can't bear to read any of my work again. I keep it in front of me to remind myself that I have not done too well and I ought to do better.
But to go on with my narrative: I became a schoolteacher in London in 1963, I got married in 1964, and Crump's Terms was begun in 1967. By then, I was sufficiently affluent in a lower-middle-class kind of way to own my car and to drive off to Europe every summer with my wife. At that time I was conscious of the decadence that was settling over Europe. The 1960s were a time of the coming of the Beatles, the coming of an intense popular culture, and, above all, the adoration of popular culture by the intellectuals. It was smart to be praising something that was of passing interest. I felt rather disgruntled by the degeneration around me and began to withdraw into myself. Crump's Terms formulated itself in that context.
When I first wrote Crump's Terms, I had not read a single work by Robbe-Grillet, nor any Beckett. Crump's Terms remained unpublished for eight years during which time I did read Robbe-Grillet and Beckett, and some of their influence must have come in when I revised the novel, but actually the final version is not very different from the first complete draft. I seem to have discovered their preoccupations as my own even before I read them.
But at that time you had read writers like Virginia Woolf?
No, I had not read anything by Virginia Woolf, except A Room of One's Own, which I had read as a schoolboy. But I had not read Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.
How about Joyce?
Yes, I had read Joyce. I wrote Crump's Terms after my first visit to Brazil and I took Ulysses to Brazil and read it while I was there. So, I had read Joyce. I think some of those compound words and neologisms in Crump's Terms are influenced by Joyce.
How about Faulkner? He uses the technique of repetition.
Yes, Faulkner is perhaps unconsciously there because I had read Faulkner ardently as an undergraduate.
What happened to Crump's Terms was that when I finished it in 1968 and sent it to Macmillan, they rejected it. Several other publishers rejected it, too, and when I came to the States in 1969 I brought it with me and spent another six months or so rewriting it. I wrote about three or four drafts of it and sent it back to the agent. He submitted it to a number of publishers and they all rejected it. Nobody wanted it. Everybody said I was wasting my time. Then it was finally accepted by Macmillan because I offered them the Brazilian trilogy. The trilogy had what seemed a commercial prospect and Macmillan hoped to make a lot of money with it. I made the acceptance of Crump's Terms a condition of giving them the trilogy.
But you did not consider Crump's Terms an inferior work, did you?
No, I thought that was the direction I should be taking. If Macmillan had accepted it in 1968 when it was first offered to them, I would have progressed from there instead of spending the next eight years on the Brazilian trilogy. Who knows what I might not have discovered? The trilogy was amusing to write but it did not involve me in artistic growth. I suppose I began writing Hulme's Investigations before finishing the trilogy in order to console myself that I was not merely the writer of commercial fiction.
But you did not think of going back to the Aziz Khan style?
Never. Once that was done it was done. One changes, one's point of view is constantly moving into new regions. Experience is a comprehension of a previously obscure form: a novel begins because I do not see and it ends because, and only if, I have seen.
You know there is a plot or a story in a novel. Something is going on. All that is made up to keep the writing going. My own interest is in something else. There is an imagery going on. There are characters talking to each other, and so on. These are simply diversions. The real thing is going on somewhere else, in the language itself. I aim for an accumulation of brilliant details to get to that language. The most important thing in writing fiction is what Conrad calls the shape and ring of sentences. I don't know whether you've noticed I sometimes tend to write very long and complicated sentences, a Proustian kind of sentence, filled with vivid matter until the language releases a subtle thought. It doesn't always work, no thought might emerge at the end, but at least there will be a richness of texture, a pleasing cadence.
But unless you have various dimensions of experience which must come through in the language you wouldn't have an interest in constructing such sentences.
As soon as you use words you are referring to reality; indeed, there is no reality outside language that can be said to have a meaning; and it must follow that you cannot perceive a complex reality without creating a complex language. Flaubert put this precisely when he said that style is a manner of seeing things. He also said that he wished to write about nothing, a book about nothing that was held together only by its style. He said that in the context of writing Madame Bovary, and of course he did not succeed in writing about nothing. But it seems to me that subsequent generations of French writers, especially Raymond Rousell, have come very close to writing about nothing.
The difference I am trying to get at is that if one were to sit down and say, I am going to write a novel called The Incredible Brazilian for which I will draw upon history and some of my own experiences, then one would write a novel with a largely predetermined subject matter. Contrast to that the writing of Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script, which is composed without any preoccupation with subject matter. I find it much more interesting to write the latter kind of novel; in it I record not a perceived world but create perception of the world. Of course, the perception is not going to be empty of matter. In the act of creating a language, inventing a form, shaping a style for such a novel one is engaged in a simultaneous attention to multiple factors; you concentrate on the sentence but your memories, background, reading, experience, everything that constitutes your identity charge that sentence with a current that comes out of your unconscious mind.
Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script began by itself. I just found myself writing it one day. I soon realized that what I was trying to produce was a text which was simply a structure of language, which was not based on preconceived ideas, which was not trying to put forward the writer's views, which did not have a story or plot, but which was still fiction. As with Crump's Terms, it was universally rejected when it was offered to publishers.
This was in the early Seventies?
Yes, this was in the early Seventies. I rewrote it a number of times. It went on from 1972 to 1978 while I was writing A Different World and Hamlet, Prufrock and Language. Finally, however, a small press in Austin, Texas, published it.
So the order of composition has been quite different from the order of publication?
Yes. Unfortunately it takes publishers years to respond to a work of the imagination. Sometimes even when they like it, they reject it because they have convinced themselves in advance that it won't sell.
I seem to be giving you an intellectual and chronological biography and I might as well finish it.
You have left out your collection of poems.
We will come to the poems later perhaps, because we now come to the more recent novels A New History of Torments and Don Bueno. These are set in Spanish South America, though there are a few pages of Don Bueno set in Brazil. But actually the setting has nothing whatsoever to do with anything. With these novels, I entered a phase of pure invention. There are images in them that come from direct observation. The Equator, the Andes, the Amazon. But I am not concerned in them with common reality. I create the illusion of reality when in fact I have no reality at all, except that of the imagination.
But not in the manner of Hulme's Investigations?
No, not in the manner of Hulme's Investigations because the intellectual grasp behind these two novels is different. I am no longer talking in these novels about language but about human experience.
So you did conform to a linear movement and realistic framework in certain ways.
Yes, there is a linear narrative and the pretense of reality. The pretense of reality is carefully maintained, but if you read carefully you will probably find out that it is flawed.
Yes, there is a strong element of artifice.
But both seem to coexist in a way—the artifice and the reality.
Well, I hope so. The thinking that was going on in my mind had to do with the recurrence of myth in human experience. I sometimes wonder whether we are not driven by a mechanism in our brains which contains memories not our own but of the human tribe, memories that compel an unpredictable behavior. Call these memories the recurrence of myth, a force that respects neither time nor place, but is universally present in the human psyche. It strikes me that these memories are partial memories because with the passage of time many of these images have become eroded, confused, and distorted, the original myth has become surreal. Our actions are charged by the force of compulsions unknown to our conscious minds, and those mythical elements recurring in our actions that might have served a regenerative function are perhaps instead a curse, an unbearable torment.
In your autobiography you talk about the native-alien experience and you talk about the psychological conflict and the pressing need to know that you belong somewhere. You say that this has been the schizophrenic theme in your writing. This was in 1965. Since then you have not made any critical statements about your writing.
The need to belong was perhaps strongly felt in 1964. I had been writing on that theme since 1959, almost all the poems in The Loss of India are to do with the idea of roots, of displacement and the desire to belong. But by writing so many poems and by writing the autobiography, I worked that out. As one grows older one realizes it's no use sitting and lamenting one's fate. After one has worked out that particular aspect of fate in a number of texts, then surely one has exhausted the theme and goes on to others. There is nothing of me really in The Incredible Brazilian and Hulme's Investigations and the other novels that have followed because in them I was simply making up stories or pursuing some compulsion of the imagination. Then I realized one day that even in The Incredible Brazilian I was talking about myself. In a sense, I was talking about the idea of place. The attraction of self to a certain landscape. Certain images in it have to do with memories of having been to particular parts of Brazil, but one can say that I was unconsciously trying to create the idea of the human soul seeing a glimpse from time to time of paradise and longing to be there. The people in A New History of Torments are also seeking a paradise, Oyarzun has created one in the middle of the jungle. But it is a sterile paradise because his wife has left him and his daughter is a serpent of a woman. The paradise that has been created refuses to accommodate the soul in all its desire for beauty. I seem always to be searching for a paradise.
Does this search involve the notion of a quest?
Yes, and I think the quest is universal. The present is always a torment. We keep looking expectantly in case the next bend in the road will bring us an astonishing revelation.
Despite the quest, there appears to be always a sense of gloom.
Yes, I am a gloomy man. A wonderful quotation comes to mind, I think it's from Paul Valéry. “Optimists make bad writers.”
In that sense the last ten years have not been any different?
No, I've got quite gloomier. In fact, if you notice in A New History of Torments, I end by destroying the world I had created. Incidentally, there's an echo from Wallace Stevens in the closing lines of the novel. People don't notice that my prose echoes with many references and images deliberately taken from some of the poets. If a reader were to reflect upon them, he would see something he had missed.
Over the years you have changed your form but there are certain threads which run through your work. But you have changed your form because the meaning is dependent on form. Was there any reason for abandoning the realistic form and going into other modes?
I think it's very boring to take the realistic form and keep working at it again and again. Surely, I'm aware of what has happened and what is happening in the literary world around me and I am very excited by the new and one of the enjoyments of life is to contribute something to the new. The desire is always to create that perfect masterpiece which has a hardness of matter, which is going to be enjoyed at several levels, and which is going to enchant everyone with the beauty of its form. Every time I finish a novel, I am filled with a sense of failure that I've not caught that elusive beauty, and so I start another one. A lovely foolishness, or an exquisite lunacy, fills my hours pursuing the unattainable.
Is there any reason why you didn't want to write about India?
I have not been back to India or Pakistan for twenty-three years. Neither country has given me the slightest recognition. But this has nothing to do with writing. As it happens, I wrote a short story a few months ago, called “The Savage Mother of Desire,” which is set in India. Perhaps I might go on to do a larger work with an Indian setting, I don't know. But settings in my recent fictions are only an illusory reality, a semblance of a believable world, the truth I'm after is not to be discovered on that surface.
There are several references to India in The Incredible Brazilian and I wondered whether Brazil is a metaphor for India.
The Portuguese when they discovered Brazil thought it was India. They had simply lost their way, as I may have mine.
Are you interested in magical realism?
I am never interested in any -ism and would hate to be confined to a category. My recent novels might contain elements of magical realism, but then they also contain elements of Balzac, Tolstoy, Proust, Machado de Assis, and ten thousand others. The creation of a new text is an investigation into those possibilities of language that have not been exhausted; one assimilates past and present modes—all the -isms, if you like—and hopes to be astonished by the new shape that emerges. Valéry said: “A lion is made up of assimilated sheep.”
You have moved from place to place but you have stuck to Latin America in five novels. How would you explain that?
Because it does not really matter where a novel is set provided its internal structure works. You could take A New History of Torments and change all the Spanish names to Indian names, substitute the Himalayas and the Ganges for the Andes and the Amazon, but the novel itself would not alter the slightest. Seeing that it's set in South America, reviewers have immediately perceived a comparison with Jorge Amado, Marquez, and Vargas Llosa; I suppose if I'd set it in India, they'd have seen a comparison with Tagore, Narayan, and the films of Satyajit Ray. People are eager to drop names and to put one into a category, and I have yet to see any evidence that anyone has read the book carefully. To give you an example of sloppy reading, several reviewers both in America and in England called Mark Kessel an American when it's clearly stated that he's a South American, with the precise implication that he's a Brazilian.
One more thing about fiction. In your collection of short stories you begin with the prologue that makes certain statements. Why did you make such a statement and what were you trying to do?
Statement against Corpses, the collection of short stories, is only half mine, the other half is B. S. Johnson's. You must remember that when the book was produced, Johnson and I were two young men with rather an inflated idea about ourselves, out to make a name for ourselves. Therefore, we made up that provocative statement. Also, we were—certainly I was—ignorant of what was going on in the U.S., Europe, and South America, where the short story was a much more vital form than it was in England. So, you have to see that statement in the context of the narrow world in which the two young men lived at that time.
What did the narrow world consist of? Surely you must have had something in mind when you made the statement?
A world that praised such nonentities as Larkin and Amis had to be a narrow world. English writers in the first half of the twentieth century are a sorry lot: there is only one poet after Hopkins—Basil Bunting; only one novelist after George Eliot—Virginia Woolf. Yes, I know there were D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, E. M. Forster, but I think literary history will put them all into a sack full of others of the sorry lot and dump them into the already polluted English Channel. Were it not for a few Irishmen, a couple of Scots, and a Welshman, English literature of the first half of the twentieth century would be almost exclusively American. The interesting English writers began to emerge in the 1960s, and twenty years later I see more imaginatively exciting things coming out from England than from here, from America. The English seem to me to be doing again what they've always done when they've produced their best literature—opened their eyes to the rest of the world and taken from it what they can plunder and transform, a process that the English language is so good at accommodating. No more of that horrible domesticity with its kitchen sinks and small back gardens that prevailed in the Fifties. I shall be surprised if a really eminent writer doesn't emerge from England before this century is out. There is a great deal of fertile evidence, writers now in their forties are doing some remarkable things. There was none of this vitality in 1963, which was a dead, a narrow time, when Johnson and I put our pretentious statement together.
Did you have any previously written stories?
None of my stories in Statement against Corpses had been written before Johnson and I decided to make a book together. My part of that book is awful, atrocious. The stories are naive, written out of ignorance, without any experience of an informed reading of fiction, a very juvenile work.
You have not been writing too many short stories in recent times.
That is because I have been writing novels and I find it difficult to write another kind of fiction at the same time.
It is not because you feel that the genre has certain limitations?
A really well-written story, a masterpiece like Faulkner's “Barn Burning,” is a terrific imaginative experience. But with lesser minds, the form encourages dullness and triviality. There must be thousands of stories about adolescent problems, the tensions of middle-aged couples, and other common sociological matters, all deadly serious and excruciatingly dull.
Would you be willing to say something about your poems?
What would you like to ask?
How about the autobiographical element which critics have drawn attention to. I find that sometimes you take two or three incidents from your autobiography and fuse them into one poem.
A poem succeeds because of its form and the power of its language and not because its subject matter is autobiographically precise. What may have tormented a poet and driven him to write a certain poem is none of the reader's business, for the reader is looking at language and not at life.
You started writing at a time when lots of things were happening in England—the Movement, the Group poets—and you were in some ways associated with them. I am interested in what they were doing and how they influenced you.
My biggest influences at that time were Robert Browning, Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats. As for the Movement, I was quite attracted to it at the start. Before the Movement, Dylan Thomas had been an important influence and in the year 1953 when he died, he was a very strong influence on many young poets, and I was no exception. Similarly, I came under the passing spell of infatuation with Auden. I was greatly greatly impressed by him and went around reciting “In Praise of Limestone,” and obviously that flowed into some of my own work. But by the time I wrote the poems in The Loss of India, I had outgrown both Thomas and Auden, although some of the poems might still have a lingering echo of these poets.
When you say outgrown is it because you find something wanting in them?
No, it's just that I realized that I was only mimicking their voice. That's how I suppose every poet begins. My earliest poems when I was a schoolboy in Bombay were a mimicking of Byron. Later it was Browning.
Did you also try to imitate their forms? Some of the poets you mentioned were difficult poets who were experimenting with language, form, and so forth.
Yes, I did that. Ottava rima, Spenserian stanza, terza rima, dramatic monologues, sestinas, villanelles, you name it, I did the lot. Very exciting it was too, at the time. It was useful training, I suppose, even though the modern poet doesn't always need these techniques and traditional forms.
In what sense would you define modern?
In the sense that Eliot, Pound, and Ashbery are modern. I wouldn't want to attempt a definition, however. Always a slightly pompous procedure, uttering definitions.
Would it be right to say that your poetry is more in the tradition of Larkin rather than Ted Hughes?
Neither, I would hope! But I can't disagree with your statement for part of my work. The poems in The Loss of India have something of both the Movement and also Hughes. For example, “Uncle Ayub” is the kind of “family” poem many people were writing in the Movement manner. Neat little portraits with bits of exquisite irony attached to them. And “This Landscape, These People” has the phrase “swift heels trail like ploughs,” which surely is an echo of Hughes's opening image in “The Hawk in the Rain.” But there is also Robert Lowell lurking over The Loss of India, perhaps a stronger presence than either Larkin or Hughes. The earliest poem in that book was written in 1959, the year in which Life Studies was published in England, a book that made a very strong impression on me. There's not much to be said for my second book of poems, Jets from Orange, which has perhaps three or four decent poems but the rest deserve to be burned. There's too much posturing in it, a silly desire to make important statements. Since then I've discovered that I write best when I have nothing to say but have a desire to write a poem, a pressure of form within my mind, so that I look for images through which that form might emerge.
In terms of form, you seem to be getting more complex in The Violent West, more difficult to understand. Is this a new trend?
The poems in The Violent West were written after I came to Texas in 1969. The first course I taught at the university was in contemporary British and American poetry. I had met Theodore Roethke in London some years earlier and he had encouraged me to read a number of American poets who were scarcely known in England—Kunitz and Bishop, for example. I had read some and of course had a smattering of the major American poets—Stevens, Williams, Roethke himself. But when I began to teach at the university, I undertook an intensive study of some of these poets. Also, in 1968, I had visited New York, where I had been invited to give a reading at the Poetry Center and had met Eugene Guillevic from France, the Chilean Nucanor Parra, and several American poets; and in 1970, I was invited to read at the Library of Congress, where I met Francis Ponge from France, Yehuda Amichai from Israel, Vasko Popa from Yugoslavia. I drop all these names to make the point that a greatly varied and enormously rich poetry suddenly opened to me when I came to America. All these poets were available in London but the literary groups that I moved in uttered not a word about them. So, reading the European and South American poets, and studying the Americans more carefully, obviously the new poems I wrote were very different from those in my first two books. With a few exceptions, however, they were still not the poems I wanted to write. That is the common condition of the poet, to write so many poems in which his own voice is only a nearly inaudible whisper; they might look like genuine poems but in his own mind the poet is not deluded, he's the first to spot his own artistic failure. It is by rare good fortune that all the elements that constitute a beautiful poem come together, but one cannot hit upon that combination as an act of will. I suppose it's a gift reserved for the very few. No writer can ever presume that he has it or will be given it. He can only continue to live in that misty area of tense apprehensions where he has always resided, where mysterious forms beckon him to capture their elusive appearance which is both luminous and opaque; and there, his fate might be to suffer lasting torment or, with luck, to experience ecstasy.
Zulfikar Ghose: A Select Bibliography
Works by Zulfikar Ghose
The Contradictions. London: Macmillan, 1966.
The Murder of Aziz Khan. London: Macmillan, 1967. New York: John Day, 1969.
The Incredible Brazilian: The Native. London: Macmillan, 1972. New York: Holt, 1972. Herts.: Panther, 1973. New York: Overlook Press, 1983.
The Incredible Brazilian: The Beautiful Empire. London: Macmillan, 1975. New York: Overlook Press, 1984.
Crump's Terms. London: Macmillan, 1975.
The Incredible Brazilian: A Different World. London: Macmillan, 1978. New York: Overlook Press, 1985.
Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script. Austin and New York: Curbstone Publishing Co., 1981.
A New History of Torments. New York: Holt, 1982.
Don Bueno. New York: Holt, 1984.
Figures of Enchantment. London: Hutchinson, 1986. New York: Harper, 1986.
“The Rough Ride.” Ambit, No. 16 (1963), pp. 24-30.
Statement against Corpses. London: Constable, 1964. Written with B. S. Johnson.
“The Absences.” In Winters Tales 14. Ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland. London: Macmillan, 1968, pp. 191-201.
“Daniel Zwernemann's Flight.” Transatlantic Review, No. 41 (Winter-Spring 1972), pp. 79-81.
“The Waxahachie Coincidence.” Transatlantic Review, No. 45 (Spring 1973), pp. 86-94.
“With Music by Dmitri Tiomkin.” New Quarterly, 3, No. 1 (1978), 25-33.
“Lila of the Butterflies and Her Chronicler.” Latin American Literary Review, 13, No. 25 (1985), 151-57.
The Loss of India. London: Routledge, 1964.
Jets from Orange. London: Macmillan, 1967.
The Violent West. London: Macmillan, 1972.
A Memory of Asia. Austin: Curbstone Publishing Co., 1984.
Universities' Poetry Two, (Keele) 1959.
“Redbrick Ritual.” Twentieth Century, 166, No. 992 (1959), 275-79.
“Schooldays: In Bombay.” Twentieth Century, 168, No. 1004 (1960), 312-20.
Confessions of a Native-Alien. London: Routledge, 1965.
“Ghose's London: A Valediction.” Hudson Review, 22 (1969), 374-88.
“The Language of Sports Reporting.” In Readings in the Aesthetics of Sport. Ed. H. T. A. Whiting and D. W. Masterson. London: Lepus Books, 1974, pp. 57-68.
Hamlet, Prufrock and Language. London: Macmillan, 1978. New York: St. Martin's, 1978.
“The One Comprehensive Vision.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 21 (1979), 260-79.
“Observations from a Correspondence: Letters from Thomas Berger.” Studies in American Humor, 2, No. 1 (Spring 1983), 5-19.
The Fiction of Reality. London: Macmillan, 1984.
“Bryan.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 5, No. 2 (1985), 23-34.
Criticism of Zulfikar Ghose
Articles and Chapters in Books:
Ferres, John F., and Martin Tucker. Modern Commonwealth Literature. New York: Ungar, 1977, pp. 420-22.
Hashmi, Alagmir. “Tickling and Being Tickled à la Zulfikar Ghose.” Commonwealth Novel in English, 1, No. 2 (1982), 156-65.
Hobsbaum, Philip. “Ghose, Zulfikar.” In Contemporary Poets. 3rd ed. Ed. James Vinson. London: Macmillan, 1980, pp. 644-46.
Kohli, Devendra. “Landscape and Poetry.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 13 (Apr. 1979), 54-70.
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “Ghose, Zulfikar.” In Contemporary Poets. 2nd ed. Ed. James Vinson. London: St. James Press, 1975, pp. 541-43.
New, W. H. “Ghose, Zulfikar.” In Contemporary Novelists. 2nd ed. Ed. James Vinson. London: St. James Press, 1976, pp. 511-13.
Potts, Michel W. “Zulfikar Ghose—Only Pakistani Novelist to Be Published in US.” India West, 8 Apr. 1983, pp. 12, 21.
Warren, Bill. “Books.” Austin American-Statesman, 17 Dec. 1972, pp. 35, 38.
Kanaganayakam, C. “Paradigms of Absence: The Writings of Zulfikar Ghose.” Diss. University of British Columbia 1985.
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Artifice below a Mask of Wonder.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 August 1984): 4.
[In the following review, Rubin analyzes the intricate mixture of realism and fantasy in Ghose's Don Bueno.]
Why should a Pakistani-born British poet, a novelist who lives in the United States and teaches at the University of Texas, write novels set in South America? Zulfikar Ghose's ninth novel, Don Bueno, travels a spectrum of South American landscapes, from steamy jungles of the interior to the Atlantic and Pacific seacoasts and the crystalline heights of the Andes.
More than a colorful background for adventure stories, however, South America is also the home of a distinct literary tradition that some writers and critics consider more vibrant these days than its North American counterpart. Ghose's penchant for setting his novels in Latin American reflects his interest in a certain style of storytelling—sharply allegorical, yet lushly fabulous, conscious of its own artifice beneath a mask of naive wonderment.
Don Bueno is deliberately “Latin” in the fatalism of its story: a cyclic tale of a man, abandoned in infancy by his father, who grows up to kill his father (unknowingly) and abandon his own infant son, who, in turn, grows up to kill him (again unknowingly) while leaving behind an abandoned infant son.
Such a summary does not do justice to a fascinating and complex novel. Although each successive son, as we soon surmise, is destined to bear the nickname “Don Bueno,” leaves a pregnant mistress, unwittingly slays his father, and finally meets death at the hands of a son, the story and characters are substantially different each time. The first “Don Bueno” is a wealthy, amoral criminal, the second a decent, moderately successful businessman, the third an urban terrorist.
Rather than divide the book equally among the generations, Ghose concentrates on the second “Don Bueno,” avoiding the repetitiveness that is all too often a byproduct of writing cyclically. This “Don Bueno,” born Cesar Calderon, abandons woman and child not out of callousness, but out of an inexplicable desire—or fear—that sends him, like a man in a dream, wandering over the continent. High in the Andes, beside a waterfall, he believes he has finally found “that small area of the Earth which seemed to have been created for the ecstasy of his soul. … He had awakened from temporal terror and entered the dream of his existence.”
But fate, operating through the natural cycle of generation, is not to be evaded. Represented here in the person of a mysterious old woman, she reflects on her own inevitability:
She had seen men trying to leave the oppressive circle of time and observed how, when the dream of their being drugged them into the belief that they had escaped the terror of a life closed within time, they suddenly awoke to find that their flight into timelessness had been only a seduction of the dream, distracting them from the circle that had continued to narrow and now clung to their necks like a noose.
The great Spanish dramatist of the 17th Century, whose name also was Calderon, wrote Life Is a Dream. Certainly, life takes on a dreamlike, often nightmarish quality in novels like Fuentes' Distant Relations and Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And in Don Bueno, there also is something of this quality, as the vivid details of realism acquire an intensity that is surreal: Even in the moment Cesar Calderon has noticed “some minute detail, like a missing tooth in the mouth of a man laughing in the square, the world receded, and he saw nothing there.”
Reality's vividness, heightened by the imagination, is intoxicating. Conscious of its power to discover or create worlds of its own, the imagination flees the confines of the “real” world, only to find at last that its own brave new world is made of material as vulnerable as life itself. The dream of flight turns to nightmare, when the goal the dreamer pursues becomes the terror from which he has fled.
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SOURCE: Harris, Wilson. “A Note on Zulfikar Ghose's ‘Nature Strategies.’” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 2 (summer 1989): 172-78.
[In the following essay, Harris analyzes Ghose's poems and studies his use of nature as a metaphor for his inner turmoil and displacement.]
I attempted an analysis of Zulfikar Ghose's poems in The Womb of Space1 by assessing their bearing on the paradoxes of a new nature poetry whose roots (I am tempted to say “alien roots”) lie within the social and symbolical ramparts of our civilization. I would now like to return to this issue and to extend the parameters of sensation in the body of such a discussion. Before I come to Ghose's verse it may help us if we turn aside for a while to glance at a tapestry of association implicit in the work of a few other poets from different environments and cultures.
To what extent are W. B. Yeats, St.-John Perse, and Aimé Césaire involved in subtle, startling and peculiar perspectives of language that bear on a seed of hope within a perverse garden or world? Does such a seed dislodge in some degree the sophisticated logic of silence that polarizes cultures whose premises are affluence, on one hand, and want or hunger or disease on the other?
May I pause and make as clear as I can what I mean by “silence.” When I spoke of “silence” a moment ago I was referring to a cult of despair that has set its claws on the heart of our age. I was not referring to stages of inevitable withdrawal into fallow or passive moments on the threshold of a new leap, a new wrestling/articulation of form in translating a vision of consciousness through and beyond absolute submission to greed or to lust or to dread. For the untranslatability of the resources of creative conscience is not an end, a finality, in itself but a manifold clue of the infinite capacity of the unconscious in bringing re-visionary strategies into play within the mind of art, within a new, emergent marriage with consciousness.
The denial of the unconscious as a complex vessel of evolutionary form to bridge (rather than consolidate) the chasms between cultures is a major part, I feel, in the sickness of being. As a consequence a negation of the complexity of language informs the logic of silence that differing cultures entertain for each other. Thus, despite so-called mass-media communication, the divide between extreme or wasteful affluence and extreme or endemic poverty grows wider and deeper year by year even as the cross-cultural imagination is repudiated by the provincial humanities.
It is true that within the arts and poetries and drama of the absurd, theaters of the rich do contemplate and reflect upon the poor who wait in their extremity for Godot but in order to reinforce the helplessness of faculties of the imagination in twentieth-century civilization. Likewise the theater of the so-called Third World that contemplates or reflects upon the so-called rich world frequently does so within a technology of protest that is conditioned by what it protests against. Both ideologies—the ideology of the theater of the absurd, the ideology of the conditioned mind—diminish the resources of language as a medium of profound dialogue with alien spirit and complex reality. Language becomes the plaything of hypocrisies, a tool of a sophisticated divide between cultures, the tool of ultimate violence, ultimate silence.
Césaire's disruptive song—from which I quote two lines—may have been influenced by Baudelaire's withdrawal into passivity:
we sing of poisoned flowers burning in meadows of fury.(2)
As the poem moves there is a startling cross-cultural conversation with the French poet in the tapestry Césaire weaves in which the language of the poem is the genesis of the poem. The Word is the genesis of perceived nature, a dark realm perhaps yet the realm of the imagination that shifts the gravity of expectation within the conditioned mind.
Words? We are handling quarters of the world … words of fresh blood … malarias and lavas and bush-fires …(3)
Is there a genesis of “blood” threaded into “lavas” that civilization has eclipsed or forgotten? Are there arts of memory in which cataclysms of nature were given grotesque signatures, signatures of “blood,” not in order to consolidate fashions of violence but to sacramentalize the loom of survival, true survival? Did (and does) such survival disclose a unique theater or capacity within the human person?
These are questions that take us far afield. I raise them in this article in order to touch upon largely eclipsed arts of memory and the possibility that Césaire's work may be read not only against such a background of buried and uncertain nature traditions but in cross-cultural rapport with poets such as Yeats and St.-John Perse.
Yeats's style differs in tone and form from Césaire's but his “artifice of eternity” reflects upon constellations of history and space even as it embraces organs of nature and psyche.
Consume my heart away … and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.(4)
Such grotesque (or apparently grotesque) “heart” may be weighed in the balance of forces of memory as a goad, a spur, that activates in the mind of theater a forgotten gateway into sculptures of “eternity.” It is akin therefore, I am suggesting, to Césaire's signature of “blood” in the genesis of innermost compassion, innermost insight into all creatures without whose cry, imaginary and real, music would cease.
In the same context I venture to think that St.-John Perse's “strange alliances … white nuptials of noctuids, white festivals of mayflies”5 is a gateway backwards through the seasons into ancient cave paintings that levitate in the imagination into the starry hide of flayed creatures, snowy bull or festive boar or great bear in the night sky.
The tapestry of heart and cave, pool and cosmos, snow and starry, jungled sky, hints at the forces of language to disrupt an order of silence into voices and texts that revive a tradition of the grotesque that we may have virtually lost or consigned to a museum of absolute violence.
All this may help us, I think, to weigh certain possibilities and directions in the poetry Zulfikar Ghose has written over many years.
Ghose's poems move between void and constellation to open the way to exploring their “nature strategies.” But first a word about backgrounds. Ghose emigrated as a young man from Pakistan and India to England in 1952. He studied at an English university. He moved to the United States in 1969 and is now a professor in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Unlike most novelists who abandon verse, his preoccupation with the art of the poem remains undiminished and provides him with an island upon which he retreats from the business of competitive scholarship. The everyday world does impinge strongly on his poems, but his response is consistent with the arousal of a voice—I am tempted to say an ancestral or meditative voice—that seeks no profit from any fashionable alignment save to record the surplus value of memory threaded into vistas of receding horizons around the globe.
Let me start with Ghose's Asian-English horizons. His love of the English landscape is tinged with subtle ironies and a sensuous passion or sorrow. That sorrow, that sadness, may stem from ancient pre-possessions, from the non-evolutionary biases and caste-oriented institutions of India. At a certain level this enhances a romantic attachment to a sovereign, European tradition. Nevertheless that attachment is tempered by distances of mood and technology, humor and atmosphere, that lie between Asia and Europe. Caste and class are not necessarily a contract that reinforces a marriage of cultures. It is true that the caste-oriented legacies of the East may prove a spur to ambition in the commercial world of the West—where a hierarchy of wealth and money looms large—but in the realm of the arts they sometimes rub uneasily against, and exacerbate, traumas of middle-class, lower middle-class, working-class English inheritances that tend to be disguised or hidden from view.
The poem “Friends” is a curious evocation of ambivalences in the garden of the West and a retreat into “silence” or into a polarization of cultures as discussed earlier in this essay. Within the mood of distances he brings with him, the poet cultivates an intimate, ironic garden in which nature mirrors society, society nature, until their mutual reflection becomes a shadow lurking in the heart of place. The shadow in the heart promises to be “evergreen” in its identification with “lime and maple, chestnut, ash.” But such promise remains a pattern of misgiving in the “waiter” in the garden who pays tribute to “charitable, kind” patrons in the social milieu of “money and mind”:
One lends his money, one his mind, ——— I drink up their words and their cash as so much rain or songs of birds; I am lime and maple, chestnut, ash, bending in their meadows where herds of their laughter continually pass. I listen, nod, and tip my glass.
I say little and offer less; unshaved often and out of fags, a crooked nose and hair in mess, my morose-Ghose face empties bags of silence to their packets of crisps. A waiter, I collect their tips.(6)
This is an early poem but the sudden insertion of “bags of silence” embalms “crooked nose and hair in mess” and reflects upon future malaise and a void within “herds of laughter.” Such comedy of manners seems an innocuous however dark masquerade, but a hint of disquiet has been registered and a contemplation of emptiness.
In another poem written in England—“This Landscape, These People”—the crust of silence is broken in a whisper of “the sound of loam / at my heel's touch.” And as a consequence the body levitates a little and speaks into “the air's mouth.” Fall-of-night retains the earlier shadow in the garden, but the promise returns and is apparently strengthened.
This landscape, these people! Silver birches with polished trunks chalked around a chestnut. All is fall-of-night still. No thrush reaches into the earth for worms, nor pulls at the root of a crocus. Dogs have led their masters home. I stroll, head bowed, hearing only the sound of loam
at my heel's touch. Now I am intimate with England; we meet, secret as lovers. I pluck leaves and speak into the air's mouth; as a woman's hair, I deck with flowers the willow's branches; I sit by the pond, my eyes are stars in its stillness; as with a wand
I stir the water with a finger until it tosses waves, until countries appear from its dark bed: the road from Putney Hill runs across oceans into the harbour of Bombay. To this country I have come. Stranger or an inhabitant, this is my home.(7)
The constellation “my eyes are stars” gains its color, its breath of life, within anatomy of space in the garden of home. Yet “home” is a mood, an invention, distances remain, distances from “home.” On the other hand, one cannot evade the impression, I think, that the English tradition is Zulfikar Ghose's home, however modified by ancestral levitations or charged by every departure to other landscapes. With every departure distances become a consistent reflection of the heart of shadow that we glimpsed in an earlier poem.
As I read the poems I find myself also tempted to associate distances with a sensation of implicit curvature or momentum that seeks a new density or tone or Word despite seductive smoothness or transparency of line. Indeed in the midst of the impressions I have recorded, another impression emerges, a tentative impression, that gives me the feeling of fractured transparency in the poem. Take the tossed waves in the stirred pool! Such tossing is the miniaturization of an ocean or of “oceans into the harbour of Bombay.” It is an important facet of the nature of experience encompassing poles of memory and it must therefore contain through and beyond itself a mystique of density or roots if it is not to decline—or be permanently beached—as a mere shell or bauble or plaything of sentiment.
Perhaps here exists the central, unresolved tension in Ghose's poems, a tension between line and curvature, bauble and roots, as we trace the poet's odyssey beyond Asia and Europe into other invented landscapes.
“Mystique of Roots” is the name given to another poem from which I shall now quote. It is a poem of departure I would say. The promise of “home,” the garden of tradition, appears to capitulate to “dust,” the anatomy of space grows “insensible to the sweet air”:
Where can one go in a country so large? Hawks fly at a tangent to the earth's curve. I do not have the language that could serve me in such loneliness. The stiff plumage of eagles does not falter at heights where they float, insensible to the sweet air that I would breathe. For these roots in their crust of earth carry worms. What I breathe is dust.
May I summarize certain approaches to the poems on which I have been commenting? First, there is the issue of anatomy of space. Second, there is line and curvature and the question of density or the mystique of roots. Third, there is the self-divisive nature of such roots within a society in which the poet questions his status as “stranger or inhabitant.”
All this in league with other perspectives we have been discussing accumulates into a curious, perhaps subconscious rebuttal of stereotypes. And this is pertinent to anatomy of space and to fractured transparency in the cultivated eye that constellates itself into a star in a pool even as it retreats into ironic opacity. That retreat is in itself an unsuspected rebuttal of complacent order or expectation. For though the poet may “breathe dust,” opacity is linked in his art not to blind, old age but to the humiliations and disfigurements of a child on a pavement in Bombay. That child in “The Lost Culture”8 has been blinded by his mother, a beggarwoman in the city. It is legitimate to perceive, in another poem from which I shall quote, that pitiful and pitiless Bombay is reflected in other places, old and new, Byzantium or Rome, in which “particles of dust” are compacted anew “into masonry, the walls and domes of fallen cities.”
“Come, Sailor” is saturated by the glow and the shadow of “extinct birds” and “golden towers”:
Not by journeying, Odysseus (since to you the Mediterranean's currents are erratic, violent mysteries), not fresh explorations now amidst the swollen seas, Odysseus, will bring back the heart-soothing
vision, nor will the hills again be purple near the town that was once home; and sooner will the extinct birds rise in imagined migrations before your startled eyes than your searching discover the particles
of dust become again compacted into masonry, the walls and domes of fallen cities. Open gutters and sewers ran out of those kingdoms whose golden towers only are remembered, and the fields of yellow corn
were sometime black with locusts.
Such intersections within the extract I have quoted and the reach of the poem as a whole—intersections of void or absence and constellation or gold, black locusts and yellow corn—are peculiar in sowing nightfall upon every pinnacle of pride. I mention this because the locust-ridden gardens of an ancient/modern world sustain the other side, the darker side, of Ghose's invented tradition. That other side or darkest voice seems wholly tragic and yet the plea in the poem, however bleak, is eloquent with a pathos as dumb in certain circumstances as the blind child in Bombay who stares unseeingly into a pit (or is it a pool?) that memory excavates.
Perhaps in the light of the various stresses and contrasts in Zulfikar Ghose's “nature strategies” the black roots of memory in the perverse garden of dusty or hollow place are imbued with unconscious illumination and sacrament because they run deeper than a mere progression of fortunate or tragic circumstance.
Wilson Harris, The Womb of Space; The Cross Cultural Imagination (Greenwood Press, 1983), 134-37.
Aimé Césaire, Return to My Native Land, trans. John Berger and Anna Bostock (London: Penguin, 1969), 60.
W. B. Yeats, Selected Poetry, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (London: Macmillan, 1962), 104.
St.-John Perse, Exile, trans. Denis Dejun (New York: Pantheon, 1949), 83.
Zulfikar Ghose, Penguin Modern Poets 25 (London: Penguin, 1975), 79.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4193
SOURCE: Rahman, Tariq. “Zulfikar Ghose and the Land of His Birth.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 2 (summer 1989): 179-87.
[In the following essay, Rahman examines the importance of Ghose's writing to Pakistani and Indian literature in English, paying special attention to Ghose's poetry and his novel The Murder of Aziz Khan.]
In an interview in 1984, Zulfikar Ghose remarked: “I have not been back to India or Pakistan for twenty-three years. Neither country has given me the slightest recognition. But this has nothing to do with writing.”1 Yet, Ghose's relationship with the subcontinent has had a profound influence on his work. In fact the most important themes of Ghose, the consciousness of being deracinated and alienated from both Western and Indian society, are directly connected with the fact that he migrated to Bombay from his native Sialkot (which is now in Pakistan) in 1942 and from there to England in 1952.
Ghose's consciousness of being in exile is expressed in the title of his autobiography, Confessions of a Native-Alien (1965). In an earlier article I have interpreted the main concerns of Ghose's fiction in relation to this feeling.2 In the interview mentioned above, Kanaganayakam makes three important points about this aspect of Ghose's relationship with the subcontinent. First, that Ghose's consciousness of exile produced “a need to create a model of what … [he has] … left behind or lost in order to explore the possibility of creating a new identity” in the earlier fiction; second, that Ghose's changes in the narrative mode “are not the result of technical legerdemain so much as a consequence of the complex perception of exile”; and third, that “the idea of home whether it appears as a farm, a ranch, a man-made paradise, or an Arcadian village, remains a central preoccupation and a unifying force.”3 However, no other aspect of Ghose's relationship with the Indian subcontinent has received critical attention in Pakistan, India or the West. In fact, as he justifiably complains, he has not received any attention in Pakistan at all except Alamgir Hashmi's review of Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script (1981), Beatrice Stoerck's article on the Brazilian trilogy, and my own article mentioned earlier.4
This article, therefore, aims at studying all aspects of Ghose's relationship with the Indian subcontinent in general and Pakistan, the land of his birth, in particular. The major emphasis will be on Ghose's novel about Pakistan, The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967). The quality of his literary achievement will enable us to determine all aspects of Ghose's relationship with the land of his birth and his position in the literature in English produced there. This, I believe, has not been done yet and needs doing.
Zulfikar Ghose was born in Sialkot in 1935. His family was Muslim and Punjabi-speaking and its name was Ghaus. The first two letters represent a phoneme which does not exist in English. The name which he took up (Ghose) rhymes with “rose” and the “gh” is pronounced as the /g/ phoneme in English. It is, however, aspirated in Hindu names in Indian languages. Sialkot was becoming an industrial city in the thirties, but its values were rural and traditional. This meant that Ghose lived in an extended family in an agricultural environment in which things seemed static, there was consensus about social mores and values, and permanence, rather than change, seemed to be the established quality of life. At the age of seven he went to Bombay, a metropolitan city with a Hindu majority, the antithesis of Sialkot. Rapid change was its most important feature. Then there was anonymity and a sense of aloneness rather than one of community. There were different religious communities: Hindus, Parsis, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims, with diverse beliefs and values. And to make matters worse, it was a time of religious conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims, something which must have caused some apprehension to Ghose's family. After ten years they emigrated to England and he got his higher education there. After that he visited India and Pakistan as a correspondent for the Observer in 1965. The chapters in which this contact with the subcontinent is mentioned are entitled “The Native Abroad” and the title reveals the spirit in which Ghose comes back to his motherland. The themes of rootlessness and alienation are expressed explicitly. Commenting on a sleeping man he says: “It is his earth. He is Indian. Because he has nowhere else to go, he belongs to the earth and one day he will never rise from it” (Native-Alien 139). But he does realize that his own search for roots is futile: “And if you do not have the sense of rootedness to one country and have to make a choice, because you're tormented by not belonging—then what is there to choose? Look, look at this world and despair. This search of mine can only lead to a pocket of isolation.” This reiteration brings out the growing young man's insistent need for belonging. Yet Ghose does not see the subcontinent through the haze of falsifying romance. He is perceptive enough to realize that behind the high-sounding moralism of conversation in India and Pakistan there is rampant snobbery and materialism. “It's [his bitterness] worth the whimper of a man who accidentally comes upon a poem of yours and, meeting you, asks why you didn't study engineering. The most important thing in India is money.” Such a comment is in the best tradition of V. S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie's anti-romantic attitude towards India.
But along with the anti-romanticism which his intellect demands, there is also the nostalgic demand of his emotions. This is expressed in the hankering for permanence which forms a perennial motif of his early poetry. One symbol for this permanence is Sialkot and Ghose's grandfather who lived there:
But my grandfather lives where he was born, in Sialkot, building houses, carving wood. His beard dyed with henna and his turban crumbling among the wrinkles of his forehead, he is my one image of permanence, stubborn despite his sons that home is where you build.
I have tried to show elsewhere that the major themes of Ghose's early poetry are traceable to his having become conscious of deracination and alienation from all human societies because of leaving India.5 Other critics of his poetry have made that point as well. Philip Hobsbaum summarizes these themes:
He looks for his roots (“To My Ancestors”); he loses India (“The Loss of India”); he falls in love with England (“This Landscape, These People”). Yet he is not at home there. English tolerance permits an air of drought between himself and the natives (“The Alien”); he cries “I belong to this landscape but not to these people” (“Marriages”). Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, not of love, but of distance; not of belonging but of alienation.6
It should, however, be noted that Ghose's ambivalence towards the subcontinent is also expressed in his early poetry. Sialkot, besides being a symbol of permanence, is also a symbol of the authoritarianism of the Pakistani family. In a poem of that title a cow and a razor used for circumcision are associated with each other in the poet's mind. They are symbols of the power of the social conventions in Pakistan:
There was a cow, too. As I slept, it trod upon my fears and cakes made of its dung, ..... … he [grandfather] said, passing the barber's, “let's rest from this heat. What needs cutting? Your manhood or your head?” The razor replaced the cow's feet.
But in another poem the life of Sialkot, unhurried, agricultural and slow-moving, is associated with life and kindness whereas that of large cities (such as Bombay) is not. The poet's response to fish is symbolic of the change in values: in Sialkot he is taught to feed fish on Fridays (the Muslim sabbath) whereas in Bombay he learns to eat them:
It was the smell of Drying Bombay Duck that told me Here's something I mustn't touch. Its skin tightening over the bone, its mouth (with a tongue of salt) gaping in pleasure of not needing its flesh, it shed its own youth to the sun. There are other, much simpler fish which keep themselves whole. Those, I prefer.
The poem is as much about the loss of innocence as Ghose's ambivalent attitude towards places in the subcontinent.
According to Kanaganayakam, Ghose “learned to love and hate the country, and to recognize his predicament as an alien in the land of his birth”7 because of the Hindu-Muslim riots of the period of Partition. This may well be so since Ghose has written poems about his disillusionment with India because of the riots. In “Flying over India” he says:
The Jungle's beasts are unseen from here. From these heights, one can almost believe in human rights.
Along with freedom, Ghose tells us, “The blood of India ran out with my youth” (Loss 11). Ghose was, so to speak, deprived of his emotional home before he was deprived of his physical one.
Ghose's later poetry does not seem to be directly connected with the subcontinent. However, there is the idea of home along with the desire to experiment in narrative techniques. Kanaganayakam makes the following comment upon this: “As Ghose puts it, ‘one entertains / the certainty of a world that's undeniably not there’ [A Memory of Asia 30]. In other words, the more philosophical a writer becomes in his awareness of marginalization, the more nonrealistic and experimental his writing is likely to become.”8 Ghose's writing certainly becomes more experimental and non-referential later, but he began with the realistic novel written in a logical, sequential narrative and his subject was India.
His first novel was called The Contradictions (1966) and its first part depicted the situation of English people living in India. Ghose had already written a short story entitled “The Zoo People” about English people in India. In this short story the characters were two old ladies: the Misses Minns. Dorothy, the metaphysically inclined teacher, dies, leaving her sister Emily behind. Emily tries to puzzle out her relationship with life, of which India is a symbol, and reaches no logical conclusion. In the end she watches the sun rising upon a landscape which merely asserts existential nihilism and aloneness: “Absolute barrenness was a reality with which she now felt a sympathy. There were rocks and rocks: each, whether a pebble or a boulder, was a complete, homogeneous, self-sufficient mass of creation, magnificently aloof, without ancestry and without progeny” (Corpses 204). This prompts references to E. M. Forster's famous Malabar caves in A Passage to India which disrupt communication and break off human relationships. But the use of India in this story is symbolic. The subcontinent is reduced to an idea, an intellectual abstraction.
In Contradictions India is also used symbolically. But here it is the symbol of a utopia—of a country which satisfies the demands of the imagination or is thought to be capable of doing so in the future. The two main characters of the novel are Christopher, a senior civil servant in India, and his wife Sylvia. Both of them see India as an abstraction. Christopher believes in a sophisticated version of Kipling's “White Man's Burden” and declaims upon the “philosophical notion which we have inherited from our Victorian grandparents that we shall confer on our Empire our own high sense of morality” (Contradictions 16). For Christopher “India is an idea” (81), just as Brazil is an idea in The Incredible Brazilian (1974): the idea of a country so perfect that it is home for the wanderers of the world. This, of course, is a corollary of hankering for home—permanence, which is a perennial theme in Ghose. But Contradictions also examines the nature of the reality of India. They live their artificial life such as Forster's Anglo-Indians do in Passage and exclude poverty and ugliness, the malign realities of India, from it. The symbol of this aspect of India is the old beggarwoman who meets Sylvia: “A few strands of hair on her head, her skin withered and wrinkled, the beggarwoman was a pathetically exposed item of humanity to Sylvia's senses. … Her shrunken face was dominated by the open crater of her mouth within which one front tooth seemed to dangle precariously by itself” (35). And Sylvia wonders if this is “reality.” At this level of reality, the modern (British) impinges upon the traditional (Indian) and takes away the life of the latter. This is expressed symbolically in the incident in which a lorry kills an Indian child: “There was shouting, wailing, crying. The child was dead. For Sylvia, the whole of India had been killed” (99). This is the kind of confrontation which kills all that is best in both Indian and British cultures, for Christopher, the idealist imperialist, is also destroyed. He is forced to resign from the Civil Service because he is accused by the wife of a subordinate of having sexually assaulted her. This is a lie but the Empire, being inordinately afraid of scandal, prefers a lie to the truth. Thus the element of integrity which forms part of the values of the best among the British is also destroyed as surely as the locusts destroy the greenery on the morning of Christopher's dismissal (100).
Christopher and Sylvia's inability to understand Indian reality at the sociological level is in itself a metaphor for the human mind's inability to understand the reality of life. This discussion of reality and its relationship occupies the central place in the latter part of the novel. Sylvia reads philosophical works about it and Mr. Harding, a novelist, discusses it with her. His idea of not representing observable reality sounds much like Ghose's later remarks about the new fiction in The Fiction of Reality (1983). In the end, it is not Christopher but Harding who gives Sylvia the idea of India once again by inviting her to accompany him there. The idea now is not that of the liberal imperialist who saw India as an uncivilized place awaiting the civilizing influence of the Englishman. It is the idea of the metaphysician who sees India as a unity composed of anarchy and who apprehends mystic unity. The last words of the book are:
… until all existence, man and animal, tree and stone, was one ball, turning and turning on its axis in the vast spaces of the universe. She had grasped it.
In Contradictions Ghose has used India to achieve other artistic ends. In that way the setting there is like the settings in Ghose's nonreferential fiction—“only an illusory reality, a semblance of a believable world,” and the truth that Ghose is after “is not to be discovered on that surface alone.”9
But in The Murder of Aziz Khan, the surface does deal in important ways with the truth. It was meant to be, in the author's words, “a solid, straight-forward novel”10 and it is that and much more, notwithstanding the patronizing remarks Ghose has made about it. It is, in fact, the only important work of fiction representing the social reality of Pakistan in the 1960s.
The sixties were the years of the rise of the bourgeoisie in Pakistan. Muhammad Ayub Khan, the general turned dictator, had created a transient phase of political stability in which military and other elites became affluent and consumerism could flourish. Taking advantage of this change in the psyche of the middle class, a number of industrialists started producing goods for local consumption. The textile industry was among the first to come up. The rural areas of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and the area between Lahore and Multan passed into the hands of industrialists. About these industrial changes—it can hardly be called a revolution—there is no work of imagination either in Urdu or English which can compare in quality with Aziz Khan.
The protagonist, Aziz Khan, is the owner of seventy acres of agricultural land in Kalapur (a fictional name for what seems to be Lyallpur) which he farms with the help of his two sons Rafiq and Javed and his peasant laborers. The land around his estate is bought by the Shah brothers—Akram, Ayub and Afaq—who want to create an industrial empire based on cotton for themselves. They offer to buy Aziz Khan's land also, but he refuses to sell. Ayub, having been a gangster in his native Bombay, decides to destroy Aziz Khan's pride as well as his family. He gets his chance when his younger brother Afaq rapes and murders a peasant girl near Aziz Khan's land. Ayub and Akram bribe the police to arrest Rafiq for the crime and, in spite of his innocence, the youth is hanged. Afaq is sent to England where he is followed by Ayub's wife Razia who is sexually infatuated with him. Razia discovers that Afaq has a girlfriend, Pamela, and leaves him in indignation. Back in Pakistan she accuses Afaq of having assaulted her and Ayub promptly disowns him, thus securing the property for his children (Akram being sterile because of venereal disease). While this is going on, Aziz Khan's wife falls ill and he takes a loan of two thousand rupees for her treatment. The security for this is Javed's dowry and, failing that, his land. Javed is murdered by assassins hired by Ayub and Aziz Khan's wife dies of grief. As the debt is not paid, the Shah brothers seize Aziz Khan's land and he is last seen walking around the fence which now surrounds it.
This summary of the plot is necessary to understand the nature of Ghose's achievement in this novel. First, Ghose has tried to point out that capitalistic industrial progress is based on ruthless exploitation. Akram, the eldest brother, exploits people by tricking them into giving him money to establish his factory. His younger brother Ayub exploits them by smashing the workers' union so that they cannot get their grievances redressed. And Afaq, who is not producing money yet, merely exploits women. The common characteristic of the brothers is that they want personal gratification, the satisfaction of their own ego, rather than the good of the community. Akram sees money as a symbol of this gratification and is the archetypal capitalist, the kind of exemplar who is shaping the values of the Pakistani society in the making: “Akram in the eyes of these people, who admired his ruthless methods, was not only a Pakistani enjoying his freedom creatively; he was the Pakistani in whose type the successful citizens of the country would need to be moulded” (Aziz Khan 23).
The real motivation of the Shah brothers' lust for possession is not the profit incentive. That is merely the rationalization of the irrational desire to gratify their egos. But the desire is so irrational that Ayub tells Akram that what they really want is not Aziz's land but to humiliate him: “At first we had economic reasons for wanting his land. And then, gradually, we realised we were fighting against the pride of one man. And our own pride, our own honour were in question” (283). In Afaq this irrationality produces aggression of which his reckless driving is a manifestation. And it is this which makes him a rapist and a murderer.
But such individualistic desires are incompatible with the extended family system of Pakistan. Individualism is inimical to the concept of the supportive family unit. The novel communicates the theme of the disruptiveness of capitalistic individualism by ending with the estrangement of the Shah brothers. The Shah family splits up into three nuclear families as a direct result of predatory individualism. The family that did not want to split up—that of Aziz Khan—is destroyed so that only Aziz Khan himself is left in the end. And the implication is clear: that the new philosophy of life, capitalistic individualism, is going to disrupt the extended family system of Pakistan. It will produce isolated and egotistic individuals in the end who will not be bound to their cultural roots.
This brings one to deracination, another theme of Aziz Khan. For the Shah brothers have come from India and have no cultural roots—probably they had none in India either. Aziz Khan, on the other hand, loves his land and the permanence of the agricultural way of life: “In Aziz Khan's mind was the vegetative hopefulness of belief in a fixed order, almost a fatalism which approved only of the sort of routine repetition of which the sun's daily rising and setting were the archetype” (53). And when he is defeated and his land is taken away from him, we have the beginning of the cultural uprooting of human beings during industrial revolutions. This aspect of industrialization has received no attention in Pakistani literature in English though Kamala Markandaya, in her novel Pleasure City (1982), has written about the effects of industrialization in a village near Bombay.
The novel shows a deep understanding of the Pakistani way of life. The corruption of the government officials and the way of thinking of minor characters are authentic. Faridah, the wife of Akram, for instance, represents the vulgar acquisitiveness of Pakistani middle-class women for gaudy clothes and jewelry:
“Vas there any pink?” Faridah asked.
“Pink?” Mr Ferozekhan asked. “Begum Sahiba I have each and every culler for your sootability, pink, saalmun red, turkwise, emmaruld green, purpel, midnight blue, dark grey, baje, pee green, the cumpleet range, begum sahiba, the cumpleet range.”
Fiaz and Naseeim came hurrying back with rolls of material.
Nor is this all, for Hussain, the moneylender who ruins Aziz Khan, displays all the petty cunning of the small businessman. In the following scene, for instance, he pretends to be ill so as to avoid repaying Rafiq a debt of two thousand rupees:
“Father was wondering,” Rafiq began, but Hussain hastily interrupted him, “Hai, Amma-ji, why did I have that cuppa cha, oooooh!”
He pressed a hand to his stomach and groaned. “Oooooh! Three bucks I paid the dahcterr, and he said, plain he said, drink milk, and hyere I go, so carried off seeing my brother, I go and drink tea. Vhat I doing to myself, Amma-ji, throwing good money like that and not taking advice? Oooooh!”
The scene is not only authentic but hilarious in the bargain, even inviting comparison with Dickens.
It will be noted that Ghose has deviated from the conventional spellings of English words in order to represent “accents and modes of speech” (note at the beginning of Aziz Khan) of different characters. This may be a successful method of creating what Taufiq Rafat calls the Pakistani idiom.11 Ahmad Ali has tried to create such an idiom in Twilight in Delhi (1940) by making his characters use literal translations of Urdu idioms and quote Urdu couplets. R. K. Narayan tried to adapt the rhythms of South Indian languages to English in his novels. And Amos Tutuola, the Nigerian writer, caused a sensation by using a deliberately unsophisticated form of English in order to suggest African authenticity. This is what Ghose has achieved when he makes Faridah, Hussain and some other minor characters speak in Punjabi accents. The accents are used to suggest the narrowness and one-dimensionality of these characters through their implication of parochiality. However, the novel itself is written in Ghose's own flawless standard English.
Aziz Khan is a successful novel about Pakistan not only because it deals with some of the problems of Pakistani society in the sixties, but also because it concerns itself with a philosophical theme. This theme is the philosophical one of the integrity of the self: the ability of the ego to be itself despite external pressure. And it concludes that the ego can be invaded, can be broken by external circumstances. For Aziz Khan, though he is still alive when the book ends, is not the same man who allows himself to enjoy the sensation of being firmly rooted in his land and his family at the beginning of the novel. This is an important theme and Ghose was to study it in his trilogy and experimental fiction. But the major themes of his fiction, no matter what the ways of expressing them may be, have been connected with the land of his birth. If he had not lived, or had lived permanently, in Sialkot, who knows what Ghose would have written? It is, therefore, important to see his work in relation to the subcontinent. And, because of The Murder of Aziz Khan and Ghose's early poetry, his place is assured in the history of Pakistani literature in English.
C. Kanaganayakam, “Zulfikar Ghose: An Interview,” Twentieth Century Literature 32 (Summer 1986): 169-86 (180); hereafter cited as “Interview.”
Tariq Rahman, “Alienation and Deracination in the Works of Zulfikar Ghose,” Journal of the English Literary Club [University of Peshawar], session 1984-85, 109-20.
Alamgir Hashmi, “Tickling and Being Tickled á la Zulfikar Ghose,” The Ravi [Lahore] 71, no. 2 (1982): 32-38, reprinted in Commonwealth Novel in English 1, no. 2 (1982): 156-65; Beatrice Stoerck, “New Fiction by Zulfikar Ghose,” Explorations [Lahore] 5, no. 2 (Winter 1978): 64-70.
Tariq Rahman, “The Poetry of Zulfikar Ghose,” Nation, forthcoming.
Philip Hobsbaum, “Zulfikar Ghose,” in Contemporary Poets, ed. J. Vinson and S. D. L. Kirkpatrick (London: Macmillan, 1980), 545.
Taufiq Rafat, “Towards a Pakistani Idiom,” Venture [Karachi University] 6, no. 1 (December 1970): 60-73.
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SOURCE: Campbell, Ewing. “Encountering the Other in The Fiction of Reality.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 2 (summer 1989): 220-24.
[In the following review, Campbell asserts that The Fiction of Reality is not a piece of criticism, but is, in fact, a novel. Campbell uses other examples from literature to prove that Ghose's experimentation with reality and language forms a basis for fiction of the word.]
As I understand criticism it is, like philosophy and history, a kind of novel for the use of discreet and curious minds.
—Anatole France, The Literary Life
Unprimed by theory or tradition, unsupported by authority, ungoverned by regular ordinances, one must abandon habits and begin alone when addressing Zulfikar Ghose's Fiction of Reality. So where better to begin than with the title? The word fiction in its etymological sense means, not ungenuine, but the act of fashioning, from fictus, past participle of fingere, to shape; and a close look at the object of Ghose's attention—the writer's language—and at his own use of language reveals that this deeper, older, and truer meaning of the word is precisely the subject—that is, the shaping of reality through and by language. Ghose would agree with Pascal that meanings receive their dignity from words. They do not give words their dignity.
Of the many uses of words the most obsessive one concerns the invention of reality which must daily be shaped somehow not only in our normal dealings with our families and colleagues at work to whom we must make the effort not to appear to be lunatics but also in the abstract world of our own inner silence which has to be filled with those words which soothe, clarify, bring meaning.
(Fiction 4, my italics)
So let us dismiss the thought that Ghose is addressing realist or neo-realist fiction; he is not.
From the title, which sounds the tenor of what is to follow, we enter into a multitude of voices and into the most dialogic part of the novel—yes, the novel, for that is what, until now, I have been reluctant to say. This is a novel for all of its critical resonances. Embracing and assimilating the words of Valéry, Proust, Paz, and many others, Ghose constructs a mosaic with his responses, commentary, and elaborations which begin the process of confronting remembered fictions and passing over into vivid perceptions. This actively polyglot text establishes a completely new relationship between language and its object—the world, and the effect of this transformation is to bring the narrative much closer to the shaping of reality than realist or neo-realist fiction ever does as a mere representation of the world. The interaction with the fictions he contemplates and the dialogue with and between Proust, Beckett, Borges, and others form a parallel image of the reader's relation to the book, for just as he constructs his reality from them, the reader creates the fiction of the discourse he is reading.
By making his own cento, Ghose aligns himself with Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic notion of the novel, a variety of voices working contextually with and against each other. Bakhtin has provided the valuable service of showing that the Hellenistic period produced examples of direct, indirect, and hidden quotations in abundant and endless variation, as well as many ways of framing others' words by context. There was also a blurring of distinctions between one's own speech and another's in the Middle Ages, often to the point that “certain texts were constructed like mosaics out of the texts of others” (The Dialogic Imagination 68-69). In this fashion, every text becomes a comment on those that have preceded it, and there is always a relation between the writer's language and another's.
For the prose artist the world is full of other people's words. … When a member of a speaking collective comes upon a word, it is not as a neutral word of language, not as a word free from the aspirations and evaluations of others, uninhabited by others' voices. No, … the word enters his context from another context, permeated with the interpretations of others. His own thought finds the word already inhabited.
(Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics 201-2)
The idea forces us to re-examine conventional notions of originality, raising the question: Is it possible our presumed originality owes something both to our culture and to literature? Consider in this context, Ghose's words:
One's belief in one's own originality involves a lapse of memory: one forgets, for the moment, that the new thought has only sought to re-discover a language already lodged in the mind by another writer and, during one's forgetfulness, one's self-admiration is only an intenser admiration for that writer.
Ghose is laying out the principle involved in assimilating another's words. Obliterated, the other writer becomes anonymous. As Bakhtin has written, “Creative consciousness, when monologized, is supplemented by anonymous authors” (Speech Genres 163).
As Ghose sorts through the contradictions, uncertainties, and ephemera of an imperfect language and an everchanging, incomplete reality, he recognizes the dreamlike qualities of Einstein's and Heisenberg's universe and suddenly perceives with vividness that reality itself is a fiction, a continuous reshaping. The image of the universe as dreamscape is not idle. He will return to it toward the end of The Fiction of Reality—after slipping into the second person, “You may be perfectly content with life” (121), and drawing the reader into the horror of meeting a lazzarone with stiletto at your throat—by focusing on Conrad's phrase “silent flat shadows of the sea,” which evokes in the midst of worldly reality the surreal sense of a nightmare. The disruption caused by the clash of a harmonious universe and the breakdown of order has the force to dislodge one at the moment of his deepest calm, and it is this moment of upheaval that allows one to see what his calm habit has hidden. The Russian Bakhtin, Kenneth Burke, and Zulfikar Ghose have, at different times, through different avenues, arrived at the conviction that there can be perception by incongruity or, in Ghose's words, “revelation might be had by distortion” (7).
By tracing the development of Ghose the critic within the text, we can see that he undergoes more than one transformation. When first glimpsed, he is aware of and susceptible to the keenest sensations—the color and smell of ligustrum blossoms, the sight of butterflies, sky, leaves, the sound of bees. Under these conditions and at this moment, he is receptive to the intuition of Otherness in himself, aided by the activity of mind at its most imaginative and in the merging of memories, memories of self and memories of others' fictions, his antecedents. Words come—Conrad's words and Beckett's—as the mind of the writer transports itself in an instant across space from Russia to the Orinoco and across time from early in the eighteenth century to late in the twentieth, entering into the words of Octavio Paz, “And when my own face reappears, there is nobody there. I too have left myself,” dissolving out and into Proust's “long course of my waking dream.”
Accompanying the writer as he enters this deep crepuscular spell, the reader too feels the uncertainty of meaning and the anguish of being. Unlike the usual critic, this one exposes the dynamics of his character, adopting the personal I at the end of the first part of the book and moving into the subjectivity of a private journal, for he has recognized the otherness of Beckett's reality. But he rises from this too, assuming the mask of criticism and the role of reader as creator, for confronting the fiction of Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, readers must make imaginative leaps or else lose their way.
He is mystified that more readers do not know the works of Machado de Assis and that special mixture of tragedy and comedy, one inside the other, but as Charles Dameron has pointed out Machado's fiction demands “the reader who willingly moves beyond standard conventions of narrative structure and tone and the reader who remains curious about shedding conventional forms” (“Fictional Narratee,” 43). Too many readers reject fiction that makes imaginative demands. One need look no further for an illustration of this than the Houston Post, where book editor Peter Wyckoff speaks for readers who want undemanding fiction:
When Claude Simon of France was the recipient last year [of the Nobel Prize for Literature] even the cognoscenti of New York had to scramble to pretend they knew who he was.
Distressing? Absolutely. Connected with this question of the other? Absolutely. In Wyckoff's reaction, we see ourselves as the Other although this time the identification is inverted. Ghose discovered himself in Beckett's Pim, but here, one senses or identifies the Other in himself.
Notice that Wyckoff emphasizes the foreignness and, thus, inferiority in four key terms: Simon (of France); cognoscenti (Italian for those who know); New York (Wyckoff's readers perceive immediately the degree of foreignness there); and “pretend” (an inauthentic act). The message? If one reads the novels of Claude Simon, as Ghose does, he is defined by parochial standards as an outsider. That is the source of distress. To recognize that anti-intellectualism is the normal stance is to perceive one's own strangeness. It is this alienation and the strangeness of existence that Ghose develops in his alternation of narrative and argumentation, and what confirms the absurdity of it all is the knowledge that Wyckoff misses the mark utterly. The book world of New York is as indifferent to Machado de Assis or Claude Simon as he is and far too defensive to pretend.
Mutual definition—dependency and independence as self-defining categories—is a matter of life or death. Granted, this all important issue is largely symbolic in our time—one cuts another, an act whose implication is nothing less than the primal struggle to the death, but also an act not without its sweet irony: anyone worth cutting must be very vivid, a living image in the consciousness of the person who delivers the cut. Does the snub remove the image? Or does the required energy actually transfer itself to the image of the other, thereby recharging and revitalizing?
Ghose's immediate presentation of phenomena, his self-discovery in the Other, and the fusing of the two into an obsessive perception acutely felt and revealed to us in the mind of his experiencing figure create the sense of a narrative monologue shaped like Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. In the course of developing the character of his recording consciousness, he invents a novel that is a metaphor of life itself, each of the three formally distinct sections—the initial mosaic of other voices, the self-conscious journal, and the well-reasoned analyses—becoming respectively a metaphor of consciousness, self-consciousness, and terrible understanding. Without using the term novel in the following letter concerning the book, Ghose elaborates on this clearly novelistic aspect:
As the closing repetition from Beckett, the line about gibberish garbled six-fold, suggests, I did mean the reader to understand that the mind in which the words of the book are being expressed has become totally possessed by that language formula uttered by the Other which gives him not that revelatory meaning he might have been seeking but the stunning realization, in which he becomes permanently trapped, that there is nothing there at all. I was tempted to repeat my whole life a gibberish garbled six-fold for several pages, reducing the phrase to the single word my for a number of pages, so that it would be a grunting kind of sound—my—my—my—and then, after a blank page, having the surprising and astonishing word life hanging by itself in the middle of the page. However, such a procedure would have been too revolutionary for my publisher, perhaps too self-indulgent, perhaps silly; and so I restrained myself and instructed the publisher to have two blank pages before having one more numbered page (on which the acknowledgments are printed. Incidentally, I didn't want the acknowledgments—nor did I want the publisher's blurb—since I wanted the words of the text simply to happen, unencumbered by the usual trimmings of a critical book such as a contents page or an index, as if the reader, book in lap, had dozed off and words had flowed into his imagination and possessed him with thoughts that were now voluptuously vivid and now disturbingly remote).
Both the book and the author's elaboration support the notion that this work is something more than criticism and, at the same time, a revolutionary disruption of the conventional novel, what the Russian formalists call making the familiar unfamiliar. However, having argued that The Fiction of Reality is a novel and having taken as my thematic epigraph the quote from Anatole France's Literary Life, I should take the matter one more step and complete France's thought because the idea speaks so eloquently to the novel nature of Ghose's effort and because such an idea anticipates the closing words of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work by a writer whose presence in Zulfikar Ghose's writing is everywhere felt:
And every novel, rightly understood, is an autobiography. … The best we can do, it seems to me, is … to admit that we speak of ourselves every time that we have not the strength to be silent.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981.
———. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984.
———. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986.
Dameron, Charles. “The Fictional Narratee: A Rhetorical Study.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1985.
Ghose, Zulfikar. The Fiction of Reality. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.
———. Letter, 18 October 1987.
Wyckoff, Peter C. “They Have Finally Picked a Winner.” Houston Post, 27 April 1986, p. 11F.
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SOURCE: Hashmi, Alamgir. “‘A Stylized Motif of Eagle Wings Woven’: The Selected Poems of Zulfikar Ghose.” World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 66-69.
[In the following review, Hashmi traces the themes of displacement and exile in Ghose's poetry from his earliest works to his previously unpublished and newer poems collected in Selected Poems.]
Born in Sialkot in 1935, Zulfikar Ghose moved with his family to Bombay in 1942 and to England following the Partition. His first book of poems appeared in London in 1964, and he became well known as a poet from Pakistan. In quick succession came short stories, novels, and an autobiography, as well as journalism and other writings. By the time he left England for the United States in 1969, he was already a writer to reckon with in several genres.
Although during the last twenty-five years his fiction list has come to dominate the publishers' charts and the reviewers' prime slots, he remains a writer who has practiced poetry consistently since the late 1950s, when his early poems began to be published in British magazines. Ever since, his poems have appeared regularly in magazines, anthologies, textbooks, broadcasts, and individual collections. Over the years Pakistani magazines and anthologies have also carried some of his work, though hardly any of his books has been issued in Pakistan as yet. The Selected Poems therefore fills a crying gap.
The fifty-three poems chosen by Ghose for this volume have been drawn from his three poetry collections and a previous New and Selected Poems published in the United States. He has added substantially to the number chosen for the latter stateside volume, and not only with new, uncollected poems. Some items in the earlier collections which he excluded from A Memory of Asia: New and Selected Poems (declaring that “the ones not included in this volume do not now strike me as worthy of anyone's attention”) have happily made their way back here and will survive. On the other hand, the twenty new poems carried in A Memory of Asia are reduced here to eleven, whereas the twelve uncollected and included here for the first time are a treat over previous decisions of immediate excision and removal whose only remedy for the faithful reader was either the original editions or the now equally hard-to-obtain Penguin Modern Poets 25.
Still, excision, removal, and survival are not just the practical aspects of compiling Ghose's book(s); these are forces which have informed both his life and his creative work. As a child he suddenly found himself chucked out of his original habitat; as a youth he had to leave the landscape to which he was accustomed and cope with a new environment with which he could never be at one without the doubtful aid of “external” interferences and attachments; as a man he had to consider his roots, rely on memory, and invent a language that would make sense of the contemporary world for him who has all but lost his “home.” Partition and exile, and the attendant socioreligious traumas, have not been written about enough in our literature, particularly in verse of any significance, and there is yet to develop a sense of the transition of the 1940s, with its confused options and a “lost generation” on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border and beyond. Although of that enduring generation—like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Qurat-ul-Ain Haider, Saadat Hasan Manto, Abdullah Hussain, and Aziz Ahmad—Ghose, in the literary sense, has hardly been lost, has always described himself as Pakistani, and remains a poet of national, international, and universal dimensions.
In the early poems the personal and the historical coincide in a verse which abounds in animals juxtaposed to mechanical imagery and an inhospitable landscape characterized as India, where the old order has given way to one that looks new but is actually quite ancient: “in a bazar donkeys speak into carrots / like crooners miming into microphones” (“Across India: February 1952”). “Asoka's wheel” and the “vote,” in “A Short History of India,” mix and unmix Western and Eastern symbols into further definitions of order. Some recent comment concerning A Memory of Asia has made much of Ghose's attachment to India,1 without realizing of course that the India of the poems is ostensibly not the state but rather the place designated so poetically, almost like the heath in King Lear. Likewise, in the same poem the eagles may be real but are quite beyond that: “Above us the sun is still, / the eagles are motifs of the air.”
And not just motifs. With the poetic progress, from the car journey in the earlier poem to “Flying over India,” the sight improves with the intelligence at work: “The point of the eagle's introspection / or its lonely watch-tower withdrawal / is also my point of view.” Both the motif and the point of view, as universal as they obviously are, closely belong to the Pakistani poetic tradition. What could be more Iqbal-like than the lines just quoted? Or consider these lines from the same poem, concluded with an ironic comment made the sharper for its perfect rhyme:
Give me the purer air. The flat earth is awful. Give me height, height, with its cold perspective of forms of the earth. Senseless now to dive like eagles to the earth's sparrows. The jungle's beasts are unseen from here. From these heights, one can almost believe in human rights.
Besides broad observation, many of the poems are autobiographical, indeed historical in a material and artistic sense. Their symbolic strategies lend a universal credence to their experience. An early poem, “The Body's Independence,” illustrates this in its self-evident three-part structure, which is common to a number of other early poems as well. The biology lesson in the first part of that poem is autobiographical and tends to become symbolic in that the teacher's “voice, a lesson in prosody, / told us of the secrets of the heart. / … We furtively laughed at the shape of man, / but his eyes saw farther than the chart.” In the second part the speaker's personal illness is gradually healed “with the oil of life to anoint my head.” As Ghose has stated, he fell seriously ill at the time of Independence.2 The country then was in no better condition, and symbolic means are employed to indicate that. The means of personal recovery from illness are also symbolic, equated to the Mughal prince Humayun's recovery through parental sacrifice and consecration: “My body took shape like the chart, I found / the outline of my bones fill with flesh and blood.” In the third part of the poem coalesce all three elements of the self in a reversal of fair possibility, and the earlier narrative is flinched: “India was at civil war, / the crow excreted where he pleased. And I, / reborn from my fairy tale, saw bones charred / in mounds on pavements. It was no country / for princes, and the eagle soared.”
“The Body's Independence,” a complete reflection on art's healing power and the modes of civil existence, is concerned with the close relation of the human body to the body politic and is an excellent exemplification and enhancement of a principle first enunciated by Rousseau: “The body politic, like the human body, begins to die from its birth, and bears in itself the causes of its destruction.”3 The poem ends with a precise two-pronged comment: “The blood of India ran out with my youth.” Other Pakistani poems have addressed themselves to the theme of Independence from a similar analytic standpoint,4 though they have not spawned a culture of resistance or revolution like the Urdu poetry of the 1940s and its later development.5 The symbols achieved have also the power to contain other forms of social action.
As I said earlier, the symbolic is rooted in the autobiographical and historical hold on reality; and on the other side of the opaque glass of exile is printed its universal, international, and national character in an essential symmetry of liminal relations. Poems like “The Attack on Sialkot” and “The Mystique of Roots” still address these concerns, but “The Alien” and “This Landscape, These People” paradoxically locate the speaker in England. Nearly all the poems in Ghose's second collection, Jets from Orange, tend to be more open-ended, or pointed outward from the specific contexts of imagery, and they define their subjects in frames of cultural breadth which are new, whether the subject is a picnic in Jammu (“The Picnic in Jammu”), the compunctions at the composition of art on account of the decomposition of the human body (“Decomposition”), or the culture lost between Bombay and London whose music is “hybrid jazz of no tradition” (“The Lost Culture”). The eagle or the hawk of the earlier poems has been replaced by the jet plane, while the new dog-weary existence, “as if suspended mobility,” is conveyed in intricately rhyming regular lines in “Kew Bridge” and “history's fashionable misconceptions” and other romancing find a temporary correction in lines like “we make spring-mattressed love with its / Kleenex anti-climax, hearing the planes descend” (“Don't Forget the Pill, Dear”). The earlier pun has an abortive purpose, but the clenched consonantal landing, with its iambic movement, sounds convincing enough.
Like the poem mentioned last, the poems in Ghose's third volume, The Violent West, evince an interest more in certain philosophical propositions than in the images which seem to suggest them. The excellent measure and rhyme of “Of Self-Hatred” can well examine “a stylized motif of eagle wings woven / in subtly differentiated colours on dacron that feels / like silk.” And in the last stanza, “One by one, / consider the hypotheses that come / from the undergrowth or from the cold ocean.” The search for home, as such, should prove to be even more difficult, since the propositions lead to still other images—of enticements that lead away—in these poems written since Ghose's taking up residence in the U.S. “Old Ragged Claws,” for example, ends with the telling line, “I have come so far West, the East is near.” “On Owning Property in the U.S.A.” underlines the contradictions of pursuing dreams, whereas “It's Your Land, Boss” brings home the irrelevance and unfruitful nature of one's relations to land. “An Imperial Education” considers the “subtle corruption” of the situation of the ex-colonies man in the West and the compulsions to engage in the dual conspiracy of silence and speech, none of which will lead one home.
Following a recent visit to Pakistan, Ghose published an article titled “Going Home,” in which he said:
It was my first visit to Pakistan in twenty-eight years but when I climbed up the stupa at Dharmarajika in Taxila on a beautifully clear May morning and looked at the land stretching to the mountains on the horizon I had the sensation that my absence from that soil had been of a far longer duration and, at the same time, now that I had my feet planted in it, I had existed continuously on that earth for two thousand years. … There are moments in our lives when we can hear the soul whisper its contentment that the long torment of being has been stilled at last. The air in Taxila filled my brain with that serenity. I felt I was at home.6
An earlier statement about being at home in Texas7 is here superseded by a feeling that approximates belonging to the place, not just to the landscape. That may be qualified, arguably, by the memory of how the Ghose text ekes out its own satisfactions from the very contradictions set up by it—and by the memory of the last two lines of “The Pursuit of Frost”: “a lost-and-found / civilization (a home, wanderer!), an ancient fraud.” Still, the discovery of a perfect symbol in Peshawar which seems to capture all that it is about can evoke a sense of belonging.
At the Peshawar Museum I was struck by the power of the incomplete statue of the fasting Buddha to fix the itinerant self in a timeless and bodiless space. … That which is not there startles the mind with the certainty of its being; … the broken incomplete Buddha is the mirror the soul looks at when the body has been compelled to recognize its inconsequentiality; … he is the man in exile whose body must forever be incomplete because a part of it resides in the place of his origin. … He is and is not, simultaneously a pure idea of the ambiguity of life which is now solidly real and now an empty dream.8
The poems from A Memory of Asia evidence a discursive shift; memory is made up of language and perception, and the finely modulated verse paragraph of the title poem is a suitable vehicle for their permutations. “Notes towards a Nature Poem,” “E.g.,” and “I.e.” describe a sort of theory of poetry, in this case nature poetry; and poems like “Among Other Things,” “A Young Girl Diving,” and “A Dragonfly in the Sun” carry out the principles in precisely apprehended images. In “I.e.” is advanced the notion of the name and a particular, detailed registering of the object of beauty instead of the cultivating of an idealism of the nonthing—viz., Saint-John Perse's reflection on Braque's birds. The birds in the Ghose poem suggest their shapes from their names. If Perse tried to unfold a total view of man in union with the universe and tortured by history, Ghose names the subject without the epic resources and relies on it as man's only relation to his reality; but in the meantime several texts (Braque, Perse, Ghose) have overlapped and converged in a “radiance” (“E.g.”) of “the abstract group” (“I.e.”). “Trees” and “Sounds” are further explorations and fine poems in this vein. “The Oceans” is a reflection on the oceans' beauty, power, and mystery, as well as their role in our world, but the poem is a trifle overexplained.
“Flying over the Extinct Volcanoes” has transparent images, though these are not without the symbolic resonances (religion, stock market, weather chart) which must deny narrative comfort. The last poems, hitherto uncollected, generally carry forward this style. The mood is somber when not bitter. The concerns with the deceptive nature of reality (“The Sun and the Lizard”), revisionist history (“The Monument to Sibelius in Rio de Janeiro”), futility (“The Counter Riddle”), and false assumptions (“Destiny”), and with an unnatural and barren existence (“Surprising Flowers,” “Lady Macbeth's Farewell to Scotland”) continue, though not without some vague vibrations from “perfumed landscapes.”
Clearly, Ghose is a poet with a moral passion, writing from a split-screen vision of himself in a consensus society. Several continents and cultures have shaped his outlook and the subjects of his verse, and there is a remarkable unity of idea and tone across his later writings in several forms. Whereas his fiction now exhibits a familiarity with Latin American literature, his poetry has remained largely untouched by the “Southern” experience, which has imparted certain changes in the work of some of his North American contemporaries—say, the later Mark Strand. Still, Ghose may not have been inclined to having two strings to his bow, which already had South Asia in place, even if South Asian English poetry itself has largely been quite parochial.9
In Ghose's poetry the Western formal influences have thus remained paramount. His association with the British poets known as the Group10 may not have been a decisive factor, as he has disavowed any such implication himself, naming his reading of Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) as a turning point in his career.11 Lowell's “influence,” in the early poems particularly, is highly visible, in that, like Lowell, Ghose effectively evokes large landscapes of memory embedded with personal, family, communal, and national histories. Further, the turn of phrase and the ease with the subjective image are owed more to Lowell and the American “confessional” poets than to contemporary British practice. These thematic choices and structural strategies, of memory and making, were to continue until almost the 1980s, when Ghose took to the indeterminate text and open structures as practiced by American poets like Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. His reading of Wittgenstein, Proust, and Beckett has fostered not so much the form as the attitude,12 and Ghose has made the language itself the source of substance and beauty, the writer's ideal home. It can be argued with point, nevertheless, that Ghose's ear was affected by the (British) Group's loud reading habits and that he hardly could outgrow the staple pentameter (even when it fluctuates), the structured stanza, the seductions of rhyme, and the overall measured if not austere movement of rather academic verse. Add to this the stress on experience (and experience as reading, as Ghose indicated to Bruce Meyer)13 as well as Ghose's rational intelligence, sharp irony, learning, and craftsmanship, and you might think you have been reading (or listening to) a Movement poet.14 Not so: there is greater variety and expanse in his work; his images are fresh, his voice is unique, and he has made the intercontinental terrain his province. Land (as a place to belong to, not to buy or sell), self, beliefs, and relationships are the leitmotivs—in his poetry as well as his fiction—crowned by a graceful introspective language, which is Zulfikar Ghose's counter against the chaos of our civilization.
K. S. Narayana Rao, review of Ghose's Memory of Asia, in WLT 59:2 (Spring 1985), p. 317.
Bruce Meyer, “An Interview with Zulfikar Ghose,” in Zulfikar Ghose, Selected Poems, Karachi, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social (1762), Good translations can be seen in Social Contract, Maurice Cranston, tr., Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969; and Social Contract and Discourses, 2d rev. ed., J. H. Brumfit and J. C. Hall, eds., G. D. H. Cole, tr., London, 1973.
See “Freedom's Dawn (August 1947),” in Poems by Faiz, V. G. Kiernan, tr., London, 1971; and Alamgir Hashmi, “Pakistan Movement,” in Pakistan Times, Pakistan Resolution Golden Jubilee Celebrations Supplement, 23 March 1990.
See “Introduction,” in The Penguin Book of Modern Urdu Poetry, Mahmood Jamal, ed. & tr., Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1986.
Zulfikar Ghose, “Going Home,” Weekend Post (Lahore), 10 August 1990, p. 3.
Meyer, op. cit.
Ghose, “Going Home,” p. 3.
See the discussion of poetry in Alamgir Hashmi, Commonwealth Literature, Lahore, 1983; Alamgir Hashmi, “Poetry, Pakistani Idiom in English, and the Groupies,” WLT 64:2 (Spring 1990), pp. 268-71; and also Alamgir Hashmi, “Poetry in Contemporary India” (review article), Journal of South Asian Literature, 19:1 (1984), pp. 219-22.
See A Group Anthology, Philip Hobsbaum and Edward Lucie-Smith, eds., London, 1963.
Meyer, op. cit.
In his discussion of Ghose's fiction, Bruce King correctly states that “the similarities of Ghalib and Iqbal to Ghose's view of the relationship of language to reality … possibly are explained by cultural heritage.” Bruce King, “From Twilight to Midnight: Muslim Novels of India and Pakistan,” in The Worlds of Muslim Imagination, Alamgir Hashmi, ed., Islamabad, 1986, pp. 243-59.
Meyer, op. cit.
See New Lines, Robert Conquest, ed., London, 1956; see also Blake Morrison, The Movement, London, 1980.
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SOURCE: Hussein, Aamer. “In Various Incarnations.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4642 (20 March 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Hussein provides a brief synopsis of The Triple Mirror of the Self, noting that Ghose's experiments with style and theme are difficult to follow in the beginning of the novel but become integral to the story as the novel progresses.]
A cryptic document recovered from the Brazilian rainforest, ostensibly the memoir of a refugee from the urban wildernesses of Asia, Europe and North America, is handed by “the leading Latin American Realist” to Jonathan Pons, an academic in search of a subject. On discovering himself—in a place he has never visited—in this text, Pons identifies its author, who has renamed himself Urim, as a former colleague, an expatriate South Asian poet. Driven by curiosity and the promise of a research grant, Pons undertakes to complete the fragmented text and reconstruct the life of the enigmatic figure who is known in his various incarnations as Shimomura (in cynical deference to his Asian origins), Shimmers (the English version of his name, which gives rise to its Japanese-sounding substitute) and Roshan, the name with which he departed from his origins.
Each incarnation coincides with a panel of The Triple Mirror of the Self. “The misleading pages of the Sakhawat document” (which, were it not for his own presence in them, Pons would have believed to be an invention of the famous realist) form the baffling and disconnected beginning of the novel, and appear to be the work of Wilson Harris parodying the pretensions of a would-be Anglophone magical realist, replete with felines, reptiles, sexual rituals and nubile native maidens. But this opening sequence is only a false entrance to an often rewarding exploration of national and psychological identities and the savage interplay of history and memory.
Pakistan-born, Zulfikar Ghose has a reputation as a difficult and often obscure writer, and this protean new work, too, introduces a daunting array of perspectives and voices. The second section, in which Pons recovers his subject's story and sets out his own working method, fluctuates between decades, tenses, pronouns and points of view with a verbal energy that both intrigues and exhausts. Vivid and lyrical accounts of Roshan's initiation into Britain's social and sexual life alternate with Pons's pompous biographical speculations; intertwined with these are the stories of Shimmers's metamorphosis into Shimomura, and of his Peruvian wife Isabel's passionate espousal of American norms. But through Ghose's occasionally opaque self-conscious writing, thematic concerns distinctly emerge. His portrait of Isabel is a deft and almost Kundera-like transformation of essay into narrative, examining through character the effect of colonization and the migratory nature of twentieth-century identity. Beckoned to Europe by cultural identification, Isabel feels progressively more Latin American; throwing herself into the American Dream, she is compelled to seek, on her repeated short trips to rediscover her roots, the source of her disaffections in the prevailing state of her country, writing herself into the role of permanent expatriate so common among contemporary intellectuals.
The Triple Mirror's longest section, the third, returns to the undivided India where Ghose, like his protagonist, grew up. Almost a novel in itself, this tale of childhood blighted by sectarian strife and overtaken by history is the book's most sustained and readable segment, and it provides an effective counterpoint to the philosophical investigations of the second section. Ghose suspends philosophy for humour, replaces introspection with dialogue, and creates a believable picture of a Bombay boyhood against a backdrop of the decade that led to partition. A profusion of minor details—homoerotic experiments, rushed fumblings with barely adult schoolteachers, and fear of kissing pork-tainted mouths—adds the patina of first-hand experience to a depiction of the body politic. One boy sees the necessity of a new country emerge as his people, the Muslims, run in fear from the Hindus with whom they formerly lived in harmony. The self's first mirror reveals the collective tragedy which the various permutations of Roshan's life have failed to eradicate, the loss not merely of a landscape but of a world view, a perspective never to be regained. For all the lavish lyricism of Ghose's prose, the harsh realism of history prevails.
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SOURCE: Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of The Triple Mirror of the Self, by Zulfikar Ghose. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 785-86.
[In the following review, Dasenbrock comments that The Triple Mirror of the Self is more autobiographical and candid than Ghose's previous novels, noting that although the novel lacks unity, aspects of the book are unique and enthralling.]
Zulfikar Ghose, a British writer born in Pakistan, raised in India and now long resident in Texas (see WLT 66:1, pp. 66-69 and 71-72), is one of the most unusual writers in English today. The dominant setting of his fiction over the past twenty years has been none of the places where he has resided, but rather South America, a South America largely of his own imagination, in which the realism of Anglo-American novelists is suspended by geography, culture, and history in fascinating and unpredictable ways. The South American setting of his fiction has attracted readers, yet I suspect it has played a part in that fiction's not receiving the degree of serious attention it deserves, as it is intuitively felt that Ghose's outsider status in Latin America makes his work set there less “authentic” than it might be and than the work of Latin American novelists. This view, of course, derives its power from the notion that fiction represents real places and real social situations and derives its value from that representation, a notion Ghose's fiction is at odds with yet has not dislodged.
In this context, The Triple Mirror of the Self is an interesting and challenging addition to Ghose's oeuvre. Beginning in the Amazon-basin rain-forest settings that have held Ghose for so long, it steadily moves away, first to a university in Arizona, then to London, and then to Bombay and the Punjab, tracing backward the chronicle of the life of a man known in the Amazon as Urim, in London as Shimmers, in the India of his youth as Roshan. This offers a close—if not exact—parallel to Ghose's own biographical trajectory, and the novel grows steadily more autobiographical in feel and more realistic in mode as it makes this journey backward in time. I also found that it grew steadily more interesting. The treatment of Roshan's nascent sexuality in a Bombay where sexual attraction crosses the taboos of communal barriers was my favorite section of the novel, less for that imposing-sounding theme than simply because of its combination of humor and tenderness. Though there has been a certain comic element in Ghose's work before, the humor here seems much less dryly intellectual and more responsive to social situations. The Triple Mirror of the Self therefore seems a transitional novel in terms of style and atmosphere as well as setting, with one foot in the familiar world of the author's recent novels and one foot in an intriguing new exploration of his own childhood and point of origin.
The question that description raises about The Triple Mirror of the Self is whether, given its composite state, it holds together as a novel. It does not in any obvious or superficial way, but Ghose is not an obvious or superficial novelist. The title suggests one way, and I think the three main characters—Roshan-Urim, his Latin American wife Isabel, and his ostensible biographer, the American academic Jonathan Pons—are in some senses mirrors of one another, forming some kind of larger, composite self. I am not sure that concept is enough to organize the novel, which means that the whole is perhaps no more than the sum of its parts. Some of these parts, however, are among the most interesting writing Zulfikar Ghose has done, and The Triple Mirror of the Self is the kind of unusual novel that makes one look forward with anticipation to the author's next work.
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SOURCE: Kanaganayakam, Chelva. “Memory and Artifice in Poetry.” In Structures of Negation: The Writings of Zulfikar Ghose, pp. 10-32. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Kanaganayakam studies the changes in content, tone, style, and form in Ghose's poetry from his earlier poems to more recent endeavors. Kanaganayakam notes Ghose's growing sense of displacement and makes a distinction between changes in Ghose's poetry and changes in his fiction.]
Zulfikar Ghose began his literary career as a poet with the publication of his first collection of poems, The Loss of India, in 1964 (hereinafter cited as Loss); his fifth and most recent collection of poems, entitled Selected Poems, appeared in 1991 (hereinafter cited as SP).1 The latter, like his previous collection, A Memory of Asia (1984), contains previously uncollected poems and a selection from his earlier writings. Granted the provisionality of neat classifications, one could still assert that, taken together, his five volumes, including Jets from Orange (1967) and The Violent West (1972), reflect the changing phases in the author's poetic career, the movement from an autobiographical, didactic, referential, and traditional verse to a personal but more discontinuous, open, and contemporary poetry. They depict a movement away from an active engagement with historical and cultural realities to a poetry that is more self-reflexive, sceptical, and indeterminate. Significantly, the changes in Ghose's poetry constitute a paradigm that serves as a model for an extended study of his fiction, which runs a parallel course with his poetry, moving from realistic referential narrative to metafictional and magic-realistic modes.
It would be inaccurate to pretend that each volume of Ghose's poetry reveals a self-sufficient phase or that the thematic and stylistic components of one phase do not spill over into the next. Ghose's poetry hardly conforms to a predetermined agenda, and recurrence coexists with evolution in his work. In fact, the overt preoccupation with native-alien experience surfaces, in various forms, in all his phases, establishing continuity and providing a basis for unity. Even structurally, some of the early poems, such as “Poem towards Sanity,” which resist continuity and closure, anticipate the complexity and obscurity of some of his recent ones. However, the emphasis in his first work, as the title The Loss of India suggests, is on poetry that draws its strength from biographical and referential material, and that emphasis, in some respects, accounts for the strength and weakness of this phase. While most critics and reviewers seem to agree on the primacy and relevance of autobiographical and social material in his early poetry, some have argued, not without justification, that the obsessive treatment of personal life and the close correspondence between the early poetry and the autobiography Confessions of a Native-Alien (1965; hereinafter cited as Confessions) is potentially damaging in its solipsism and stereotyping.
However, Loss is a fictive reworking of autobiographical material, and even when Ghose draws on personal memory, his use of metrical patterns and poetic techniques has the effect of establishing a distance between the poem and the persona of the poet. For example, he records in Confessions an instance of stealing a box of crayons from a classmate, but this inconsequential incident becomes, in the poem “The Kleptomaniac,” a probing study of the relation between guilt and art, and the whole process of transmuting guilt into the creation of art. The subject of “Water-Carrier” recalls the many sociological and quotidian observations of Confessions, but in the poem the water-carrier who traverses the desert to collect water while taking nothing for himself, and the desert that tortures him but provides his livelihood are metaphors for the predicament of the artist who must suffer the pangs of self-denial and exile in order to create. In “Sialkot,” for instance, the author works with autobiographical material but juxtaposes episodes in a manner that emphasizes the artifice and reminds the reader that Loss should not be considered a reworking of Confessions.
Nevertheless, in a general sense, the early poems are centrifugal rather than centripetal in their propensity to draw the reader outward into the phenomenal world, rather than into the poems themselves. The centrifugal impulse is not towards dispersion or multiplicity but rather towards a univocal, totalizing voice that interprets the referential world. When, for instance, the reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement says that Ghose in Loss is ‘aware of the richness, poverty, violence, tenderness of India in an earthy, exact way,’2 the validity of the statement is unquestionable, although one may be concerned about its implications. It must be remembered that Ghose's early and middle teens were spent in Bombay at a time when India experienced two major events, both of which were to change the destiny of the country: Independence and the Partition. The change of power meant political turmoil, intrigue, and a scramble for leadership. The Partition meant mass murder, displacement and homelessness for thousands, and a personal crisis for Ghose and his family. It is no surprise that Ghose, having lived through those tempestuous years, focuses, during his early years in England, on violence, inhumanity, and cultural deracination. If the title poem of Loss, for instance, records the failure of religion, of Gandhi, of the ideals of King Ashoka and the bewilderment of the poet in the face of this collapse, it is an inevitable consequence of the manner in which the personal and the public intersect in the life of the author.
In short, the poems in this volume belong to a category that Joseph Conte, in his study of post-modern poetry, calls ‘procedural’ rather than ‘serial.’ The terms are hardly self-explanatory, but the distinction he makes is a perceptive one. Says Conte: ‘Serial works are characterized by the discontinuity of their elements and the centrifugal force identified with an “open” aesthetic. Procedural works, on the other hand, are typified by the recurrence of elements and a centripetal force that promises a self-sustaining momentum.’3 The two are not antagonistic, at least not in Ghose's poetry, although the movement from one to the other inevitably involves a reassessment of the experience of marginality.
It is important to note that Ghose's ‘good anecdotes and unpretentious descriptions’4 do not always appear in the form of direct statement. Sometimes the allusiveness masquerades as preoccupation with nature, as a description of the commonplace, until the precise correspondence with political events becomes evident. A case in point is the eighth stanza of “The Body's Independence,” in Loss, whose imagery masks the trenchant critique of political manoeuvring:
A crow shifted from his nest to a branch, pulled his black tongue at the sun and let fall a splotch of white into the shade. A finch flew out. The crow laughed. An eagle, appalled moved to another tree. A snake looked, flinched.
The function of nature here is hardly descriptive or metonymic. The birds and the snake serve as symbols for the four major arbitrators during the period immediately preceding Independence, namely, the British, Gandhi, Jinnah, and Nehru. Once this correspondence—the British as eagle, Gandhi as finch, Jinnah as snake, and Nehru as crow—is established the sharp satirical thrust of the poem becomes clear. Here again, despite the obvious artifice of the allegorical structure, the poem draws its strength from the objective world rather than from within.
The impulse to define reality by finding objective correlatives is a recurrent feature in the early poems, and on occasion one finds the density of metaphor superfluous and distracting. The second part of “The Loss of India,” for example, which seeks to establish the self-denying nobility and martyrdom of Gandhi, does so by drawing on a range of metaphors that are redundant and disruptive. Equally cloying is the persistent presence of stereotypes that subvert rather than reinforce the project of satire and denunciation. The mimetic impulse carries with it the danger of fixity and closure, and Ghose's poems are not exempt from this drawback.
The insistence on biographical and social material often elicits from the reader an ambivalent response, one that includes both impatience and empathy. If tendentiousness leads to a measure of predictability, conviction redeems the experience. Even in the poems that do not adopt an overtly confessional mode, but deal with personal anecdotes, such as “To My Nephew” and “Friends,” the reader senses the anguish of exile and the search for identity. Also, one needs to remember that Ghose's poetic influences during this phase favoured the writing of poetry along personal lines. During his undergraduate days at Keele, the dominant influences were the Romantics and Browning. The poems he wrote in the late 1950s and published in Universities Poetry, namely, “Words and the Poet” and “Elegy: Keele Park,”5 are feeble attempts by the “Byron of Bombay” to imitate the Romantics. Ghose soon outgrows this phase of sentimental outpouring and naïve posturing, and in the early 1960s the influences are more eclectic. Says Ghose: ‘My biggest influences at that time were Robert Browning, Hopkins, T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. As for the Movement, I was quite attracted to it at the start. Before the Movement, Dylan Thomas had been an important influence and in the year '53 when he died, he was a strong influence on many young poets, and I was no exception. Similarly, I came under a passing infatuation with Auden.’6 The influence of Hopkins, for instance, is apparent in “Heath Morning,” whose stress pattern recalls that poet's sprung rhythm. Eliot's legacy is the occasional unconventional metaphor, startling juxtaposition, and discontinuity. “This Landscape, These People” includes the phrase ‘swift heels trail like ploughs,’ which, as Ghose remarks, ‘is an echo of Ted Hughes's opening image in “The Hawk in the Rain.”’7
But these ‘modern’ influences are more the exception than the rule in Loss. The dominant influence in a general sense is that of the Movement and the Group. The author points out that “Uncle Ayub” is ‘the kind of family poem many people were writing in the Movement manner.’8 Ghose was also associated with the Group and came into contact with Peter Redgrove, George MacBeth, Peter Porter, and several others, whose poems too appear to have strengthened the direction of Loss.
However, the single most important influence during the early phase is Robert Lowell, whose Life Studies was published in 1959. In the early 1960s Ghose was an avid reader of Lowell, and he records, in his autobiography, the significance of the appearance of Life Studies: ‘Robert Lowell's Life Studies has just been published and this was often the subject of our discussion [poets who met at Lucie-Smith's house and elsewhere]; the coincidence of this book's publication and my meeting with Anthony [Smith] was for me a liberation from poetic adolescence. Two of my poems, which were later to win the admiration of many other poets, were written during this time’ (Confessions, 91). The author does not mention the titles of the two poems, but it is a safe guess that one of them was “This Landscape, These People.” However, several poems in Loss reveal an indebtedness to Lowell. The personal voice, the admiration for a past generation, the mixed feelings about parents, the selective and representative anecdotes from boyhood life, and the evocation of stability and continuity that appear in Loss bear comparison with the poems in Life Studies.
Ghose's multiple influences, combined with the author's circumstances of displacement and marginalization, result in what could be called the poetry of double exile. Although one does not wish to belabour the obvious, it is necessary to point out that thematically the poems in Loss fall into two groups, one focusing on the personal, social, and political aspects of his years in India and the other on his experience of exile in England. “Sialkot,” “Flat Country,” and “In Calcutta,” for instance, draw attention to the Indian scene, while “The Alien,” “Heath Morning,” and “This Landscape, These People” deal with England. “This Landscape, These People” has won critical acclaim, and the first stanza of this poem is as good an example as any of the emotional thrust of exile and the sense of uncertainty behind the ‘English’ poems:
My eighth spring in England I walk among the silver birches of Putney Heath, stepping over twigs and stone: being stranger I see but do not touch: only the earth permits an attachment. I do not wish to be seen, and move, eyes at my side, like a fish.
While the poems in Loss are essentially closure oriented, they also draw attention to their artifice. Ghose is, like his friend B. S. Johnson, an extremely metrical poet, and his poetry is self-conscious in a traditional manner. From the point of view of Ghose's career as a poet, this concern with craftsmanship is significant, for it establishes a tension in his poetry between the programmatic bias of referentiality and the multiplicity of self-conscious artifice. Ghose himself remarks: ‘Ottava rima, Spenserian stanza, terza rima, dramatic monologues, sestinas, villanelles, you name it, I did the lot.’9 In “To My Ancestors,” for instance, he uses iambic pentameter with considerable skill, sometimes varying the stress pattern, interspersing the iambic with the anapestic, increasing the feet to alexandrine, playing off rhythm against metre to capture the tone of questioning and bafflement.
He also uses a wide range of stanzaic forms, both rhymed and unrhymed. The quatrain is often used with a definite rhyme scheme and a regular stress pattern. Sometimes a series of couplets or tercets acquires intensity through a process of accumulation. In “Visibility,” for instance, which has two tercets, the mated form of abc of the first stanza rhymes with the three lines of the second stanza. Each line has ten syllables, except the third line of the first stanza, which has an extra syllable. The basic beat is anapaestic with variations for emphasis. The first two lines of each stanza have feminine endings, thereby drawing attention to the variation in the final lines. Syntactic parallels work effectively towards establishing semantic opposition. The tone of melancholy and reverie is captured through the alliteration, the feminine sounds, and the large number of unstressed syllables.
Both Loss and the next volume, Jets from Orange, reinforce a dual focus. On the one hand, the anecdotal quality and the syntactic regularity of the poems lead the reader to the referent, particularly when the referent is autobiographical or historically significant. On the other hand, the formal patterning of the poems draws attention to itself as artefact, compelling the reader to shut off the external world and focus on the structure of the poems. Barbara Herrnstein Smith draws attention, in a general context, to this duality from the point of view of the poet: ‘The poet is not a speaker addressing a listener, but one who composes a verbal structure that represents a natural utterance. The poem may represent the poet himself addressing a dead friend or an estranged lover, but the poet, as a historical creature, is not engaged in the task of addressing them.’10 If one were to apply Smith's classification to Ghose's work, Confessions would be an example of natural discourse, while the early poetry would be somewhere between natural and fictive discourse. Ghose himself maintains that the autobiographical element could well have been the impulse behind creating the poems, but that need not concern the reader. Says Ghose: ‘A poem succeeds because of its form and the power of its language and not because its subject-matter is autobiographically precise. What may have tormented a poet that he was driven to write a certain poem is none of the reader's business, for the reader is looking at language, and not at life.’11 This somewhat ambiguous statement was made in 1984, twenty years after the publication of Loss, and is hardly applicable to all his early poetry. But at his best he certainly succeeds in drawing the reader into the artifice of the poem, thereby preventing the surfeit of didacticism. In “Across India: February 1952” (Loss, 1-2), for instance, the autobiographical element is quickly subsumed in the structure of binary opposites that is so carefully worked into the poem that the artifice exerts a centripetal force, thereby not only establishing autonomy but also creating its own level of meaning. A brief analysis of the structure of opposites that informs the title and the first stanza reveals the working of artifice of this poem.
The title has two parts, separated by a colon. The first half suggests movement and travel, while the second draws attention to a fixed and verifiable moment in time. In short, along with an obvious referentiality, the title asserts a particular structure, of which one half is kinetic and the other half static.
The first stanza, which consists of five lines, contains five independent sentences. Of these the three lines between the first and the fifth are basically static in that they describe certain states. The two important verbs in the whole stanza are ‘descend’ and ‘scratch,’ which occur in the first and fifth lines, respectively. The car descends ‘the Western Ghats,’ presumably in the direction of water, and the beasts ‘scratch’ the ground, presumably in search of water.
The opposition thus established gains resonance as the poem proceeds. New dichotomies are introduced, such as village and town, the donkey and the car, the speaker and the villagers, mimicry and creativity, and subjectivity and objectivity. As the contrasts build up, one detaches the poem from all external contexts until one recognizes in the last line that the literal and the symbolic merge to invoke the dilemma of being caught between irreconcilable opposites—in other words, the native-alien experience.
However, the self-sufficiency of the poem is a tenuous one, for the consistent narrative thread of causality keeps prompting the reader to turn to the autobiography for a fuller understanding. The reader does not know, for instance, why the speaker loses his voice soon after hearing the news of the death of King George VI, and the structure of the poem hardly provides the information. At this point one needs the additional information, provided in Confessions, that Ghose's propensity to stammer during his childhood days earned him the ‘imperial appellation’ King George.
“Poem towards Sanity” (Loss, 23-4), in contrast, is perhaps the only poem that, by adopting an imagistic mode and deliberately flaunting obscurity and discontinuity, demands an anti-referential reading and anticipates the later poems. The poem begins with a simple command: ‘take them away.’ At the semantic level this instruction would seem perfectly ordinary if one were sure to what ‘them’ refers. Just before the end of the second stanza, when the poem asks ‘who can take them away?,’ the reader is still unsure about the pronoun antecedent, although the movement of the poem suggests that the poet is talking about ‘chasms’ and ‘silences.’ What the poem presents is a collage of random observations—a pear, the fridge, a gas stove, and so on—which distracts the reader but also serves the purpose of indicating how the mind distracts itself in order to avoid chasms.
The links between mid-February cries of birds, a car engine with a run-down battery labouring to start, and water streaming from a florist's window are so wilfully discontinuous and obscure that only careful analysis would reveal that the images are all objective correlatives for the atmosphere of pessimism and bleakness. They connect, not through a predetermined scheme, but through a process of association. The notion of a verbal structure asserting its autonomy, which “Poem towards Sanity” exemplifies, is important in relation not only to Loss but also to the entire canon of Ghose's writings. Ghose's work defies easy classification, mainly because he keeps exploring new forms and modes. For the purposes of Loss, however, suffice it to mention that, while the dominant thrust appears to have been towards expressing directly and subjectively the experience of exile and the native-alien sensibility, there is also a strong attempt to move away from overt referentiality.
Wilson Harris is perhaps the first critic to have attempted a study of Ghose's poetry in relation to a large theoretical model, and his views have a direct bearing on the tension between realism and artifice in Ghose's writings. Before focusing on Ghose's poetry, Harris makes an interesting, even authoritarian, statement about cross-cultural imagination. He says that ‘Indians and Pakistanis, amongst other Asians, are rooted peoples, in cultural terms; their ancestral homelands still possess greatly unchanged, caste-oriented, institutional structures, underpinned by non-evolutionary assumptions … As a consequence, the acquisition of new roots is bound to sustain deceiving stases as well as contrivance, hand-in-hand, as it were, with unconscious artifice.’12 Having formulated this thesis, he goes on to focus on Ghose's nature poetry as a sine qua non for understanding Ghose's poetry as a whole. In his subsequent analysis of a few poems, the concern is to prove that however much the poet may wish to dissociate himself from his roots, the cultural memory succeeds in finding a niche for itself in the poems. Speaking of “An Attachment to the Sun,” which is essentially an ‘English’ poem, Harris remarks that ‘however insistent the plea the poem makes for the laughter of love and for exact images of celebrative design, one begins to sense a hidden chasm of memory that persists in the soil of the newly-wed place.’13 The comment is perceptive, but what persists in the poem is not so much ‘a hidden chasm of memory’ as a careful and deliberate structuring of duality. Harris's argument, which imposes rigid terms on the poetic imagination, becomes increasingly difficult to accept when he says, in relation to “The Lost Culture” in Jets from Orange, that ‘church spires, Boeings descending, are in counterpoint to levitation rituals of the ancient East.’14
Harris's model, which strengthens a cross-cultural reading, is not entirely adequate because Ghose's poetry is not merely the poetry of exile but also the poetry of native-alien experience. The distinction is crucial, although in practice the two have much in common. The exile is a displaced or uprooted individual who, under certain circumstances, might still return home. The native-alien, however, has no home to return to. Harris's thesis, perceptive as it is, fails to take into consideration the full implications of native-alien experience. For instance, it is not without significance that no body of traditional mythology, Hindu or Muslim, underpins Ghose's work. If he speaks of a Punjabi's racial memories in a footnote to “Rendered from the Punjabi” in Jets from Orange, the memories hardly go beyond his childhood days. The absence of myth is of crucial importance in Ghose's poems because he creates his own system of myth, an elaborate pattern of imagery, to explore the notion of identity.
The pattern of imagery Ghose has developed so consistently over the last two decades centres on love, its multiple facets, and the woman as an emblem of the sanctity of the land.15 Hence it follows that relationships with women serve as metaphors for changing attitudes to land and identity. The woman is sometimes an archetypal Mother, old and unchanging, or a young and passionate lover. The trope has obvious implications at the level of sex, although the poetry seems predominantly concerned with its use as metaphor. This core image provides through expansion a whole moral system that is totally autonomous and gives the work coherence. For instance, in the longish and emotionally intense poem “Of Land and Love,” this description of the East Anglian countryside appears:
… the fields, separated lovers, blow their common fruit over hedges as though they blow kisses: a pear falls with a smack, breaks open, two lips, parted and wet.
The language makes the identification clear. The ‘lover’ here is narcissistic—‘the land is its own lover.’ Human beings, by loving each other, acquire a similar completeness and harmony: ‘we, loving the land, do not contribute / to its pleasures. But, loving each other / we possess the land's virtues.’ (Loss, 38). At another level, in poems such as “In Calcutta,” which is a bitter parody of childbirth and copulation enacted by a hysterical woman, the imagery merges with the aridity of the land and the degradation, poverty, and filth all around.
It has often been commented that Ghose speaks of an enduring love for the English landscape, not only in Loss, but also in Jets from Orange and The Violent West. The poem entitled “The Alien” is a case in point:
There is an empathy between the trees and me in England, an air between us that's constantly beneficent.
I frequently deserted common-land where I'm friendly with sightless things, most of all the community of grass.
In contrast with the beauty of the English landscape, the Indian scenes are hot and oppressive. Neither of these characterizations is entirely referential. Within the corpus of Ghose's poetry, at least prior to The Violent West, the author's love and hate for landscapes must be seen as both conscious artifice and a means of communicating the experience of a native-alien. Although it would be repetitious to reiterate this pattern of imagery as it appears in Jets from Orange and The Violent West, one needs to be aware that, since the later volumes tend to move away from subjects related to India, the cluster of related images performs the function of establishing a continuity of theme through artifice. In fact, all the love poems in the first three volumes are best seen not as recreations of the love affair with a girl called Gay, described in Confessions, but as artefacts that exploit a pattern of imagery to probe the dimensions of native-alien experience.
Ghose himself does not care very much for the poems in Jets from Orange (hereinafter cited as Jets), and he includes only six of the thirty-eight poems in this volume in A Memory of Asia. Ghose says that ‘there's not much to be said for my second book of poems, Jets from Orange, which has perhaps three or four decent poems … There's too much posturing in it, a silly desire to make important statements.’16 The author is reacting against his overt didacticism in poems such as “The Incurable Illness,” “Abbaye de Seananque,” and “The Preservation of Landscapes.” Similarly, poems such as “Decomposition,” “Madam,” and “A Short History of India” tend to become either sentimental or tendentious.
One possible reason for the monotony of Jets is that the three years that separate it from Loss have not significantly altered the author's poetic sensibility. Auden's influence appears time and again, particularly in tone, gnomic utterances, and the use of traditional metrical patterns. An interesting, though far-fetched, parallel is Ghose's ‘cruel India’ that spurs him into song the way Auden claims ‘mad Ireland’ hurt Yeats into poetry. “Abbaye de Senanque” clearly recalls Matthew Arnold's ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.’ Both poems are set in France and both describe monasteries, the isolated life of the monks evoking mixed feelings in the poets.
More important, a significant influence in Jets is Philip Larkin, who, one remembers, was a major poet of the Movement and who produced his best poems in the 1950s and 1960s—The Less Deceived (1955) and The Whitsun Weddings (1964). In 1964, in Ambit, a journal with which he was associated for a time as a regular contributor, Ghose wrote a review of Larkin's Whitsun Weddings. The review tells one as much about Ghose as it does about Larkin. Ghose's favourable review of Larkin springs from certain assumptions about poetry that the two poets shared. Ghose draws attention to three aspects of Larkin's poetry: skilful handling of verse, tone, and language. Speaking of syllabic metre, Ghose writes: ‘I've always maintained that it is no use writing poetry unless one can skilfully handle verse.’ Referring to tone, he says: ‘that sudden awareness that what we're hearing is not ourselves reading the poem, but the poet's voice which somehow creates itself within us—is a quality of style, and it comes clearly through in each of Larkin's poems.’ Finally, he adds a comment about language: ‘what makes a poet appear more important than another is the quality of his language. Technique and style without an original, or at least precise language does not make good poetry. Larkin is consistently precise, and often simultaneously fresh in his use of language.’17
All these observations are interesting partly because they reveal Ghose's own notions about verse and partly because they express an almost unqualified admiration for Larkin's poetry. Thematically, the two poets have much in common: both are concerned with the ennui of modern life; with love, parting, and death; and with war and violence. Structurally, both avoid loose associations, image combinations, and typographical configurations, and focus on the linear and the anecdotal. Even some titles have a similarity: Larkin's “Absences” in The Less Deceived and Ghose's short story “The Absences,” and Larkin's “Water” and “For Sidney Becket” Ghose's “The Surf-Rider” and “For Mother.”
An interesting comparison can be drawn between Larkin's “Here,” which Ghose admires for its ‘clear and yet strangely ambiguous language,’ and Ghose's “The Virtues of the Earth,” which was first published in The Spectator on 27 November 1964 (the same year as the review of The Whitson Weddings) before it was collected in Jets. In the final stanza of “Here” Larkin writes:
Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken, Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken, Luminously-peopled air ascends; And past the poppies bluish natural distance Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence: Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.(18)
When one compares the first stanza of Ghose's “The Virtues of the Earth”—
Here cultivation and spontaneous growth make a naturally civilized kingdom. Here, artists, poets and composers come to wander curiously through both forms of nature; untended spaces divide the vines, wild herbs grow along the roadside. Here is creative willingness in the earth.
one sees the similarity in the handling of verse, tone, and language.
However, in terms of the overall evolution of Ghose's career, the significance of Jets lies in the fact of (as the title suggests) a widening of scope, a greater consciousness of the contemporary scene, and a gradual awareness of the need for aesthetic distance. One observes a parallel movement in Ghose's fiction, from the Kalapur of The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967) to the England and Europe of Crump's Terms (written in 1968, published in 1975). In “The Incurable Illness,” for instance, there is a sharp sense of atrophy as industrial culture, built on technology and mass production, begins to collapse, and the death of a friend comes to include the whole of civilization.
“The Incurable Illness,” despite its emotional urgency, parades its message so ostentatiously that it ceases to be effective. In fact, at times the revisions to certain poems clearly indicate that the didactic intent appears to have been uppermost in the poet's mind. “A Short History of India,” for example, underwent an interesting revision after its first publication in The Pakistan Quarterly in 1966. ‘Look now at the earthen-pot people, / their sun-dried clay’19 subsequently were changed to ‘look now at the enfranchised people / the spoiled votes of a democracy’ (Jets, 18). The change suggests a desire to give the poem a stronger political colouring.
While most poems in Jets follow the precedent of those in Loss in their desire to invite a mimetic reading, a few are carefully constructed artefacts that demand an anti-referential reading. Here again it is useful to recall the parallel movement from the mimetic mode of The Murder of Aziz Khan to the stream of consciousness of Crump's Terms.—“The Lost Culture” is one such poem. Written in couplets and creating a complex network of imagery, it is essentially a perspective poem, and as Nancy Sullivan remarks in a general context, ‘the metaphor becomes an essential girder in the perspectivist structure.’20 The dichotomies are carefully juxtaposed to prevent external referents from encroaching into the structure, and the poem employs surrealistic images in a manner that intertextually recalls Eliot.
“The Lost Culture” is at least partly about the process of writing poetry: ‘I am an old eagle, moulting / my music is hybrid jazz of no tradition.’ Two other poems—“Poem” and “Address to Sixth Formers”—are specifically self-reflexive, and clearly presage a change of direction that becomes increasingly apparent in The Violent West. The translation of the pre-verbal to the verbal stage is the subject of “Poem,” which recalls in its imagery and organization Ted Hughes's “The Thought Fox.”21 Both poems consist of six stanzas, Hughes's quatrains and Ghose's triplets. Differences notwithstanding, the experience that underpins the two poems is remarkably similar. Both poems are concerned with the role of the unconscious in the creative process. Such a bald summary, however, hardly does justice to the subtle and dense structure of Ghose's poem. “Poem” is best seen in relation to Alistair Paterson's comment about self-conscious and ‘modern’ poems: ‘The logic of such work is the logic of the imagination—which means it follows the normal psychological processes of perception … and both the conscious and subconscious operations of mind, inclusive of recall, association, insight and invention.’22 However, when Ghose attempts to become more explicit and to articulate the purpose of poetry and its function as a moral touchstone in “Address to Sixth Formers,” he is at his flattest. Not even the consideration that he is addressing sixth formers in a secondary modern school extenuates the pat phrases and the naïve generalizations that run through the poem.
If there is a positive factor in “Address to Sixth Formers” it is that it establishes a continuity between Jets and The Violent West (hereinafter cited as West), the first collection to appear after Ghose's arrival in Texas. The idea of poetry, the function of the poet, and the relation between the poet and outer reality become the concern of “The Poet at Lake Travis,” the first poem in the collection and the only one to deal explicitly with poetics. This ‘serial’ poem is made complex by its oxymorons, imagery, and technique of leaping from idea to idea. The six six-line stanzas have a metrical complexity and consistency that give the poem a tightness of organization and structure and a dense verbal texture.
The last three lines of “The Poet at Lake Travis” make a specific reference to Berryman: ‘Ask Mr Berryman why his / bones ache, why few / faltering rise, why only a Maker makes’ (West, 4). These lines refer, intertextually, to Berryman's 77 Dream Songs. Ghose's admiration for Berryman is a long-standing one, as is evident in his review of 77 Dream Songs that appeared in Ambit in 1965. Referring to 77 Dream Songs, Ghose says that ‘the book is extraordinary because it arouses a variety of emotions through ideas and incidents which the reader only partly grasps at first; it is funny, moving, charming, adorable, and in places stunningly memorable.’23 Years later, Ghose still remembers these poems. Although 77 Dream Songs shares little stylistically with Ghose's work as the latter does not use Berryman's colloquial idiom, typographical tricks, or orchestration of voices, both poets express a deep sense of disillusionment with external reality.
Berryman is not the only poetic influence behind West. The poems in this volume were written after Ghose came to Texas, and the circumstance of his having to teach British and American poetry at the University of Texas explains Ghose's growing familiarity with a wide range of poets. He points out that ‘a greatly varied and enormously rich poetry suddenly opened [to him when he] came to America.’ The poets he read avidly included Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Francis Ponge from France, Yehuda Amichai from Israel, and Vasko Popa from Yugoslavia. However, he also adds: ‘obviously the new poems I wrote were very different from those in my first two books. With a few exceptions, however, they were still not the poems I wanted to write.’24 As Ghose moves farther away in time and space from the source of his displacement and uprooting, the need to express his predicament in all its complexity appears to become more insistent. And these poems, which constitute a significant component of West possess an urgency that, despite their referentiality and centrifugal thrust, mark a point of departure. Alan Brownjohn, in a review of The Violent West, observes that Ghose ‘is best when least roving and meditative and more concerned with subjects that really move him.’25 In contrast, the reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, commenting on “The Remove,” a hilarious piece of social satire, states that ‘Mr Ghose has lighter gifts which he should not allow his more solemn sense of deracination to smother.’26
But Ghose is not predominantly a social satirist or humourist. In fact, his flippant poems, such as “Professors May Expect Tyranny,” are among the weakest in West. His obsessive concern is with the quest for a ‘home,’ and the Texas landscape appears to intensify this need. The fact that the landscape of Texas reminds him of the land of his birth perhaps has some bearing on the sense of urgency that permeates West. In the title poem the poet remarks that ‘it would seem that here's the best / compromise, a land of my / childhood which speaks the language of my mind here’ (West, 10). None the less, Texas is not home. In that remarkable poem “A Private Lot,” the poet re-enacts legend and uses the archetypal motif of the journey to explore his own predicament. Texan lore speaks of a trail that ends at massed boulders. Although a dead end, the trail is well used. Opposed to the trail are the images of a river and an endless plain, which suggest movement and unceasing quest. The two images reflect two-world views, and the poet finds the prospect of building a home ‘he would not want to leave’ unattractive. For the native-alien there is no home: ‘From this lush / land, too, I must go / towards horizons which the jet-liners cross’ (West, 9). Or, as the poet phrases it in another poem, ‘I feel I am still at the window / searching the horizon for plants’ (West, 33).
The need to persist in the quest is also intensified by a dissatisfaction with Western life, with its façade of respectability, its pollution, and its fantasies. In a telling stanza, he speaks of being surrounded
by polystyrene insulated walls and the objets d'art picked up in a foreign market or on some beach; we make spring-mattressed love with its Kleenex anti-climax, hearing the planes descend.
To speak of the thematics of exile in this manner would imply that West continues the referential mode of Loss. In fact, several poems do stress the referential aspect, although the anecdotal quality of the earlier poems now gives way to a more direct and personal statement couched in the framework of quest. But several poems also exhibit an extremely contemporary sense of artifice that destabilizes a univocal response. In relation to the evolution of Ghose as a poet, the poems in West mark a phase in which the author experiments with language, draws attention to it by dislocating syntax, and compels the reader to recognize the poems as verbal artefacts. One remembers that, during this period, Ghose was also writing his metafictional novel Hulme's Investigations into the Bogart Script. Almost all the poems in the first section of West—“Westward Flight”—are deliberately obscure, the movement of the lines is often slowed down, and the thread of meaning becomes increasingly difficult to follow. Metaphors are often used not for their referential value but for their centripetal roles in the context of the poems. Invariably such poems have little paraphrasable content, but the suggestions they generate acquire a disturbing power and intensity. They demonstrate features that Conte describes in relation to the serial poem: ‘The serial form accommodates the contemporary experience of reality in which the perceiving mind is not solely directed to a few prominent features but continually presented with its full texture. Seriality does not chart the peaks of experience only, but the full pattern in its divertissements and divagations.’27 Take, for example, the first stanza of “The Pursuit of Frost”:
Wandering again, come to this shore, observing the severe disenchantment of water which remains anonymous and clear: cleanse what stains here and trumpet which purity a welcome through arches of the mind?
The end-rhymes, which seem conventional enough, hardly help the reader to piece together the highly idiosyncratic and dislocated syntax. Although each stanza creates the illusion of flowing into the next, there is hardly any narrative thread or continuity at the level of theme. It is basically a collage poem, which invites the reader to share the responsibility for creating meaning. Speaking about contemporary poetry, Paterson makes a remark that adequately describes this poem: ‘the poet's constant and realistic awareness that the poem can never be complete without the creative contribution that comes from the reader.’28 An equally striking example of this kind of poetry is “The Butterfly” (West, 15), whose five stanzas constitute one long sentence. The appeal is both visual and auditory, and the poem eventually takes the intellectually active reader into a series of dichotomies and areas of speculation regarding possession and perfection.
It is an important detail that at the time Ghose published West he was also writing his trilogy, The Incredible Brazilian. The fact that the last poem in West is entitled “For the Liberation of Brazil” not only draws attention to simultaneity but also suggests deeper affinities between the two works. Both works are referential and anti-referential at the same time. The Brazilian trilogy ostensibly moves on a vertical axis but invites the reader to respond to the horizontal axis. West explores familiar themes, using traditional metrical and stanzaic patterns, but continually compels the reader to focus on the artifice.
If West can be said to belong to the phase of the trilogy, A Memory of Asia (hereinafter cited as Memory) and Selected Poems (SP) parallel the phase of A New History of Torments, Don Bueno, Figures of Enchantment and The Triple Mirror of the Self. Like the fictional works, the poems in this volume preserve a deceptive surface, but the reader soon discovers that the simplicity masks intricate and complex structures. There is very little that is daunting or what one would be immediately inclined to call ‘experimental’ in A Memory of Asia or Selected Poems. Ghose does not write concrete poetry; neither does he use language in a highly eccentric manner. And yet the poems must be classified as contemporary, or to use a current term, ‘open poetry.’
Talking about recent trends in his poetry, Ghose says: ‘I write when I have nothing to say but have a desire to write a poem, a pressure of form within my mind, so that I look for images through which the form might emerge.’29 These remarks, like his recent poetry, have a double-edged quality. The negation of content is absurd, for, as Jonathan Holden points out, ‘contemporary poetry still strives to marry form and content.’30 And certainly Ghose's poetry has a significant experiential component within it. But, as Ghose says, the desire to convey a message is not paramount in his recent poetry. What is more important is a preoccupation with form, with different modes of perception, and a curiosity to see what happens when a particular order of experience is enshrined in a mode. Hence it follows that the poems are open and inventive, though not ostentatiously so, and that they ‘flaunt their artifice’31 in order to enable the reader to respond to them as verbal artefacts. Poems such as “A Dragonfly in the Sun” in A Memory of Asia often seem traditional in their concern with description.32 However, in the almost photographic exactitude with which the images are evoked, and in the careful placing of internal rhymes, the centripetal movement of the poems becomes evident. As in magic-realistic painting, the visual precision distorts the referentiality and draws the reader into the construct. In this sense the poems in A Memory of Asia and Selected Poems are post-modern. They delight in their freedom from the burden of subject-matter, in their sense of play. The sequence of the titles—“Notes towards a Nature Poem,” “E.g.” “I.e.” and “Among Other Things”—are as good an example as any of the exuberance and distinctiveness of this phase.
A corollary to the notion of not wanting to parade a message is the questioning of objective reality itself. “The Enormous Hamburger” is perhaps the only poem that, in such lines as ‘A dying planet transmits / capsules of sperm into space’ (Memory, 33), reminds the reader of the author's technique of using metaphor to lead the reader to a referential reading of the poem. For the most part, the poems deflect the reader's attention from external reality. A case in point is “A Young Girl Diving,” which, in its title, deliberately recalls “The Surf-Rider” in Jets. However, the significant difference between the two poems is that whereas “The Surf-Rider” focuses on the individual, “A Young Girl Diving” describes, not the diver, but the water. And water is important not as phenomenon but as a symbol of memory and the poetic process. This poem remains a clear example of the deceptive simplicity of this phase of Ghose's poetry. What appears almost cinematic in its concreteness has little concern with perception at all. That the poem takes an everyday occurrence and gives it an unexpected twist to subvert its referentiality is characteristic of Ghose's recent poetry.
Further, several poems in these volumes question specifically the concept of reality itself. The title poem of Memory, “A Memory of Asia,” begins with a description of ‘pot-bellied Ganapati’ in a manner that prepares the reader for yet another poem of nostalgia and sentiment. But no sooner does the poet describe in sharply visual terms Ganapati surrounded by ‘Mangoes, papayas and jackfruit’ than he declares:
But this is a revision: older put some of these phrases together before … Ganapati caught in the swirling mist of incense smoke like a hilltop in scattered fog, the fruit at his feet bananas and oranges … so that what one composes as a definitive statement is only a memory of a memory.
Here the poet admits to a perspective position, thereby subverting the reader's expectations of nostalgic memory. Either the poet is experiencing multiple visions—‘one thing / or another is changing position’—or it could be that what the mind affirms as the truth might be nothing more than ‘a line from / someone's poem.’ In short, what passes as reality could well be an act of the imagination. Several poems in these volumes draw attention to the power of the imagination to provide a gateway to reality.
The poem “Nasturtium Seeds,” for example, is entirely constructed out of the opposition between the actual dwarfed flowers and the gaudy illustration on the glossy packet of seeds. And in “The Oceans” the poet admits:
one entertains the certainty of a world that's undeniably not there but insists upon existing in exhilarating detail, and indeed lives in the mind as imagery more credible than the clouds and the chickenhawks above the skyline.
The primacy of the imagination in relation to the objective world leads, at one level, to the notion of a self-sufficient artefact; at another, it leads to the status of language, which mediates between the imagination and the poem. In the first two volumes, for instance, language is used with considerable sensitivity, but since their objective is to present a certain order of experience, hardly ever does the language become the subject of the poems. And since this recent phase questions the idea of reality, and the relation between art and the objective world, the status of language becomes an important consideration.
“The Force of Grammar” in Selected Poems is entirely concerned with the univocal expression of experience and the multiplicity of a recalcitrant language. The hiatus between language and referent is first perceived in the work of others:
The books in my library began to speak. The recitation of familiar passages at first seemed a voice only within my mind but then
I recognized distortions in the texts as if the books were rebelling against the printed words and offering their own revised versions.
Soon the focus turns to the author's own work, and the authority imparted by the act of writing is gradually subverted, which subversion leads to an attitude of resignation and a desire for a language that resists such rebellion:
My own books had remained quiet all this time. Now they began to raise a cacophony. All that labour after style for this noise!
I pulled out a book on Old English Grammar and studied the chapter on verbs, reading it aloud until all else in the room fell silent.
Paterson observes that ‘one respect in which a poet can be completely “new” is in the way in which he exploits the language of contemporary society, and modifies it to suit the needs of whatever work is at hand.’32 Ghose certainly uses language with a colloquial vigour, as in such poems as “Long Live the Weeds, Etc,” and “Owning Property in the U.S.A.” But, beyond this, there is also the consciousness that ‘the felicitous epithet or the inspired metaphor / is of no help.’ Language, the poet discovers, does not depict reality; it creates its own reality in a manner by which it can even run counter to traditional beliefs. As “A Memory of Asia” puts it,
so much is nouns and adjectives in pretty sentences even the hummingbird at the bougainvillea flower is made beautiful by grammar when its appearance is caught by words.
The concern with the power and failure of language and with art in relation to reality are aspects of the anti-referentiality of this phase. In addition, such poems as “Flying over the Extinct Volcanoes” possess what Paterson would call ‘openness of structure.’ They are ‘episodic and discontinuous’ poems that are deliberately obscure and self-conscious.
The desire to eschew meaning or ‘message’ altogether is a temptation for the poet. And this temptation becomes the subject of “The Mockingbird.” In a world in which reality is elusive and communication often a failure, the desire to praise the mimicry of the mockingbird is strong: ‘he sings / but with no insistence on meaning: his is / a beautifully arrogant irresponsibility’ (Memory, 16). However, the placing of the last word indicates that, attractive as the prospect may seem, the poet is committed to the world of experience. In the midst of all the flaunting of artifice, the experiential component remains a significant preoccupation for the poet. In Ghose's case, the experience is that of the native-alien. In Memory the quest for ‘home’ is not resolved by creating in the mind a sentimental model of what the poet has lost. In fact, when the poet indulges in the fantasy of a ‘return’ in the poem “In Praise of Hot Weather,” the careful use of cliché—‘I long to be where I can be lazy, lying / in a hammock, listening to a distant flute’—negates the fantasy as untenable. In its place the imaginative conception of home is invoked through the metaphor of paradise. In Ghose's recent fiction, characters artificially create a paradise for themselves. In the poetry there is ‘the illusion of a permanent paradise.’ In three different poems in Memory, the poet alludes to the image of paradise, which, in the context of the native-alien experience, acquires a density of meaning.
It is of considerable significance that in a poem such as “A Memory of Asia,” that is almost entirely concerned with the demolition of nostalgia and sentiment, the final note is that the memory of the temple, however false or fictitious, continues to remain an obsessive presence. This presence provides a thematic unity to the entire corpus of Ghose's poetry. But perspectives have changed with time, and no longer can the author resolve his quest by re-creating the past through a realistic evocation of ‘home.’ Models, based on external reality, frustrate the quest by their inadequacy, and compel the author to seek perfection and harmony through autonomous, fictional constructs. But the urgency of the quest remains as insistent as ever. In three memorable lines in “The Oceans,” the author sums up his quest: ‘I want to see again what I have seen / to confirm former convictions and to know / that a certain vision is a continuing truth’ (Memory, 29). These lines bring together the memory of a harmonious past and the present search for a vision that would resolve the dilemma of native-alien experience.
Ghose's success in creating a body of poetry that consistently thwarts an exclusively mimetic reading but nevertheless expresses the complexity of double exile is perhaps his most recent achievement. To speculate on whether this achievement eclipses that of the earlier poetry of direct and subjective statement is probably a futile exercise. As Alamgir Hashmi rightly comments: ‘Ghose is a poet with a moral passion, writing from a split-screen vision of himself in a consensus society.’33 What is undoubtedly important, however, is that the total corpus reveals an evolving continuum, which not only provides an interesting dynamic for the reader but also creates a paradigm for the study of Ghose's fiction.
SP is de-emphasized to some extent in the discussion of Ghose's poetry because it contains only twelve new poems out of a total of fifty-three.
29 Apr. 1965, 327
Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1991), 42
Christopher Ricks, ‘Desperate Hours,’ rev. of The Loss of India by Zulfikar Ghose, New Statesman, 15 Jan. 1965, 79
Universities Poetry One (1958), 29 and 30-1
Personal interview with Zulfikar Ghose, 14 Aug. 1984
On the Margins of Discourse (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 1978), 111
The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 1983), 134-5
This metaphor admittedly has its roots in pastoral literature. Annette Kolodny, who makes a study of the metaphor of ‘land-as-woman’ in American literature (in The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters [Chapter Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1975]), points out that one of America's ‘oldest and most cherished fantasies’ is that ‘of a daily reality of harmony between man and nature based on an experience of the land as essentially feminine—that is, not simply the land as mother, but the land as woman, the total female principle of gratification—enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose, and painless and integral satisfaction’ (4). Kolodny's study, however, is psycho-historical in that the metaphor combines psychological yearning with ‘the inherently feminine reality of the vast American landscape’ (150). For Ghose, the symbol of ‘land-as-woman’ might have its roots in childhood memories of Sialkot, but for the most part he uses this metaphor to create a private body of mythology to structure his writings.
‘A Liking for Larkin,’ rev. of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, Ambit 20 (1964), 53-4
The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber and Faber 1964), 9
Pakistan Quarterly 14 (Winter 1966), 11
Perspective and the Poetic Process (Paris: Mouton 1968), 12
The Hawk in the Rain (London: Faber and Faber 1957), 14. An equally effective parallel is the admirable little poem ‘Preconception’ by B. S. Johnson, which uses the metaphor of a precocious child to study the process of poetic creation. See Penguin Modern Poets 25 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1975), 149
The New Poetry: Considerations Towards Open Form (Dunedin, NZ: Pilgrims South Press 1981), 28
Ambit 23 (1965), 45
‘Ordinary Life,’ rev. of The Violent West by Zulfikar Ghose, New Statesman, 21 Jul. 1972, 97
28 Jul. 1972, 873
Conte, Unending Design, 25
Paterson, The New Poetry, 29
The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1980), 36
Patricia Merivale, who originated this phrase, uses it to define certain self-reflexivities in the writings of Nabokov and Borges. See ‘The Flaunting of Artifice in Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges,’ in Nabokov: The Man and His Work, ed. by L. S. Dembo, 209-24 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1967). I have used this phrase in all the chapters to denote writing that draws attention to itself by laying bare its devices.
Paterson, The New Poetry, 36
‘A “Stylized Motif of Eagle Wings Woven”: The Selected Poems of Zulfikar Ghose,’ World Literature Today 66/1 (1992), 66-9
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8117
SOURCE: Kanaganayakam, Chelva. “Going Home: Figures of Enchantment and The Triple Mirror of the Self.” In Structures of Negation: The Writings of Zulfikar Ghose, pp. 158-76. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Kanaganayakam examines Figures of Enchantment and The Triple Mirror of the Self in terms of Ghose's feelings of diaspora, noting that Ghose's writing at this point addresses the lack of a homeland and that his writing style reflects an attempt to recreate a “home” environment, with all its contradictory elements.]
Zulfikar Ghose's ongoing preoccupation with the thematics of exile and native-alien experience, the ambiguities that underline the relation between text and reality, and the problematic status of language as a vehicle for consciousness becomes increasingly evident in his next novel, Figures of Enchantment. A moment that comes to mind is the first meeting between Popayan, the magician and at times the novelist-surrogate in the novel, and Federico, the ill-fated exile, condemned to pursue an always compulsive and inevitably futile quest for a satisfying vision of permanence. As Federico stands outside Popayan's shop and wonders if the latter's magic would reverse the circumstances that torment him, Popayan, from inside, appraises the boy:
Popayan had seen the boy earlier, standing outside and looking at the articles in the shop window a few minutes after the cafe proprietor from across the street had come to change a note. The boy had a haunted look, the kind he had seen on people who had the compulsion to flee, an anxiety to be leaving some place, without knowing what they were running from, and, in the majority of cases, not even knowing that they were engaged in flight. He himself had known the demon that could suddenly possess the soul and draw it to some landscape as if it were a bird migrating from a dusty scrubland, where it had twittered and warbled, that can discover the full range of its singing voice only when it finds itself, after a journey forced by blind instinct, in a cool, dark forest that is as unlike its native habitat as is the terrain of the moon from that of the earth.
The passage, with its deliberate pronominal ambiguities, passive structures, repetitions, multiple clauses that resist closure, and essentially metaphoric mode of writing, leads the reader away from the immediate referential context to one that foregrounds language and artifice. The identification between the two anticipates Popayan's subsequent gesture of giving Federico an amulet (significantly, shaped like a book) and a gown (again, with stars and crescents on it) that would pass on to Federico the power of the artist and the torment of quest. The passive construction of ‘compulsion to flee,’ combined with ‘haunted’ and ‘demon,’ point to levels of consciousness that are dimly perceived, to the disturbing presence of the Other, which can neither be fully comprehended nor totally abandoned. The juxtaposition of ‘twittered and warbled’ with ‘dusty scrubland’ suggests paradoxes that involve a sense of place, identity, and exile. Finally, the possibility of discovering the ‘full range’ of one's singing voice only in a fictive construct that hardly resembles the one left behind raises questions that relate to reality, artifice, and language.
The dualities in the passage allude to more general concerns in Ghose's writing, concerns that involve exile, margins, fiction, and artifice. Apart from the early works, Ghose's prose has tended to steer away from referentiality and impose a distance between historical circumstance and fictional text. The recent novels have been largely experimental and innovative in their preoccupation with magic-realistic modes. The notion of home persists in these works, although they appear transformed and distanced by the narrative mode. The movement away from structures that are recognizably referential or post-colonial does not signify a negation of historical consciousness or departure from the ‘margin’ to the ‘centre.’ Rather, it points to an aesthetic awareness of complexities that refuse to be circumscribed by the mimetic mode, and a desire to prevent a naïve ‘participation’ in order to elicit a complex response from the reader. The forces that provide the impetus to write can still be located in a post-colonial context. Wilson Harris, writing of Ghose's poetry, quite rightly points out that ‘the black roots of memory in the perverse garden on dusty or hollow place are imbued with unconscious illumination and sacrament because they run deeper than a mere progression of fortunate or tragic circumstance.’2 The deeper and more complex the perception the more insistent becomes the need to create fictive constructs. In a meditative moment, the author himself wonders, ‘Strange life, isn't it, when we pursue counterfeits and are obliged to be content with the illusion of having once again arrived at the original?’3
The notion of a created world is central to an understanding of Figures of Enchantment, although what is significant about this phase, which includes The Triple Mirror of the Self, is a gradual narrowing between text and historical context. Figures does not abandon its quest for reality; nor does it jettison a mode that provides the illusion of referentiality. What it eschews is a recognizable and often misleading underpinning of historical circumstance. It refuses to participate in what could be a misleading historiography. In fact, apart from a brief and inconsequential reference to Delhi, the novel steers clear of the South Asian context. The novel, set in an unnamed South American country and concerned with characters who have no ostensible relation to India or Pakistan, takes place at a time that is deliberately indeterminate and tempts the reader to look at the novel as a solipsistic text. And yet Ghose reminds us in his critical writings that his art is intensely personal: ‘Fictions suggest themselves to a writer as images floating in the dimension of Time that must be ordered to form a believable story that might appear to have nothing to do with the writer's own self and yet, when the fragments of the narrative are inspected from an altered perspective, the revelation is suddenly desperately personal.’4Figures mediates between two kinds of discourse, one mimetic and the other non-referential. The novel takes the form of several micro-narratives, each one exemplifying a paradigm that provides the promise of revelation. The paradigms are varied, ranging from love story to adventure tale and quest. These larger structures incorporate other paradigms, which include marriage and detection. Each micro-narrative functions in an ostensibly mimetic mode, although the promised revelations are often subverted at the end. Each narrative, while remaining largely self-sufficient, is also linked to the macro-narrative by strategies that involve character, locale, and linearity. Thus even a diachronic reading provides a level of meaning, although it hardly addresses the issue of relevancy.
Inevitably, the inadequacy of a diachronic and sequential reading leads to the more complex structures that inform the novel, ones that are suggested by the metafictional episodes, the range of language, the patterns of repetition, the structure of myth, and the rewriting of canonical texts. The description of Mariana watching with undivided attention the hackneyed sentimentality of a soap opera alerts the reader to issues of linearity, illusion, and time itself. The reader, succumbing to the hypnotic pull of the ‘story,’ recognizes that the TV series is, in fact, a comment on the novel itself and that time, which becomes crucial to the TV series, is, in fact, a chimera in the context of the novel. The narrator, having commented that time is none other than ‘a persuasion of the mind,’ adds: ‘time was created anew in each consciousness, the conception changing with the experience, being a response to varying degrees of pleasure or pain, and when this felt presence of the nonexistent became too unbearable an oppression, one turned to magic—a dream, a drug—for deliverance’ (187). Thus the negation of time and presence of magic become crucial to the novel, which creates structures of repetition, each one with a difference, thereby suggesting the authorial intention of creating fictive constructs that are loosely linked together in order to test the power of fiction to reveal reality. Further clues are provided through motifs, particularly that of an albatross circling in the air above an ocean, reminding the reader of the literariness of the text, the constant preoccupation with exile, and the predatory aspects of the Other. That the albatross appears as a bird that the characters see and respond to, as a TV series that Mariana finds enthralling, as a picture whose significance escapes the characters, and in disguise as a cargo plane that opens its flaps to drop unwanted political activists into the ocean creates the impression of a palimpsest, of multiple layers of meaning that the reader must peel in order to perceive the significance of the work. Myth appears in various forms, notably in the boy Horus who must bear a cosmic burden and whose symbolic representation in the image of a falcon connects with the albatross.
A distinguishing feature, one that is not altogether surprising in the light of the author's interests and the corpus of post-colonial literature, but significant none the less, is the rewriting of The Tempest that informs this novel. Given the context of decentring that inevitably surrounds post-colonial writing, it is not surprising that the post-colonial writer often feels the need to re-evaluate historiography and reread canonical texts that embody an ideology and support a form of political and cultural hegemony. Bill Ashcroft quite rightly speaks of the ‘widespread employment of the characters and structure of The Tempest as a general metaphor for imperial-margin relations … or, more widely, to characterize some specific aspect of post-colonial society.’5 The author's critical interest in Shakespeare led to the study of Hamlet, particularly of dichotomies that involve language and silence, reality and insanity, the language of representation and the poetry of vision, in Hamlet, Prufrock, and Language. Notions of guilt, revenge, patricide, and alienation that inform Hamlet then surface in Don Bueno as structural principles. More recently, the poem “Lady Macbeth Abroad”6 draws attention to the ongoing interest in Shakespeare. Commenting on the magical realism that he has practised in his more recent novels and the inevitable critical attention paid to similarities with García Márquez, Ghose points out in an interview that he wrote a short story called “Lila of the Butterflies and Her Chronicler” that is a ‘magical realistic pastiche’ and that he ends the story with a quotation from The Winter's Tale in order to suggest that magic realism was not a recent invention. In the same interview, he adds that ‘even in [his] recent novels—A New History of Torments, Don Bueno, and Figures of Enchantment—all written after reading Márquez and all set in Latin America, what might be taken for magical realism is actually drawn from Shakespeare.’7
Relearning and rewriting Shakespeare are undoubtedly important in the author's quest for a narrative form that would express a certain reality without the snares of representationalism. No less important is rewriting Shakespeare from a post-colonial perspective, for plays like The Tempest, which deal with the politics of power; with transmission of culture; with language, identity, and sexuality; with artifice and magic, serve as a paradigm for post-colonial writers who themselves must confront the assumptions that once served to strengthen an imperial ideology and that the colonized too have internalized in the process of emancipation. At one level, a return to such texts foretells a subversive intent. At another, re-examining such texts also becomes a form of introspection, of coming to terms with the multiplicity of the post-colonial experience, of creating from a decentred perspective another centre that would reinforce the sense of Otherness.
Octavio Mannoni's Psychologie de la Colonisation (1950; English translation entitled Prospero and Caliban , Frantz Fanon's Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952; English translation entitled Black Skin, White Masks , George Lamming's Pleasure of Exile (1960), and Roberto Fernanndez Retamar's Caliban and Other Essays (1989; the essay on Caliban first appeared Casa de Las Americas in 1971), for instance, are all concerned with the politics of colonization, often from the point of view of Caliban, the dispossessed and enslaved being. Diana Brydon points out that ‘those who read The Tempest with a radical political orientation tend to champion Caliban as the first rebel to misread and re-write what he has learned under Prospero's instruction: he takes Prospero's language as his own, using it to deny Prospero's version of reality and to subvert Prospero's rule.’8 The issues often go beyond cultural and political hegemony to fears of the unconscious, which are displaced in Caliban by the colonizer. Brydon, surveying the various emphases placed by writers from different regions, asserts that while Caliban becomes the focal point of West Indian, Black American and French-Canadian writers, Miranda, the dutiful daughter and symbol of innocence in a corrupt world, fascinates the English-Canadian writer. Points of emphasis alter as a result of historical factors, degrees of assimilation, and so forth, but the paradigm remains one of central importance.
Current historical studies in India, particularly research that entails a questioning of colonial historiography, reveal so much that is fascinating and paradoxical that any attempt to rewrite The Tempest from an Indian or South Asian perspective would be a tremendous challenge. The meeting between cultures in India was not entirely confrontational, although it was based on assumptions of superiority. Gauri Viswanathan, focusing specifically on education, quite rightly comments that ‘far from alienating the Indian from his own culture, background and traditions, English education gained the image of being an agency for restoring Indian youth to an essential self and, in turn, reinserting him into the course of Western civilization.’9 Lewis Wurgaft, who deals with the element of magic in the relations between colonizer and colonized, adds that ‘for both master and subject this was a magical relationship. Both purchased a sense of omnipotent satisfaction at the expense of a retreat from reality.’10 In addition to the element of magic that forged tenuous bonds at the level of myth and religion, the whole process of British rule in India ensured a voluntary involvement of the colonized in the process of colonization. In fact, so subtle and seamless was this process that the task of dismantling the colonial past becomes something of a puzzle. And it is in this context, one in which the lines of demarcation are still far from clear, that Ghose's work becomes significant, despite the author's strategy of avoiding any overt correspondence between the text and personal/historical circumstance.
Figures of Enchantment, structured as a series of micro-narratives linked loosely together in a somewhat picaresque manner, foregrounds The Tempest at times and suggests its presence obliquely at others. The shifts are deliberate, for they determine the response of the reader and prevent an interpretation that could well become reductive, and ultimately simplistic. What the narrative attempts is to rehearse The Tempest in various forms, each one reflecting on and complementing the other, and all leading to the final episode in the deserted island where Gamboa, Federico, Hermina, and Baltazar, who represent, respectively, Prospero, Ferdinand, Miranda, and Caliban, must attempt a resolution of conflicts that involve power, gender, culture, and sexuality.
Forms of power that result in the overthrow of Prospero and the suggestion of sexual repression that characterize his obsessive preoccupation with Miranda's chastity and his subsequent exile become the starting-point of this novel as well, where Gamboa, a humble civil servant, is thwarted by a corrupt bureaucracy and a daughter whose ostensible purity is repudiated when Gamboa finds her in the arms of a young man. Issues of patriarchy, gender, sexuality, and repression merge as Gamboa, awakened rudely from his fantasy of a pastoral world of wealth and innocence, punishes the young man and then insists on a similar punishment being meted out to his daughter. He vicariously punishes his wife to rid himself of his feelings of sexual guilt. Subsequently, in a chain of surreal incidents (which, incidentally, questions the legitimacy of mimetic sequentiality), he finds himself referred to as ‘a kind of leader,’ drawn into subversive activities, arrested by security forces, then placed on a boat and abandoned in the ocean. This latter-day Prospero, now an exile, denied his daughter and the magic of patriarchy, reaches an island alone, with an unconscious desire to relive the life he has left behind without all the imperfections that attended it. Thus it is not surprising that he marries Paulina, whose innocent and powerful sensuality contrasts with the slovenliness of Sonia, and fathers Herminia, who resembles the daughter who betrayed him but displays both a divine innocence and an unquestioning submission. The novel thus provides a prologue to The Tempest, establishing the fictiveness of the construct and reinforcing that rewriting a canonical text implies not only looking at the past with a parodic intent but creating constructs that move towards regeneration.
Gamboa's life in Santa Barbara reflects many of the paradigms—political, cultural, and sexual—that relate to the colonial context. The island itself owes its sustenance to another island that establishes economic dominance by exchanging food items for precious minerals and ensuring that the inhabitants of the island are perpetually in debt. Gamboa soon marries Paulina, who becomes, in many ways, a fulfilment of the sexuality that has been repressed in Gamboa. In a significant scene in which Paulina smears her husband's semen on the walls of her hut and Gamboa decides, at that moment, that the newly built hut does not need a door, the hut becomes a symbol of the womb, of sexuality, and anticipates the subsequent birth of Herminia, who, by growing up to resemble Mariana and remaining for the most part totally innocent, becomes ‘an image of reality and an appearance of it’ (215). In terms that are not difficult to interpret in relation to Mannoni, Fanon, and Lamming, the island becomes a version of the colonizer's utopia where the power of patriarchy is never questioned, where nature is still available in its unsullied form and sexuality can be indulged in without its attendant feelings of guilt.
It is significant that the pastoral world soon dissolves as Paulina dies, thereby causing her father, Maturana, to bow his head and invite his son-in-law to beat him with his cane. The unbridled assertion of sexuality and the fantasy of Eden become a form of death, involving feelings of guilt. Soon after Maturana's death, Gamboa inherits the former's cane, and the feelings of repression return once more. It is in this context that the Baltazar/Herminia/Gamboa triangle becomes important. Baltazar, the ape-like figure, the true inhabitant of the island, is drawn to Herminia, much to the consternation of Gamboa. Unable to get rid of Baltazar, Gamboa adopts a course of action that is strongly reminiscent of Prospero's. He teaches Baltazar just enough language to make him understand commands, for Baltazar's own tongue resembles ‘the calling cries of birds, the barking of sea lions’ (120); ‘civilizes’ him by giving him clothes to cover his nakedness; domesticates him by ordering him to do household chores; and forbids him to come any closer than twelve paces from Herminia. Baltazar obeys, not out of fear, for Gamboa lacks the magic of Prospero, but because of an asexual and almost filial love for Herminia. Until the end of the narrative, he does not, unlike Caliban, rebel or even question the authority of Gamboa.
Significantly, the narrative is not, for the most part, concerned with Prospero as the oppressor, or Caliban as the dispossessed, or even Miranda as the dutiful daughter. Instead, Ferdinand, the willing sufferer, the potential son-in-law who wants an alliance with the source of power, is shown to have a more complex history and tragic destiny. Having being denied his love for Mariana, and having rejected his father, Federico then becomes a quest figure who must compulsively seek what he has lost, and in the process recognize an aspect of self that he has suppressed. Federico is at once colonizer and colonized, one who shares the guilt of the former and the alienation of the latter. His meeting with Popayan is significant, for the latter constantly surrounds himself with mathematical figures in a futile gesture to impose order on threatening chaos and to avoid a combat of Self with the Other. In a telling comment that establishes the post-colonial context, the narrator observes of Popayan: ‘as if in a voluntary exile, after making his own the language of another tribe, his own forgotten words were suddenly remembered, evoking broken images of an abandoned homeland’ (66). Popayan now gives to Federico an amulet, shaped like a book, which enables the latter to utter his wishes and have them translated into reality. In the process of doing so, the author raises interesting questions in relation to language, narrative mode, and the complex interplay between language and reality. Language does have the power to transform, as Federico soon realizes, but the constructs it provides are only an illusion of reality. In Hamlet, Prufrock, and Language, Ghose talks about the ambiguity of language when he says that ‘having the illusion that there is a necessary correspondence between language and reality, we are driven to despair when our words seem to reveal nothing,’11 and this novel affirms it. And yet the illusion is necessary, for it is the very artifice that leads to a perception of reality. As Ghose points out, ‘the mind has a quarrel with reality, having for generations rejected definitions of it while seeking with the craving of an addict, one more interpretation.’12
The fictions that Federico constructs are all versions of an earthly paradise, and each brings memories of Mariana and each in some way rewrites The Tempest. The first involves a world of unbridled sexuality and a travesty of love-making involving an older woman, Daniela, the daughter of an exile, who herself is a victim of repressions, ‘a mind riddled with guilt’ (73), that tend to disrupt her pattern of life. The house and the garden are often described in terms that recall an earthly paradise, but here too an albatross circles above the house, and the elements ravage the paradise. Significantly, when Daniela throws a wild costume party, she appears dressed like a devil, and one person comments that she represents a witch in one of the Pacific islands, a Sycorax-like figure, who ‘plays out a nightmare fantasy’ (82). Federico himself is unaware of the futility of his quest, and the reader is made aware of this dimension in an apparently unimportant episode in which a girl, after having kissed Federico on his cheeks at several spots, leaving lipstick marks, says, ‘you look as though you have a dozen blind eyes’ (73). The sexuality is both incestuous and perverse, not altogether unexpected in a ‘godforsaken paradise’ (89). The earthly paradise is soon destroyed as limbs are ‘torn from the trees,’ rose bushes ‘are nearly stripped bare’ by angry winds (99), and once more Federico, now aware of his own sexuality and the need to suppress it, leaves in order to create yet another paradise.
The second time he finds himself in a holiday resort, of ‘lush meadows … small lakes … and mountain parks’ (185), visited by men and women who live out their fantasies, and is soon a victim of the sexual overtures of older women. His dream of fulfilment turns to its opposite as he becomes a male escort, catering to the dreams of others rather than himself. The process is relentless and self-defeating, for the amulet that enables him to transform the sordidness of reality in the fantasy of art blurs his vision, and he can no longer recognize Mariana when he sees her in a hotel. His access to power, enshrined in the amulet, not unlike Prospero's wand, is both a blessing and a curse, for it provides the illusion of grandeur while underlining the condition of exile. Only when he decides to fling away the amulet, again in a manner that recalls Prospero, do the final meeting with Herminia and the confrontation with the reality of his suppressed self become possible.
Federico's arrival in the island and the chain of events that lead to the foursome, namely, Federico, Baltazar, Hermina, and Gamboa, being stranded on the island clearly underline the paradigm of Shakespeare's text. With little prospects for rescue, the four fall into a pattern of life that is as close as possible to the idyllic. Structures of power are muted, and sexuality is sublimated as an agrarian form of life is established with colonizer and colonized working together for the common good. Significantly, Herminia protects and is protected by Baltazar, and the empathy is so strong that Herminia is even willing to take on the guilt of Baltazar. In short, here is a syncretic world where Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and Caliban coexist in a state of harmony.
And yet the stability of the earthly paradise is tenuous, for Gamboa is tormented by thoughts of betrayal and exile, thoughts that threaten his sanity and that he, like Popayan, tries to suppress through figures in an effort to encode and restrict the metaphysical and abstract in a mathematical order. The pain of exile is never forgotten, for when Gamboa looks at Federico, the narrator comments that ‘the two looked at each other, seeing in the other's face the features of the outcast, the sadness of infinite exile’ (217). Memories of volcanic eruptions, quicksand that lies waiting for its prey, and stingrays that swim in enticing stretches of water form part of the backdrop. Baltazar, awakened to his own sexuality, finds Herminia sexually attractive. In an unexpected moment, Federico observes that Herminia ‘appeared … to have become transformed to the likeness of Baltazar’ (243). And Federico, wanting to suppress his innermost desires, is racked by his conscience. Identities, forged by tradition, circumstance, and repression, become increasingly difficult to sustain and threaten to transform into less acceptable ones. The conflicts merge when Baltazar, unable to control his impulses any longer, attempts to seduce Herminia, and Federico, having rescued her, takes off after Baltazar, driven compulsively to seek revenge, for he recognizes, in a flash, that without his clothes he would be a mirror image of Baltazar. The moment coincides with the arrival of a boat, and Herminia, no longer innocent or content with her role, leaves the island with her demented father. Federico's chase takes on the quality of an archetypal quest, or a journey into the self until, at the end, the two confront each other and die locked in an embrace, in a gesture that symbolically questions and dismantles the stereotypes of colonizer and colonized. In Popayan's words, it is a moment of ‘falling against the Other and the Other against him in a final transformation of substance in the violent glow of sunset’ (66).
To attempt to draw a precise correspondence between the novel and a historical, biographical, or even a literary context would be to force a simplistic reading of the work. To claim that Figures of Enchantment attempts to rewrite the story of Caliban, reinforce the inevitability of the dependence on Prospero, seek a syncretic vision through Miranda, or see in Ferdinand a possible (or parodic) prototype for the South Asian experience of colonialism would be to obscure the effect of a narrative that offers ambiguities. If the novel stresses a recognition of the self—political, cultural, and sexual—as a condition of freedom, it also asserts that the recognition offers no comforting resolution. The condition of exile remains, and this novel, not unlike Ghose's earlier ones, creates yet another paradigm to address the complexity of cultural conflict, of divided loyalties, of the paradox of having to live with an inheritance that at once enriches and alienates. What is perhaps a crucial aspect of this novel is its involvement with a master narrative in a manner that serves the dual function of preserving aesthetic distance while offering a perspective that foretells a movement in the direction of greater mimesis.
The appearance of The Triple Mirror of the Self one year after the publication of Zulfikar Ghose's The Art of Creating Fiction constitutes an interesting coincidence, for the juxtaposition reinforces the complexity, the ambivalence, the resistance to easy generalizations that one associates with the author's corpus. They represent, at least on the surface, antithetical positions. The duality also recalls a similar pattern in his recent short stories that self-consciously defamiliarize the text and his critical essays that speak of socio-political realities. If the short story entitled “General Bakra and Cooker the Cardinal Cock”13 compels a non-referential and allegorical reading, the two essays “Brazilian Beaches, Buenos Aires and Plaza Pakistan”14 and “Going Home”15 are unambiguously referential in their concern with ‘public’ issues. The latter, in particular, is literally about the author's visit to Pakistan after a period of twenty-eight years and his response the political and social conditions of the country.
Ghose's critical work The Art of Creating Fiction adopts a stance that, at one level, could be seen as ahistorical, one that deplores works that foreground their message and derive their force from being insistently tendentious. In some ways a continuation of his two previous critical works, this book-length study of the process and analysis of writing shows greater impatience with works that see no distinction between ideology and aesthetic merit and denounces ‘sermons, philosophical essays, and sociological pamphlets’ (Art, 61) that parade as art. Ideology as sole evaluative criterion is dismissed by the author who claims that ‘a new ideology forces an obnoxious revisionism and harasses critical minds to accept its mediocrity as the only art possible’ (Art, 154). Preoccupations that are often viewed as centrally post-colonial are treated with scepticism by the author: ‘On the question of writing about socio-political topics, leave the important issues of the time to journalism and television talk shows and if you're really enraged by an issue and feel a pressing need to be involved then take up politics. Attempts to write stories about such issues invariably end by producing a shrilly propagandist prose’ (Art, 35). And yet The Triple Mirror of the Self, a novel that was published one year later, is predominantly post-colonial in its preoccupation with the politics of power and identity, and is both personal and autobiographical in its overall structure. If this novel does not flaunt its message, it certainly provides a forthright criticism of the nationalist project in India. Even in the section that relates to the imaginary Suxavat in South America, the subtext of politics, exile, and identity is hard to miss. When, for instance, the village is attacked by a rapacious gang, the narrator, Urim, is immediately reminded of a time when General Dyer ordered his men to fire indiscriminately into unarmed men and women in what came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Wondering about the passions evoked by Horuxtla, Urim thinks of ‘that moment of hallucination that possessed me as I lay in a cousin's house in Karachi after the flight from London when I awoke dripping in a darkened room and saw the figure of the girl, her hands held out with an offering, make a phantom appearance and elude me for nearly thirty years and finally stand before me in the person of Horuxtla’ (11).16 Despite the imaginative transformation and the obvious hiatus between author and narrator, the reader thinks of the year 1962, when Ghose first returned to Pakistan and India as reporter for The Observer to cover the MCC tour of India and Pakistan. The ‘faction’—perhaps a term more applicable to this novel than to any other that preceded it—becomes a lot clearer in the third section of the novel when the lovesick Roshan quotes Byron to Miss Bhosle, thereby recalling intertextually the ‘Byron of Bombay,’ as the author refers to himself in Confessions. In fact, the ambiguity of the name—Roshan is an unusual name for a Muslim—parallels the ambiguity of the author choosing to retain the Hindu name ‘Ghose.’ Ghose speaks about the circumstances that brought about the Hindu name in Confessions, and in this work the adoption of ‘MKG’ as abbreviation for the company owned by Roshan's father serves a similar purpose. In addition to stressing the autobiographical element in the novel, the ambiguity that surrounds the various names draws attention to shifting identities and the ambivalence of living in such turbulent times.
The final section of Triple Mirror entitled ‘Origins of the Self’ locates itself in Bombay and deals with the life of Roshan, a Muslim who grows up in the midst of Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsees, whose idyllic life turns into a nightmare when he becomes a victim of the Partition and who finally decides to leave the country. All these are possibly fictions that draw on historical realities, but, as the author himself points out, ‘there is no denying that the central experience is autobiographical.’17 More significantly, this section of the novel is perhaps the most ‘public’ of his works, more so than The Murder of Aziz Khan and Contradictions, although these early works do incorporate events of historical significance. Roshan's ‘accident’ is a direct consequence of anti-Muslim violence and serves as a synecdoche for the violence that erupted on the eve of Independence in India. Gatherings, even among friends, quickly become political as emotions run high. Roshan admits that, between him and Chandru, despite their friendship and loyalty to each other, their religious difference is a constant presence. The focus on marginality, religious fanaticism, and the politics of Indian nationalism establish a crucial link between the private world of the novel and the public world of India before and after Independence.
This section is also about dispossession, not simply by the vicissitudes of history but also by a grandfather whose dreams of a past of opulence and possession assume the status of truth until their exposure drives home the absence of ownership. The grandfather's lie about the land is not simply the whim of an eccentric old man, eager to get his daughter married. It relates to ownership, pride in the past, and historical continuity. The entire final section, ‘Origins of the Self,’ is about growing up in Bombay, about colonialism, the politics of nationalism, the fascination with Britain, and exile. This section is insistently, almost defiantly, mimetic, and the moments of referential slippage hardly dispel the linearity and the sense of verifiable reality. The pain of the dispossessed and the anger of betrayal come across in all their intensity when the narrator comments: ‘Long years ago when the living heart was plucked out of my body and I watched the women kneeling beside Gandhi's bed and saw the hour had come when he must break his fast for the woman who held the glass in her hand had begun to raise it to his lips. Drink, father, my blood’ (322). A passionate commitment to the past, to the circumstances that alienated and exiled the Muslims during the Partition is what distinguishes this section of the novel. It adopts a mode and a subject-matter that Ghose has repeatedly shunned, not because they are not of concern, but because their articulation is problematic in that they take forms that falsify and simplify. If colonization created an Other to further its ideology, decolonization, by creating its own Other, often recapitulated the process. Seen in binary terms, the colonial enterprise and its consequences permit little ambivalence. As Ghose points out, ‘our political thinking is European. When we think of liberty or justice or human rights, the vocabulary of our thinking comes from Europe and America.’18 And this dimension of complicity and syncretism is often lost sight of in a vast majority of novels that deal with the politics of decolonization.
If this section stands apart from the rest, its preoccupations are not divorced from the rest of the novel. In fact, the entire novel moves towards this section. The sense of liminality that includes the personal and the public connects the multiple, and often perplexing, narratives that make up this work. It connects, for instance, the second section of the novel, where Maria Isabel, wife of Shimomura and daughter of a man who served as Minister of the Interior in a repressive government in Peru, finds herself tormented by thoughts of Andean and Amazonian America, the world she jettisoned in favour of the glitter and material success afforded by the United States: ‘The present, she knew she could come to terms with; but the past, with its huge gap of absence, would become, she feared, if it was not already, a source of infinite sadness’ (162). Her quest for a remembered past leads her into the interior, into parodic rehearsals of power, and into what is at once a tragic and ironic conclusion. The narrative that includes Isabel and Shimomura is clearly framed by a realism that is itself unlike, say, that of Don Bueno. But its realism is a tenuous one, emphasized only to be questioned. That it is a ‘history’ reconstructed by the pretentious and fatuous Jonathan Pons is in itself a factor that distances the experience. The satire directed at academics is recognizably real, and the narrative thread as the novel moves from England to Arizona serves as a reminder of similar journeys by the author; but the referential is clearly suspect. If the ‘colonial’ portion of the novel is decidedly realistic, the ‘neocolonial’ is real without becoming referential.
The magic realism of the second section that deals with Shimomura and Isabel is at a remove from the mimesis of the final section that deals with Roshan. But they also complement each other in that one completes the process initiated by the other. That the two adopt different narrative modes underscores the complex relation between artifice and experience and alerts the reader to the novel's ongoing self-reflexivity.
Isabel's compulsive urge to be both ‘voyager’ and ‘pilgrim’ is not unlike the impulse in Urim who, in a similar situation, leaves the once-perfect village of Suxavat after several incidents, all of which are familiar in a colonial and post-colonial context, destroys the self-sufficiency and unity of the village, and follows Horuxtla who, having guided him through treacherous territory in what resembles an archetypal quest and giving him the sexual fulfilment that he once craved, disappears, leaving him in the jungles of South America where he sees, in a moment of vision, the Hindu Kush. On the one hand, the text explores the despair that comes with absence and repeatedly points to moments when pathetic attempts are made to relive the past: ‘Nothing comes back of the past, ceremony is dead in us, and though we inhale the smoke of the forbidden leaf and call to our brains to summon ancestral apparitions, no stimulant works, no dream awakens, nothing comes back of the past’ (147). On the other, the novel describes a wide range of journeys, all of which constantly remind the reader of an unceasing quest for a satisfying vision of permanence: ‘You escape from one region to another, slipping into areas of denser shadows, and begin to believe the body is at last flattened like a leaf on the muddy bed of a drying river, with a fossil's future of an eternity of death, when the rains or melting snows in remote regions send a wall of water crashing upon you, and you must rise, be born again from water, seek the lovely grassy ground where light falls through the tall trees and catches the sheen of a woman's hair who is just then stooping where a fruit has fallen’ (4). Urim's world is that of liminality, of indeterminacy and illusion. It is a world characterized by magic and artifice. The village locates itself on the cusp between Brazil and Peru, and the name of the narrator, like the plant from his name is derived, stresses exile: ‘I am not a native of this region, no more than the scaly-barked urimbola tree with its kidney-shaped leaves which rooted itself to this soil by some accident of the wind. Seeking no further than the immediate objects of nature for additions to nomenclature, the natives named me after the immigrant tree: Urimba, the scattered one’ (3).
Rituals that recall a lost age intensify the sense of dispossession. And such attempts at transformation, which the narrator compares with ‘blue-eyed Americans in orange-coloured robes chanting the praises of Krishna’ (16), are juxtaposed with pure magic that serves as an ironic reminder of the futility of preserving an empty ritual. When a masked procession from another village attempts to recreate the rituals of another age, the ‘artful rendering of a former reality’ soon becomes a farce and the celebration soon becomes its opposite, an unconscious subversion. Against this is the skill of the village magicians who create tangible constructs only to dissolve them as unreal. The implied contrast leads to notions as narrative as one of the magicians, Bastianini, remarks that ‘the artist is the inventor of reality and reality is only an illusion’ (79). Thus, while the sense of dispossession is real, the narrative hardly permits a referential reading. Even the constant references to India provide no more than a momentary pause. The total absorption and celebration of artifice reminds one of Ghose's comment that ‘the only certain reality is that which is known to be an appearance, something made up to serve a theory of aesthetics which in itself is an illusory puzzle obliging humans to argue the infinite ways in which it may sensibly be assembled’ (Art, 21). Having thus problematized the relation between fiction and reality, the author introduces the narrator's obsession with Horuxtla, herself an outsider, who serves the function of being both the guide to and the source of fulfilment. That she gives herself to those who hardly desire her, and even to the repulsive Nebbola—the man who talks to his shadow—intensifies her allegorical function. She eventually guides Urim out of the village, gives him the sexual union he craves in a moment that is described in terms that suggest both consummation and cremation, and then disappears, confirming her function as part guide and part illusion. And Urim comments: ‘I uttered aloud the name Horuxtla, an echo sounded in my brain a little while after the word had died on my lips and repeated the name differently. There was no Horuxtla. The name echoing in my brain was not Horuxtla. Staring at the high peaks, in a land of origins, the sound I heard was The Hindu Kush’ (97).
The Hindu Kush, a mountain range that functions as a metaphor for dispossession and vision, is a motif that connects the non-sequential narrative structure and unifies the multiplicity of the novel. If the first part of the novel, the story of Urim and Horuxtla in South America, is characterized by magic and the third part in India by realism, the middle, set in the United States and Peru and concerned with Shimomura and Isabel, adopts the mode of magic realism that one is familiar with in the writings of Ghose. All three narratives and modes form three facets of a mirror, three reincarnations of a central concern with the margins, with forms of exile. In the process of creating three micro-narratives rather than a unified narrative that preserves sequentiality and linearity, Ghose essentially problematizes the relation between fiction and autobiography, the public and the private, mimesis and counter-realism. As the character Jonathan Pons admits, the relation among reality, realism, and language is inevitably complex: ‘It was then that I realized that I must concern myself only with that language which would rediscover, oh, not some miserable truth which is a paltry thing, but the precise detail embedded in the florid, passionate, miraculous and infinitely elusive figures that haunt memory, to reinvent the idea itself of reality after discovering that reality, poor thing, has no existence at all’ (194).
The novel begins as the first-person narrative of Urim until the famous Latin American realist Valentin Sadaba reveals that what the reader has been given is the incomplete manuscript of a traveller. That the manuscript get into the hands of the great realist is not without significance, particularly in a text that adopts multiple modes. The text is then in the hands of an ambitious academic called Jonathan Pons who discovers, to his astonishment, that his name appears in the manuscript and he must now fill the gaps and complete the text. He is both participant and critic, a symbol of the real and a figment of the imagination. The intermingling of the real and the fictive leads to the mixture of modes, the conflicting voices, the metafictional comments—in short, the creation of a work that both completes and deconstructs itself at the same time. It provides, for instance, the context for the presence of Alicia, who as teacher and lover of Roshan not only plays a crucial role in Roshan's life but also alerts the reader to the multiplicity of an Indian social ethos that is often taken to be homogeneous. It also provides for the presence of Horuxtla, part woman and part demon, whose role in the life of Urim destroys any notion of mimesis but forces an awareness of subjective states that transcend the social and political and lead to moments of heightened awareness of one's inner compulsions.
The text poses curious and often bewildering problems. Why does, for instance, the story of a Pathan in India who robs a bank and then scatters the money on the streets strike the reader as being more believable than that of Tambour in Puru Sá who makes enormous sums of money and then gives them away until he is left with nothing? Why does the promiscuity of Alicia's household demand to be read as referential while Horuxtla's lasciviousness needs to be seen as allegorical? If both are to be treated as fictive, then what is their relation to the sociopolitical realities that have occasioned the fiction? None of these matters is easily resolved, and the text forces the reader to adopt points of view that are often contradictory. To see Roshan, Shimomura, and Urim as part of a continuum is to adopt what is probably an ahistorical stance. At the same time, this viewpoint refuses to live with re-creations and craves for the authentic while being conscious of the futility of the quest. Roshan belongs to a world of verifiable reality, while Urim lives in and belongs to a world of myth. To foreground one at the expense of the other is to misread the text.
The power of the novel derives from its capacity to perplex and force a revaluation of notions that one often assumes to be truth. If The Art of Creating Fiction and The Triple Mirror of the Self appear to adopt adversarial positions, it is because they insist that the multiplicity of experiences that are often contained in neat formulations necessitates contradictions. Hence it is hardly surprising that the magic of Urim and the realism of Jonathan Pons co-exist in the narrative. If neither of these proves satisfactory, should one seek out the mode of Valentin Sadaba whose fame as a Latin American realist is often referred to but whose craft is never demonstrated? Ghose's recent essays and stories have shown an increasing preoccupation with the world that uprooted him. Having distanced himself so far from the conditions that displaced him, he appears to have come full circle. Writing about Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, he comments that the novel contains ‘a magic realist structure in which autobiographical experience is transformed into an exuberant and colourful mask behind which is glimpsed the author's own sadness.’19 The same could be said of his recent work. In his corpus The Triple Mirror of the Self signifies a point of departure, a much-needed ‘homecoming,’ one that is, as in real life, often ambiguous but always necessary.
Figures of Enchantment (New York: Harper & Row 1986); hereinafter cited as Figures.
‘A Note on Zulfikar Ghose's “Nature Strategies,”’ The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9/2 (1989), 178
Letter from Zulfikar Ghose, 11 Dec. 1986
The Art of Creating Fiction (London: Macmillan 1991), 27; hereinafter cited as Art
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge 1989), 190
The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9/2 (1989), 137-9
Reed Way Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla, ‘A Conversation with Zulfikar Ghose,’ The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9/2 (1989), 151
‘Re-writing The Tempest,’ World Literature Written in English 23/1 (1984), 75
Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press 1989), 134
The Imperial Imagination: Magic and Myth in Kipling's India (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press 1983), 58
(New York: St Martin's 1978), 8
The Fiction of Reality (London: Macmillan 1983), 2
The Toronto South Asian Review 10/2 (1992), 54-63
The Toronto South Asian Review 8/2 (1990), 3-10
The Toronto South Asian Review 9/2 (1991), 15-22
The Triple Mirror of the Self (London: Bloomsbury 1992); hereinafter cited as Triple Mirror
Letter from Zulfikar Ghose, 10 Mar. 1992
The Toronto South Asian Review 8/2 (1990), 8
Letter from Zulfikar Ghose, 10 Mar. 1992
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2611
SOURCE: Gaur, June. “Beyond Personal History: Zulfikar Ghose's Confessions of a Native-Alien.” Literary Criterion 31, nos. 1-2 (1996): 63-70.
[In the following review of Ghose's autobiography, Confessions of a Native-Alien, Gaur draws parallels between Ghose's feelings of displacement and alienation and the diaspora of people from lands that were once part of India, as well as Indian nationals who live abroad.]
My first strategy was to be excused the trial: I wasn't a voluntary participant and why, I asked, should I imperil my existence. …
It was worse than making a fool of oneself in a quiz game on T.V. For which the prize was a microwave oven. …
(From “The Counter-Riddle” by Zulfikar Ghose)
Almost anybody who has had the temerity to talk about a book in the presence of its author, will appreciate what is like to be in such a situation. Zulfikar Ghose himself was somewhat apologetic—“Lord, how pretentious I was!”—about his autobiography written 35 years ago when he was only twenty-six. “Why on earth would anyone want to read Confessions of a Native-Alien today?” he asked.
“Confessions” has a religious connotation that goes back to St. Augustine and the genre invented by him. When Rousseau wrote his “Confessions” “as a man speaking to men”, rather than as a sinner addressing God, he was not to know that he was providing early Romanticism with a much needed form. In a post-Christian Cosmology, the search for truth or God, the subject of all confessions, becomes, complex and frustrating, as the scrutiny is directed towards the self with which Romanticism replaced the transcendent God.
“I want to know myself,” Ghose confides in his autobiography, and that is why, “moving in my own present, recording it, I reflect on my past, finding in it images that experience and the passage of time have synthesized into some meaning, some whole.” He makes a conscious effort to be “precise, unsentimental and truthful” in the search for design in his life. “Its difficult” he admits. So he creates personae that aren't just fantasies but different approaches to the same self: the desperate lover, the struggling poet, the anxious alien, each of these definable with an abstraction which is its correlate: Woman, Language, Country. If this paper focuses on the last of these abstractions—Country—it's because Ghose's search for an identity, roots, a country to call his own, dominates the book, and, in facing up to the stark reality of the historical situation, of his being both culturally and geographically displaced—a writer without a society, a man without a country—he could be facing up to his deepest self-knowledge.
His story begins with a recognition of this fundamental state of his being:
When we left Bombay in 1952 for England, we were leaving two countries, for in some way we were alien to both and our emigration to a country to which we were not native only emphasized our alienation from the country in which we had been born.
Ghose, born in Sialkot in present-day Pakistan, had a childhood and adolescence in Bombay before his family migrated to England. The distinction between the two countries of his early life, which is also the schizophrenic theme of much of his thinking, created a psychological conflict and a pressing need to know that he belonged somewhere. Neither the conflict nor the need has ever been resolved.” I suppose that because there is no place I can possibly belong to in the common nationalistic sense therefore my mind has transformed that compulsion to an aesthetic one, as if the only object of my preoccupation were the definition of beauty,” he declared in a recent interview.
The sadness of exile permeates his Confessions; anybody reading the book can feel what the loss of India has meant to Zulfikar Ghose and why, ever since having been uprooted from India, he seems to have been looking for a landscape which would compensate for that traumatic loss. A kaleidoscope of images remains etched on his mind. A house in Sialkot with a courtyard where grew a guava tree, a pomegranate bush and some scraggly periwinkles. A river where buffalo bathed, a mosque that had a goldfish pond, uncle Idris' wedding and the banquet that followed.
I need to recall these images, these fragments of the past and the present, to convince myself that I am not alone, that somewhere, whether to some soft bosom, whether to some cool bank of earth, I belong, where I can rest.
Each image triggers the release of several others. Of the earthquake in Quetta, of Jammu, of the Punjab Mail cutting through the great, dusty plains, right down the middle of the sub-continent fringing seven-year old Zulfikar to the enormous new world that awaited him in Bombay. Then, Bombay, more than Delhi, was the centre of the British Indian Empire because it was quite literally the gateway to India, and Zulfikar's serious schooling began in Bombay. He learnt the English alphabet, grew up and became possessed by English literature. At fifteen, he performed a condensed version of Hamlet in a Bombay theatre—a farcical piece, no doubt, but the impulse behind it was a growing love of the English language. Of course, that possibly had its roots in wanting to be accepted by the ruling class which was why people of his generation went out of their way to cultivate a snobbish English air.
By a coincidence, in 1946 when the communal rioting was at its worst, Zulfikar fell on his back and suffered a kidney hemorrhage. He came close to dying and, in retrospect, a symbolic death did seem to have taken place:
Each day the blood was running out and I was shrinking in my hospital bed, just as the India I had known was dying outside. In my mind my own illness and the murders in India, which I saw as an illness, will always have a singular identity.
He had to learn to walk again and when he returned to the land of the living, he found it much changed. A catastrophe awaited him at school. Hindi, the language of independent India, had become compulsory. He felt the British had abandoned him.
At seventeen, he fell in love. His parents found out and “Mother wept. I was the shame of the family. Father ordered me not to go to school.” So he caught the first train out of Bombay, swearing never to return home again.
I left the train at Khandala, bought a packet of cigarettes at the station and headed for the most foreboding mountain aspect that came to view. It was green and liquid now that the monsoons were over. Waterfalls and brooks rattled in the air, possessing my body with new passions. I tramped on and on into the thick green, the lovely water. Pausing to smoke, It felt as though my body was thinning out into a mist and curling itself on the mountain-side. Then there was a valley. All mine. The trees dripped with my sweat, the grass was hair on my body, and my eyes glinted from pebbles in the streams. I tore off my clothes and stood naked in my own land.
Having been displaced from what was India under the British, the family felt that they could have no place on the subcontinent and emigration seemed their best option. But before they left, the family would journey across the country to Delhi. To see the India which Delhi would never see—
the population to whom religion and political freedom were not even words, to whom the only reality was bread and the earth that denied them bread.
Travelling in an old Buick across hazardous roads on which they symbolically negotiated with the country, the family gazed wistfully out of the car windows. They watched the country turn around them in all its facets of stone and water:
Oh India! Gaudy and unpredictable and unmanageable and yet, somewhere, all elegance and the curtsying of peacocks.
They watched with admiration and pity, love and hate
as one may handle a jewel in a shop knowing that he can never purchase it, so that he can both praise its beauty and denigrate the people who, he feels, will abuse the preciousness of the object.
About this chapter—called across sacred rivers—Ghose is somewhat defensive:
The prose which is supposed to be poetical is in fact only precise, there's nothing exotic there at all. When an aspect of my work is called exotic, I feel as if I am being accused of deliberately piling up an imagery calculated to produce a certain enchantment in the western reader, an accusation really of obsequiousness. I am by birth an outsider to the language in which I write. I, therefore, take greater pains when I try to shape that language to some imaginative end than probably would a native in that language.; this is not because I am more fastidious or in any way superior, but because I am terrified of being found out to be an outsider and therefore easily maligned, ridiculed and persecuted, which is the common fate of outsiders.
In England, at the University of Keele, one's nationality didn't count—A brief chapter in the autobiography is devoted to his stay at Keele. “What images of Keele recur in my mind are fragmentary and are a metaphor for what was more important to us all—freedom.” 1960 marked the rooting of the West in his consciousness:
My closest friendships spring from that year. And if love and work, one's attachments and preoccupations give one a sense of belonging to a place, then I belonged to England in 1960.
But the restlessness returned, the search for the self in his divided world—one half developed and progressive, the other backward and underdeveloped—continued. The yearning to return possessed him: He would give everything for the life of a simple Steinbeckian peasant. In 1961 his father scraped together enough money for him to accompany the M.C.C. as a cricket reporter, on their tour of the subcontinent.
At first, there was euphoria; the landscape excited his senses, made him want to give up all the western sophistications to be able to live life at an elemental level: To be scraping dung-cakes off a wall and to be making a slow fire with them; to be taking the oxen to a pool of water and bathing there with them; to be lying at night with a wife who had never heard of lipstick and to whom bread and milk and children were the only important things in life. … Then alone would belonging to the land be meaningful.
A week after his arrival, 30 people are killed in communal rioting and the mood of sentimental nostalgia wears off. Other realities begin to intrude as the tour crows in its images of plenty and want, happiness and maddening frustration. His impulses become ambivalent, contradictory and complex—scorn and love, anger and compassion go hand in hand and become inextricably entangled in his images. The sugarcane and mustard fields in the Punjab; the Arabian Sea in Bombay; a grove of eucalyptus trees near Bangalore—juxtaposed with beggars and people who spit anywhere and lavatories that overflow. The people with whom he is identified by all the physical characteristics, he now finds curious. In a chapter significantly titled “The Native Abroad”, he records his feelings:
This is not my country. I am an alien here. I have the same paranoic sensation of being watched by people, being pointed out with whispers of “He doesn't belong here,” which I experienced when I would walk around Putney Heaty day after day during the years we lived near there.
The duality of Love and Hate, of belonging and total alienation threaten to overwhelm him. His mind refuses to live on in conflict. He must withdraw, find rest from torment.
Towards the end of the tour, chance brings that image of peace and quiet with which his inner self seeks to appease itself. It comes to him in the jungles close to the Bay of Bengal when he is exhausted from seeing too much beauty and hearing too much silence. In a flash of illuminating insight it dawns on him, that the only way for him to possess the land is to merge himself with it, completely and physically, as he had done in the mountains near Bombay, all these years ago. He must mix his body with the elements and come out either purified or bruised:
I walked towards the sea, alone, some two miles away. I took off my shirt, my trousers, my underwear. I ran naked into the sea. My body whirled in the water: now it was the white horizon where the sea tipped over the side of the earth, now the banks of the river, now the jungle rising up the hill, as I whirled, whirled, and all life was that moment of existence, being, at one with the clear water and the air and the sky and the earth around.
Then language, and money and convenience began to speak—Go back, go back, they said:
I turn away from the land, the water I have loved, though briefly, yet physically, completely, as I turned away from some women I loved without explanation and as some women turned away from me. If there is pain, I can call it sentiment. … And remain turned away. If there is remorse, I can become a fatalist and remain turned away. If there is despair, I can maintain silence and remain turned away. Who calls me, land or woman, I offer you my silence.
To answer the question asked by Zulfikar Ghose—Why would anyone want to read Confessions of a Native-Alien today? One reason, it seems to me, could be that the question of identity raised by Zulfikar Ghose, seems to have become even more important today. When he asks, what is it that constitutes a country, the question is a philosophical one, not a political one. Its “certainly not geography, nor race, nor religion,” he tells in his autobiography.
What then? And how do we define identity today? It is estimated that over 12 million people of Indian origin now live outside the borders of India. Some of them trace their descent to the migrations from India over a century ago, and have never seen the land of their ancestors, while many have moved overseas only a few years ago. To both groups the bonds with India are strong. They have endured the separation of a few generations and present a puzzling phenomenon with hardly a parallel anywhere else in the world.
For these people there are obviously ways of being Indian which have nothing to do with being rooted in Indian soil. And the same markers we sometimes use to define identity here—religion, language, place, community—cannot be used for Indians who live outside the country. So we are obliged to make a different definition and this is where the inclusiveness and pluralism Prof. CDN saw in Zulfikar Ghose's name—half Muslim, half-Hindu, comes in. This definition has implications for the whole Indian diaspora.
Another phenomenon, even more surprising highlighted by Zulfikar's story, is the survival, in the minds of expatriate Indians, of the concept of the idealised nation-state that is India. This concept of an Eternal India is one that has tenaciously withstood the strains of distant migration and rough transplantation. Considerations such as these lift Confessions of a Native-Alien to a sphere beyond personal history, placing it squarely in the middle of our lives today, giving it an immediacy and relevance its author could not have foreseen.