There is flooding right now in Pennsylvania. There was supposed to be a poetry festival near Bloomsburg today, which I was going to go to, but it has been postponed until next month, waiting for the waters to go down, and for all the animals to get out of the boat and climb two-by-two back up into the hills.
Lately I’ve been thinking about whether grand, epic topics are needed to write a powerful novel. Maybe that’s a stupid question, but I’m willing to admit to wondering that. Isn’t a novel about the Vietnam War, for instance, inherently more gripping than a novel about factories in Ohio closing down? As a general topic of life, yes, a war is a more compelling subject than economic distress. But what about a novel?
A mistake I sometimes hear people make in discussing novels, or movies especially, is to equate quality of the book or film with how realistically it depicts life. But novels and movies are not life, they are works of art, no matter how “real” they pretend to be. So what makes for an intense discussion at the dinner table is not necessarily what makes for a compelling novel.
Tolstoy did right well with War and Peace, and we might want to say “Well, look at the subject he chose.” But he also wrote Anna Karenina, an even better book about human relationships, the same thing that happens in your house every day. Moreover, as regards books about war, I would cite two other novels, famous though they be, that are not exactly gripping: All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque) or The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane). Yeah, they’re all about inhumanity and so on, but try reading one as a novel instead of as a moral lesson. Far better books than both of them are The Grapes of Wrath, about economic calamity (and general human shittiness), or Madam Bovary, about calamity of the heart (and general human small-mindedness). What makes a powerful novel is that it is about the human heart and soul, and that it is done with quality writing. The inclusion of epic events is not a necessity.
The most recent impetus for sending me off on this line of literary interrogation was a novel I picked up randomly at the library, A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. It turns out to be set mostly in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, during the war that separated Bangladesh from Pakistan. The novel is focused entirely on Rehana, whose husband died before the book begins, and on her relationship to her children.
This book is clearly—in some ways—about the rebellion and war and the savage misery inflicted by Pakistan. What makes this book work, however, is that it is not about the war at all. It is about Rehana and her children and their relationships to other people. As a novel, the war is simply the thing they must all deal with, the catalyst that changes their lives.
The point of view in the book is Rehana, and even though the book is in third-person narrarative, it’s the type of third-person that sticks close to one character, so that we only know what Rehana knows. We are also allowed to follow her thoughts, so we see her life, and Bangladesh, and the war, as she knows them.
At times Rehana seemed to me to be naive, not a particular fault, I suppose, though at times I thought she appeared a little foolish, but on the whole she was a sympathetic character. Another aspect of the book that makes it work as a novel is that there is change and growth in Rehana. Seeing Bangladesh become independent, as the background story, would probably not be satisfying if Rehana remained static. There is also psychological change in her children, which adds another layer of complexity to the book.
The style of the book is fairly “realistic”, somewhat like Hemingway, although in the end with more poetic language than Hemingway used, or for that matter with a much more poetic tone than Hemingway used. One linguistic element that I found interesting here was the great number of words that I assume are Bengali mixed into the text (many of them words for food). The author did not treat them as foreign words, either by italicizing or explaining them; she just assumed the reader would handle it.
Years ago, many moons ago, my children, I had a romantic notion to read a novel from every country in the world, and even started a list. The idea was to have a look at every country through its literature. If I were still keeping a list, which I’m not, I would gladly add this book for Bangladesh. As a side note, Bangladesh frequently suffers from floods.