Monday, 28 January 2013

Your appetite for all things McCarthy's getting stronger: 50,000+ pageviews - to celebrate her ongoing relevance to now, McCarthy's 'Medina' & Nick Turse's new book "Kill Anything that Moves" begin and develop the process of exposing the savagery, lies and cover-ups of US imperialism in Vietnam.

On 16 March, 1968, in the hamlet of My Lai, Vietnam, U.S. soldiers of C Company 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.  The massacre prompted widespread outrage around the world and reduced American support at home for the war in Vietnam. Lt William Calley, the unit's platoon leader, was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969.

Other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. Lt Calley alleged that he and his men had been ordered to commit the massacre by their Company Commander, Captain Ernest Medina.

Lt Calley was convicted in 1971 of premeditated murder in ordering the shootings and initially sentenced to life in prison. However, two days later President Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison, pending appeal of his sentence. Lt Calley served 3 1/2 years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was then ordered freed by a federal judge. 

Captain Medina was acquitted of any wrongdoing during a highly publicized trial. Medina by Mary McCarthy, published in 1972, provides a powerful account of the ultimately successful denial and cover-up by the military and gov't at the trial of U.S. v. Medina.  

Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.THURSDAY, JAN 17, 2013 03:46 PM +0000

Vietnam was even more horrific than we thought

Nick Turse's new book "Kill Anything that Moves" reveals that massacres like My Lai were downright common

Vietnam was even more horrific than we thoughtU.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp near the Cambodian border, in March 1965 during the Vietnam War. (Credit: AP/Horst Faas)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.
Now, in Kill Anything that MovesNick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth.  Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture.  No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.
Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:
“If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?”
Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.
Scorched Earth in I Corps
My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam.  I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer.  The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.
There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam.  These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.
By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.
As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation.  In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps.  But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.
The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result.  Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle.  I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds.  “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”
In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war.  What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter, Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.
It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 theToledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force.  Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.

It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.
Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm.  A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier.  Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.
A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her.  Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up.  His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].”  Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it.  They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:
“In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small.  Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.”
The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape.  Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:
“The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy.  ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job.  The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’
“A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…
“A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…
“And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…
“Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…”
Pumping Up the Body Count
Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me.  Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actuallywaging systematic war against the people of the region.
And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country.  Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, home to some five to six million people in an area of less than 15,000 square miles laced with rivers and canals. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division.
In December 1968, he launched Operation Speedy Express. His specialty, amounting to obsession, was increasing “the body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in that count but — as anyone, soldier or reporter, who spent a half-hour in the field quickly learned — virtually all slain Vietnamese, most of them clearly civilians, were included in the total.  The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. Ewell set out to increase the ratio of supposed enemy soldiers killed to American soldiers killed.  Pressure to do so was ratcheted up at all levels in the 9th Division. One of his chiefs of staff “went berserk,” in the words of a later chief of staff.

The means were simple: immensely increase the already staggering firepower being used and loosen the already highly permissive “rules of engagement” by, for example, ordering more night raids.  In a typical night episode, Cobra gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and seven children tending them. All died, and the children were reported as enemy soldiers killed in action.
The kill ratios duly rose from an already suspiciously high 24 “Vietcong” for every dead American to a completely surreal 134 Vietcong per American.  The unreality, however, did not simply lie in the inflated kill numbers but in the identities of the corpses.  Overwhelmingly, they were not enemy soldiers but civilians.  A “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:
“A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day.  With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 a month 1500, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!)  If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [My Lai] each month for over a year.”
This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. Operations in I Corp perhaps depended more on infantry attacks supported by air strikes, while Speedy Express depended more on helicopter raids and demands for high body counts, but the results were the same: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam.

Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence — such as the use of military trucks to run over Vietnamese on the roads, seemingly for entertainment — was widespread.  The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes.”  And the U.S. military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal American-South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.
How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery to break out and then allow it to continue for more than a decade?
Why, when the first Marines arrived in I Corps in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarism?  What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations who were running the war with the murder of those buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta?
How did the gates of hell open? This is a different question from the often-asked one of how the United States got into the war. I cannot pretend to begin to do it justice here. The moral and cognitive seasickness that has attended the Vietnam War from the beginning afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything that Movespermits us, finally, to at least formulate the question in light of the actual facts of the case.
Reflections would certainly seem in order for a country that, since Vietnam, has done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle in preparation for other misbegotten wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, however, are a few thoughts, offered in a spirit of thinking aloud.
The Fictitious War and the Real One
Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy, of orders issued from above — whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to bad-apple-in-a-healthy-barrel thinking, blaming individual units for unacceptable behavior while exonerating the higher ups; the second tends to exonerate the troops while pinning the blame on their superiors.
Turse’s book shows that the barrel was rotten through and through.  It discredits the “aberration” school once and for all. Yet it does not exactly offer support for the orders-from-the-top school either. Perhaps the problem always was that these alternatives framed the situation inaccurately.  The relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was, it turns out, far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.
It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. In Vietnam, however, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was.  Rather, from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.
In the official war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting the attempts of the North Vietnamese to conquer them in the name of world communism.  The United States was simply assisting them in their patriotic resistance.  In reality, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors: first, the French, then the Japanese, and next the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government which was never able to develop any independent strength in a land supposedly its own.  This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset.
Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality first took place on the ground in Trieu Ai village and its like. The American forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policymakers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.
No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do. Throughout the country, they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field. Yet it was not within the troops’ power to reverse basic policy; they could not, for instance, have withdrawn themselves from the whole misconceived exercise.  They could only respond to the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves.
The result would combine an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground. In this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the real war was born the futile, abhorrent assault on the people of Vietnam.

The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that while the abuses of civilians were pervasive they were not consistent. As he summarizes what a villager in one brutalized area told him decades later, “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies.  Sometimes they shot at people.  Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing.  Sometimes they burned all the homes. ‘We didn’t understand the reasons why the acted in the way they did.’”
Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up the real war on the ground, the one that Turse has, for the first time, adequately described.  It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances — what Robert J. Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations” — that generated their degraded behavior. Neither does such an account provide escape from accountability for the war’s architects without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen.
In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually — if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war — sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population.  Enter General Ewell and his body counts.
In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form.  Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.
To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:
“Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral.  In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war.  This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer.  He will have to choose if he stays alive.”

Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.
A Skyscraper of Lies
One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context.  Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war — that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States — were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington.  But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.
Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949.  Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:
“LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam — he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”
In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.
This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations.  Do we imagine that this has changed?

Friday, 25 January 2013

MM's titles in Pictures - a feast for the eyes to get us up to 50.000 hits

As we approach a staggering 50,000 pageviews, the popularity of MM's fiction titles is celebrated here in a pictorial extravaganza of the kitsch and not so kitsch - which is your favourite juxtapositional visual and can you see the more punningly obscure links - eg The Stones of Florence ?


In a still from RKO's forgettable noirish prison flick The Company She Keeps, Mary (Lizabeth Scott) is about to drive Lillian (Jane Greer) round the bend - spookily prescient or what; and who'll end up in clink (jail to non UK readers)?

MARY: Light me a cigarette, Lil.

LILLIAN: I aint got none, Madge.

MARY: What's you got in your hand, you big liar?

LILIAN: Last one, honey child.

MARY: You and your stories!

The Company She Keeps may not have been one of 1951's more memorable releases, but it did mark the film debut of one-year-old Jeff Bridges, who appears with his nine-year-old brother, Beau, and their mother Dorothy in the train station sequence. 

 cast a cold eye by Ronan Crowley


Tricky one this, pop pickers

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Morris Dickstein on MM : ".. the fastest gun in the intellectual world, daringly sexual yet crisply intelligent"

Death of a Cultural Byword

Scholar Morris Dickstein summed up Mary McCarthy's literary and cultural impact in an essay entitled "A Glint of Malice": "For at least a quarter of a century, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Mary McCarthy was more than an author, even more than a cultural figure. To the sophisticated, college-educated young of that time she was a byword, even a role model: the bad girl who got away with it, the wicked satirist who held everyone up to ridicule, the Vassar girl who instructed us in worldliness and sexual sophistication, the brilliant critic and essayist whose work exploded the stereotypes of feminine sensibility -- in short, the fastest gun in the intellectual world, daringly sexual yet crisply intelligent" (Twenty-Four Ways... p. 17).

Mary McCarthy at 90

Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself
astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp
style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York. Her
birthday was marked by a symposium at CUNY's Center for the Humanities
and, soon afterward, the publication of an excellent new selection of her
essays, A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays (New York Review
Books, $24.95), edited, with a penetrating introduction, by A.O. Scott.
McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912, lost both her parents to the flu
epidemic six years later and, after graduating from Vassar in 1933,
began publishing witty, acid, even wrongheaded reviews in The Nationand The New Republic. (In one review, for example, she missed
the strength of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, easily one of his
best books, out of sheer dislike for proletarian realism.) In 1937 she
helped revive Partisan Review as an anti-Stalinist journal and
became its theater critic, but soon, with the publication of The
Company She Keeps
 in 1942, she found herself more celebrated for her
fiction than for her critical writing, a balance that would shift by the
late 1960s. She reigned for decades as one of America's most brilliant
intellectuals, until she died of cancer in 1989.
I didn't really know Mary McCarthy, though I visited her on two
memorable occasions when I was teaching in Paris in 1981. But from the
early 1960s I knew her work intimately, and I was enthralled by its rare
combination of abrasive intelligence and sexual bravado. I thought of
her as not one but many writers--the endlessly self-questioning
independent woman of her best book, The Company She Keeps; the
keenly observant satirist of The OasisThe Groves of
 and The Group, with a highly developed sense of the
ridiculous; the autobiographer who re-created her abused and orphaned
childhood in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood; the richly
cultivated traveler of her books on Florence and Venice; and the prose
stylist of dazzling clarity in many literary and personal essays,
written with a scalpel as much as a pen.
Thanks in part to the weakness of her last novels, the consensus seems
to have hardened that in her fiction McCarthy somehow failed to impose
herself, and that she will be remembered primarily as an essayist.
Despite her formidable gifts as a polemical and discursive writer, this
makes very little sense. First, for all her reputation as an
intellectual who sacrificed feeling to intelligence, what powers
McCarthy's best essays, by and large, are her fictional rather than
strictly intellectual gifts. Again and again she makes her points by
telling stories, or by way of vivid description, arresting images,
subtle characterization. Unlike many of her Partisan Review
contemporaries, there are no special ideas we associate with her name.
As a thinker she was the perpetually bright-eyed student, enormously
impressive without really leaving a mark. "A Bolt From the Blue," her
ingenious dissection of Nabokov's Pale Fire, may be the best term
paper ever written, a marvel of ingenuity but not much more.
Realistically, she made only modest claims for her theater criticism,
and was quite amusing about how she fell into it. (Her first husband was
an actor and playwright, she tells us, and the "boys" at PR
didn't take theater very seriously.)
No critic of her period who hated Odets and the Group Theatre, who wrote
about A Streetcar Named Desire without mentioning Marlon Brando,
who wrote about the operatic version of Street Scene without
mentioning the composer, Kurt Weill, who dismissed The Iceman Comethsimply as bad writing is likely to go down in history for any
special feeling for the theater. Instead her essays give ample evidence
of highbrow condescension toward the theater. Other essays, like
"America the Beautiful," are saved by wonderful writing, though they are
hemmed in by the intellectual prejudices of the moment, laced with a
touch of snobbery all her own. In that essay she is astonished that the
visiting existentialist Simone de Beauvoir would ever want to eat at a
"real" American restaurant, or take in a play, or see an American movie,
or have a peek at Congress in session, with its "illiterate hacks whose
fancy vests are spotted with gravy, and whose speeches, hypocritical,
unctuous, and slovenly, are spotted also with the gravy of political
patronage." This sin of attitudinizing is compounded when she takes
precisely the opposite tack a few years later in reviewing de Beauvoir's
book, which had degenerated into an obtuse anti-American tract. She
accuses her French counterpart not only of being careless of facts,
unobservant--a cardinal sin, in McCarthy's book--but of a reflexive
condescension not so different from McCarthy's earlier viewpoint. In the
interim, many of New York's alienated intellectuals had come home.
McCarthy's essays are strongest where they overlap with her fiction and
memoirs. Her obituary pieces on Philip Rahv, Fred Dupee and Nicola
Chiaromonte are striking character sketches that emerge from a well of
deep feeling. One of her finest essays, "Artists in Uniform," about her
awkward encounter with an anti-Semitic Army colonel, is virtually
indistinguishable from a short story; in fact, Harper's first
published it as a story, as if to remove the bite of actuality from it.
Later she wrote another piece for Harper's ("Settling the
Colonel's Hash") reflecting on the differences between an essay and a
story; in her case, she recognized, the line was hard to draw. (Neither
of those essays is included in A Bolt From the Blue but can be
found in her superb 1961 collection On the Contrary, which gives
us McCarthy at the height of her powers as an essayist.)
For all her exacting sense of fact, one of McCarthy's ultimate
contributions was to blur the distinctions between different kinds of
prose writing, to show how fiction could be opened up to the thinking
mind and how essays could profit from the techniques of fiction. Her
first novel was a loose collection of linked stories. Because she was
imbued with the Catholic practice of self-scrutiny, her fiction could
grow as analytic and introspective as her essays. As A.O. Scott writes
of the heroine of that first book, Meg Sargent, she "marries and
divorces, goes to dinner parties, editorial meetings, and her analyst's
office, has affairs with pedigreed intellectuals and traveling salesmen,
but mainly what she think, argue, criticize." Only the novelist in McCarthy could give her critical mind its rich texture and immediacy.
Several chapters of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood had already
appeared in a collection of stories, Cast a Cold Eye. Once
integrated into the memoir, they were followed by second thoughts and
factual corrections. Another of her best essays, "My Confession," is
really a reflective memoir that describes both her haphazard political
education and the progressive culture of the 1930s, built around the
peculiar mores of the Communist Party. How shall we take these pieces?
As she says of "Artists in Uniform," "I myself would not know quite what
to call it; it was a piece of reporting or a fragment of autobiography."
In her own way, she was a pioneer of the hybrid New Journalism of the
following decade. Along with another fiction writer, James Baldwin, she
created the serious personal essay of the postwar years.
A page later she adds a trenchant observation that offers a clue as to
why we should not slight her fiction in celebrating her essays. One of
the qualities that "Artists in Uniform" and "My Confession" share with
her early fiction is a sense of the woman herself not as prepossessing,
in control, but as tentative, ambivalent, even at moments cowardly and
ashamed. She looks back on her own confusions with unfeigned regret. A
schoolteacher had written to congratulate her on her so-called story in
Harper's: "We thought it amazing that an author could succeed in
making readers dislike the author--for a purpose, of course!" This
benighted response must have heightened McCarthy's awareness of what she
had actually done. "I wanted to embarrass myself," she says, "and, if
possible, the reader too." In the original essay this proved to be a
good strategy for exposing genteel anti-Semitism, along with the
awkwardness or complicity of engaging with it; but it was also much
more, perhaps a key to McCarthy's work at its best. Her writing was
strongest when she was as hard on herself as she could be on others.

We can readily recognize this embarrassment from the predicament of Meg
Sargent in "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," when she finds
herself in an unthinkable sexual encounter on a train, or in "Ghostly
Father, I Confess," where she is caught in an impossible marriage to a
man very much like Edmund Wilson. Her social embarrassment is always
linked to the state of her soul. McCarthy's rueful feelings about her
own behavior run through "The Weeds," a story based on her attempts to
leave Wilson, and through some of the Dickensian early chapters of
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The common denominator in all
these texts, whether comic or horrific, whether they focus on the safety
pin in the underwear or the protracted nervous breakdown, is the
protagonist's sense of vulnerability--the woman with her guard down.
This is something McCarthy habitually leaves out of her satiric or
critical writing, where a more self-assured, more destructive, though
also more witty side of her personality comes into play. Unfortunately,
this tart-tongued double is the only McCarthy some readers remember,
though it's not necessarily the woman her friends recall or the writing
they most value. One of her biographers, Carol Brightman, may exaggerate
when she refers to her "nearly inexhaustible appetite for remorse and
self-castigation," but this undoubtedly brings us closer to the welter
of emotions behind the icy sheen of her brisk intelligence, her famously
"cold eye."

Friday, 18 January 2013

"CIA men actually spit when your name is mentioned." Mary McCarthy talks to James Mossman about the Vietnam war.

Most of the British media have been successfully and willingly embedded in US foreign policy since 1945. The BBC's James Mossman proves no exception in this interview for The Listener from 1968. But, as evidenced in this extract, McCarthy gives short shrift to his guilt-trip appeal to patriotism.

Could you tell me, Mary McCarthy, what is your fundamental objection to your county's involvement in Vietnam?

The application of a technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.

That means you are accusing your people of stupidity and not wickedness.

I think they are wicked too, but sometimes those things seem to be somewhat equivalent.

Why do you think they are wicked?

The absolute indifference to the cost in human lives of the pursuit of US foreign policy - that I consider wicked

I gather that your name is absolute mud out there and CIA men actually spit when your name is mentioned.

I am delighted to hear it. I didn't think I had made so much of an impression.

What do you find the Americans were saying about the justification for their war now?

'To punish aggression.'

Do you think they believed what they were saying?

No, I think they learned it, They couldn't really pursue this thought more than a sentence further. You'd say: "Why didn't we punish aggression in Goa?" And they'd say: "Well, this is different." The level of argument was very low.

What would you say was the quality of the people running the war - the civilians and the soldiers?

I felt the soldiers were much more competent; the civilians were extremely fugged up...(to be continued)

Ben Shahn, "McCarthy Peace" lithograph poster
Campaign poster for Eugene McCarthy

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

MM's heirs? Arundhati Roy - part 2

Fierce, polemical and controversial

Arundhati Roy: novelist and campaigner

Part 2
Following his article in emag 33, Richard Lees uses Marxist, post-colonial and feminist perspectives to highlight the connections between Roy’s fictional God of Small Things and her non-fiction political writing.

            ....the shared interests overlapping Roy’s fiction and non-fiction are palpable: as a compelling human drama, The God of Small Things depicts the brutal and brutalising effects on individuals and communities of oppressive power structures – patriarchy, caste and class, neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism – the same social institutions and systems that Roy scrutinises with such intensity in her polemical non-fiction.

With these non-fiction connections in mind, and having ‘read’ the novel from a formalist viewpoint in my last article in emag 33, I now want to suggest starting points for three other approaches to The God of Small Things – feminist, Marxist and postcolonial perspectives – approaches that could be expanded and integrated to form a more detailed picture of Roy’s concerns as a novelist.

A feminist perspective

At the beginning Roy depicts female experiences of disempowerment mainly in relation to Ammu:

...Pappachi insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl, so Ammu had no choice but to leave Delhi and move with them. There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework...
...Chacko always referred to it as my factory, my pineapples, my pickles. Legally, this was the case,
because Ammu, as a daughter, had no claim to the property.

Once established, Roy’s analysis of patriarchy becomes wide-ranging. From Pappachi’s regular beatings of Mammachi and Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s shocking sexual assault on Estha, to the satisfaction of Chacko’s ‘manly’ needs and Dr Verghese Verghese’s habitual abuse of female patients, Roy presents male violence and sexual predation as culturally engrained, systematically traumatic and, in the case of the kathakali dancers, casual and endemic:
The Kathakali Men took off their make-up and went home to beat their wives. (Chapter 12)
With so many male characters maintaining their dominance through coercion, violence and sexual abuse, Ayemenam circa 1969 is represented by the author of The God of Small Things as a ruthlessly patriarchal society riddled with repressive traditions, ruled by discriminatory laws and regulated through reactionary police intervention. Roy makes this last point explicit in her account of Inspector Thomas Mathew’s role in the final, violent unfolding of events. While interviewing Ammu about her allegations of a ‘mistake’ regarding Velutha, Inspector Mathew labels her a prostitute (‘veshya’) and makes a thinly veiled threat of sexual violation:

...when...he tapped her breasts with her baton, it was not a policeman’s spontaneous brutishness on his part. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a premeditated gesture, calculated to
humiliate and terrorize her. An attempt to instil order into a world gone wrong. (Chapter 13)

A Marxist perspective

For Mathew and other characters, Ammu and Velutha’s relationship breaches the unwritten codes which keep not just women, but also ‘untouchables’, workers and peasants firmly in their subservient places. That Roy presents these structures not as fixed and rigid but rather in dynamic conflict with forces of resistance and change, corresponds, in broad terms, with the Marxist idea of dialectics. The key image for this struggle – and one which Roy has identified as an inspiration for the novel as a whole – is when the family, travelling to Cochin in their sky blue Plymouth, get caught up in a mass demonstration:

The marchers that day were party workers, students and the labourers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse...
...Inside the Plymouth it was still and hot.
Baby Kochamma’s fear lay rolled up on the car floor like a damp, clammy cheroot...The fear of being dispossessed. (Chapter 2)

Roy’s potted political ‘history’ of Keralan class struggle in this chapter adopts the register of a non-fiction critique, in which most political positions are closely scrutinised, particularly the Communist Party’s:
The real secret was that communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to.
Later in the novel, Roy’s depicts Comrade Pillai’s dealings with Chacko (Marxist bourgeois) and Velutha (Untouchable Party Member) as opportunistic, self-serving and, finally, regarding his duplicity towards Velutha, fatal.

A postcolonial perspective

Roy’s sense of solidarity with those struggling to resist gender-role enforcement and class/caste prejudice resonates in one of the story’s most memorable refrains, about breaking ‘the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how’. Yet the novel firmly establishes these conflicts within ever wider historical and international contexts, which inform as well as surround the actions of its protagonists. For anyone coming from a postcolonial viewpoint, Roy’s interest in exposing the effects of globalization and cultural imperialism can be detected at every level in her representation of Indian life. Early chapters are particularly rich with references:

...the river that smelled of shit, and pesticides bought with World Bank loans...
Baby Kochamma had installed a dish antenna on the roof of the Ayemenam house. She presided over the world in her drawing room on satellite TV.
Further east, in a small country with similar landscape (jungles, river, rice-fields, communists), enough bombs were being dropped to cover all of it in six inches of steel.
She made them write lines – ‘impositions’ she called them – ‘I will always speak English, I will always speak English’...
Pappachi...didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife.

A former colonial residence becomes an important location for Roy’s focus on the pervasive influence of post and neo-colonialism:

Kari Saipu’s house. The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had ‘gone native’...Ayemenam’s own Kurtz. Ayemenam his private Heart of Darkness...The History House...

becomes a symbol for Chacko of his family’s debilitating Anglophile heritage:

‘But we can’t go in,’ Chacko explained, ‘because we’ve been locked out...our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost...A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.’

In addition to representing a collective postcolonial psychology, the History House in the 1969 story becomes the venue for Velutha’s horrific beating, which Roy cross-cuts with a glimpse of its future use as the centre of a hotel:

The History House.
Where, in the years that followed, the Terror (still-to-come) would be buried in a shallow grave. Hidden under the happy humming of hotel cooks...The slow death of dancers. The toy histories that
rich tourists came to play with.

So that in the 1972 story, the extensively modernised and upgraded former colonial residence becomes an equally potent symbol for the degradation of Indian culture where, for example, a kathakali performer is forced to bastardize his art:

In despair he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.
He becomes a Regional Flavour.
In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them...

Roy’s concern with the economics of neo-colonialism and globalisation runs through her fiction and non-fiction alike, connecting the kathakali dancers with the dispossessed of the Narmada Valley; a point which returns us to the idea of Roy as a writer who rejects notions of impartiality and objectivity in favour of raising awareness and taking sides. In an interview with David Barsamian published in 2001, Roy challenges the genre distinctions that neatly pigeon-hole her work, forcing us to reconsider it as a whole in relation to, what is for Roy, a decisive abstract concept, namely the truth:

I don’t see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of non-fiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It’s very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr Wolfensohn at the World Bank. That’s what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.

Richard Lees
This article first appeared in emagazine 34.

Arundhati Roy could face 'sedition' trial over Kashmir comments

Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author, could face trial for 'sedition' over her call for Kashmir's independence.

Monday, 14 January 2013

MM's heirs?: Arundhati Roy, fierce, polemical novelist and campaigner

Fierce, polemical and controversial

Arundhati Roy: novelist and campaigner

The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as non-fiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in.
Arundhati Roy, ‘Come September’, 2002.

Since winning the Booker Prize in 1997 with her first, and, so far, only novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s career as a writer has not followed contemporary literary convention: there have been no more works of fiction: no stories, no plays, no poems; no literary reviews or appearances at literary festivals. In concentrating exclusively on political issues, Roy has taken the path of non-fiction, carving out a high-profile and often controversial reputation as an outspoken commentator on current events. In 1998 she wrote The End of Imagination, a critique of the Indian government’s nuclear policies, re-published in her collection of essays The Cost of Living (1999), in which she also campaigned against India’s huge hydroelectric programme. After accusing the New Delhi court of attempting to silence protest against the Narmada Dam Project, Roy was brought to trial, convicted of contempt, fined and, according to the judgement of the Supreme Court of India, sentenced to ‘symbolic imprisonment’ for one day.
Roy was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as a human rights activist and for her advocacy of non-violent protest. In the same year she published her sixth collection of political texts, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, in which she argued against the globalized injustice of neo-imperialism, narrow-minded nationalism, the power of the military-industrial complex and the ideology of those who would bomb civilians as part of a ‘war on terror’. In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq, and in January 2006, provoked a storm of controversy, by refusing to accept the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for her book of essays The Algebra of Infinite Justice in protest against the Indian government
violently and ruthlessly pursuing policies of brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarization and economic neo-liberalisation.

A politicised sensibility

Though most definitely not what you’d expect from a Booker Prize winner, these biographical/bibliographical facts raise an interesting question for literature students: how does an awareness of Roy’s post-1997 work affect our interpretation of The God of Small Things? Without reading any of Roy’s non-fiction – although I would obviously recommend that you do, starting with An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire – it’s clear that Roy’s political views are dissenting, radical and left-wing, and that underpinning her internationalist political agenda is a profound commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Equally clear is that, although expressed in the form of a literary narrative, The God of Small Things is a product of the same world view reflecting the same politicised sensibility, sharply focused on parallel preoccupations. The shared interests overlapping Roy’s fiction and non-fiction are palpable: as a compelling human drama, The God of Small Things depicts the brutal and brutalising effects on individuals and communities of oppressive power structures – patriarchy, caste and class, neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism – the same social institutions and systems that Roy scrutinises with such intensity in her polemical non-fiction.

Structure and voices in The God of Small Things

The only way I can explain how I wrote it was the way an architect designs a building. You know, it wasn’t as if I started at the beginning and ended at the end. I would start somewhere and I’d colour in a bit and then I would deeply stretch back and then stretch forward. It was like designing an intricately balanced structure and when it was finished it was finished. There were no drafts. But that doesn’t mean I just sat and spouted it out. It took a long time. (Arundhati Roy quoted on Jon Simmons’ unofficial website.)

Re-constructing a blueprint for The God of Small Things represents a fascinating challenge for any student of the novel. Its two main storylines are separated by twenty-three years: the first, focusing on the twins’ devastating and divisive experiences in Ayemenem, takes place in 1969, and the second, of their homecoming as adults, in 1992. The movement between these ‘time zones’ is fluid and frequent and, as readers, we have to get used to the pace quickly: in the first chapter there are around a dozen ‘cross-cuts’ between the ’92 and ’69 storylines, interspersed with character back stories, describing the early lives of the twins and a more detailed ‘biography’ of Baby Kochamma. Although it seems haphazard at times, this fluctuation between time lines represents something of a guiding principle in the structuring of the novel as a whole, in that the meaning of the story is not to be found in the chronological unfolding of events. Roy alludes to this idea in Chapter 12 when Rahel watches a kathakali dance in mid-performance:

It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories, you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

If we extract the 1992 story of the twins’ reunion, however, we find that the order of events is sequenced more or less chronologically. Yet, even when extracted, the 1969 story, ending with Ammu and Velutha’s first night together, is emphatically non-chronological and, as such, plays a critical role in conveying the author’s thematic purpose, one that Roy has made explicit reference to in comments quoted on her unofficial website:

I think that one of the most important things about the structure is that in some way the structure of the book ambushes the story. You know, it tells a different story from the story the book is telling. In the first chapter I more or less tell you the story, but the novel ends in the middle of the story, and it ends with Ammu and Velutha making love and it ends on the word ‘tomorrow’. And though you know that what tomorrow brings is terrible, the fact that the book ends there is to say that even though it’s terrible, it’s wonderful that it happened at all.

The third person narrator

Roy’s decision to write The God of Small Things in the third-person affords her the flexibility of perspective she needs to cross-cut between storylines and time zones, and to explore the inner lives of a large cast of central characters – Ammu, Estha and Rahel, Chacko, Baby Kochamma – as well as a whole host of ‘supporting’ characters – Velutha, Margaret, Comrade Pillai, Vellya Paapen, Mammachi, Pappachi, the level crossing lunatic, Inspector Thomas Mathew (the list is a long one). In lesser or greater degrees of detail, Roy describes their lives, relationships, motivations, secret wishes, insecurities and miseries from the all-seeing, all-knowing point of view we usually associate with a third-person narrative. Most of Chapter 13 is taken up with the back story of Margaret and Chacko in England and it’s no accident that Roy adopts the detached, neutral voice we tend to associate with a particularly English style of novel in order to tell it:

Margaret Kochamma wrote regularly, giving Chacko news of Sophie Mol. She assured him that Joe made a wonderful, caring father and that Sophie Mol loved him dearly – facts that gladdened and saddened Chacko in equal measure.

Yet Roy does not tie herself to this distanced tone, preferring to go beyond the boundaries of ‘objectivity’, making comments, for instance, about the psychology of her characters that they themselves could not possibly be ‘aware’ of; on Mammachi’s fury at Velutha, for example:
Without realising it herself, she grafted the manner of the man who had humiliated her during the march onto Velutha

or Margaret’s love for Chacko:
She was perhaps too young to realize that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous acceptance of herself

or on Estha’s damaged psyche:
Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it.

Clues, warnings and reminders

It is not only in these moments of dramatic irony that the author intervenes so openly: there are literally dozens of clues, scattered liberally throughout the novel, about the tragedy to come – ‘...blooded on memories of a broken man...’ (Chapter 1); ‘...they would watch with dinner plate eyes as history revealed itself to them in the back verandah...’ (Chapter 2): ‘...not wholly unaware of the hint of doom and all that waited in the wings for them...’ (Chapter 4) – clues which serve to remind us of the author’s control not just of events but of the order in which they are revealed. As well as making dire warnings about the future, Roy’s authorial perspective has the power to uncover grim reminders of the past, in this case, Rahel’s watch:

Something lay buried in the ground. Under grass. Under twenty-three years of June rain.
A small forgotten thing.
Nothing that the world would miss.
A child’s plastic wristwatch with the time painted on it.
Ten to two it said.

An inventive and changeable narrative voice

So, with the clinical judgement of a psychoanalyst and a point of view moving like mercury in and out of characterisations, in and out of time zones and storylines, unearthing clues for the reader that remain buried for the characters, are we listening to an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful narrative voice? One way of telling might be to tune in to the sound of that voice. Is it ‘impartial’ or ‘god-like’, at least in its tone? Sometimes, but hardly consistently, because, though the controlling viewpoint is obviously omniscient, it is also clearly and firmly grounded in the perspective of the novel’s chief protagonists, the children. Roy does not simply allow the reader to see through the eyes of Estha and Rahel, she re-constructs their experiences of a hostile world through their language – at once lively and fearful, inventive and anxious – effectively integrating a child-like register into the texture of the novel as a whole, while still writing in the third person. The evidence is not hard to find, though one example is intriguing:

And Ammu’s angry eyes on Estha said, ‘All right. Later.’
And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word.
Lay. Ter.
Like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery, and furred. Like moth’s feet.

Intriguing not just because it combines typical orthographic playfulness and nursery rhyming with the ominous symbolism of Pappachi’s Moth, but because of comments made by Roy in a 1997 interview with the online magazine Salon, which relate directly to the passage above and lead us back to her architectural sense of structure:

I’m trained as an architect; writing is like architecture. In buildings, there are design motifs that occur again and again, that repeat – patterns, curves. These motifs help us feel comfortable in a physical space. And the same works in writing, I’ve found. For me, the way words, punctuation and paragraphs fall on a page is important as well – the graphic design of the language. That was why the words and thoughts of Estha and Rahel, the twins, were so playful on the page. I was being creative with their design. Words were broken apart, and then sometimes fused together. ‘Later’ became ‘Lay. Ter.’ ‘An owl’ became ‘A Nowl.’ ‘Sour metal smell’ became ‘sourmetal smell.’

Looking beyond form and language

Concentrating, as I have in this article, on form, structure and language, it has been easy to overlook the fact that The God of Small Things is a political novel about political conflict; and that, in directly addressing issues like class and caste, gender relations and child abuse, neo-colonialism and globalization, this book is perhaps one of the most politically charged, left-wing and radical of any contemporary work of fiction. To begin to understand and contextualize her partisan concern with power and resistance, we need to give due consideration to Arundhati Roy’s subsequent career as a human rights activist and a writer of non-fiction.

Richard Lees

This article first appeared in emagazine 33.