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Neel Mukherjee, The lives of others (Review)

December 18, 2015

MukherjeeLivesOthersChattoBefore I talk about Neel Mukherjee’s Booker Prize short-listed The lives of others, I want to briefly mention the experience of reading it on the Kindle. I probably haven’t told you my little reading rule of thumb before, which is that I aim to buy Australian books in print, and overseas books electronically. It’s my measured foray into downsizing!

However, I don’t greatly enjoy reading on my Kindle. I like the Kindle itself. It handles pretty much like a book, the e-ink technology is easy on the eye, it’s light and portable, and with this particular author whose vocabulary is impressive, I did find the in-built dictionary to be very useful. But, I don’t find reading books in e-formats particularly pleasurable. It’s not easy to get the measure of a book, to flick through it and see what’s what. Consequently, I didn’t discover the family tree until I’d read the first couple of chapters. Now, if you’ve read this book, you will know that the three generations of the Ghosh family who live in a four-storey house are introduced in one chapter. Their names are unfamiliar to a westerner’s ears making it hard to remember who’s who, so that family tree was a godsend. But, I only found it when a a reading group friend mentioned its existence. The diagram’s small print was, though, very hard to read, and could not be enlarged like e-text can, so I hand-drew a family tree, photographed it, and shared it with my group. Then there were the many specifically Indian words that were not in the dictionary. They were in the glossary at the back, but it’s tedious flipping between glossary and text in an e-book environment, so I didn’t. How hard would it have been to hyper-link those words to the glossary?

“the very quicksands of family” (Suranjan)

Rant over, let’s talk about the book! The lives of others is set in West Bengal from 1966 to 1970, with two epilogues set much later, one in 1986 and the other in 2012. It centres on the aforementioned Ghoshes, a well-to-do family whose wealth comes from paper mills. By the time the novel opens, business is starting to fail, so there is tension in the air, exacerbating the rivalries, envies and secrecies which characterise the family’s relationships. That’s the personal, but this book is also political, because one of the characters, a grandson of the old couple, becomes a revolutionary with the Naxalites, a section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (or, CPI-M). In 1967, they commenced radical action to redistribute land to landless farmers and labourers. The book’s chronology mirrors the early years of this movement.

Indeed, the book is chronologically structured, with each chapter labelled by date. The first thirteen of its nineteen chapters comprise two sections – a third person story about the family in the Calcutta house, and a first person epistolary story (presented in a different font – unless your e-book was on an iPad, but that’s another story) by Supratik, the revolutionary grandson who is in the countryside “where the real politics lay”. This first person story finishes in chapter 14, when Supratik returns to Calcutta. The effect of this structure is to parallel manipulative behaviour and power plays in the family with the societal/political power imbalances against which Supratik fights. Just before he leaves the family, Supratik says to his mother, Sandhya:

Are you happy with the inequalities of our family? Of the power-on-top-ruling-people-below kind of hierarchy? Do you think it’s right? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?

This structure is just one example of how carefully the book is crafted. There are also allusions – and I’m sure there are many that I didn’t get – to literary classics. Chapter 4’s opening line that “not all family bonds are equal” must surely allude to the opening of Anna Karenina, which is also both about family and land/farm reform. And there’s a scene reminiscent of Sense and sensibility. In it the Ghosh patriarch, Prafullanath, is done out of the inheritance his father wanted him to have by a half-brother, who is spurred on by his wife. This reminded me of Fanny Dashwood talking husband John out of properly helping his stepmother and half-sisters, despite his dying father asking him to do. One of the themes of Sense and sensibility is economic power and inequality, and how families can wield power.

“this unvarying calculus about the worth of one’s own kind measured against the lives of others ” (Supratik)

Mukherjee, however, takes these themes to another level. The lives of others is a powerful and often brutal book. The prologue, which tells of a murder-suicide enacted by a poor sharecropper after consistently receiving no help from his landlord for his starving family, establishes the two main themes – economic inequity, and the inhumane treatment of “others”. These themes are played out in the way various members of the family treat each other, their workers and those with whom they come into contact, and are paralleled in the farm politics which engage Supratik’s passion. While the themes can be simply stated, the story-telling is sophisticated. Complex links and parallels, together with concrete and abstract motifs, evocative images and targeted allusions underpin the novel’s layers to expose human capacity for cruelty, self-preservation and self-deception. In a devastating conclusion, Mukherjee shows what happens when idealism loses sight of the humanity it is trying to protect, when calculation over-rides empathy. He offers no answers, makes no judgements, but simply shows.

The result is tough, and sometimes very uncomfortable, reading, but what drove me on was Mukherjee’s language. It is truly delicious. The imagery is accessible, often referencing the very ordinary, but it is so fresh that it takes its mark perfectly, again and again:

… if you fail an exam, it decreases the chances of getting out of the system that will slowly crush you to a flat piece of cardboard

AND

Two things with the power to scrunch Prafullanath’s plans into a shapeless paper bag had not occurred to his myopic mind.

AND

His voice has the serrations of a knife in it.

Cardboard, paperbags and knives. All so mundane but, in Mukherjee’s hands, so on the money. Here’s one more, describing one of the daughters-in-law:

Haranguing the servants at last gave Purnima a point of convergence for all her diffuse days and energies to focus on, and she took to it like a spindly, undernourished sapling to rich loam.

Mukherjee’s ability to capture people and place with such vividness and clarity is impressive. It’s not a perfect book, being weighed down at times by detail that, interesting though it is, doesn’t always seem essential.

However, Mukherjee’s compassionate but unsentimental understanding of human nature, combined with his clear-eyed analysis of how the personal interacts with the political, reveal uncomfortable truths about our dealings with other, and make him, unlike Supratik, a more trustworthy “defence counsel for humanity”.

Neel Mukherjee
The lives of others
London: Chatto & Windus, 2014
ISBN (e-pub): 9781448192182

32 Comments leave one →
  1. David Watson permalink
    December 18, 2015 9:19 am

    I read this book a year or two back, but in print form, so I can readily appreciate the difficulty of reading it in Kindle format. It was a book I really enjoyed. As for your Kindle rule, well, mine is that I only use the Kindle when travelling. The rest of the time, at home (I don’t read books on the train anymore, too much jibber jabber), I read books in print form. Now, this does mean that when selecting books for the Kindle, I have to think about their suitability for that medium, and sometimes I do decide, print only.

    • December 18, 2015 9:22 am

      Thanks David, I meant to check LibraryThing to see if you’d listed it. Yes, re the Kindle and travelling. I do read it then too – and mostly catch up with the overseas backlog on it! And you know what’s in that lot!

  2. December 18, 2015 9:32 am

    I’m still anti-Kindle, though my new one is much, much better than the first generation one that Tim bought me all those years ago. That one was only ever used on overseas travel, or to read Project Gutenberg books, and even then I often used Kindle for PC on my laptop rather than use it. But I have bought a few international titles lately because they’ve been so much cheaper. (Indonesian books, for example. Four times the price for a print edition *sigh*).
    Anyway, this one sounds excellent, but I think I’ll try and get it from my library.

    • December 18, 2015 10:20 am

      Yes, I like my Kindle touch better too … It’s quiet for a start. But, I would get this from the library in preference to e-reading it Lisa.

  3. December 18, 2015 9:48 am

    For years I hoped someone would develop a device for reading electronically. It took a long time before they materialised and the price was affordable. Now I have a Kindle and an iPad I’ve found the reading experience doesn’t match up to my expectations. I seem to read more quickly and don’t absorb anywhere near as well as with paper versions. Plus as you say, there are some practicalities which just don’t work in e form. I won’t give it up though because when I’m travelling its invaluable.

    As for Mukerjee I am so glad you enjoyed this too. I loved the portrayal of the machinations in that household..

    • December 18, 2015 10:24 am

      Yes, e-reading is a huge boon for travel. Have you reviewed Mukherjee? I’ll go check.

  4. December 18, 2015 11:49 am

    Agree with yr comments re Kindle. I love it for travel writing as I can link on Web to maps and see look at ion or distances travelled. The book looks fascinating. So many books out there that appear so good. Wish I were a faster reader. Happy Christmas

  5. December 18, 2015 11:52 am

    I think I got my first Kindle in 2008 or 2009 – got it for travel because it beats an extra suitcase. Then I went to an iPad in 2011 or so (retirement gift to myself) and love it – but I read lots of paper books for another year or so.

    Lately, I’ve come to depend on the Kindle (ebooks) because my vision is deteriorating – I’m near sighted with astigmatism. I can read paper book fonts but it’s hard and tiring and takes a long time. It’s not worth it. I haven’t got through one in a couple years now. By the end of the year I will haveI read somewhere around 180 books thanks to Kindle and Audible.

    There is one book now which is only available in paper format – I would really like to read it so I may get it and take it down to Target or somewhere and try the reading glasses to see if they work on it better than my expensive prescription things.

    About the family trees, yes, I’ve come across that “end of book” thing a few times. Yup – I made my own tree for The Lives of Others (which I read back in June). I wasn’t overly fond of the book, fwiw, although it was interesting in its own way.

    • December 18, 2015 1:59 pm

      Sorry about your eyes Bekah. I’ll go check your review,

      As for Kindle, I much prefer reading on it to the iPad … But I do like to read newspapers on the iPad. Such choice we have these days.

      • ian darling permalink
        December 18, 2015 9:16 pm

        This sounds like a fascinating novel and your review makes me want to tackle it. I’m a bit Kindle Schwindel but that is probably just the luddite in me!

        • ian darling permalink
          December 18, 2015 9:51 pm

          It might also summon the inner Naxalite!

        • December 18, 2015 10:04 pm

          Haha, Ian, you never know.

        • December 18, 2015 10:03 pm

          It is a fascist hating novel Ian. It sounds cliched to say the writing is beautiful, but I really did love his ability to describe character, in particular, with such acuity.

  6. December 19, 2015 2:51 am

    E-readers are great for straightforward sorts of books when a book reaches a certain level of complexity e-readers fail miserably for all the reasons you give and a few others. The book sounds really good though, intense and rich and I like the quotes you shared. Will have to check my library for this one.

    • December 19, 2015 8:25 am

      Agree totally re e-readers Stefanie. I heard on a local book show that e-book purchases were going down and print books going up in sales.

  7. December 21, 2015 12:14 am

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review. I nearly read this book in the run up to the booker prize last year and since then it has been sinking into the TBR pile. It’s great to be reminded of all the reasons for moving it back towards the top!

  8. NeilAtKallaroo permalink
    December 21, 2015 5:01 pm

    Diagrams in an eBook can be a problem – even after you have located them. Rather than hand-drawing the diagram, fire up your PC or Mac Kindle reader, display the diagram, then do a screen dump (there are heaps of applications that do this). Then you can print the diagram off. (Dare I point out that having simultaneous access to the printout and the text on your eReader will be much handier than flipping between the text and the family tree in the book?)

    I am reading a chess book, and the diagrams are too small. I can zoom in on them, but then I can’t see the associated text. My solution is another eReader – I’ll fire up both so I can display the diagram in one, and the text in another. A bit messy. But even a printed book can be messy if the explanatory text is on the back of the page that holds the diagram.

    The glossary is another messy problem. Even with the book, you have to mark your place, flip to the glossary, find the correct page in the glossary, check you have the correct term, read the definition, then check this makes sense in the context. You can always bookmark the first glossary page in the eBook to make it a bit easier to find. I like your suggestion of hyperlinking the word to the glossary – then you’d have something better than the printed book.

    As a counter to the suggestion that printed books are easier to read than eBooks, I offer my experience with Clive James’ “Cultural Amnesia”. I bought the print version a few years ago, but really struggled with reading it. It was physically heavy, and the text seemed heavy. I just couldn’t get into it. Recently I acquired an eBook version (I am persistent). This version is much lighter, physically. But also I am finding it much easier to read. I haven’t finished it, yet, but I am 60% through it, and will finish in a few weeks. So in this instance, the eBook, for me, is miles ahead of the physical book.

    • December 22, 2015 12:47 am

      Hi Neil, and welcome! Lovely to see you here. You’ll notice a few other Western Australians posting here from time to time.

      Thanks for all this, I certainly agree that ebooks have their place, though funnily, the physically bigger the book is, the more I want to read print. My favourite e-book reading in fact tends to be novellas and literary magazines. However, I know that weight can become an issue, particularly as we get older, and the ability to enlarge the print size will be a wonderful boon. Anyhow, I’m really glad you’re persistent and found an e-version the best for the Clive James! Was it worth it? That is, did you enjoy the book? (oops, I mean, are you enjoying it?!) It is a trial and error thing isn’t it?

      And thanks for the advice re PC or Mac (me) kindle reader. I must say I have not put a kindle reader on my Mac or my iPad. I’m rather tired of managing apps across devices, worrying about their synchronisation which works sometimes and not others, getting used to how the same “app” looks in different environments, so I haven’t been keen to read the kindle anywhere but on my kindle.

      Anyhow, thanks for all the suggestions. They are useful, and it is really interesting to see how different people manage their devices. It’s such a new world that we are all learning our way. I love hearing people’s experiences and ideas on this. (One of my reading group friends reads almost solely ebooks on her iPad. She’s very happy with that approach. I don’t find the iPad at all pleasant to hold for intensive reading>)

      • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
        December 22, 2015 10:06 am

        Yes, I am enjoying “Cultural Amnesia”, much to my surprise. I only acquired the e-book because we are trying to declutter, which includes replacing physical books with electronic ones. Having acquired the e-book, I thought I should try and read it. James suggests diving into the book and reading a chapter or two at a time. I am not sure I agree with this approach. The thread through the book is most clearly seen by starting at the front and reading on. Whilst each chapter is nominally about a person, James uses that person to riff on a broader topic. For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is really a chat about jazz in general. I suspect I’ll be using this book as a resource for a long time.
        I rarely read Kindle e-books on my PC. The PC is where I work, whereas I read e-books for pleasure. But the PC supports the printer, so that can be handy. I use the Kindle to read novels, and my larger tablet to read e-books with diagrams (such as recreational mathematics).
        Oh, and another time when the Kindle is better than the physical book is at night, when I am awake lying in bed. I can read the Kindle without turning on a light, which would wake up the wife. Most important.

        • December 22, 2015 5:05 pm

          Haha, Neil, yep, that’s also why I swapped my Kindle 2 for a Kindle touch. The Kindle 2 made a tiny clicking noise when you turned the page (and took notes as I did and do). That bothered Mr Gums! The Kindle Touch is much quieter!

          And yes, we are looking to declutter too so I am trying to acclimatise myself to more e-reading.

          Cultural amnesia sounds interesting …

        • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
          December 22, 2015 7:06 pm

          Speaking of Mr Gums, Clive suggests a book or two in German that he thinks would be ideal for the beginner in German to read.

        • December 22, 2015 7:13 pm

          Do tell then, Neil, though Mr Gums has read books like Pride and prejudice in German translation, so Clive’s books may be a little easy?

        • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
          December 22, 2015 7:50 pm

          Friedrich Torberg “Die Tante Jolesch” (… all the anecdotes that sound so attractive in English sound even more so in the original. Keep the original and the translation open beside each other and you’ve got the perfect parallel text.”) Sorry, only one in German, the other suggestions are for beginners in Spanish or French.

        • December 22, 2015 10:39 pm

          I’ll note that. There’s always a birthday coming up! Thanks.

  9. NeilAtKallaroo permalink
    December 22, 2015 5:27 pm

    Pymalion – “A comedy about a man who turns a girl into a lady, but in doing so overlooks the woman”. Not James, but James quoting Alfred Polgar. Cultural Amnesia is strewn with gems like this.

  10. January 28, 2016 7:55 pm

    I read your post a long time ago and made a mental note to read it in print only. Now I have the hardcover and am really enjoying the book.

    • January 28, 2016 11:36 pm

      Oh Nish, thanks for letting me know. When people are inspired to read something I’ve reviewed I’d hate for them to be disappointed.

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