[Open Letter; 2020]
Tr. from the Bengali by V. Ramaswamy
What makes a novel a novel? Bengali writer Subimal Misra provokes his readers to scrap the obligatory definitions in This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels. Conceivable definitions of what comprises ‘the novel’ outnumbers actual novels, but here are a couple obligatory definitions: The novel is a long-form prose narrative; the novel is a commodity. Of Misra’s Two Anti-Novels, This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale and When Color is a Warning Sign, neither adheres to the cause-and-effect organization of time or character development that long-form prose narratives have accustomed readers to expect, nor are they written exclusively in prose. For Misra, expectations exist to be overthrown, their fulfilment being a function of the market, not art, and certainly not art with revolutionary aims.
The Open Letter edition, with its subtitle and inclusion of “The Anti-Novel: A Manifesto,” underscores the anti-ness of Misra’s novels; the prefix suggesting the desacralizing tradition of Dada and the negation synonymous with anarchism. Identifying a correspondence between societal and literary structures, Misra sets out to turn the modern novel — that bourgeois art form par excellence — on its head, reversing novelistic background and foreground. Whereas in the conventional novel, descriptions of social context are digressions from the plot, centered around the characters and their actions, here, Ramayan is the digression — the real characters are India’s social structures, the reader, and the writer. This act of literary sabotage throws the novel into crisis, complicating its status as a commodity and creating what Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky terms “the consciousness of form through its violation.” Walking the tightrope between aesthetics and activism, Misra dynamites the novel, urging the reader to reshape it in their own image.
Although context makes up the bulk of the anti-novels, like a painting of its own frame, Janam Mukherjee’s introduction presents a historical and biographical overview that proves helpful to readers not already knowledgeable of Indian politics. Even so, few readers could be expected to know every one of Misra’s eclectic references and allusions in advance. Through the active collaboration of the reader — who should come prepared to fill in the gaps Misra leaves intentionally open — the writing completes itself. In keeping with the author’s refusal to condescend to readers, translator V. Ramaswamy uses footnotes sparingly and opts for a high ratio of Bengali-to-English terminology, evoking the texture of the source language without exoticizing his translation.
“The Anti-Novel: A Manifesto” opens with an epigraph. In what recalls the Situationist technique of détournement, Misra writes through Marx’s theory of alienated labor to reframe the phenomenon of artworks apparently creating themselves:
He considers his creation to be more powerful than himself, separate from his own existence, confronting him, like another rival. Work is agony for him… creative work seems to be a fatal yet definitely futile exercise. It’s his own work that stands in opposition to him, against him — something over which he has no control.
Unfinished without the reader’s labor, for reasons we’ll examine, Misra’s writing achieves autonomy from its author. Rewritten, in a sense, with each reader and each rereading, it never quite obtains the status of a finished product, a commodity used up in its consumption. For Misra autonomy is critical, no matter how “agonizing” or “futile” it appears. That his work is “not backed by any ‘isms’ currently on offer” is a matter of principle. In part, his structural critique derives from Marx’s dialectical method, but the epigraph shows a contempt for doctrinaire quotation. Misra upholds revolution as a value in itself, never once suggesting what forms society or literature should take once dismantled, a question left to the reader. “Writing itself becomes the real subject, shabda (the Word) is then not merely brahma (the Creator), but brahmanda (Creation) itself. It resides in a kind of unfettered narration. And through that, it becomes the supreme literature of protest… Finally, it does not remain a novel…” The artwork’s autonomy is an expression of anarchism in the broadest sense, a negation of ideology. Misra’s explicit rejection of both Socialist Realism and “socialist reality” under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi informs his every word. At no point does he present readers with a naive “mirror image” of reality.
The title This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale is fitting for a book that shrugs off novel conventions. Ramaswamy translates গল্প [galpa] as “tale,” a word typically associated with folklore and oral tradition, though plenty of novels pose as really long yarns (e.g. A Tale of Two Cities). The construction “could have been” effectively negates the “tale,” along with any naive identification of the novel with oral storytelling. At the same time, it suggests that if history had played out differently Ramayan would be able to tell his own tale, and in the flesh. The all-but-absent hero’s name is similarly contradictory. “Ramayan” is one syllable removed from Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic recounting the life of Lord Rama, and “Chamar” — though it denotes a historically untouchable dalit community — is leveled against dalits as a casteist slur. Misra summarizes the tale Ramayan might have told in a single paragraph 83 pages in: a “coolie” at the Mediyabari Tea Estate, he is beaten to death by police after participating in a strike. Whereas in Virgina Woolf’s Jacob’s Room or Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives the protagonist is displaced by other characters, here Ramayan all but disappears under a palimpsest of metafiction, diary, and reportage, in which rape, banditry, voter fraud, and exploitation recur to the point of nausea. Ramayan periodically interrupts to make such statements as: “Mister, even the dog in the streets bares his fangs when he is kicked.” This raises the question: in a book that supplants character-construction with documentary “raw material,” where do we find the fiction, the art?
The illusion of a cause-and-effect relationship between plot points in the conventional novel fails to satisfy the manifesto’s definition of reality as a “situation of conflict between the past and the future.” To give this conflict form, Misra smashes disparate forms and situations together. Though he directly acknowledges the cinematic influence of Jean-Luc Godard, his work draws as much from Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s experiments with dialectical montage. Opposed to the editing style favored by Hollywood, designed to be “invisible” and prioritize continuity, the Early Soviet style brought editing into the open. By juxtaposing images in conflict with an eye to shocking the audience and inviting their intellectual collaboration, their editing disclosed the film as an assemblage of images, not just a story. Misra imports dialectical montage into the novel, whittling down his role to that of an editor who orders and refines raw material, text in all its forms.
Misra has devised or repurposed any number of writing techniques to this end. Prose conventions have taught us to read paragraph breaks, for example, as signalling some fresh development, without the gap in time implied by a section break. While plenty of writers use the paragraph break to produce fragmentation, in Misra’s hands this familiar technique functions atypically. Throughout Two Anti-Novels, they not only separate scenes and speakers but genres. For instance, a paragraph break implies at least temporal continuity between a fishing scene and crime reportage, when no obvious connection exists. As such, Misra’s paragraph break is analogous to the jump cut. The only answer to the reader’s frustration is to take on the role of an active collaborator and advance a connection, crossing over briefly into the role of the writer.
Another of Misra’s favored devices is the horizontal line. Sometimes replacing a period, horizontal lines split the page to sharply delineate sections of text. At first they seem to announce the inclusion clippings pasted in Misra’s diary, but the irruption of a monologue from Ramayan Chamar, for example, effectively renders it fictional, throwing the “objectivity” of newsprint into suspicion. At no point in the text can we be sure of what we read, even when tone and diction imply reportage.
Misra reproduces another level of textual montage, that of the censor, by cutting the text mid-sentence with a bold “redacted,” not only to underscore the hypocrisy of newspaper editors, but to allow the reader to imagine what has been excised from the text, nudging us once again into the author’s, and perhaps editor’s, role. So far, we have established three “strengths” of montage (though by no means is this an exhaustive list). The first functions through paragraph breaks and must be guessed at. The second, comparable to a fade to black, is paradoxically less pronounced, being indicated unambiguously with a horizontal line. The third gestures at the ghostly presence of a text that has been actively excluded, reminding us that every text, even when it presents itself as objective fact, is edited together by a subject process. In most cases, the editing is made invisible so that the product is rendered seamless and readily absorbed. Two Anti-Novels never allows us to forget its status as a fabrication.
Here, and throughout Two Anti-Novels, Misra works with a textual cubism, collaging perspectives that, although read sequentially, collide in a simultaneity of past and future. The result, an image in four dimensions of society in the process of rapid decomposition and recomposition, capitalism in timelapse. Misra cements this connection to visual art by intercutting numerous anecdotes about Matisse, Rodin, and Picasso. One reference is particularly apt. In a section titled “Writer,” he writes:
Go to the end of the text, there you’ll see the bulb being removed from the table lamp on the writing table, the writer’s member being inserted, and the switch being turned on, nearby the characters from Guernica have grabbed space and squatted. All of you know that the last ten pages are devoted to a description of a storm, like in The Tempest.
In Guernica, Misra finds another model for Two Anti-Novels. With its grotesque, violent distortions of form rendered in the grisaille of newsprint and newsreel, Guernica is, in a word, avant-garde: an artwork revolutionary in form and content, a statement of radical humanism through its pictorial negation. The artwork must be an electrocution, convulsing the body so that the work — no longer defined by the limits of its creator — completes its circuit in the spectator, i.e. the reader, transforming them into a creator of meaning. Those who make meaning for themselves, instead of consuming the meanings passed down to them by authority, are already on the road to revolution.
As Subimal Misra’s fiction demonstrates, there can be no definitive answer to the question of what makes a novel a novel — only as many possibilities as we imagine. Misra advances the novel as not merely cross-genre but cross-medium. Film, painting, reportage, diary, screenplay, nothing is out of bounds, everything is thrown into the meat-grinder of text, a space where all distinctions, including that between writer and reader, begin to liquefy. The anti-novels raise a difficult question though: who will bother reading such a revolutionary book, aside from those already sympathetic to Misra’s program? This has always been the gamble of the avant-garde, that art which accepts no compromise may, or may not, inform some far-flung future. However, with this most recent translation, the reach of Misra’s experiments with literary form extends a little farther.
William Repass lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Word For / Word, Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Threadcount, and elsewhere. His critical writing can be found at Colorado Review, and Slant.