The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

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A clear favourite amongst the Ayemenem locals

Roy’s breakthrough debut novel is more like poetry than literature; in the sense that most of it doesn’t make sense.

I have discovered from years of scouring award winning poems that a lot of their  imagery is not coherent in any way and yet somehow manages to capture the imagination of the judges. Roy’s novel should have won the attention of the public and the Man Booker committee, not because of imagery (of which there is a copious amount and so I dwell upon it), but in spite of it.

I can understand that the novel was singularly exceptional in the way that the caste system was handled, with the underlying political tension creating another area of conflict, as well as the looming fate of the infamous pickle factory, however I cannot understand the language used by Roy most of the time. As in: I cannot understand what she is trying to say. This is problematic, particularly because lots of phrases become epithets to characters or circumstances, so some level of coherency would be useful.

Here is a random example:

‘He folded his fear into a perfect rose. He held it out in the palm of his hand. She took it from him and put it in her hair

This sounds wonderful and indeed poetic, but it is rather nonsensical. So fear is the rose, right? So Rahel takes Velutha’s fear and makes it add to her beauty/ shows it off? Of course, as any self respecting literature scholar will know, you can always adjust the meaning of phrases, because no one has the ‘definitive’ meaning so if you shout loud enough then your opinion of a piece of imagery could be deemed somewhat plausible. So someone might say that Velutha makes himself vulnerable and turns his fears into a thing of beauty, because he is a powerful character who can create perfection from his own fallibility and in doing so Rahel respects his weaknesses and turns into something which complements her one of her own strengths, her beauty. You could say that. But we all know that that interpretation is rather whimsical and far-fetched, and yet many people would justify the relevance of this quote (and many others equally ridiculous) by saying that this was the true meaning.

Another example is:

blood spilt from the man’s head ‘like a secret’

Let’s break this down: a secret is a piece of information which must be concealed from individuals or groups for the threat of causing conflict. Blood cannot come from someone’s head like something which shouldn’t be discussed. The movement of blood isn’t like something that should be concealed, especially when one considers how much blood does actually appear from a head injury as this character as sustained, and how this actually is useful as it signals injury and therefore brings help. No one wants a severe injury to be hidden for fear of causing problems when they could be receiving medical tension and their life is at risk. Call me pedantic, but these examples (and I can list many more), prove that much of Arunhati’s imagery is at best parnassian and at worst unintelligible. I adore well-written books, just not when the language it pretentious and self-indulgent.

So why isn’t this terrible flaw pointed out more often?

Many people will go to the depths of the universe to defend Roy because they can relate to other parts of the plot and so want to defend the ENTIRE novel, instead of admitting there’s a few faults, to justify that they don’t like books with flaws. This aggravatingly works in their favour because literature is always ‘open to debate’, if you are willing to concede that ‘debate’ includes twisting things out of proportion and context to prove a point. In another instance people can simply skim past words and not step back and internalise them, and so although things may sound pleasant on the tip of their tongue, they may never truly think why Roy makes these bizarre comparisons. Worst of all, it may be because people honestly believe that they aren’t intelligent enough to understand the references, even when it’s a vague and poor reference that they’re dealing with, and so the problem is with the language and not their intellect.

The book does however has beautifully and vividly crafted characters, however it did take me almost the entirety of the plot to suddenly be able to differentiate them as they were introduced rather haphazardly all at once. It seems apparent that the plot in question only really starts to develop and come into its own in the latter stages of The God, mainly because the rest of the novel is so utterly character driven. This naturally places Roy’s piece in the ‘literature’ section of the Types Of Books scale, but it did seem a bit indulgent at times even for literature. For example, an author can go on and on with elaborately described scenes where characters are just brushing their teeth, but then it seems to be more for the author’s enjoyment then for the reader’s benefit, and as the book is being sold, it really ought to be more reader in mind than the writer.

Also, the incest part at the end? This was entirely unnecessary to the plot and quite abhorrent. Some argue that it’s to evoke a reaction that would be parallel to the Velutha/ Ammu relationship, so that Western reactions to the twins’ incest could be a template for Untouchable/ Touchable relationship, as there is no caste system as such in the West and so it may be hard to imagine what feelings would have been created by the news of the two together. But in all seriousness, the caste system is cruel and names people’s worth before they are even born, based on the social standing of their family, not on the individuals’ potential, and so people are born into a lottery of sorts. Incest, on the other hand, not only destroys the boundaries that one assumes exists between family members and siblings, where the love is meant to be platonic and caring at to the highest degree, but also violates the idea of preventing cross-breeding. There is a real reason to be concerned by this as opposed to the Untouchable/ Touchable relationship, and not just because of it is at odds with Western culture, but with all cultures and even morales.

So The God of Small Things was generally an adequate read; the flash backs and glimpses into the future also tended to add to some of the confusion, but once the plot is firmly sorted in one’s head I suppose reading the novel the next time will be a more enjoyable and clearer experience. If you can get past the opaque language, that is.

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