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Updated: September 7, 2011 15:15 IST

An unlikely tragic hero

PUSHKAL SHIVAM
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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Photo: Special Arrangement
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Photo: Special Arrangement

“Nutella, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Nu-te-lla: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Nu. Te. La.,” read a post on a friend's Facebook page.

She ingeniously swapped “Lo.Lee.Ta.” with “Nu.Te.La” in the opening lines of Lolita, a classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Protagonist Humbert Humbert's carnal desires took a culinary form for the friend.

My classmates were beset with a serendipitous predicament. Our professor chose Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran as the primary reading. However, the primary reading was rendered secondary as we realised that the book is very closely knit with the tale of Lolita. This became our Catch-22 situation.

But not everyone was intimidated. Some were “curious” about the “erotic” content of the book. As they later felt, with setting aside of morality as a precondition, Lolita could be viewed as “erotic”.

Arguing the monstrosity

Lolita is about the physiological urges of a paedophilic pervert, Humbert Humbert. The poetic criminal Humbert inexorably abuses the 12-year-old Lolita, alias Dolores Haze, until she finds a way out of his cage. As it might be evident from the previous lines, even the summary of the book is prone to subjectivity.

Few would dare take up on behalf of a paedophile. And it wouldn't be wrong to state the initial pages of the book as a mirage. The supposed genesis of the monstrously evil Humbert can unnerve the readers. The aesthetic quality of the book is sure to go unnoticed, as Nabokov himself asserts in a note at the end of the book.

The “banality of brutality” that Humbert inflicts upon Lolita merits a discussion. But for us the brutality of Humbert was not so banal. And so, groaning under the weight of Lolita, we took to Humbert-bashing.

Every session of discussion on the book saw students coming up with different ways to come at Humbert. The plight of Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, receded to the background, facilitating the attack on Humbert. That she had lost her childhood, her bereavement, did not enrage many.

Centre of discussion

What fascinated me most was the metamorphosis of Humbert from a “monster” to a “tragic hero”. No mention of Lolita still. There were also moments when we sympathised with Humbert; that was when the poetic Humbert asserted himself. No mention of Lolita still.

And suddenly it dawned upon us that it is very difficult to distance ourselves from Humbert's narration and crystallise an independent view-point. Lolita is Humbert's creation. Hence, no mention of Lolita still.

When all of this mumbo-jumbo was leading to some coherence, a comment from a friend derailed my train of thought: “This is so evil, bull****!” In front was a note by Nabokov which highlighted the aesthetic quality of the book, beside me was a friend who wrote it off as “bull****”. And yet, we could appreciate the manner in which the book set our imaginations ablaze.

PUSHKAL SHIVAM, I Year, Humanities and Social Sciences,

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