Virginia Woolf and Henry James transformed the art of fiction. From being the telling of a story with incidents described in a linear manner in the ‘accursed' omniscient third person, it grew into a form of narration — often termed ‘modernist fiction' — which riveted the attention of the reader.
What began as an experiment blossomed into an art, with practitioners such as Joyce, and Faulkner, giving up the hackneyed methods of construction in favour of technically valuable modes of narration. Woolf, for whom fiction is like a spider's web, says: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” For Henry James, true art of fiction is “to catch the colour of life itself.”
The two stories of M.T. Vasudevan Nair included in this volume are, in the words of the translator, Gopalakrishnan, “stories narrated at some length rather than novels written with brevity.” ‘The Funeral Procession' ( Vilapayatra) and ‘The Soul of Darkness' ( Iruttinte Atmavu) are similar in style but different in theme. In the first, the protagonist, K.N. Nair, aged 71, who battled hard against cancer, is brought home from the hospital to his native village in Kerala where he passes away. His four grown-up sons — Kuttetan, Rajan, Appu and Unni — living in different areas converge and, anticipating his death, start preparing for the funeral. The rituals connected with the funeral: preparing the funeral pyre for which a fruit-bearing tree is pulled down; observing fast till the end of the funeral; lighting the funeral pyre; and so on form the main structure, supplying the context, as it were, of the narration.
The dramatised narration is kept going primarily by the reliable narrator Rajan who felt that “father had never been unhappy” and Unni, the unreliable narrator for whom “father was a great hypocrite.” Carrying the “burden of the sorrow of their father's death,” they take the reader through the life-span of the family, tracing the rise and decline of their father's fortunes in his business in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), his hidden secrets and the skeletons in his cupboard, his illegitimate child, and his death, almost penniless.
Rendered through flashbacks, the focus, all the while, is on the emotional and psychological workings in the minds of the characters where the past impinges on the present consciousness. What however retards the flow of the narration is the predictability of the funeral depictions.
The other piece, ‘The Soul of Darkness,' is almost poetic in its rendition of the pathos of the unhappy life of Velayudhan, the mentally retarded boy who is kept in chains and relentlessly subjected to corporeal punishment. The only relieving moments in his fear-laden life are the sweet ones he spent in the company of his grandmother and Ammukutty, his cousin.
The flow of the sense perception of Velayudhan is beautifully conveyed: “It was evening. The sun had slid gently to the distant horizon and the heat had abated. Among the plantain trees a squirrel was busy drinking honey. He would bit open the layers of the cones and drink the honey from the flowers within...” Mixing memory and desire, the flow of myriad impressions, musings, thoughts, and images are presented to us from the viewpoint of Velayudhan, without any authorial interference.
Vasudevan Nair's Two Stories is addictively readable in its English translation by Gopalakrishnan.
TWO STORIES: By M.T. Vasudevan Nair; Translated by N. Gopalakrishnan; Pub. by Tarjuma, Book Point, Ummer Mansion, M.M. Ali Road, Kozhikode-673002. Rs. 200.
Keywords: Master story teller in Malayalam