Around the world in eight books

A reading list in defence of the ‘global novel’

July 01, 2017 09:56 pm | Updated 10:49 pm IST

Getty Images/istockphoto

Getty Images/istockphoto

If by chance you are still looking for a summer reading list, Adam Kirsch’s brilliant, and short, inquiry, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century , may provide one. Many of these are beloved texts that have been around for years, but his particular line of analysis to defend “the global novel” brings them together in a pattern that makes a reread a relook: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow , Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 , Roberto Bolano’s 2666 , Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah , Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist , Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake , Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island , and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Goethe’s summons

The collection itself suggests the definition of ‘world literature’ that Kirsch, a literary critic, is alluding to when he begins by introducing the first known use of the phrase, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early 19th century: “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

It took its time, but the epoch is evidently upon us, made all the more easier with the Internet, with a hugely successful novel anywhere in the world making a splash everywhere else — and with the ubiquity of e-readers, with most books now just a click away from download. Kirsch, of course, raises the larger question of whether Goethe was talking simply of this sharing of reading matter across languages and cultures, or whether he hoped “for something more — a truly cosmopolitan literature, in which national origin would have ceased to matter at all”.

Goethe may well have had a more global consciousness in mind, but the point about “national origin” and how much it matters has been a cause of much anxiety among critics, though in a rather different way than the cosmopolitan literature ideal. It thickened the air in India, for instance, in the years after Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won global acclaim and the Booker Prize in the early 1980s, and hit fever pitch each time an Indian writer got a big advance — especially Vikram Seth for A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things in the 1990s. These and other books were unnecessarily sought to be diminished on the unfounded and pointless charge of being written for a readership elsewhere, in the West — and by implication for somehow being inauthentic, or untrue to their subject matter.

Foreignness of novel

Set aside the other debate on writing in English being privileged over that in other Indian languages — but at a global level, it is still difficult to explain how one literary novel hits a chord in such diverse territories, while another equally (if not more) sparkling novel does not. Is it because a particular sort of novel plays down the particulars of its non-Western context?

Or, as Kirsch sums it up as he counts down the various charges levelled: “This is one of the commonest charges against world literature: By making foreignness into a literary commodity, it prevents the possibility of any true encounter with difference. In this way, it duplicates the original sin of translation itself, which brings the distant close only by erasing the very language that marks it as distant to begin with.” Taken further, there is the fear of literature being “ethnically branded”, so that once a particular sort of writing from a country is successful globally, publishers will seek only more of that — and perhaps, in turn, readers in the writer’s home country too will condition their reading preferences accordingly. The critiques are endless, and Kirsch takes them on in the only meaningful way — by reading these “global novels”.

Stripped for export?

Take Murakami, around whom speculation settles as a yearly ritual in the days leading to the announcement of the Nobel Prize, but whose writing is sometimes criticised back home in Japan for Japanese prose that is, as Kirsch puts it, “stripped for export”. It is not that simple. Comparing Murakami’s magnum opus 1Q84 to Pamuk’s Snow , Kirsch notes that while the plot and the characters of the latter are necessarily particular to Turkey, “the urban isolates of 1Q84 could almost as easily be living in New York or London” as in Tokyo. This, he concludes, is not a distortion inflicted by Murakami’s vaulting ambition to be something to everyone, but is perhaps a reflection of the common threads in our lives and curiosities worldwide.

He calls Adichie’s and Hamid’s novels “migrant literature”, different from the immigrant literature of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, whereby “America is a stage of life rather than a final destination” in the characters’ lives. As a contrast, there are the novels of Ferrante, whose success as a global writer is intriguing. Her novels are very strongly located in Naples, she uses local dialects in the original Italian, and she refuses to reveal her identity, thereby denying her overseas publishers the big marketing essential, the book tour.

In their particularity, her novels speak to common human emotions, of course, but they also, Kirsch helps us understand, suggest we must “see fates in an international perspective”, just as the other books listed here do. His tour is an invitation to read some of these books, and work out our individual appraisals of the appeal, and importance, of the global novel.

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