The Excitement of Apocalypse
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Jacobson didn't exactly use foul language, nor did he leave his defence of the idea and practice of free creative and argumentative expression unqualified. But, asked about the ongoing controversy over Ashis Nandy (not likely a literary person in the Jacobsonian sense of the term) at its centre, the British author — for whom, one sensed, it might as well have been another round of Salman Rushdie — fired all guns. The story here, however, is not the controversies thrust upon the JLF each year by the wide world of illiterate illiberalism at whose heart it has the misfortune of finding itself permanently located.
The essence of this year's rather low-key JLF (not because of the repute of the speakers) was the assertion of the importance, the aesthetic and ethical imperative, of literature. Literature that uses the means of language and imagination to the end of something new, distinct from reality and history, which gives aesthetic pleasure and is ethical at its core. 'Ethical', again, is not about described or prescribed social conduct but about a book believing in itself. When Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (along with Amit Chaudhuri) proclaimed that "literary studies cannot be an annexe to the social sciences" (as it has regrettably become across the world), she was making the most ethical case for every literature festival. It is that old-school idea of literature, which views the aesthetic as "the training of the imagination" (Spivak) and makes you realise, without appearing to preach, that you simply cannot call anybody you disagree with a "fascist" (Jacobson). But reading a book, as Spivak clarified, is not an ethical act in itself.
At a JLF session that perhaps more than any previous editions was coloured by intimations of the festival's mortality Jacobson, who likens himself to "Old Testament prophets predicting doom" (as he does for the novel and the publishing industry in the postliterate dystopia of Zoo Time) albeit with a comic voice, was a godsend. For a novelist who chases the "well-written sentence", upholds the paramountcy of language that unfailingly punctuates itself at the right places, and speaks with a witty candidness, Jacobson's roaring audience — and his "fan club of 14-year-old girls" at Jaipur in contrast to his "90-year-old listeners" everywhere else — was a testament to the fact that given an inch, the lay reader/listener will take five. As they did with political philosopher Michael Sandel, as legendary as his Harvard course on justice, who held schoolchildren in rapt attention.
If Jacobson and Gary Shteyngart were the veritable verbal feast on display, less assuming Santiago Roncagliolo, the Peruvian-born projected by critics as the fastest rising star of his generation of Hispanophone writers, argued, in a quiet tête-à-tête on the sidelines of the JLF, the case for "ambiguity" which a literary work must work towards. The only Roncagliolo novel translated into English, Red April (reviewed as 'War Within', IE, September 4, 2010), ends up showing the Peruvian Indians as twice victimised — by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) movement and the state which defeated the Maoist guerillas: "In the end, you do not know who is the villain."
Such ambiguity is the ethical imperative of literature, which teaches you that, "You're stupid if you go to a book with your mind made up about what it should be," as Jacobson — of a British Jewish milieu as different from Roncagliolo's expat Latin American one as can be — bluntly put it. To him "language is everything" and the story doesn't matter. Thirty-seven-year-old Roncagliolo, who has worked as a journalist and written a seminal biography of the Shining Path's Abimael Guzman, celebrates, instead, the return of the story to the novel and the end of postmodernist experimentation. These are two widely distant roads that converged on literary fiction because the ability to laugh at yourself and to simultaneously approach a problem from opposing perspectives are closely connected as an aesthetic and ethical test readers must set for themselves.
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