Archive for July, 2006

Essay on George Orwell and José Saramago: now on-line

Now on-line at:
is my article:
‘How totalitarianism begins at home: SARAMAGO AND ORWELL’,
as published in the volume “In Dialogue with Saramago: Essays in
Comparative Literature”, eds. Mark Sabine and Adriana Alves de Paula
Martins, Manchester: University of Manchester, 2006, pp. 105-120
(cf. this blog, 25 April and 30 May 2006; official site for the book –


I examine the theme of totalitarianism in the two authors’ work in general
and with specific reference to Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and
Saramago’s two linked novels ‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’/’Blindness’
and ‘Ensaio sobre a Lucidez’ (‘Seeing’).
Orwell, who died at 47, saw himself as a writer almost from day one (‘From
a very early age … I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer’ );
Saramago established himself as a journalist only in his forties and as a
novelist only in his late fifties, receiving the Nobel, in 1998, at 75.
Orwell, schooled at Eton College, came from a privileged background which
he part-reneged descending among tramps and miners; the autodidact
Saramago, whose mother was illiterate and who owned no books till the age
of 19, lifted himself up from obscure rural origins. Orwell, though always
a writer of the Left, became a visceral opponent of Stalinism, while
Saramago remains a member of his country’s communist party to this day.
However, similarities too impose themselves. Neither’s production appears
under his name given at birth: ‘George Orwell’ was the pseudonym of the man
born Eric Blair, while José Meirinho Sousa became ‘José Saramago’ at seven
thanks to a mistake, worthy of one of his own novels, at the registry
office . Certain threads bind the careers of both. One is empire: Orwell,
born in British India, served in the Burmese Imperial Police, exposed the
colonial mentality in his novel Burmese Days and campaigned for Indian
independence; Saramago’s career as journalist and writer only took off in
the wake of Portugal’s anti-fascist and anti-imperialist revolution of 1974
and the consequent abandonment of empire and colonial war. Another is
Spain, in the life and writings of each: Orwell in the Spanish civil war
and Homage to Catalonia; Saramago particularly in A Jangada de Pedra/The
Stone Raft – which echoes Orwell’s memoir in featuring drama at the
Cerbère/Portbou frontier – and his later relocation to Lanzarote.
In formal or generic terms, both Saramago’s and Orwell’s work combines the
fictive with the analytic and the journalistic, tending to relativise any
rigid dividing-line between fiction and non-fiction; while both may fairly
be considered as being – consistently and committedly – among the most
political writers of all time. The production of both includes reams of
journalism as well as published books, with Orwell’s columns in Tribune or
The Observer balanced by Saramago’s in, say, the Diário de Lisboa . Orwell
mixes narrative and political exegesis in the same book (The Road to Wigan
Pier; in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the extract from Goldstein’s book and the
appendix on Newspeak ), while his Burmese set-pieces ‘A Hanging’ and
‘Shooting An Elephant’ could as well be called short stories as essays.
Saramago, as he himself stressed to Umberto Eco in 2004, has deliberately
given his novels such un-novelistic titles as ‘manual, memorial, history,
gospel and essay’ , and has on several occasions described his later novels
as essays in fictional form – a designation which could apply equally well
to Animal Farm.
Thematically, both writers combine respect for both the common man or woman
and the engaged intellectual with the deepest dislike of the owners of land
and capital; both are keen secularists with very little time for
Christianity; and Orwell’s hostility to the British Empire runs parallel to
Saramago’s latter-day crusade against empire in the shape of globalisation
and the mass consumerism satirised in A Caverna/The Cave. In terms of
reception, both writers’ work has had brushes with censorship and official
opprobrium. Saramago left Portugal for Spain in 1992, in the wake of the
withdrawal from an EU prize nomination of his O Evangelho segundo Jesus
Cristo/The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – an action by the right-wing
Portuguese government then in power which, as late as 2005, he described
as: ‘that censorship which happened to me … an act worthy of a fascist
dictatorship’. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm have
frequently been blacklisted by US school boards ; and both are, by a sad
twist of history, today banned by a totalitarian regime in, of all
countries, Burma. Above all, the work of both is imbued with a constant
attitude of critical questioning, a refusal of cliché coupled with a deep
awareness of its power, and a restlessly alert libertarian spirit.


Note added 14 October 2009: This essay has been placed on the reading list for the course ‘Descobrir Saramago’ (‘Discovering Saramago’)  to be offered from 2 to 6 November 2009 to secondary school teachers of Portuguese, organised by the Centro de Formação da Associação de Escolas de São Miguel e Santa Maria (Azores, Portugal) – see entry on this blog for 13 October 2009 

Note added 12 January 2010: for a review of the book, see:
Ellipsis (American Portuguese Studies Association)
No 5, 2007 –
review of “In Dialogue with Saramago”, by Anna Klobucka
pp 183-186

Vikram Seth’s TWO LIVES: study now on-line

those interested in Vikram Seth can find my essay on TWO LIVES, his
non-fictional work of 2005. This text is entitled: "The multicultural in
Vikram Seth’s TWO LIVES: ‘history writ little’ or global protagonism?"; it
is a longer version of an essay published as: "Vikram Seth’s TWO LIVES A
Literature of Global Protagonism", in The Expatriate Indian Writing in
English, vol. 1, eds. T. Vinoda and P. Shailaja, New Delhi: Prestige Books,
2006, pp. 171-183 (for which book, see this blog, entry for 21 May 2006).
I examine Seth’s book from a number of different viewpoints, including
genre problematics and documentation ethics. TWO LIVES
recounts the true histories – at first parallel, later intertwined – of
Vikram Seth’s great-uncle Shanti Seth (or ‘Shanti Uncle’) (1908-1998) and
his German-Jewish wife Hennerle Caro (‘Aunty Henny’) (1908-1989). Shanti is
sent by his family to study dentistry in Berlin in the early 1930s. He
lodges with the Caro family, where he makes the acquaintance of his future
spouse. The perspective darkens with the rise of Nazism: Shanti graduates
in dentistry but is barred from practising as a foreigner, and relocates to
England, where he requalifies. Indian but still a British subject, he
serves in World War II and loses his right forearm at the battle of Monte
Cassino in Italy. Meanwhile, Henny manages to get out of Germany and
settles in London, where Shanti is the only person she knows. Her mother
and sister perish in the Shoah. Hers is the arduous task of rebuilding a
shattered life, with the friendship and, finally, the married companionship
of Shanti, who himself heroically overcomes his disability and practises
for years as a much-respected dentist. Neither thinks of returning ‘home’,
despite Indian independence and West Germany’s rise from the ashes: the
couple resolutely make their life in England. In 1969, they offer a home
base to Vikram, Shanti’s great-nephew from Calcutta , sent as a schoolboy
to England. Years later and now a famous writer, Vikram returns to London
and, staying once more with the now-widowed Shanti Uncle, discovers Henny’s
papers in a trunk in the attic, and conceives the idea of turning their two
lives into a book.

My own tribute to the late Raja Rao

Here is my own humble tribute to the late Raja Rao. It will appear in the
August 2006 edition of ENGLISH TODAY, an e-zine published in Delhi and
distributed to English teachers in India, thanks to the good offices of the
editor, my friend Suktara Ghosh.
With the passing away at the ripe age of 97, on 8 July 2006 at his home in Austin, Texas,
of Raja Rao, Indian Writing in English (IWE) has lost the last of its three
‘grand old men’, the triumvirate of R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja
Rao who are generally held to have exerted a crucial influence over IWE’s
key transition period between the late colonial and post-Independence
epochs. Of the three, Raja Rao was, while not neglecting either the
regional orientation of Narayan or the political discourse of Anand,
certainly the most philosophical, and his writing career can be seen as a
constant effort to bring a distinctively Indian metaphysical outlook into
the province of the novel form in English.
Born into a Brahmin family in 1908 in what is now Karnataka, Raja Rao was
nonetheless educated, as the only Hindu student, at a Muslim university in
Aligarh, and went on to study in Montpellier, France, and later at the
Sorbonne in Paris. He was thus early exposed to a multiplicity of cultural
influences, and saw it as his task to disentangle a distinctively modern
Hindu sensibility in a world where cultures inevitably meet and come into
dialogue. Over a literary career spanning three-quarters of a century, he
published five novels (more are for the moment unpublished), three
short-story collections and a large amount of non-fictional prose (more,
again, will appear posthumously). From 1960 on he was resident in Austin –
and yet expatriate though he was, Mother India was always at the forefront
of his thought and work.
Raja Rao began his writing career with the short stories that were later
collected as The Cow of the Barricades (1947), but it was the novel
Kanthapura (1938) that catapulted him to prominence. This tale of a
Gandhian struggle in a fictional South Indian village is notable for its
anti-colonialist thrust, its first-person narrative assuming the voice of a
woman villager, and its deliberate espousal, as set out in Rao’s famous
Preface, of a distinctively Indian form of the English language (‘We cannot
write like the English. We should not. We can only write as Indians’).
After a lengthy interval came a very different work, The Serpent and the
Rope (1960), a long philosophical novel set variously in France, England
and India, in which Rao explored the convergences and divergences of the
Indian and Western mindsets, in what the critic David McCutchion, writing
in 1969, perceptively called ‘a consistent, convincing presentation of a
particular kind of mind’ – an authentically Indian mind’.
In Comrade Kirillov (first published in a French-language edition in 1965),
Rao, writing under the influence of the great Russian masters, engaged
controversially in philosophical dialogue with Marxism, a belief-system
which he rejected. The next novel, The Cat and Shakespeare (1965), was
deliberately local – and yet universal – in its feel, offering a parable of
enlightenment in a small-town South Indian environment. 1978 saw another
volume of stories, The Policeman and the Rose; the autochthonous vein
continued, this time with a more cosmopolitan view of India, in On the
Ganga Ghat (1989), a volume of interlinked short stories about Benares and
its manifold pilgrims. The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), Rao’s last
published novel, witnessed a return to the metaphysical concerns of The
Serpent and the Rope: it is the first volume in a trilogy whose remaining
parts will see the light of day in due course.
Raja Rao is survived by his devoted wife Susan, who tended him in his last
years. His work will be continued and his unpublished writings edited by a
small band of equally devoted scholars. The highly distinctive
philosophical tone of his writing remains unique in the annals of IWE, and
we now here pay homage to Raja Rao’s voice by sampling a passage from On
The Ganga Ghat that communicates something of that particular flavour, as
the devout cow, Jhaveri Bai, immerses herself in the Ganges:
The cow’s tears are purer than your brahmin prayers. Come and see it there,
if you will, by the Benares ghat. ‘God you made the elephant and the
peacock, the bear and the porcupine – even the dog did you make and the
hyena, creatures of this earth. But the cow, Lord, you made as your first
child. Lord, I sink in your waters, I sink into my origins. Lord, give me
the gift of truth.’
The Ganges flows fierce and fresh on Jhaveri Bai’s back. Head inturned and
her horns unshaking, Jhaveri Bai contemplates her own face in the moving
waters. There’s magic in this picture that appears and disappears.
More information on Raja Rao can be found at two very rich and detailed
sites, both maintained by the Rao scholar Letizia Alterno:

Raja Rao obituary in THE GUARDIAN, 17-7-06, by Letizia Alterno

Further to my post of 9 July on the sad death of Raja Rao (1908-2006),
I now draw your attention to the excellent and detailed review published
(‘The Guardian’, Mon 17 July 06, p. 25 (international edition)).
This review presents a very comprehensive overview of Raja Rao’s
literary career and spiritual quest. It is by Letizia Alterno (University of
Manchester), who is the author of a critical study on the
author currently in process of preparation.

In Memoriam Raja Rao (1908-2006)

Raja Rao (1908-2006), one of Indian Writing in English’s greatest novelists, passed away peacefully at his house in Austin, Texas, about 12.45 p.m. on Saturday, 8 July 2006. ** I reproduce this anonymous tribute, sent me from India the following day: ** "The passing away of Raja Rao will be deeply mourned by all students and teachers of English in India as well as by the larger circle of his devoted admirers across the world. ** Raja Rao constituted, with Mulk Raj Anand and R K Narayan, the Great Trinity of Indian writers in English. He gave this literature an indigenous interiority and depth as well as an international and intercultural range which extended beyond the Anglophone world. He fashioned a new kind of English — which he called both "a language that is not one’s own" and yet "not really an alien language." He wrote with a spiritual and metaphysical resonance rare in fiction in any language while he also painted, with a novelist’s acute observation and relish, warm and lively portraits of persons and places including Gandhi, Nehru and Andre Malraux, and the Ganga ghats in Banaras. Writing was for him, he said, a form of spiritual quest which he sustained till the end of his life, with a new novel due to appear shortly. With Narayan, Anand and Rao all gone, a whole major era in Indian writing in English comes to an end. ** We pay homage to Raja Rao and pray for the departed soul." ** Do please also see my note on this blog dated 22 March 2006, on Raja Rao resources on the Internet and the remarkable work being done by the Rao scholar Letizia Alterno, whose tribute to the late author can be found on-line at:


En la edición de EL PAÍS del 4 de julio de 2006 –
gó/Habana –
edición Europa: pp 13-14 –
ha aparecido un texto interesante del escritor cubano (exiliado en México)
Rafael Rojas, sobre Walter Benjamin:
‘Benjamin no llegó a La Habana’.
Cuenta Rojas que de haber podido salir Benjamin de Europa en 1940 (ya
sabemos que no pudo y que falleció trágicamente en Portbou, en la frontera
franco-española), existía la posibilidad de que lo invitaran a ejercer como
profesor en la Universidad de la Habana (eso a pesar de que no dominaba el
castellano …). Rojas también nos informa, como curiosidad, que el poeta
cubano Eugenio Florit, en aquel entonces cónsul de su país en Nueva York y
nacido en Madrid en 1903, ‘había vivido hasta sus 15 años en Portbou, aquel
puerto fronterizo donde se suicidó Benjamin, en el que su padre trabajó
como alcalde de aduana’, incluso llegando a evocar el paisaje de Portbou en
los poemas del cuaderno ‘Niño de ayer’ (1940), incluido en su libro ‘Poema
mío’ (1920-1944). Por otro lado, el cubano disidente opina que la obra de
Benjamin, a pesar de sus innegables facetas marxistas, nunca ha sido
debidamente valorada en la Cuba de Fidel Castro.
He escrito sobre Benjamin y Portbou en esta bitácora (7 de octubre de 2005).

EL PAÍS for 4 July 2006 –
gó/Habana –
(Europe edition pp 13-14) –
features an interesting text by the Cuban writer (exiled in Mexico) Rafael
Rojas, on Walter Benjamin:
‘Benjamin no llegó a La Habana’ (Benjamin never reached Havana).
Rojas informs us that had Benjamin been able to leave Europe in 1940 (we
know that he could not, and perished tragically at Portbou on the
Franco-Spanish border), he could have been invited to teach as an invited
professor at the University of Havana (even if he spoke no Spanish …).
Rojas adds as a curiosity that the Cuban poet Eugenio Florit, then Cuba’s
consul in Nueva York, lived (though born in Madrid) up to the age of 15 in
Portbou, where his father was head of the customs service, and even wrote
about Portbou in his poem-sequence ‘Niño de ayer’ (1940), included in his
book ‘Poema mío’ (1920-1944). The Cuban dissident adds that Benjamin’s
work, despite its undeniable Marxist elements, has never been appreciated
in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
I have featured Benjamin and Portbou (with photos) elsewhere on this blog
(7 October 2005).