Ananda Devi writes on Mauritius and London, the purpose of fiction, and appearing to tread dark territories.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
It began with an old woman. It was the late 1970s, I was a student living in Clapham South – then far from trendy – and she was my neighbour. She lived alone. No one ever came to see her. I sometimes helped her clean her derelict house. She told me she was studying Chinese, after having completed a course in flower arrangement. I told her it was wonderful to see her always smiling. She replied, smiling, that she saw the human body as a transparent vase waiting to be filled, and believed that smiles were a light that filled it and shone out on other people. I knew then that, if ever I wrote about London, hers was the story I wanted to tell. But it would not, I knew, be a happy story. For, beyond the sweet smile, I knew about the dark and musty rooms and the dark and musty places in which she lived, in unrelenting loneliness.
As a novelist, I had for a long time been reluctant to venture into places and rooms I did not know: not because I didn’t feel I had the right to own them within the space of fiction – I absolutely did, which is why I had not hesitated to set my short stories in other countries – but because I felt that, to set a novel in a specific place, I needed to have lived in that place, to have known it from the inside. How, otherwise, could I have known what went on beyond and beneath the surface; what writhed under its skin, in the dark and musty spaces I wanted to explore?
Yet, I wrote Soupir, a novel set in Rodrigues – an island that is part of Mauritius but that lies 600 miles away from the mainland – without having set foot on it. When I did finally go there, I was terrified that everything would be different from what I had described in the novel. I tried to cower in my hotel room until my husband almost forced me to get into a taxi and visit the village where the novel was set. When I arrived, I saw a young boy defying gravity, running up a rocky hillside; a group of women walking ponderously, weighted by the slimy corpses of the octopuses they had caught; and old men playing dominoes beneath windswept vacoas trees, watched by a young woman with dark and unfriendly eyes. My relief was immeasurable. I could have seen them anywhere, but, here, they crystallised the images I had in mind when I wrote Soupir. My intuition hadn’t failed me, and this affirmation perhaps allowed me to set Indian Tango in New Delhi, where I had never lived but which I frequently visited. Perhaps finally freed me, in 2013, to write my London novel, published in French as Les Jours Vivants.
It started out with Mary, my old lady. I visited London many times between my living there as a student and my writing The Living Days, and I was aware of how much it had changed during that time. Yet, I kept the same 1970s underbelly for the book: the derelict terraced house, the lonely old woman, the Post Office Tower from which Howard is supposed to have jumped, and the pivotal scene in King’s Cross where Cub is confronted by the skinheads. Skinheads were, of course, a part of the terrifying landscape of London when I was a student there. Being called Paki in the street was a common occurrence. And I remember staying in my room on football matchdays because of the rabid fans who would invade public transport and feel up women without compunction. When I had to take the tube on these days, it was with a burning knot of terror inside my body.
London in the Thatcher era was, at least superficially, nothing like the London I saw in the early 2000s when my sons went there to study. Still, I knew that there were correspondences, and that the changes in that vibrant city which I grew to love – before the chaos of the past few years – did not erase the legacy of those dark years. A yuppified Brixton did not make the population more affluent; it just displaced and replaced it. The old lady of Clapham South was not better taken care of or less lonely. And the stratospheric earnings of the financiers and bankers in the ‘metallic, cold sheen of the City, where billions were traded away and, in a single second, with the tap of a keyboard button, the futures of the poorest were ground to rubble’, had further pushed so many over the edge, condemning them to the Kafkaesque limbo of Ken Loach films. Recently, with the resurgence of open racism that is a direct result of the Brexit tragedy, I realised that we had come full circle – that the outlook of the novel was as valid now as it had been in the 1970s.
In a novel, all things impossible are made possible, that’s precisely its magic.
Publishing the novel in French perhaps provided a kind of buffer zone, preventing, as someone said jokingly to me, a reader from complaining that you couldn’t run from King’s Cross to Portobello Road as Cub does. To a French reader, it would be a London seen through my eyes, without the temptation to go to Portobello Road and Brixton to see whether they were as described in the novel. It would be a London seen in translation, so to speak.
But then these issues have never really worried me: I have always made it clear that the places I describe in my novels, whether Port-Louis, Rodrigues, New Delhi or London, are as much fictional creations as the characters. In Indian Tango, the monsoon comes much earlier than it ever would because I needed the wetness, the fat drops of rain on Subhadra’s shoulders, the sea of umbrellas, the feet waddling in rivers of mud, and the water blurring the eyes of her unseen stalker following the trail of her flowery sari. In Pagli, the deluge on Terre Rouge causes a flood of red earth to rise, that will drown the entire village as a result of Pagli’s rage. Because most of the stories in my novels are neither wholly real nor wholly fantastical, it has never really mattered that there were impossible places or roads or weather: in a novel, all things impossible are made possible, that’s precisely its magic.
Writing, to me, has always been an act of translation: rendering reality through the lens of fiction is akin to rendering a text written in one language into another. A transformative act accomplished through language – through words precisely chosen to be closest to that which is expressed in another form while remaining natural and believable.
Did translating it into English produce something new, or did it rather put it back into an ‘original’ language in which it was never written?
When writing in French about Mauritius, I had to translate Mauritian reality into fiction via a language that made it intelligible to French-speaking readers. This did not involve an act of exoticisation, as it had in the past whenever a novel was set in a place distant from literary centres. On the contrary, it meant pulling the Francophone reader into a Mauritian reality that they could inhabit and feel in order to understand it without the need for explication only intended for that outside reader. The text might ostensibly be in French, but Creole, Hindi and English are present, either overtly or just underneath the surface, imparting different cadences and music to the sentences and creating the sense of dislocation I wanted to convey.
So, was my London novel – as I tend to call The Living Days – a translation of a translation? A fictional take, as a non-Londoner, of London, seen through the lens of a different language? Did translating it into English produce something new, or did it rather put it back into an ‘original’ language in which it was never written? I do think that Jeffrey Zuckerman’s wonderful translation made the novel feel as if it had been written in English (which is a mark of a good translation) and, indeed, as if it had belonged to English all this time. But because he writes in American English, it also added a newness that did not displease me in the least; on the contrary, because it introduced, as Jeffrey has pointed out, the feeling of dislocation that exists in the French version.
Yet the question that underlies these other questions – who gets to write what? – does not matter, really: the entire issue of whether a writer is entitled to write about a place from which they do not come (or at the very least live in) is one that I resolved, as I mentioned earlier, quite a long time ago. The world in which a novel is set has its own ecology, which magically adapts to the moods and atmospheres required for the story. In The Living Days, the issue is not about whether you could really run from King’s Cross to Portobello Road, but about whether we believe in the skinheads pursuing Cub up to Mary’s front door and the fleeting moment when one of them, before savaging him, suddenly thinks that he looks like his own younger brother, before brushing the idea aside because it contradicts his entire world view. Whether we can believe, in the confines of the book, that Howard has come back from the dead and is watching Mary from a hole in the ceiling with sensual eyes. And also whether we believe in the dance between Mary and Cub which ends with them in the same bed, and whether, believing it, we understand it or recoil in horror and condemnation.
Without this eye on our own selves, how would we know what leads us to such extremes?
This is also fiction’s task: the novel at large, precisely because it operates between the wholly real and the wholly fantastical, allows us to explore the most fraught of places and territories, that are not ours but at once are. In a New Yorker article, Zadie Smith says this about Philip Roth:
He never confused [fiction] with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.
The Living Days is full of such inconvenient truths: of issues like (to momentarily indulge in the limiting critical habit of catchwords and labels) racism, postcolonialism, ageism and sexual exploitation, which – contrary to what some critics might suggest – the novel is not about, but which are an integrated part of its wider, intricate tapestry. The Living Days does not only inhabit dark and musty rooms, but also complex and controversial experiences. Take paedophilia, which the novel is not about, but the territory of which it appears to tread. Fiction enables us to face such traumas and understand that we are not alone in doing so. It does not condone wrongs, but it helps us understand where they come from. It helps us avoid making sweeping judgements about necessarily flawed people. Fiction is the means by which we should be able to explore dark territories; fiction delves into the depths of human behaviour and human psyche to help us understand how we can be led, at once, to extreme altruism and to extreme barbarism. Without this eye on our own selves, how would we know what leads us to such extremes?
The limitless possibilities of fiction have seemed in recent times (as indeed they were in earlier times) to collide with limiting prescriptions of what writers should be allowed to say or to write about, and the need for categorisations that are all-too-convenient boxes into which to force meanings that do not like to be forced. But what is of real concern to writers is from where it all starts: the moment when this small spark of excitement catches hold, and you hope that the spark will grow and keep on growing, filling you with the urgency and joy of living for a while in that place where you are free to weave your thoughts about these others who are your characters and also deeply you. For The Living Days, it all started with an old woman.
Ananda Devi was born in 1957 in Mauritius. After a few years spent in Congo- Brazzaville, Devi moved to Ferney-Voltaire in Switzerland in 1989. She has published twelve novels as well as short stories and poetry, and was featured at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in 2015. Her literary awards include the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie (2006) and Prix Télévision Suisse Romande (2007) for Ève de ses décombres, among several other prizes, including for her latest novel, Manger l’autre (2018). Devi is a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres and in 2014, she received the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises from the Académie Française.