By Anjum Altaf
The relationship between art and life may not have been a puzzle to most but it was to me. And it was not resolved by the debate over whether art ought to be for its own or for life’s sake. This was a difference over the purpose or otherwise of art whereas my interest was in the nature of the relationship. At one level, art must reflect life since it cannot exist in a vacuum. But this only opens up a number of questions: To what extent does art reflect life and what might be a measure of the goodness of that reflection?
I am concerned here with the novel as a particular form of art. The novel is a story and so in some sense is life. There is, therefore, a natural correspondence between the two. Life, however, is messy, all over the place, and any novel that attempted to reflect it faithfully would be likely to be unreadable. I presume that is the reason I have not been able to read Ulysses despite my best intentions.
Most novels, unsurprisingly, extract some aspects of life and cut out its messiness. We can get a sense of this if we consider what we typically ask for in a ‘good’ novel – tight plot, taut storyline, minimal digressions, well-rounded characters, and the like. At the very least, we don’t like the action to sag and complain if it does. But real life is almost all sag; characters are involved in any number of related or unrelated stories and break up their days for mundane acts that we expect to be left out of the story as reflected in the novel.
This extraction of the essence of the ‘real’ story, the omission of the seemingly irrelevant, might be considered necessary, even a strength of the novel. Art does reflect life but in a stylized manner designed to sustain the interest of the reader with limited time and patience.
This is an understanding I arrived at working backwards from what to me was an exception to the rule – The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, a debut novel by Shehan Karunatilaka. This was the first novel I have read that made the messiness of life so much an integral part of the story and was able to carry it off. I became engrossed in, indeed I wished to know, everything that Wije did whether it was part of the story or not. In some uncanny way, the non-story became a part of the story itself.
What I took away from my reading of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was that the extraction of the essence of life was not necessarily a strength of the novel, it was more a reflection of the limits of the novelist. To reflect life faithfully and remain interesting and readable is beyond the capability of most authors. And hence, one measure of the success of a novel might be the degree it can be faithful to life and yet remain readable. Joyce might be the master of faithfulness but ventures beyond the absorptive capacity of most readers. Pradeep Mathew hit the sweet spot for a reader like me.
Faithfulness, at one level, can be considered a synonym for realism – if there are two-dimensional characters in real life, those who only serve and wait, why shouldn’t they appear as such in a novel? At another, the relationship is more complex. Pradeep Mathew has been criticized for its ‘unreal’ end. But this too had an appeal for me. In real life, characters are a mix of action, thought and imagination. What may never happen but a character desperately wishes to transpire to the extent that the reader begins to wish it too, is also a part of life that can find a place in a novel.
Shehan Karunatilaka writes, quite believably, that once in a while there comes a bowler who can make the same ball break both ways. Pradeep Mathew is a novel in that mould – one that both formed and broke apart my mental picture of the relationship between art and life and forced me back to the nets. Well bowled, indeed.
Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.