Podcast • March 17, 2014

Edna O’Brien: Literature Against Loneliness

In celebration of Saint Patrick's Day: Edna O'Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer's gifts and the pleasures of reading. Her prose, as Philip Roth once remarked, is "like a piece of fine meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction."

We sat in the jeep because, as he said, we were in no hurry to get home. We didn’t talk about family things, his wife or my ex-husband, my mother or his mother, possibly fearing that it would open up old wounds. There had been so many differences between the two families — over greyhounds, over horses, over some rotten bag of seed potatoes — and always with money at the root of it. My father, in his wild tempers, would claim that my mother’s father had not paid her dowry and would go to his house in the dead of night, shouting up at a window to demand it. Instead we talked of dogs.

From the story “Old Wounds,” by Enda O’Brien, in her new collection, Saints and Sinners.

Edna O’Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer’s gifts and the pleasures of reading. She is a lyrical realist, never far from the melancholy of Irish drinkers and suffering survivors of Irish pasts. Her eye and ear miss nothing, but they are not unforgiving. Her prose, as Philip Roth once remarked, is “like a piece of fine meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction.” Her air in conversation seems to say: no palaver, but we can talk about anything.

Edna O’Brien made her reputation detailing the rueful fates of women, in love and life, and not just in the rural West of Ireland, where she grew up. In Saints and Sinners the most memorably sympathetic figures are menfolk of her generation — like Rafferty in the story “Shovel Kings.” He has been digging “the blue clay of London” for electrical cables — and drinking a bit at Biddy Mullugan’s pub in North London — through the half century that Edna O’Brien, too, has been living in exile in England. “Biddy’s was popular,” Rafferty explains, “because they gave five millimeters extra on a small whiskey or vodka. Pondering this for a moment, he said that with drink the possibilities were endless, you could do anything, or thought you could. Moreover, time got swallowed up, or more accurately, as he put it, got lost.” Rafferty becomes a composite picture of the brutal wear and tear on Irish manhood in Edna O’Brien’s time.

‘Mind yourself.’ Those were the last words Rafferty said to me. He did not shake hands, and, as on the first morning, he raised his calloused right hand in a valediction that bespoke courtesy and finality. He had cut me out, the way he had cut his mother out, and those few who were dear to him, not from a hardness of heart, but from a heart that was immeasurably broken.

Under the pavement were the lines of cable that linked the lights of the great streets and the lesser streets of London, as far distant as Kent. I thought of the Shovel Kings, and their names suddenly materialized before me, as in a litany — Haulie, Murphy, Moleskin Muggavin, Turnip O’Mara, Whiskey Tipp, Oranmore Joe, Teaboy Teddy, Paddy Pancake, Accordion Bill, Rafferty, and countless others, gone to dust.

From “Shovel Kings,” in Saints and Sinners.

President Obama was in Ireland, tipping a jar of Guiness, when Edna O’Brien and I recorded our gab in the Boston Athenaeum. Her conversation is at once spontaneous and considered. She is one of those people who likes to interview the interviewer. I’m mystified by the memory of the last time I saw her: after our radio gig, Edna O’Brien in a taxicab got me to sing a Christian communion song that I’d learned to love at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. The refrain is “One day when I was lost, He died upon the cross. I know it was the blood for me.” What I cannot remember is how or why she provoked me to sing, but it sounded right to her — not least because “I love to hear people sing.”

I am curious about people. That’s why I don’t like social life so much. Social life, people put on masks, it’s hypocrisy, it’s not like a real conversation, like used to happen in Russian fiction, in trains: a man would meet a person in a train and they would talk. I like to hear about people’s lives, not just because I want to write about it, which has to be confessed, but because it’s lonely on earth, really, and two things make it less lonely. One is literature, which we have to try and save in this wicked and worried and crazy world. The other is meeting or talking with someone who actually, even for an hour, kind of enchants you. I don’t even mind if people tell me total lies. So long as there is that connectedness, with the imagination, and with the heart, and with what’s deepest in people. You don’t get that much. You get this regularized language, everything is so uniform. The individuality is getting lost.

Edna O’Brien with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athenaeum, May 24, 2011.

Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the ...

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

Podcast • May 17, 2011

Teju Cole: A “Seething Intelligence” on a Long Journey

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States.


Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:

This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…

The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59

Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.

Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.

There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.

But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.

Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:

“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”

Podcast • April 7, 2011

Téa Obreht’s Tale of the War Zone: The Tiger’s Wife

Tea Obreht thinks out loud. She laughs with sunny abandon. She digresses. She actually listens to a reader’s puzzles. She parses the finely-wrought text of The Tiger’s Wife for us with authority but also curiosity, ...

Tea Obreht thinks out loud. She laughs with sunny abandon. She digresses. She actually listens to a reader’s puzzles. She parses the finely-wrought text of The Tiger’s Wife for us with authority but also curiosity, delight, discovery. Tea Obreht’s conversation has the precocious free flow and solid substance her writing does. But let’s not be misled by her light touch: the
first novel by this young woman from the Balkans is about the landscape of permanent war — the very geography of tribal and personal violence — and the stories we make up to navigate it. Her writing is in touch with hell, just as she is surely in touch with Dostoevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov, the nihilist Ivan suggests to his baby brother Alyosha, the soulful seminarian, that his own dark view of life is rooted in what he’s heard about the Slavic reaches of the Ottoman Empire — about a part of the world Tea Obreht is contemplating a century later:

They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it…

From “Rebellion,” Chapter 4 of Part II, Book V of The Brothers Karamazov

The spirit of mayhem seems to flow out of the ground in Tea Obreht’s landscape. “The diggers” make the point anecdotally in The Tiger’s Wife. In an elderly couple’s backyard vineyard, a peasant clan turns up and starts shoveling. Eventually their leader explains that in wartime a dozen years earlier he’d buried a cousin there and that the unsolemnized death was now making his children sick. So they exhume a smelly suitcase full of bones and perform last rites of a sort on the cousin’s heart. But everywhere in The Tiger’s Wife the dead haunt the living. And so rises rumor, and then gossip, which matures into folklore and fables.

The paired stories on which Tea Obreht has built The Tiger’s Wife are told by an older doctor to his grand-daughter; they are presented in turn as the framework in which the man invented his life. The first, a sort of fable, involves a tiger that escaped the city zoo during the German bombing in 1941, and settled in the forest ridge near grandfather’s town when he was an impressionable lad of 12. The second invention is a Deathless Man who keeps showing up in the grandfather’s life, making it his odd business to tell people clearly when they are about to die. “So they can prepare,” he says. “I do not direct the passage — I just make it easier.” The tiger seems to represent to grandfather an escape from reality, the Deathless Man a reconciliation with it.

I think that story-telling and myth-making are a huge part of the book and that it became very obvious fairly early on that that was what the book was going to center on. I think that in the book, and perhaps in life, stories are a way for people to get through very difficult situations, and I certainly did not want to focus on the realities of the war, but the way people tell themselves about something after the fact.

That is, the way people perhaps think about their own lives and the lives of loved ones, and even the lives of strangers in order to make themselves see that person in a particular light, how that light changes when you learn something else that you perhaps didn’t know about an individual, and how our beliefs change through stories, and what stories we’re willing to believe at different times in our lives. I think that all came together. Of course I can say this after the fact, like I really knew what I was doing during it.

Téa Obreht with Chris Lydon, April 6, 2011.

Podcast • March 31, 2011

André Aciman: “The rest is just prose…”

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day ...

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day was like… My father taught me that the most important things in life are the small ones, and it’s important to observe them with fussiness, and that’s what I devote my life to… This is why I love French literature. You don’t need an Atlantic Ocean, you don’t need Moby Dick, you don’t need whales. You need a small room — basically two individuals sitting in one room with the impossibility of going for sex. That’s not part of the formula; it will come, but not right now, says the script. … Proust is a master of this, of putting individuals together. Or remove one individual and you have one individual by himself, thinking about experience and trying to be as honest as he can with himself and therefore with the reader about the things that crossed his mind and how he dealt with them, and how he thinks experience works … The rest is just, as I like to say, “just prose”. And we have a lot of masters of “just prose” living today.

André Aciman with Chris Lydon in NYC, March 24, 2011.


André Aciman is best known as a devoté of Marcel Proust. He’s not well-enough known, I’d say, for a new novel, Eight White Nights, a beautifully blocked romance that begins and ends in the snow, like James Joyce’s masterpiece story, “The Dead,” and owes still more perhaps to Dostoevsky’s heart-crushing tale of another anonymous lover’s woe, “White Nights.” Eight White Nights is the interior record of an “asymptotic” affair — between lovers who, like the line on the graph, get ever closer to committed intimacy but never reach it. It could remind you also of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” though it turns out that André Aciman scorns Henry James for “gutlessness” — that bogus old charge, in my view. But no matter. André Aciman sets himself where he belongs, in the classical tradition of imaginative writers about our inward and invisible lives.

He has generously, candidly admitted us into the workshop of his meticulous craft — the place where he dresses and undresses, teases and assaults his characters, and gives them better lines than people give him. His own unguarded lines in conversation run to the cantankerous and caustic. Who else out there honors the master tradition. “No one!” What gets a writer over the threshhold? “Style,” he says. “Content is over-rated.” When people ask how he could set a novel — to wit: Eight White Nights — in New York with nary a mention of 9.11, his answer is “the here-and-now, portrayed as the here-and-now, is insignificant.”

Born himself into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria in 1951, Aciman is original, cosmopolitan and extravagant about the writers who have inspired or taught him: among them E. M. Forster, W. G. Sebald, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Marguerite Yourcenar and on a pinnacle strangely higher even than Proust: Thucydides. And still, fair warning, our conversation keeps returning to Proust. It was his father, a writer manqué, who told him to read Proust for “the long sentence that keeps you waiting… It took me years to realize what that meant, to understand the abeyance that is being built in, that courts the reader into holding his breath and waiting and waiting and staying under water and not feeling that you’re going to drown. That takes time.”

Podcast • February 8, 2011

Rana Dasgupta: This Era of Catastrophe and Euphoria

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb him, about life and art. One is the sadness, loss, defeat and disorder that every new order creates — notably including globalization in our era, seen from anything other than the perspective of “mobile money.” Just as compelling somehow is his contrary theme: the flood of human energy and the reckless, irresistibly fascinating “ballistic” speed of innovation and change.

Dasgupta’s real-surreal novel Solo (reviewed here, here and here) won the Commonwealth Prize in London last year. It was singled out by Salman Rushdie, no less, for its “exceptional, astonishing strangeness.” What strikes me in conversation, however, with the astonishing news bursting in from Egypt as we speak, is how familiarly the book and author resonate with events. The sudden contagion of rebellious courage and confidence in dusty, despotic old Cairo fits neatly into the Dasgupta frame of life.

Solo is a novel in two “movements.” The first is a deft, elliptical recounting of the 20th Century from the far backstage of events. It is the mostly sorry tale of Ulrich, an obscure Bulgarian chemical engineer, blind, lonely and blue in in Sofia, in the 100th year of his life. It’s the tale, too, of Bulgaria’s 20th Century devolution from the Ottoman Empire through monarchy, then fascism, then Soviet Communism, then crony capitalism and cheapo turismo. Out of the ruins, so to speak, burst Ulrich’s gaudy “daydreams” of New York, Los Angeles and the global century in the second half of the novel. Boris — a violinist fantasized by Ulrich into world stardom — is an orphan inspired by Gypsy culture and a musical genius on the order of the mythic Orpheus. But the power to imagine Boris and his music is an expression of Ulrich’s hidden genius, too, part of the life he never got to live.

The book itself is an attempt to think about what global culture would be like, which is not to say a culture without any roots, without any human feeling to it. It’s not some sort of digital abstract culture; it is a highly felt culture which in a way tries to restore the human perspective, the human duration into this thing that we call globalization…

I have ambiguous feelings about globalization: I would want my work, and my life, to to be absolutely in this moment that we are living, absolutely conscious of it and aware of it, but, at the same time, to be highly cynical of it and to be deeply in touch with the eternal human story, never to lose sight of the myths, the enormous human resources that have got us this far. I guess I would be highly ambivalent, try to remain fully conscious of the enormous catastrophe we are living through. But never to play down either the enormous excitement and euphoria that modern life offers – of moving through time at this level of change…

One does also have to think about the people who can speak for this global system… the aristocracy of this system, the people who have this kind of effortless movement around it, who celebrate its values, and often who live in places that give them the sense of a rather serene system… They’re kind of in the idylls of global capitalism. Of course that’s not the only experience of it. At the rock-face of it, this system feels like the most destructive system ever to exist. And that turbulence is the weak point of this system… My novel is to some extent about that. It’s about entropy, it’s about the feeling that the creation of order always creates a greater amount of disorder around it. For the people who live in the midst of that disorder, the people who feel themselves to be part of that disorder, it’s a very very different kind of world.

The place to feel and contemplate our 21st Century condition, Rana Dasgupta is saying, might not be
Davos, say, but better the ravaged Congo.

Podcast • January 13, 2011

Mohammed Hanif’s Af-Pak: A Case of Exploding Absurdities

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously. Click to listen to Chris’ ...

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Hanif (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani novelist, is observing from Karachi that “even the believers” don’t believe in the war in Afghanistan anymore. No statement of purpose passes the “you’ve got to be kidding” test — not the US professions about stabilizing the region, not the Pakistani Army’s mission to defend its country. Pakistan’s tribal areas that were peaceful before the war have been devastated. The future is disappearing. Certain dark absurdities underlying Pakistan’s situation, underlying Mohammed Hanif’s “insanely brilliant” novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, are chasing their own tails.

On January 4 this year Salmaan Taseer, the rich, connected governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated in broad daylight in a public market in Islamabad. The shooting eerily prefigured by four days our made-in-America madness in Tucson, but it was more horrifying by many measures. Taseer took 26 rounds of sub-machinegun fire from one of his own guards before the rest of his security detail intervened. Prominent mullahs in Pakistan have celebrated the murder and promised vengeance on Taseer’s funeral goers. At issue, so to speak, was Taseer’s enthusiasm for repealing an Anti-Blasphemy law — an old statute that in today’s fervor has enabled religious prosecutions and deadly personal fatwas on farcical grounds. (You can be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan for discarding a salesman’s business card — if the salesman, like so many of his countrymen, bears the name Mohammed.)

We are drawing again on a novelist’s gift for figure and ground, the big contexts of war and faith, news and nationhood, for tragic jokes.

MH: I think the basic kind of crisis that we are going through is that somehow a large majority of people are convinced that their faith is under attack. Now, how can their faith be under attack if 98 percent of people who live in this country are faithful? What has happened is that this environment, these perpetual wars that we’ve been involved with, have somehow convinced our people…

We’ve never even begun to deal with the reasons for which this country was created, which was that there should be some kind of economic and social justice for the Muslim minority in these parts. That’s what this was supposed to be about. But yesterday I was at this big religious gathering where all the kind of hot-shots of Pakistan’s religious parties were there. And they were saying that Pakistan was actually created to protect the honor of Prophet Mohammed. Now I’ve lived here all my life. I haven’t grown up in some kind of sheltered community. But I haven’t heard that kind of discourse ever in my life…

CL: How does the Af-Pak war, ongoing, affect the day-to-day outlook of Pakistanis?

MH: Well, I think it has radicalized a section of Pakistani society. It has made a lot of people cynical and anti-American… I think this is probably the first time in the history of the world that a so-called friendly country, the United States, is using robots to kill the citizens of its partner in war. Now whatever logic you might apply, that doesn’t come out nice. It’s never, ever going to sound good to anyone.

There’s an Urdu saying that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, the chances are that fire will get to you as well, [especially] if you as a nation, as a country, have been stoking that fire for 30 years. If you’ve had this attitude towards your neighbor, if you’ve never considered Afghans as human beings, if you only speak of them in military terms, as targets or allies or collateral damage… then Pakistan is going the same route. You can’t create a monster, you can’t create a jihadi group, as the military has in the past, that will exclusively go and kill Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and not do anything else. You can’t create a faction of Taliban whose sole duty it is to go into Afghanistan and fight the Americans. They will do it for a while. They’ve done it for a while. But after that, they will come back and they’ll find other targets. The jihadi groups that initially were supposed to fight in Afghanistan, and then fight in Kashmir and then go and liberate Sweden or whatever country, they’ve finally turned their guns on Pakistanis, sometimes on the Pakistani establishment…

CL: What is it about Pakistan — a dangerous place, a dangerous state of mind — that seems to invite broad satire? I’m thinking of your own Exploding Mangoes and also Salman Rushdie’s Shame and even the Tom Hanks movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” People seem to forget the unfunny truths here.

MH: I grew up in a small city in Punjab, and the traditional form of entertainment there was standing on a street corner, making jokes about current affairs, about political leaders, about the village elder, about the mullah in the mosque – anybody who carried, or thought that he carried, any authority. And it was quite accepted in our culture. So for me, the first insight into how the world is run, how a city is run, how a family works together, I got from the comedy clubs. But I don’t have it in me to be a standup comic. I’m a sit-down comic. I’ll sit down and struggle with myself and maybe compose a joke, or come up with a character that can reflect some of those absurdities…

Pakistan has lots of TV news stations, and suddenly I’ve seen that every single channel has got a political satire show, and those are the shows that are doing really well. Things are so bad that nobody actually wants any more analysis. Nobody wants any more pundits telling them the future because they know it is all downhill. So we might as well sit here and laugh at ourselves.

Mohammed Hanif in Karachi, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Providence, January 11, 2010

Podcast • November 2, 2010

Daniyal Mueenuddin on Pakistan: At the Bedside of a Friend

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin (45 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Daniyal Mueenuddin is the leading light of Pakistan’s literary boom in the English-speaking world. Just in time, he’s a hit in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin (45 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

Daniyal Mueenuddin is the leading light of Pakistan’s literary boom in the English-speaking world. Just in time, he’s a hit in America for an enthralling collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, set in the feudal farming estates of the Pakistani Punjab. In conversation he’s telling us all those things about Pakistan today that only a novelist and story-writer can tell you. About the lethal floods, for starters, that submerged about a fifth of the country last summer. He is speaking of the decades-long “tail of a catastrophe… maybe the spark that lights the final fire.” He’s also imagining that the floods could be a disguised opportunity — an invitation to the West for “a more nuanced financial intervention,” a real chance to “improve the lives of the average Pakistani.”

Daniyal Mueenuddin is a mango farmer in his father’s Pakistan, where he grew up. He’s a Yale-educated lawyer in his mother’s America. I asked him if we could hear a conversation between the two perspectives in his own head. What he wishes his fellow Americans knew better is that the jihadist extremism that menaces Pakistan today is a monster substantially made in the U.S.A. It’s “very, very simple,” he says:

In 1979, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and the Americans, as a part of their policy of containment and pushing back against the Soviet Union, decided that what they need to do was create an army in Pakistan of people who would be willing to fight against them. With the aid of Saudi money and American money vast numbers of Madrasas were built … they created a very effective army that did defeat the Soviets. The problem is that once you create an army and you pull out you lose control of it. This all flows from the first Afghan war. The Americans created this army and once the soviets had been beaten they sort of brushed their hands and said “Thanks for the job boys, we’re out of here.” … What’s funny is that even at the time, many of these leaders to whom the Americans were pouring cash, were saying “our greatest enemy is America.” I was there at the time and I used to find it absolutely bewildering that the Americans would be giving vast amounts of arms and support of various kinds to [men who were] basically saying we have a checklist, and the Soviets are number one on the checklist, but the Americans are on the checklist too. They are number two. And of course they are the ones who are now fighting against America.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is also opening up, as a man who could live anywhere in the world, on why he goes home to Pakistan:

In Pakistan…I feel the tug of attachment from so many different directions. Also, simply, the landscape, the sense of color and vim and vigor and excitement. The place is crackling in a way. People talk about New York as being full of energy. You haven’t seen what full of energy is until you walk through the bazaar in Lahore and feel just this incredible sort of thriving, multiplying life.

The culture is very much part of my life… the culture of the shrines where these incredibly devout people go and pay their respects to the saints who are scattered all over the Punjab. Even on my farm there’s a shrine to a saint. People come and hang these little cradles on the trees because they want to have a son… The art on the trucks, the embellishment of every surface. Even the guy who has the little ice-cream cart will have painted scenes all over it.

The storytelling: people are storytellers in Pakistan. A man came to me the other day and was explaining to me about all the different kinds of snakes. He said there’s one snake that stands on its tail and bounces along, and there’s another snake that, if he bites you, if you rush off and drink water than the snake will die, but if the snake rushes off and gets to drink water before you than you will die. So it’s a sort of race to the water. And there’s another snake that runs along the grass in the morning licking the dew.

Music is embedded in the culture. The music is tied up with religious belief and it enters lives in a really deep way. I was walking on my farm late one night and hearing from far away somebody ploughing a field. Farmers fit these very loud stereos on their tractors — and I was hearing from miles away Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn being played at incredibly high volume by some guy who was ploughing his field at night because it’s cooler than ploughing it during the day. I found that very moving.

Daniyal Mueenuddin with Chris Lydon in Springs, New York, October 20, 2010

This is the first of several conversations on real life in Pakistan in extremis, touching on dire multi-dimensional crises from floods to fundamentalism to war in an impoverished, nuclear-armed state. We’re prompted not least by Salman Rushdie’s cautionary last line in a talk at Brown last Spring. “… if Pakistan goes down,” as he said, “we’re all fucked.” Next: the physicist, film-maker and peace activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Namita Gokhale: the revolution will be written!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the only) revolution in India today is literary. She’s envisioning something like a galactic explosion outward from a Sanskritic big bang of three or maybe five thousand years ago. Abetted by digital technology, in deep sync with the info-tech surge in the Indian economy, her Indian literary supernova today is a force for liberating language communities, women and what used to be “untouchable” or “unhearable” voices. “Many languages, one literature” is the stand-by mantra of Indian writers. “Simultaneous” and “subversive” are the contemporary tags on a booming Indian literary space that she says is “beginning to see itself in its own mirror.”

It is the multiplicity of voices. It’s the spaces both democratic and technological — you’ve had a very stratified society for thousands of years. People are breaking out into an individual and individuated understanding of themselves. It’s a big deal for women to be able to be given new spaces, for people from different castes, different repressive backgrounds to be given new spaces and equal opportunities.

There’s huge collateral damage … but it is a new India in the hope that many people bring, with education, with the right to assert themselves. Of course all this hope is surrounded by hopelessness and damage. But there is a new India, fighting for its voice through many, many languages, through many literary traditions coming together to speak not as one voice, because in India we would never speak as one voice. Not in an orchestra either, because an orchestra is not an Indian concept. But in what is called a jugalbandi. Jugalbandi is when two people sing and perform together in a way that has complex classical structures, but is completely improvised in that moment. That is a Jugalbandi…

Namita Gokhale in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 31, 2010

Real India: On the Couch with Sudhir Kakar

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes and talks about is different not only from our world but also from its own branding. “Indians,” he writes, for example, “are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the world’s largest and most plural democracy.”

Sudhir Kakar looks and listens like an anthropologist. He also writes novels. But you sense that the firm basis of his reputation as a public intellectual — an authority especially on Indian identity and character, what he calls “Indian-ness” — is his many years as a professional psychoanalyst, in Goa and New Delhi, hearing out individual sagas of a changing society and culture.

His “Indianness” is a psychological category with a few critical elements.

“If there is one ‘ism’ that governs Indian society and institutions,” he begins, “it is familyism.” It is an “ideology of relationships,” the unwritten rule of business and politics, built around the “joint family” in which brothers after marriage bring their wives into a parental household.

Second, there is the rule of hierarchy and the eternal consciousness of rank, a legacy of thousands of years of caste distinctions.

Third comes a view of the human body out of the Ayurvedic tradition: if Western psychology and medicine see the body as a fortress under siege, the Indian body is seen as open in many dimensions — to planetary influences, for example.

Fourth, a shared cultural imagination learned mainly from the ancient epics encompasses Hindus and Muslims, literate classes and the unwashed, in a “romantic vision of human life.”

And what happens, I inquire, when Indian-ness gets ever more deeply enmeshed in a global culture?

There are two or three ideologies of the global world which come in. Very simply, the ideologies of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity…

Of course, equality clashes against the very hierarchical part of [Indian-ness]: one has to deal with one’s innate way of looking at the world in a hierarchical way and the brain saying that one should look at people as equals…

Fraternity is not that big a difficulty, because the Indian Hindu view has been influenced by Islam, where fraternity has always been one of the biggest virtues of human beings.

I think the biggest change that has taken place, where [liberty] has impacted Indian-ness, has been the change in women in the last fifty years: the acceptance of the notion that, first, girls are equal to boys as far as education is concerned, and, second, that they are free to go out to work. And that has impacted many many things…

Sudhir Kakar in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010