Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey

Rohinton Mistry spent his first twenty-two years in India before settling in Toronto, long enough, obviously, to remember the colours, sights and sounds of his initial neighbourhood and outlying communities. Such A Long Journey, though, his 1991 novel set in 1971 Bombay, provides the reader with an emotional and moral adventure, not a memoirish curio as a travelogue substitute. In Gustad Noble, Mistry has created a fascinating protagonist, an angry yet loyal man, besieged by working poverty, political danger in a secret plan gone awry, tense relations with his eldest son, the sickness of his daughter, infelicities from his friend and work associate, a permanently damaged hip from saving his son's life many years ago, and the mundane yet soul-grinding daily problems which always arrive as emergencies in his household and compound. Noble's transformation is not only filled with emotional layering (narrated at a leisurely pace, but in tense fashion), it is believable and unpredictable.

I appreciate that Mistry didn't shy away from Indian regional dialect, and that the objects and emotions those words referred to were necessary, enlightening some element of plot or place.

The book is at times repetitive and awkward in tone and phrase, and in this, it reminds me of Theodore Dreiser's great An American Tragedy. It also shares with that classic a powerful narrative drive. Compromising elements of a novel are as nothing when the positive elements are at a high level, and numerous. (Moby-Dick breaks all the boring rules about "tightness of plot", but the novel doesn't thrive as a well-made craft-rectangle in a workshop window.)

The novel's ending is superb. It takes a lot of guts to write about characters earlier depicted as comic fodder in such a vulnerable and sympathetic manner. And the final subplot, or denouement (the fate of the art on the compound wall, and the transient artist who created it) is handled deftly, with classical scope.

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