Imaginary homelands essa.., p.15

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 15


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  It is impossible in this brief piece to catalogue all the concocted imagery and received ideas which work both on the conscious and unconscious mind to create the environment in which racism can thrive. Minstrel shows, old-movie mammies shuffling and bopping across the screen wearing head-kerchiefs and carpet slippers, pantomime Orientals in harem-pants, yashmaks, turbans. Yes, the golliwog, too; at football grounds, black players are taunted with the cry, ‘Get back on your jamjar.’ Television and newspaper images: because blacks and Asians, whether in Britain or abroad, more or less disappear from the news except in times of crisis. Violence, riot, assassination, famine, flood, disease, mugging: the operation of ‘news values’ subliminally links blacks to trouble. Well, no, not entirely. Blacks have natural rhythm, Asians don’t. Blacks are good at athletics, Asians at studies. (This stereotypical contrast is still at work in many schools.) Asians are thrifty, interested in business, naturally conservative; blacks throw their money around, are lazy, disaffected from the State. Blacks take drugs; Asians can’t speak English.

  The point about stereotypes is that, in spite of their banality, in spite of their seemingly evident wrongness, they work. They have effects. They are at work in Britain today. And they are hard to combat, because nobody readily admits to being influenced by them. Of course you can see how other people might be—but not you—no!—ridiculous. And while the great power of false perceptions is being denied, Britain’s blacks and Asians go on living in the worst available public housing, suffering from a far higher unemployment rate than their white neighbours, facing street-armies of neo-Fascists, fearing the police, being harassed at immigration points, and, when they protest, being told that there is no reason for them to stay here if they don’t like it; as if the ethnic minorities’ British citizenship were conditional on their never making a fuss.

  We live in ideas. Through images we seek to comprehend our world. And through images we sometimes seek to subjugate and dominate others. But picture-making, imagining, can also be a process of celebration, even of liberation. New images can chase out the old. This book is one, notable contribution to that process, the process of getting off the jamjar.



  A few years ago, V. S. Naipaul said that he still thought of himself as a comic writer, and that his highest ambition was to write a comedy to equal his magnificent 1961 novel, A House for Mr Biswas. To read this was to feel heartened; if the author could find a way of uniting the warmth and energy of the early work that culminated in Biswas with the technical mastery of his later writing, we might be in for something rather special.

  But there were doubts. The dark clouds that seemed to have gathered over Naipaul’s inner world would not, one feared, be easily dispelled; his affection for the human race appeared to have diminished, and the comedy of Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira and Biswas, cutting and unsentimental as those books were, had been essentially affectionate.

  The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul’s first novel in eight years, suggests that the clouds have not lifted, but deepened. The book lacks the bitter taste of some of his recent writing, but it is one of the saddest books I have read in a long while, its tone one of unbroken melancholy. ‘This melancholy penetrated my mind while I slept,’ says the narrator whom it is impossible not to see as the author, ‘and then, when I awakened … I was so poisoned by it … that it took the best part of the day to shake it off.’

  It’s a strange book, more meditation than novel, autobiographical in the sense that it offers a portrait of the intellectual landscape of one who has long elevated ‘the life of the mind’ above all other forms of life. Its subject is the narrator’s consciousness, its reformation by the act of migration, of ‘arrival’, and its gradual turning towards James’s ‘distinguished thing’, death. There are other characters here, but they are observed from a distance, the main events in their lives—an elopement, a sacking, a death—taking place off-stage. As a result of this emptying, the writer becomes the subject; the story-teller becomes the tale.

  Interestingly, and unlike most of his fellow-migrants, Naipaul has chosen to inhabit a pastoral England, an England of manor and stream. The book’s first segment deals with what he calls his ‘second childhood’ in this piece of Wiltshire. The notion of migration as a form of rebirth is one whose truths many migrants will recognize. Instantly recognizable, too, and often very moving, is the sense of a writer feeling obliged to bring his new world into being by an act of pure will, the sense that if the world is not described into existence in the most minute detail, then it won’t be there. The immigrant must invent the earth beneath his feet.

  So Naipaul describes: this lane, this cottage, this gardener, this view of Stonehenge, this tiny patch of the planet in which his narrator must learn, once more, to see. It is a kind of extreme minimalism, but it becomes almost hypnotic. And slowly the picture is built, figures arrive in the landscape, a new world is won.

  Through the story—well, the account—of the farm labourer Jack and his garden, we are shown how the narrator’s view of rustic England changes. At first idyllic—‘Of literature and antiquity and the landscape Jack and his garden … seemed emanations’—it develops along more realistic lines. Jack’s health fails, his garden decays, he dies, the new occupants of his cottage pour concrete over his garden. The idea of timelessness, of Jack as being ‘solid, rooted in his earth’, turns out to be false. Change and decay in all around I see.

  So the new world begins to be seen for what it is, but at what a price! It’s as if Naipaul expended so much of his energy on the effort of creating and comprehending his piece of Wiltshire that he had no strength left with which to make the characters breathe and move. They manage only tiny flutters of activity; even the story of Brenda, the country wife who expected too much from her beauty, and Les, the husband who murdered her after she returned, tail between legs, from her failed attempt at an affair with another man, is told in an oddly enervated, inconsequential manner.

  The narrator speaks often of his spirit being broken, of illness, of exhaustion. He once wanted to write a story based on Chirico’s painting ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, he says, and then, in less than a page, gives us a summary of this untold tale. It is quite brilliant, a traveller’s tale set in the classical world of the surrealist painting, utterly unlike anything Naipaul has ever written.

  The painting shows a port, a sail, a tower, two figures. Naipaul makes one of the figures a traveller who arrives at a ‘dangerous classical city’. ‘Gradually … his feeling of adventure would give way to panic … I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival … Only one thing is missing now … The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.’

  The book we have is at once more honest and direct, and less vibrant and engaging, than the first-imagined fantasy, and, especially in the drawn-out second half of the novel, one frequently wishes that Naipaul had been able to write the discarded tale. Exhaustion again; when the strength for fiction fails the writer, what remains is autobiography.

  After an interesting, and courageous, account of his formation as a writer, Naipaul returns to his Wiltshire microcosm, and it turns out that his narrator’s exhaustion and turning-towards-death is mirrored in his tiny world. A version of England is dying, too, the manor no longer as economically powerful as it was, its owner sunbathing plump-thighed amid the decay. Just about all the book’s personages are in some way in thrall to the manor—a second gardener, Pitton, the estate manager Phillips and his wife, a driver, a failed writer, even the narrator himself—and they, too, are going down with the ship. Death and failure stalk them all.

  All this is evoked in delicate, precise prose of the highest quality, but it is bloodless prose. The idea that the British have lost their way because of ‘an ab
sence of authority, an organization in decay’, that the fall of the manor encourages ordinary folk ‘to hasten decay, to loot, to reduce to junk’, is an unlikeable, untenable one. But if only the book occasionally sparked into some sort of life! As it stands, the portrait of exhaustion becomes, eventually, just exhausting.

  Why such utter weariness? We are told of a dream of an exploding head, of ill health, of family tragedy. There may be more to it. I think it was Borges who said that, in a riddle to which the answer is knife, the only word that cannot be employed is knife. There is one word I can find nowhere in the text of The Enigma of Arrival. That word is ‘love’, and a life without love, or one in which love has been buried so deep that it can’t come out, is very much what this book is about; and what makes it so very, very sad.



  It looks very much as though a new paragraph needs to be added to the history of Abstract Expressionist painting. A new name, it appears, must henceforth be mentioned, if not in the same breath as those of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, then in the breaths following: the name of Harold Shapinsky, sixty years old this month, an artist of Russian extraction presently living in New York City, where for most of the past four decades his work has been completely ignored. Now, after all the years of neglect, there has been a remarkable reversal of fortunes, and Mr Shapinsky is experiencing an annus mirabilis, with a major retrospective of his work at London’s Mayor Gallery, loads of publicity on both sides of the Atlantic, and several important European galleries reportedly queuing up to buy his work.

  The story of the belated ‘discovery’ of Harold Shapinsky must surely be one of the most extraordinary in the history of modern art. It is hard enough to believe that a painter who is now attracting lavish praise from every comer of the European art establishment could have languished so long in Manhattan, the undisputed capital of the art world, without gaining any sort of real recognition. Even less plausible, perhaps, is the identity of his ‘discoverer’; because the man who has singlehandedly worked the miracle is not an art expert at all, and has no links with either the American or European art establishments. He describes himself variously as ‘some crazy Indian’ and ‘a pest.’

  This man is Akumal Ramachander, thirty-five, a teacher of elementary English at an agricultural college in Bangalore in southern India—a suitably improbable background for the hero of a shaggy-dog story whose saving grace is that it happens to be quite true.

  Professor Ramachander—Akumal—is an amateur in the real sense: a man of passions. In fact, he is quite possibly the most enthusiastic individual on the face of the planet, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I was on a lecture tour of India. Akumal, then a complete stranger, arrived at my Bangalore hotel room, introduced himself, and proceeded to overwhelm me with the unstoppable frenzy of garlands, vast smiles, flashing eyes, unceasing monologues and emphatic gesticulations to which those who find themselves in his vicinity rapidly grow accustomed. He struck me as a bit of an operator, but it was impossible not to warm to his openness and affection for life, as well as his obviously genuine love for literature, art, cinema and many other things, including butterflies. (He also sings.) This inexhaustible, ‘crazy’ energy needed something to focus on. That necessary sense of purpose was provided when Akumal met, by chance—though one sometimes wonders if anything in his life really happens by chance—the son of the painter Harold Shapinsky.

  In September 1984, Akumal, visiting the Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan in Chicago, was taken to a party where he met David Shapinsky, and heard about Harold for the first time. At David’s home he saw a few examples of the father’s work and became, as he put it, ‘alerted’. He travelled to New York—it should be pointed out here that Akumal is no zillionaire, jetsetting Indian; he has never had much money, and during this period went quite some way into debt—and met Harold and Kate Shapinsky for the first time.

  He was impressed and moved by the paintings, and also by the dignity with which the Shapinskys lived, in spite of their considerable poverty. The apartment was minute. There was, Akumal found, no liquid soap with which to do the washing-up; they used a cake of hard soap placed at the bottom of a jar of water instead. The painter had been so short of funds for so long that he was unable to afford canvases, and was obliged to work, as a result, on thick sheets of paper. (So the paintings are all rather small, and, to my eye at least, one of Shapinsky’s most impressive achievements has been to paint epic, ‘big’ concepts on this artificially constricted scale.)

  Kate Shapinsky is a dancer by profession, a contemporary of Martha Graham’s. Now, while Shapinsky paints, she makes quilts, sweaters and pullovers and sells them to boutiques, and the small income from this work is what has, for many years, enabled the Shapinskys to live and Harold to paint.

  Akumal discussed with David Shapinsky the possibility of his, Akumal’s, trying to promote Harold’s work, and it was agreed that he should try. Now the professor from Bangalore made a bet with the painter’s son—that within twelve months he would get Harold Shapinsky a major exhibition in Europe, in London, perhaps, or Amsterdam; and that the Encyclopaedia Britannica would have to rewrite its section on Abstract Expressionism, to make room for the achievement of the long-neglected master.

  But Harold Shapinsky had spent most of his career in total isolation from the art marketplace, unnoticed by galleries and dealers. In 1950 his work had been included in a new talent exhibition, and even praised by the New York Times, but since then there had been virtually nothing, except for a few obscure group shows. Indifference had forced him into seclusion. And any establishment hates to admit to a mistake.

  It was this wall of indifference and scepticism that Akumal had to scale, or to demolish. He had slides of Shapinsky’s work made at his own expense, and began a frontal assault on the Manhattan art world. He had no success; the wall held firm. After all, how was it possible that the crazy Indian from the Bangalore agricultural college had spotted something that the New York mandarins had missed? After about thirty galleries had refused even to look at the slides, Akumal decided to try Europe. And now his luck—and Shapinsky’s—changed.

  In London in December 1984 Akumal arrived at the Tate Gallery, without an appointment, clutching his box of slides. A few minutes later Ronald Alley, the Keeper of the Modern Collection, was telephoned from the front hall and told that an Indian gentleman had arrived, in rather an agitated state, and was insisting on showing somebody a group of slides that he claimed were a major discovery. Alley agreed to look at the slides. Akumal had broken through the wall.

  When Ronald Alley saw the slides, he says, ‘I was amazed that a real Abstract Expressionist painter of such quality should be unknown,’ and he put Akumal in touch with the Mayor Gallery. He also put in writing his feelings about Shapinsky’s work. In the next few weeks many European experts followed suit. Professor Norbert Lynton, Professor of Art History at Sussex University, wrote: ‘He is certainly a painter of outstanding quality … the slides suggest a rare quality of fresh and vivid (as opposed to mournfully soulful) abstract expressionism, a marvellous sense of colour and also a rare feel for positioning marks and areas of colour on the canvas or paper.’ The leading modern-art galleries of Cologne and Amsterdam also expressed enthusiasm. And James Mayor of the Mayor Gallery flew to New York, was impressed and excited, and made a selection for the Shapinsky retrospective. The bet was won.

  One suspects that, as well as the genuine enthusiasm all over Europe for the quality of Shapinsky’s work, there has been a certain amount of gleeful hand-rubbing going on, because the Shapinsky case reflects so badly on the New York art scene. And New York has been ruling the roost for so long that this piece of European revenge must taste sweet indeed.

  As for Professor Ramachander, he, too, should now benefit from the ‘launch’ of Harold Shapinsky. But what was it that enabled Akumal to see what everyone had failed to see? The answer, it seems, is those butterflies: ‘My art school w
as a small field near my house. I would spend quite a long time there, chasing butterflies. Hundreds of thousands of them, you know, in all their brilliant hues. I would never destroy a butterfly, just chase them and wonder at that great profusion of colours. And I think all that colour sank into me … all those permutations and combinations, they were already there in me. All that had to happen was to get someone’s work, and see if I could get back all the colours I saw in my childhood. And Shapinsky seemed to come very close to that.’

  For centuries now, it has been the fate of the peoples of the East to be ‘discovered’ by the West, with dramatic and usually unpleasant consequences. The story of Akumal and Shapinsky is one small instance in which the East has been able to repay the compliment, and with a happy ending, too. And if we are asked to believe that it all began in a field in Calcutta, where an Indian boy ran with butterfly-colours swirling all around him, then why not? It’s as likely as anything else in this story, after all.







  I returned to England only recently, after spending two months in India, and was feeling pretty disorientated even before the general election was called. Now, as successive opinion polls inform us of the near-inevitability of a more or less enormous Tory victory, my sense of alienation has blossomed into something close to full-scale culture shock. “Tis a mad world you have here, my masters.’

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