Without borders

<strong>The Curtain: an essay in seven parts</strong>

Milan Kundera <em>Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.

An alternative subtitle for this book could be "An Apology for Prose". If there is still a residual negativity in the word "prose", a featherlight condescension to what is merely prosaic, then Milan Kundera will correct us. "'Prose': the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life," he writes. "So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art. Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern - hurting teeth, missing teeth."

For Kundera to wonder about the teeth of Achilles or Ajax is itself an exercise in novelistic imagination. This faculty, he argues evocatively, rises from the ashes of the poetical outlook, born "from the ruins of [the novelist's] lyrical world". Surveying the wreckage of his illusions, the novelist sees life cast under "the soft gleam of the comical", and can begin to write about it with sympathy and irony.

The "soft gleam of the comical". Kundera's prose is full of such lovely constructions. Only the novel, he says, can reveal the "immense, mysterious power of the pointless"; or combat the "grammatical trickery of the plural". (The ease of saying "we" and "they" can convince us that homogeneous groups exist where none does: enter Faulkner, narrating As I Lay Dying with a multitude of distinct individuals.) The art of description, in an astonishing, almost throwaway parenthesis, is called "compassion for the ephemeral". And of Flaubert, Kundera writes admiringly: "In the soul of things, in the soul of all things human, everywhere, he sees it dancing, the sweet fairy of stupidity."

But for Kundera, the fairy of stupidity is not always so sweet. Literature, he insists, must be read without borders, and he despairs of the continuing practice of reading novels only in the "small context" of their national traditions. For "it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce . . ." And yet, Kundera observes, it is in the foreign-literature departments of universities that the novel is most "intractably mired in its home province". Nor does Kundera entertain the idea that the novel should be a social documentary. It would be absurd to write a Comédie Humaine for our times because, he argues tartly, "Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History's heels. It is there to create its own history."

Of two critical preface-writers in a 1972 edition of Madame Bovary, Kundera is splendidly rude: "These men saw nothing wrong with positioning themselves at a distance from the book in whose vestibule they are squatters." And, without naming names, he damns all unserious writers with marvellous spleen: "A mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional - thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious - is contemptible." The ringing, threefold "thus", amplifying the criticism at each stage so that what began as "conventional" has become "noxious", and then, the final hammer-blow, outdoing even "noxious" with the pitiless judgement of "contemptible": it's a really invigorating crescendo of bile.

The energy of such denunciations is, of course, proof of Kundera's passion for the novel and for great novels. (You say you love music? Well then, tell me which composers you hate.) His essay is not a systematic survey of the novel, but an idiosyncratic history of his favourites - Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Musil, Gombrowicz - studded with the dicta of a great practitioner, guiding us to surprising, fragmentary perspectives. Kundera reads Sterne, dazzlingly, as a sort of Buddhist: "That absence of action (or miniaturisation of action) is treated with an idyllic smile . . . I think I detect a radical melancholy in that smile: to act is to seek to conquer; to conquer brings suffering to others: renouncing action is the only path to happiness and peace." Just as easily, Kundera will discuss technical matters of narrative strategy, or turn scholar of editions to make a brilliant point about Flaubert's revisions of his paragraphing.

Some anecdotes and arguments in The Curtain will be familiar to readers of Kundera's previous works of criticism, Testaments Betrayed and The Art of the Novel; some others make one wish for elaboration. But this short work is bursting at the seams with ideas and creative sympathy. At one point, Kundera describes Gombrowicz's writings on the novel, and warns us what to expect: "A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work." He is talking about Gombrowicz, but also, of course, he is talking about himself. Kundera dashes irrepressibly around his own studio, playing the provocateur, the fan, the scholar or the charming old roué, to consistently fascinating effect. To be welcomed in is a rare pleasure.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis