The Books Interview: Craig Raine

You are a poet first and a novelist second, but you have said that Heartbreak is not a "poet's novel". What do you mean by that?
I just mean that most poetry is kind of noble. And there are emotions that everyone knows about, but which don't get into poetry much. I think the novel is a freer space - there are fewer customs restrictions on what you can say. If you wanted to write about tattoos or haemorrhoids, you could do it in a novel rather more easily than you could in poetry.

You have said that you began the novel a decade ago. Had you never tried your hand at novel-writing before that?
No. I've got some short stories that I'm deeply ashamed of hidden away somewhere. They were terrible. They were written by Ernest Hemingway's dyslexic brother - they were awful. My idea was to have a novel that would be a project for my retirement. So, for about a decade, I kept notes. In 2000, I tried to put all these fragments together. I had no idea how to do it, but, in the end, I kind of solved it.

One of your heroes is John Updike. In this novel, you write very lyrically, as Updike has done, about a female character's pudenda.
Everyone says this about Updike. I have a letter somewhere from him - some critic or other had accused him of indulging in descriptions of vaginas - and in his letter to me he says: "As far as I know I've never described a vagina." He has described pubic hairs, but not the actual vulva, I think. When I wrote about that character, I wasn't thinking, "Hello, Updike": I was thinking, "Hello, mons pubis."

What do you think of Updike's poetry?
I don't think he's a great poet. It's always a matter of amazement to me that people think it's incredibly hard to rhyme, that sort of thing. Novelists are thinking: “He just said 'fork', and 'stork' and 'walk'. Bloody hell! His head must be on fire with genius." Obviously poets can do this standing on their heads.

Milan Kundera is another influence.
I think Kundera is a great writer. He's made discoveries that one can use - the mixture of fact and fiction, for instance. What I really learned from him is swiftness. In Kundera, you get what you need and there's no wastage. It's a very lean approach to fiction. I admire it enormously. As for those people who are writing conventional novels - like, say, D J Taylor, turning out another piece of reproduction furniture - no one says of them that they are copying the traditional novel. It seems to me that Kundera is a perfectly respectable antecedent; I think one would be crazy not
to follow him. The other writer who is a huge influence on me is Kipling, whose short stories I admire very, very much.

Didn't you say somewhere that you think Kipling's stories are a match for Chekhov's?
Yes. This is sometimes regarded as an eccentric position by people who haven't read much Chekhov. One of the things about Chekhov is that, although he's wonderful, he is unbelievably repetitive. He repeats himself all the time. You get his best things at least three times. There are no repeats in Kipling.

It seems that another of the tricks you have learned from Kundera is the fusion of novel and essay.
I think this is partly because one of the things I am is a critic. The essayistic parts of the novel are mostly literary criticism of a kind. Literary criticism is second nature to me.George Eliot used to be accused routinely of destroying the fabric of her fiction with her intrusive narration, in which she talks about her characters as though they are real people. In fact, it doesn't make the reality less, it makes it more. If you can move seamlessly from the fictional to the factual, people don't feel too uncomfortable about it; they've already grown to feel comfortable. Then it becomes a way of creating a more perfect illusion.

And one thinks of the digressive, intrusive mode that marks the beginnings of the English novel - Fielding and Sterne, for instance.
Yes, and that's obviously where Kundera comes from. Everything comes from something else; you give it your spin. You couldn't not give it your spin.

Heartbreak is published by Atlantic Books (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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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