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23 February 2022

Pankaj Mishra’s divided self

In staging a conflict between withdrawal and worldliness, his new novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas and a self-sabotaging form.

By Lola Seaton

One thing Pankaj Mishra seems certain of is that humans are uncertain creatures, but uncertain in a notably coherent way. “Human identity,” Mishra wrote in the prologue to Age of Anger (2017), is “manifold and self-conflicted”. He thus feels “unqualified regard for a figure like Montaigne”, for he recognised “the acute self-divisions of individual selves”. Mishra is hardly alone in emphasising human ambivalence, but his is a rather spruce, even schematic vision of perplexity: we are less awash in inarticulate doubt or disarrayed by our unconscious than intelligibly sundered between our “inner and public selves”.

As a writer, Mishra’s public self has had the upper hand for most of his career. He is best known as an intellectual and essayist, and among the essays that have appeared in prestigious Anglo-American journals over the past 25 years, he is more associated with his forceful political, sometimes polemical, writings than with his mellower literary criticism. But as an aspiring twenty-something writer in the early 1990s, living in verdant seclusion in a Himalayan village in north India, when he imagined himself writing it was “always as a novelist”. Being a writer, however, demanded a kind of cerebral worldliness: “to engage rationally with, rather than retreat from, the world; it was to concern oneself particularly with the fate of the individual in society”.

So after publishing a single novel, The Romantics, in 1999, Mishra spent the next two decades writing, alongside his trenchant higher journalism, non-fiction books – many of them hybrid intellectual histories spliced with biography. This didn’t demand a total suppression of his novelistic instincts. He retained his preoccupation with individuals and “subjective experience”: “our unit of analysis”, Mishra insists in Age of Anger, “should also be the irreducible human being, her or his fears, desires and resentments”.

[See also: Monica Ali’s Love Marriage: sex, class, race and satire]

An End to Suffering (2004), his absorbing account of the life and legacy of the Buddha, is studded with memoir; From the Ruins of Empire (2012) tracks the “intellectual and political awakening of Asia” in the 19th and 20th centuries by considering “the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian people” responding “to the encroachments of the West”. Age of Anger is an attempt to understand contemporary political rage, from ethno-nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism, through the prism of an archetype derived from Rousseau – the resentful, “alienated young man of promise” spawned by the traumatic advent of “commercial-industrial civilisation”. Modernity created fault lines, Mishra argues, which “run through human souls as well as nations and societies”, and so Age of Anger relies “more on novelists and poets than historians and sociologists”.

If, in his attention to how subjectivity is configured, and disfigured, by social change, Mishra is a novelistic intellectual, he also thinks novels should be infused with ideas. For example, he criticised the tranquil insularity of Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song (1998), in which “broad themes” (“the steady disappearance of an old middle-class, the rise of Hindu nationalism”) are merely “sensed”. Mishra has an abiding subject – how individuals have metabolised modernity and its cruel contradictions, especially in late-coming countries like his native India. Yet there is an arresting contrast in style between the political writings on which his reputation is chiefly built and the more introspective mode on display in his memoir and fiction.

Those weaned on the gripping velocity and adamantine syntax of Mishra’s essays may be surprised by the assiduous lucidity and serene poise of his new novel Run and Hide (“… on the floor, where a spear of sunlight, seething with dust motes, was perfectly aimed”). Instead of the impassioned, self-assured, robustly erudite persona encountered in his polemics the narrators in his fiction are naive, studious, solitary, vaguely melancholy.

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The conflict between withdrawal and worldliness is staged in both The Romantics and Run and Hide. The novels’ respective narrators – Samar and Arun – follow parallel arcs: from studious retreat from the world, to tentatively entering it, to fleeing again. Freshly graduated Samar, living on a meagre allowance in the city of Benares, is embarked on a self-imposed syllabus of ambitious reading in Western literature and philosophy, while Arun, after eight frenetic years in Delhi, has retired to a Himalayan village to translate classic Hindi literature. Both monkish idylls are punctured by an encounter with a beautiful, wealthy woman – Catherine, in The Romantics, the daughter of a Paris banker; Alia, in Run and Hide, a journalist from an elite Muslim family, educated at English boarding school and NYU (a conspicuous shift of elite sociological coordinates). These women precipitate a sexual awakening and eventually a crisis from which our narrators find refuge in the Himalayas.

This contrast between “ambition and repose”, as Arun puts it in Run and Hide, comes with a suite of associated oppositions: sex and celibacy, travel and rootedness, bourgeois careerism and Buddhist self-sufficiency, modernity and tradition, West and East or, as the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand put it, “the Alps of the European tradition” and “the Himalaya of [the] Indian past”. The woman who inducts Samar into Western classical music and introduces him to Catherine in The Romantics, proroguing his life of the mind, is called “Miss West”. Arun’s translation of Hindi works for a “tiny but loyal and respectful readership” from his Himalayan perch contrasts with the “noisily flamboyant” novels written for a global market by his university friend, Aseem, a sort of literary celebrity and “intellectual entrepreneur”.

[See also: Sheila Heti’s dream-world]

We leave Samar at about the age Mishra was when he published The Romantics (late twenties), and similarly pursue Arun of Run and Hide into its author’s middle age. One senses an ambition to make those extra decades tell in the new novel. The Romantics hews, with appealing guilelessness, to the modest limits of a Bildungsroman, but in scale, formal complexity and the historical import of its themes, Run and Hide is more ambitious. Mishra’s new book is still in essence a Bildungsroman, extended into midlife and encased in a grander, more sensational story about the downfall of Arun’s friends from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), who become hedge fund billionaires in the US before getting embroiled in a Wall Street insider-trading scandal. This appears to draw from a real scandal recounted in The Billionaire’s Apprentice, a 2013 book by the journalist Anita Raghavan. A similar-sounding book features in Run and Hide, but its protagonists are Arun’s ill-fated IIT friends and its author the glamorous Alia.

Run and Hide is presented as an epistolary memoir addressed to Alia, in which Arun relays the details of his and his university friends’ “class backgrounds and moral and emotional lives”. Such details were omitted from Alia’s book – and, apparently, from her research, as well as from Arun and Alia’s conversations during their relationship (which was not trivial: Arun leaves India to follow Alia to London). These lacunae, however bemusing or unlikely, are made necessary by the formal contrivance – the letter-memoir – Mishra has selected to affix Arun’s life story to the more dramatic, momentous narrative of the Wall Street scandal. Arun is forced into a triangulated address that produces unrealistic utterances – giving exposition to the reader that it’s implausible Alia would need to be informed of too, either because it’s about her, or her book, or something they must have talked about.

As a rule, Arun can only tell Alia (and so us) things he hasn’t already told her. It thus becomes important to explain his earlier reticence about his life and those of his friends (the protagonists of her book) – he says he was “too ashamed of those early humiliations… to volunteer them” and that in any case Alia wasn’t “curious” – but there is a significant cost. To make the revelations in Arun’s memoir plausibly revelatory to Alia, Mishra has had to render their relationship insubstantial, or at least make Arun and Alia inscrutable to each other. This is a legitimate theme, but here it stems from narrative necessity, which makes the pathos of their relationship’s disintegration underwhelming. Addressing the novel to Alia seems an act of formal self-sabotage, imposing an inverse relation between the substance of the novel and the substance of the romance the novel chronicles: the less Arun shared with Alia in person, the more there is for him to explain now.

And explaining is his dominant mode: by “pick[ing] out of the past those scraps you overlooked in your own book”, Arun, as if he were a reader of Age of Anger, will sociologically clarify the spiritual conflicts that led to the varieties of wrongdoing with which Alia’s book concludes. The imbrication of the Bildungsroman with Alia’s book about the scandal – itself described in Run and Hide as a “secret history of globalisation” – seems a way of raising the stakes, of importing “broad themes” (the secret history of the secret history of globalisation?).

If this novel can seem overly freighted with ideas, its characters at risk of congealing into emblematic case studies, Mishra’s narrators can also seem isolated figures against a world-historic ground, individuals temporarily drawn “in” to society but rarely seeming “of” it. Whether swept up in sex and cosmopolitanism or chastely opting out of those in rustic tranquillity, they remain socially sealed-off, their relationships with others distant or evanescent. Samar and Arun’s limpid, pensive sentences provide an almost soothing refuge – a taste of the austere grandeur and peaceful seclusion of their Himalayan retreats. But there are few points of sustained contact between interiority and society, subjective experience and the wider world.

The gregarious zone of intimacies, domestic and otherwise that mediate “between individual states of mind and specific historical realities”, as Mishra put it in his essay “Edmund Wilson in Benares”, is largely absent. It’s as though the rather stringent opposition between engagement and detachment dramatised in the lives of Mishra’s narrators bifurcates his own writing into polemic and introspection, public and inner life, bypassing much of what lies between – social and private life – and so vacating much of fiction’s richest traditional terrain.

[See also: The liberal platitudes of Michael Ignatieff]

This is partly, perhaps, why the novels resemble memoirs, either by design (Run and Hide) or default (The Romantics). Mishra’s narrators are proto-writers, and we are chiefly witness to their writerly reveries, observations, reflections. However acute and riveting, these do not necessarily evoke an autonomous, dynamically individuated personality. First-person narrators naturally monopolise their self-presentation, but Arun’s self-aware, penetrating account of his and his friends’ wayward lives does not elicit the sort of vigilant, ludic attention that readers bring to more devious first-person fiction that allows us to glimpse the intriguing gap between a narrator’s self-portrayal – and self-knowledge – and possible alternative views on their personality or predicament.

If fiction can generate pleasure and insight from its narrators’ unreliability – a quality that autobiography conventionally disavows – one could say that Mishra’s narrators are not sharply particularised or distinguishable enough from the reliable “I” of memoir to become interestingly fallible. Their interiority is at once immersive and of a strangely generic, unadorned kind. In this, their thoughtful reflections are somewhat reminiscent of an autobiographical tradition of philosophy – what Mishra has described as the “self-reckonings” of Montaigne or Nietzsche or Thoreau that influenced him as a young writer. In Run and Hide a professor helps Arun to think of books not merely as entertainment but as “guides to existence, a way of finding oneself in the world with others”.

Sometimes claimed of fiction, the note of spiritual gravitas is perhaps better suited to “self-reckonings” like Montaigne’s Essais or Thoreau’s Walden. We don’t classify such works as novels, perhaps in part because, aside from questions of veracity, their narrators are not mired in the disquieting complexity of social and family life but have withdrawn from it. Conveying personal journeys in a manner somehow released from the accidents of personality, they are not quite like the people we come to know in novels, but authoritative Everymen, emblematic and a little elusive, and specialising in a different sort of wisdom.

Run and Hide
Pankaj Mishra
Hutchinson Heinemann 336pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls