Until the mid-'80s, English-language fiction by diasporic women of South Asian origin was prized by publishers and readers in the West more for its perceived ethnographic content than for its artistry. The writers themselves, almost always upper-middle-class, urban, well-educated women, were pigeonholed as revealers of secrets of closed, exotic cultures. The best known among them was the Indian-born British novelist Kamala Markandaya. During the '50s and the '60s, Markandaya, writing primarily for Western readers in impeccably "international" English rather than in the Indian English satirized as "baboo" by the British, articulated her expatriate vision of the devastating effects of industrialization on India's peasantry. Markandaya's 1954 novel, Nectar in a Sieve, was a Book of the Month Club selection, and it was followed by such commercial successes as A Handful of Rice, The Coffer Dams, and Two Virgins. When Markandaya explored the discomfiting subject of the South Asian immigrant experience in race-conscious Britain, in the 1972 novel The Nowhere Man, her finest, her popularity slid.
In the last twenty-five years, talented women writers of the South Asian diaspora have swelled in number, and their fictional turfs and narrative strategies have become robustly varied. Just this year, publishers offer us three works of fiction in three very different modes by South Asian–born American and British novelists: Kiran Desai's powerful, pessimistic, postcolonial The Inheritance of Loss; Abha Dawesar's elegant and contemplative That Summer in Paris; and Monica Ali's philosophical, allusive Alentejo Blue.
That Alentejo Blue, Ali's much-awaited second work, has no South Asian content may come as a surprise to the many fans of her commercially and critically successful debut novel, Brick Lane. That novel's popularity is based, in part, on its giving loud and earnest voice to a community largely unacknowledged in British fiction and doing so through old-fashioned storytelling. Brick Lane is grounded in the eponymous Bangladeshi ghetto in London's East End. Its characters—resourceful housewives, bullying buffoons, fiery-tongued militants—could stroll the streets and not look out of place. They are intensifications of the real, not abstractions. At the same time, they act out, in culturally specific ways, the anxieties, vanities, desires, despairs, and fantasies of dislocated, disempowered ghetto dwellers everywhere.
Being identified as the novelist-spokesperson for Brick Lane's Bangladeshis brought Ali substantial rewards, especially in terms of media attention and prize nominations. But as she discovered, it has its limitations, even perils as well. In an interview that appeared in the Sunday Times in December 2003, she spoke of her unease at the public's equating her fiction with "sociological study." And she has aggressively resisted being pegged as an ethnic writer interesting only for her insider's take on Bangladeshi issues. A peril that
Ali had not anticipated came, paradoxically, from the Greater Sylhet Development and Welfare Council, an organization comprising a half million Bangladeshi Britons. The organization accused Ali, who is of mixed English and Bangladeshi parentage and who grew up in relatively affluent circumstances, of misrepresenting Bangladeshi culture and demanded that her publisher withdraw Brick Lane from circulation. In the interview, Ali confessed that the hostile reaction was distracting her from her second novel. The twin fears of ghettoization (by the mainstream) and ghetto expulsion (by the Bangladeshi underclass) may partially explain why Ali dispenses with South Asian characters and landscapes in Alentejo Blue.
The setting this time is Mamarrosa, a dead-end village in a minimally described corner of the Alentejo area of Portugal. Ali peoples the village with locals and an assortment of estrangeiros. In nine chapters, the many residents meditate on life's purpose or purposelessness. While it was still a work in progress, Ali referred to Alentejo Blue as a "novel," but it is now being advertised alternatively as a "collection of stories" and as "fiction." None of the chapters coheres well enough to be read as a short story; the sum of them does not add up to a novel. In her acknowledgments, Ali tells us more clearly how not to approach the book than how to, describing it as "neither a history book nor a travel book, only a work of fiction."
Mamarrosa is intended to be viewed as an allegorical place. Except for insistent references to cork trees (and to the decline in international demand for cork) and the occasional cataloguing of Alentejo flora, this village could be anywhere in southern Europe. It has
a bar, a general store, a pharmacy, a cell-phone store with a flashing Vodafone sign, and an Internet café whose computers don't function. These are convenient sites for random reunions of quarrelsome or restless locals, naive tourists, and condescending expatriates who have little in common. But Ali's imaginary village is bland and lacks the allegorical complexity and emotional density of García Márquez's Macondo, Narayan's Malgudi, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
Ali's villagers are expedient mouthpieces for philosophical inquiries into the natural and moral laws of the universe. Is it possible to believe in God and salvation and have faith in organized religion in a world in which evil operates as forcefully as good? Ali does not intend for her characters to engage the reader's sympathy. She treats us instead to a parade of the flamboyantly freakish and the downright repulsive. The cast is huge—there's an obese bartender who delivers a Hamlet-like soliloquy on whether to eat or not to eat a piece of stale cake, a finicky British author writing on Blake but suffering from writer's block, and a dysfunctional English family that includes a lip-reading teenage nymphomaniac who sports a cheap, ugly hearing aid, a stolen pair of sunglasses, and a navel stud.
There is little action in Alentejo Blue, because Ali permits little to happen in Mamarrosa. For one young woman, Teresa, who works as a sales clerk in the general store, the high point of the day is watching her boss "put rat poison in the store room." She dreams of escaping to England as an au pair. Her birthplace, she laments, is good only for being turned into amusing anecdotes.
Ali dangles possibilities of melodramatic plot turns—outed cuckoldry, teenage pregnancy, illegal abortion, and charges of murder—but does not follow through. What conflict there is takes place on a metaphysical plane, between the impulse to despair and the impulse to hope. The catalyst is Marco, the only native son who's left Mamarrosa and made a fortune (or so the villagers need to believe) and who, early in the novel, is rumored to be returning home. The Portugese residents look to Marco as a caring, powerful god who, if properly prayed to, can resuscitate the moribund village economy and grant each of them material boons. It's hard to escape the implicit parallel between waiting for Marco and waiting for Godot. But unlike Godot, Marco does appear, in the novel's final chapter: He gets off the train, an ageless man with unblinking (all-seeing?) eyes, dressed in jeans, scuffed shoes and a theatrical black cape. He then skips out of Mamarrosa without acknowledging the villagers' petitions.
Ali jump-starts a meditation on mortality and salvation with a stunning scene of an eighty-four-year-old Portugese peasant, João, cutting down the body of his octogenarian friend, Rui, who has hanged himself, and pantomiming the act of love with Rui's corpse. Slowly, we learn that Rui had once been a believer in reform through revolution; that he had fought against Portugal's onetime dictator António de Oliveira Salazar and been tortured; that he had witnessed the passing of military oppression and its replacement by economic exploitation. Still later, we learn that João's village has been afflicted by loss of hope and an epidemic of suicide. João, cradling the corpse of the friend he had secretly desired for decades but made love to on only one furtive occasion, laments the passing of desire. In this opening chapter, Ali renders political disenchantment, exploitative globalization, and repressed lust with laconic lyricism.
Unfortunately, Ali forces João and Rui to yield narrative space to a succession of feckless characters. Their ruminations on life would be banal if Ali had not given them some intellectual heft through allusions to Blake's visionary poems. One of the estrangeiros is Stanton, an expert on the English poet. Stanton's struggle to revive his muse, and his seduction of the wife and the daughter of China Potts, another Englishman, is the most fully developed tale in this collage of life narratives. At the end, still suffering from writer's block, and having learned little about himself other than that he savors his seductions more for their potential as material than for the actual pleasure they afford, Stanton decides to move on to Prague, "where writers met in cafés with notebooks and grievances and discourse flowed on the meaning of life and of death."
The chief lesson to be gleaned from the many characters' musings is something like, There's no explaining why some people are victims and others victimizers. An English schoolteacher spending her midterm break in Alentejo recalls the words of a schoolboy who has written a failing paper on Lord of the Flies: "There's no reason why it should turn out like that. It could go one way or another." A Blakean symmetry prevails in Ali's moral universe, holding in place the lamb and the "tyger": the victim and the predator.
In any event, Alentejo Blue does defy expectations. Ali risks disappointing fans who are looking for more on Bangladeshi Britons, while her deployment of philosophical discourse in place of believable characters and compelling situations will certainly put off other readers. At least for this audacity, she is to be praised.
Bharati Mukherjee's most recent novel is The Tree Bride (Theia, 2004).