April 21, 2006

Words that matter

Some excerpts from a novel I read a few months ago: an intense, gripping work that gave me plenty to think about, about what I do and why. (Think that may be why the person who gave me the book did so in the first place).

Which novel? The usual e-pat on the back to the first person who gives me the title and author.

(All verbatim except the last, which I edited slightly to turn it into a conversation).


It is about the way we see the world. I know there are inner things, below, beneath, from the dominion of hesitation, and that these, in some degree, count. But not for much, not for as much as Ines thinks. It may not all take place on the outside but there is still much on the surface. What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes -- is this allowable in a journalist? -- it is not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. I object to this; I find it embarrassing, unprofessional, and I object to the implication that those of us who cannot or will not produce in our writing so ostentatious a display of outrage are in some way at fault, that we are at worst collaborators with the enemy, at best heartless, selfish, trivial. Words, real words with meaning, matter to me.


As I know well, Ines is an unusual journalist. She hates government palaces and ministerial offices, and the hotels and bars and restaurants frequented by journalists and their sources. She is never interested in interviewing the big people -- the ambassadors, the ministers and generals -- and rarely bothers to go to press conferences ("all they ever say is lies"). What she covets is not contacts with the high-placed and the respect of her colleagues ("more interested in their careers than in what is going on around them"), but the friendship of ordinary people; she will hang around the stall of a market vendor for hours, listening to talk of everyday things; she will eat and drink beer in the homes of day labourers and street sweepers; she will sleep on their floors when it is too late to get home.


[A character explains to the narrator why he broke up with a long-time girlfriend]

"You see, Rita ... This is not easy. I'm a short man, as you can see, and Rita was two-and-one-half inches taller than me. I would see my friends with their girls. They looked great and we didn't. I ask you: can a man two-and-one-half inches shorter than his girl play the part of the romantic lover, which is how I saw myself then? It's not possible. ...

"My crisis wasn't to do with anything big," he says with finality. "It came down to this: I wanted to feel Rita's tits in my stomach, not in my throat."

I look at him. I don't believe him.

"You're being too hard on yourself," I say.

"No," he answers. "Our instinct is always to dress motivation up. I prefer to strip it bare."


"I work in words. I am a worker in words and these words cannot be made to work for others, they are not the slaves of party or position. Maybe you look down on it, maybe you and your bitter comrades think it's precious, but the writer's words are their own justification. They have to be if they are to be true, if they are to count for something."

"Dante wrote that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality."

"Where is this great moral crisis? I see ambition, I see corruption, I see squalor, I see intrigue and vanity and self-promotion. Where is the moral crisis?"

"There are times," came the reply, the words chilly with contempt, "when it is necessary to be more than just a writer."


kuffir said...

the author is ronan bennett and the novel is 'the catastrophist'.
i googled.. only because you didn't acknowledge the half-correct answer i posted on the hitchcock-rushmore question. and because ..i've had a bad day.
so why did you like the book ?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Kuffir, I hope your day has improved. Apologies for not replying on the rushmore question, you may have noticed that I've put up a post about it.

You're right, though I'd be intrigued to know what you googled for.

I don't know that I entirely "liked" the book -- I think it sagged in the middle, with an odd interlude in Ireland. I still am not sure why it was there. But the rest of it is gripping, sometimes powerful. It gave me plenty to chew on about what writers and journalists do -- the excerpts I quoted, for example. The need to take sides vs the need to stay neutral and "objective" (is there such a thing?). That sort of dilemma.

Plus Patrice Lumumba is a tragic figure, and this book sort of revolves around him.

Read it and let me know what you think.

kuffir said...

'Where is this great moral crisis? I see ambition, I see corruption, I see squalor, I see intrigue and vanity and self-promotion. Where is the moral crisis..'
this is what i googled for , without the quotes. i tried a few other sentences in the beginning but kept away from the sentence with dante because i thought there'd be a helluva lot of answers :).
a reviewer found the same sentence as you quoted, worth quoting.
but about neutrality, i think it's okay to take sides sometimes, when it's done not very consciously, like when you're lost in the heat, immediacy of a moment. but you're the journalist - my business hinges on taking sides. but let me tell you about a recent incident in which a jounalist, reporter(tv performer?) took sides. i'm talking about barkha dutt of ndtv and the show she hosted on obc reservations a couple of weeks ago.. she wrote on the ndtv site the next day and confirmed what had been only a nagging doubt in my mind .. she analysed that the obc students who had walked out, midway, of her show suffered from a 'siege mentality'. i think the obc students walked out because it was obvious to them that she was taking sides. it was obvious to me that the argument she laid out in the defense of her opinion (as she laid out on the site) was based on very little research.. the few figures she used were something somebody else had quoted on her show. it's instances like these which lower a journalist's credibility .. uninformed prejudices which make you take sides without trying to make a serious effort to learn about the whole issue beforehand.
i think i'll take you up on the book and read it. cheers.