Naeem Murr interviewed by 'First City' - Delhi's City Magazine - November 2006

"Certainly I have cried for my characters, but I have also, at the moment of tragic death, wondered whether or not to begin that particular sentence with a gerund." FCBOOKS in slightly startled conversation with the eloquent Naeem Murr, longlisted for the Man Booker this year

          But this is the unreal place, the place at the heart of things, where there is no fake eccentricity instead of real madness, where, it seems to me, everything is trapped somehow, and has to struggle just not to become grotesque. It's a muddy pool, is The Perfect Man. Yet there's clarity in there, somewhere: the clarity of a needle-sharp mind, and a fantastically imagistic vision of the world. We discover, in a chat with Naeem, that his literary sense infuses his non-literary sense, resulting in a meditative, resonant unravelling of the book, and of the strange ways of writing itself. Words, it seems, are as important in the explanation of the story, as in the telling itself.
          "The world in which I grew up as a child was not of the kind in which people had literary ambitions - or any ambitions at all. It would never have occurred to me that you could be a writer, or even that books were actually written by anyone... But I could never have been anything other than a writer of fiction. I'm obsessed with character and I love language. I don't think it is at all a surprise that I was terrible at English. Thomas Mann once defined writers as people for whom writing is the most difficult thing. That imagistic thinking you describe is very natural for me, which is actually why I try to keep it as much in control as I can."
          We note that Naeem's figured out the ways of being a writer admirably, something that echoes through the exquisitely, mercilessly crafted world of The Perfect Man, a world that discomfited (read: terrified) this reader. Alienating, in the reading. And in the writing? "I think 'Alienation' is a complex - even paradoxical - term for a writer. Alienation is your ordinary state. You don't lose, but find - at least, substantiate -yourself in the creation of a work of fiction. You don't live in, but between worlds. Hence the impulse to create a specific, detailed world that has the kind of integrity - in structure and form - that your own being and life lacks."
          Brown, broad river, its surface as grained and knotted as bark. A vast, gnarled, liquid tree set in the earth, dead wood, holocaust, naked, agony of limbs piled against the banks.

"You don't lose, but find - at least, substantiate - yourself in the creation of a work of fiction.  You don't live in, but between worlds"

          The book's world - a small town, Pisgah, in Missouri of the 1950s - seems to be founded, centred on its characters, and we wonder whether these haunted Naeem into writing the book. But his stimulation was sparked by "Place: Missouri. But place as character: a character that has witnessed so much, but remains silent. As a child, my imagination was provoked by what I was not told, by the silence, particularly with respect to their pasts, of adults who were important to me. The more secretive and mysterious the adult is, the more imaginative the child is forced to be about what once existed and what lies ahead. I can't help but see the writing of fiction, at least in part, as my reaction to this silence. Place - in this case Missouri - keeps just such a silence, about the generations of people that have lived and died in it. Of the many places in which I've lived, I found Missouri particularly evocative. Also, Missouri is right in the heart of America, arguably, culturally, between the North and South, and certainly between the formative East and the idea of the West. So I experienced a vivid sense of past in a place that was alien to me..." A place that Naeem's experiences of filter evocatively into his book. "My home was near the river itself, broad and muddy between high bluffs, bordered by the eerie landscape of the floodplain, a very green, wet, and fecund region. Spending time in a particular landscape slowly separates me from other places I have known, my past, myself; and the less I'm cluttered with myself, the freer I am to imagine. And what I imagined was the people for whom this landscape was home."
          The story is luminous with characters at once sharply, darkly outlined, and messy, knotted by relationships and circumstances. They are unfamiliar in familiar ways, and hold you captive, even as they make you deeply uncomfortable. "For me, every character, no matter how minor, is an aspect of the central and uniting consciousness of a book - as is true of characters in dreams. Among artists, I think a fiction writer is distinguished by his obsession with character. One thing that is typical of many of the greatest writers is their reluctance to let any character be merely functional, a supernumerary - even at the cost, at times, of the overall integrity of their work: Elizabeth Bowen and William Faulkner are two perfect examples of this tendency."
          Raj (iv) Travers, the abandoned half Indian, half British child around which the ensemble of sorts negotiate their lives, is unique as a 'central' character. Somehow always, at the corner of your eye, the back of your mind, but still a key to what the story comes to be about, somehow. "Rajiv doesn't make any sense to anyone, particularly himself. In the town, his dark skin suggests African-American, with all the baggage of that, but his accent - and manner - are English. Impenetrable, Raj reinvents his past, lies and deflects. His manner, as Annie senses, is in exact opposition to what is beneath the skin - that fierce bull of unhappiness. He is the jester, the fool, the truth in disguise, a series of confusing signifiers, all of which hide a very simple and profound reality. He is every main character in this book - only more so. He is also an axis."
          The story is of Rajiv's abandonment in Pisgah as a young child, and of the relationships forged here - especially of the four other children Raj befriends - and how they are melded into new and complicated shapes as the town's people grow and change, as their pasts and futures meet. But the play of place, time and relationship, of silence and terrifying knowledge, make The Perfect Man much more than the sum of its parts. "I think 'coming-of-age' can be such a compromised term. Is The Perfect Man a coming-of-age story? In some ways, sure, at least as far as Annie and Raj are concerned. But what exactly does that mean? Adults, such as Ruth, are struggling just as profoundly to 'become' something. Raj and the town's children are born into a world where there is no clear example of what to be or how to get there, but this crisis afflicts everyone in this world except those who have become less than human. Here, the novel may reveal some contemporary anxiety. We live in a culture that increasingly devalues adulthood. We are deluged with fantasy, and many adults are turning to narratives whose sole function is to comfort and empower. Adulthood is being equated with unimaginativeness, as if childhood is the only realm of the imagination. Is it any wonder, then, that we now find ourselves in a world dangerously polarised between fantasy and fundamentalism?"

"Among artists, I think a fiction writer is distinguished by his obsession with character"

          You're left fascinated by how a writer imagines, and orchestrates such a vast cast of characters - loving, hating, brooding, hurting, fearing, surviving. Naeem has one of those answers that every writer-in-progress wants to hear. "I've always been fascinated by -attentive to - people, their surface and their depth, their gestures as much as their deepest impulses. A writer is the worst kind of formulator of human beings - always categorising - but, as a saving grace, creating categories that are skewed and complex. So, rather than the category being, such-and-such a person is black or white, it may be that such-and-such a person is one of those who live the tragedy of being just clever enough to realise they are not very clever at all (I take this category from Andre Gide and Virginia Woolf). Out of noticing such things throughout your life, adding people in various ways to these complex formulations, those people extending, leavening, sophisticating the categories themselves, what ultimately becomes distilled in you is a kind of essence - a soul. And this ultimately will emerge, unconsciously and unexpectedly, as the soul or essence of one of your characters, interacting, you hope, in complex and compelling ways with that character's essential mystery, as well as all the other layers of that character's predicament."

"A writer is the worst kind of formulator of human beings - always categorising - but, as a saving grace, creating categories that are skewed and complex"

          As layered as his process seems, you feel the weight of larger-than-life influences, deeply informing the structure of the book. Naeem's response meets our expectations too well. "In terms of how to handle a large book with lots of characters, I would say that the works of Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and War and Peace) and George Eliot (Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss) were particularly important. Both writers fashion exquisitely crafted chapters within a much larger work. These chapters have their own arc and integrity, ring with a bell-like clarity, but also move you forward, and harmonise beautifully with the whole work. There are wonderful group scenes (very technically difficult) in both, and, of course, they are peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters."
          The book issues a kind of challenge to the reader, to stay afloat in its quicksands: it isn' t by any standards an easy, or therapeutic read. "When I am writing, I am not really conscious of any objective reader at all. Or I am writer and reader, at once, perhaps. If I am fully engaged in the lives and predicaments of my characters, I trust, then, that others will be also. I never have any designs upon the reader, never intend to instruct or consciously convey any ideas about society, memory, history, good and evil, contemporary culture, or anything else. Everything arises out of character. No matter how great an idea - religious, political, or otherwise - it's condemned to find its ultimate expression through individuals. Through character." Second thoughts find Naeem more accessible, though. "I do believe, though, that it is the duty of a writer to make what he is writing entertaining, compelling, dramatic, to write a book that will please readers at every level, a book that has a good balance between surface pleasures (over which he has a great deal more control) and (hopefully) real depth."

          Wrapped in her own tight arms she stared at the reddish sun tangled in the trees as the cat eddied frantically around her ankles.
          If you take a step back, out of the world created in this book, it takes on a mirage-like quality: shimmering, surreal. While you're immersed in its seething, hypnotic tangle of stories and relationships, however, it lays bare your insides. It relentlessly exposes your darkest fears and desires -through the fears and desires of a meticulously etched cast of characters.
          He seemed almost to flinch at this, a stone dropped into the well of his mind. A second later, though, the surface of his privacy stilled again, sealing his face.
          Rajiv Travers, abandoned by his father, is left to live with a woman who his uncle lived with before he died, in Pisgah, a small town in Missouri of the 1950's. Here, while attempt­ing to discover an identity for himself, he becomes friends with Annie, Lew, Alv and Nora, and finds himself in a web of demanding, complex relationships. Other characters in the town - his guardian Ruth, confronting her own demons in passionate, malicious writing sketches of her neighbours and acquaintances, or in garish romantic novels; the group of middle-aged men at the helm of the town, harbouring their ugly secrets and past lives, and their frayed, jarring wives -work as stunning set pieces, with pithy, evocative descrip­tions (Finn, like a sad, sweet gargoyle...), so each is an intense image burned into your mind. But the story jolts these characters around, and you are seldom allowed to lower your guard in a moment of familiarity, however you may identify with them. Instead, the bizarre eruptions of barely credible events - of rape, of murder, of suicide, of insanity - constantly push you to detach yourself. But, somehow, a constant disbelief, hurt, disgust, sadness gives way to an acceptance, an understanding of the truth of human relationships. Which, when you think about it, is some mean task to have achieved.
          "Look, Annie, though I can't tell you I love you, since it isn't in my nature, I'm hoping you're perceptive enough to see that I do."

          Naeem answers our final question as to the curiously reversible quality of The Perfect Man - intensely personal, but at the same time an unflinching comment on human relationships in general - with now expected poetic flair, "While a book lives in a writer's heart and nerves, he is also its architect, engaged without judgement, aware not only of every sparrow that falls, but of the exact choreography of that small demise. Even as he is freighted with and driven by feeling, a part of him must remain utterly cold."

(Extracts in italics from The Perfect Man, William Heinemann/'Random House, priced at Rs. 438, available at bookstores.)

FIRST CITY: A 602 Som Vihar, New Delhi 110022 ~ November 2006 ~ email