From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1989, Vol. 9.2
THIS CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE 16 July 1985, at Zulfikar Ghose’s house in Austin, Texas. Ghose lives in the beginnings of the hill country, just west of Austin, in a verdant landscape that seems more than miles away from the urban bustle of Austin and the University of Texas campus. We were received by his gracious wife, the talented artist Helena de la Fontaine. Their home is bursting with the creative energy of these two extraordinarily talented artists. Their work is informed by the images from each other’s work. In Don Bueno when Calderon goes to the waterfall in the village to participate in a ritual, he is absorbed by a circle of white light, fragmented and shimmering. This is an image from one of Helena’s canvases. Such is the energy of the “white light” that breaks into the “jewelled bow” of Ghose’s writing.
We talked for a couple of hours in the late afternoon and early evening, and we talked outside, first with a pot of tea and then with a bottle of wine. Listening to the tape afterwards, one can hear birds, insects, and an occasional airplane flying overhead, creating a suitably pastoral yet modern backdrop to the conversation. What follows is a transcription of most of the conversation, edited to conform more nearly to the conventions of writing than conversation ever does.
REED DASENBROCK: In your Hamlet, Prufrock and Language, you say at one point that the ultimate business of literature is to test relationships between language and reality. But when we were talking last week, you said that everything in your work is purely imagination with no relationship to reality. I’m wondering then how this testing takes place?
ZULFIKAR GHOSE: Without wanting to evoke an image of literature as some sort of diagnostic machine which tests reality and examines its broken parts, what I can say is that there is no reality without a perception to conceive it, that literature is one mode of perception—together with other modes, such as painting or theoretical physics—and that the best literature has a revelatory quality about it, creating the impression, briefly and sometimes only as a passing illumination, that we have experienced something true. Each mode of perception is a language with its signs and symbols and built-in idiosyncracies—and, incidentally, these have evolved to such a complex degree that there are obscure languages within each language, so that the most crucial areas of knowledge must remain inaccessible to people who are not themselves devoted practitioners—however, this is another matter. The statement you quote from my Hamlet, Prufrock and Language was made in the context of my theory of Hamlet, that from the very first scene where the word “speak” is uttered frequently to Hamlet’s last word, “silence,” the central idea of the play concerns language and reality. I draw comparisons with the work of some modern writers, like Beckett, to show that Hamlet’s compulsion is the compulsion of literature the driving urge to speak, that is to discover a language that always seems to promise a relief from the anguish of not knowing and the writer’s failure to arrive at that language: one ends always with the overwhelming despair of silence. I do not know a single writer, I mean among the great ones, who has not lamented his failure to create a work of real worth. Chekhov and Conrad, for example, berate themselves in their letters for not having done justice to their minds, and this after they’ve produced their masterpieces! What this suggests to me is that a writer has an expectation that a language will come to him of such unutterable perfection that the magical combination of the words will contain wisdom, beauty and truth. But it never does. Beckett realized this early, creating his Texts for Nothing where language becomes stultior stultissimo. What I said about my own work the other day that everything in it is purely the work of the imagination without a relationship to reality, that is not, or cannot be, literally true, of course. One inevitably draws upon experience, including perhaps most importantly for a writer the experience of literature, one creates a world of real matter. It’s just this: I’m more interested in creating a language that appeals to me than in depicting a particular reality.
FEROZA JUSSAWALLA: What we’re saying is that writers are now becoming creators of a language. Instead of their representing or using what is socio-linguistic reality, they’re making a language.
ZG: The great writers have always been the creators of language. When we think of Shakespeare or Pope or Dickens or Joyce, we think of their language. In each case, we hear a particular voice.
RD: So what you’re saying is that a great writer creates a new language which is a new way of seeing in the way that a scientist or a discoverer does.
ZG: Yes. It’s a form of perception. The subject matter of literature is very limited. It’s birth, copulation and death, as Eliot wrote. Add to that a few incidental details- a bit of violence here and a bit of sex there. It is only the capacity of the mind to create a language which has its own interest, which releases thought in excess of the reality referred to, that gives a work its quality. The subject matter of a Shakespeare is the same as the subject matter of any popular writer. The language of one makes him lastingly interesting, the language of the other makes him trivial and ephemeral. We are always looking at language.
FJ: What then becomes of the relationship between language and reality?
ZG: I do not think we have or can have a sense of reality apart from the brutish sense of instinctive desire to feed and copulate, as the animals do . . .
FJ: . . . without a language.
ZG: I do not think we could have any reality without a language, surely. And I think also that language is prior to thought and that language is sometimes prior to perception—as linguists have shown, sometimes we do not see the things for which we do not have the words. The quality of a perception, therefore, depends very largely on the quality of the language if that is indeed the envisioning medium. This is why I maintain that the struggle of a writer is not with the subject matter— with finding something to talk about—it is always with the creation of a style, the working out of those sentences which have a peculiar ring and shape to them where the thought, as Flaubert would ideally have it, cannot be separated from the style. It is given to very few writers to arrive at a distinctive style—partly because most of them are too eager for success, they’re interested, as Flannery O’Connor said, in seeing their name in print and not in art, and what’s more, they have the presumption that they have something important to say that will significantly change the world. This is nothing but vanity, of course, the proportion of which increases the less a person has read. However, I didn’t mean to embark on a tirade against popular writers-for all I know, it might well be envy on my part! I was talking about a distinctive style. Ponge has a fine image for it when, writing on Braque, he says that “the world has begun to enter his furrow.” Furrow. That’s good. In the same essay, Ponge also says that an artist is someone “who in no way explains the world,” that a painting “does not represent anything.” And so one scratches away at the words, hoping that the faint outline of the furrow will one day emerge. Language and reality appear in my mind as two figures in a courtly dance, reaching towards each other, coming into a momentary formal contact, then inevitably parting and receding from each other until the music gradually fades into silence.
FJ: Well, you’re walking right into this big controversy that, as you know, Raja Rao has been at the center of: that you cannot experience a reality except that you experience it out of your own language and that the language you grow up with shapes the reality as you perceive it.
ZG: I’ve not read Raja Rao’s views on this and know nothing of the controversy. Is he saying that one understands reality in the language one learned as a child?
RD: So that a Kannada speaker like Raja Rao would say that he understands language . . .
FJ: He understands his reality very differently from, say, an Urdu speaker.
RD: I suppose you spoke Urdu as a child and therefore, that your worlds will remain separate. I think this is what he would say.
ZG: It was Punjabi, actually, not Urdu, but the point is the same. As to what you report Raja Rao as having said, is that any different from saying that I am what I am because I am I and I have been influenced by the environment in which I was born? This seems to me a fairly circular, tautological and empty statement.
RD: I think he would push it a little bit more to say that you are you but you also share some of that “you-ness” with the other people coming from the same context.
ZG: Surely the sharing of that “you-ness” is not confined to the people with whom one spoke one’s native tongue? If I met my cousins with whom I grew up speaking Punjabi in Sialkot during my first seven years, some Punjabi phrase uttered by one would be bound to evoke an association exclusive to that group; if I met my school friends from Bombay with whom I grew up during the following ten years and shared with them the first broken attempts to speak English, which became the language of our daily intercourse, then surely there would be a similar evocation of exclusive associations; if I met my fellow undergraduates from Keele, if I met the writers who were my companions in London, surely, it is self-evident and not at all remarkable that with each group one has shared a language that has been charged with meanings which possess exclusive subtleties. A line from an Urdu poem may make me respond in a deeper way because I grew up in an Urdu context, but I would assert that a line from an English poem would affect me as deeply, perhaps much more deeply because with English poetry I also know the intellectual background which I do not with Urdu. Proust is perhaps more to the point when he says, ” reality takes shape in the memory alone.” And memory is constituted not only of the accumulation of the images of experience but also of the accumulation of nuances, tones and private meanings of words that give one a sense of one’s self. One’s you-ness, if you like. What a horrible word, you-ness. Reminds me of Eunice Grayson and a Pakistani cricketer named Younis -much more interesting subjects!
RD: What Raja Rao is saying is that out of all that totality of experiences he would want to privilege the early, first ones. And what you’re saying is that they aren’t any more prior than later experiences, as yours in London which come after the early ones in Sialkot.
ZG: Please don’t put me in the position of seeming to take issue with Raja Rao since I’ve not read the text in question and since your representation of his ideas, though fair, has to be a simplification, and that would not be fair to him. He’s a fine intellectual, with a subtle mind. I’m not an intellectual at all. All I do is read a great deal, absorb it, and then try to shape with words the fancy prompted by my mind. It’s only in the classroom when I have to teach that I pretend to have clever ideas. Otherwise, I refuse to have ideas. I despise ideas. Ideas have never helped mankind. Only things help. Things like penicillin, and flushing toilets.
FJ: Well, yes, but you are a person of breadth of ideas—even though, as you say, you despise intellectual ones—and I think that’s probably what distinguishes your work from other, say, world literature written in English because you have attempted very consciously to transcend those very roots that tie some writers down, in the sense that you write about another culture, in the sense that you write about universal . . .
ZG: I think the writers you have in mind are the chroniclers of their time and place. To them, their subject matter is of paramount importance.
FJ: And attempting to convey that subject matter through the language of the recognizable world, yes.
ZG: New versions of the nineteenth-century novel, yes. They are so concerned to recreate the sociological and political content of their world that they pay no attention to style, to the extent even of having grammatical errors, to say nothing of a language defiled by cliches. I could show you such errors and reams of such pollution among some highly acclaimed novels that have been the recipients of a Pulitzer or a Booker. I could even show you some stylistic horrors in Forster and Hemingway. But this is a large, passionate subject, and I’d better control myself! You said that I write about another culture, meaning, I take it, not about the one in which I was born. The fact is that, apart from my second novel, The Murder of Aziz Khan (which was deliberately written to prove that I could do it, too, and therefore need not do it again), and my earlier poems that had as their subject my original attachment to India, I do not write about a particular culture at all. I cannot say what I do write about, if anything. All I do is to record some images that present themselves and then attempt to discover the imagery that must follow to complete a formal structure that is pleasing to my imagination. From my childhood, I’ve been forced into exile, a condition become so permanent that I can never have a homecoming; I’ve no nationalistic attachments to any country, and indeed have very little to do with the world at all. One of my favorite images in literary biography is of Raymond Roussel arriving at some exotic port like Hong Kong during a voyage around the world in an ocean liner, taking one look from the porthole of his stateroom and returning to his desk, quite content that he had seen all there was to see of the mysterious East. What a wonderful madman he was! An ideal writer, really, one who created an extraordinary language exclusively out of his imagination. The majority of my waking hours are spent reading and writing. It’s the best way I know to amuse myself. This house is some distance from the city and as you can see the garden we’re sitting in is surrounded by a forest. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that sitting at my desk and glancing out the window at the forest I’m really in Texas. It could be a view from the porthole of a stateroom. And so I follow the images that get written, finding some distraction in the creation of sentences. Gradually, the accumulating sentences reveal the secret obsession emerging from the imagination, the larger meaning taking shape that I recognize as belonging to myself, my inner world, though the story that might have begun to establish itself might be about some eccentric Brazilian of the eighteenth century.
FJ: How do you want the reader to get at these larger meanings?
ZG: I have no interest in the reader. I never think of the reader. I don’t know who the reader is. In one’s earlier work there might be some images or expressions put there to please or make an impression on a particular writer friend, but in one’s later work the impulse comes from within the art where one writes in the company of the dead writers who become one’s most intimate associates. Sometimes I receive a letter from a reader who has liked a book; that is always gratifying, of course, but not as gratifying as the reflection that a sentence I have written would have pleased Flaubert or Proust. It will perhaps be meaningless to most people to say that without the company of the dead writers a living writer can have no life at all. My most constant companions in recent years have been Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens, Chekhov, Flaubert and Proust. Sometimes during a pause in the writing I’ll have a quiet little chat with one of them. Proust has perhaps been the most dominant figure ever since I first began to read him—I think it was when I was beginning to write A Different World, the third volume of the Brazilian trilogy. If you look closely at my sentences—even in Hamlet, Prufrock and Language, where there is a long sentence on the opening page about a dessert—you’ll find in them a sensuous quality that is essentially Proustian. And some recent poems, like “A Dragonfly in the Sun,” are one long Proustian sentence. Proust can be dangerously seductive, of course, and so I have the good doctor Chekhov in constant attendance and, hearing him laugh when a sentence gets too complicated, cut it down to prevent him from leaving in disgust.
RD: It strikes me that almost everyone you mention there is from the nineteenth or early twentieth century, but one of the ways in which your work really delights me is that it brings back what—this is probably a stupid pigeonhole—I would call more of an eighteenth-century or perhaps picaresque love of just pure plot or pure narrative that is conspicuously missing in much contemporary writing.
ZG: To tell you the truth, I keep myself so sublimely ignorant that I wrote The Incredible Brazilian without knowing what picaresque meant—I had to look it up when all the reviews of that novel so described it. Later, when I looked up Claudio Guillen’s description of the picaresque form, I was astonished that my novel had included in its structure each of the elements described by Guillen. I suppose my mind had simply acquired a knowledge of the form while reading early novels-though at that time I had not yet read Don Quixote.
RD: So your ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia, to use Joyce’s phrase, is more the great writers of the past.
ZG: Yes, the great writers without whom one’s mind, one’s very perception of the world, would be very different. Incidentally, our perception of reality is very much conditioned by what we know of art and literature; we are all like Swann who found Odette beautiful only after he recognized in her the face in a painting by Botticelli. As for the present, there are many very fine writers in the world but . . .
RD: . . . but you don’t write to them.
ZG: I cannot say that because I do not know what might not be going on in my unconscious mind. Of course, one likes to think one has acquired a degree of control, but no one can be certain that his exercise of that control is not being undermined by some subversive preoccupation of the unconscious, or by some contradictory hidden impulse which might be the vital factor shaping one’s style.
RD: So what you’re saying, then, is your quest for a language is really a quest for an individual style, whereas you’re saying that many perhaps more content-oriented writers are then trying to get more of a group voice. And you would very strongly separate yourself from that.
ZG: Yes, I would agree with that—though I must add that I have no separatist program, it is simply that I find uninteresting to do what content-oriented writers do. Also, I would find it pretentious if I myself said that I was on a quest for an individual style; it sounds too grand, and I’d find the necessary armor too uncomfortable. I read, and then I write: that is all. Some disposition in my mind, or some quirk perhaps, prefers Henry James to Thomas Hardy, James Joyce to E. M. Forster, Faulkner to Hemingway, Thomas Berger to Saul Bellow. . . . Perhaps it’s the same disposition that makes me prefer mangoes to pears.
FJ: Well, what’s very interesting to me is, as you name off the writers who have been interesting to you, could we say they have influenced you?
ZG: Yes, I would not deny that.
FJ: The element of influence is all Western, from the large tradition of your Western education.
ZG: If you include the South Americans as Western as well, yes.
FJ: What do you see as the place of someone like yourself, a multicultural writer?
ZG: I’m not multi-cultural, I’m British. I’m really more Anglo-Saxon than the Anglo-Saxons. I cannot speak my native Punjabi or Urdu or Hindustani because I have been uprooted from India for three-quarters of my life now.
FJ: So English is the language that you are comfortable in?
ZG: English is the only language that I have.
RD: Yes, but if contemporary content-oriented American writing is insular, contemporary English writing seems far more insular. Do you really place yourself in the world of contemporary British or English writers?
ZG: It’s not for me to place myself anywhere, really. When I say I’m British, I don’t mean to align myself with Kingsley Amis or Philip Larkin—no more than, were I to say I’m American, would I align myself with Updike or Mailer. All I mean is that my education has been British and that it was such a powerful conditioning force that I cannot see myself apart from it. In spite of this Britishness, of having been shaped by minds such as John Stuart Mill’s, of course one cannot escape one’s background and therefore I cannot deny that the culture behind me is multifaceted. I might have forgotten the Indian languages but certain elements of those languages must be there within me.
FJ: And the images of your childhood must pervade.
ZG: Yes, they are there. And in fact I’m writing a novel right now in which I intend to go back to those images. As you yourselves know better than I do, some of the best new writing in English has come from the Commonwealth. Much of it goes unread in America and Britain. And much of European and South American literature goes unread, too. The odd writer, like Naipaul or Calvino or Marquez, gets taken up and read widely, but who reads Wilson Harris or Juan Goytisolo or Maria Luisa Bombal? Well, I do read some of them, and I suppose they must do something to the way in which my words get put together.
RD: I guess what I would like to at least ask or suggest, perhaps, is that it may be your subcontinental or South Asian background that enables you to make use of the Latin American material and setting in some ways. If you think of contemporary English or American literature, I think many of those people are reading Garcia Marquez or whoever, but I don’t see them really doing anything with that. Whereas you or Rushdie, perhaps alone among British writers, if you want to call yourself British, are really making use of that.
ZG: That sounds perfectly true, though it could be that other British and American writers who have read Marquez are not interested in taking anything from him. But we’re uttering a huge generalization here, taking an omniscient stance when the truth is that we simply cannot know all the literature of our own time. Consider, for example, the situation in Britain in this century. After Joyce and Virginia Woolf, fiction of any quality seemed to die out. Such puny men as D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster acquired the status of giants. After the Second World War, the scene seemed particularly dead. The worst examples of parochial fiction were held up for the admiration of a credulous public as examples of British literary genius. That, however, was the surface, the public phenomenon as witnessed weekly in the TLS and the other papers. But Beckett’s first novel had been published in 1938—much of the stock apparently remained in the publisher’s warehouse where it went up in flames following an air raid during the War. The fifties seemed on the surface the worst decade, a time that saw the very worst fiction hugely acclaimed; well, it was in the fifties that Beckett’s trilogy was published, one of the masterpieces of our time was brought to life, but very few of us living then in London even heard of it. In that which remains hidden from us is sometimes the catalyst for an important change that takes place in the future. And incidentally, the situation in Britain is much more vivid now, much more lively and exciting. Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine has a terrific imagination behind it, and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus contains some wonderfully energetic prose; there’s a breadth of imaginative range in them that draws upon wide sources, perhaps including Marquez.
FJ: Yet let me get back to this language. You don’t believe, then, as some Commonwealth writers are beginning to voice, maybe Rao somewhat, maybe Achebe somewhat, that one has to turn back to one’s own language to develop literarily. You don’t think that’s necessary; you think it better to transcend one’s own language into whatever you call the world of magical fantasy, or language as you create it, going back to what you said about Joyce’s work of Finnegans Wake becoming reality today.
ZG: You’re pushing me into a corner where you expect me to enunciate a law applicable to all mankind. I cannot possibly do that.
RD: No, not a universal law but a description of your own sense of things.
ZG: I would say that if a way of writing works for Rao or Achebe or whoever, fine, good luck to him. That may not be my way. I can only do it in the way I know how. But I would not go on to formulate a generalization based upon one way or the other since neither can be exclusive.
FJ: No, I’m not pushing you into a law. It seems to me that there have been enough laws and Raja Rao has been at the center, creating laws for bicultural writers.
RD: One of the laws that I think perhaps a writer like you has suffered from is the law that everything should fit in a nice, neat national category. I don’t think you personally have suffered from it, but perhaps the degree of awareness of your work has suffered from it. To find your books in a library, for example, one has to look in three or four different places. Some of your books are found in British literature, others in American, and still others in South Asian literature. Do you think there’s a way around that kind of pigeonholing?
ZG: You’re quite right in saying that I suffer from such pigeonholing. And yes, I suffer personally: my books don’t sell, and I receive very little serious critical attention. It is very rare for a reviewer to remark upon the quality of my prose or to reveal a comprehension of the imaginative structure of my work.
RD: Most of the best writers in the world seem to me to be in your situation. One thinks of a Beckett who doesn’t fit or a Nabokov who doesn’t fit. The list could go on and on. We all would have different names here.
ZG: Yes, Nabokov and Conrad would be my great companions in this. I aspire to their position in the world of letters where you are accepted for what you have done and not because you have conformed and put yourself into a pigeonhole.
RD: I’m wondering if there’s a way we can reconceive of writers in order to avoid this kind of negative pigeonholing.
ZG: You cannot because any such “reconceiving” would have to begin with the teachers and professors of literature and the majority of them will not even know what we’re talking about. They have no conception of the art of fiction since their focus is primarily on the subject matter. They spend their time on such irrelevancies as studying the sources of an author’s material—as if, for example, one’s appreciation of Lord Jim is going to be profoundly enhanced by knowing that a pilgrim ship sank in the Arabian Sea in 1880 involving unprofessional conduct from its British captain. And you might have noticed that the academic fool who does this kind of “research” is invariably more honored than the poor author ever was. Another teacher will take the biographical approach; another the sociological; another the Marxist or the Structuralist. I see graduate students every week in the building where I work. They look like a haunted lot with Bercovitch and Culler and Derrida and Fish buzzing about their tormented brains. Is there anyone left who loves literature more than some imbecile theory that can be woven around it? Hasn’t anyone noticed that just about all the critical theorizing of the past has proved to be worthless? All the teachers and professors of literature ever do is to pass the time with talk of varying degrees of apparent sophistication, but talk that to a succeeding generation is quite empty. I’m reminded of something Conrad said in a letter. Let me go find it. . . . Here it is: “The question of art is so endless, so involved and so obscure that one is tempted to turn one’s face resolutely away from it.” He, of course, did not turn his face away from it; the artist’s obligation to his imagination won’t let him turn his face away; but your professors begin with their faces turned away—and when you wrench at their jaws and twist their necks so that they can be forced to look at the question of art all they do is to stare dumbly. There won’t ever be a “reconceiving,” I fear, because there never was any “conceiving” in the first place. The situation gets worse because the numbers increase. Each year thousands more “trained” teachers and new Ph.D.’s are on the march, armed with the latest -ism, setting out to create a new pigeonhole, their own little exclusive area on which to build their ephemeral reputation.
RD: And the nationalist pigeonhole is a very convenient one if you’re into sociological or. . .
FJ: Yes, I find that a very useful thing to understand in your works because you write and create what you want and then I, the reader, can make of the text what I want to make of it. For instance, again getting back to The Incredible Brazilian, you could transpose that whole thing to a large Hyderabadi or a large Bombay family with pretty much the same change of names because you know Gregorio’s father’s bride is coming in the same kind of procession as might be a nikah coming for jalwah, in a large procession. So that sort of thing can come, if it must, from the reader, but it’s better for the writer, I guess—I should not use this qualitative statement—to move beyond and express his reality as he sees it.
ZG: That is true and what you’ve hit upon there is what somebody else has suggested, which is that Brazil in my novels is simply a substitute for India. There might be something in that perception, but I don’t really know. I have not consciously said to myself, “I’m not going to write about India but if I have a desire to do so I’ll disguise it as Brazil.”
FJ: No. It may just be at that point you can’t get away from what you have witnessed.
RD: I wouldn’t put it that strongly but there’s been some talk of calling Commonwealth literature the literature of the British Empire, and it strikes me that—though this is again pigeonholing and we were just complaining about pigeonholing—one might connect Bombay with Brazil and call your work to a certain extent literature of the Portuguese Empire, much more than of the British, in the sense that there is that connection between Bombay and Brazil.
FJ: Would your schooling in a school like Don Bosco [in Bombay] have influenced some of your thinking, in terms of Portuguese and Brazilian? Could that image have come down as a wonderful, adventuresome road to turn to?
ZG: I don’t really know. It was an Italian-run school; it wasn’t Portuguese. The priests were Italians, though some of them were Indian Christians and so they would have been of Portuguese descent. Also half the students were Christians, Christian boarders, with Portuguese names. So maybe there was something in the atmosphere there that breathed of Portugal at several removes that I picked up. I don’t know.
RD: I’m just wondering, again, do you think it’s the background that’s similar or the Latin American influence?
ZG: I always feel very much at home in Latin America, especially in Brazil. There are certain streets in Rio with shops and restaurants which appear almost identical to what used to be in Bombay in the forties. And the way in which people gesture when they talk. And something in the Portuguese language. The rhythms are very close to what I used to hear as a child in Bombay. So maybe something of that comes across. Or perhaps I’m imbued with a natural sympathy for that particular world. But, again, we’re sitting here rationalizing. I don’t really know.
FJ: Let’s talk about magical realism. What exactly do you mean by that?
RD: What do you think they mean?
ZG: It’s a label that’s got adopted, that’s all, and like all labels it conveys only a very partial truth. Everybody’s great example of magical realistic fiction has to be One Hundred Years of Solitude. But if you look at it closely, you’ll find that all that Marquez does is to have something extraordinary happen from time to time. In the opening chapter, there is the man Dasenbrock and Jussawalla 151 who brings magnets with him, goes rushing down the street with his magnets, and the pots and pans come rushing out of the houses. Some pages later there is the episode of the butterflies. And some pages later still, another “magical” episode. It’s all very delightful and carries you across the rather wide gulfs of straightforward narrative without your noticing how ordinary that narrative is, until you read the book a second time when you realize it’s really a very boring book. I must add that I’m talking of the book in English translation. The bulk of its narrative contains some very dull writing. It’s redeemed only by the magical episodes. I think the Marquez of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and of some of the short stories is a glorious writer; but One Hundred Years is overrated and a lesser- known novel of his, In Evil Hour, is downright bad. But he caught our imagination with One Hundred Years, he changed us with it, and though we now see its limitations it remains an important book in that it gave us a new direction. Actually, the best examples of magical realism are in Shakespeare, in the plays grouped as the romances. Last year I was invited to contribute a piece to a special number of Latin American Literary Review on Marquez, and I wrote a story called “Lila of the Butterflies and Her Chronicler,” a magical realistic pastiche. I end that story with a quotation from The Winter’s Tale, a little hint that magical realism was there long before Marquez.
FJ: What would you say are such images in your work?
ZG: When I wrote The Incredible Brazilian, I had not read Marquez or indeed any other Latin American novelist.
RD: Had you been to Brazil?
ZG: I’d been to Brazil on a visit of three months. The imagery of The Incredible Brazilian came not because I’d been to Brazil but because, on returning to England, I happened quite by accident to discover a book about Brazil. It was Masters and Slaves by Gilberto Freyre, the distinguished Brazilian anthropologist— though I didn’t know who he was when I picked up his book. It simply looked like an interesting book. It’s a wonderful book, and if you read it you’ll see the sources of my plantation imagery. The Incredible Brazilian was suggested primarily by Freyre’s book and also by a desire to amuse my friend Thomas Berger who had recently published Little Big Man, the structure of which very largely influenced my novel. I was miles away from magical realism. And even in my recent novels—A New History of Torments, Don Bueno, and Figures of Enchantment—all written after reading Marquez and all set in Latin America, what might be taken for magical realism is actually drawn from Shakespeare.
RD: Your description, I think, is completely correct: that 90 percent of Cien Anos reads in a fairly flat way, an example more of socialist realism than magical realism. Then there are these things thrown in occasionally to spice things up. Is magical realism another one of those pigeonholes that doesn’t really say very much?
ZG: It does not. You know, one can take a label and somehow twist all of 152 Dasenbrock and Jussawalla literature to fit into it. I should think that if you took a very realistic, naturalistic work like McTeague by Frank Norris, you could find magical realistic elements in it.
RD: I think that’s true. I’ve always been very uncomfortable with the term “magical realism” because it doesn’t seem to me to indicate anything very precise. And yet, if one opens Midnight’s Children, for example, one knows immediately that here is someone who has read Garcia Marquez. I get that sense from Rushdie far more strongly than from your work. Your saying that you hadn’t read Garcia Marquez when you wrote The Incredible Brazilian seems to me just right. I would say you’d read a great deal of picaresque narrative more than . . .
ZG: The only picaresque work I’d really read then was Little Big Man. I hadn’t read Fielding or Cervantes then.
RD: Oh. But if one reads Midnight’s Children, one says, “Ah-ha, this person has read Garcia Marquez.” So what is it, then, that has transferred or seeped into or been borrowed?
ZG: I can’t speak for Rushdie. But for myself, I think it’s nothing more than simply a desire to write a story which strains the imagination of the reader and to fill it with a kind of matter that is visually exciting, a vivid imagery that captures the living presence of things.
RD: In your other, non-Latin American works, like Hulme’s Investigations into the Bogart Script, you seem to me to never get outside the world of language to any—as the French would say- signified reality whatsoever. It seems to me to be so much about the world of detective stories, westerns, various kinds of received images, that I don’t feel that I get outside of that into a real landscape.
ZG: Some of the imagery in that novel was taken from nineteenth-century travel writing and journals and letters by people who were going west. The novel began by itself. The first sentence simply came with its buried hints and suggestions. It began to release an imagery of the United States, to which I was then a very recent immigrant. Once it had begun, I spent several months reading the nineteenth-century books, and then rereading the distinctly American poets- Williams, Crane, Stevens, Cummings—pasting much of it down like a collage. Yes, it’s all locked inside its own language; its only signified reality is perhaps in the imagination, the fantastic conception of America in the imagination, a mixture of poetry, myth and the cliches of the cinema.
RD: Are you still writing poetry?
ZG: Yes, from time to time I will write a poem. But only about four or five a year. I had a book published here last year—A Memory of Asia, it’s called. My friend Ron Taylor who owns and runs the Curbstone Publishing Company and who’d brought out Hulme’s Investigations, offered to do a volume of poems. A handsome job of book production he’s done, too. I decided to make it a volume of new and selected poems, keeping only what I still find tolerably readable from the previous three books and discarding the rest. So much of one’s past work looks like it was done by some ignorant and conceited fool!
FJ: Getting back to what’s refreshing about your work for me, I think you’re the expression or the embodiment of what George Steiner called a long time ago the “multi-cultural imagining.” And we’re living in an increasingly multicultural world. Now neither of us is without that multi cultural influence in that we are the children of one and children of the other, and one influences and one dominates. So what would you say the role of the writer is in this situation where we are products of culture contact, language contact?
ZG: Wilson Harris talks about the cross-cultural imagination in his book, The Womb of Space, and perhaps you should read him for a serious answer to your eloquent question. I don’t know what the role of the writer is except to sit down and write. I’m made very uncomfortable by talk. But let me simply say that in spite of appearances ours is not a new or a unique situation. I’ve had no more culture contact, as you call it, or language contact than did Chaucer who traveled to Europe and took back Italian forms and created a new English poetry. Shakespeare, Dryden, Byron, Browning—who is there of any significance who did not raid other cultures to enrich his own, who did not take what knowledge that was currently available from wherever he could find it and add it as one more facet to the millions that already constituted his imagination? Tolstoy, sitting in his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, read magazines and books from other European countries. Graciliano Ramos, stuck in the barren northeastern region of Brazil, scanned the newspaper ads from Rio and discovering a bookshop that did mail orders was able, in the remote and inhospitable and at that time largely barbaric interior, to discover the works of Dostoevsky for himself. The greatest master of South American fiction, Machado de Assis, who came from a poor and underprivileged background, discovered Laurence Sterne. And finally, I need say nothing about what shaped T. S. Eliot, what shaped Ezra Pound. Therefore, this talk about the importance of the multi-cultural background that supposedly makes some Commonwealth writers so remarkable is utterly inconsequential. The only thing of consequence is the quality of the mind of the writer. You can be Robert Bridges, and not the best education of England and not the high esteem of your contemporaries and not the Poet Laureateship is going to make you a good poet; and you can be Pablo Neruda suffering from the lonely exile of a minor diplomatic post in Ceylon and out of the dejection of that vast loneliness create a great poetry. Henry James called this “the very obvious truth” when he said that “the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.” He also said, “the province of art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision.” What else can there be to say after that? Only that I need to go and fetch a new bottle of wine. A very obvious truth—and written a hundred years ago!