Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New Nepal, New Voices review in kantipuronline.com


To cut a long story short

The other day I was browsing the internet when I stumbled upon a web posting in ECS magazine by a guest columnist. The beginning sentence: "You may have wondered, as I did, why there are so few anthologies of fiction from Nepali writers writing in English."
Then there is the mention about the difficulty in editing an anthology, and a casual remark: "When faced with no stories, something is better than nothing."

The excerpt by Sushma Joshi, a prominent writer and filmmaker, is important as it throws light upon...truth about the dearth of good short stories written by Nepali writers.

In recent years, there has truly been a huge surge in the number of people who produce and consume English literature. What is ironic is the fact that no one makes a living from writing short stories anymore. And yet, short stories have survived through the rough years and even freed itself from the dictates of a few. Short stories these days are often less formulaic and less imitative than they used to be. There's no preferred style or mode anymore, and there are now dozens of different camps of short-fiction writing, all coexisting happily. Many of them are on display in New Nepal New Voices, an anthology edited by Sushma Joshi and Ajit Baral.

One very good story, Smriti Ravindra's "Old Iron Trunks", about an oppressed wife and her daughter who steal from an old trunk belonging to a lecherous husband, is so well made, so clear and unassuming in its writing, that in this racy volume it marks a presence of its own. Two of the other best-written stories in the book, Peter J Karthak's "Dark Kathmandu Sideways" and Sushma Joshi's "Law and Order" are a perfect blend of narrative pyrotechnics and colorful imagery. While the former is laced with a scathing parody of individuals' moral degenerations feeding upon each other for promoting and fertilizing the Nepali brand of feudalism itself that has been crippling the state till date, the latter makes fun of the miserable life of the new recruits in the police force who long and lunge for something so trifle as garden-fresh vegetables.

What qualifies a story to be "new" here is not entirely clear; some of them are more than 10 years old while others such as Great Rana's "Hill" and Sanjeev Uprety's "Heroes and Onions" have been already published elsewhere. Nor are all the authors young; some are middle-aged, in fact, and many have not come up with anything substantial for years. In the introduction, Sushma Joshi says that what is new about this work is that the authors are all "exploring" in an entirely stylistic way the transition of Nepal from "feudal to democratic, from old to new, from conflict to peace" and are trying to "puncture our inattention". These are stories, in other words, that are written from a certain sense of anxiety about an audience – about whether anyone is paying attention to the change in the country.

But the most striking stories in the volume are those that are built around conceit and that create little parallel worlds. The narrator of "Interview" works in a bureaucracy-themed setting, and the story unfolds in a dystopian landscape where an interviewee is shocked by the bizarreness of the office and the weird way things work in government offices in the country. On a larger scale, this reflects the sense of hopelessness young Nepalis face while seeking decent jobs and opt to migrate abroad in search of opportunities.

These and similar stories are so energetic, so filled with invention, that they seem almost hyperactive; they also seem to assume a reader whose taste and interests have been formed by politics and by the changing culture as much as by literature. Yet in their gimmickry and occasional luridness, their quickness of pace and their way of developing a single clever idea, there's something old-fashioned about them.

For most of the last century, short story writers in English — or the great ones anyway; writers like Hemingway, O'Hara, Salinger, Cheever — were busy dismantling the Victorian machinery of the story form, dispensing with surprise endings, for example, and eventually with beginnings too, and even with the plot itself, to create a kind of story that was deeper, quieter, moodier: the kind of story that on the evidence of this anthology, many of these "new" writers don't quite trust anymore. Despite all their flaws and foibles, one thing is for sure: There are stories here that won't let themselves be put down.

(Reviewed by Monica Regmi)

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