The Man Who Would Not See by Rajorshi Chakraborti (Penguin, 2018), 335 pp., $38
Rajorshi Chakraborti is an essayist, novelist and short-story writer with an international reputation. He grew up in Calcutta and Mumbai and has lived, studied and worked in Canada, England and Scotland. He now lives in Wellington, where The Man Who Would Not See is mostly set. It’s his fifth novel.
Inside the book glow review snippets of Chakraborti’s previous fiction. The words metafiction, surrealism, Murakami (twice), noir-ish realism, cinematic, metaphysic and good storytelling all come up. This time he has opted for domestic realism. The prologue is set in India when the principle narrator, Abhay, was nine. Abhay tells the story of how he and his eleven-year-old half-brother, Ashim, got lost doing something they shouldn’t have and had to sleep out overnight. This nocturnal disappearance was the last straw as far as the adults were concerned. The elder half-brother was officially declared a bad influence and shipped off to his grandmother’s house to finish his schooling in another state, never to return. As the sole child in the bosom of his parents’ affection, Abhay flourished. He later travelled abroad to study and be a writer, while Ashim stayed in India and got a job. The once inseparable brothers fell out of contact.
Thirty years later, Abhay – now a novelist with a literary bio not unlike the author’s – is living in Karori, Wellington, with his wife and four-year-old daughter when the brothers reconnect. It appears to Abhay and his wife Lena that Ashim blames Abhay for his exclusion from the family as a child, and has come to New Zealand (with his six-year-old daughter) seeking revenge. During the frenetic holiday Abhay arranges, the brothers have disagreements driven mainly by cultural differences, but underlying these surface disputes run deeper, unspoken feelings. Abhay believes that Ashim (also known as Dada) was dreadfully wronged and he cannot absolve himself entirely of responsibility, despite being only nine when ‘the banishment’ happened. Abhay resents his own guilt. He tries with admirable persistence to get to the bottom of his feelings and, at various times, accepts the blame, feels guilty for being happy, suspects that only the sacrifice of his happy domestic situation will make things right, gets angry, and more. Chakraborti skilfully evokes the obsessive focus of his anxious mind, the evaluation and re-evaluation of situations, light-bulb revelations which are later dismissed, doubts that become certainties and vice versa.
The novel is epistolary, written in short sections by the primary narrator Abhay and his wife, Lena. A good chunk of the novel’s tension hinges on the validity of Abhay and Lena’s perception of the shadowy Ashim as a destroyer. Are they right or are they paranoid, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
Who are the narrators, behind the truth they present in well-turned prose? Thirty years after the prologue, Abhay’s account begins: ‘For the first week after Dada and Tulti arrived, I didn’t write, run or play tennis.’ Here, in the first sentence, we see Abhay’s entire daytime schedule (apart from childcare drop-offs and pick-ups) which his brother from India will be expected to understand is a man’s work. Abhay explores this issue in detail later, but the little sigh of sacrifice at having to play host to his long-lost brother and niece is not articulated. His sustained energetic and intelligent self-analysis leaves cracks for the reader. The effect is something like layers being peeled from two onions.
Lena’s well-paying job at Victoria University allows Abhay this apparent life of leisure. To write most of the day without financial hardship sounds like paradise to a writer – if the writing’s going well. Abhay has plenty of time to doubt his ability and regret the community of writers, artists and readers he left behind in India. He doubts his chosen genre, accusing himself of choosing novels over film because novels are easier to have produced. He feels unemployable (outside of driving an Uber) and worries that he’s taken wrong turns in life. Chakraborti’s detailed un-romantic portrait of a writer’s various existential struggles felt familiar to me – and comforting.
Initially, the narrating married couple are on the same page, so to speak, united against their common enemy. Later, they write to each other. Lena begins her account by quoting in entirety a three-page instructional email her husband sent Ashim on how to catch a flight to New Zealand. It includes a deft foreshadow:
No money or documents should ever be in your checked-in baggage, always on your person, in a wallet or folder or jacket pocket, which, once you’re on the plane, is safely put out of sight in your carry-on bag, but that’s just my unnecessary paranoia ☺
Lena notes this after the email ends:
And in this way, sponsoring every leg of the journey, as well as sending multiple painfully detailed emails to make sure he arrived safely on our doorstep – each of which reminded him not to lose a single cent on data roaming – my husband welcomed the Devil into our lives ☹
Is Ashim really the devil, or Iago as he’s also referred to? It’s a testament to Chakraborti’s skill at writing unreliable narrators that after 128 pages of Lena and Abhay’s breathless accounts of Ashim’s violations it’s difficult to tell. By this point the reader might have grounds to sympathise with Ashim’s complaint about limited perception. This is the first time we hear his voice in full flight—as written by Abhay:
Dada [Ashim] has his own distinct picture of God, which I told him sounded like a version of universal cloud storage but with a heart. He described it at my prompting because I was curious to know where God sat among his other beliefs, including his sense of potential malice all around.
‘All the things that only you know but none else can vouch for, blows you withstood, your efforts to get back up and carry on … God for me is the only one who witnessed all that, whom you can turn to for corroboration. Just that omniscience, that is divine justice for me – the sense that at least He knows. In my prayers, that’s what I most often find myself seeking reassurance about: God, you know such-and-such happened even if no one else does, or claims not to. You saw what we went through. Time carries on; other people forget or deny or saw it differently or simply weren’t there, but God is all I have to underwrite what I know I experienced, what I know I endured …’
‘Cloud storage with heart’ sounds like a horribly patronising thing for Abhay to say; or could we take his comment as a good(ish)-natured piss-take between brothers, intimates from a culture in which religion is a vital part of everyday life and where an idiosyncratic personal vision like this would be ripe for criticism? On the other hand, Ashim could justifiably be accused of passive-aggression, in the novel’s context, and fully deserving of a slap-down. What happens next is that Abhay inwardly applauds ‘the care and clarity’ of his brother’s words and decides to ‘make no further remark’, even though he has questions to ask, because he believes his brother ‘was always (sometimes involuntarily, unawares rather than pointedly) talking about the fallout of what my parents and I had done to him’.
The novel is full of these kinds of ambiguities, ‘blind spots and elisions’, the inability to listen or ever to find the right time to speak painful truths, and passages in which Abhay unintentionally skewers himself. To his credit, he’s also good at intentional self-skewering, describing himself at one point as ‘The Ferrari of Karori’, and his novels as ‘low-confidence toxic emissions’.
Abhay’s concentrated focus on his guilt is exacerbated by his isolation as a migrant and a writer – a kind of double exile – and the couple’s written account becomes claustrophobic despite their intelligence, self-awareness, financial generosity and desire to do the right thing. They fear the worst and a sense of panic pervades their constricted world. Cliff-hangers pepper the ends of sections: ‘Ashim sprung his next surprise on us six days later’; ‘Not that it could save us when disaster struck’; ‘His puppets were going to play out their scripts without anyone pulling on their strings.’ The reader will have their own opinion on the nature and gravity of Ashim’s transgressions, and after a few thriller-teasers with ambiguous pay-offs, might feel the couple are crying wolf and lose interest. It’s a risky move on the author’s part. Momentum is a beautiful thing in literary fiction, but there’s the danger of continual high emotion on a circumscribed realistic domestic stage like this becoming wearyingly shrill.
Abhay has other fish to fry than noticing Wellington landscapes. Local places are familiar destinations ticked off on the whirlwind tour he undertakes to keep conversation with his brother to a seemly minimum. Ashim’s response to all this marvellous sightseeing is to declare that New Zealand looks ‘airbrushed’. Only one local place is described in enthusiastic detail: Makara, near Wellington, which Abhay rhapsodises over (and rightly so, I say!). Richer detail comes in the last section, set in India. It’s a welcome opening out, in more ways than one.
While The Man Who Would Not See explores notions of home, masculinity and cultural differences, at heart it’s an investigation into guilt and family conflict. A close and unrelenting examination of such uncongenial subject matter requires something special to work as fiction, and the novel delivers that in the form of Abhay. Chakraborti’s detailed and realistic evocation of Abhay’s blindness is extraordinary given that he is not only the main narrator but a writer, empathetic, intelligent, and prone to earnest self-analysis on the page at the drop of a hat.
While the pressing moral issues of our age aren’t an issue for the characters – whose houses are metaphorically on fire – this wise and moral novel offers plenty of valuable insights on personal conflict and resolution and, by extension perhaps, something towards peaceful resolution of political and institutional conflict. Chakraborti suggests that intelligence and hard work alone aren’t the key. The courage to reconsider foundational beliefs, along with a kind of familial love towards the other, are what’s required.
JAMES MCNAUGHTON lives in Wellington. His novel Star Sailors – set in the gated communities and life-style blocks of the super-rich in Wellington, 2045 – was published by VUP last year.