I've already criticized Booker-prize winner The Inheritance of Loss for being slight and dull. Over the last day and a half, which I spent reading fellow shortlister The Secret River by Kate Grenville, however, I began to think of Kiran Desai's book as far worse than I had initially.
My problem with Inheritance, I came to realize, was that it is a self-Orientalizing, feelgood novel, whose principal characters are all cute, cuddly brown folks who speak in a comical version of English and whose lives are tragic because they aspire to Western ways and Western standards of living and fail (inevitably, it seems is the implication). I presume that if a white person had written such a book in our postcolonial times, it would be blasted as patronizing and offensive.
Moreover, Inheritance fits among those books and movies (Life of Pi, Life is Beautiful) whose sole purpose seems to be to reassure us that all people are essentially good folk, that tragedy and comedy are one (a fellow coming home destitute, yes, but he IS coming home, returning, the book implies, to the place where he belongs--no upward mobility here!--and doing so in his cute and cuddly and humorous brown way, in some Auntie's nightdress stolen from a clothesline). Far from compelling us to look inward, to think hard about what we have made of the world, and acknowledge our own complicity in the countless evils that surround us--however good people we may be at heart--Inheritance and books like it allow us to close our eyes and conclude with great self-satisfaction that the poor buggers across the road are really quite happy; such a cuddly, resilient people they are, after all.
What is sad to me is not that people should enjoy reading such pallative fiction--I don't believe every piece of writing should be like a cruel mirror thrust into your face--but that the judges for what is meant to be a contest for serious literature have chosen to reward it and hold it above more deserving candidates that UNLIKE Inheritance of Loss are doing the work that literature is meant to do. This year, my not so humble feeling is that The Secret River does that in far more compelling fashion.
Now, every "literary" Indian will read Inheritance of Loss. The smart ones will say to themselves, "Well, I don't see what all the fuss is about," though ninety percent of them will say so shamefacedly, as if they can't possibly know as much as the brilliant Booker judges. Very few will pick up The Secret River--surely one of the most perceptive, excoriating and penetrating accounts of the brutality of colonialism that there has ever been. Literature is about moral choices, not just of the characters within the pages of books, but the moral choices and moral characters of readers as well. Safety-valve books, like Inheritance of Loss, that allow us to stand back from the moral issues at their core and say "that's not me" do not deserve our highest accolades. As riveting as a thriller, rumbling along with a growing sense of dread to a conclusion that will unsettle you for days after you read the last page, The Secret River is exactly NOT that sort of pallative fiction.
If you fancy yourself a literary person--or even if you don't--please, please, please read this book.