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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

'Hard Edged Brilliance' A December 2007 Interview with Zulfiqar Ghose

Hard Edged Brilliance' A December 2007 Interview with Zulfiqar Ghose

Of Pakistani origin, Zulfiqar Ghose is one of the first novelist and poet to be published internationally to great acclaim, however, at age 73 the prolific Ghose finds his work going unpublished and his literary agent telling him ‘If you were a 27 year old beautiful woman, I could easily sell your first novel. But for a man...writing his umpteenth novel, forget it!’ Ghose is not yet disenchanted by the publishing industry, but I'm quite upset on behalf of all 27 year olds with unpublished books in tow who, while meeting the specified age, fail to be beautiful too...

Below Ghose is interviewed by Asif Farrukhi for Dawn

'Hard Edged Brilliance'
by Asif Farrukhi
Dawn, Dec 30 2007
A door opened. It was a long corridor in the office building at the University of Texas in Austin. A bell had rung five minutes earlier and classes started. The corridor was empty when a man wearing a felt hat opened one of the doors and called out my name. This was Zulfikar Ghose, the novelist I had come there to see. As he opens his office to let me in, he explains that he has just returned from a trip to Brazil and this very morning he had to visit the hospital to see his friend, the poet Christopher Middleton. Ghose has retired from his teaching position and does not visit the office regularly, he gestured at the completely clean table.
Novelist, poet and critic Zulfikar Ghose is prolific and inventive, and completely at home in many countries and many modes of writing. With The Loss of India and A Memory of Asia he gained a reputation early on as a poet, but then became better known as a novelist. Set in Pakistan during the ’60s, The Murder of Aziz Khan was realistic while The Incredible Brazilian trilogy and other works were more daring, even innovative. The Review of Contemporary Fiction made him the subject of a special issue, highlighting that ‘Ghose has ranked with and outranked several of the best English writers in England and America.’
You mention Pakistan and it is enough for him to start talking about journeys and memories. A volume of his selected poems and another one of essays are under publication. He is planning a trip early next year around the time of their publication and would like to visit Sialkot, his birthplace. Seventy-three years to date, he calculates. ‘I left as a little boy and went back only for a funeral but have never been there since. I would like to see it’, he says and begins to ask about Sialkot. ‘I have been back to Pakistan very rarely. Only three times. I went back first with the MCC. I was working with the Observer and went on to cover the match. I saw Lyallpur and Karachi. Then in 1980, I went with my wife and saw Karachi, Islamabad and Taxila. I took a bus to Peshawar. It was a very impressive city then, but God knows what has happened to it since then’.
He asks about the cities one could visit in Pakistan. He stops at the mention of Quetta. ‘I remember taking the train to Quetta from Lahore. The train went round and round. My grandmother told me not to hold my arm out of the window as they could cut it out’, he says recalling the long journey across a barren landscape. ‘I later wrote a poem about a land in which there is nothing’, he says and then goes on to add that later on, he left out this poem from his collection. ‘It became a terrifying vision. This is what I came to see in literature and this is incidentally what Beckett describes, the emptiness that is there. Art is accused of being pessimistic but it has the terrifying realisation that there is nothing there.’
‘Anselm Kiefer, the German painter, has a huge canvas which is a representation of the great void. We confront this image throughout western art and there are stark canvases in a number of painters’. Ghose speaks slowly and clearly, almost as if he is carving out sentences from the very air he is breathing. He points to the prints hanging on his office walls, as if they illustrate the point he is making, or perhaps his argument emerged from the print on the wall. Like a darkness with musical notes around, he helps me to see the print: ‘The universe is described as musical and people speak of the harmony of the universe. As if the artist wanted to hear the melody which makes the void infused with something lyrical.’ He points to the next print. ‘Squares, circles are fairly common obsessions with artists. The squares in this print remind me of dice and the game of chance, questioning the nature of existence and coming up with a speculative answer. Is this a game of chance? If we were able to read it, we may know who we are. We are surrounded by a great darkness. The first impulse of the artist is to make my voice heard.’ He quotes Shakespeare, ‘Is man nothing but this?’
From prints to poetry. He moves on when I ask him what he was writing. ‘I finished my last novel a year ago now. Nobody wants my novels. We are living in an age in which the artistic values have diminished, disappeared altogether. The publishing industry is dominated by executives who are concerned only with the bottom line. Their responsibility to a culture has diminished. They have become corporate industries. Journalism is interested only in the new and trendy done by the young. For the older writer, if there is no specific market, then there is no publishing interest,’ he says without mincing his words.
‘We are living in an age in which the artistic values have diminished, disappeared altogether. The publishing industry is dominated by executives who are concerned only with the bottom line. Their responsibility to a culture has diminished. They have become corporate industries. Journalism is interested only in the new and trendy done by the young. For the older writer, if there is no specific market, then there is no publishing interest,’ Ghose says without mincing his words.
‘I am interested in form, shape, style, the way the English language works. A sentence which is well constructed gives me more pleasure,’ he goes on to say, distancing himself from much that is written and published these days. ‘I normally re-read the classics because that is where the strength comes from. I do not read much of my contemporaries except for those recommended by friends whose judgments I trust. I do not read novels which have been highly praised because I have been bitten in the past!’
He describes trying to read contemporary novels: ‘I was looking for the quality of language and style and form but these novels were based on sociological content. Some people think that if they have the sociological content, this will be significant, relevant. Soon they are replaced by others.’
Give him the classics any day, as an encounter in his just concluded trip seemed to suggest. ‘In remote country house of Brazil, home of my wife’s family, I came across a deluxe edition of western classics. I started reading Tristram Shandy. What a wonderful, wonderful book. It saved my sojourn in that place, after throwing away my contemporaries. But one has to be careful with one’s contemporaries. There is an element of envy involved. There is no getting away from the fact that many of them are worthless. But sometimes I come across works which surprise me. I was bowled over by Jose Saramago. I ended up by reading everything I could lay my hands on and wrote an essay on him. Similarly John Banville, the Irish writer. I had a prejudice against him that he can’t be any good; he’s got a Booker and the Booker has gone to many weak writers. But I found him to be very good. If you give me a synopsis of the story, I would say thank you very much, leave me alone, but I was enchanted by his prose style.
‘People do not appreciate that ideas are a consequence of language. Ideas are not there in nature, they come from language. Most people think of contents and symbols when they reach Shakespeare but it is the language which comes before everything else. The more complex and interesting the language, the more interesting the ideas will be. It is language and the organisation of form which makes these novels great. The imagistic content gives the work its significance; this is what gives it as hard-edged luminescent brilliance edge’. He pauses and smiles as I admire the phrase.
‘I am not disenchanted with publishing. My last novel The Triple Mirrors of the Self came out in 1992. It was a complete flop. I had thought that it was my most ambitious novel, but it was not even reviewed. It sold about 200 copies in the London edition. My publishers were supportive. They pushed it and tried to revive it by bringing out a paperback edition.’
‘When a book dies this way, it becomes public knowledge. The novels I have written since then are with my agent and nobody is reading them. An American publisher looked at Triple Mirrors and said that it is too good to be published. The British publisher told me, ‘Zulfi you know what your problem is? You don’t write badly enough!’ So what am I supposed to do, he muses questioningly.
‘Nobody wanted my new novel. Even the agent gave me up. The agent said, ‘If you were a 27 year old beautiful woman, I could easily sell your first novel. But for a man in his 60s writing his umpteenth novel, forget it!’ Many of the old writers have not died; they have been given up by their agents!’
Nobody wanted my new novel. Even the agent gave me up. The agent said, ‘If you were a 27 year old beautiful woman, I could easily sell your first novel. But for a man in his 60s writing his umpteenth novel, forget it!’
‘I am not bitter. I have been very fortunate. I have been in this room for 38 years, doing what I have loved, that is teaching, surrounded by beautiful young people from all parts of the world. My classes have been filled with names from all over,’ he pulls out the names of his students from a drawer. ‘I was absolutely free and my only responsibility was my art. I don’t care about categories, I care only for my art. My job here has been to try and transmit my enthusiasm to my students. American academia gave me terrific freedom. I wasn’t compelled to keep publishing. Who knows what might have happened if one had to struggle with one’s pen. The only danger is complacency’.
With dozens of books to his credit, Ghose is going through a bad patch with publishers. However, he has gone on writing undaunted. A novel that he has finished but not yet published is called The Desert Republics. It is set in the 23rd century when the world is reduced to two countries: Brazil and India. ‘India survived because it was so backward. The fastest moving transport there is the express bullock cart. All of Europe is underwater, except for a bit of Portugal. All of North America is destroyed. Bombay is populated by monkeys. Everybody is a donkey in Delhi, gaddha ho gaya hai. In Calcutta everybody is an owl. Agra is a garden where a beautiful building once stood and it was bought up by Texans,’ he chuckles.
Rajistan, Texas is another novel he has completed but not published. The starting point is Hillcroft Avenue in Houston which is full of desi shops selling saris and shalwar kameez. ‘A character goes there by accident and asks himself: where am I? I am back home. The latitude of Houston goes back to Cairo, Jerusalem, Quetta and Sialkot. Christopher Columbus was right! You have to go west to go east and we do things right in our own confused way. The Indian sense of time and space is different from the West. Our concept of time is such that the West can never conquer us. We have infinite time on our side. These guys are always in a hurry! We have civilised, sophisticated people in our part of the world. There are layers upon layers of history giving us a different consciousness.’
Ghose latest work is the novel he completed last year. He describes it as ‘a very different book’. T.S. Eliot had thought of writing a poem called Kensington Quartet, which he wrote and then changed the name to Four Quartets. ‘I liked the phrase and ended up writing a novel with this name. Everything starts by an invocation, an autobiographical image and then gets transformed. Set in the London of the ’50s, the novel ends with a character sitting in a window in a plane and looking at London as the plane goes round and round. ‘This happened to me as I was flying back from Pakistan and going back to Texas,’ he explains how the novel came about. ‘Occasionally, I do write a poem,’ he moves from novels to poetry. ‘Sometimes I write a poem and I forget it in the computer,’ he says. ‘I have not bothered to send a poem to anybody, unless somebody asks me. I am too lazy.
But what is the point? Nobody actually reads anything. I look at the magazines and wonder who reads this? People stand up in front of the microphone and recite something banal and stupid and that becomes poetry. Here poetry is less of a presence in the public sphere,’ he explains his position. ‘Education in the humanities has failed us. We have stopped appreciating literature as literature, and try now to reduce it to the subject matter or some thematic aspect or the other.’ He nods approvingly when I mention the great Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis. ‘There is an example of a writer whom you don’t read for his themes.’
From novels to moorings; the conversation continues to flow. ‘I hover above space and look at things in perspective. I am imbued with the East. It is in my blood and I cannot get away from it. But I am here and shaped profoundly by the thinking of western enlightenment. I am enchanted by Sufism and listen to a lot of qawwalis.’ He describes the exercise machine for weight that he keeps in his house and as he exercises, he plays Bach, Mozart and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — to whom he has dedicated a poem. ‘The Punjabi language still moves me. I love the Punjabi voice of Nusrat and I feel connected to it,’ he says. He recalls the gaali of a tongawala heard as a child in Sialkot and laughs at it. ‘Where do I belong?’ He repeats my question and then gives a definite answer. ‘It has become irrelevant. I have worked it out in so many stories and poems. After all you are what you are’. The real answer lies in his books.


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