Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.
As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:
“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”
You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.