Saturday, February 02, 2013

Where's the literature?

When taken on a tour of the University of Oxford and on being shown the colleges, playing fields, libraries, museums and so on, the foreign visitor supposedly asked, “But where is the university?” The philosopher Gilbert Ryle pointed out that the visitor did not realise that the university consisted of these organisational units. Ryle’s theory could be tested to the core at most of the sessions at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).

You go to a panel with a snazzy title and usually at least three speakers; after 50 minutes, you end up none the wiser. Ten minutes are devoted to introducing the redoubtable speakers and their enviable body of work; another 10 minutes are spent on frankly unintelligible hermeneutics on the audience’s front. That leaves the writer less than 15 minutes to speak on the dense subject that is on her hands. Even the frivolous TED gives its speakers more time (18 minutes, precisely).

This has been the leitmotif of every JLF instalment, and the 2013 one was no different. Exhibit A: a session called “The Novel of the Future”. This could have been the highlight of the five-day event, but ended up being a stonking bore because the otherwise articulate moderator Anita Anand veered the discussion into ridiculous territory. Depending on an AC Nielsen survey, which said there had been a 45 per cent growth in the number of books Indians bought in 2012 and there had been a 12 per cent decline in the books sold in the UK, Ms Anand concluded that Indians were bigger bibliophiles than the British. But that’s utter rubbish: all that Indians buy are self-help books and Twilight, the battery chicken-equivalent of literature. So, what could have been an illuminating session on the future of the novel turned out to be a damp squib.

This year, the major stars of the event were Gary Shteyngart and Howard Jacobson. Both celebrated authors are known for their stiletto-like jabs at the society that we currently inhabit. But they wound up sort of playing to the gallery, delivering punchlines without wit — as if they were stand-up comedians. When asked about Indians, the usually flippant Mr Shteyngart said, “I love Indians. I outsourced my recent book to someone in Hyderabad.” Talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, Mr Jacobson said, “If people really love this sort of language, the world is finished!” The audience was in splits — but really, it wasn’t a terribly original thought.

However, if you dug a bit more, there were lovely sessions. At a sparsely filled Front Lawns venue, art historians and artists Glenn Lowry, Marc Quinn and William Kentridge spoke at length on “The Artist’s Eye”. From the New York art scene to the depressingly hideous business of biennales to their idea of beauty, the three speakers actually spoke a lot of sense. While talking about art as commodity, they even managed to include a minor oblique rebuke for Damien Hirst.

Another such session was called “The Decline of America” (with the eerie subtitle “Westerners and Resterners”). Edward Luce, Peter Hessler, Ian Buruma and Frank Savage decidedly rejected the predictions that China will overtake the US any time now. Yes, a governance paralysis exists, and the “American escalator has come to a screeching halt” but in no way does that mean China “will be the new US”. Peter Hessler, a New Yorker writer who spent almost a decade in China, shared his conclusions: “You can’t but come away impressed from a short trip to China, with its swanky infrastructure et al. But in rural China there is a massive landgrab happening, which the government needn’t even justify, and that is creating a bubble waiting to burst.” Ian Buruma was even more pithy: “China will never replace the US, because no one wants China to replace the US.”

Then there was festival director William Dalrymple’s wonderful narration of his recent book on the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42. Mr Dalrymple told the story of the British military’s greatest disaster engagingly to the audience that chose to brave the bright winter sun. But my find of the five-day event was the writer and historian Tom Holland, who spoke entertainingly but with authority about the classics of the ancient world. He effortlessly brought to life his book Persian Fire, an account of the empire founded by Cyrus the Great.

If only these sessions weren’t interspersed with oppressively boring talks by the likes of the Dalai Lama, a normal audience member wouldn’t end up imitating Professor Ryle’s foreign visitor.