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Archive | Fiction | Silvio by Arturo Vivante



First published in the June 1970 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 10, No. 3)

Like a statue too finely carved, too finished and perfected, the boy looked fragile, ever in danger of being injured. The exquisitely pointed nose, the cupid’s bow drawn almost to the point of snapping, the slender chin were assets in a girl, not in a boy. He smiled with a look of joyful wonder, and he approached you trustingly as if he didn’t even know about getting hurt. So, it is said, the penguins approached the first explorers — with complete trust, no fear, no thought man might be any less innocent than they.

The headmaster had led him into our classroom late one morning in the middle of the second term, told us his name—Silvio Guidi—and left. The teacher asked him his age. He was twelve, two years younger than nearly everybody else, and a full four years younger than one boy—Matteo, a lanky old repeater who already spoke in a man’s, low and throaty, voice. The teacher, perhaps to get a laugh out of the class, sat the new boy next to him saying, ‘Four years younger than you are Matteo, and a lot smarter, I’m sure’. Matteo took the words good humouredly. He was the clown of the class, and seemed to enjoy it. The boys laughed at the mere mention of his name. He had an incredibly long reach. If you laughed too loud, sometimes for no apparent reason, you might get your head cuffed by him even if you were on the other side of the room. No one in the class room felt quite safe.

At break, the boys milled round Silvio to ask him all sorts of questions. Matteo wanted to know if he had any sisters. No, he was an only child. He certainly looked it. He seemed so intact, so whole, and new, as if he had been privately educated, at home, by a tutor. But it wasn’t so at all. He came from a nearby town, Poggibonsi, a name that sounded sufficiently funny to the boys to start teasing him about it. ‘Poggibonsi, bonsi, bum,’ they chanted around him, and pushed him at the sound of ‘bum’. 

‘But are you sure you haven’t any sisters?’ Matteo kept asking him.

Silvio seemed more amused than annoyed. ‘No,’ he said.

‘What does your father do?’ someone asked him.

‘I don’t have a father,’ he replied.

‘Why?’ Matteo asked, open-mouthed, as if he had come on something that he could exploit.

‘He died,’ Silvio said. ‘In the war.’

There was a moment of silence. Matteo got some reproachful glances.

‘But you do have a mother?’ a boy broke in. 

‘Oh, yes,’ Silvio said. ‘My mother is alive.’

She came for him at half past twelve. We saw her outside the school’s columned entrance, a pretty blonde, not much taller than her son, and with a smile that she lavished, as he did, on everyone, but which was not quite as pure as his, being flavoured with a touch of coquetry. 

She took him by the hand, and swinging his arm, they went off together. As they left the school yard and reached the street through one of those archways that in Siena again and again repeat the motif of the town gate, they looked the same age, or just about.

The prettiness of the woman hadn’t passed unnoticed by the boys. Matteo especially, seemed struck. The next morning, no one teased Silvio, and Matteo kept saying in Silvio’s presence, ‘Have you seen his mother? Have you seen what a mother this guy’s got?’ Silvio smiled his amused smile, and laughed when Matteo asked him to introduce him to her.

‘I’m serious,’ Matteo said.

The young boy laughed more, and looked at the others. Oh, this Matteo was certainly a curious fellow. What was the matter with him?

‘When are you going to introduce me to her?’

Silvio laughed. 

‘Well,’ Matteo said, giving him a shove, ‘what’s there to laugh about?’

Silvio looked away, unable to dissemble.

Matteo followed him, and gave him another push. ‘So what’s there to laugh about, I’d like to know. If you won’t introduce me, I’ll introduce myself.’

But he didn’t dare. Day after day, she came regularly at 12.30 to fetch her boy. Each time, Matteo looked at her wistfully, and slunk away. In her absence his boldness returned. He protested about Silvio not introducing him. He insisted that he do so. And yet from the way he withdrew when she appeared, one wondered if, should Silvio introduce him, he had the courage to look at her, to shake hands or to say a word. 

As the days passed some of the boys made friends with Silvio. Two or three of them would walk with him and his mother a little way. Not Matteo. Matteo seemed awed by her and kept his distance. She seemed like a schoolgirl among the boys. Absolutely happy. Always holding Silvio by the hand, she talked and joked with them as they walked. Soon, she knew and called a few by name. One wondered if, being new in town, these children were her only friends. Then, one day, she noticed Matteo looking at her from a distance.

‘That one there,’ she said, ‘what’s his name?’

‘That’s Matteo,’ the boys said in a chorus. 

She beckoned to him without hesitation. ‘Come here, Matteo,’ she said, and Matteo sidled over looking at the ground. On his way he kicked the gravel, and raised a little dust. 

‘You are Matteo.’

Si, signora.’

‘But you’re not a child.’

‘He’s sixteen,’ two boys said at once.

‘Oh,’ she said with what sounded like appreciation, and looked up at him.

He came nearer and put an arm over Silvio’s shoulder.

‘Eh, Silvio and I,’ he said, and made a gesture with his other arm.

‘You are friends?’

‘We sure are.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘That’s what I like.’

Silvio looked around him. Everyone was friendly. But he didn’t seem surprised, it was probably something he was used to. His mother could accomplish this and more. 

Matteo, having been introduced, now never failed to join Silvio and his mother after classes. The escort of three or four boys accompanied them down the main street. They dropped out one at a time as they came to some side street, but not Matteo. He couldn’t bring himself to leave them and went right to their doorstep, on the street that led to where I lived, at the other end of town, though it was quite out of the way for him. And he carried Silvio’s big Latin dictionary for him and any parcels for her. One day, I saw them approaching the house. As they got to the doorway and Matteo was about to turn back and say goodbye as he always did, she said something to him, and they all went inside the house. From that time on, Matteo’s work improved considerably, and toward Silvio he became as protective as a father. 


Arturo Vivante

Spotlight on: Rough Trade Books


The London Magazine has long been a champion of emerging writers and independent publishers, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, when young writers like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes found a home in the pages of the then newly re-launched volumes of the magazine.

We want this tradition to continue, and given the renaissance of new independent publishers, we have decided to launch a monthly spotlight feature that promotes the best of innovative contemporary writing across the UK and beyond.

First up is Rough Trade Books, who have recently made waves with a striking series of 12 pamphlets, encapsulating poetry, photography, illustration, and more.

Who are they?

Rough Trade Books is a new venture from the independent record label Rough Trade, which can boast a strong cultural legacy of radicalism back to its roots in Ladbroke Grove in 1976. Much in the same way that the label once gave a platform to bands like The Raincoats (whose founding member Ana da Silva is among the first 12 RTB pamphlets), their new venture seeks to give a home to a number of voices and talents whose shared independent spirit ties together the disparate mediums of the artists.

Within the pages of the first 12 pamphlets can be found poetry, short fiction, photography, illustration, and an experimental novella about the occult. It’s certainly an eclectic mix so far, but despite this, each publication is tied to the next by counter-cultural ethic and DIY spirit of each artist and writer. Another obvious common ground is the sensational design and production values of the pamphlets themselves, which evoke something between literary magazines of the 1960s and 70s, and the 7 inch singles from the great era of post-punk labels (and their accompanying graphic designers) in the 1980s.

In short, much like the best record labels, there is a feeling of identity, of a club that you want to be a part of.

What are they publishing, and why are they different?

From Lorena Lohr’s photography of the forgotten corners of Southwest America, to the societal injustice exposed in the work of the poet Salena Godden, the pamphlets so far from Rough Trade Books give a platform to a number of different voices from across a global counter-culture.

There are nods to Rough Trade’s heritage in the photography of urban desolation from Jon Savage, and also to zine culture in the collected interviews of Jenny Pelly & Priests. Different viewpoints of society abound. The variety of voices and forms, along with the brevity of the pamphlets leaves open a great opportunity to publish a wide range of emerging voices. With the next wave 6 of pamphlets just announced (featuring a range of experimental fiction and photography), this is an imprint with a bright future.

What’s up next?

Just released are the aforementioned six new pamphlets, featuring (among others) short stories from James Endeacott, the photography of Japanese love hotel rooms by Laura Lewis, and new fiction from Thomas Morris, whose 2016 Faber collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing won the 2016 Wales Books of the Year, the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize.

Upcoming events involve a trip over to Rough Trade Bristol on the 19th September, with readings from Salena Godden, Olly Todd, Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns. Rough Trade Books will then be back in London on Wednesday 3rd at Rough Trade East for a slightly early event for National Poetry Day, in the amusingly titled Not National Poetry Day. This will feature Salena Godden and Will Burns once more, as well as others including the excellent poet Scarlett Sabet, and music from guitarist Adam Chetwood.

And judging from all this, we are presumably safe in the expectation of much more in the not-too-distant future.

For more information, head to Rough Trade Books.

To discover more with The London Magazine, subscribe today from just £17.


Archive | Why I Write — Joan Didion


First published in the June/July 1977 of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 2) 

Of course I stole the title from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would want to read me on it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialect and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas – I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention – but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of ‘Paradise Lost’, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg on its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in ‘Paradise Lost’, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a greyed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was travelling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elemental psychology book showing a car drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t just think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t take to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.
Just as I meant ‘shimmer’ literally I mean ‘grammar’ literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:
It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began ‘Play It as It Lays’ just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of ‘character’ or ‘plot’ or even ‘incident’, I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told no ‘story’, suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognise her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made ‘Play It as It Lays’ begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:
‘Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills’.

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by ‘white space’.

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished. ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with para-typhoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name ‘Jack Valenti’ a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogota (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogota that stopped for an hour to re-fuel, but they way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 a.m. I feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is nor simply ‘ordering’ tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

‘She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue’, some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalised Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

These lines appear about halfway through ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called ‘Victor’ in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name ‘Victor’ occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who ‘I’ was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the ‘I’ be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

This ‘I’ was the voice of no author in my house. This ‘I’ was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called ‘Victor’. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.



The Man Booker Prize 2015 Predictions


Here at The London Magazine we’re getting excited about the upcoming announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015 is chaired by Michael Wood, with the judges for this year’s award including former Deputy Editor of Granta Ellah Allfrey, the award-winning poet John Burnside, along with authors Sam Leith and Frances Osborne. Six titles will make the cut from the thirteen long listed books, but which ones? Late tomorrow morning all will be revealed. For now here are the titles that have caught our attention over the past few weeks…

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK) Jonathan Cape.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) One/Pushkin Press.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (US) Chatto & Windus.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Ireland) Jonathan Cape.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US) Picador.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (US) Virago.


The official shortlist has now been announced and we are thrilled to see that four out of our predicted six titles made the shortlist. This year’s winner will be announced on Tuesday 13 October 2015, predicting a final winner from this impressive list of titles will be a daunting task.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK) Jonathan Cape.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) One/Pushkin Press.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (US) Chatto & Windus.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US) Picador.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Jamaica) Oneworld.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (UK) Picador.

The full 2015 longlist: 

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Jamaica) Oneworld.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (US) Chatto & Windus.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy (India) MacLehose Press/Quercus.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) One/Pushkin Press.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (US) Jonathan Cape.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Ireland) Jonathan Cape.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (US) Periscope/ Garnet Publishing.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK) Jonathan Cape.

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (UK) Faber.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (UK) Picador.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill (New Zealand) Sceptre.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US) Picador.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (US) Virago.


Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri

University of Calcutta by wikimedia.org is licensed under CC BY 2.0
University of Calcutta by wikimedia.org is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Amit Chaudhuri, Union Books, 2013, 320pp, £16.99, (Hardback)


The modern megacity is characterised by head-aching enigmas and unbridgeable contradictions. Calcutta is no exception to this rule; indeed may be the epitome of it. Rural migrants beg and go hungry on its streets right outside the lavish homes of stockbrokers and IT entrepreneurs. Raj-era ‘monstrosities’ such as the Victoria Memorial sit incongruously between bastis, gentlemen’s clubs and shopping malls. The seemingly relentless forces of privatisation and globalisation have made a hesitant and uncertain entry into an economy that was for decades centrally controlled by democratically-elected communist governments. Throughout its history, Calcutta has been the undisputed axis of Indian culture and cosmopolitanism but its contemporary middle-classes know little about the city’s centrality to the Bengali Renaissance (1775-1941) and are oddly resistant to foreign imports, whether Italian cuisine or European modern art. There are paradoxes too concerning Calcutta’s geographical development in recent years: this sprawling metropolis of fourteen million people is still somehow able to feel both rural and urban, and is full of areas ‘neither of the land nor of the city’, what the writer and urban explorer Iain Sinclair calls ‘borderlands.’


For all these reasons and more, it isn’t easy to define Calcutta – or the sights, sounds, ideas or values that word signifies – in objective terms everyone can agree on. Amit Chaudhuri isn’t interested in doing this either, preferring to approach Calcutta as ‘an imaginary city; it’s in this realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling’. Like Sinclair, Chaudhuri takes an avowedly psychogeographical angle, filtering an impressive miscellany of Calcutta (we learn about everything from its French windows to its Marxist revolutionary heroes) through his own personal – if ambivalent – relationship with the city over the years (he partly grew up there, left it for England, returned to visit for holidays and then settled back there in 1999).


The book’s narrative structure strikes this balance between exterior and interior in a beautifully innovative manner. We flash back and forth through Chaudhuri’s own past and hundreds of years of Calcutta’s (the subtitle Two Years in the City is an overly modest misnomer), and jump-cut between disparate topics sometimes in the space of just a brief paragraph, yet all the while our attention is held by the author’s almost musical use of recurring motifs and themes. It may not be a coincidence that, apart from being a novelist and critic, Chaudhuri is an Indian classical musician of some renown.


At other points in the story, time blurs with space or the two become conjoined. When Chaudhuri travels to Free School Street and its well-known food stalls, a portal opens into a personal memory and we are whisked back twenty years to when that same street was populated by second-hand record dealers. In 1982, the young Chaudhuri symbolically rejects Western popular music by giving away a Janis Joplin LP to a friend who then sells it on to one of these dealers for a princely sum.


If Calcutta occupies a special place within Chaudhuri’s own psyche, it is also a textual space, ‘a particular idea of the modern city’ that Chaudhuri has, throughout his scholarly researches, found echoed in James Joyce’s Dublin, V. S. Naipaul’s Trinidad and D. H. Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire. But Calcutta is a city of literature as well as a literary city, the home of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s national poet and the 1913 Nobel Laureate; the legendary film director and writer Satyajit Ray; and innumerable authors working in both the Bengali and English languages. Such geniuses belonged to the bhadralok social elite which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, advocated secular enlightenment and ‘the whole cultured ethos of liberal modernity’. Alas, laments Chaudhuri, these ideals began to vanish some time before Calcutta ‘fizzled out with globalisation.’


Intriguing as this ‘Calcutta of the imagination’ thesis is, it tends to overlook or underplay the city’s all-too-real social problems which affect the poor far more severely than they do the rich, who are the main focus of this book. While he does encounter some of Calcutta’s seventy thousand vagrants (a recent Times of India estimate), he spends far more time discussing the exclusive colonial-era Tollygunge Club or trumpeting his high-born relatives (he feels the need to tack a detail such as ‘D.Sc. from Edinburgh’ onto a mention of a ‘Brahmo bhadralok’ in-law). During a lengthy disquisition on Calcutta’s trendy restaurant scene, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Chaudhuri when, just as he is about to tuck into another decadent dinner, he confesses to a brief pang of guilt about the number of his fellow Indians who are starving.


While he rightly critiques the Left Front’s bureaucracy and cronyism, he isn’t quite as vocal about the failings of the neoliberalism that is usurping it. The historian Pankaj Mishra points out that what is fashionably called ‘India’s economic miracle’ has brought with it significant increases in hunger, homelessness, unemployment and wealth disparity. While the street-level symptoms of the crisis are visible enough to anyone who spends an hour in Calcutta, they are only hinted at and seldom analysed in Chaudhuri’s account.


Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Calcutta offers us a number of new and original ways to think about the urban condition. If Chaudhuri reaches any kind of conclusion about what it means to inhabit Calcutta and why its whimsy, randomness and contradictoriness so fascinate him, it is by taking the city-as-text metaphor even further by equating his childhood holidays in the city to the experience of reading a poem: ‘a period of time in which nothing seems to happen in the conventional sense, but which we’re still changed by.’


by Tom Sykes

Tom Sykes is Lecturer in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

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