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Bookclub: Arundhati Roy on The God of Small Things

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Jim Naughtie 16:00, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Bookclub

Arundhati Roy with Jim and the Bookclub audience

I do hope those of you who have heard the Arundhati Roy discussion on The God of Small Things enjoyed it. There are very few books of this kind that come our way, so it was a natural for us. Sooner or later we had to come to it. You can hear it online and also download it as a podcast to take away and listen at your leisure.
As you will all know by now past programmes are available at the Bookclub website - a facility which I know many of you appreciate and use a great deal.

The God of Small Things is unusual in so many ways. As Arundhati Roy puts it, the story begins at the end and ends in the middle, and she is determined that she was never going to write a linear story.

In our discussion she made it clear that the feeling of a book that has a circular wholeness, so that you can start the story almost anywhere with the same effect, springs from that part of her mind that made her want to be an architect, which is how she was trained.

The result is that the book's power comes not so much from the development of a story along conventional lines - a beginning in the first pages, and an end on the last page - but from the conception of the world in which the action (concentrated in a few days) is happening around you.

The book that obviously springs to mind is Ulysses, but I find it hard to think of settings that are more different than James Joyce's Dublin and Roy's Kerala, where the texture of life is built up of an impossible vast range of smells, colours, tiny objects and competing cultures and religions. Your senses are assailed by the vividness of the world she describes.

And of course it is a story of love and loss, and therefore tragedy. But when we asked her if it was therefore a pessimistic novel, she said that she thought that the fact the kind of love she describes could have come about in a feudal society was in itself "a fantastically hopeful thing".

At the centre of the story, recollected by Rahel as an adult woman, is the love between her Christian mother and a carpenter who, by the rules of caste, is an Untouchable.

In her conversation, especially when we asked her why she had not written another novel since The God of Small Things was first published in 1997, Arundhati Roy revealed the depth of her political commitments: the extent to which she wants her story to reveal not just the intoxicating feel of India, and the way that the mystical and the practical are woven together in everyday life, but the unfairness and cruelties of a system that pitches different religions and cultures against each other.

Since she wrote the book, which became a worldwide bestseller and won prizes, including the Booker, she's devoted most of her energy to various campaigns which she feels to be more important that the writing of another story.

She told us: "I hope I will return to fiction. I don't want to write books because that's what the world expects me to do. I want to write a book when I have a book that needs to be written or wants to be written; not just because that's a profession." That moment has not yet come.

About her writing technique, which has dazzled so many critics and readers, she says that she knows no rules. She thinks or herself neither as a linear nor hierarchical thinker, and in describing the way she tried to capture the society in which her characters were caught, and the way they lived their lives, it became clear that she wanted to paint a picture of how difficult it is to pursue love - which always produces, she believes, vulnerability - in a society where class and caste impose rigid boundaries and exert hard punishment on anyone who tries to stray across them.

Just as she says that pessimism and optimism aren't in a binary relationship - being opposites between which you have to choose - so she sees the pain of love as something that's inevitable if the joy of it is going to be appreciated. She refused to choose between gloom and hope: they're both there in the book.

I suspect that the reason why it was such a success is that the style in which she tells the story - its layers, the overlapping of time, the back-and-forth twists of the narrative, the idea of the compression of a long story into a brief moment in history - is utterly original.

When you put that together with the sheer exultation in the physical presence of India - especially the smells and the colours - you have a powerful mix.

One of our readers who had grown up in India said that when he read the passages in the pickle factory it made him want to go and wipe his hands afterwards.

The emotions in the book are very powerful - it deals with death, love that has to struggle to be fulfilled, and a touch of incest (because of a shared feeling of desolation) - yet they seem to sit naturally in a society where the natural world always seems about to overwhelm the people, and the rules that are forced upon them are often impossible to obey.

I'm glad we have come to The God of Small Things because in the end I think we had to.

Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub

  • Next month's book is a cult novel of a quite different kind. Iain Banks wrote The Wasp Factory in the mid-eighties and it became something of a latter-day version of The Catcher in the Rye in the way that it tried to unpick the difficulties, the cruelties and the contradictions of the early teenage years. It divided readers then, and still does. It's our book for November - Sunday 6 November at 4pm - and I hope you enjoy it.
  • Visit the Bookclub website where you can listen to the cast archive of author interviews, download the Bookclub podcasts and sign up for the email newsletter.
  • Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and Facebook.

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