Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mom and pop stories - some thoughts on parents in literature

[Did this some time back for my “thematic” Forbes Life column – this is about some books dealing with the parent-child relationship]

Given that writing is an inherently self-examining – some would say self-obsessed – act, it is no surprise that the parent-child bond has been at the heart of so much literature, going back to the oldest recorded stories in every civilisation. Apart from being gateways to understanding our personal and cultural histories, parents can be foils or inspirations, scapegoats or pretexts for fretting about genetic legacies. And there is strong dramatic potential in the many – positive and negative – facets of these relationships.

In the best such works, personal history is effectively set against a larger social backdrop. For instance, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel-cum-biography Maus manages to be an intimate story about a son’s attempt to understand his father’s life even while it tackles one of the most important events of the last century – the Holocaust, of which Spiegelman’s parents were survivors. His major stylistic decision is to draw the Jews, including himself and his dad, as mice and the Nazis as cats. (The Holocaust was, after all, founded on the Nazi willingness to see their victims as “filthy vermin”, which was how a manifesto of the time denounced Mickey Mouse.) The present day of the narrative is sometime in the 1970s, when the young Art, tape recorder in hand, visits his cantankerous father Vladek and learns about his youth in the early 1930s as well as the horrors of Auschwitz; their conversations over time show us that Vladek, though a victim of the worst of racial discrimination, is far from unblemished in his own attitudes to other communities, and this in turn helps us understand the distance between father and son.

A less dramatic series of memoirs, Ved Mehta’s “Continents of Exile”, includes two books – Mamaji and Daddyji – that are specifically named for Mehta’s parents and are linear accounts of their lives: these are also explorations of changing worlds, from the provinciality of village life in mid-19th century Punjab (where a journey to Haridwar could be the achievement of a lifetime) to the England of the early 20th century. But for me, the most poignant of Mehta’s books is the smaller-canvas The Red Letters, which is about his father's brief extramarital affair in the early 1930s. “It’s hard to imagine one’s parents having hungers, fears and longings of their own,” Mehta said in an interview. The dialogues between father and son form the book’s most gripping sections; these are tentative exchanges, founded on guilt and reticence, where both men learn things about each other and about themselves.


A recurring theme in such writing is grief, and the American novelist Paul Auster has often dealt head-on with it: his The Book of Illusions has the central character, David Zimmer, wallowing for months in self-pity after the deaths of his wife and children. Then the narrative acquires momentum with a single incident, heartbreakingly recounted: watching TV numbly one night, Zimmer finds himself unselfconsciously laughing – for the first time in ages – as he chances on a short film featuring a forgotten silent-screen comedian. He realises that a part of him wants to continue living, and what follows is a portrait of regeneration through newfound obsession. Interestingly, it seems that Auster could only write his own memoir, Winter Journal, by being elusive and indirect – he doesn’t disguise it as fiction, but he uses the second-person “You” instead of the first-person “I”. And passages like the one about his mother’s death may help you see why such detachment was required. That the chapter in question was excerpted in Granta’s collection of “Horror” writing is fitting – horror can mean looking at a corpse and reflecting that “You are familiar with the inertness of the dead...but no other dead body was the body in which your own life began.”

A similar terrifying image – the sight of one’s mother slowly fading, “being sucked into the centre of the earth” – is at the heart of Jerry Pinto’s autobiographical Em and the Big Hoom. This novel is often described as a son’s chronicle of life with a mentally ill mother, but I saw it as being about parents in a more general sense: as looking glasses (or crystal balls?) in whose aging faces and increasingly unpredictable behaviour we might see our own future selves and shudder, or rejoice, or both. Pinto’s book is also very much a professional writer’s memoir: it is about writing as a way of articulating things to preserve one’s sanity. “One of the defences I had devised against the possibility of madness,” its narrator says, “was that I would explain every feeling I had to myself [...] I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words ... you would be able to deal with the world.”

Dealing with the world in the face of the unfathomable is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which is an account of losing her entire family – husband, children, parents – to the tsunami in Sri Lanka in December 2004, and the subsequent haze of her life. It is filled with moments that will strike an immediate chord for anyone who has experienced similar loss, and understandably the emphasis is on the author’s bereavement as a parent: she didn’t know what to do with her arms anymore, she says at one point, if she couldn’t hold her little boys with them. Yet a moment that stayed with me is the one where she recalls not stopping to knock on her own parents’ door as she, her husband and the boys ran out of their hotel. Strictly speaking, it wouldn’t have made a difference – the old people weren’t going to outrun the big wave – yet one senses that Deraniyagala’s regret in this matter is inextricably tied to her larger pain.

A very different sort of regret
– the feeling of having let down oneself, one’s child and even society is at the heart of Lionel Shriver’s chilling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, told in the form of confessional letters written by a woman, Eva, to her husband, about their son Kevin who murdered nine people in his school gym a few days before his 16th birthday. Over her letters Eva contemplates her peculiar, strained relationship with her child, and what emerges is a startling look at parenthood as an obligation and a burden rather than as a joyous thing. Like the mother in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, fearful that she is carrying the devil’s spawn, Eva likens her pregnancy to infestation; later, she discovers that she has no positive feelings for her boy. And yet, throughout, there is a tantalizing quality to the narrative: could this story be a couched confession of guilt by a woman who has still not come to terms with her own part in her son’s life?

Another unreliable narrator – and a transference of guilt – can be found in Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel A Pale View of Hills, narrated in the voice of a Japanese woman named Etsuko, who had moved to Britain with her second husband years earlier. Trying to cope with the recent suicide of her daughter, Etsuko tells her younger daughter a story about her life in Japan just after the war, focusing on a relationship with a friend named Sachiko. However, such is the clever circularity of the narrative – with a particularly important passage turning on the replacement of one pronoun for another – that you can never be sure if Sachiko really existed or if she was a creation of the narrator’s fevered mind.


This list of books suggests that such literature is skewed towards downbeat or depressing narratives,
though more likely that's my personal bias. So, on a marginally more positive note: one of the most haunting yet uplifting tales I have ever read is Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella Story of Your Life. You may knit your brow when you begin reading this story, for the tenses – past, present, future – seem all mixed up. But that's deliberate; the story is about a woman, a linguistic expert, whose attempt to understand the complex language used by visiting aliens eventually leads to her perceiving the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms – which is how she constantly relives the birth, life and untimely death of her daughter. This is a tale of tremendous emotional power, which touches on themes such as free will and the links between joy, pain and memory, and it’s a reminder of how closely good science fiction can engage with the human condition.

Moving to more obviously real-world terrain, perhaps the most famous upstanding parent in a 20th century novel is Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about two children growing up in a provincial American town in the 1930s. When I first read it as an adolescent, I thought of it as a romanticized tale with Atticus himself a preachy, “vanilla” character. Returning to it as an adult, I revised my assessment. His wisdom is hard-won and though he does make mini-speeches once in a while, he lets his children Scout and Jem figure out most of life’s sterner truths for themselves.

He also has a sense of humour, a healthy irreverence for sacred cows, and in this he reminds me a little of Calvin’s awesome dad in Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. The restless Calvin is of course the strip’s supreme creation, but the series derives much of its edge from the personalities of his parents, who are so much more interesting than the vapid dupes you find in, say, Dennis the Menace. So you might have Calvin’s mom coolly encouraging her six-year-old to try a cigarette so he is disgusted by the experience, while his dad tells him the world used to be in black-and-white before the 1930s and medieval painters could draw in colour only because they were insane; each of them has a devilish, fabulist side that lets us see where Calvin gets some of his own traits from. They may be no more than lines drawn on paper, but many flesh-and-blood parents I know could pick up a few valuable tips from them.

[Expanded posts about some of the books/characters mentioned here: We Need to Talk about Kevin, Em and the Big Hoom, CalvinGranta Horror, Ved Mehta]


  1. I like The God of Small Things a lot in terms of parents children relationship description. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda is good too especially the part where the girl, despite being financially comfortable, doesn't give money to her father in need thinking if she keeps on doing it, she will soon run out of her husband's wealth.

  2. 'Swami and Friends' from the Malgudi Days examines the family dynamics in pre-independence India. The loving granny, the harried mother, the father who wants his son to study well :) There is a section wherein Swami is forced to sleep in his father's office at night all alone and Swami manages to capture a burglar.

  3. Em and the Big Hoom is what I thought of when I started reading this piece. As I was reading that one, it felt like an examination of marriage but what shines through is the story of aging parents and the emotional challenges in that. I wonder if The Illicit Happiness of Other People qualifies though. There is a curious trajectory of the father-son relationship that the book takes you (and the father) through. Did you write about that book somewhere? Found it deeply affecting long after I closed the book.
    And of course another work is Infinite Jest that riffs off from the gold standard - Hamlet. Another example of father-son learning things about each other and about themselves long after one's passing. The insanity is replaced by mad genius - the generic and the ability to hit a tennis ball - and ending with the son reaching otherworldly levels in that talent (and who could that be!) and discovering secrets of his family.

    1. reaching otherworldly levels in that talent (and who could that be!)

      Fabrice Santoro, who else. Or did you have someone else in mind?

      No, haven't written about Illicit Happiness as a standalone piece, but there are some reflections on it in a long interview I did with Manu Joseph here.

  4. Of course Santoro.

    1. Yup, that's classic Fabrice-the-Wizard. Such beautiful touch. While the guy on the other side of the net - that weak-era pretender - keeps trying to smash the ball to no avail. All power, no grace.


  6. I am currently reading 'We need to talk about Kevin'. It has arrested my attention. I am just 27 pages down and Kevin hasn't been discussed much as yet. But, there are paras, which are gems. I am pasting one below. If you can suggest more novels on the unreliable narrator told in first person 'I', I would be very grateful.

    "What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child? Of course you consider the very putting of that question profane. Although the infertile are entitled to sour grapes, it's against the rules, isn't it, to actually have a baby and spend any time at all on that banished parallel life in which you didn't. But a Pandoran perversity draws me to a prize open what is forbidden. I have an imagination, and I like to dare myself. I knew this about myself in advance, too: that I was just the sort of woman who had the capacity, however ghastly, to rue even so unretractable a matter as another person. But then, Kevin didn't regard other people's existence as unretractable-did he?"

  7. Calvin's dad is possibly my favourite fictional dad! A not-very-happy parental relationship that comes to mind is that between Alison and Bruce in Fun Home. Sometimes it is easy to forget that parents are also only human, and I think that book captures the father's inner life as separate and merging with his paternal life very sensitively.