What is a novel for? What can the novel do, if it indeed “does” anything at all? George Eliot once wrote that great art surprised “even the trivial and the selfish” into consciousness of others, thereby enhancing our human capacity for empathy and morality. Georg Lukacs, the Marxist literary theorist, thought the novel’s “social totality” enabled us to see “reality as it truly is”. Both novelist and critic were, of course, writing about the realist novel.
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee’s story of the rise and fall of a Bengali family in Bhawanipur, set against the backdrop of the Naxalite insurgencies in Indian history, is – in many ways – an attempt to restage the moral and aesthetic relevance of the classic realist novels for modern audiences. Many of its pleasures – satisfyingly complex human characters, substantive social worlds and narrative development – are those that readers still seek, even if morality has sometimes gone the way of all flesh. Mukherjee’s focus on the Ghoshes is wonderful “thick description” in Clifford Geertz’s sense of the word. Its Bengali world is very carefully realised in speech, language and cultural practices, and not glossed over for a non-Bengali audience: the family’s cultural rituals of food, marriage, celebrations and dress and their squabbles over status and position in a deeply hierarchical household; a very substantial and exact glossary is provided. Yet for all its otherness, the immersive and engaging quality of the Ghoshes’ histories and familial machinations inspire both readerly affection and, of course, consternation. Familiarity and difference are judiciously balanced. Here is a family who exhibit the very virtues and vices that we ourselves have; their blind spots aren’t unlike our own: the petty slights and cruelties of a soured life that characterises the daughter, Chhaya, for example, or the guilt and maternal blindness of Charubala, her mother. And, as befits a genre preoccupied by domesticity in its early literary history, the women in the Ghosh household are its most vibrant personalities, A family saga then? Not quite.
Being a novel that takes its ethical undertaking seriously, the lives of others interrupts – and then errupts – into that cosy insular middle-class world. The story of the Ghoshes, undertaken in third person with all the joyful ironies of an Austenite free indirect discourse, is counterpointed in first person by the troubled voice of one of its own, and by his acute awareness of injustices. Supratik, uncomfortable with the self-regarding nature of that world of privilege, where ancient acquiescences and bended knees become “ineluctable fact[s]”, and equally discomforted by the extremes of wealth and poverty around him, joins the Naxalites. Supratik might spout Maoist propaganda but his anguished diary, rendered in italics, is the story of an idealistic man; of Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”, Supratik reminds us, “We don’t see them, so we don’t think about them.” As readers, we’ve already been stunned by the infanticide and murder provoked by unrelenting poverty and despair which precedes the narrative of the Ghoshes, so we understand the honourable intent behind Supratik’s slide into armed rebellion and guerrilla attacks. When his story finally shifts from first to third person, story joining story, we feel the full force of all the situational contradictions and complexities. By this time, the state has also begun to enact its own rituals of torture and brutality, and the “smaller” tragedy of the family gives way to the larger tragedy of the society, nation and world. The novel’s two short epilogues offer some sort of artificial closure but very little relief; they are – perhaps – also unsatisfying. There is little to do but mourn what has come to pass.
The scale and ambition of The Lives of Others, the fierce intelligence behind it and the seriousness of its moral and aesthetic enterprise would make Mukherjee’s novel a worthy Booker winner. His writing has the considered craftsmanship of nineteenth century novels but this is a text that also tests the boundaries of realism, delivering an acute parable of incommensurable worlds in our shared but profoundly unequal globalised spaces. Both Eliot and Lukacs can rest easy.