Anita Desai | Critical Essay by Judie Newman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Anita Desai.
This section contains 4,629 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Judie Newman

SOURCE: "History and Letters: Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 37-46.

In the essay below, Newman examines "the relation between discourse and history" in Baumgartner's Bombay.

Anita Desai has always sidestepped any recognition of language as a social fact, disavowing political intent and describing her work in "universalist" terms. In interview she maintained that she had avoided many of the ideological problems created by the use of English, by not writing "social document" novels.

By writing novels that have been catalogued by critics as psychological, and that are purely subjective, I have been left free to employ, simply, the language of the interior. [Ramesh K. Srivastava, in Perspectives on Anita Desai, 1984]

In Baumgartner's Bombay, however, Desai departs from her previous practice, in order to interrogate the relation of discourse to history, the language of the interior to that of the outer world. In this connection various intertextual devices are significant—letters, literary references, songs, nursery rhymes and travellers' tales.

The novel opens with the murder of Hugo Baumgartner, a Jew, by a young German, many years after Baumgartner's escape from Nazi Germany to India. As the recurrent image of the racetrack suggests ("the circular track that began in Berlin and ended here in Bombay") Baumgartner's story comes full circle and his trajectory is strongly marked by repetition. After being dispossessed in Germany as a Jew, narrowly avoiding the Nazi camps, he is seized in India as a German, and imprisoned for six years as an enemy alien in a British internment camp. When world war gives way to Partition struggles, his Moslem business partner in Calcutta is dispossessed in his turn by Hindus. After Baumgartner's return to Bombay, however, the death of his new Hindu partner sees him booted out once more, into an independent India which has little use for Europeans. The plot, therefore, seems to imply that history is only a meaningless series of reenactments, a story which repeats itself. In Salman Rushdie's dictum: "Europe repeats itself, in India, as farce."

Throughout the novel Baumgartner, shabby, smelly, short-sighted, his nose a warty, wobbling purplish lump is established as a clown, known to his neighbours as the madman of the cats for his habit of adopting strays. Even his death is presented in a mode of black comedy, combining the effects of Keystone Cops slapstick with a chase sequence and lashings of melodrama. Bloodstained footprints are sighted, and the wrong man promptly arrested by stereotypically plodding policemen, who subsequently unleash two Dobermans. As cats fly in all directions, one of them, defenestrated, narrowly misses the bald perspiring head of the landlord; the appearance of the fire brigade only adds to the confusion and to the spectators' delight. The murder is presented as a fact in the public domain, presided over by assorted officials, in strong contrast to the opening scene in which Baumgartner's friend Lotte reads the letters found by his body.

As the novel opens, the initial impression is of entry into a tragic interior. The process of reading is highlighted by the presence of a fictional reader, mediating between the reader and the letters. As Lotte's co-readers, we become equal partners in the enterprise of decipherment. Lotte is thus the point of entry to both the letters and Desai's text. Inner sanctum and text are equated as she fumbles with the door to her room, "as though she had forgotten its grammar, her fingers numb, tongue-tied as it were." Initially, Lotte poses theatrically, clutching the letters to her breast in the manner which comes naturally to an ex-actress. Once alone, however, the public persona falls away. The dichotomy between private and public space typifies the tension created for the reader between the fictive and the historical. As Lotte weeps over the letters, public farce appears to conceal private tragedy, as if Desai were directoring the reader back from Rushdie to Hegel: "All acts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Baumgartner's Bombay comes full circle in its last sentence as Lotte spreads out the letters. Repetition is, therefore, embedded in the fictional structure, which encloses the story of Baumgartner's life (narrated in flashbacks) within the events of one day; itself framed as a flashback by the initial and final sequences. The effect is rather of a mise en abyme of infinite regress, in which the novel ends as Lotte, the surrogate reader, begins to read the letters which will initiate the novel. From an interior space of reading the reader moves to a public scene and thence back ad infinitum.

Repetition is also the mark of the letters, in the repeated phrases which reduce each to a quasi-facsimile of its predecessor:

each line seemed like the other, each card alike: 'Are you well, my rabbit? Do not worry yourself. I am well. I have enough. But have you enough, my mouse, my darling? Do not worry …'

From these empty repetitions Lotte looks away towards the glass of her window, to see only "A blank sky, as always, with neither colour nor form. Empty." The image extends the emptiness represented by European letters into the Indian scene. World and text appear to mirror each other as if interior language and material reality were one indissoluble entity. Meaninglessness, perpetual recurrence, and blankness are thus the initial impressions created by the letters. In addition, in their sugary endearments they offer a sickly sweet language of childhood which is construed as destructive. As Lotte reads,

All the marzipan, all the barley sugar, the chocolates and toffees of childhood descended on her with their soft, sticking, suffocating sweetness. Enough to embrace her, enough to stifle her, enough to obliterate her…. Lotte wept and drowned.

As the novel continues the letters become emblematic of a stifling European textual world, linked to destructive illusions, and, also, the point of entry to a tragic history. Mirroring, copying and repeating are important motifs as the novel interrogates the moral relation of history to fictional discourse.

In this connection, Baumgartner's experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany are all important. A long flashback presents Baumgartner's pre-war childhood in Berlin as a redolently textualised world which conjoins bitter-sweet imagery with a succession of intercalated German nursery rhymes and songs, set against the highly cultured background of Baumgartner's elegant Mutti, with her Goethe, Schiller and Heine. Because they are reproduced in German (largely without a gloss) these intertextual motifs create the impression of a thoroughly self-centred European society, an infantilised interior world which makes little concession to readers outside. They, therefore, function as a means of condemning the claustrophobic over-immersion in texts of that society, in order to reassert the importance of engagement with the sociohistorical world. Traditional criticism tends to see the Imperial power as the mother-country, the origin and nurturer of value. In contrast, the colonised understand the Imperial refusal to recognise the autonomy of other worlds as a species of infantile blindness—just as babies think the world exists only for their own omnipotent selves. In Baumgartner's Bombay Desai takes the Imperial convention for representing the colonised (immaturity) and redefines it as a property of Europe. Thus, while Mutti's nursery song laments an absent mother, Hugo's mind moves to a baby hedgehog, separated from its mother, which he had "rescued", only to kill it by overfeeding, until its corpse oozed warm milk. The sentimental image of mother-love is undercut; the hedgehog died less because it was separated from its mother than from an excess of milky sweetness. Indeed, as the reader later learns, had Baumgartner remained with Mutti in the nursery world of Europe, he too would have died. Although his mother constantly attempts to shore up the illusion of a world of sweetness and light, Hugo comes to see the "encirclement of her soft, sweet-smelling arms" as an imprisonment. His mother's attempt to play "horsey" is no substitute for a longed-for excursion to the racetrack with his father. Desperate to accompany him, Hugo resorts to primitive linguistic magic, repeating "Mick-muck-mo, Make-it-so" as he formulates his wish. In pre-war Berlin, however, word and world fail to coalesce. Originally, Hugo's mother had appeared to him as the entire universe. Her gilt-framed mirror "held the whole room slightly tilted on its calm and shining surface." Downstairs, however, in his father's furniture showroom, the world is already more fragmentary and disquieting, reflecting the Fatherland's new definition of Jews as aliens. Here, Hugo is alarmed by the reflection in the three piece looking-glass: "turning you into a stranger before your own eyes as you slowly rotated to find the recognisable." Mutti's enclosed world contrasts with the showroom, where "the opulence of the interior" is none the less on display to—and dependent upon—the public.

By now, the wealthy Jews who patronised Herr Baumgartner's furniture shop have begun to invest their money in more portable assets, and the business is failing. In Hugo's dreams "the brilliant mirrors tipped out their highly coloured and illuminated reflections like pools of water from unsteady basins, then slipped out of their frames and crashed." The song "Es tanzt ein Bibabutzemann" (a bogeyman dances in our house) introduces the character of Herr Pfuehl, the merchant who will eventually appropriate the business to his Aryan ownership. Isolated in her textual world, Mutti refuses to read the realities of Hitler's Germany, even when "Jude" is painted in bold red letters on her windows. Soon, however, Hugo's dreams come true as (presumably on "Kristallnacht") the salesroom is smashed up, and "glass splintered, crashed, slid all over the floor in slanting, shining heaps." A nursery song presents images of scarcity (the geese go barefoot) in childish, nonsensical terms. The next day, when Herr Baumgartner is arrested, the description of the stormtroopers is similarly childish: "Hugo might have been playing a game with his toy soldiers, marching them up, then marching them down." This is no game, however. Herr Baumgartner returns from Dachau only to sign over his business to the not-so-foolish Herr Pfuehl. The following nursery rhyme says it all: "Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen" (Fox, you have stolen the goose.)

Confronted with these visible horrors, Hugo's mother's reaction is to retreat, to pay a visit to her childhood friends, the Friedmanns, in the pastoral Grunewald. Here Mutti sings of escape to "the country where lemons flower" (Goethe) and reads verses about linden trees, swallows, butterflies, children playing and Rabindranath Tagore. While his mother indulges in nostalgia, recalling a performance of Lohengrin in her schooldays, Hugo contemplates real rather than operatic swans, floating on the lake:

somehow they reminded him of his father's rococo mirrors, gliding as they did upon the shining glass of their reflections in the still water, and he was silenced by the knowledge of their transience.

Mutti's magical memories of the Swan Knight are replaced by more disquieting, militaristic overtones; the swans' feathers are "knitted together like chain mail." For Hugo, childhood provides little justification for nostalgia. In the woods,

it seemed he was stumbling through the illustrations of a book of fairy stories, the forest where Hansel and Gretel followed a trail of breadcrumbs, or in which Sleeping Beauty lay hidden by a wall of thorns—beautiful, hushed and vaguely sinister.

When Albert Friedmann begins to recite a poem about a deer entitled "The Kaiser of the Woods," doubly anachronistic in both its political and its pastoral references, Hugo calls his mother back from the world of texts to the reality of Berlin, where his father is discovered, a suicide.

From now on, Hugo, isolated at home with Mutti, finds his copies of "Der Gute Kamerad" pure fantasy, "its stories of camping in the forest and journeys on the sea no more relevant to his life than a dream is to daytime." Mutti's gift of a monumental 1906 Kaiserbuch, inscribed with the imperial motto, is even less enticing. Virtually a prisoner, Hugo is forced to exist entirely within the confines of an apartment "that was beginning to resemble that Kaiser-coffin of a book." World and books are so identified that despite her enthusiasm for Tagore, Mutti dismisses the idea of escape to India as a fairy tale: "diese Marchen." She is left behind with only her Goethe for company. Her position recalls the unpalatable fact, learned after the Holocaust, that "a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning." All the polite letters in the world could not prevent the atrocity which now hangs over Mutti. Baumgartner's Berlin appears to expose all texts to the irony of history, and underlines the danger of over-immersion in an interior realm of books which may reflect but which fail to act upon the world about them. Mutti's old fashioned Weimar high culture no longer bears any relation to its circumambient society. The world reflected in her mirrors has gone to smash.

In his passage to India, Hugo appears at first to have merely traded one illusion for another, Hansel and Gretel for Aladdin. In Venice he feels as if "already transported to the East." Yet Desai measures the distance here between her protagonist and his predecessors. Returning from India, Forster's Fielding saw in Venice a perfect harmony of nature and culture, and found "tender romantic fancies" reawakening in him. Baumgartner is travelling in the opposite direction, and is happy to leave Venice behind: "he felt himself to be inside a chocolate box, surfeited with sweetness and richness."

When he arrives in India any suggestions of Orientalist romance swiftly fade. The Taj Hotel, previously envisaged as an Eastern palace, turns out to be a seedy house with no lighting. It is, of course, the wrong Taj Hotel. Sign and referent do not accord. The proprietor's comment, "I say Taj Hotel, then this Taj Hotel" introduces a world in which language creates new realities. All at sea, Baumgartner finds himself longing for a guidebook: "Or at least a signboard. In a familiar language. A face with a familiar expression. He could not read these faces." Yet, although Baumgartner feels deceived by India, although his language no longer controls his world, the "unreadable" quality of Bombay has some positive consequences. If language is no longer mimetic, if it can no longer map the world according to Baumgartner's expectations, it may, none the less, offer a way out of the claustrophobia of Baumgartner's past into a world which is both multiple and syncretic:

Was it not India's way of revealing the world that lay on the other side of the mirror? India flashed the mirror in your face…. You could be blinded by it. But if you refused to look into it, if you insisted on walking around to the back, then India stood aside, admitting you where you had not thought you could go. India was two worlds, or ten.

Although Baumgartner's looking-glass world has given way to a less than enchanting Eastern Wonderland, the blindness of Berlin is not to be repeated.

Baumgartner's individuation remains, however, only potential. When internment interrupts his heterogeneous linguistic and cultural transformation, he finds himself in a society which replicates his childhood. His arrest suggests both an individual state of arrested development, as he is put "on hold" for the duration of the war, and a more generalised condition of deferred political autonomy. From the mother-country he is transplanted to an all-male environment which is equally infantile. The parodic nature of the camp, which repeats the past in a species of Europe-in-India, provides a sharp critique of Imperial self-replication. With its orchestra, lectures on theosophy, demonstrations of eurythmics, and opportunities for private study, organised by the "culture department", the camp provides a facsimile of pre-war German culture up to and including the hostilities between Nazi and Jewish inmates. Baumgartner finds the discipline akin to that of childhood, with the inmates expected to eat, wash, and sleep to a time-table, as if in a "comical dream—grown men finding themselves returned to their school." In his spotless white linen, Hugo's friend, Julius, looks "like a figure from a pre-war Sunday picnic, or coffee party." Hugo helps him to sketch furniture, "recreating his father's elegant, well-lit, stylish showroom." Within this ersatz enclave, Baumgartner's own image of Germany becomes progressively distanced from reality. Like all colonisers, he finds himself yearning for a motherland which he had never really known, represented by a Nordic blonde in the adjoining women's camp:

she seemed to embody his German childhood—at least, he chose to see her as such an embodiment, it was so pleasant to do so, like humming a children's song.

Nor is Baumgartner alone in living in a fantasy world. Cut off from history, the other inmates resort to fictions of an increasingly fantastic nature, "No matter how often such carefully constructed scenes were sent crashing by the truth." Baumgartner's own illusions are shattered when the "Norse goddess of the camp" speaks. Frau Bruckner, a missionary's wife, has adapted so completely to her public role that she has forgotten her original German. During their internment, Emil Schwarz, a bookish scholar, comments that the events in the camp have all happened before: "Mann has described it all … in The Magic Mountain." Baumgartner, now sceptical of fictions, remains unconvinced: "it was just like Schwarz to refer everything in life to books as though that were the natural solution and end of it all."

Instead of taking refuge in fictions, Baumgartner eschews tale-telling. Silence becomes his response to events in the camp. When the Jews refuse to shout "Heil Hitler", "Baumgartner gratefully joined their silence. He realised at that instant that silence was his natural condition." Yet, although silence can be a weapon, to submit to the finality of silence is to confirm the nihilism of Nazism. Mutti has also been silenced; no more letters have arrived from her. By the time of the novel's opening, Baumgartner has come to realise that "the habits of a hermit were growing upon him like some crustaceous effluent; it required an effort, an almost physical effort to crack it, to break through to the liquidity and flow and shift and kinesis of language."

Baumgartner's silence is eventually shattered by Kurt, a young German, who recalls Baumgartner to the world of his youth. Two images of horror are juxtaposed before the close of the novel—the traveller's tales told by Kurt, and the letters from Mutti, presented in flashback. In broad terms they represent the destructive powers of fantasy (Kurt), as opposed to historical reality (Mutti). Initially, Hugo gives Kurt a wide berth. For him, the fair, Teutonic boy in shorts, suggests only the horrors of the past in potentially repetitive form:

     The Lieder and the campfire. The campfire and the beer.
     The beer and the yodelling. The yodelling and the marching.
     The marching and the shooting. The shooting and the killing.
     The killing and the killing and the killing.

The explanation for Baumgartner's eventual charity to Kurt may lie in the cafe-proprietor's introduction of him as one of the "baby-men" who had come to India "uninvited" and then turned beggar. In a long disquisition Farrokh describes the young German as representative of a type—"men who remain children"—who has probably "kicked his parents in the face" in order to visit India and now expects to be supported by others.

Soon they need money. Go to post office. Has letter come from my dear mummy, my darling daddy? No? Must have, please look, look again, they must send! No, no letter, no money.

Baumgartner, similarly uninvited, also came to India in his youth, and has been reduced to begging scraps (for his cats). He, too, left a parent behind, fled to India, waited in vain for letters. Reversing the conventional colonial metaphor of "mother country" and dependency, Desai pictures Europe once more as child, Europe as the place of illusion, whether tragic (in pre-war Germany) or wilfully cultivated (as in Kurt's use of drugs as a means to an alternative reality). Baumgartner's own arrested development, his paralysis by a European past, reappears in the young German's infantilism. At Baumgartner's flat he behaves "like a naughty child," hurling beer about the room. The historical parallels make Baumgartner (a sufferer from "survival guilt") vulnerable to Kurt, a nightmarish projection of the retribution which he expects. It is this illusion of generalised guilt which exposes Baumgartner to his mirror self, become a mirror enemy. In hard fact, Baumgartner is not at all like Kurt; their specific historical situations are quite different. Baumgartner could not have saved his mother, and was an unwilling victim of the Aryan cult of strength, not, like Kurt, its devotee.

Kurt, however, has little use for fact. Baumgartner's silence is suddenly filled by the German's flood of repetitive Indian horror stories, involving cannibalism, ritual sacrifice, wholesale slaughter, leprosy, flagellation, excess both erotic and narcotic, and finally, farcically, a yeti. Where the flashback to Berlin illustrated the inefficacy of high culture to defend itself against the grossest forms of inhumanity, demonstrating that books could not prevent atrocity, Kurt's tales dramatise a counter-truth—that those who begin by burning books end by burning men. A would-be Tantric, Kurt has eaten human flesh and burned men (though in Benares in the burning ghats). He is wilfully out of touch with the ordinary world, as his tales demonstrate; they are about as believable as the Giant Rat of Sumatra for which the world is not yet ready. Quite apart from the presence of a yeti, they involve a sword-shaped plant topped with a cockerel's head, sea-serpents, a guest appearance from the devil, and Tibetan magicians flying into the sky on a streak of lightning. Baumgartner's "mick-muck-mo, make it so" appears to be Kurt's watchword. Kurt's playing fast and loose with material reality, transforming his life into a series of fictions, independent of truth or history, initiates a process of destructive fantasy which culminates in the murder of Baumgartner, appropriately in pursuit of the latter's racing trophies, the symbols of his own past magical desires, in order to procure fresh supplies of illusion-producing substances. The title of the novel, therefore, with its echoes of travelogue (compare Fodor's Beijing) is deeply ironic. Baumgartner's Bombay has not been very different from his Berlin after all. He is murdered by an alter ego deeply enclosed within fictions, much as his own earlier self had been. Fairy stories and nursery rhymes have yielded to travellers' tales and thence to a horror story. Fictions appear to have triumphed over fact, and the reader is left with an image of history as textual repetition, and of repetition as horror.

A different story is told, however, by the postcards and letters discovered by Baumgartner's body. "Strangely empty, repetitive and cryptic," they merely repeat the same phrases "Are you well? I am well. Do not worry. I have enough. Have you enough?" Resistant to textual interpretation, these letters cannot be glossed or decoded. They appear to say nothing. Their explanation, indicated by the numbers on the postcards, which stop abruptly in February 1941, depends upon historical knowledge: in the early days of the war it was possible for the inmates of concentration camps to send and receive mail. The letters thus offer an emblematic opposition between repeated horrors and a paralysed silence, which cannot in the end itself avoid repetition. In themselves the letters have no content (the rules permitted inmates to say very little) but their material reality is crushingly significant, bearing witness to the worst horrors of recent history.

Importantly, it was the discovery of a similar cache of real letters in Bombay, passed to Anita Desai for translation, which triggered the novel. She remarked that, "Perhaps because they had been so empty they teased my mind. I had to supply the missing history to them." For the reader the same is now true of Mutti's letters. Their history will not pass into oblivion; their gaps and silences, paradoxically, say everything. In the double sense of "Multi's letters"—the polite letters (literature) which failed to save her, the correspondence which for all its sparsity bears witness to inhumanity—Desai interrogates the potential importance of European letters in India, as tragically irrelevant or, in their very absences and omissions, historically significant.

It is striking that it is only after the relation of the Indian writer to European literature and history has been problematised, that Baumgartner's Bombay, a hitherto freestanding novel, reestablishes a link with Forster which had apparently been broken. It is worth noting that Desai deplored the David Lean film of A Passage to India for its divergence from the original. She particularly condemned Lean's rewriting of the ending, in order to make Indian and Englishman clasp hands in friendship. In Desai's opinion, Lean believed he had "improved" Forster. "What he is admitting is that he feels he has improved history as well" ("The Rage for the Raj"). When, therefore, Desai rewrites Forster the effect is of a movement away from textual freedom and back to history. In a reprise of the Marabar Caves incident in A Passage to India, Baumgartner enters a cave where he hears not a repetitive echo (Forster's "ou-boum") but an absolute silence. Rather than being presented as a symbolic image of the encounter with a transcendental deity, Desai's cave is fully historicised. In the internment camp Baumgartner had tried to keep his mind occupied by watching ants entering a crevice, described as a "dark cave." But the tactic failed:

The trouble with such fascinating sights was their silence, their tedium, the endless repetition of forms and actions that blurred and turned into an endless labour of human forms—bent, driven into black caves from which they did not reemerge. Nacht und Nebel.

The German phrase repeats the term applied by the Nazis to prisoners destined for death, for disappearance into "Night and Fog" whether in forced labour or camps. When Baumgartner squeezes into the cave, he finds blackness, silence, and a complete absence of explanatory text: "No voice, no song, not even a dim inscription." Some things are lost to history. The shrine inside is unnamed, unexplained; the cave figures forth the absence, silence and untold horrors of the letters, the night into which Mutti disappeared. Desai does not, however, expand precise historical horror into totalising negativity. Refusing any vision of nothingness, Baumgartner leaves Forster firmly behind and makes a rapid exit from the cave. Unlike Mrs. Moore, "Baumgartner would not have its no." Without minimising the real horrors of the past, Desai emphasises the need not to be complicit with those forces that would erase historical truth, reducing events to myth, fantasy or silence. Although the Holocaust was an enactment of absolute evil, it was so because of particular crimes against particular people. In counterdistinction to the image of history as meaningless repetition, the Cave incident, like the letters, asserts the specificity of history and the necessity of maintaining its silences and omissions in full view, rather than placing past horrors in a generalised history of evil for which nobody in particular, or everyone in general, may be held accountable. After the war, Baumgartner had never been willing to think back to the past: "That time was a closed book, or like a pack of cards—finite in number." Mutti's letters, however, also a small collection of cards, are finite yet infinite in their implications. For Desai, history cannot be a closed book, a silenced story, but neither can it be reopened and rewritten at random. Some people have been lost to history and to literature, and no amount of "revisioning" can call them back. Imagination baulks at filling in Mutti's silences, or in fleshing out her untold story; in the words of George Steiner, "The world of Auschwitz lies outside human speech." Paradoxically therefore Mutti's letters reveal both the insufficiency of literature in the face of history—and its full necessity.

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