R. K. Narayan | Critical Review by Donald Barr

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of R. K. Narayan.
This section contains 880 words
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Critical Review by Donald Barr

SOURCE: "A Man Called Vasu," in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1961, pp. 5, 16.

In the following review, Barr praises the delicacy of Narayan's comedy in The Man-Eater of Malgudi.

Each artist—if he is a true artist, and not just a utensil by means of which people gratify themselves according to the habits they have already—has to educate an audience for himself. This is not so difficult for a writer who is unusual in the usual ways: perversity, obscurity, syntactical tricks. Yet it has taken a quarter of a century for Americans to learn the meaning of R. K. Narayan's bland, sly, important genius. Why? Perhaps if we know why we have been so obtuse about his other books, we may be a little more perceptive about The Man-Eater of Malgudi.

Narayan's first novel, Swami and Friends, was the beguiling comedy of a Hindu schoolboy. It was oblivious of the class struggle, and it was unsuspicious of love; there was a cricket club in the book, but it was only a cricket club, and there was pain, but it was only a fact; not a word would have had to be different if Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud had never lived. This story was published in England in 1935, a time when young writers were supposed to search, either in the sharpening crisis of the social order or in the unhealthy recesses of the human personality, for the causes of the monstrous evil that was then spreading across the world.

Graham Greene, for instance, had gone beyond Marx and Freud to an older and more radical apocalypse; he seemed to write with his face stiffened against the smell of all the men who had gone through the world to Hell before him, and no one could possibly have been less like Narayan, in whose work innocence grows like a weed. Yet it was Greene who first saw the significance of the young Indian's work and who encouraged him while, slowly, reviewers and readers became aware of what was going on beneath the gentle simplicities of Narayan's tales.

Not until 1953 did these tales appear in America, and then it was the Michigan State College Press that brought them out. At last, in 1958, Viking took Narayan over. He now has a critical reputation and a following; but even now there are many readers who miss the point. We are used to a certain kind of comedy, in which characters are trapped or tricked into violating their principles—the pure man is seduced; the clever man loses his head; the bachelor gets married. This fits our view of the universe as being slightly malicious toward us personally and our view of human nature as being less virtuous and intelligent than it tries to look. Narayan's is likewise a comedy of inadvertence, but it works the other way round: it is innocence that spoils corruption; a kind of rich, wild sanctity will suddenly break out and wreck someone's grubby enterprise; in the midst of a whole fugue of evasions one thoughtless act of courage will ruin everything. It implies an unusual philosophy.

Not that Narayan thinks the world is an easy place or thinks pain and guilt are unreal. The Man-Eater of Malgudi tells of the invasion of a quiet and faintly incompetent civilization by a competent barbarism, and the effect is genuinely terrifying. The civilization in question is a ramshackle print-shop in South India; it is the hangout of powerless politicians and unpublished poets; there is an air of anxious self-deception here, but there are also order and courtesy. One day, Vasu appears, gigantic, angry, uncontrollable, endlessly roaring and jeering. He can smash a door or a man with a blow. He scatters the poor talkers and dreamers in the anteroom, and he takes over the attic of the print-shop rent free. He is a taxidermist, an excellent craftsman.

Soon the neighborhood is filled with the reek of dead animals; the inhabitants, Hindus with a reverence for all life, are appalled but too frightened to act. The back stairs creak with the comings and goings of prostitutes. Vasu's jeep comes and goes with its pathetic cargo. A child's pet dog is slaughtered in the street and added to the pile of raw material. The rumor begins to form—incredible and obviously true—that there is a plot against the temple elephant. There are pompous conferences and foolish plans; there is the cruel intuition of defeat.

Suddenly the feral man is dead. And the suspicion of murder hangs over the house just as the stench of the taxidermist's vats had hung over it before. It is characteristic of Narayan that the truth about Vasu's death turns out to contain the only solution to the problem of evil that pretends to be a final solution; yet the author is much too polite to pretend to anything bigger than a quiet ending to a story.

Vasu and the print-shop might be the West and India, might be science and humanism, might be totalitarianism and liberal civilization. They are all of these things and none of them. For Narayan's comedy is not a mere sprightly allegory any more than it is a mere anthropological anecdote: it is classical art, profound and delicate art, profound in feeling and delicate in control.

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This section contains 880 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Shashi Tharoor