Roy (1961-) won the Man Booker prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of
Small Things. Since that success, she has been a prominent political activist and
critic concerning a wide range of contentious domestic and international issues.
She has also written non-fiction and numerous essays on contemporary politics
and culture. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Roy’s second novel.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
The introductory quote in the book is, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart...”,
from a Turkish writer named Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963). I assume that when a
writer has a quote, almost like a dedication to his/her book, that it was chosen
with purpose. The quote from Hikmet is fitting in light of what ensues in Roy’s
novel in two ways.
First, because Hikmet has been described as a “romantic communist” and a
“romantic revolutionary”; he was repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs and
spent much of his adult life in prison or exile; he died in Moscow. Roy is a
kindred spirit. In last twenty years she has been politically active and very critical
concerning the environment, anti-globalization, neoliberalism, US foreign policy,
India’s policies on nuclear weapons, industrialization and economic growth,
Kashmir (she supports independence from India), Israeli settlement policies,
charges of genocide in Sri Lanka, and more. Little wonder that she has run afoul
of the law on various occasions.
The second echo with Hikmet is the double-edged, “matter of your heart”.
Double edged because under the horror and depredation and corruption and
abuse chronicled in this novel, under the pervasive and fostered fear of “the
other” however defined, there is love between people, sometimes in the most
unlikely and most difficult circumstances, and there is love in commitments to
something larger, something that one wants to contribute to a greater good,
even at great personal risk.
The novel almost reads like a polemic. You can feel the anger, but Roy does not
quite cross the line. She uses a panoply of characters to illustrate/argue/define/
describe difficult and dangerous lives beset by inequalities and death, all pretty
much stemming from nationalist, social, economic, and religious fanaticism and
greed. She excoriates a system that chooses not focuses on the “good” news
with the explosion of wealth (for some) and the burgeoning middle class while
millions are still ground down by poverty and a system rigged against them.
Some may argue that the novel could have benefitted from a more stringent
editor, that it is too discursive, that it might even have been two books. I
disagree. The novel does meander and seems a little forced here and there, but I
think Roy does a wonderful job of bringing her characters to life in all their
complexities as individuals and in the circumstances that determine and often
force their paths of life, and death. India is a vast, complex, stratified country of
huge, and growing, differences and inequalities. How to single-out which
practices or conditions to convey a sense of India? You might argue with her
selections, but I think Roy has written from her heart about her multifaceted
perspectives on India.
I have mused over the meaning of the title: what is The Utmost Ministry of
Happiness? At the end of the novel we get the story of a child, Miss Jebeen the
Second, and her mother, in a letter delivered after the mother has been killed in
the Kashmir war. It is a wrenching story and at the end of it:
“Each of the listeners recognized, in their own separate ways, something of
themselves and their own stories, their own Indo-Pak, in the story of this
unknown, faraway woman who was no longer alive. It made then close ranks
around Miss Jebeen the Second like a formation of trees, or adult elephants—an
impenetrable fortress in which she, unlike her biological mother, would grown up
protected and loved.”
This passage has two key points: the universality of human experience that can
resonate across place and time, and the essence of what is the Ministry of
Happiness: to be loved and to know love, in any circumstance, stage and age of
There was a review recently in the New York Review of Books of, Ants Among
Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, by Sujatha
Gidla, a book about Dalits, formerly “untouchable” Hindus. A number of
observations from the reviewer echo themes that Roy explores in her novel:
“India, the world’s largest democracy, also happens to be the world’s most
hierarchical society....The institution of caste, the social group to which Indians
belong by birth, remains the most formidable obstacle an egalitarian ethos....in
the Hindu caste system defined by ‘graded inequality’...there is no such class
as a completely unprivileged caste except the one which is at the base of the
Gidla argues that, “everything exciting and progressive” in the 1950s and 1960s
was “associated with communism”. Echoes of Roy’s political tendencies, and a
tie back to her selection of a quote from Hikmet.
Finally, “...Gidla’s characters are not two-dimensional victims, poor and weak,
waiting to be liberated from their primitive existence by some modern ideology
or institution...Rather, she commemorates their ingenuity and creativity, their
repertoire of cultures and memories...she displays an ethnographic fidelity to
the stories, images, gods, taboos, and fears of her community...the emotional
current is always strong. People fall in love, and are cruelly thwarted, by both fate
and man-made prohibitions.” (emphasis added)
This quote could serve also as a description of Roy’s novel.
Mario Benedetti (1920-2009)
Benedetti was an influential member of Uruguay’s Generation of 1945, an intellectual and literary movement that included Juan Carlos Onetti and Amanda Berenguer, among others and which preceded the Latin American Boom of the 60s and 70s. The Truce was the inspiration for the 1974 film of the same name, the first Argentinean film to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Foreign Film). The novel is one of over ninety-five works of poetry, fiction, drama, and essays that Benedetti wrote during his lifetime, very little of which has been translated into English.
The Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced Anglophone audiences to a brave new world of writers whose brand of modernism included both rigorous engagements with regional history and politics, and flightier, more fantastical modes of storytelling. Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa was at the vanguard of the former; Colombian Gabriel García Márquez was chief practitioner of the latter. Mexico and Argentina were represented by the Boom’s two other unofficial standard-bearers, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar
Post-Boom, it is arguably these four countries, together with late-addition Chile (Isabel Allende and Roberto Bolaño at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum) that have continued to provide English-speaking readers with their Latin American literary fix.
As part of its Modern Classics series, Penguin wanted to show that the Latin American literary world is a a larger place, and selected The Truce as its lead title of 2015.
Martin Santome is 49 years old, works as chief accountant in an auto-parts importing company, and hopes to retire soon after 25 years with the firm (but in Uruguay in 1957, even retiring requires not just paperwork, but connections and bribes). Martin has been a widower for 25 years. After the sudden death of his young wife, he raised their two sons and a daughter; he is basically estranged from the sons (one he suspects of having fallen in with a bad crowd, if not outright crime, and he does not react well to the discovery that his other son is gay), but he has a closer relationship with his daughter. Martin avoids commitment; he has sex in one-night stands. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in retirement beyond, “something full, rich; the last opportunity to find myself.” But Martin has no goals, he is basically drifting through life, and though the story is presented as a diary, through he is own admissions and comments by families and co-workers, we gather the impression of a man who is good at his job, but not overly-friendly and who can be seen as punctilious, critical, distant, and uncaring, and his home life is not much better. In an outburst of honesty, Martin’s daughter sums up the family and Martin’s life:
“I have the terrible feeling that time goes by and I don’t do anything, nothing happens, and nothing moves me to the core. I look at Estban and then I look at Jaime and I’m sure they’re also unhappy. Sometimes...I also look at you and think I wouldn’t want to reach fifty years of age and have your temperament, or your poise, simply because I find them commonplace and worn out. I find myself with a great abundance of energy, but I don’t know where to apply it, nor what to do with it. I think you resigned yourself to being gloomy, and I think that’s horrible because I know you’re not gloomy. Well, at least you weren’t before.”
And then into this humdrum, ordinary, unambitious life of a not very sympathetic nor empathetic man, comes a 24 year old woman named Laura Avellaneda, who works for Martin in the accounting section. Exhibiting strongly his lack of sympathy and and even a deficit of intelligence, Martin muses, “I’ve never trusted women with numbers. Furthermore, there’s another drawback: during their menstrual period, and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if the are normally a little silly, they become complete imbeciles.” However, Martin soon appreciates Avellaneda (he always refers to her by her surname) for her good work and attitude, and then surprises himself by admitting that there is “something about Avellaneda that attracts me. That’s obvious, but what is it?” Laura has a boyfriend, but that ends. She and Martin start having coffee and breaks together at the office, Martin comes upon her ‘accidentally’ in town (Laura is not fooled), they start to meet for coffee, progress to movies, and then a first kiss. They keep their relationship secret and as the intimacy deepens, Martin is beset by hesitations about what he wants, what he’s doing, how Avellaneda can feel about all this.
Is this whole story a rationalization by an older, more powerful man (Martin is Laura’s boss) who uses his authority to ensnare the much younger Laura for sex or status? The book could well have been written the way, but I don’t think it was. Love, commitment, attraction, desire, accommodation, sharing and caring—all the things that define a couple, do not have to follow a ‘normal’ pattern of similarity in ages. I think Benedetti does a masterful job of painting this completely unexpected turn in Martin’s and Laura’s lives, and of the love that develops between them, despite all the social sanctions that one might expect for the age difference and their own, especially Martin’s uncertainties, and fears that he finally overcomes in the depth of his love for Laura. As they become closer and closer (helped a great deal by the real friendship that develops between Martin’s daughter, Blanca, and Laura), Martin invokes a plan of “absolute freedom, of getting to know each other and seeing what happens, or letting time pass, and then reviewing the situation”. The first time they are together in the apartment that Martin has rented, with flower and champagne and the expectation that they will have their first sexual intimacy, Laura, overwhelmed by what is happening asks if she can leave without any fuss. She promises everything will be fine the next day, but right now she needs a moment more of time. Martin is “disappointed, stupid, understanding”, but he does not argue, he does not cajole, he respects her wishes and feelings.
Martin travels a long way. Early in his story, he thinks: “I’m a pretender, since I myself have become complicated, odd, chaotic and impure....Could I be dried up? Emotionally, I mean?” Later, with Laura: “We made love this afternoon...Never in my life have I felt so close to bliss....I ignored that I had those reserves of tenderness in me...I have tenderness and I’m proud to have. Even desire becomes pure, even the act most definitely devoted to sex becomes almost immaculate.”
And what about Laura? We do not know her interior thoughts, only her actions and her words. She might well wonder about engaging with a man 30 years her senior and what it could mean for her future. She does think about this, but her passion is channelled through her intelligence as much as her heart. Later in her relationship with Martin, she says: “I love you....I haven’t said it to you until now, but not because I didn’t love you, but because I didn’t know why I loved you. Now I know why...I don’t love you for your face, for your years, for your words, or for your intentions. I love you because you are a good man.” Laura is also very perceptive about Martin’s feelings and, more importantly, his fears, one of which is that “...experience is good when it arrives hand in hand with vigour; afterwards, when the strength is gone, one becomes a decorous museum piece, whose only value is being a reminder of what existed. Experience and strength are contemporaries for a very short time.”
Although Martin has never articulated this to Laura, she knows it, and dismisses it out of hand: “...your fear of time, that you’ll become old and I’ll go looking elsewhere. Don’t be so sensitive. What I like most about you is something which won’t go away with the passage of time.”
The novel is a sensitive, believable story that is, I think, psychologically acute on almost every page, tracing acquaintance that grows into respect and friendship, burgeoning desire and intimacies that are intellectual, emotional and physical. All this set within the constraints of family, social positions, ages, prospects for the future, and the harness of Martin’s own personality and life experiences before he is transformed by his love for Laura.
Other characters also fill out Martin’s life. First and foremost are his children with his regrets for missed opportunities as he struggles to relate to them as adults going their own ways in their own lives. Two old friends drift back in and out Martin’s life and offer portrayals of the universal truth that every individual and every relationship is unique no matter how many billions of times the outlines have been replicated. There are good cameo character appearances, e.g. Laura’s mother and father whom Martin visits. Benedetti also commits acerbically on social atitudes (“...the national character: impudent, dull, overburdened and charming”), and political practices characterized by pervasive corruption at all levels of society.
This is a novel about the redemptive power of love, and about relationships that one is thrust into, as in a family (what Martin calls, “the unchosen relationship, of the bond posed by the circumstances”), but also those feelings that might be found in unlikely places, as with Martin and Laura, feelings that come to define life above all other considerations. It is also about the shocking fragility of life.
As fate gives, so can it take away. After Laura’s death, Martin sinks into a world that is “no longer interesting”. His almost last words in his diary:
“It’s obvious that God granted me a dark destiny. Not even cruel. Simply dark. It’s obvious that He granted me a truce. In the beginning, I was unwilling to believe that this could be happiness. I resisted with all my might, but eventually I gave in, and I believed. But it wasn’t happiness, it was only a truce. Now I’m inside my destiny again. And it’s much darker than before, much darker.”
The writing is clear, short, declarative, free of embellishments in very limited use of similes and metaphors. This strips the writing down to a focus on revealing and exploring character and relationships.
The Truce reminds me of Stoner by John Williams. Stoner is more complex because it takes the protagonist through a greater array of the vicissitudes of life in personal and professional worlds. But there is the common feature of love, and loss, in unexpected circumstances. The direct, unadorned writing styles are similar. The central strength of both novels is the depiction and exploration of life stories that elevate and celebrate the good and the bad, the heartbreaking and the hope-making in the lives of ordinary people; universals that any reader can appreciate and understand.