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    Amit Chaudhuri on new book Sojourn: I wanted to write about history without giving it a quality of pastness

    Amit Chaudhuri on new book Sojourn: I wanted to write about history without giving it a quality of pastness

    Amit Chaudhuri on new book Sojourn: I wanted to write about history without giving it a quality of pastness
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    By Sneha Bengani   IST (Updated)


    An influential literary critic and the author of several novels, major works of non-fiction, and critical essays, Chaudhuri has been the recipient of notable honours such as the Commonwealth Literature Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009.

    Amit Chaudhuri’s latest book, Sojourn, is as much about what’s going on inside its protagonist as it’s about the history of a city that unmoors him in a strangely intimate way.
    It’s about the present, the past, the then, the now, the fleeting, and the unchangeable, all at once. His writing is internal, psychological, exquisite, and concerns itself deeply with the current moment, much like Virginia Woolf.
    In this exclusive interview, the revered novelist, classical singer, literary critic, and professor of contemporary literature and creative writing discusses his newest book, his love for brevity, how he tries to explore some kind of thought through each of his novels, and why he thinks concealment is an essential part of his craft.
    Q. How was the seed for Sojourn conceived?
    A.I made two trips to Berlin in the early 2000s in quick succession: in 2004, and then in 2005. The 2004 trip was short, and it was my first time in Berlin (in Germany, actually). My wife, daughter, and I also went to Magdeburg, which, along with journeys by car to East Berlin, became part of my first encounters with the remnants of the ‘East’.
    I was very moved on several levels because I remembered, then, that the entire world had been divided along similar lines until the Berlin Wall came down, and to confront the vestiges of the division of the East and West—in Magdeburg, in Schönberg in West Berlin—was to confront the vestiges of the universe that had formed me.
    These feelings deepened when I returned to Berlin the following year for six months as a Samuel Fischer Guest Professor. I stayed in Dahlem and journeyed almost daily to the city centre of West Berlin, Wittenbergplatz, and beyond. The seeds of this novel (along with two songs, Berlin and Motz) were sown partly during the internal journeys I made while making these excursions.
    Q. How much of the story is autobiographical?
    A. As you can see from my previous answer, autobiographical retelling is not the point of this short novel. I’m not asking readers to think, "Ah, so this is how he lived his life in Berlin", or even "This is an Indian’s experience of Berlin", or "This is how one may or may not write about an Indian's experience of Berlin". To experience Berlin is to experience the history and its currents as lived life: this is what the book investigates.
    Q. Are Faqrul and Birgit based on real people?
    A. They are characters in a novel. The narrator compares Birgit to a Russian doll at one point, and to a deck of playing cards at another: even within the novel, she’s an amalgam of characters.
    Q. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a novel as complex and disconcerting as Sojourn?
    A. I don’t think Sojourn is any more complex than anything else I’ve written; and, personally, I don't think of it as disconcerting. Every novel I have written is exploring some kind of thought: my first novel, for instance—A Strange and Sublime Address—wanted to explore what it might mean to abandon an interiority of consciousness in favour of the light and space you encounter on the street. It also wanted to narrate a story of childhood without setting it in the past: to make the child’s perceptions a way of entering the present. These challenges in thinking have to be undertaken in a novel through this form of thought we call ‘literature’, or ‘fiction’. They’re worked out in the process of writing. They can’t be resolved in any other way. With Sojourn, one of the many challenges was to write about history without giving it a quality of pastness, without making it something different from the lived moment.
    Q. “I’ve lost my bearings—not in the city; in its history,” the protagonist thinks. “The less sure I become of it, the more I know my way.” But does he?
    A. The narrator means to say here that losing something—your bearings; your memory—need not be a cause of anxiety. When we become engrossed, we say that we’re "lost in thought"; when we pay deep attention, we "lose ourselves". There’s no anxiety involved. It’s that attentiveness to, and absorption in, Berlin that the narrator is probably referring to. (This ties up with why I don't think of the novel as being "disconcerting".)
    Q. Berlin is as much of a riddle in the book as the protagonist’s identity and the inside of his head. Though it is frustrating, I feel Sojourn’s muddled ambiguity is also its greatest strength. You conceal more than you reveal. Why?
    A. But concealment is an essential part of craft. Without concealment, there’s no meaning.
    Q. In Sojourn, the protagonist’s physical disorientation becomes a reflection of his mental turmoil. And yet we never find out what’s plaguing him.
    A. Although the novel’s narrator might occasionally think otherwise, it’s possible that the protagonist isn’t disoriented because nothing is really plaguing him. He’s simply becoming more and more absorbed in his encounter with history.
    Q. It’s a surprisingly thin book. Was it a conscious choice to tell the story within its current length?
    A. By ‘thin’, do you mean ‘brief’ or ‘short’? I love brevity. It’s a feature of much of my fiction; although, admittedly, this is my shortest book. Brevity is frowned upon in the English literary tradition but not so in other languages. There’s a reason for that: it creates a palpable interregnum. It holds the promise of change. Besides—as we know from long-haul flights and holidays—our awareness of length in space or time is completely subjective.
    Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.
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