[2009-12-27] Hard Lines

I find myself agreeing with the author of the article "Good Novels Don't Have to Be Hard": a lot of "good" fiction in modern times is just too much work. It should not be too surprising to find many people giving up on it and moving on to simpler and more entertaining stuff. A struggle is not what I usually look forward to when I take up a novel during my precious free time.

A recent case in point for me is the novel "Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh, which I abandoned after reading a little over half of the 550-plus pages. It might be "good" literature, but it was difficult to read and I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters or the direction the story was headed. It didn't seem worthwhile to struggle through the book only to end up with the prospect of having to read the other two books in the Ibis trilogy for closure, which would probably be as long and as hard as the first book.

A major irritant for me was the medley of tongues used by the characters in the book. For example, here is the lascar Serang Ali with his pidgin English:

"Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin."

And here is Englishman James Doughty with a "zubben" that is a mixture of English and Hindustani straight from Hobson-Jobson:
"Now there was a chuckmuck sight for you. Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble bubbles and the Sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Cunchunees whirling and tickytaw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right."

These are just two of the at least four or five different tongues used by the characters in the book. Getting used to one or two different tongues in a book is manageable, but rapidly switching between four or five of them becomes very irritating very fast. After a point, it seems that the author introduces a character with yet another tongue just to weed out the weaklings among his readers.

To be fair, the book seems very well-researched and sheds light on the less well-known role played by Indian seafarers in the Opium Wars. I would prefer a well-written non-fiction book on the topic to a difficult novel though. Such novels are simply not my cup of tea.

(Originally posted on Blogspot.)

Other Posts from 2009