Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sara Suleri as a stylistician

Because the foremost characteristic of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days is its precision of language-- the writer clearly has a tremendous vocabulary, and never hesitates to employ even an esoteric word, so long as it best suits her meaning-- certain choices tend to stand out as strange or even counterintuitive, given their context. Probably the best example in the first chapter appears at the end of the discussion on Dadi and God:

God she loved, and she understood him better than anyone. Her favorite days were those when she could circumnavigate both the gardener and my father, all in the solemn service of her God. With a pilfered knife, she'd wheedle her way to the nearest sapling in the garden, some sprightly poplar or a newly planted eucalyptus. She'd squat, she'd hack it down, and then she'd peel its bark away until she had a walking stick, all white and virgin and her own. It drove my father into tears of rage. He must have bought her a dozen walking sticks, one for each of our trips to the mountains, but it was like assembling a row of briar pipes for one who will not smoke: Dadi had different aims. Armed with implements of her own creation, she would creep down the driveway unperceived to stop the cars and people on the street and give them all the gossip that she had on God.
The word that caught my eye, the one I am talking about here, is that gossip in the final sentence. Typically, of course, one does not refer to religious speech, to preaching or proselytizing, as gossip-- unless one hopes to convey a subtle scorn for his or her subject. So, having been bombarded throughout the paragraph with Suleri's rather tame, impassive vocabulary (pilfered rather than stolen, circumnavigate rather than sneak by), the reader cannot help but be diverted by the relatively suggestive term in the final clause.

Names and language

Throughout her book Meatless Days, Sara Suleri examines language, in many cases specifically discussing names -- the naming of both places and people. At one point near the end of the book she comments on the cultural and social importance of Pakistani names:
"Oh!" said Ifat and listened, white as ice. She listened to her father-in-law, the brigadier, a polo-playing man, tell her that he wanted his four sons to be gentlemen, he did not want them to be cads. She listened to all of this, and then she taught herself the most significant task of them all. She learned the names of Pakistan.
For never has there been, in modern times, such a Homeric world, where so much value is pinned onto the utterance of name! Entire conversations, entire lives, are devoted to the act of naming people, and in Pakistan the affluent would be totally devoid of talk if they were unable to take names in vain. Caste and all its subclassifications are recreated every day in the structure of a conversation that knows which names to name: "Do you know Puppoo and Lola?" "You mean Bunty's cousins?" "No, Bunty's cousins are Lali and Cheeno, I'm talking about the Shah Nazir family -- you know, Dippoo's closest friends." "Oh, of course, I used to meet them all the time at Daisy Aunty's place!" For everyone has a family name and then a diminutive name, so that to learn an ordinary name is not enough -- you must also know that Zahid is Podger, and Seema is Nikki, and Rehana is Chunni, and on and on. To each name attched a tale, and the tales give shape to the day . . . We had felt too supercilious, in our youth, to bother with this lingo, so it was somewhat of a surprise to hear such names to hear such names on Ifat's lips. An energetic lady, Aunty Nuri, undertook to mediate between the brigadier and Pip until -- under her auspices -- a reconciliation of the clans was tautly staged. "I can't stand it," Shahid told me afterward, "when Ifat talks Punjabi or does this Nikki Pikki stuff!" "Well, it must have been hard work," I mused. In any case, I was distracted. For when we met again, how strange I felt to notice that Ifat's beautiful body, which I had missed so much, was now convex with child.
Naming has been an important theme throughout the book, yet this explanation is given near the end. In her writing, Suleri alternates between different names for characters, such as Papa and Pip, without explaining her choices. Suleri often uses the technique of ending a paragraph with what seems like an introductory sentence for the following paragraph.

The Metatextual and the Hermeneutic in Meatless Days

Two things, in particular, struck me about Sara Suleri's Meatless Days. The first is the author's attempt to purposely confuse her readers, to perplex them into a state of suspense. Often, I found myself rereading a sentence or paragraph over and over again, hoping to find the symbolic key to its hidden meaning. But, as I read on, I realized that Suleri had left me with something tantalizingly nonsensical, a riddle she refused to answer until later in her story. The following passage, epigrammatic of the novel as a whole, coaxes the reader into a state of mild, perhaps pleasant, confusion:
It is hard to believe today that I thought the dream too harsh a thing. As parable, the kapura does not dare to look much further. It wishes to take the taste of my imagination only quite so far and, like my mother, makes me trebly entranced; had I really been perplexed at such a simple thing? Or perhaps my mind had designed me to feel rudely tender. I had eaten, that was all, and woken to a world of meatless days.
Suleri's use of the hermeneutic code is both frustrating and engaging. I was also struck by the many moments in the text where Suleri seems to describe her own project. The following are examples of this metatextuality:
When we lived in Pakistan, that little swerve from severity into celebration happened often.
When I teach topics in third world literature, much time is lost in trying to explain that the third world is locatable only as a discourse of convenience. Trying to find it is like pretending that history or home is real and not located precisely where you're sitting.
I can understand it, the fear that food will not stay discrete but will instead defy our categories of expectation in what can only be described as a manner of extreme belligerence. I like order to a plate, and know the great sense of failure that attends a moment when what is potato to the fork is turnip to the mouth. It' shard, when such things happen.

Marmalade Squirrels: A Love of Language

For Sara Suleri language is life. She relates to the people and history through food metaphors. She structures her days and life as if they are sentences and stories. For Sara a name contains "jewels and tiny serpents" and a sentence can seem like a surviving part of a dead sister. Many writers we have read enjoyed language and played with it as John McPhee did in his many lists of names and places, and as Lawrence did with his unique descriptions of nature. Not one of them embraces language as passionately as Sara Suleri does in Meatless Days. Sara depicts her love of language at infancy in the passage that follows.
It made me the quaintest baby that she had -- as an infant I was absorbed with grammar before I had fully learned the names of things, which caused a single slippage in my nouns: I would call a marmalade a squirrel, and I'd call a squirrel a marmalade. Today I can understand the impulse and would very much like to call sugar an opossum; an antelope, tea. To be engulfed by grammar after all is a tricky prospect, and a voice deserves to declare its own control in any way it can, asserting that in the end it is an inventive thing.
Perhaps Sara's quest for independence within voice and language explains her horror when she discovers her own inventive speech stolen by her eccentric friend Fancy Musgrave.
She had pilfered my voice! In my absence, ventriloquized me to a T! I was the man making foolish faces, while she was the chatterbox on my knee! I was astonished, feeling like an organ-grinder who had woken up to discover that the monkey had run off with his machine.
And then there are the concluding words on language: Speaking two languages may seem a relative affluence, but more often it entails the problems of maintaining a second establishment even though your body can be in only one place at a time...Living in language is tantamount to living with other people. Both are postures in equilibrium that attend upon gravity's capacity for floatation, which is a somber way of looking out for the moment when significance can empty into habit.

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