novel grew out of an image of a large house half-submerged by a river"
Actes Sud nous font découvrir une talentueuse romancière indienne dont la
première publication en traduction française est le roman intitulé Un
atlas de l'impossible. Anuradha Roy définit elle-même ce roman comme une
saga familiale... Ambiances, personnages attachants, Inde passée... une
œuvre qui ne manque pas de charme !
Photo : Mclehose Press
Anuradha Roy, could you first introduce yourself to our readers
AR : What can I say about myself? As a child I lived all over India
because my father was a field geologist and this work made him move
around a lot. Thirty or forty years ago when phones and television and
internet had not connected everyone, moving from one part of India to
another was like moving to another country. The language, food, culture,
architecture: everything changed totally. I went to many schools, then
moved to Calcutta for college and then to Cambridge for university
so I have roots everywhere and nowhere and am an insider and outsider
simultaneously anywhere I find myself. It was only when I began working
at a publisher’s office in Delhi that I first spent a long stretch of
time in one place and now I live with my husband and dog partly in a
tiny town in the hills and partly in Delhi.
When and how did you get the taste for writing? What did your write
AR : I’ve written stories ever since I can remember. I published my
first few in an Indian newspaper when I was fourteen. The money I earned
from those stories financed a box camera. One or two of them even
attracted letters from readers. So immediately two of the “side effects”
of writing became apparent
: Novel is a tradition in Bengal literature from 19th century : do you
consider you are continuing this tradition?
AR : I haven’t read enough Bengali fiction to think I am continuing that
tradition. I feel myself a fusion of all sorts of traditions from
Bengali literature and nonsense verse to Chekhov and Hardy and Asterix
and Henning Mankell.
: Who are the writers, from India or any other place, from present or
past times, whom you consider have an influence on you or you admire?
AR : This
novel was most influenced by the films of Satyajit Ray and the fiction
of Bibhutibhushan, a Bengali writer whose work is exquisite, poetic, and
deeply moving, filled with humanity and empathy for landscapes and
I admire many writers: Chekhov, Yasunari Kawabata, Virginia Woolf,
Dickens, Anne Stevenson, Ahmed Ali and Bibhutibhushan are among the
writers I re-read. I love Kawabata’s very Chekhovian novel The Sound
of the Mountain which reveals the extraordinary through a series of
daily events and perceptions – nothing earth-shattering has happened,
yet by the end of the book after layer upon layer of incidents,
memories, talk – everything is altered. The same applies to a novel like
Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I think I gravitate towards fiction that
doesn’t feel the need for obviously grand themes but is about the lives
of ordinary people.
Among the present-day Indians who write in English I enjoy and admire
Vikram Seth’s writing because he is so versatile, and uncaring of
trendiness. You have to be very brave – apart from brilliantly gifted –
to write a novel in sonnets as he did, or a novel which focuses on
Western classical music.
There are some books I love but know to be quite different from
anything I would ever aspire to write. For example I’ve just been
reading Imperium, Ryszard Kapucinski’s book about the Soviet
Republic and the brutality and tragedy he writes of, and the kind of
travelling he does to reach his stories, are both unimaginable and
terrifying for me. Currently I am reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer
Rage, which is a book about Dyer’s inability to write the book he is
meant to be writing. Like all his writing it is hugely witty, highly
intelligent and acrobatic in its ability to keep seemingly insignificant
ideas afloat, draw meaning out from them. Again it is a book I can only
be helplessly admiring of. But I suppose all that anyone reads settles
in, layer upon layer, and turns into a kind of rich compost in which
their own writing sprouts.
: An Atlas of Impossible Longing is your first novel : how did
you get the idea to write this story?
AR : The novel
grew out of an image of a large house half-submerged by a river. It was
a haunting photograph of an actual house that had to be abandoned by my
aunt’s family. This image kept coming back to me, gradually people
the novel’s characters
floated up out of its surroundings and the novel began.
IR : Would you please give a clue about the story?
AR : It is a
family saga, a kind of trilogy-in-one-volume structurally, and follows
the fortunes of a cloistered, conservative family in India, into which
is introduced – almost by accident
an orphan who moves by degrees from the periphery of the family to its
centre. The novel is set over a long period of time, 1907 to the 1950s
during which time India went through gigantic transformation (from being
colonised to becoming an independent country, the Partition of India
among other thing) and some of this is reflected in the lives of the
characters; but it is primarily a book about solitude, loneliness,
domestic politics, love, lost landscapes, the migration to big cities.
These themes could have worked in the present day equally, but I wanted
a language and pace from time when things were slower, and the slowness
allowed for a different kind of richness.
: What is the most important in this novel : characters, places,
emotions, ambience, social message... or what else?
: For me the most important reason
to write the book was that I had to tell the story of the people in it,
and of the landscapes and houses that were inextricable from those
people, and which vanished with them. They felt like real people and
places to me: things happened to them, and I had to write about those
things, convey what the gradual dissolution of one way of life meant.
: How would you define your style? Is style a special preoccupation when
: If by style you mean the prose, I
revise and rewrite and rethink quite obsessively until each sentence
sounds right to me – but of course you can never get everything right. I
really dislike having to go back to read anything I’ve written because I
know those deformed bits I’d rather forget will pop out and stare at me.
Language is everything in good fiction: I can’t read indifferently
written novels and wouldn’t want to write one.
: Being also a journalist, has this activity any influence on your
AR : I was not
a full time journalist for long; I understood very quickly it was not my
world. Since then I’ve only written as a freelancer or been a consulting
editor, which is not at all the same thing as being a journalist. But
even my brush with it did some good: for a start, it made me very
obedient with deadlines. So if I have promised my publisher that I will
finish reading proofs by a certain date, for example, I will stay up
nights and wake at dawn to get it done by then. I think a spell of
journalism demystifies writing, makes you aware of the drudgery, makes
you understand that if you need to write something, you have to be at
your desk and chair for long hours and get down to it. If you have
something you need to write, you know you can’t wait for absolute
solitude and a darkened room and a year in which to devote yourself only
IR : Can you tell us about Permanent Black?
Permanent Black is an independent publishing house doing mainly books on
Indian politics and history. My husband and I started it in 2000 and
have been running it since then; we have published over 250 books in
these years. The best and most renowned social scientists and historians
have published with us as well as absolutely new, brilliant young
scholars of promise. One of the French writers we have published is
Christophe Jaffrelot, who writes on political and caste issues.
: What are your plans now? Maybe soon another novel to be published?
My second novel, The Folded Earth, was
published this year in Britain and India and is due out in the US in
2012. The first of its translations is going to be out soon, in
Norwegian. This book is set in the present day, in a small town in the
Himalayan foothills – in the town where I live :
séduit par la tranquillité des hauts plateaux où est édifiée la petite
ville de Songarh, Amulya décide de quitter la touffeur de Calcutta et
d'établir sa fabrique de plantes médicinales en lisère de forêts
mystérieuses où rôdent des léopards. Ancien centre de pèlerinage
bouddhique, Songarh est devenue un centre minier aux mains des colons
britanniques, et la femme d'Amulya, isolée parmi les populations
tribales et les Anglais qui côtoient les Indiens sans jamais se mêler à
eux, souffre en silence de cette nouvelle vie, beaucoup trop provinciale
à son gré. Après le mariage de ses deux fils, elle est frappée
d'étranges symptômes qui l'assignent à résidence dans sa chambre d'où
elle est le témoin d'un meurtre passionnel, drame auquel vient bientôt
s'ajouter le décès d'une de ses belles-filles qui meurt en donnant le
jour à la petite Bakul. Le roman se concentre alors sur le destin de
l'enfant et sur celui de Mukunda, orphelin sans caste que la famille a
recueilli. Saga familiale courant sur un demi-siècle et trois
générations, Un atlas de l'impossible invite à comprendre l'histoire de
l'Inde, de la colonisation à l'Indépendance, à travers la complexe
trajectoire de personnages capables d'établir des liens par-delà les
castes, les religions, les générations et les sexes. En célébrant la
force des relations individuelles et l'inaliénable rapport des hommes
aux lieux qu'ils habitent, Anuradha Roy donne ici à éprouver ce terreau
sensible où s'ancrent et se déploient les émotions tout autant que les