Yann Martel’s “Beatrice and Virgil” is the second book I’ve read in the past few months that has as its central character a hero who is a thinly-disguised avatar of the author himself (the other was Aatish Taseer’s “The Temple Goers”). The lives of the character and the writer have significant similarities. The supporting characters in the story seem to have obvious real-life counterparts. The lines between the real and the fictional are possibly meant to be blurred by the author’s use of elements and details from his own world. All it serves to do, however, is to highlight how different the fictional is from the real because there are certain parts in both novels that don’t seem to fit and seem to scream “Fiction!” Of course, it’s entirely possible that those are real too.
The standard cliché is that writers take the stories and characters they see around them and conjure their fictional narratives out of them. And it isn’t always appreciated. Henry James lost friends, for example. Jhumpa Lahiri has been accused of writing the same plot out with differently-named characters. The veneer of fiction is far more opaque in these kind of works though. Now, in the books I’m talking about, there is no dividing wall between the narrator and the writer. But technically, the official guiding principle is the same: write what you know. Except writing only on the basis of your own experiences is often lazy and frequently considered weirdly parasitic. Why can’t a writer imagine a story? Isn’t that what writers are supposed to do? As far as I’m concerned, a writer is supposed to tell a story, a good story, and s/he’s supposed to tell it well.
Which raises the question: do these writers have lives that make good stories? Not really, from the look of things. Either that or the likes of Yann Martel and Aatish Taseer are incapable of telling their own stories. They don’t have the objectivity, perhaps, to see what little insights are offered by their everyday chores or the unnoticed cruelties and kindnesses enacted during the course of each day. Or if they do, they sound unreal and/or pompous. But that’s got to do with their writing style more than anything else. So far as the form is concerned, the basic question raised by this recent burst of self-love in authors is, why make it fiction? If you are going to pluck from reality and cast yourself so obviously in the story, why not make it a memoir? Why retreat coyly and claim the novel’s imaginary when so much of it isn’t? You’re trying to get a reader to read this book by telling them, “This is my life, these are my experiences”. The novel isn’t about a curious set of events, in the cases of these faux-autobiographical works. It’s about the writer and it’s an invitation to the reader to possess the writer’s body and walk around his feelings and world. When you pick up “Beatrice and Virgil”, you’re finding out about Yann Martel and how his world changed after the success of “The Life of Pi”. “The Temple Goers” allows you to bear witness to the intimacies in Aatish Taseer’s personal life. And those who are adopting this device are hoping like hell that the reader wants to intrude their privacy. It’s being called fiction for respect, to package these authors’ experiences as something cerebral, so that their books aren’t compared with the pacy tell-all memoirs. But the novels have the flavour of personal reminiscences; they want to have the feeling of being not novels but diaries.
It’s as though this is Literature’s answer to reality tv: place the writer’s life in the controlled environment of pages and book covers, and hope that the readers’ voyeuristic instincts apply equally to which TV programme they watch and which book they pick off the shelf.