Because of my recently-concluded lecture series at the University of Chicago the Anthropocene has been much on my mind of late. It was serendipitous then that I happened to read Swimmer Among the Stars, Kanishk Tharoor’s debut collection of stories, at just this time.
Not that these stories address the Anthropocene as such: what caught my interest is the manner in which Tharoor breaks with the fictional conventions of this era. It is as though he were conjuring up possibilities that are better suited for times to come.
Here is the first paragraph of the third story in the collection, A United Nations in Space:
In between sessions, the ambassadors come to the viewing vestibule and search the shadowed half of the earth. They crowd the portholes. Where once they might have seen the bright fuzz of cities and towns, now the dark patches are profound. It’s not simply a case of the electricity being cut, the lights winking out, the streets and homes rolled away. No, Kiribati thinks, it’s as if humanity’s white webs have been coloured black… a black more velvet than the night, continental in its spidery sprawl.
The story continues:
For months amidst its other work, the council has been trying to find a site where it might reinstall itself on earth. Bhutan’s offer of his mountain capital was initially welcomed, largely because the Himalayas seemed the most secure place in a world scoured by the oceans. But then the noise of war spread up the valleys, big countries growled at each other over glaciers, and little Bhutan demurred, saying that this might not be the best time to discuss the logistics of diplomatic license plates. Australia put herself forward, evoking the immensity of the continent, but the island was too remote for many members; one may as well be in near-earth orbit as in the Antipodes. The ambassadors debated the prospects of other sites, none proving palatable for the majority.
The characters in the story are identified only by the names of their countries: Bhutan, Botswana, Kiribati, Mexico. Tharoor refuses to individualize or characterize, in the usual sense; he refuses even to allow his characters any subjectivity. These refusals recur through the collection, like a series of fractures marking breaks in time. The effect is haunting and mysteriously powerful.
Equally striking is the presence of the non-human. The first story in the collection, Elephant at Sea, begins thus:
In the late summer of 1979, the Second Secretary of the Indian Embassy to Morocco received a cable that uprooted his considerable years of training and left him floundering. The message read simply: ‘Elephant en route’. Was it some sort of code? Further investigation only deepened his confusion. The cable had come from the customs office in Cochin, a port in the south of India. No, the customs officials reported back to him, it wasn’t code. It was an elephant – an elephant that along with its mahout, its driver, was now very much headed by ship to Casablanca. The Second Secretary probed: why send an elephant? Here at the customs office, the reply came, we handle only the movement of goods; for the movement of reasons, please refer your inquiry to the ministry of external affairs.
Not only are animals present in these stories, they are able to speak for themselves. In one story a stallion addresses a letter to his owner, who happens to be Afanasii Nikitin, the colourful Russian traveler who visited India in the 15th century and wrote The Journey Beyond Three Seas.
For me, you were given some sum. Not once did you stroke my mane, even though you liked admiring me from behind and feeling my muscular haunches. I know. My eyes are on the sides of my head, you see. I have a better sense of before and after than you do. Before me, there was only a man and his horse. After me will come textiles, coins, pepper, more coins, gems, slaves, more pepper and even more coins; you will do well in Hormuz and Ethiopia, be penniless by the time you get to Trebizond, shiver in Crimea. As you die of pneumonia on your way home to Tver, remember that at the beginning we were lonely together. You tried to ride me once, but fell off.
In these stories the nation state – that great motor of contemporary fiction – exists principally as a historical irony. Tharoor depicts a world of connections that both pre-exist and post-date nations: this is a universe in which the boundaries of the modern era have melted away; where Mexico dances with Luxembourg in a space station and she refuses his advances by saying: ‘I’m sorry… I can’t, no part of me can … even my desires feel weightless.’
Among the many refusals of Tharoor’s technique not the least is his evasion of the idea of determinate ‘periods’. Some of the stories slide sinuously over time, both recalling and reimagining the techniques of non-modern forms of fiction.
For a few centuries, many people decided to believe that a medieval Welsh prince sailed to america, discovering the continent long before Columbus. They dated his voyage to 1170… Several men in the seventeenth century claimed separately to have been saved by knowledge of Welsh. Captured by surly Indian tribesmen, they squealed for mercy in their mother tongue… Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to keep his eyes peeled for Indians who spoke Welsh.
Tharoor’s prose is finely wrought, filled with surprises and lexical treats. Here are a few excerpts from the story Icebreakers:
It takes only moments for an icebreaker in the Antarctic to come to the profound realisation that it can no longer break ice…
The captain breathes deeply from his inhaler. I should have known better, he thinks. Misled by weather forecasts and satellite imagery, he let his boat venture deep into the sea ice. Often, polar winds keep channels free, passages that Arctic and Antarctic sailors call polynyas (Russian is the language of ice). The captain steered his expedition down a known polynya, only to find it close around him…
In the Antarctic the silence is so total that even light carries sound.
Kanishk Tharoor is thirty-one; he is thus of the first generation to have come of age in the full awareness of the arrival of the Anthropocene. These stories give us a foretaste of some of the ways in which the uncanniness of the Anthropocene will express itself in years to come.
Swimmer Among The Stars announces the arrival of a writer who is gifted not just with extraordinary talent but also with a subtle, original and probing mind.
[Swimmer Among The Stars is to be published in India by Aleph in January 2016, and in the UK and US by Picador and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, in 2017].