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Full text of Guardian Online interview about Tokyo Cancelled   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Full text of Guardian Online interview about Tokyo Cancelled
novel, stories, imagination, magic, global, Rana Dasgupta
Tuesday, March 29, 2005 03:54 GMT

This is the full transcript of an interview with Guardian Online about my novel Tokyo Cancelled. The final article on the Guardian site can be seen here. More background to Tokyo Cancelled can be found here.

Given that Tokyo Cancelled is at root a series of linked short stories, why did you choose to present it as a novel? What do you feel the framing device adds to the whole?

I usually think of Tokyo Cancelled as a "story cycle," which captures the idea of a unity that is architectural and dispersed - and which seems to me both more archaic and more contemporary than either "novel" or "short stories". Paradoxically, the more the world becomes interwoven the less it seems possible to tell a single, representative story of it. (Or possibly: the more suspicious we are forced to become of those single, representative stories that are told.) And yet the connections are real and lived. So how do you narrate this? I was trying in this book to find a narrative structure that would have the form of a map, a network. One that could admit the distances between places, but that could also hint at the metaphors and analogies that connect them. (It is only in the last story that we get any references to actual events from other stories, and these references turn out to be too remote for understanding. Perhaps structures of feeling travel more reliably than information in our Information Age?)

As for the necessity of presenting a night of storytelling rather than simply thirteen raw texts... At one level, of course, this is a nod to a tradition of other story cycles, one that introduces some of the themes that will be sustained throughout the book. Travel and location. Silence, nothingness, and the incomprehensible - which this airport remains until the end. The nature, purpose and consequences of storytelling itself. At another, it serves to compress the narrative's time (into one night) even as its space spreads out across the globe - I think this relationship of time and space is crucial to the book. Also: by putting the stories in the mouths of unknown speakers, the reader is left with some uncertainty as to whether they are dealing with "insider" or "outsider" voices (is the Paris story told by a French teller, or by someone who has been to Paris, or by someone who has only heard about it?). I wanted to leave open the question of how far it is possible for the imagination to travel, and which things it is permissible for any one individual to speak of. To refuse the persistent categories of "authentic" and "inauthentic." A Portrait of Thirteen People with Tales for Faces, as I said about it once.

Finally - I think what is important about this presentation is that it stages the production of "literature" - of culture - as something that normal people - all people - do. If it seems fantastical that an average collection of travellers might be able to tell such stories then this raises the question - I think fascinating - of Why? Why is it so much easier to stomach the idea that Chaucerian illiterates might tell tales (in rhyming couplets!) than that modern, middle-class people might do so? There are many reasons; but one is the creeping institutionalisation of culture - so that only "writers" write, only "artists" make art, and everyone else can only consume. These stories are not presented as non-negotiable outpourings from on high, but in a setting of people who are both artists and audience. By embedding them in life, by leading readers into a world that is rather like our own but where everyone tells stories, the book issues a greater challenge - perhaps, for more story telling...

… and leading on from that: while the stories at first appeared to me to be discrete (despite their unifying tone), as I read on I began to see themes migrating between them – time, travel, death, capitalism, storytelling itself. But the theme that really drew them together, I felt, was transmutation: there was a moment of metamorphosis in almost every tale. What was it about transmutation that interested you?

I suppose I'm interested in the things people do to accommodate themselves in the world - the dark things, the glorious things... Especially because I'm drawn to writing about characters who are not at the core of the system in which we live and who must sometimes imagine radical transformations of themselves if they are to survive within it. Transformations that might seem astonishing – fairytale – to those at the centre, those whose lives have been a natural, continuous accommodation with this system.

Sometimes, transmutation is a way of dramatising the dream of a self of infinite possibility, the amazement when we discover that we could actually be other than what we are. Sometimes it is about the terror of change, of the ramparts of our selves being ground down. And always, of course, there is a dialogue between these serious questions of change and continuity in the self and the perpetual promises of instant transformation delivered by consumerist whisperers.

The way in which the stories functioned as fairytales was intriguing. Fabulous tropes – princes, towers, separated twins, third sons, forbidden rooms - popped up throughout the book, and much of the stories' wit came from the adaptation of fairytale archetypes for the modern day: celebrities as nobility, CEOs as kings. Why did you decide to draw on myths of childhood for your novel? Did you encounter any problems when you set about updating them?

The infantilisation of folktales is a recent thing, as we know, contemporary with the emergence of modern ideas of childhood. After which there is a division of labour: children get their quick fix of everything that is uncanny, irrational and enchanted, and then cast it off in favour of a rational adult self that is, if all goes well, full of common sense, informed opinion and self-discipline. How is such an astonishing division sustained? One commentator memorably said about Disney World (the land of fairytales) that its patent unreality helps us to believe that what we step out into when we leave is "reality." Plain and simple. And yet sometimes we find ourselves glimpsing something in this outside world that is remarkably similar to the inside. When Alan Greenspan gets in front of the world's cameras, for instance, to pronounce on the future of the US economy and that of the world, when he warns of dire things and sends people scuttling in all the parts of the earth to prepare themselves for ill times - do we not also remember the witch doctor, the shaman, the prophet, he who descends from his solemn communion with higher knowledge and tells the masses that the harvest will be bad and they must tighten their belts? I suppose what I'm trying to say is that the project of Tokyo Cancelled is not one of "updating" old stories. It's about a search for a language to describe my own reality. In the process of this search, folktales jump out at me for their utter seriousness and contemporaneity.

In many ways, the most fabulous aspect of the stories was the presence in all of them of a fairytale moral code; a heavily consequential, fated world view. A lost child will always find its parents; greed will always result in downfall; money can't buy you happiness; romantic love conquers all. How do you think that meshes with our complicated adult moral outlook? What did you want your readers to feel when confronted with such a didactic world view?

I would quibble slightly. If lost children always find their parents, this is a mythic trope but not really a moral lesson. And romantic love clearly does not always conquer all in this book; money sometimes buys happiness. I don't see the same consistency of prescription that you do - and partly because I think there is often something a bit tongue-in-cheek about the way that these stories round off the unimaginable with some final façade of order. As you say, it is by the neatness of endings - the "happily ever afters" - that we most easily identify fairytales - this is their "most fabulous aspect." And it is in the artifice of their endings that fairytales also advertise their humility towards the world - because we know, and the storyteller knows, that the creeping darkness of the forest can never be so effectively banished by the bright lights of a royal wedding. My own endings are more ironic and inconclusive than those of fairytales; and yet I like to preserve that fairytale sense of short-coming, of artifice, because it opens a gap between the story and the world that is, for me, a place of wonder, beauty and reflection. I don't think literature should stake a claim to ultimate knowledge of the world, as if it were not storytelling but reality itself. I think it is important to admit that ultimately we have to live with the incomprehensible, that the world cannot be described, that the most important things are unspeakable. That a story can only carry you so far towards those things before it has to signal its own limit and ask you to peer over the edge on your own. In the time of that peering, I hope, lies the potential for the [adult] moral complexity of which you speak. (I am rather less convinced than you that we have yet achieved such a thing.)

Which of the stories is your favourite? Why?

It's difficult to say, obviously. But, possibly, the last. I've been living with all these stories for a long time, and this is one that continues to offer more on return visits. It was the most ambitious story: an attempt to write about a difficult theme - Argentina's economic collapse - as a internal, lived experience rather than as a macroeconomic phenomenon. It's a problem for literature to enter such subjects without resorting to some cold journalese. I tried to represent the progress of abstract systems through the states of the body. I still like its feeling, its depiction of psychological states. It is also an explicit tribute to Luis Bunuel. In economic crisis, the needs of the body stalk everyone's minds, and he was a great modern poet of the body's various hungers. I've been watching his films again recently and I think my reworking is quite obedient...