Thursday, February 16, 2012

Building books with bricks of language

Novels often touch us deeply for two very different reasons. Either they talk to us about our own lives, teach us about the times we live in, help us understand  how to live our lives now. Or they tell us about other lives, other communities, other countries, teaching us how other people live their lives, helping us understand the universality of some of our deepest values.

For me Monica Ali's Brick Lane falls into the second category. When this debut novel was published in 2003 it was one of the first Post-Nine Eleven stories told from a Muslim viewpoint - and, even more remarkably, a distinctly female Muslim viewpoint - to become an international best seller. Ali's name appeared on Granta's famous list of 20 Best Young British Novelists Under 40 even before publication, on the strength of  the manuscript alone, causing a lot of hype in the media and some controversy among 'Bangla Brits' who felt that Ali's portrayal of the immigrant Bengali community around Brick Lane in London's East End was not always sympathetic enough.

Ali herself was apparently astonished that so many people wanted to read 'a book about a Bangladeshi housewife'.

The housewife in question is Nazneen, born in 1967 in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), who arrives in London as a simple village girl at the age of 18 to become the wife of a much older man, Chanu, whom she has never met before. The marriage was arranged by her family, of course, and Nazneen submits to her fate, as always. Only much later in the novel, when she is already in her thirties and raising two pre-adolescent daughters, she becomes infatuated with Karim, a young Muslim activist, and questions Fate for the first time.

Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, her younger sister Hasina's hazardous life seems like a warning of what might happen to women who don't submit to their fate. Hasina runs away from home at an early age to marry a man she loves rather than one chosen by her family, then runs away from the husband when he starts beating her and finds herself a job in a factory. She loses her job because of malicious rumours caused by her beauty and her independent spirit, gets raped and abused by an older man whom she regards as a father figure, falls lower and lower until she eventually becomes a full-time prostitute. Compared to Hasina's miserable existence, Nazneen's occasional unhappiness and longing for freedom appear almost insignificant.

The reader gets to know Hasina only through the letters she sends her sister in London, charming letters written in a quaint broken English, which presented this particular reader with a problem. Obviously Hasina wouldn't write to her sister in English, which none of the two can speak at the beginning of the novel. She would write in Bengali and would probably make a lot of spelling mistakes because she has a very basic education, but she wouldn't use this twisted and totally ungrammatical language found in the letters. So the reader has to assume that the amusing broken English is the author's attempt to convey Hasina's spelling mistakes - but then, why not simply use 'normal' English with spelling mistakes?

The more I thought about this, the more I realised these letters are a very good illustration of the difficulty facing any author who wants to write about a specific community speaking a specific language, but wants the story to be read by a much wider audience in an international language. The silly English in Hasina's letters probably delighted millions of readers who never paused to ask themselves WHY Hasina couldn't speak her own mother tongue?

I really enjoyed the rest of the book - even though the last scene was more suitable for a superficial Hollywood movie like Mamma Mia than a subtle novel - but the way the author handled the problems of language posed by these letters left me distinctly dissatisfied. I still believe Brick Lane is an enlightening novel which deserves to be read by a wide audience, but I would have liked it so much more if I didn't get the feeling that Monica Ali underestimated her readers' intelligence when she decided to write Hasina's letters in this amusing and probably crowd-pleasing broken English.      

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