The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy, Hamish Hamilton, 464 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0241303979
Although Rushdie’s Midnights Children ultimately won the commemorative Booker of all Bookers my preference, as a much younger man when I read it, was for the more lyrical, even if quirkily fragmented, The God of Small Things, a novel in which you could almost smell the foliage of India without ever having been there. There followed nothing from its author, Arundhati Roy, nothing for twenty years. Was she a Harper Lee, a one-trick pony perhaps ‑ however good the trick?
Well not exactly, Roy has channelled her energies into political activism against the growing environmental and economic damage being perpetrated on her native land by neo-liberal economics, and it is that political conscience that is the primary interest of her new book, which aesthetically is something of a struggle and in terms of quality a curate’s egg.
To understand what she is getting at the reader could also usefully read Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Verso 2014). In that recent political tract there are all sorts of resonances to her new work of politicised fiction. There are the mass evictions in India of “surplus population” ‑ the street vendors, rickshaw riders, the small shops and business people, the suicides of 250,000 farmers. This forced displacement, often from rural areas to cities, strengthens the channelling of wealth to the one per cent plutocracy which controls India. As both books demonstrate, the graveyard, or being simply dumped in a river, is often the ultimate fate of these displaced populations.
Murder and graveyards thread through Roy’s novel: the transgender heroine seeks ultimate refuge in a graveyard in Delhi. The dead or nearly dead are everywhere. There are in fact aesthetically far too many voices and minor characters, often ciphers with a merely political function, in a fragmented narrative of India both contemporary and historical. The novel has a jagged, rough-hewn feel, and is aesthetically a disappointment.
Its political theme, however, is clear and is at one point expressed in two short sentences: “We have seen great countries fall into ruin virtually overnight. What if we are next in line?”
Political novels that succeed as works of art are rare. Even the perfect future shocks of such works as Huxley’s Brave New World are more convincing for their mystical predictive powers and science fiction conceit than for the often clunky prose. The reader might indeed be well-advised to read Roy’s short but terrifying Capitalism a Ghost Story before embarking on her novel. As a work of fiction, The Ministry of Small Things has two strong well-etched central characters and a panoramic sweep. Its clutter of minor characters serves to illustrate the fate of India’s poor, displaced and powerless. This they succeed in doing and in that sense the book is a major achievement.
David Langwallner is a barrister in Dublin and at Great James Street Chambers London and emeritus director of the Irish Innocence Project