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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

On the role of place in modern-day fiction

recent read, Mhairi Mcfarlane's It's Not Me, It's You, is a romance novel set partly in the city where I now live. I've become very fond of Newcastle very quickly, and want to see it in fiction. And yet as I read the local sections of the book I rolled my eyes a lot; I found every reference to a specific place jarring, as if it were trying to draw too much attention to itself. Certainly when the action shifted to (the much more often written about) London, everything felt a lot smoother. I'm not sure whether this had anything to do with the book itself, or whether the shift to a less familiar (to me) setting was what changed; but I'm now struck by the idea of Londoners reading the thousands of books set in their city with the same feeling with which I read this one.

They must be used to it though, when it's all so written-about. I've recently returned to Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, in which West Indian immigrants to the UK carve out homes for themselves in a London that is so much a part of their culture that every street is fraught with meaning. "Jesus Christ, when he say 'Charing Cross', when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man," thinks one newly-arrived young man.

hen Nem, the protagonist of Janice Pariat's Seahorse, moves to London friends congratulate him on being able to live there while young. "It stays with you, for London is a moveable feast". "That's about Paris," objects Nem, before discovering that "all these cities were identical, cloaked with the same shiny, glittering appeal; pronounced with reverence, like a hushed prayer. (Nem) found that London was filled with old light".

Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

I don't know if Nem's "old light" is the same thing that Selvon's 'Sir Galahad' refers to when he visits landmarks so significant as to be part of the language itself, but I think it might be. Selvon's narrator later describes the importance of being able "to have said 'I walked on Waterloo Bridge,' 'I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,' 'Piccadilly Circus is my playground,' to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world." Everything is saturated with significance. Here is a place whose name is in the dictionary; there is the place where T.S. Eliot once worked. Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

This column is about a city that I don't know well, and another city that I'm beginning to know and love. But there's a third city, always, that is home. Pariat's Nem spends a significant part of the novel in Delhi; it's there he falls in love, goes to university, finds his first few jobs. In "Golf Links, Panchsheel, Defence Colony, Neeti Bagh (...) previously unfashionable Lado Sarai and industrial Okhla," and a few pages later "in the newly trendy Hauz Khas Village, in front of Humayun's Tomb, the Red Fort, (...) Paranthe-wali gali." Nem's relationship with Delhi, like most people's is not entirely positive; even those of us who love the city deeply have trouble doing so unreservedly. But homesick and a continent away I can see how a mere list of landmarks can begin to be important; how they can cease to be a mere attempt at local colour and become talismanic.

 
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