Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Barn Owl's Dismal Capers

I was very excited when Suniti lent me her copy of The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. In fact it was around Hansa's birthday, and I wanted to rush out and get her a copy because she'd seen it somewhere and admired the drawings. Also because it seemed quite interesting to begin with. The bookstore didn't have it when I checked. And thank god for that. Because cross the first 20 pages, and the book loses its act completely.

The story is a retelling of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Here he lives in Calcutta of the 1700s as Abravanel Ben Obadiah Ben Aharon Kabariti. He records all the scandals of contemporary Cal - especially those of the British administrators - in a book called The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Pablo, our hero, wants to find the copy that his grandfather had picked up once in Paris. At his grandfather's death, the book was given away, and Pablo sets about looking for it in Calcutta. He meets many people in the process and this story is a little about each of them. Interesting premise, interesting beginning, but somehow, it doesn't come together at all. And it goes on for a massive 280 pages.

The problem with The Barn Owl..., I think, is something that is common to many urban Indian writers (and here I count myself in too). We have, I feel, a multiplicity of stimuli, and we want to bring it all in. Unlike people who live in sanitized societies, living in India offers you so much everyday madness to play with, that you can't bear to leave anything out. And I suspect the temptation to do so is higher in a form like the graphic novel, since it's so visual and thrives on the kitschy, the slightly batty.

In The Barn Owl... it feels as if every thing that has ever struck Banerjee as odd or delightfully eccentric about Calcutta is brought in - irrespective of its role in the larger narrative. Yes, cities have their incredibly fascinating idiosyncrasies, but does it all have to come together, like, right now?

After a point, each vignette is treated in the same way. New characters are introduced and described and located every 5 or 6 pages, and then the story carries on to another character. You feel like there's going to be a crackling crescendo at the end, but there's just a whisper of drama there. In fact, hardly any at all.

It's all very wry and ironic, but finally, it simply doesn't pull together and become that convincing story.

About the visuals: opinion in this family is divided. Banerjee, though inventive and well-schooled in the storyboard-like delineation of a graphic novel, is not a skilled artist. His drawing is honestly a bit amateurish. Amit, as an artist and illustrator, can't tolerate bad drawing in a graphic novel, because well, you wouldn't put up with bad writing in a prose novel, would you? I see his point. But initially, I was like, ok, so it's not great drawing, but I'm all for democracy in these matters. Like, I loved the mixing of old photos of Cal with illustrations. And I admired the cinematic feel in general.

In a graphic novel, I can look at the drawings as being a part of the narrative and therefore not to be considered separately (unless of course the illustrator is so good that the work becomes art!). The bigger deal for me is the story. So long as the visual style merges with the story-telling, or at least, so long as the visuals tell the story well, it's ok with me.

At the end of The Barn Owl... though, I felt massively irritated because the story hadn't worked and neither had the art. It just seemed so self-indulgent and vapid. Amit has seen reviews of Kashmir Pending, a graphic novel published by Banerjee and he says it's a whole lot better than this one - at least in terms of skill. I certainly hope so.


Space Bar said...

hmm. still haven't read either corridor or barn owl...but as happens with some kind sof books, i'd like to read it without having to buy it.

s'pity, though.

parotechnics said...

hey, very perspicacious (to use Hansa's favourite word) review. I like what you said about the multiplicity of stimuli - but I think there's also something else. Finally the city has consummated its elite status in the order of things. Urban studies/culture studies/the validation of the quotidian: all of which are/were powerful political things at a moment seem to have entered a space of static observation (not observation to some end) and city dwellers have arrived at some self justifying decadence of detail. In being wonder struck and amused by life's little ironies, we're quite cut off from the big ones, and in bringing ourselves into things (initially to acknowledge our implicatedness) we seem to have totally lost curiosity about- genuine curiosity - as well as the need to understand others. It's a world wide urban crisis along with traffic jams, eh? Good grief, the return of my broadband connection, through activism (i.e. calling the GM's office) has made me very verbose. Sorry Anita and Amit, you may punish me for writing such a long comment.

suniti said...

Thanks Anita, for reading book completely. That is more than what I could manage. Liked your critique, and agree with it.
Maybe I will give the book one more chance. Sarnath was quite cute you know ;)


chica said...

I must say, I'm a bit relieved that there are others who thought that Sarnath Banerjee missed a turn or two with Barn Owl. I had started wondering if I was the only one. Also interesting to know an illustrators point of view, since I was quite disappointed by his illustrations. I got a chance to ask Sarnath Banerjee a few questions and I must say I really enjoyed his replies much more than his book! If you are interested, you can find his interview and my review on my blog.

anita & amit said...

hi chica,
would love to read your review and interview, except that blogger isn't letting me! it says your profile is private... perhaps you could mail it to me at aninair10 at hotmail dot com? thanks!

Chtr Kmth said...

dear you have to get in touch with me, till then I will read your blogs :D