PhD Research Scholar (English)
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,IIT Guwahati
Charu Nivedita’s novel Zero Degreewas first published in Tamil in 1998 and it was translated into English by Pritham K. Chakravarthy and Rakesh Khanna a decade later in 2008. It was published by Blaft publications. Soon after its release, it caused much stir in the prevalent Tamil literary scene for its free and candid descriptions of sex, for not adhering to any rules of grammar and syntax and for its experimental narrative technique. It has been characterized as a lipogrammatic novel and a transgressive fiction by its Tamil and Malayalam publishers. Many writers have experimented with formal structures of fiction writing viz. John Fowles, David Foster Wallace, Julio Cortazar, Winfried Georg Sebald, to list a few. The purpose of this paper shall be to examine the metamodernist predilections of Charu Nivedita by examining the apparently kaleidoscopic narrative structure of Charu Nivedita’s novel, in the lines of certain metamordernist thinkers, to show how it dramatizes its own self reflexivity and fictionality. It obliterates the distinction between the author and the reader. Through his narrative, Nivedita seeks to expound that, it is upon the readers to not merely decipher the signs that appear in the text, but also disentangle a host of convoluted meanings and symbols. He is against erecting a strict binary between the author and the reader, or the text and the reader. My purpose shall be to demonstrate that, Zero Degree could possibly be an exercise in Metamodern thinking, in which the writer plays with the notion of temporality, authorial intent, and tells us, though covertly, that the act of writing is a solipsistic exercise emerging from a contingent self.
Keywords:narrative, metamodern, temporality, violence, creativity
The term Metamodern appeared as early in 1975 and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh is credited to have used it for the first time in America. The term was loosely used for the first time to describe a cluster of attitudes that emerged in certain American narratives in the 1950s. Soon after, Linda Hutcheon necessitated the need of an alternative label to describe the period that was to follow the period of postmodernism. Andre Furlani, in describing the literary works of Guy Davenport, described metamodernism as “a departure as well as perpetuation” (web). Furlani went on to state that, “the relationship between metamodernism and modernism was seen as going far beyond homage towards a re-engagement with the modernist method in order to address subject matter well outside the range of interests of the modernists” (web). According to Alexandra E Dumitrescu, “Metamodernism is a paradigm whose dominant is the ethical, associated with a search for authenticity and for defining the roots of being in ways that allow the fragmented self to integrate in new configurations of meaning” (web). The term was first mentioned in 1995, by Nirmala Devi, in Meta Modern Era, a cultural and spiritual manifesto that pointed to the foibles of modernity and postmodernity and suggested commonsense and balance as remedies. The meta-modernistlays emphasis on a middle ground, between the spirit of modernity and technology. In the mid-1990s, Marjorie Perloff wrote an obituary to postmodernism, wondering if there was an ideal direction towards which literature was proceeding. Devi opined that, in the metamodern age, having experienced both postmodernism and modernism, people would have chosen to follow a journey to “individuation”. Dumitrescu further opines that, “metamodernism is synthesis and integration, “going beyond” and transcending” (web n.p). She further states that, there have been an upsurge of texts which reject artificiality and niche thinking, focus on ethics of care and acknowledging the other without any intention of appropriating it. The texts that emerged out of this period, emphasized on the ordinariness of lives, and believed in documenting the lives of people who were not thought to be adequate subjects for representation. Though, there have been attempts to represent such lives, much attention has been devoted to sympathize or patronize them. Metamodern writers seem to leave the writers’ supposed ivory tower of isolation and incomprehensibility and engages in fighting to make the characters more livable and believable. In an interview with Archana R, Charu Nivedita stated that, the present Tamil society has fallen prey to philistinism, andhasgiven up good art, literature, cinema and music. Much of their focus is on the Brahmin-non Brahmin struggles. This was with the inception of the Dravidian movement. He also hints at the politics of publishing houses which did not take into account certain works in regional languages. He also stated that, the Tamil literary circle did not consider his novel worthy of being published as it would have swept the ground under the feet of the sensible audience. For Nivedita, the purpose of literature is freedom. To him, it is the only alternative therapy for human suffering. It is only through literature can we come out of our agony, our beast-like life (web n.p).
In the Translator’s Note to the book, Pritham K. Chakravarthy and Rakesh Khanna issues a disclaimer at the outset, when they disavow their personal support for any kind of political agenda. Their ulterior motive was not to turn the prevalent Tamil literary scene on its head. They also tell us that, Nivedita’s style of writing without any punctuation in certain sections of the novel, would remind the Tamil reader of an ancient style of writing, before the Western punctuation marks were adopted. The translator’s preface, interestingly ends with the lines “the remainder of the translator’s note was destroyed by a computer virus” which could mean that, the author is playing with the notion of divulging or withholding certain information in a literary text. The first chapter with is titled 0o begins with an epigraph with the lines from the Gita, which states “Reason, wisdom, lucid thinking, tolerance, truth, temperance in thought and body, pleasure, pain, destruction, fear, courage, non-violence, equality, contentment, renunciation, charity, praise, disdain-all human qualities begin with Me.” Nivedita seems to be critical of the idea that, the text could possibly be a divine dispensation with meanings given to it by the author. In other words, there need not be one single author of a text. The chapter 0o titled PRAYER is addressed to this fictional persona called Genny, which serves as the narrator-author’s Muse, is revealed to be the daughter of one of his fictional characters in the book. In one of the chapters, there is a letter addressed by a father to his daughter, containing a list of all the erotic telephone conversations he has had with his women friends. Through this letter, the author could be implying that, just as there are infinite number of women doing different things at a particular moment in time (such as from writing to masturbating to screaming in labor pain), there could be infinite interpretations of one particular text. In Chapter 2, the narrator metamorphoses into the author and informs the reader that the “I” of the text is, indeed, the writer, Charu Nivedita. But, soon after, he tells us that, there could be multiple other authors, the first being Surya who took it upon himself to write the life story of Muniyandi, and wanted it to dedicate his piece of work to his daughter, Genesis. Secondly, it could be the persona of the life story- Muniyandi himself, who, dissatisfied with Surya’s representation of himself in his [Surya] biography, suggests revisions and corrections in the manuscript. It could also be a third person, Surya, or a fourth person, Misra- who happened to be a fictional character himself in the novel of Charu Nivedita titled Existentialism and Fancy Banyan. The narrator recalls that, his translation guru was this fellow named Kottikuppan who taught him how a translated text and end up offering a completely a new version of the original story. There cannot be one faithful translation.
Chapter 3 of the book reads like a journalistic report. It is about the genocide of a particular section of people in a fictional location in Rwanda, Africa. The chapter is interspersed with news reports, personal accounts, and the author-journalists’ own interpretation of the events. There seems to be no linear progression of time. Nivedita deliberately plays with the notion of time, narrative information and the readers’ trustworthiness. He seems to suggest that, whatever the novelist seeks to narrativize in the novel, should not be taken at face value. In the section titled “REFLECTION”, the narrator admits his mistake of shuffling the narrative information in an attempt to put the novel together. He says that it has been a mistake on his part. It could be governed by an ulterior motive. It could be on account of his biasness towards the other fictional “I’s” of the novel- Muniyandi and Misra. He could not decide which to include. (14). That being said, the narrator seeks to tell us that, there is always a process of ‘selection’ and ‘shuffling’ of the narrative material at work, before weaving it into the narrative. The process brings into the fore, the personal biases and judgments of the author. The succeeding chapter is in the format of a questionnaire, in which the writer attempts to bring in the reader’s opinion about the text and certain other information. Some of the instances from the chapter are
Do you think it is necessary to read the Latin American novels mentioned in the novel?
Yes [ ] No [ ]
Do you believe this will be an important Tamil novel?
Yes [ ] No [ ]
Do you think this novel is original?
Yes [ ] No [ ] (16-17)
Instances like these attempt to disrupt any conventional mode of story-telling. Events do not occur in a sequence. The narrator seems to be suggesting that, the experience of writing fiction which is solipsistic, can at the same time be a self-estranging exercise. Once the novel is published, it is upon the readers to discern as many meanings as one wishes to unearth. It also questions the notion that, a work of art may not necessarily provide a sense of self-validation for the author. There could not be one “I” that went into the making of the novel. There are a polyphony of thoughts and voices in a text. Nivedita conveys that, it is not possible for all the multitudinous experiences of the writer to add up to a stable sense self, thereby attaching importance on the plurality of identities. He seeks to question the whole creative exercise of writing. These are some of the pertinent questions that the writer seeks to raise through his work. As a reviewer went on to state that, “Zero degree explores the darkest spaces of the human mind in a not-so-clear narrative but the writing is on-your-face. It has the most beautiful poetry and the most gruesome tortures, it shows the loveliest forms of affection and most shocking expressions of lust” (web).
In Chapter 5, the narrator describes the series of events that led to the construction of the novel. In a hilarious turn of events, as the narrator mentions, the words rose up in revolt and lured by the juices of progeny splattered around Muniyandi’s bed they slowly approached it tasted it and became intoxicated by it (20). In describing the act of creativity with an undertone of humor, the author dramatizes the notion of the death of the author. He seems to opine that ideas that finally take the form of a novel or any literary work cannot merely emanate from the person of the author. The narrator puts forward the idea that, the act of narrating a series of events by a novelist within the grand scheme of things, is not to produce something new, by the virtue of his creative genius, but to merely rehash things that have already existed in the past. It is merely an attempt to rationalize and validate the existence of the author. In the succeeding chapter, the author makes it evident that, the book written by Muniyandi had been reviewed by this fictional character called Ninth-Century-A.D.-Dead-Brain. The narrator, in the first chapter of the book, had made it apparent that there are multiple “I’s” which went into the making of the book- the author (Nivedita) himself, Muniyandi, Surya, Misra, Dead Brain etc. The novel is structured using numerous styles, which would remind us, in many ways, of the narrative structure and of the patterns and figurations of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. In Nivedita’s book, however, there is an admixture of newspaper snippets, prose, poetry, phone conversations, interviews, questionnaires, diagrams and other stylistic deviations.
It becomes difficult to condense any impressions about this novel (if at all it can be called so), or about the narrative texture. It calls into question certain truth claims that fiction or any literary genre seeks to make. The narrator shows us the numerous ways by which fiction simulates reality by playing on the very science of hermeneutics. Nivedita consciously brings in several Latin American writers within the purview of this book, for instance, the lecture of Julio Cortazar in which he identified himself as a ghost in the Latin American literary scene because of the ban imposed on his writings. Such has been the reception of this novel in literary circles. He has been often compared to Bataille for his sexual and scatological predilections.
Metamodernism emphasizes the need to return to stories, to simple affections which Dumitrescu emphasizes in her article. Nivedita, in his novel, describes a series of violent events leading to domestic violence, slaughter, mass killing and murders. He describes the interrelated stories of Aarthi and Avantika. Both of these women have been subjected to domestic violence and have different narratives to tell. However, in trying to represent these tales, it leads to chaos and confusion among the different voices which author the text. The writer drives home the point that, it is impossible to depict violence in fiction with all its harsh realities. More importantly, there cannot be an objective interpretation of an event.In trying to do so, the writers commits violence to the text. He suggests that language does not have the ability to adequately represent reality. These are some of the important point that the author raises through his work. In Chapter 29 of the novel, Nivedita points to the limits of the Tamil language in expressing the problems of Tamil society. He also suggests that, this book, which is a translated work, cannot be a faithful reproduction of the original in Tamil. So, one cannot vouch for the empirical or the material existence of this work. In describing the narratives of violence of Aarthi and Avantika, there are not given much agency to speak. For them, insanity seems to be the response to not knowing how to address violence when one is outside it. The reference to Orwellian Newspeak in the book, seems to be ulterior to the narrative strand of the text, in trying to construct a fantasy that has no pre-fixed object produced through imagination. Severe criticisms have been lashed at the author for his misogynistic portrayals of women in the text. But, in describing the women as being at the receiving end of violence, the author is satirizing the prevalent tendencies of the writers of his establishment in overcrowding the narratives with describing women as being shorn of agency and redemption. He deliberately plays with the codes of decency and propriety.
Dumitrescu in her article “What is Metamodernism and Why Bother? Meditations on Metamodernism as a Period Term and as a Mode” states that, metamodernism implies a return to tradition, an ethical and empathetic understanding of texts. But ethical, here does not mean, relating to cetain moral principles. One should be faithful to one’s representation not merely being a prisoner to forms, narrative conventions and requirements. It also necessitates the need to establish dialogue with previous patterns- modernism and postmodern modes of thinking. It emphasized the need to lay importance on the ethical over the epistemological and the ontological of the Enlightenment. (web). In Chapter 14, the narrator suggests that, his next novel will be about a protagonist who does not know how to think and would be named Echo. She would be an audio mirror. She would mirror whatever the author stated. But isn’t all the texts in the novel, an Echo of the author. The persona referred to as Genny or the numerous Lady Reader and their anonymity refers to the creative potential of the cosmos itself. In pointing to the multiple origins of the word in a text, the author points out the absurdity of the word in a text. In constructing and re-constructing a narrative, the one important constituent is violence. It is this violence which propels the narrative strands. All literary works, by default, are spectacles and simulations. The spectacle is an interesting coinage by the situationist theorist, Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. Though much of the germ and the intellectual foundations of this movement drew upon Marxist thoughts, Dadaism and Surrealism, it also believed in the concept of the spectacle. It referred to the mass media which is its glaring manifestation. Debord and his followers believed that there are two sections-the passive subject who consumes the spectacle and the reified spectacle itself. Debord states that the spectacle is the concrete inversion of life, the autonomous movement of the non-living. Nivedita, interestingly reifies the text to the status of a novel and then, plays on the notion of its status as a work of art.
Towards the end of the novel, the chapters disintegrate into poetry, as if they have lost the ability to communicate in straight sentences. As the narrator in one of the poetry pieces says-
“The language is trapped in a bottle.
We’ve got to set it free somehow-
But without breaking the bottle!”
“It’s already dead,”
And then, he says
Is it possible to capture
Time in a poem [or a narrative]?
….. I run and bury myself
Beneath the Little Princess’ footsteps.
Pretending that her breadth is still lingering
The narrator seems weigh the two constituents of a work- form andcontent, in a beam balance, to see which is paramount. Many Tamil readers and critics have commented that, the English version of the text does not do justice to the original as it fails to capture the Oulipian techniques and changes had to be made. But, this is precisely what Nivedita had in mind. He sought to bring to the forefront, the problems he had with narrative representations, the truth claims and the links to veracity that the novelists, the poet, or the autobiographer seemed to make. One of metamodernism’s important tenets was to question the validity of the line of visions with the self as the vantage point. One should attempt to be empathetic and connected and address the intersections with other modes of thought and being in order to construct a narrative. The narrator questions the whole idea of canonizing certain works, and he also seeks to problematize the distinctions between high and low art forms. In envisioning his lady readers to be engaged in different sorts of activities at different temporal and spatial locations, he seeks to bring to the forefront that, the intended audience or the readers need not essentially be embodied locations but could merely be a network of signs. In depicting the hallucinatory narratives of violence, the limits of the author and the translator, and the authenticity of a literary text, this book remains, by far, one of the rare insights into the very “act of writing” and the authorial intent.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. U.S: Black & Red, 1985. Print.
Devi, Nirmala. Meta-Modern Era. New Delhi: Lulu, 2010. Print.
Dumitrescu, Alexandra E. “What is Metamodernism and Why Bother? Meditations on Metamodernism as a Period Term and as a Mode”. electronic book review. 12 August 2016, n.pag:
Nivedita, Charu. Zero Degree. Trans. Pritham K. Chakravarthy and Rakesh Khanna.
Chennai: Blaft Publications, 2008. Print.
R. Archana. Interview with Charu Nivedita.