Ramu Nagappan's informative book poses what seems, at first, to be a fairly standard question: how do South Asian writers confront, represent, and ultimately work out the question of social suffering? What follows is an illuminating series of approaches to three texts—Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, Salman Rushdie's Shame—as well as the short stories of S. H. Manto and the films of the Tamil director Maniratnam. A pressing concern to show how the mechanisms of texts such as The Shadow Lines and A Fine Balance close down avenues of hope and agency, either by ending in "benign self-absorption" or a "downward spiral . . . [of] overheated pessimism," also tries to show how fictional reenactments of social trauma, even in such moments of political resignation and impotency, paraodoxically supply not only relief, but a new series of choices for the reader (61, 198). The metaphor of "decompensation" that Nagappan uses to examine this Janus-like function of the text really deserves to be foregrounded in the title, and not buried away in the middle of a paragraph on page 149: [End Page 578]
The physiological term "decompensation" can refer to the failure of the heart muscle to maintain adequate blood circulation; in the case of fiction, the term denotes a phenomenon marked by the failure of language to circulate, to signify meaning in the face of catastrophe.
The result is that Speaking Havoc is a book interested, more than anything else, in the failure of language; how texts (and films) fail to represent trauma, how they fail mimetically to do justice to injustice, to resolve the causes of the social suffering they observe, and the positive effects such textual/cinematic failure has for its audience. This Rortyian emphasis on the constructive function of irony as an awareness of such failure (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is cited several times) inevitably explains why writers such as Rushdie and Ghosh do so well in the book—and why a more conventional text of social realism such as A Fine Balance is seen as depending on nothing more complicated than a "Dickensian mode of exaggeration" (62).
Nevertheless, what follows are some very pertinent readings of all five figures. Ghosh's book is presented to us as a text that "charges [us] with representing the world" and therefore discovers a new kind of post-metaphysical responsibility—the role, says Nagappan, of Richard Rorty's liberal ironist, a "paradoxical, self-critical stance" (44, 54). In the very act of decompensation, The Shadow Lines compensates with the narrating of this failure. The Shadow Lines's absence of closure, in other words, its recourse to solipsism and "benign self-absorption," is itself a way of dealing with the impossibility of its task. Unsurprisingly, this level of redemptive decompensation (if you will forgive the oxymoron) at its most sophisticated is not extended to A Fine Balance, "a novel which tries to provide aesthetic compensation for trauma" (64). There is an impatience in Nagappan's treatment of Mistry that at times seems unfair—even though the critic correctly observes a recurring anxiety of impotence and emasculation in the novel, and even if it is difficult not to agree with the "narrative of unremitting tragedy" that always runs the risk of transforming into melodrama. If Ghosh's dismantling/reassembling of metaphysical consolation is explicit, A Fine Balance reiterates this gesture, one can't help feeling, on a more basic, unreflective level—no Joycean examination of mimesis, then, just a good Dickensian yarn. The work of S. H. Manto is read, perhaps a touch predictably, as "explod[ing] the key terms 'territory' and 'nation' that underlay . . . the construction of national consciousness," (88) although Nagappan provides an interesting semibiographical interpretation of Manto's outsider status in South Asian literature (transforming the Forties' writer, it has to be said, into a kind of Liberal-Ironist-Before-Liberal-Irony-Was-Invented [End Page...