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Manoa 13.2 (2001) 74-83
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Mohan Koirala Facing Questions: An Interview
Mohan Koirala's place in modern Nepali literature is unusual. One faction of the literary community applauds him not only as a giant of modern poetry but as the greatest modern poet since Laxmi Prasad Devkota (1909-1959), who was a prolific writer of undisputed classics, and Gopal Prasad Rimal (1918- 1973), Nepal's first great writer of free verse. Another faction of the literary community--comprising mainly writers and readers in leftist political circles--prefers not to praise Koirala in such terms and instead considers Bhupi Sherchan (1936-1989) to be the most important poet since Devkota and Rimal. This faction considers Koirala's work to be the expression of a private voice that is often abstruse, arrhythmic, and unintelligible; and it sees Sherchan as having given voice to the suffering of all Nepalis, regardless of class or education, in a simple, intelligible, and popular style. However regarded, Koirala is important not only as a poet but also as a figure who provokes heated discussions about the situation of Nepali literature.
When Manjushree Thapa, co-guest editor of this issue of Manoa, suggested I interview Koirala, I felt uneasy for two reasons. First, I wasn't well acquainted with the poet personally. And, second, as a reader I had never been able to establish a dialogue with most of Koirala's poetry. Even though his work appears to be contemporary in relation to the Nepali poetic tradition, it in fact has a very limited readership. His work, it seems to me, refuses to communicate with its audience, and I feel this refusal as strongly as do many other of his readers. The poetry he constructs with his cryptic and discordant style has never deeply moved me. Nevertheless, I agreed to try to put my uneasiness aside and to conduct the interview.
Koirala was born in 1926 in Kathmandu and began publishing poetry in 1953. Since then, he has published more than nine volumes of poetry; two additional books are in manuscript. In April 1999, Koirala was appointed the vice-chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy, the highest position possible for a Nepali writer. About a month later, I interviewed him at his home in Maitidevi. Manjushree Thapa accompanied me and translated this interview for Manoa.
I began the interview by asking Koirala about his creative process, about the kinds of experiences and adversities he had faced in establishing himself as one of [End Page 74] Nepal's major poets. As I expected, Koirala positioned himself as an experimental poet who has tried to distinguish himself in style from other experimental poets.
While I could agree that he has succeeded in looking quite different from other Nepali poets, comprehending his work seems to me as difficult a task as flattening the Himals. It is this resistance to comprehension that has caused Nepal's leftist writers to criticize his poetry as "literature lacking literature." In what must have seemed a very ungracious manner, I asked him directly about this.
In reply, Koirala said--for perhaps the first time in an interview--that art must not exist for art's sake, but for society's. I found this statement remarkable coming from him. The works of successful writers are the handwriting of their time. Writers who feel responsible for their society attack the flaws of their era as if they were enemies, and love the good aspects of their era as if they were dear friends. Prose writers tend to do this kind of work openly. Poets, on the other hand, sometimes express the spirit of their era explicitly and sometimes symbolically. In either case, if society's good and bad attributes are not present in an artist's creations, the aesthetics are not powerful. This is why I also asked Koirala about the era he's lived through, and about his efforts to make the character of his era evident in his compositions.
During the interview, Mohan Koirala's opinions often surprised me. Most remarkable were...