Run and Hide
by pankaj mishra
farrar, straus and giroux, 336 pages, $27
Twenty years after publishing his first novel—years he spent establishing himself, in incisive, often fearsome essays and reviews and nonfiction books, as a leading literary–cultural critic—Pankaj Mishra had a Damascene moment of sorts. He describes it in a recent essay for the London Review of Books:
I didn’t have faith in the ability of long-form reporting or op-ed commentary to convey complexity and nuance, as I had long been susceptible to D.H. Lawrence’s boast that the novelist is “superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” Much of what I knew of history, sociology and political psychology had originally been gleaned from novels. The splintering of society into a mêlée of self-seeking individuals; economic exploitation and material inequality; the corruptions of politics and the press; the inadequacies of liberal gradualism; the thwarting of revolutionary hopes; the impotent resentments of the low-born and socially insecure: all of these enduring pathologies, the staple of academic and journalistic work, were first anatomised in the novels of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev.
In fact, a few weeks earlier, Mishra published his second novel, Run and Hide, which is very much concerned with these same pathologies—in particular, the “splintering of society” and the plight of individuals who seek to close the distance between the circumstances of their birth and the promises held out by twenty-first-century globalized life.
That distance feels especially vast in Mishra’s novel: His main characters are three young men who meet at university in the 1990s, having gained admission to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology from positions of grinding poverty in rural and village India. At IIT, they endure academic pressures and social humiliations that make the mythic monstrosities of British boarding schools feel positively paradisal. At the far end of their studies, now credentialed and connected, they join the ranks of India’s rising classes. Aseem, a bombastic cultural impresario, and Virendra, a louche hedge fund billionaire, quickly move into the elite enclaves of global metropolitan culture, wealthy enough to travel the world for work and play. Arun, the narrator, is a diffident figure, a translator and book critic who visits his old friends now and then.
Each of them enjoys security and standing. But they do so, as Arun notes, at considerable cost:
in our attempts to remake ourselves, to become “real men” simply by pursuing our strongest impulses and desires, with no guidance from family, religion or philosophy, our self-awareness would go unnoticed, until the day we awaken with horror at the people we had become.
All three now look with disdain on their families, notwithstanding their parents’ maniacal, desperate efforts to ensure such success for their children in the first place. At the same time, each is stuck, as the narrator notes early on, with “the peculiar panic and incoherence of self-made men; [that] they spend their lives fearing breakdown and exposure.” The major part of the story is the creation of the conditions, and revelation of the consequences, of this peculiar panic among these three self-made men.
The entire novel is written in the first person: Arun addresses his onetime lover Alia, a secular-progressive Muslim journalist of considerable privilege herself, who has made her name by writing an explosive book exposing Virendra’s financial and sexual malfeasances. Arun also has to deal with Aseem’s entitled awfulness: Suffice it to say he’s the sort of man who brays loudly about respecting women while behaving like an ass with them.
But wait, you must be thinking, this is a new work of literary fiction set in contemporary India! Where are the whizbang wordplay and madcap capers with mangos and many-armed gods? North American expectations for contemporary Indian writing remain overdetermined by the outsized influence of Salman Rushdie’s fiction. At their best, Rushdie’s novels have made something new from the fusions of subcontinental and Anglosphere literary, cultural, and religious traditions. Out of this postmodern chutney, Rushdie reliably writes books that are big, brash, funny, playfully encyclopedic, and politically provoking, as do many of the writers he has influenced over the years. On the evidence of Run and Hide, Mishra is definitely not one of them—a statement he would, I’m fairly certain, regard as a compliment. Indeed, the writers he listed as influences in his LRB essay, quoted above, suggest as much. The modern European and Russian literary traditions —“Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev”—aren’t big on laughs, whether scandalous or silly. These writers were instead relentlessly focused on the interplay of ordinary and ultimate demands on people’s lives, normally with emphases on crushing family burdens, fixed social strata, mounting temptations to spiritual anomie or fatalism, and sometimes the victory of fatalism itself.
In tone and feeling, Mishra’s new novel is in keeping with this dark Euro-Russian sense of human purpose and possibility, a fact that is all the more noticeable since the novel’s premise and settings—a trio of nobodies rising from the nowhere of poor Indian villages to international publishing junkets and Wall Street wolfing and A-list parties in the Hamptons—might invite aggressive and satirical treatment. At times, I wouldn’t have minded a little more such verve in the novel. Arun is melancholic, self-aware, and equally articulate about everything, whether the signals you give by your views of Naipaul’s fiction or (Mishra’s bite as a social critic comes in here) the ludicrousness of “organic” eating in the twenty-first century: Only the extremely poor and the comfortably wealthy do it by default. Indeed, everything Arun thinks about and describes tends to be flawed and troubling, primarily because—in Mishra’s persuasive arrangement of these elements in a contemporary Indian context—the ways out of material poverty and intergenerational degradation tend to lead to spiritual poverty and personal degradation.
It’s all nicely conceived and very convincing—at times too much so. Put differently, this is a novel that sometimes has more in common with Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey than with the works of Stendhal. Trilling’s 1947 novel, an account of 1930s left-wing intellectuals betraying either their ideals or each other, is beautifully written, the fruit of careful observation and deep reading, well in keeping with Trilling’s profile as a magisterial literary critic. All of this holds for Mishra’s Run and Hide, as does another feature of Trilling’s book: a lack of felt risk-taking, whether imaginative or intellectual. From the start, you have a sense that Mishra’s approximate stand-in, Arun, fully controls the account he gives to Alia.
By the novel’s end, Virendra and Aseem have ended in scandal and public failure, while Arun reads and writes far from the wide loud world, in a monastery in Tibet. This is Arun’s comparatively valorous and virtuous lot, and his self-critique is offered with such candor that it provides him with rhetorical armor. When the armor occasionally slips, the result can be illuminating, as when Virendra proudly welcomes his old university friends to his place in the Hamptons. Giving them the obligatory tour, at one point “he touched the fern-draped walls and said, ‘They are a foot and a half deep!’” His buddies say nothing, and for once, Arun doesn’t tell us what he thought about it, either. That gave me some welcome space to do so, instead.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto. His latest novel is Dante’s Indiana.