By Aravind Adiga
289 pages, $26
THE WOMAN ON THE STAIRS
By Bernhard Schlink
225 pages, $25.95
Free will and that old Hamletian “divinity that shapes our ends” joust for position in two captivating new novels about the place choice holds in our lives.
In Aravind Adiga’s lusty, satiric “Selection Day,” it is Manju, one of two cricket-playing brothers in today’s India, who must decide between his own aspirations and those of his despotic and status-seeking father.
In Bernhard Schlink’s elegant and mannered “The Woman on the Stairs,” it is the book’s narrator, an unnamed German attorney, whose one deviation, years ago, from a rigid and predictable life has brought him to the brink of another.
Personal risk does not come easily to either book’s protagonist – the young Manju or the late-middle-aged lawyer – but circumstances in both their lives suddenly present the option, Manju’s the weightier, given his age:
“Two parties,” he becomes aware, “were in open conflict for possession of something precious and hidden inside him: his future.”
One party is his father, Mohan Kumar, and the “contract” he had forced upon Manju (of the phenomenal forearms) and Manju’s older brother Radha (of the “movie-star eyes”) to “drop out of education” that the boys might devote their days and nights to cricket – in exchange for sponsorship by the wealthy Anand Mehta of Mumbai (the deal sensually sealed with the partaking of “South Indian paans, rich with cloves and pulverized sugar”).
Javed Ansari is the other party – a rich, carefree and mesmerizing boy who wants nothing more than to write poetry, and to see his friend Manju realize his dream of becoming a scientist despite his father Mohan’s obsession with seeing his sons grow to be India’s “next generation of sporting legends.”
There are stories within stories here, caste within caste, love and rivalry between brothers – and centuries-old tradition ever yielding to an overpowering sense of the vast, exotic territory of India being pulled more and more rapidly into the 21st Century. Manju and his brother, brought up in the slums, have no mother, she having left their father Mohan, a lowly chutney peddler, years before.
A man of old beliefs (shaving and driving are threats to his boys’ virtue), Mohan is a man on such a mission to improve his lot in life – by way of his boys’ cricket prowess – that he becomes an object of ridicule. Yet no more so than some of the influential men of Indian cricket, all shown in sometimes hilarious but telling exaggeration here – scout Tommy Sir, coach Pramod Sawant, and the odious but financially-endowed Anand Mehta who will select Manju and Radha as the initial candidates for his latest venture, “the world’s first cricket sponsorship program.”
Adiga juggles all of them artfully while, at the same time, giving us two very real and sensitive boys – with disparate proclivities in life. There is also significant tension here not only re which boy is the better cricket player but whether or not Manju, like his friend Javed, is gay (a no-no in Indian cricket, not to mention the tight world of Manju’s father Mohan).
Add to this the spice, colors, sights, smells -- and ever-present foods -- of an India-in-transition, and find that Adiga has room for still more, stopping often to assess the political landscape, in one instance via Tommy Sir as he watches a caterpillar (against a backdrop of the Arabian Sea):
“His viewing pleasure was interrupted by the passing of a group of bearded young men in loose white cotton clothing. Forgetting about the caterpillar, he watched the men in white intently. Muslims, probably from Uttar Pradesh, the nation’s barely governable heartland. Behind them followed half a dozen women, dressed from head to toe in black burka. There was visual evidence of it every day: the biggest change in India, happening in front of everyone’s eyes. The Muslim population was growing. In number and in religious fervor…”
(Tommy Sir’s take on this? Both measured and welcoming, with the conclusion: “Who are the most passionate cricketers in the whole wide world? Muslims!”)
“Selection Day,” in sum, is a pleasure -- a novel so rich in all that counts that one needn’t be a cricket fan to love it. Plus, Adiga, in a glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book, includes India itself as “a country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket,” a thought making it easy to imagine “Selection Day” marrying the two.
Schlink’s “The Woman on the Stairs” would adapt to the big screen as well, unfolding as it does like a foreign film of yore – or, as one character describes its plot:
“Two men have got into a mess and want to sort it out, and whether they succeed depends on the woman. An old story.”
In the middle of this “old story” is our unnamed narrator, the attorney hired as a young man to deal with a strange menage a trois – a titan of industry, Peter Gundlach, who commissioned a painting of his beautiful wife Irene (nude on a staircase); Karl Schwind, who would become “one of the most expensive and famous painters in the world,” and the head-turning Irene Gundlach who has run off with Schwind.
First, she and Schwind come to the attorney’s Frankfurt offices with an odd story: Schwind’s portfolio was lost in a fire and he is visiting individuals who bought his work – so he can photograph each piece for a new portfolio. But Gundlach won’t allow Schwind to reproduce his masterpiece, “Woman on Staircase.”
Our attorney contacts Gundlach -- who claims there was a misunderstanding, Schwind is welcome to shoot the painting – but when Schwind arrives he finds that Gundlach has somehow altered the painting, damaging one leg. A royal back-and-forth ensues, Schwind repairing one small desecration after another, until Irene takes things into her own hands.
It is at this point that the painting disappears – as does Irene. Our narrator the attorney, by now deeply in love with her, has made this possible, thinking she and he would be together. But instead three men have lost the same woman, and the painting is gone, too, only to re-emerge decades later in a small museum in Australia…
Thus “The Woman on the Stairs” is a novel of intrigue (think Ingrid Bergman, or Irene of “The Forsyte Saga,” as the femme fatale) – but what is really afoot here lies in the exquisitely wrought changes Irene as Gundlach’s “trophy” and Schwind’s “muse” begins again to make in the life of the now older attorney, a widower so set in his ways that a reader could weep.
Yet he responds to the challenge of finding the woman now known (shades of Conan Doyle) as Irene Adler, Schlink here changing the metaphor and dynamic of the book in profound and moving ways.
Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt, “The Woman on the Stairs” offers unexpected testimony to the adage “it’s never too late” while keeping from us the choice our narrator will make.
Yet we are hopeful. He has already begun to question his lawyerly status quo by noting, to wit, “Maybe fairness isn’t everything.”
Karen Brady is a former News reporter and columnist.