Any reader who has a feeling for the rigours and small miracles of novelistic composition is especially likely to be transported by the awesome narrative freedom and strength of the great long novels of world literature. Having broken through the walls of artistic and formal finitude over hundreds of pages of scene-setting, plot-threading and character tracking, such novels, or novel sequences – IB Singer’s The Family Moskat, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence – seem almost to write themselves, continuously unspooling and ramifying in the same way as life. Indeed, it seems a diminution of life to have to break with their company.
On one level, of course, the great long novels represent nothing more than an especially massy story – a map of human motion and connection on a grand scale. But is that all? Their size would be (and sometimes is) worth very little if we did not also take away from them the extended experience of mind, of an encounter with not just a world but a subtle, disembodied intelligence – the narrator – observing and occasionally annotating its ferment. To observe a story-world for weeks, even months, in concert with a novelistic narrator is to return to the world outside the book to find something strangely absent, or limited, or silent about it. Sometimes when we find ourselves missing the characters of a novel, what we are actually missing is the narrator.
This is the experience we take away from the Indian novelist Yashpal’s massive novel Jhootha Sach (literally The False Truth), first published in Hindi in two volumes in 1958 and 1960, and now translated into English for the first time as This Is Not That Dawn. The novel is over 1,100 pages long, but it is long only in an absolute sense, not relative to the dozens of characters it describes, the ideas it explores, and the narrative time (and indeed geographical space) it traverses.
Following a family from their roots in a gali, or lane, in the great city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) to a new life in the cities of north India over the 1940s and 1950s, Yashpal’s novel takes as its central, world-changing event the partition in 1947 of colonial India into the nation states of India and Pakistan. The bloodbath that resulted from this massive, uncontrolled two-way migration of peoples across the new boundaries of what was formerly undivided Punjab – Hindus streaming east into India from what had now become Pakistan, Muslims west into Pakistan in the fear that they would have no place in a new Indian nation state – took at least a million lives. Partition left a gash on the psyche of the Indian subcontinent that has never quite healed, and that inflames the politics of both countries, as well as Bangladesh, to this day.