R.K. Narayan is noted as one of earliest 20th century Indian writers to have reached a level of literary status outside of their native country. Writing in English, he was admired by Graham Greene who facilitated publishing his first novel Swami and Friends, in England.
First published in 1951, I read his most famous novel in my Penguin Classics edition, The Guide. Appropriately, this was my first foray into Indian fiction. It’s setting is Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional town that is said to be patterned after Mysore. It takes place during the advent of the Railroad in that part of India. I am not even vaguely familiar with India at this period to comment on the Narayan’s treatment specific to its culture. I had read that V.S. Naipaul took him to task for presenting a “cleaned up” version of India. The novel’s setting is mostly rural, though in the later sections of the the story, we follow the hero, Raju and his fiance’, Roxie as they travel through towns and cities of southern India.
The novel’s structure uses two interwoven narratives. The “Raju-the-swami’ tale is told in third person focalized from Raju’s view where we follow his story and learn how he ends up finding himself role playing his way into becoming a swami for an entire village. This narrative is in the fictive present. The lion’s share is the narrative of Raju-the Guide’, his life story told in 1st person, in a bildlungsromanish sort of way, it chronologically explains, Raju’s current predicament.
Narayan is a masterful builder of characters, a show-er rather than a tell-er, and he cares little for creating fictive details, he rather is concerned with the human story, letting the reader fill in the visual “realistic” details in his/her imagination. The build up is slow, the conflicts are many, and the plot structure is engaging…Narayan’s treatment of Raju’s tale, its ironies are much deeper than they seem on the surface. He has taken irony to a visionary level. Narayan’s style does not make Raju a philosopher or a psychologist that the reader either agrees or disagrees with, the reader goes along, experiencing the events along with him. We either see the depth beyond (or not) but we feel Narayan knows full well (nod nod, wink wink) that Raju’s contrived mysticism is a double jeopardy for him.
I recommend the novel. Its prose stumbled at times, when it came to periodic strange usage of idiom. Like: “Raju was surprised at the somersault in her nature”…. I actually thought it was a translation at one point and was surprised to find Narayan had written it in English.
The ending is worthy. It is a story of self-deception, that resonates well beyond its apparent simplicity…