Book Review: Seasons of Flight, a Novel by Manjushree Thapa

>> Sunday, May 3, 2015

By Ajay Pradhan | June 1, 2011

When I set out to read this book, I expected a lot better story than what I completed reading. The story is poor in development of character, setting and plot. The narrative is poor and disjointed. So are the dialogs, as if the characters are too tired to speak them. 

It is surprising that the writer doesn't bother "knowing" or telling the name of the protagonist's home village or the town near where she works in Nepal. The writer keeps calling those places, "birth village" and "the town at the base of the hills". If the writer doesn't care to know the name of the place closely associated with the protagonist's life, even though the protagonist may feel emotionally disconnected from them, why would readers bother getting deep into the story? I have a feeling the writer took it as a style (a la Jose Saramago in his novels where he calls characters "the woman with goggles", "the boy with a crooked tooth", "the doctor's wife", etc., never using names for them). The allusion to Saramago's style is the best, yet false, compliment I could give this novel. This particular style didn't help because the writer was merely able to tell the reader that she, the writer--not the protagonist--is disconnected from the setting. 

This lack of writer's desire to tell a full story to readers was mismatched by her penchant for putting too much, even unnecessary, details when describing certain settings in Los Angeles. She literally puts a laundry list of plants and trees and birds as part of a setting. She fails to name people or setting that keep coming up in the story repeatedly and yet names people that come up not more than once or are less relevant to the context. She goes to the length of mentioning a series of bus numbers in the protagonist's route of commute, saddling the readers with unnecessary numerical details that don't add richness or context to the story and makes no sense to readers except perhaps to those who actually live in the area and know such trivial details already. She describes a setting where a lizard skitters into a mulberry bush, as if the story would convey an entirely different meaning had the bush been a raspberry bush. So, who cares whether the lizard skitters into a mulberry or raspberry bush; it would be enough for me to know that it skitters into a bush. It would be a different matter if she every now and then went to that spot to enjoy some mulberries. Then it would be a "part" of the setting. This is what I mean when I say narrative is disjointed. I'm using this example only to contrast her laundry-list details for one setting to lack of the most basic of details--the name--for a setting in Nepal. 

I think the writer succumed to some kind of pathological compulsion to display her reference-book knowledge of the names of plants, trees and birds. Who really is interested in a laundry list of all the species of plants and animals? Readers are looking for context and a good plot, with well developed characters and setting. The story is neither driven by plot, nor by characters. In literary terms, this story is not one that can be called delicate or etherial. 

I never got to know what the protagonist, Prema, really looked like. Whether she had long or short hair, curly or straight hair, whether she mostly wore jeans or kurta-suruwal, what kind of food she mostly ate--I have no idea. And about her lover, Luis--every time the writer mentioned him, I kept thinking of this Latino neighbor of mine who has a stocky built, punchy stomach, his eyesbrows bridged together, his brush-cut hairline barely an inch above his eyebrows, and his accent decidedly Latino, "Jyu wanna go have a Tahco wid me tonight?" You get the picture--a comical character, one that hardly makes for a central character romantically linked to the protagonist. I'm sure the writer didn't intend for this image to come to readers' mind. But, the writer didn't help me with a good character development. 

The inclusion in the story of description of Guatemala's history seems so peripheral to the overall context that I think it ends up distracting readers than holding their attention. Even though the writer apparently uses Guatemala to build a comparatory story about the displacement of her lover's father, it really didn't make for a compelling comparative narration for her own displacement. The similarity seems too artificial and contrived. 

Also, the writer depicts the protagonist's search for a living space in California, when considering moving out of Luis' apartment, as her quest for finding direction in life. That puts the book in a very shallow depth. It is a sad and poor metaphor for something as important as life's directions. 

I found it sort of irksome that the writer keeps mentioning Prema and Rajan, her boyfriend in Nepal, going to Maya Lodge where they often go to have sex, as if it is an act as banal as going to Starbucks. Lack of love, if it is what the writer attempts to depict, does not have to be portrayed in such sad and tasteless manner. Sex is an act of passion or love or both; the writer depicts neither. The writer simply lost the opportunity to tell a good plot around it. 

If the book had been written by somebody named Manjushree Pandey or Rajyashree Thapa, I doubt the publisher would have shown much interest. I kind of got a feeling that this book was written in haste, as a quick and necessary project, when the writer was traveling or not at her usual base. 

I expected a lot better story or a writing style from this writer; I found neither. I'm sorry that my review is a bit harsh, but I had heard good things about the writer's ability. Maybe my expectation was unrealistic. 

I think the writer does have talent, because I'm already starting to read the second of the several books by her that I recently bought in Kathmandu. I'm barely into 10-12 pages in her "Forget Kathmandu", but I already see a lot of potential in that book. But, that one is not a fiction. And, to be fair, my review of that book has to wait until I'm finished reading it. 

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Deepak Man Shrestha umm Thanks Ajay for the review. I was myself thinking of stat reading the books by Nepali i should be very selective based on reviewing the reviews!

Niraj Shrestha Ajay- I agree that first part of the book when the protagonist is living in Nepal has a fable like quality to it. It is almost as if the the writer had started the tale with 'Eka desh ma...'.

Niraj Shrestha (Sorry I hit the 'Enter' button too soon.) But this might have more to do with writing in English rather than trying to ape Saramago. Most of the readers of this work will likely not be too familiar with Nepal's history or geography or its ever-shifting political scene. So a village in Gorkha or a town in Myagdi ,even though named, will just be a Nepali village or a Nepali town. A Nepali reader would have provided her own context had the village or the town been named and located. (After all, a village in Dolpa is different from a village in Morang).
There is this price for writing in English and it is this loss of context. To capture the minutiae of rural Nepali life is hard enough in Nepali – to do so in a language foreign to the characters and their milieu would be doubly so. Not surprisingly, most successful English fiction from our part of the world center on the lives of middle class life where English is as much a part of daily life as is Hindi, Bengali or Urdu.

Manjushree is not the only writer who has had to resort to having seemingly nameless places. In the much acclaimed work of Canadian/Indian writer Rohinton Mistry, ‘A Fine Balance’, much of the action happens in an unnamed Indian ‘city by the sea’. The protagonist comes from a ‘village in the Mountains’. Naipaul’s famous work ‘A Bend in the River’ takes place by a great river somewhere in Africa. (Here even the country is unnamed). More recently, in Ethopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu’s ‘ How to Read the Air’, a large swath of the work is occupied by the protagonist’s father trying to escape from Africa. Both the country and the port where he is trying to escape from are unnamed.

I found the second part of ‘Seasons of Flight’ (when Prema lands in LA and lives her ‘American’ life) more persuasive. Her first few months living with a Nepali ‘host’ family is very well captured as is her tentative forays into American mainstream. On the whole, I found it clear-eyed and honest (no false ending here) if not wholly successful.

Ajay Pradhan Deepak and Niraj, if you are interested in novels written in Nepali, I highly recommend "Karnali Blues" by Buddhisagar.

Ajay Pradhan Niraj, I'm not sure a price has to be paid when somebody writes a novel in English with Nepali context, characters and settings. I do not think it is the limitation of the language; rather I think it is the limitation of imagination. After all, there are novels of great literary influence that rely heavily on etherial metaphors, without actually describing or naming an object, a situation, a moment, a character, a setting, or a context. Despite that, or actually because of that, writers of such literary works have been able to elevate bar. I'm not saying that all writers have to name all characters in all novels. But, what I felt when I read this novel is that "the town at the base of the hills" as, in my perception, a working side note or a reminder the writer jotted down with the intention of "finding" the name of the town after a reference check. My point is, if the writers can't "live" in the setting, don't "know" the important settings enough, don't care to "get to know" their characters well enough, it will only set the readers on a course entirely unintended by the writer. The image of this Latino neighbor is an example of it.

Amulya Tuladhar Ajaya, finally i got a chance to savor ur literary genius, book review this time, loved it. a question of Manjushri Thapa, of whose books i have heard a ton but have never read word, since i dont read if i cant get it free from libraries or friends. question: to what extent does she transcend her class identity as the daughter of an ambassador and to what extent is it just a nice jumble of english, with nothing real to say, once the class content has been drained out??

Ajay Pradhan It's interesting that you are asking this question. In fact, I think she does use class identity liberally in this book. She seems unable to resist the temptation of inventing a social class of Nepali immigrants in America, a class she almost tautologically demeans (subtly, though) and insults just because those immigrants struggle for survival, toiling at menial jobs. I find it discomforting that she doesn't look through a critical social lens at the issue from multifaceted angles of social discourse, but looks down upon, through her characters and protagonists (e.g., her protagonist in this book avoids Nepali immigrants and she depicts Nepali immigrants as essentially social misfits in America and lost within their own small social circles) the immigrants with pre-conceived, rigid judgemental opinion. For someone born with a silver spoon in mouth, this is hardly surprising.


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