Mia Spence reviews Ananda Devi’s The Living Days
Oftentimes, I have a problem with the word problematic. Why not just speak frankly? It’s a diplomatic cop-out for a more blatant accusation: racist, sexist, homophobic. But when I look at Gauguin’s Girl with a Fan, problematic seems to be the right word to describe it. The painting is the first of a pair depicting Tohotaua, the red-haired Marquesan woman — married — who was several times Gauguin’s subject during his years in Polynesia. She sits on a chair, looking directly ahead, inclining slightly towards the viewer, and she is naked to the waist. Did Gauguin exoticise her? Absolutely. His colour palette calls attention to her dusky skin, her self-exposure plays on stereotypes of sultry tribal folk in the tropics, and then, of course, the domineering perspective of the painter is crucial to his construction of her allure. But we can’t forget that Tohotaua was exotic, in her way: by a quirk of genetics, she was the only woman on Hiva Oa to have that flaming hair. So is it more apt to say that Gauguin eroticised the already exotic? Maybe. He based the painting on a photograph for which Tohotaua sat as his model. In the photograph, however, she is fully clothed. Gauguin imagined her topless, turning a platonic interaction between artist and subject into a representation of a pose with sexual overtones. And yet, in reality, as far as we know, Gauguin and Tohotaua never had a sexual relationship. The fiftysomething painter took plenty of lovers, often pubescent girls, but he wasn’t involved with this particular woman — and, in any case, her husband’s presence would’ve hampered Gauguin’s attempts to act on his attraction. It’s easy — and it’s right — to call out Gauguin for a lot of his paintings of half-naked Polynesian women, for his exoticisation and eroticisation of his subjects, and for the way he treated them in person. Not here, though. If its aura invites condemnation, the fine points of Girl with a Fan prompt us to stop short of anything absolute. Ambivalence feels like the right response and that’s why, for me, problematic is the word to describe it.
Ananda Devi’s new novel, The Living Days (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman), is problematic in a similar way. It’s technically accomplished, sensitive and stylish, with a pacy and provocative story to tell, but it’s also deeply discomfiting for reasons reminiscent of Gauguin’s Girl. Devi is a Mauritian writer who won acclaim among Anglophone readers in 2016, when her novel Eve Out of Her Ruins (trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman) became the first of her many books to be translated into English. Eve takes a polyvocal approach to the lives of young people on the margins of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Four of them offer their testimonies, discussing subjects ranging from poverty to sexual exploitation, from limited horizons to the pressures of gang culture. They are presided over by the title character, whose unforgettable voice alternates smoothly between soaring lyricism and a focus on the tactile details of her life. The Living Days shares many of the same concerns as Eve, including the anxieties of an impoverished adolescence and an emergent sexual identity; and although it roams free from its characters, thanks to an omniscient third-person perspective, the poetry of its voice is, like Eve’s, balanced out by attentiveness to palpable things. But the setting here is very different to the ghettoised backdrop of Eve, and the narrative comes with a twist that gives the novel an even more powerful — and problematic — moral charge.
The Living Days begins in a pastoral mode, then segues into a romance, and finally dabbles in erotica. It opens in the English countryside, “in the village of Benton-on-Bent”, as Britain is preparing to enter the Second World War. A young woman named Mary Grimes attends a village dance, where she lingers about as a wallflower until, “[a]mid the gentle swaying of bodies, as a prelude to coupling”, she catches the attentions of “someone”. Readers never learn exactly who this someone is, nor does Mary herself. He appears to her as “[j]ust a vague outline of youth, of virility”, with his face concealed by shadow. Then, approaching Mary, he takes her outside “beneath a moonless sky” on this “last night for lovers”. He is a soldier preparing for deployment to Europe, and, as Mary feels certain that this night will be “the last chance for both of them”, she has her first sexual experience with him:
In a [dark] nook… he stopped and did all the things she had lived out only in her dreams. This astonished her. She wondered how he had known, before she realized that it was a dream that everyone shared, the dreams of the body and not of the imagination, and it was the body that drove the young man to press Mary against the tree trunk and to lift up her chin, to bring his lips to hers, to open her lips with his tongue, with a little force, to explore this innocent mouth until her tongue began to tryst with his.
Then the novel thuds into dull reality. In the dark hours of morning, Mary Grimes leaves the young man and returns home alone. Come the dawn, she awakens in bed, haunted by her memory of the man who had loved her with “the determined tenderness of youth”. But she retains no image of his appearance: “she realized she hadn’t seen his face at all”, and she recalls that she learned only “his first name, Howard, but not his last”. Although she holds out hope of Howard’s return from the front lines, he never finds his way back into her life. So, at age fifteen, Mary Grimes conceives of herself as “a war widow.”
Jumping ahead through the years, then the decades, this characterisation of Mary seems almost literally true — almost, but for the fact that she and Howard were never legally wed. Ten years later, at age twenty-five, Mary builds the foundations of a new life in London, a city of “corpses” and “ruins” in slow recovery from the Blitz. She survives by becoming self-sufficient, though not enough to escape poverty, owing to a knack for making clay figurines which she sells at the markets on Portobello Road. And fifty years further on, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the elderly Mary Grimes has become “so used to things decaying [in London] that it’s ceased to bother her; on the contrary, they’re her own ruins”. Yet despite her bodily ailments, and the apparent decay of her mind, she has spared her precious memories of Howard from the ravages of the decades, remaining more or less in a state of arrested development. Even now, at age seventy-five, “so old that she [is] starting to disappear”, Mary fantasises that Howard will return to her without having aged at all: “they would have kissed, she would have taken care not to clasp him too tightly because of the wound on his right side, and, just like this first time, he would have done everything exactly as she had dreamed he might”. The only problem, of course, is that she still can’t recall his face. She can only recall his loving touch — and, with his body absent from her life, she craves the body of someone else who might become a host for Howard’s spirit.
Enter the Tohotaua of The Living Days. His name is Jeremiah Phillips, but most people know him as Cub. Born in Britain to a family from Jamaica, he is a thirteen-year-old boy with an alluring sense of self-possession: “His dreadlocks. His overlarge shirts, his army trousers, his basketball shoes. His heavy eyes, his lips. … Nothing would dislodge him, not thunderstorms, not terror, not a hostile gaze.” Cub surveils Mary Grimes, watching her from afar, then he makes a tentative approach. Their eyes meet across a public space. It is clear from the way his silent presence commands her attention that her little world doesn’t usually collide with worlds like his: “Never had her path crossed the path of his kind, never in this kind of direct confrontation. A welter of possibilities came to mind from what little she could see of his face under [his] yellow-and-blue striped cap.” Possibilities? Practical possibilities, yes: Cub and Mary strike up an unconventional friendship and he begins to do odd jobs for her, running repairs on her crumbling flat. But the more important possibilities, for Mary, are first suggestively sensual, then erotic, then openly sexual.
Initially, it is Cub’s blackness that leads Mary Grimes to fall for him, and her thoughts are laid open for the reader to see that what she is doing to him with words is what Gauguin did to Tohotaua with paint: “Oh, that face. That face. Smooth as vanilla or cocoa cream, smooth as those sweet flavors she could lick right off a spoon. A smoothness sharpened by the chill that would have turned paler complexions blotchy red.” In admiring him, in savouring the details of his physicality, Mary’s spirit swells with a “wholly extraordinary tenderness” stoked by “[t]he energy that child had exuded, the solidity of his flesh, his muscles, his lips”. Don’t let the wording of her impressions slip by. He is still explicitly a child — “that child” — and his youth is exactly what inflames her attraction. True, there are overtures towards cross-cultural understanding. Mary apes some elderly Caribbean women she sees shopping for “plantains, chayotes, yams, pili-pili”. Cub observes his hands intertwined with Mary’s, white skin on black, and Mary notices that he is looking directly at “their difference”. These aspects of The Living Days are deftly rendered and feel true to the multiculturalism and diversity of twenty-first century London; Devi earned her PhD at SOAS in the 1970s and her familiarity with the sensations and textures of the city produces some dazzling descriptive passages. But first and foremost, at every encounter, it’s not Cub’s skin that arrests the attention of Mary Grimes. It’s the fact that his beauty has about it a juvenile lustre.
To be fair, the attraction sometimes seems to be reciprocal. At one point, Devi reveals Cub’s thoughts in free indirect style, without Mary on the scene, and writes that “[t]he girls he walked past in his neighbourhood, with their bare midriffs and long legs, weren’t who he was thinking of so much as the older, white women in the chic pockets of London”. Then again, Devi’s careful shifts in perspective complicate the straightforwardness of these words: Cub entertains those thoughts while he is “looking at himself in the mirror”, trying out attractive poses, “unaware that he was copying his sisters’ seductive posture, their hooded gaze, their pout, their enigmatic smile”. Although Cub may well be “unaware” of the causes of his own behaviour, someone is aware of them — some implied narrator with greater wisdom —so it’s not unreasonable to take a sceptical view of his own notion that he is attracted to older white women. Essentially, despite his veneer of self-possession, Cub seems to be a vulnerable boy, uncertain of his place in the world, unwittingly primed for exploitation — and exploiting Cub is exactly what Mary Grimes does.
Or does she? Together with her apparent senility, her arrested development makes it hard to know how to ascribe moral agency to Mary when, without securing Cub’s consent, relying on his mostly passive participation, she seduces and rapes him. The sex scene, halfway through The Living Days, is nothing short of disarming and electrifying — incendiary, really, because it seems so determined to be felt as “problematic”:
[Cub] was stupefied to see her undoing the belt of her dress, pulling down its zipper, and letting it fall to the floor. Feeling nauseated, he shut his eyes.
When Mary’s hands touched his face, he forced his eyes open again. Mary made him look at her. Her smile hinted that beyond the thin, angular body with blue creases, the flattened breasts where light pink nipples were visible, the flabby belly that no longer covered a soft layer of fat but rather showed organs nearing failure, the thighs streaked by veins, the face carved by wrinkles… the thinning hair, beyond this wholesale erosion of every attractive feature, of every appealing trait, of every charm, there was another presence: the gleaming illusion of a woman. She still existed, she had never left. She was visible now, casting aside all the ravages of time.
Whose perspective do we enter here? The eyes belong to Cub as he is looking at Mary Grimes, but the agency belongs to Mary: she has “made him look” at her. So, when we read that “[h]er smile hint[s]” at the immanent beauty beneath her superficial features, it’s hard to tell whether we’re seeing what Cub actually sees in Mary, or whether we’re seeing what Mary is trying to project, what she would wish for Cub to recognise in her. As the scene proceeds, however, that uncertainty melts away:
He forgot everything. She ran her fingers over his face and his neck, she took off his jumper and his cap, and gently undressed him, both like a child and like a man. The feeling of this fragile skin filled Cub with astonishment, because it was as beautiful as a night-time breeze over his forehead. He let himself relax. … She lay Cub on her bed, relishing the beauty of this unmoving body, of these heavy-lidded eyes, and, nude as well, she taught him things that he had not yet experienced and that she had thought she’d never known.
There’s more, much more, with no slackening in the difficulty of the material. Mary straddles Cub, lowering herself onto his erection, while her body “exudes an aroma of old waxed marble, but also of greenery, of rosemary and thyme”. Devi doesn’t shy from the details of their intercourse: attention is paid to pre-cum, the sensuality of Cub’s nipples, the feeling of his torso, the “spongy firmness” of his adolescent lips, and Mary becomes ever more voracious the more she observes his fine figure. At last, Devi writes, Mary resolves to “feed on his flesh, his energy, his life”, and when they orgasm, together, their mutual climax is described as “a moment of extraordinary violence.”
I don’t know whose judgment that is, the judgment that there is something violent to the interactions of these characters; it seems to belong to neither of them. In any case, I don’t think it’s a judgment I share, but I also can’t be sure I’d reject it out of hand. Just as happens whenever I look at Gauguin’s Girl with a Fan, ambivalence feels to me like the right response. In fact, it feels like the intended response, as if Devi has purposefully engineered a situation that can be described only as “problematic”, no matter how much it might bait its readers into finding stronger terms to disavow it. Where Gauguin looked upon Tohotaua clothed and imagined her nudity, Devi has Mary look upon Cub’s nudity and overlook its belonging to Cub, treating it as bodily clothing for someone else: Howard.
Howard actually returns to the narrative, in a perverted form, before Mary seduces Cub. In an extended sequence of hallucinatory events, having nursed her love for Howard over the course of sixty years, Mary becomes convinced — deluded — that he now lives with her. She notes a dark patch on the ceiling of her flat, where a rot has set in. Then the rot opens up into a hole and worms begin falling onto her carpet. She places a bowl on the floor to catch them, but wonders where they could have come from. When she investigates, she finds Howard’s decomposing corpse in the crawl space, where, unbeknownst to Mary and the world at large, he had hidden until he died: “Mary shuddered at the thought that Howard might have lived like this, abandoned by everybody, eating dead rats.” And yet, rather than removing the corpse, Mary decides to talk to it, to converse, and the corpse talks back. Finally, even though she admits to herself that this version of Howard can be “nothing more than a ghost”, she hungers to “see more of… Howard’s face and Cub’s face, Cub’s body” — together, in tandem — so that Cub becomes an avatar for Mary’s imaginings of Howard. It’s as if, for her, the nebulous concept of “Howard” serves as a reservoir for all the emotional and sexual desires she felt at fifteen years of age, and now, as the concept dissolves, all those desires burst out to take refuge in the flesh of a thirteen-year-old boy. Somehow, although Cub’s body is essential to Mary’s sexual reawakening, his identity is incidental and substitutable for the identity construct that Mary calls “Howard”.
What is this, if not a textbook case of the grounds on which the rape of a minor might be explained but not excused? Mary Grimes plainly isn’t a fifteen-year-old girl. She’s a seventy-five-year-old woman who is fully conscious of the fact that Cub is much, much younger — and a minor, at that. She knows full well what she is doing to him physically, but she can’t see the immorality of her actions because her field of vision is constrained by her arrested development and warped by her desire for “Howard”. I don’t think Devi wants us to condemn her for her treatment of Cub. I think she wants us to be torn between the necessity of condemning her and the simultaneous impossibility of it. I think she wants us to witness Mary’s exploitative behaviour, to acknowledge her experiential innocence, to see how those two things balance out one another, and then work to abide our discomfort rather than resolving it. So, then, if I can’t say I came away from The Living Days feeling satisfied, or amply rewarded, I have to say that I think this means Devi has realised her aims. It’s easy to be swept up in the drama between Mary and Cub, immersive as it is, but difficult to not feel compromised by it, difficult to submit to total immersion. I couldn’t submit to it any more than I can ease myself into the gaze of Gauguin in Girl with a Fan; I had to resist it and withdraw, again and again, to keep myself alert to the extenuating circumstances that are the defining feature of “problematic” art — circumstances that make the art permissible, even in some ways pleasurable, if not agreeable. Lesson learned, I suppose: no less in London than in the Marquesas, it’s perfectly possible for a type of artistic beauty to captivate and, at the same time, to turn the stomach and set the conscience alight.