Wednesday, April 22, 2020

What did the book club think? The Story of a Goat, by Perumal Murugan

Novels that get inside the minds of animals have a long and storied tradition. The genre is particularly strong in kids books, with Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane getting a recent boost from Ann Patchett’s enthusiastic recommendation. But adult books too - I've read Animal Farm, Watership Down, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone. Some create a fantasy world, while others try to be more realistic in their depictions. It is in the latter category that I would place The Story of a Goat, the 2016 novel by Perumal Murugan, translated by N. Kalyan Raman and in December was released in the United States under the Black Cat imprint.

The novel got rave reviews from Parul Sehgal in The New York Times, Ron Charles in The Washington Post (who gives a more extensive list of animal novels), and Eliot Schrefer in USA Today (distributed by Gannett), as well as fine profile in The New Yorker by Amitava Kumar, with an in-short review following a few weeks later. On top of that, the book has a striking cover design from Becca Fox featuring an illustration by Natalia Andreychenko. That cover sealed the deal for me. It reminded me of my days of buying, where I’d look for dog books where the dog was looking straight at the reader – if I featured them, they’d sell at double the rate of a cover where the animal was looking away.

Goats don’t capture the American heart the way dogs do, though Murugan does have an interesting reasoning between why he chose a goat, when looking at the animals he could choose from: “Dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves goats and sheep. Goats are problem-free, harmless, and what’s more, energetic.” And while the novel is based in Tamil culture, I couldn’t help but think as I read the book, in the weeks before Passover, of the song “Chad Gadya” or “One Little Goat.” Or as we said growing up, “Chad Gad-yawwwww.”

The novel’s original title was Poonachi: The Story of a Black Goat, and Poonachi surely is the star of the show. She arrives as a baby to the home of an older couple, subsistence farmers, given to the husband by a mysterious giant. Black goats are frowned upon in these parts, to the extent that they have been purged from the population, but there’s a rumor that this goat might give birth to seven kids, as opposed to the one or two babies normally in the litter. The story follows the couple’s rise and fall in fortunes, as it also tells the story of this tough life, punctuated by pleasant moments. Most notably, it is a love story, of Poonachi’s love for Poonam, a goat that lives with the old couple’s daughter. But the brutality of the story is also important – the scene of Poonachi’s first breeding reads like a rape scene, and that should be enough warning to potential purchasers that this is not a book for kids.

Another thing to note is that The Story of a Goat is very different from many other Indian novels that find success in the United States. As noted by Amitava Kumar in The New Yorker, “It cannot be doubted that most of India’s population is rural. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Indian fiction written in English. Indian writers who work in English are mostly from the middle or upper classes, educated in English-medium schools, and, if not residing in one of India’s busy metropolises, then living in the West. Their characters tend to be well-heeled urban citizens of a mobile republic. In contrast, Murugan lives in a small, agricultural town in southern India, and he writes in Tamil. His characters are overwhelmingly villagers or people in remote, small towns.”

Murugan’s writing life is particularly relevant to this story. He is a Tamil writer who nonetheless has found much success in the rest of India. But his previous novel, One Part Woman, created a firestorm of controversy. It is about a couple trying to conceive a child who partake in a ritual during a festival where, well, the woman is free to find other donors. Protests resulted in an effective house arrest. At one point in the controversy, Eliot Schrefer noted this Facebook post from the author: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not god, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”

But this led to a backlash. As Ron Charles notes: “Happily, authors in India and around the world rose to Murugan’s defense, and in 2016 an Indian court unequivocally confirmed his creative license. The judges’ verdict, which included a rousing survey of the history and importance of freedom of expression, concluded, ‘Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.’”

The Story of a Goat touches on the inequities of race, class, and color in Indian society. It also looks the bureaucratic extremes of government, to often comic effect. Lots and lots of paperwork. Lots and lots of rules. And the piercing of the ears reminded me of the increasing use of cell phones to track people for good (preventing COVID-19 outbreaks) and not so good (most other reasons). While the comedy is apparent for the reader, it’s hardly funny for people living through it.

The book is also contemporary in its look at the environmental devastation caused by drought. The older couple (who, unlike the animals, are nameless) have an economic rise and fall, with their fortunes changing by two incidents – the purchase of some jewelry (which, as one reader noted, might have been simply a safe investment) or the tethering of Poonachi, which in turn changes the relationship between woman and goat. But it’s definitely the drought that leads to the family’s decline, something that I suspect the author has viewed in real life.

As the American editor of The Story of a Goat said, the allegory is just one layer of the story. Yes, I got to send some questions to Peter Blackstock, who acquired this novel One Part Woman for Grove/Atlantic. I learned that in this part of India, they still use the traditional naming systems that have faded away in other parts of the world, except perhaps for Iceland. For Murugan is the name the author goes by, while Perumal is his father’s name, the equivalent of when Johnson meant “son of John.” In many cases where Indian writers use initials, the first initial stands for their father’s name and the second is for the town they are from. I hope I got this right. Also hoping Black Cat is able to publish Murugan's next novel, Pyre.

As another aside, I should note that Blackstock was also the American editor for Bernardine Evaristo's Girl Woman Other, which won the Booker Prize. They acquired the book when it was longlisted for the Booker - be assured the longlist is not a measure of future success in the United States. I asked Blackstock what I should read next of Evaristo - Blonde Roots would be suggested follow up. It was published by Riverhead just before we opened in 2009. It asks the question, "What if the world had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans?"

So what did the book club think? I would say that we were about three-fourths likes to one-fourth not so much. The group met by Zoom for the first time and of course there were hiccups. At least one member was not able to hear the conversation, so we never found out how she felt. The nay-sayers found the story a little quiet for their tastes, and at least one participant noted the open-endedness of the plot and how several threads were just left hanging. Who was that giant? Who was that rich guy who was buying the litters? We are told the giant looks like Bakasuran, and one of our attendees found this reference to the Hindu God. One of our attendees had a pet goat at one point. Good to know!

I will be adding The Story of a Goat to our book club recommendation list and it will be part of my upcoming talks, if I ever get to do upcoming talks. The conversation was great, even for the folks who didn’t love the book. It looks at a part of the world we don’t often explore, and extra points for books in translation! Boswell has sold The Story of a Goat well, and I'm hoping this post will jumpstart some other stores into getting behind the book. I'm thrilled that we have the third best sales at indie bookstores reporting to Edelweiss, but we shouldn't be that high. On the other hand, I l looked at the grid and while I can't imagine we'd ever be #1, we have a shot of jumping to #2. Have you noticed I'm very competitive about these things?

Our next meeting will discuss the just-released-in-paperback Mostly Dead Things, by Kristen Arnett on May 4 at 7 pm. Please write to me if you want to join this discussion and I will invite you. We are selling the book on the Boswell website at 20% off the list price. Our June discussion book is Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli on June 1 (formerly June 8*). If you buy the order on our website for this discussion, please note in comments that you are doing so for the book club and you will get 10% off the list price when your order is processed. Please note that we know that the May meeting will be virtual, and I expect the June 1 to be so as well, but things could change. They change every day.

More Boswell book club recommendations here.

Author photo credit: Wikipedia
*June 1 no longer conflicts with a large event in the bookstore.

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