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Hari Kunzru

An Interview with Hari Kunzru

An Interview with Hari Kunzru

Aside from the name on the spine, the three novels by British-Kashmiri author Hari Kunzru might seem to have nothing to do with one another. The Impressionist is a sweeping picaresque about race and social hierarchies during the decline of the British Empire. Transmission hops lightly around the globe in pursuit of a hapless Indian computer programmer and the software virus he designed that accidentally cripples the world. Kunzru’s latest, My Revolutions, plunges the reader into the radical underground scene in late-60s London, where even the most ardent political beliefs are not immune to contamination by personal doubts, grudges, and lust. However, Kunzru’s work consistently goes beyond questions of cultural assimilation to engage with the problems of global citizenship. Currently living in New York, Kunzru took a moment out of his globetrotting to speak to the HBC.

What are you doing here in New York?
I came here intending to write a big historical novel set in India, and I got totally sidetracked by living in the States. So I ended up writing something different.

Just the speech that you’re hearing, the concerns in the media, the atmosphere of the place—it seeps in, and suddenly you realize you’re in a completely different space.

So what are you writing about now?
I ended up going on a road trip with some friends out in California, into the Mojave Desert, and I became fascinated with this kind of forgotten, Eastern Californian, high desert landscape, with its history of Baptist Christianity, Mormonism, UFOs, weapons testing, and methamphetamines. It all seemed to happen in this very empty and visually bleak place, so I’m writing something that’s set there. The history of that place is all about people coming from outside, into the emptiness, and filling that emptiness with their idea, whatever their idea is, whether it’s religious or whether it’s a secret project that they have. It’s a sort of solipsistic thing. I’ve always been quite attracted to deserts.

Where did you go, exactly?
I’ve been doing a series of road trips to Twentynine Palms, and I’ve driven south to the Salton Sea. I went out to a place called Salvation Mountain. It’s near the Salton Sea, in a particularly bleak area. There’s a guy out there called Leonard Knight, who’s been there since the early ’80s. His great wish in life was to glorify God, and he’s been doing that by building an artificial mountain out of straw and mud and house paint. And it’s huge. It’s now 95 steps to get to the top. It’s this multi-colored thing with slogans, and flowers drawn on it, and he’s incredibly productive. He’s this wizened old guy in his late 70s, he lives in a trailer next to his creation, and he subsists on handouts, really. People like me turn up and slip him twenty bucks to buy some more yellow paint. His theology is very simple: It’s that God is love, and God wants us to love each other, and he feels that if he builds this thing, you know, “If you build it, they will come.” I found him rather good company. I would drive up there and he would come down the mountain and give me a tour, and we’d just sit on the top of the mountain and talk about why he’s doing this.

What attracts you to people like him?
I’m trying to get at this blankness and the way people fill it with a grand and single-minded conception.

Sounds like writing a novel.
Sure. That’s what you do. You sit there and you spin something out of nothing.

Are there similarities between the California desert and Kashmir, where your family comes from?
I don’t have a family connection to the Rajasthan Desert, but I’ve visited there several times, and I set bits and pieces of The Impressionist in that sort of desert landscape. But actually, they’re doing nuclear testing in the desert in India. The fact that it’s wasteland and people feel they can do whatever they want with it and abuse it in certain ways is also interesting to me.

A lot of people think you’ve changed over the course of your three novels, from the globe-spanning satires of The Impressionist and Transmission to the intense political and psychological drama of My Revolutions. How did we get here?
My Revolutions came out of really being beaten up by all the people who say, “Things were better in the ’60s, our generation produced this epochal shift, and why have you younger people not managed to do anything.” I always wondered how much of that was self-serving, and how much of it was real. I wanted to unpick that natural arrogance of being 21, where you assume that you’ve made up everything, and you’re the first group of people to ever have these feelings. I wanted to see if there really was a chance to make something fundamentally different in the ’60s.

I’m from San Francisco, so I’ve heard those war stories, too.
It hangs heavy over the Bay Area even now, even though a lot of the participants aren’t around any more. I found that quite oppressive as a teenager, and in my early 20s. You feel like you’re belated, like it’s all been done already.

My Revolutions has earned praise for being historically accurate—praise from people who actually belonged to the ’60s underground, like Bill Ayers. Is that a testament to the research you did?
Partly some fairly meticulous research and partly just attempting to think through the personal ramifications of a situation. One of the skills of the novelist is to run thought experiments on yourself, and that’s one of the things I enjoy most.

Your take on the era seems both unfamiliar and totally believable.
It was really important to me to avoid the cheesy flower power stuff. The temptation was to soundtrack the book and get a little extra push by referencing lots of well-known cultural stuff from the time, but I made rules that I wouldn’t go there. I think all that stuff has been very devalued. It’s part of a screen that obscures what was really happening. Rather than being a tool that helps you work, I think it actually muddies it all up.

Is radical activism less relevant today?
Look at what happened this past week, with the New School occupations. It’s straight to the mace and the pepper spray and the batons. They had very little support in the wider culture. There’s no wider feeling that pressure should be applied outside the democratic process to bring about change. I think a lot of people wonder how effective it is to spend an afternoon wandering aimlessly around the streets with a placard when the news outlets aren’t going to cover it. It’s the expenditure of effort versus the actual feeling of reward. People today want to organize in other ways. There’s an old Weatherman slogan about throwing your body onto the gears of the machine and this idea of personal risk—that you’re willing to risk physical injury. Whereas I think now we don’t see the upside to that kind of risk. And honestly, there’s not a good story about what an alternative would be. That’s the big difference. In 1968, you could still believe there was a reasonably coherent way to organize society; whereas now, I’ve met very few people recently who still believe there’s some sort of command economy that would make people any happier, that would produce anything other than an awful mess. I think for that kind of serious social movement to rise again, there needs to be a well-thought out alternative story.

All of your novels deal with very political questions, but they don’t seem to have political agendas. How do you manage that?
Firstly, if you want to write political polemic, the novel’s not the form to do that in. A novel has to be about complexity, it has to be about different voices, and it has to be about tensions between different perspectives in the world. If you do attempt to harness a piece of fiction to make a case—an uncomplicated case—you’re going to do violence to the form. You should be doing something else.

So, no Ayn Rand for you.
Absolutely not. Terrible novelist.

Are you an activist, like the characters in My Revolutions?
I’d be a terrible activist. I’m not single-minded enough.
At a certain point, abstractions cease to function as a way of understanding a world that’s made up of small human actions. Politics is the aggregate of human interactions—people hanging around, talking to each other in the park, or in café tables—and I find it useful, when confronted with a rather disgusting, large-scale abstraction, to ask, “Well, what would that mean to an individual,” as opposed to, “Oh, it’s the president’s fault.”
But the anarchist dream of a world without coercion and power has always been of interest to me, partly because I can’t see any route towards that. It seems like a noble aim to dismantle the unnecessary structures of coercion. Writing My Revolutions, I tried to think about where I might have been on the spectrum of political argument at that moment. And you can go further back and ask yourself what you would have been up to in St. Petersburg in 1917. Would I have been striding around with a pistol in my belt, shooting traitors, or would I have been rather conflicted? I’d never be one of these vanguard communist types who tried to fit everyone into their plan and didn’t mind how much blood was spilt in the name of the cause. I just could never be that person. I would have been executed and accused of being bourgeois. I would have been shot before 1920, I think!

Who are your role models for a book like this?
The best political writer I can think of is Victor Serge. He was a committed communist. The man devoted his whole life to trying to bring about the revolution. But he was too good an artist to write propaganda. There’s an amazing novel called The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It’s just devastating about the effects of a political purge on a group of people who are all sincerely trying to bring about a better world. Serge sees all the horror and the violence that he’s brought about, that he helped put into action. He was up to his neck in it, and at the same time he was so deeply conflicted, and was putting it down on paper in really, really brilliant novels. He’s a writer who is very unfashionable at the moment, because you assume it’s going to be some sort of turgid, Stalinist, “Ah comrade, the tractor has come to the village; we will all be fine.” But it’s not that. He’s taking a look at human nature in the most extreme circumstances. Everyone should read Victor Serge.

So clarity of political thinking is a bad thing?
To be an activist you have to have commitment. You have to have decided to go beyond a consideration of the options to a plan of action. Whether you’re on the left or the right, you have to close certain questions in order to think it’s worth doing this stuff, coercing people to do what you say. And that’s opposed to the habits of thought that a novelist—or certainly this novelist—has. I can’t quite imagine using violence in support of some idea I have about how things should be run.

Transmission is so engaged with the way people communicate and travel in the present day. Were you trying to write a novel that was very much of its time?
I was looking on my hard drive yesterday, thinking I might put up some stuff on my web site, and I realized I have a whole file of journalism and interview transcripts from the late ’90s. I found a piece that I’m going to put up, today or tomorrow, which is about showing a friend the internet for the first time, and him expecting this kind of William Gibson-type, consensual hallucination. And we were on a 14.4 modem! I’m describing how we log in, and you hear the [sound of a dial-up connection], and I thought: Man, that’s so hilarious. Yeah, certain plots aren’t possible because of communications technologies, and other plots have become possible. With Transmission I wanted to do a book where nobody really meets each other. All the central characters are in different places. I have a theory about the popularity of Indian fiction amongst a non-Indian reading public. Because of traditional family structures in India, you can run nineteenth century novel plots that make sense today. You can do Jane Austen plots in India with no problem because there are impediments to the young man and the young woman getting married, and those impediments are just as strict as anything in Georgian England. I think those plots are very comforting and very familiar, and yet somehow they’ve come with all this new furniture and all this new window dressing.

Speaking of maintaining your web site, do you consider that part of your role as an author?
For ages I had a terrible website that I built myself, several years ago, and I hadn’t updated, and I finally got around to getting my friends to build me a nice content management system that I can upload stuff to. I have friends who are really deeply into the possibilities of communicating over the web, whereas I’ve ended up making this very traditional stuff, these linear stories that are printed on paper. But I’m trying to work out what happens when the publishing industry sort of fades away, as it’s about to. I don’t think most writers understand how soon that’s going to happen, and it seems to me the future is going to be much more about writers communicating quite straightforwardly with an audience, without so much mediation through the distribution networks and the marketing of the publisher.
Seeing blogger friends find a community of people, I think that’s obviously going to be the way things happen for me in the future as well. It may be that the work gets more bound up with that, I don’t know. I really care about prose, and I really care about the form of the novel, so I don’t think I’ll end up dissolving novel writing into a more non-linear thing. But it feels like that stuff is going to be quite essential to everybody’s writing lives in the future.

(May, 2009)