Monday, June 19, 2006

The Story of D.

This week in The New Yorker we find "Innocence," by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This is a complicated short story, not so easily summarized, and the complications extend to the structure: it's a reminiscence about a novel translated by the narrator and written by a young man named Dinesh. The novel is based on a time when the narrator and Dinesh lived together (as fellow roomers, not romantically) in a boarding house in India. Dinesh appears in the novel as a character named "D." I've never understood that device, referring to a character only by an initial, as if to protect the character's privacy. I suppose in a confessional it might make the story feel more true.

This story is primarily about the man and woman who own the boarding house, Mr. and Mrs. Malhotra. Their past has been marred by scandal; they participated unwittingly in a gold smuggling scheme, and Mr. Malhotra served some jail time. Mrs. Malhotra, smelling quick riches, goaded him into his actions; hence, they are both to blame, and much of the story revolves around the lingering bitterness in their lives. The foreground of the story concerns Kay, a western (British?) girl who lives in the house for a while and stirs up all sorts of jealousies. (The narrator is also a westerner.)

The story as remembered by the narrator is interwoven with bits and pieces from the novel, i.e., Dinesh's memory of the same story. This allows Jhabvala to present two points of view in a first-person narrative, although very little is drawn from the novel. Is this complicated structure worth it? Couldn't Jhabvala have let the narrator tell the story as she remembered it, and left out the baggage of the translated novel? Probably so. It does, however, clearly establish the narrator's position as reminiscent, which adds the perspective of years to a story that, taken on its face, becomes somewhat melodramatic. Also, I admit, the extra layer adds credibility, especially to the narrator's observations about Dinesh (because she can glean his thoughts from the novel he wrote), and also to her knowledge of things that occurred after she no longer lived in the house. Perhaps the oddest thing is that the first-person narrator plays almost no part in the primary story; she is just an observer. So why didn't Jhabvala just have Dinesh tell the story, and leave out the female narrator? The only answer is that it would have been a different story, seen through the eyes of an Indian man instead of a western woman. Not a small difference.