Nicholas Jose launches The Burning Elephant by Christopher Raja
The Burning Elephant
by Christoher Raja
Book Launch Speech by NICHOLAS JOSE
Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Guangzhou
Kuei Yuan Café Gallery 24 November 2016
Who would have thought I would be launching Chris Raja’s beautiful book here in Guangzhou? Such is the river of life that flows into the ocean here at Canton, as Borges reminds us … There are many things to say about The Burning Elephant but, since we’re standing, I’ll keep it simple. The story is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy called Govinda whose world is his school and his family and his Kolkata neighbourhood—a world into which he doesn’t quite fit. This unease is focussed when an elephant is killed and then cremated in the schoolyard, providing an image that grows and mutates, disturbingly, through the book. ‘He was a strange boy, the way an elephant’s tail or Kali’s face is strange. He existed, and was perfectly made in every way … but he seemed not quite right for the world’ (8).
By the end of the book the burning elephant has become a ‘burning man’ (149). Sectarian violence has erupted into Govinda’s little world with political terror and the destructiveness of Kali. As he was warned: ‘Death and destruction rule. Bastard of a time.’ (21)
The family is taking ‘the Australian option’ – migrating, getting out. Amidst the extreme tragedy with which the novel ends Govinda boards a plane and makes the link between death and rebirth: ‘The flashing ruby-red lights on the wings of the aircraft reminded him of Kali’s tongue. The black tarmac looked like her arms and legs … Would home be a place he had never been to?’ (181)
This outline gives you an idea of The Burning Elephant. What starts as a memoir of boyhood becomes a story of larger disruption. Yet it remains personal at the same time. Things are seen from the inside. Raja’s writing is lucid and lyrical, replete with lists that find order in chaos and vice versa. His imagination animates the animal life of physicality and appetite in everyone and everything. Hierarchies of being are tumbled and churned. There’s a subtle distance too, even in the most intimate emotional turmoil. I am reminded of the young Marcel in Proust’s great novel of memory as he remembers his mother’s goodnight kiss, and of Alain Fournier’s recreation of adolescence in Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes called the lost domain. One world is seen from another, across a divide. One lost, one complexly found. The distance is spanned by language, story, memory. It is the migrant’s fate. The adult condition. Where Govinda’s father was an orphan turned sahib, the son’s life has a reverse pattern, as he is severed forcibly and in different ways from his filial position.
All of this is handled lightly, experienced vividly, as The Burning Elephant unfolds. We recognise other resonances and versions. Violence, flight: we see it everywhere if we look. Truly it is ‘a dark age’ (21). But as Govinda’s father advises us at the end of the novel: ‘The trick is not to panic. That is Kali’s whisper.’ (182)
NICHOLAS JOSE has published seven novels, including Paper Nautilus (1987), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), three collections of short stories, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (a memoir), and essays, mostly on Australian and Asian culture. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy Beijing, 1987-90 and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-10. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide, where he is a member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.