The Last Candles of the Night by Ian Bedford reviewed by Subhash Jaireth
by Ian Bedford
Reviewed by SUBHASH JAIRETH
The Last Candles of the Night opens with two epigraphs. The first in Persian: two lines of a verse by Ali Sher Nava’i of Heart. The second comes from an Urdu poem by Zaheer Kashmiri, which has the words, ‘… the last candles of the night.’ These words also become the title of the book, as well as of a crucial chapter in the first section. The book ends with two glossaries. One of them lists Indian names and the other provides translation of Indian words (Arabic, Hindi, Persian, Telugu and Urdu). Thus, translation, as a mode of being, seems to be one of the major thematic anxieties of the novel.
In a round-table on translation, collected in his book, The Ear of the Other, Derrida underlines the double bind, which every act of translation is faced with. ‘Translate me,’ he notes, ‘and what is more don’t translate me. I desire that you translate me, that you translate the name I impose on you; and at the same time whatever you do, don’t translate me, you will not be able to translate it.’ Although in the above citation, Derrida is more concerned about the special status of a proper name, of its translatability and untranslatability, it seems a similar anxiety permeates our global culture, in which words and languages travel faster than people who speak and hear them, write and read them, act and be acted upon by them.
There are several narrative tensions, which drive the narrative in The Last Candles of the Night, but the one that seems most significant to me is the untranslatability; not only of words and languages, but also of the lived life and its memories; and of the world, which we find ourselves thrown into, of our own will or just by accident. In ‘real’ life, accidents can remain unexplained, uncomprehended, and even misunderstood but in a novel their occurrence has to be justified. Accidents and coincidences are potent narrative devices. Their real import is clear to a writer from the beginning simply because she is the author, but a reader requires persuasion and inducement. Like a stubborn child she needs to be coaxed to swallow a bitter pill or to endure the sharp prick of a needle.
It is perhaps a mere coincidence, or an act of fate, that Phillip Chalk, a young Australian teacher from Sydney finds himself teaching in a one-teacher school in Warangal, a small town in the princely state of Hyderabad. The year is 1948 and the army of an Independent India is ready to invade the Nizam’s Hyderabad. In Warangal he meets Anand, a member of the Congress Party, and Ragini, the communist daughter of a music-loving landlord. The love-triangle that develops between the three will leave indelible marks on their lives. This constitutes the past time of the story casting its shadow on the present time, which unfolds in Sydney, where a seventy-year old Phillip has returned to make some sense of his past. The Australia he has returned to is John Howard’s ‘Tampa’-time Australia.
In Sydney Phillip finds refuge in his childhood house where many years earlier he had left his wife Jenny, who he had brought from India. But return isn’t easy. He can’t escape the hostility of his daughter Nora, who wants to know why Phillip had abandoned the family, and returned to India. She also blames him for the death of her sister, Tilley. For Jenny, the question is irrelevant. She has reconciled. However, a little residue of bitterness still remains. ‘After all,’ she tells Phillip, ‘I have to thank you for very little. For rescuing me once. For a mission of rescue. For a proposal of marriage. For seeing what was wrong. For bringing me to Australia, which as it’s turned out is a kind of blessing. For deserting me here.’ Phillip is aware of the pain he has caused and is keen to explain. ‘All that long absence,’ he says to Jenny, ‘I imposed on your life – it was all on your account, yours and Anand’s.’ He is clever, isn’t he?
The past is recounted in flashbacks; the recounting both embellished and corrupted by the capriciousness of memory. Although flashback as a device allows easy traverses between present and past times, it can lead to pitfalls. It isn’t enough to declare how unreliable or made-up the memory is. The skill resides in representing its tricky fickleness. Not many novels achieve this with grace and facility. The most common and simple device they use is to recount the same event from two different viewpoints, either of the same protagonist or of different protagonists. The Last Candles of the Night opts for the second option, and achieves the objective deftly. The two sections of the novel, entitled Phillip and Jenny, represent two different vantage points. Strangely, the viewpoint of Anand remains unspoken and unheard. I would have loved to read his account of the turbulent events.
The blurb describes the novel as ‘… lyrical and moving …’ Moving, it surely is, but lyrical elements only appear in the second section, shorter and crisper than the first. The novel shows its best writing in the final few pages. It is a fitting finale of a good story, imagined with care and told with graceful skill.
As I mentioned earlier, the title of the book comes from the verse of an Urdu poem, which forms the second epigraph. Zaheer Kashmiri is a wonderful Pakistani poet, who has remained largely untranslated into English. I hope the epigraph persuades the readers to find out more about him and his poetry. His phrase, “Hamen khabr hai ke ham hain chiraagh-e-aakhir-e shab,” has been translated as, “We have heard that we are the last candles of the night.” I like the translation. It reads and sounds well. However, my translation will be slightly different. It will read like this: “I know that I am the last candle of the night.” In my version I have replaced the first person plural ‘Hamen’ in the original with first person singular ‘I’. This is because in Urdu poetry, poets often use first person plural when they refer to themselves. The second translation, I readily acknowledge, sounds dull. More importantly, it doesn’t sound in consonance with the thematic rhythms of the novel. Because the last ‘candles of the night,’ in this intriguing novel are three: Ragini, Anand and Phillip.
SUBHASH JAIRETH was born in India, spent nine years in Moscow and moved to Canberra in 1986. He has published poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Hindi, Russian and English. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published in 2011. Two plays adapted from the book were performed at Canberra’s Street Theatre in 2012. His novel After Love was published by Transit Lounge.