BOOKS & ARTS
Fictions of Unknowability
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
How writing ‘to the edge of what can be loved’ develops unreliable, ethically dubious, and perplexing characters.
IN HER verse novel Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson writes, “Up against another human being one’s own procedures take on definition.” The sentence signals a turn in the protagonist Geryon’s coming-of-age storyline. Caught between adolescence and young adulthood, Geryon falls in love with the art of photography and a young man who “knows a lot/about art.” It causes his mother to complain, “I hardly know you anymore.”
Geryon’s own vision develops against his lover’s ways of seeing, like images forming on transparent films exposed to light. But consider how Geryon’s access to his lover’s perceptions must be limited by his own perspective, his own frames of reference. Geryon, and us readers, would be mistaken to think that a picture and its framework can be clearly told apart. Autobiography of Red tracks how both love and art are so often bounded up with problems of perception. When Geryon’s mother asks him what he loves about the young man he is seeing, Geryon hesitates and finesses. He then becomes preoccupied with other thoughts like, “‘How does distance look?’ is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless / within to the edge / of what can be loved. It depends on light.” Geryon is reflecting on photography and philosophy when he should be talking about the man he loves. Or, he is thinking of the man he loves and scaffolding his thoughts with analogies and abstractions. After all, love, like photography, organizes the flux of experiences, gives our memories and perceptions a certain slant, and creates the semblance of intimacy out of distance.
In Autobiography of Red, Carson adapts the myth about the slaying of the monster Geryon by Hercules into a contemporary coming-of-age tale and love story, told from the point of view of Geryon. From the winged monster’s perspective, the celebrated Greek hero is a figure worthy of love. What Geryon does not know is that this love will wreck his life. Throughout, Carson depicts the anxiety stemming from the desire to see other people and things as they are in themselves—ding an sich, as Kant would put it—and the impossibility to do so. “Up against another human being one’s own procedures take on definition” is not a truism. It conveys the longing for clarity—the kind of clarity one hopes to find in a definition. However, love and deftly crafted art confound rather than offer clarity.
The best fictions I have read, the ones that have moved me to try my own hand at writing, accomplish a tricky task. In them, language gives uncertainty the glaze of clarity. Shimmering sentences entice me into assuming I have arrived at something—something like “meaning”—when the journey may have only just begun.
Do writers need to worry at all about the ethical implications of choices in narrators, characters, and their quandaries of knowledge?
The lack of clarity is an epistemological problem: it is a problem of knowing, or more precisely, a problem of unknowing. This problem forms the basis of fictions as varied as Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog (trans. by Ivy Litvinov), Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (trans. as The Quilt by Syeda Hameed), Clarice Lispector’s Amor (trans. Katrina Dodson), and the 2022 Caine Prize shortlisted story Collector of Memories by Joshua Chizoma. Literary historical arguments have been made for the dominance of the problem of knowing and unknowing—i.e. epistemological problems—in early twentieth-century fictions, including works of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Henry James. Proust, Woolf, Joyce, and James depend on the language of light and sight, perhaps inspired by photography, an emerging technology at the time, to construct their characters’ and narrators’ perceptual problems.
In Joyce’s Araby, for instance, the narrator becomes infatuated with a girl he sees at dusk, “her figure defined by light.” The boy falls in love with a silhouette. Whom he cannot quite see becomes the very image of divinity.
Anne Carson, WG Sebald, and Aleksandar Hemon, all writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, are “new” modernists in this sense (well, “metamodernists” if you care for trendy academic terms). But if we step outside the constraints of literary historical arguments, founded on corpuses carved out of the chaos of everything written and published in a period of time—on figures cut out of the shapeless ground––then we see how the problem of knowing is the wellspring of fiction. Sometimes in a self-aware way, at other times inadvertently, writers make craft choices that animate the difficulty of knowing anyone or anything. Writers elaborate upon the problem, magnify or atomize it, even if they cannot solve it.
There are two aspects related to this issue that I wish to address here: how and why unknowability can be built into stories, and the ethical implications of such design. The question of ethical orientation arises in response to a cliché that circulates in public discourses about the function of literature: literature cultivates empathy. We know the Other and learn to love this Other, or at least care for them while reading their stories. Fiction can make the Other relatable. So it goes. Reading is thus construed as a virtuous undertaking. To not violate such an ethical contract, what can the good writer do? The writer can make the world a little more knowable. That, however, is a restricted and restricting view of literature. In fact, I believe writers—particularly, writers of fiction—often move us and absorb us without making the worlds and the characters that inhabit these worlds fully knowable.
The Nature of Blindspots in “Lihaf”
The narrator of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf is neither Begum Jan nor her masseuse Rabbo. It is not even Begum Jan’s husband, the Nawab who is busy philandering with young boys. The story is told by Begum Jan’s adopted niece who has a dreadfully inadequate understanding of and insufficient language for what she sees. The narrator was a small girl when she lived with Begum Jan. Years later, Begum Jan’s erotic relationship with Rabbo lingers as a “terrifying shadow” in her mind.
When the narrator sees Begum Jan initially, the woman appears to be the “very picture of royalty.” What follows is a description of Begum Jan—her eyes, hair, skin—from some distance. Between light and shade, day and night, something happens. This “something” becomes a story worth telling precisely because the narrator, even as an adult, does not fully recognize what she saw, and has little understanding of Begum Jan’s experiences. Recounting the past, the narrator, an adult at this point, says (in Syeda Hameed’s translation):
"Rabbo had no other household duties. Perched on the four-poster bed she was always massaging Begum Jan's head, feet or some other part of her anatomy. If someone other than Begum Jan received such a quantity of human touching, what would the consequences be? Speaking for myself, I can say that if someone touched me continuously like this, I would certainly rot."
Reading this, in the aftermath of the profuse commentary Lihaaf has generated for depicting homosexuality, we smile knowingly. We know what the narrator does not. But, I think, Lihaaf endures as a story because we still do not decisively grasp all its internal movements. For example, the narrator remembers her own “adoring gaze” on Begum Jan that transformed the older woman’s face into that of “a young boy,” which is intriguing given the Nawab’s (Begum’s husband) dalliances with young boys in the same house. The narrator also offers to take Rabbo’s place—to comfort Begum Jan, “scratch her itch”—without seemingly understanding Rabbo’s role in Begum Jan’s life. Soon after, Begum Jan “lies down” with the narrator and transforms into a “terrifying entity.”
Lihaaf sustains both under- and overreading into its elliptical narration. What exactly happens after Begum Jan offers to “count” the narrator’s ribs? Why can the narrator no longer look at Begum Jan without feeling a sense of terror as though the older woman would engulf her? Was it because she began to project her fear of same-sex relationships onto her harmless physical intimacy with Begum Jan and therefore started “feeling nauseated against her warm body”? Or was the narrator—a child at the time—molested by Begum Jan but did not have the language to process the experience? In Carson’s Autobiography of Red, when a young Geryon is molested by his elder brother, he too cannot name what has happened to him. The verses tell us Geryon “let his brother do what he liked” and himself tried to disengage from the bodily experience by taking refuge in imaginative thinking. Lihaaf’s narrator may be similarly scaffolding her actual suffering by inventing the image of monstrous shadows cast on the walls of Begum Jan’s house.
The consensus is that Chughtai used a naïve narrator to recount a tumultuous relationship witnessed in childhood to veil the story’s focus on homosexuality. The narrator is a tool that allowed Chughtai to tackle what was taboo at the time. But without the narrator and her blind spots, we do not have much more than a scandalous tale of a clandestine affair here.
Characters whose perceptions are inhibited for any number of reasons are commonplace in fiction precisely because their points of view generate tension, humor, and conflict. And when these characters serve as narrators, as in Lihaaf, we get the (in)famous unreliable narrator. Some unreliable narrators lie, but others misrepresent and misinterpret experiences because they do not know any better. There are also instances of narrative unreliability wherein the narrator is not a fully dramatized character but seems close to one or more of the characters in the story, as is the case with Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog and Lispector’s Amor. I will discuss another such story shortly, but before we get there, let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the supposed unreliability of narrators in fiction.
To claim a made-up story’s narrator is unreliable or to read a character’s perception as limited is to also suggest that there are greater truths, more reliable versions of the incidents out there—somewhere beyond this particular character’s and/or the narrator’s horizon of understanding. Against that greater truth, unreliability takes a certain definition, but how do we access this truth? Is the truth something readers carry with them to the fictional world? Is Lolita’s Humbert Humbert unreliable because common sense and our own ethical values say so? If the answer is an unequivocal yes, then we must accept that had our common sense and ethical values been any different, Humbert Humbert could be read as a reliable narrator. In other words, unreliability would not be a feature of the story but a matter of the reader’s perception. I can decide whether a narrator is reliable or not. Who can stop me? This is in line with the conventional idea that says our response to fiction (and art in general) is subjective.
However, I don’t believe the reader has that much liberty entering the fictional world. What is more, I would go a step further to say that the best writers find crafty ways to limit the reader’s freedom, so the reader cannot escape the burden of uncertainty, casting aside the problem of unknowing by appealing to absolute relativism (“my truth is as good as yours”). Fiction offers an interpretive latitude or flexibility—an unsettling openness but not exactly autonomy. Unreliability, like unknowability, can be traced to craft decisions.
Now we are back to where we started. What or where is the knowledge in a story against which we measure characters’ and/or narrators’ perceptual limitations? What is the basis for our judgment?
I would suggest—drawing upon the narrative theorist James Phelan—that this broader horizon of knowledge is conveyed through the overall structure of the narrative. It is a function of certain textual patterns.
To claim a made-up story’s narrator is unreliable or to read a character’s perception as limited is to also suggest that there are greater truths, more reliable versions of the incidents out there—somewhere beyond this particular character’s and/or the narrator’s horizon of understanding. Against that greater truth, unreliability takes a certain definition, but how do we access this truth? Is the truth something readers carry with them to the fictional world?
Phelan distinguishes between various possible ethical positions elicited in fiction. Relations among tellers (author, narrators), characters, and audiences shapeshift over the course of a narrative’s unfolding. Characters behave a certain way, which leads to certain consequences. The narrator tells the story a certain way—stands somewhere in space, time, and ideologies, in relation to the events constituting the story. This, too, has an ethical dimension. And then the entire story, built out of specific narrative strategies, emanates an attitude toward the narrator as well as the characters. And of course, readers also bring their values to bear upon the story. Unreliability results from the misalignment of these various ethical axes. The misalignment is carefully constructed through a series of choices. Of course, craft choices can’t fully account for readers’ values, especially given that stories are read across cultures and historical periods, but many of the other variables contributing to unreliability are amenable to shaping.
Take, for instance, Street of the Moon, a short story by Attia Hosain that was first published in The Atlantic in 1952 and later anthologized in her collection Phoenix Fled (1953). In Street of the Moon, the narrator seems to see the world through the eyes of Kalloo the cook and yet manages to distinguish the story’s attitude toward everything, especially women, from that of Kalloo’s. How does Hosain accomplish this? In the rest of this essay, I offer some answers.
Ethical Conundrums in “Street of the Moon”
Attia Hosain is a writer with a peculiar legacy. Every few decades her books are re-issued and then, apparently, go out of print. I suppose her refusal to identify with either India or Pakistan post-Partition made her an uneasy presence in the emergent national literary canons. But that is not all. Her stylistic inclinations diverge from those of her South Asian contemporaries like, say, Mulk Raj Anand. Introducing an edition of Hosain’s Phoenix Fled in 1988, Anita Desai notes, “Not for her the stripped and bare simplicity of modern prose—that would not be in keeping with the period—which might make it difficult for the modern reader not as at home as she with the older literary style, but it is in harmony with the material.” Hosain’s “material” is the pre-Independence feudal society of Lucknow. While I agree with Desai about Hosain’s style—it is different from “stripped” modern prose—I don’t think Hosain upholds an older literary style either. Did writers of an earlier era combine psychological and emotional realism (a hallmark of “modern prose” if there was one) with rich social drama in Hosain’s vein? I don’t think so. I assume what Desai means by “older” is that Hosain’s storytelling owes something to not only the English literature of her time but also longstanding Urdu literary and cultural traditions.
Desai further states that Hosain’s short stories in Phoenix Fled are “truly interesting” for
"[The] reconstruction of a feudal society and its depiction from the point of view of the idealized, benevolent aristocrat who feels a sense of duty and responsibility towards his dependents—women as well as servants. This character is something of a stock-in-trade with writers about the Indian scene of that period, but in Attia Hosain’s work he—or she—fades into the anonymous figure of the narrator, and the interest is focused upon the lively world of servants and their families…"
Desai is suggesting there is a class difference between the narrators and the central characters of Hosain’s stories, which makes them interesting.
If we read Street of the Moon with Desai’s comment in mind, then any misalignment in the ethical axes of the telling (the attitude of the anonymous third-person narrator) and the told (the central characters) would be chalked up to class differences. And it is not impossible to find fiction in which difference in ethics is simply a function of class-caste-gender distinctions, sometimes to rather patronizing effect. However, Street of the Moon is not such a story. And it is a problem if we conflate the self-effacing and non-characterized narrator speaking in the third-person with the strawman figure of “the idealized, benevolent aristocrat.” Hosain’s novel Sunlight on the Broken Column does have an aristocrat for a narrator (Laila, the rebellious daughter of a feudal family) but I find no clear reason as to why we must read Hosain’s short stories as though they were told by a similar figure, unless the story specifies so. I think the fact that we cannot fully pin down the narrator of Street of the Moon, that their values and beliefs keep shifting, makes the story a scathing and disturbing social portrait rather than a cautionary tale directed at men and women.
Here's the beginning of Street of the Moon:
"Kalloo the cook had worked for the family for more years than he could remember. He had started as the cook’s help, washing dishes, grinding the spices and running errands. When the old cook died of an overdose of opium Kalloo inherited both his job and his taste for opium. His inherent laziness fed by the enervating influence of the drug kept him working for his inadequate pay, because he lacked the energy and the courage to give notice and look for work elsewhere. Moreover, his emotions had grown roots through the years, and he was emotionally attached to the family. He had watched with affectionate interest the birth, childhood, youth and manhood of the sons of the house and felt he was an elder brother."
Of his own age he was uncertain but felt young enough when opium-inspired. Eyes outlined with powdered soorma, tiny attar-soaked bit of cotton hidden in his ear his cotton embroidered cap set isn't angle, he went off and evening to the Street of the Moon.
The morning after he would be slower of movement than usual, and when he weighed the flower, the lentils, the rice and fat for the day his hands would shake and Mughlani, who had charge of the stores, would shake her grey head and wheeze asthmatically: “You men, you are all animals even when your feet hang in their grave. What you need, Kalloo Mian is a wife to keep you at home.”
“What I need is someone to help me in the kitchen it is hard work that makes my hands shake and my head grow heavy,” he would grumble. But the repeated suggestion took root in his mind and he brooded over the need to find himself a wife."
Street of the Moon aids my thinking about perspectival blind spots as bases for fiction of unknowability (even when we do not have a naïve first-person narrator) because the events making up the story don’t seem to be particularly remarkable in themselves.
E.M Forster maintained, “Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” But I feel like I know what happens next in Street of the Moon—it is the portrait of a society where possibilities are finite if you are of a marginal class and gender. So, while reading, what holds my attention is not so much the chain of events but the angle from which Hosain’s narrator approaches them. As we see from the excerpt, the opening shines the lights on Kalloo, and the lights are harsh. The first sentence establishes what Kalloo does not know for certain (how long he’s been working for the family) and thereby sets up a pattern. We quickly learn Kalloo is addicted to a perception-altering substance. The habit has allowed him to develop a self-image—he feels a sense of kinship with the family he serves, though we are also prompted to suspect that this might be a convenient justification for him to avoid looking for work elsewhere. At any rate, his sense of kinship is not reciprocated—the family offers him “inadequate pay.”
If the narrator remarks upon Kalloo’s laziness as an upper-class employer would, the narrator also remains forthcoming about his unacceptable working conditions that Kalloo’s employers would refuse to acknowledge. A little later, Kalloo’s son from his first wife (who is dead) highlights this in dialogue: “What great fortune have you piled up? I know the Collector Sahib’s khansama who gets sixty rupees a month, and has a help, you get twenty rupees like a plain barvarchi.” The design of the opening is such that both Kalloo and the family he works for are held culpable for keeping intact a suspect order for several years.
In the second paragraph, we learn more about Kalloo’s distorted self-image. He imagines himself young (when he is not) and takes care of his appearance when he visits brothels. Here is a man, who is then dependent, and perhaps dangerously so, on seeing himself in a certain light to make it through a life that is hard and unjust, a life meant to be spent “in the smoke and heat of the kitchen.”
The first character to explicitly judge Kalloo, besides the narrator, is Mughlani. Her voice reaches us through dialogue. She scolds Kalloo for acting against the norms of social respectability. Mughlani, like the narrator, perhaps also sees Kalloo as lazy, but then Mughlani also imagines there could be a cure for Kalloo’s maladies. Why Mughlani imagines a wife would mend Kalloo can be chalked up to social beliefs—a man with a wife would behave more responsibly (really?!). However, when we learn that the old gray-haired Mughlani is out of breath from dealing with Kalloo (“wheeze asthmatically”), we can speculate that Kalloo’s having a wife could ease some of Mughlani’s troubles. Probably Kalloo’s slacking off doubles the woman’s responsibilities. Her advice to Kalloo is thus not simply a nod to codes of social propriety, but also a ploy that could potentially relieve her.
It is not impossible to find fiction in which difference in ethics is simply a function of class-caste-gender distinctions, sometimes to rather patronizing effect. However, Street of the Moon, is not such a story. And it is a problem if we conflate the self-effacing and non-characterized narrator speaking in the third-person with the strawman figure of “the idealized, benevolent aristocrat.”
The two characters—Mughlani and Kalloo—are pitted against each other, and the collocation makes both slightly more vivid. While reporting both their behaviors and Kalloo’s thoughts, the narrator does not fully align with either. There is a distance between the nondescript, non-localizable anonymous narrator and these other characters, especially Kalloo, who begins at the very edge of what can be love, and over the course of the story gets pushed further away. The distance between the narrator and the characters accounts for the tone (choice of the verb “inherited” for both Kalloo’s job and addiction, for example), the comments on Kalloo’s “inherent laziness”, and other unsavory behavior. This distance is manifested in how Kalloo intends to develop a flattering self-portrait—hardworking, loyal, agile servant of a family that treats him like an elder brother—and how the narrator exposes the dubious mechanics (opium) developing the picture.
Hosain’s narratorial tactics are similar to Carson’s here, though the thrust is different. In Carson’s verse novel, Geryon has internalized a monstrous self-image—he thinks he is “stupid,” “ugly,” and exists at the edge of lovability—but the narrator places his behavior alongside those of other characters, including his brother and his lover, to expose how these people manipulate Geryon into developing an abhorrent self-image so they can exploit him.
Just when Kalloo wishes he had a wife, a suitable candidate appears. The widow working as Mughlani’s help goes to her village and returns with her beautiful daughter Hasina. The narrator tells us no one thought of the widow as “a living woman” before she brought Hasina; the widow was “a humble ugly shadow” in everyone’s eyes. It is her daughter’s presence that brings her to life. Once again, two characters seem to give form to each other. Kalloo, the narrator nudges us to notice, registers the girl’s presence. He is unhappy that he must cook for another person, but he empathizes with the widow when she says, “I am growing old, and need someone to care for me.”
Mughlani is keen to discipline the girl who apparently “Sit[s] all day admiring herself.” Kalloo agrees with Mughlani. His empathy for Hasina’s mother and appreciation for Mughlani’s scheme of disciplining the young girl is related to his dissatisfaction with his own son. What is common to Hasina and Kalloo’s son is that they are young, and people like Kalloo and Mughlani gather that they will disturb the existing social order. One noteworthy detail here is that while Kalloo’s son is quoted as mocking his father, Hasina has not said anything at all in the story so far. However, soon after the exchange with Mughlani, Kalloo decides “Hasina’s eyes mocked him.” Kalloo is projecting the image of his own son onto Hasina. The narrator has not described anything specific Hasina has said or done that can reasonably be understood as mockery. In fact, half the girl’s face is hidden: “She was hiding her mouth with her ‘dupatta’…” In this encounter between Kalloo and the girl, we do not know what the girl is thinking or doing. However, a third character present on the scene suggests that Kalloo is under the influence of opium. Under influence, Kalloo assumes he knows Hasina. The narrator, however, has left her unknowable. Kalloo, much like the narrator of Lihaaf, believes he understands what he does not—that is all we need to know to mistrust him.
Soon, Kalloo begins to be haunted by Hasina’s eyes—the liveliness in them and the “angry hate” in them upset him. The narrator charts how from Kalloo’s point of view, Hasina’s eyes and nose ring dance. It is all too much to bear for a man used to numbing his senses with opium.
The narrator’s distance from Kalloo widens as more and more voices enter the story through dialogue. The polyphonic surface unsettles Kalloo’s gaze on Hasina, even though none of them protest Kalloo’s beliefs about her. In fact, the others often mirror Kalloo’s viewpoints as far as Hasina is concerned. However, they question Kalloo’s perceptions on other counts. Mughlani, for instance, points out that the feudal family does not fire Kalloo because he is ready to work for too-little pay and not because he is “family” to them. Just as the characters contest Kalloo’s beliefs, they also contest each other’s claims. When Mughlani says, “In my days we didn’t leave the room for forty days [before a wedding],” Hasina’s mother says, “Not so many surely.” The structure of Hosain’s narrative whereby each character contests and undercuts others’ views on various subjects causes us—readers—to doubt their perception of Hasina. Ten pages into the thirty-two-page story, we do not know Hasina beyond what these other characters believe about her, but the narrator has not given us reasons to fully trust the other characters. Indeed, they do not trust each other.
Mughlani takes the lead in arranging Kalloo’s wedding with Hasina. The wedding is entertainment for the bored aristocrats and an occasion for the other servants to celebrate and assert their authority. Kalloo’s great desire for Hasina on the eve of their wedding is suspect. What makes his desire suspect is not the present-day readers’ values alone: twenty-first-century readers may find Kalloo’s and Hasina’s vast asymmetries in age and power fraught, but that is almost beside the point. Kalloo’s desire is suspect because he is the same man who had instigated Hasina’s mother to beat her and projected his son’s insolence onto the girl.
The first unfiltered glimpse we get of Hasina’s interiority establishes her naivety. With her, the problem of knowing and unknowing assumes the form of innocence. She is excited about wedding gifts, and she imagines she can do as she pleases after she is married because her mother tells her so. We know Kalloo relatively more than Hasina does, and, of course, we have some sense of how he perceives her. Sure enough, as soon as the ceremonial garbs are shed, Kalloo is once again haunted by “Hasina’s cruel mockery,” only made harsher by the fact she is now his wife. The sexual encounters between Kalloo and Hasina, though not described in a lot of detail, record his disregard for her wishes.
Anecdotally I can add that my students, too, hold characters in fiction to oddly specific ethical standards. Some express resentment for the narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body because the narrator is avoidant and noncommittal. Others don’t like Zadie Smith’s narrator in Swing Time because the narrator takes a lifetime to “see” how a dance performance she enjoyed as a child was performed in blackface and still admits to enjoying the dance.
Her married life requires Hasina to find her own pain-numbing drugs: she takes pleasure in adorning herself, looking at her mirror image, admiring her new possessions. But even these are snatched from her, and it is not long before “her eyes lost their mischievous sparkle.” However, the sparkling eyes return, only for a short time, and everyone suspects this must be on account of her illicit relation with Kalloo’s son who is closer in age to her. Kalloo becomes vigilant and takes “very little opium” to make sure he does not lose his wife to his son.
As it turns out, Kalloo’s suspicions are not misguided, and this is where the story’s ethical orientation becomes intriguing. If Kalloo was simply suspecting Hasina and nothing had happened between Hasina and Kalloo’s son, it would be one thing—we don’t trust Kalloo anyway—but that would make for a much simpler and weaker story. In Hosain’s story, Hasina has cheated on Kalloo. And when Kalloo sends his son away, Hasina continues to cheat—she begins to enjoy the attention of another servant. Hasina also loves touching luxurious items in the landlady’s room and steals some of them. She then elopes with the other servant who supposedly finds work for her, but given the story’s final scene it seems he sold her to a brothel.
Hosain does not resolve the issue of conflicting perceptions. When we think we know a character, the character transforms ever so slightly under our gaze. This pattern replicates a similar pattern within the world of the story. And the pattern’s origin can be traced to the creative process. Fictions of unknowability succeed when the writer has risked going from a spaceless nook within to the very edge of what they know and love.
Even though Kalloo’s suspicions about Hasina materialize, the story does not make him out to be a righteous figure, of course. Towards the end of the story, he sees her image (innocent, gay, mischievous) in his opium dreams. Then, apparently, he sees her “powdered face pallid in the harsh light” in the “Street of the Moon”—the red-light district. He runs away the moment he spots her because her reality threatens to obliterate the idealized portrait of her that he now cherishes. The cherished portrait conjures a subjectivity that he may have destroyed, but also, we remain uncertain about what Hasina was prior to being dragged into Kalloo’s world. Was she ever the idealized child Kalloo imagines her to be in the end? We do not know but we do know that Kalloo runs away from knowledge. That is the kind of person he is.
There are a variety of things Kalloo does not remember and does not want to see. He cherishes oblivion. His perspective comes across as distorted not necessarily because we have a clearer view of the truth than him, but we have a clearer sense that his perceptions are excessively muddled. Is Hasina better off—happier—in the “Street of the Moon” than she was in the control of her obnoxious husband? Has her situation changed for better or worse? She was betrayed by a lover and ended up there. We don’t know much more than that. In the end, she is once more screened from our view—her interiority is inaccessible. We have been left with Kalloo, who carries on as he always has.
Untrustworthy characters with dubious ethics like Kalloo, who neither reform nor face punishment, throw off balance the view of fiction (and literature more generally) as wholesome and instructive. Readers seem to worry a great deal about such unethical conduct on the part of authors. If Goodreads reviews are anything to go by, readers are disappointed when a story does not punish, kill, or “shut up” a character they cannot love. A reader asks, “Will someone tell me if any likable characters show up?” in a review of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Having taught literature and creative writing for some years now, anecdotally I can add that my students, too, hold characters in fiction to oddly specific ethical standards. Some express resentment for the narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body because the narrator is avoidant and noncommittal. Others don’t like Zadie Smith’s narrator in Swing Time because the narrator takes a lifetime to “see” how a dance performance she enjoyed as a child was performed in blackface and still admits to enjoying the dance. Can writers never write about decent (“relatable”) people whose merits outweigh their flaws? My practiced move as a teacher is to ask students why they crave decency in fiction in this way. What sort of ethics prompts them/us to first see some “good” in people (well, characters) before caring for them? But for now, let me take the desire to find the “good” in Street of the Moon.
Does Hosain’s story intend for the reader to empathize with Kalloo, to see some good in him? Or are we to feel for Hasina, though she does not remain decent (cheats, steals, elopes)? Who—which of these Others—have we learned to love in reading Street of the Moon? These questions become subsumed in another question that has to do with craft decisions: with whom does the anonymous narrator’s allegiance lie in the story? In the strictest sense: neither Kalloo nor Hasina. What’s clear is that though the story closely tracks Kalloo’s point of view, the narrator does not fully align with him. And I think that is enough to make the story a complex fictional rendering of social life, rather than one that catalogs the evils of men like Kalloo or predicaments of women like Hasina. A story need not explicitly define its stance on subjects (women, misogyny, marriages). Instead, it may choose to shine the lights on everything it intends to negate: in this case, Kalloo’s gaze, his values. A narrative punishing Kalloo would be righteous but, in my opinion, quite pointless. Righteous narrators of fiction leave readers with a sense of comfort—we get to pretend we always knew right from wrong. But we really don’t. Not clearly anyhow.
This is also why even in Carson’s Autobiography and Chughtai’s Lihaaf, characters who are ethically suspect do not face any radical consequences. Geryon’s untrustworthy lover does not grapple with chastising. Geryon’s failing—if it can be called a failing—seems to be his inability to extricate himself from those who abuse him. Towards the end of Autobiography, he accompanies his unrepentant lover to see an installation art piece resembling a volcano and concludes, “We are amazing beings.” In Chughtai’s story, the narrator who has recounted in some detail her peculiar childhood experiences comes to an incongruous conclusion: she will never tell anyone what she saw under Begum Jan’s quilt even if she was offered a large sum of money. These endings play with the readers’ concern for truth and their desire to see characters and events as they are in themselves while remaining unable to do so.
Do writers need to worry at all about the ethical implications of choices in narrators, characters, and their quandaries of knowledge? From a writer’s point of view, I can see how ethics (often confused with socially defined morality) can be constraining. And should great art not fight constraints? But when writers talk of dispensing with ethics in their stories, they are usually talking of dispensing with moral (“good”) characters. The important thing to recognize is that ethics does not mean “good.” Ethics also does not mean a singular, well-defined position vis-à-vis a subject. To say stories have an ethical orientation is not to suggest that stories prescribe an easily digested pill to help enact social good. It is also not to say that stories’ ethical orientation would be the same as the orientation of any one or all of the characters. To say stories have an ethical orientation is to admit that craft decisions are never disinterested in ethics, though memorable stories, I think, have a hesitant ethics and this hesitancy is in their structure.
In Street of the Moon, the pairing of characters, the contrasts Hosain works out in perceptions and points of view, the use of dialogue, and the slipperiness of the narratorial position on the unfolding events, contributes to the feeling of hesitancy. It is a story about the ways we obstruct knowledge and numb perceptions to bear what we must. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Artwork "Wonderland 2" by Priyanka D'Souza. Watercolour on paper (2015)
Autobiography of Red
Street of the Moon
Ethical Standards for Fictional Characters
Written on the Body
The Brothers Karamazov
TORSA GHOSAL is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). Her fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Catapult, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Bustle, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento, and a host of the Narrative for Social Justice podcast.
28 Feb 2023
PRIYANKA D'SOUZA is an artist, writer, and art historian whose primary areas of research and inspiration are Mughal painting and natural history in early modern Europe. She is part of the artistic duo Resting Museum and winner of the 2022 Emerging Artist Award from the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art (FICA).