Do people still read the novels of R.K. Narayan (1906-2001)? I discovered him belatedly, in the nineteen-eighties, thanks to one of his champions, Graham Greene, and read my way through most of the dozens of stories and novels he sets in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The plots are never world-historical and Narayan studiously avoids politics. His seemingly artless fiction, recounted in plain prose, makes for unlikely thesis-fodder. In aggregate, his works form an alternate world that cunningly resembles our own. His people are teachers, merchants, beggars, doctors, laborers, taxidermists and mail carriers. The passage quoted at the top refers to Raman, the title character in The Painter of Signs (1976), which I’ve just reread. He’s a college graduate who paints commercial signs for a living, not a surrogate for the cliché of the struggling artist. His room is bare except for a mat and bed roll, and his books:
“His cupboard overflowed with the books he cherished since his college days—Plato to Pickwick Papers, some of them in double-column editions, with paper turning grey, yellow, and brown and etching that transported him.”
Raman befriends a second-hand book dealer in the town market, paints a sign for him and is paid in books. The antiquarian is “a pessimist reveling in pessimism,” “gloating over his frustrations,” and endlessly fascinated by the behavior of bookworms – not the human sort like Raman but the generic category of beetles, booklice, roaches and moths that consume paper. The book dealer says:
“`Book-worms possess a sense of design,’ he would explain. `Some books are tunneled end to end, some they give up with the preface, in some they create a perfect wizardry of design but confined to the end-papers, never an inch beyond. A real masterpiece must be read only in an ancient edition and you could easily recognize it by the fact that the book-worm has already gone through it end to end and left its testimonial in its own code.’”
Insect as book critic – a representative sample of Narayan’s dry humor. Only then do we learn Raman’s admirably simple critical theory:
“For browsing in the afternoon Raman hardly cared what book he chose; it might be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall or Kural—that tenth-century Tamil classic. He had a general philosophy of books—all the classification that mattered was good books and bad books, and the antiquarian could be depended upon not to nurture bad books. Raman’s practice was to put his hand into the cupboard and take out the first book that his finger touched.”
That’s a practice that works only if one has good taste and sound judgment, and keeps only good books in one’s cupboard.