The Damned, Out to Punish Each Other
The Line of Mercy is a mirror image of the hell that our gods kept warning us about
Soon after reading Shehan Karunatilake's The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida, I took up The Line of Mercy by Tarun Tejpal again, resolved to understand it. Not an easy task.
The Seven Moons is about Maali, a professional/mercenary war photographer returning from the reception desk in Hell for seven nights, to find out how and why he got killed in the Sri Lanka of the 80s, a place and time nobody can be trusted. Everyone, the various factions, politicians, government, charities, and foreign countries trying to help, is, to resort to the language of the Booker-winning novel, is an asshole.
The only possible redemption in the Lankan hell is kindness. Very few are in a position to access it in Maali's world, except perhaps Maali and his girlfriend. But even when they source it, it is normally in extreme situations, such as Maali slipping cyanide capsules under the tongue of a dog ripped apart by a bomb to put him out of his misery.
The theme of 'mercy; in Tejpal's novel is even more blurry, though the world in the novel, confined to a jail in a hot, humid, littoral, but undisclosed location is just as damned as the Lankan hell. Both are the stuff that hell is made of. One is closed, the other open. Pretty much everyone is cooked, or soon would be.
Though this review is not just a comparison between the two novels, the similarities are too striking not to mention. And not just in the aspect of themes. In authorial intentions as well. Karunatilake's shape-shifting novel aspires with every line and flourish to drag you into a political dystopia from which neither the protagonist nor the reader has little hope of escape.
An 'unmitigated sense of doom', as Seamus Heaney described Osip Mandelstam while reviewing Nadezhda Mandelstam's two-volume memoir of her husband, accompanies the hero of the novel. Indeed, even after the truth about his death, Maali must return to, where else, but hell.
Much the same happens in Tejpal's novel but on a greater and more hopeless scale. The jail, which is rather grimly referred to as the Iron Realm in the novel, is an elastic metaphor that grows on demand to encompass all who are on the other side of the line of mercy. Virtually anybody could be behind the bars at any given moment.
In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera says that the modern novel makes an appearance, around the 17th century, from a world vacated by god. By that he means, '… a situation in which the individual, the thinking ego, supplants God as the basis of all things.' Theology then gives way to a new mode of terror, secularism: man is in charge of his fate.
In the world of fiction then, the novelist discovers that this is especially true. He is fully free to invent a world where moral judgments are suspended and explore the myth(s) and mistakes of man. The novel becomes an exploration of human existence and its conditions.
Tejpal's novel stretches those boundaries. It is the teeming, swarming, seething, formless sea of the damned. In that fluid formlessness, one character's voice elides into another's in the middle of a paragraph, one story gives way to another. And then to another. Almost all of them are uniformly portraits of people without a future.
All subject to inner mutilation, actively aided by the external world to believe in the worst of himself. There is no redemption. Not very surprising, given these are times when a viraling hashtag acts as a stigma for a lifetime, and the nearest that a society can aspire to a soul is social media.
The Iron Realm, as the jail in the novel is referred to, is the world as a sewer, humans as insects, which comparison is made right in the beginning, on the first page, by Asambhav, one of the protagonists, as he initiates two new inmates. The Line of Mercy is our own gutter world, the one we created by painstaking design, or accident, a mirror image of the hell that our gods kept warning us about before disappearing, and we took over.
Tejpal, unlike most other writers, has had first hand experience of his material. It is just that he sort of survived to tell the tale, like Ishmael in Moby Dick. But the material often overwhelms him to the point where you are persuaded to think that it is by choice. The result is a kind of a meta novel, a novel in the process of becoming notes, despite itself.
The anti-hero of the novel is a collective. A crowd. Of law breakers. The damned, out to punish each other, if not the world that condemned them, then determined to turn the sword in on themselves. As I said, Tejpal is trying to grapple not just with a story so much as the material of the story, the all-pervasive, dark, anti-matter of our endless fall.
Often this state, the fallen state from Grace, comes about because one has no control over its causes. For instance, Desai, a character, accused of murdering four children, because of the prescription drugs he sold was adulterated, is innocent of the actual crime. But he must pay for it anyway with his reputation and career.
A lead protagonist of the novel is Asambhav whose crime is that of murder; but murder born of love. Tejpal's graphic description of Asambhav's innocence and lapse ironically underlines how close love is to war. From great love comes surreal violence.
Unlike Karunatilake, who shows us in fire-fly glimpses of action what a fairer world is likely to be, surely it exists; why else is Maali back from hell if not to show us the faded contours of that possibly more just world, where there is a reason for everything, a sensible pattern to a life lived, Tejpal does not offer the least ray of hope. There is no real Free Will. Each man's fall is fated; a matter of course, waiting to happen; a whole collective caught in a Greek tragedy.
In Karunatilake's novel, the originality is that of the conceit: a dead man returning from Hell to investigate his own death. The dragged-out details of the final reveal is what functions as suspense. Though the characters are deliberately irritating in their insistence on eccentric if marginal individuality, the story moves forward. Not in Tejpal's novel. The story is the characters.
Naturally, the ending of the novel is not a climax and resolution of the plot, it is a meaningless, macabre jail riot that is put down by brute force. The iron in the realm is the hopeless winner. There is no hero. No nothing, in fact. Because the novel is about nothing. It is nihilism with a zero at the centre. Nada.
Tejpal knows his characters. He happened to have done time in jail and, once, in a private conversation, said that he is not interested in justifying himself or settling a score using the novel as a forum of vengeance. The Line of Mercy is about the abiding and formless nothingness of life.
The novel as an extended statement affirming the novelist's fealty to that vision. A kind of literary suicide even. The only thing that relieves its darkness is the humour, a kind of burlesque; the burlesque of the circus clown who doesn't look back when whacked in the seat of his pants and, midway in the trapeze act, loses his trousers. The comedy is redolent of not so much as laughter, as uncomplaining pathos.
I see in all these seeming, teeming waywardness, a rare integrity. The author is presenting material as a kind of form. The risks of the enterprise are self-evident. And, so, Is The Line of Mercy just a novel? It is more. It is the presentation of a dystopia whose chaos threatens to consume itself.
I believe Tejpal chose to do away with literary conventions in letting you in on what he knows, without making it easy for you. It is an act of defiance. The violence and degradation that man hands out to man, the material of the novel, is the result of a steely resolve not to judge, but to understand. That is an achievement, considering what Tejpal has gone through and the times we are in when the inner judge in each of us also doubles up as a hangman.