The List: Jhumpa Lahiri on violence in literature

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this week, tells the story of two brothers in 1960s Calcutta, whose paths, closely entwined in childhood, diverge with the rise of the radical Naxalite movement and its Maoist cause.

“I work with violence in various forms in the book,” Lahiri says. “Both a literal, politically-motivated violence, and also a kind of emotional violence that is perpetrated within families.” Here, she describes five literary narratives in which violence plays a central role.

1. Crime and Punishment (1866)

“In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, an impoverished former student, Rodion Raskolnikov, commits an act of violence – an intended murder that turns into a bungled double killing. Disillusioned with society, Raskolnikov believes that the death of a spiteful, elderly pawnbroker will benefit mankind. He is intellectually convinced of the rightness of his actions. Some of the Naxalite students in my book are under a similar spell; they think that violence might ultimately lead to a greater form of justice. As with many of the books on the list, the moral and psychological consequences of violence are what drive the narrative.”

2. A Simple Story (1989)

Leonardo Sciascia, the Italian writer and politician, wrote this novella not long before his death. A detective in a small town in Sicily receives a phone call from a diplomat, who tells him there is a situation to investigate. When the diplomat is found dead, the authorities decide it’s a suicide, but the death triggers series of other crimes. The novel is a subtle portrait of a corrupt society under the sway of the mafia, a recurring theme for Sciascia.”

3. The Conformist (1951)

“This novel by another Italian writer, Alberto Moravia, was made into a film of the same name by Bernardo Bertolucci. The protagonist, Marcello, is a highly tormented and complex character: a government employee asked to commit a murder in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the fascist state. I find the early portrait of Marcello, an alienated and vulnerable child, particularly fascinating: we see him coldly killing lizards as a young boy, being teased at school for his effeminate appearance, and shooting, at the age of 13, a defrocked priest who attempts to abuse him.”

4. Disgrace (1999)

“In JM Coetzee’s novel, David Lurie, a professor in Cape Town, goes to live on his daughter’s farm in a state of personal and professional disgrace. Halfway through the novel, he and his daughter are attacked. Unlike Crime and Punishment, the violence is committed not by, but to, the protagonists. But Lurie is not entirely a victim; he begins the novel as a sexual predator, a culpable individual.”

5. A Good Man is Hard To Find (1953)

“This short story by Flannery O’Connor was fundamental to my own education in thinking about violence in literature. It involves a family - parents, children and a grandmother - on a car journey. The grandmother is nervous because she’s heard there’s an escaped convict on the loose. At a critical moment she persuades the family to take a detour, and they encounter the convict. What follows is brutal. In speaking about the story, O’Connor has said that violence ‘is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.’”

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