My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to like this book – Tagore’s fifth and arguably best novel. It was written in 1910 and so belongs to an era where language then was often flowery and quite superfluous by today’s ‘active voice’ precise writing. Yes, I’d enjoyed reading all his short stories and, of course, his ‘Gitanjali’ are beautiful gems of poetry. But could I cope with a novel entirely Bengali in thought and word even if translated into English? Or would I find it dated and as satisfying to read as I found Joseph Conrad (which is to not satisfying at all!)?
I needn’t have worried. The Tagore I adored in short form is the same Tagore in long. While there are passages which are long and deeply philosophical in tone, Tagore never bores. Instead, this novel offers a fascinating look into Bengali middle class culture and doesn’t shy away from the complexities of cultural and religious life – indeed, such themes are at the heart of the novel. He wraps up such intellectual depth into a thoroughly interesting tale of desire, misunderstanding and machinations.
The tale deals with love – of course, what else in 1910? – and twists and turns as the four main protagonists go from misunderstanding to foolish endeavour to finally learning the dark secrets which change everything. Not everything is wrapped up – refreshingly and unusually for a turn-of-the-century novel. Some characters don’t receive their comeuppance; others don’t finish with a full ‘happy ever after’. Such is the way of the most modern novel today – how come so few outside of India know of this ‘novel before its time’?
It is certainly a novel I can recommend wholeheartedly to the westerner seeking to understand Indian/Bengali culture for, in many ways, not much has changed since Tagore’s time. This author is easily the twin companion to Kipling dealing, as they do, with similar themes and having similar love of India albeit from different sides of the fence. Read both and you’ll have superb understanding of the Indian people.
If you don’t already have some insight into Indian thinking and society you may struggle with some of the terms, familiarities and ideas Tagore presents. Writing in Bengali he was not writing for the westerner. He wrote for his own people. But this isn’t to say that the novel is impenetrable. Far from it. Tagore may have written for his fellow Bengali but his themes, characters and plotlines are understandable to every man. Whether women will recognise themselves in the female characters I cannot say. But from a man’s perspective I found Tagore’s treatment of women refreshingly modern and understanding albeit couched in the culture mores of the day.
For me. ‘Goya’ has reconfirmed what I knew before – that Rabindranath Tagore is one of the true great writers of the 20th Century and arguably still the greatest of India and Bangladesh.