A guest blog by Jim Crace, who will speak about love and grief, music and myth, how society treats its less fortunate and the creation of his new novel, The Melody, when he launches it at the Library in February.
My novels are hardly autobiographical. They tend to spring from something puzzling or troubling beyond my experience rather than from events in my own life. So it was with The Melody. About three years ago, I was on the 10th floor of a lavish hotel in Chennai, India, a guest of the Lit for Life Festival. Everything was perfect – except for one annoyance: I couldn’t sleep because of the ceaseless, metallic racket from the waste ground below my suite. I looked down from the window on my first restless night to watch the hotel’s garbage bins being toppled over and raided for food scraps by, mostly, feral dogs and a few other animals I couldn’t, in that half light, put a name to. A couple of them looked alarmingly like children. I lay awake, disturbed in every sense, until the waiter brought my breakfast on a tray.
What I’d witnessed at the bins had been a distressing and sobering sight, not just because of the disparity between my pampered life and theirs but also because it made me speculate from my elevated viewpoint how biologically debasing and destructive poverty must be. Those scavenging street children had seemed little more than animals.
That was the seed for the novel and it provided the question the narrative would hope to answer: What occupies the space between the human mammals in their hotel rooms and those amongst the bins? A realist, autobiographical writer, employing the pen as a camera, might have set the novel in 21st century Chennai. I was wary of that. I was a white, privileged tourist there. Whatever I wrote would seem like a narrow, judgemental, post-colonial misrepresentation of a diverse nation about which I knew very little. India is so much more than poverty, of course. Besides, if a book were to be written on the subject of destitution in the sub-continent, there were plenty of talented Indian writers who would make a truer job of it than I ever could. Many have already done so. No, what I needed was a setting out of Asia and one which could not offend the citizens of any actual place. That meant making up an unnamed nation of my own, something I am very fond of doing. Minting a new world, rather than holding a mirror up to a real one, is a liberation I nearly always search for in my novels for the licence and the freedom it allows. Anything can happen in the realms of make-believe.
So The Melody is set in a time long lost (the late 1920s, say), on a coast unnamed (by the Mediterranean, perhaps) and in a town unbuilt, except within the pages of the novel. As in all the public places we enjoy, there is a throng of music, street life and romance, there are intrigues and shenanigans, there are good intentions and bad decisions. The only part of Chennai that survives is the night-time racket of the bins - but in The Melody these discords are relocated to disturb the wealth and poverty of an invented place that I hope can stand for Nowadays and Anywhere.
Jim Crace is the prize-winning author of several books, including Continent (winner of the 1986 Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize), Quarantine (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and Being Dead (winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award). His 2013 novel, Harvest, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was the winner of the International Dublin Literary Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.