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A seminal book-length study of Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s fiction

  • Published at 09:12 pm April 11th, 2020
A seminal book-length study of Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s fiction

A review of 'Elegy and Dreams: Akhtaruzzaman Elias’ Creative Commitment' 

Critical appreciation in Bangla literature, as a tradition, has not waned. It has rather spread its wings. One only needs to keep an eye open for the books of collected essays and literary articles published every year at the Ekushey Book Fair. This growth in literary criticism is nonetheless marked by a lack of book-length studies especially of contemporary writers. Erudite book-length studies we come across are about writers of our greatest classics in poetry and fiction. The furthest they extend to is the 1950s. 

That’s why reading Shubhoranjan Dasgupta’s Elegy and Dreams: Akhtaruzzaman Elias’ Creative Commitment, published by University Press Limited, is an uplifting experience. This book shows why exactly book-length studies are so instrumental in comprehensively understanding a writer’s entire oeuvre. It also debunks an unwarranted critique of Elias’s writing style, which, in my view, constitutes the gateway through which to enter the fascinating world of Elias’s fiction.

During my many conversations with writers about Elias, I have been told that Elias is too realistic. The reason, perhaps, is the prevalence of a few garbled ideas about realism, which, I presume, prompt readers to brush aside the fact that Elias is far from being a social realist narrator; that he has rather carved his own narrative style which disrupts realism and embraces the incoherence of dreams and memories and illusions. 

In his theoretically complex yet powerful language, Shubhoranjan discusses at length how Elias has consciously defied the narrowly defined dictates of social realism. Elias, Shubhoranjan argues, was highly critical of any theory that put a limit on artistic freedom. Despite being a committed Marxist, Elias refuses to conform to the formulaic representation promoted by many classical Marxist theorists or critics, terming it “wishful thinking”. 

“The Marxist Elias, however, had no sympathy for the prescribed opposite of modernism, namely schematic social realism. That puerile black and white landscape of the world dotted by faultless and angelic workers and peasants who promised a classless Arcadia after vanquishing contemptible class enemies was not his cup of tea,” writes Shubhoranjan in the third chapter entitled “Revolt is the Only reply”. He then shares one of Elias’s own observations about this, which best explicates his creative praxis: 

“I want to see the inside of reality. I do not want to impose any of my ideas on this reality. For that would be wishful thinking. Our Communist writers all these days have indulged in this wishful thinking. They have depicted the worker as an ideal being. Which means they disowned the real worker, they created a fictive worker.”

In this chapter, Shubhoranjan puts Elias’s creative praxis in the broader context of modern (mainly Marxian), neo-Marxist and postmodern theories of the west. With reference to and quotes from theorists including Karl Marx, Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Michele Foucault, Julia Christeva, Jean Paul Sartre, Pierre Macherey, EP Thompson, Raymond Williams and Sidney Finkelstein, he argues that Elias liberates his Marxism from “wishful thinking” by inventing a narrative that describes setting and events as faithfully as the dreams and incoherent thoughts of characters, as well as the myths they have made a part of their lives. 

In the fifth chapter entitled “Commitment as Lament”, Shubhoranjan builds on his earlier thesis by delving into Elias’s personal and social life to bring out the books and the milieu that might have contributed to shaping his distinct literary sensibility. To better understand Elias’s creative commitment, on the one hand, Shubhoranjan analyses Elias’s response to his favorite writers (including Chinua Achebe, Jorges Luis Borges, James Joyce, Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and on the other, he compares Elias’s own critical stance on the issue of a writer’s social commitment with other Marxist critics writing in Bangla (such as Bishnu Dey, Asok Sen, Badruddin Omar and Serajul Islam Choudhury). Writing about Elias’s position vis-à-vis his subject, this is how Shubhoranjan captures Elias’s commitment:

“The creativity of this bloodless middle class had to be anaemic (exceptions notwithstanding like Syed Waliullah and Manik Bandyopadhyay), and to infuse it with invigorating blood, one had to forge ties with the struggling masses. This was the one and only prescription written by Elias in his essays…”

The central theme of the book, however, rests on the premise that a subtle tone of elegy set against unfulfilled dreams informs the entire gamut of Elias’s creative work, be it his poems, short stories or novels. This is another illuminating observation which he establishes with painstaking research. Employing neo-Marxist and post-modern concepts, Shubhoranjan reveals how collapse of the collective dreams—set forth by Khijir (in Sepai) and Tamiz (in Khowabnama), or Samarjit (in the short story “Khoari”)—engenders the elegiac tone in Elias’s fiction. In this dialectic, elements of elegy, which derive from the account of actual events ending always in disaster for the masses, are counterpoised by those of dreams and fantasy which offer salvation and defiance. 

I will not be surprised if Shubhoranjan’s way of associating Elias’s storytelling techniques with so many theoretical jargons seems a bit too difficult at times for readers to connect with. But for those familiar with and interested in cultural studies and literary theories, this book will surely be a formidable read.

While he puts forward his arguments to establish his central premise, he never loses sight of the other dimensions in Elias’s texts, for example, the blurring of the political/historical into the aesthetic. In “Revolt is the Only Reply”, citing a long passage from Chilekothar Sepai to show how Elias achieves this feat, Shubhoranjan says: “It fuses the ideological and the aesthetic in one indissoluble knot, merges the politics of the moment with the tumult of history, redeems the tragedy of the defiant present with the pageant of rebellions remembered, and ultimately goes beyond the construct of ideology to inscribe the promise of hope in the aesthetic text.”

This is a slim but a remarkable book. With its comprehensive approach to understanding different aspects of Elias’s fiction, it has laid a solid theoretical foundation for literary studies of Elias’s fiction. Critics who will explore Elias in the future will have to use it as a point of reference for their studies. Furthermore, this book will go a long way toward establishing on a global scale what we critics and activists from Bangladesh have reiterated for quite a long time now:

“… this Bengali novelist, on the virtue of what he has written, should be placed on the same pedestal with Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the best exponents of the magic narrative.”

Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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