Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 30, 2012

The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting – David Mitchell

Zadie Smith and David Mitchell are two current day writers – of younger generation – who have impressed me a lot with their writing talent. Ms. Smith’s treatment of the dynamics of a mixed race Britain in “White Teeth” is nothing short of an unforgettable bravura performance. She is blessed with an extraordinary control on language and effortless storytelling. The only disappointing aspect is her limited oeuvre – one wishes she had written more. Mitchell covers even that short coming. He is in his mid-forties and has already written half dozen novels each of which are of exceptional merit and with possible promise of more to come in the future. He is one of those writers whose books one should read with a pencil in hand

“Who was blowing on the nape of my neck” – thus begins David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” – a roller coaster of a book written in nine loosely interlocked parts with the key characters touching the life of the other – knowingly or unknowingly, in time – past and present, in places – scattered across the globe spanning Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Russia, England, Clear Island, Switzerland and America. The nine parts of the novel are so distinct in their nature, characters and plot, that they do not allow the novel to be pigeonholed into a specific genre. Mitchell writes with an exuberance of language that is a joy to read. The prose has a calm confidence of having a control on words, images, metaphors to produce the precise effect he intends to as part of the narrative flow. There is a bursting verbal energy, great rush and flow to the prose and suddenly in that torrent out of nowhere as if to put speed breakers come sentences which are beautiful, elevated and breathtaking for their imagination:

All that I remember about Tatyana’s flat is a sober clock, that dropped tocks like pebbles down a deep shaft”

The tocks in a clock’s “tick-tock” acquire a material weight and solidity of a pebble

‘The minutes are hauling themselves by like a shot Hollywood gangster crawling down a corridor

The slow passage of time is being compared to a shot, bleeding and crawling Hollywood gangster

… that plump, juicing, yielding buttock of fruit

Will fruit eating ever remain the same for me again?

“Killing is a sensation, like abortion or birth, that you can never accurately imagine


There is nothing contrived in Mitchell’s sentences. The metaphors employed appear effortless and matter of fact. There is a deeply satisfying nature to his writing. In the chapter titled London, there is a place where Mitchell describes the routes on London tube in appealingly anthropomorphic terms with temperaments, personalities and wonderfully ascribed oddities  

The Jubilee Line, the young disappointment of the family….. The District and Circle Line, well, even Death would rather fork out for a taxi if he’s in a hurry… Docklands Light Railway, the nouveau riche neighbour…. Stentorian Piccadilly, Central….the middle-aged cousin, matter of fact, direct… Yep the Northern Line is the psycho of the family

 and while one is enjoying this, Mitchell then suddenly concludes with the one liner:

London is a language. I guess all places are.

I would have traveled on London tube routes a thousand times but never managed to see it this way. The job of a writer among others is to give us an alternative way of seeing things, a possibility of imagining things differently. Mitchell produces these alternative realities with a dexterity that borders on genius. Here are a couple more which I liked immensely:

…Italians give their cities sexes, and they all agree that the sex for a particular city is quite correct, but none of them can explain why. I love that.  London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.

A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.
‘Wonderful isn’t it?’ I say to a man walking his red setter
‘Fackin’ shithole innit?’
Londoners slag off London because, deep down, we know we are living in the greatest city in the world 

As I read through the book I kept looking for Mitchell’s real voice – the author’s omniscient voice and found it difficult to isolate and pin it.  Ghostwritten is densely populated with characters both minor and major whose importance, relevance and life spans vary. Mitchell manages to control and orchestrate the variegated voices of his characters wonderfully well even while sustaining their distinct identities. There is a lot of clever writing in the book but always and unfailingly it is backed by genuine talent.

Ghostwritten was written when Mitchell was just about thirty. At this age many of us would be getting out of our protective shells to face the real vagaries of life and to form opinions which could potentially sustain us in the future. Judging by that yardstick, Mitchell appears precocious for there are some deep insights he proffers matter-of-factly. Consider this wonderful insight into the minds of cultists, fanatics and terrorists:   

Society…………. is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilization. We get protection from death by starvation, bandits and cholera. It’s a fair deal. Signed on our behalf by our educational system on the day we are born. However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he please. And that…. is what he did with it

..or the phenomenon of cherry blossom which the Japanese love so much

The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time… I think that only we Japanese understand that, don’t you?

..or the metaphysical soliloquy on chance and fate

Therefore, does chance or fate control our lives? Well, the answer is relative as time. If you are in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you’re reading, it’s fate all the way

In an interview given to Paris Review magazine, David Mitchell declared that he preferred to discuss the human heart through characterization, and to address the human condition through plot. In Ghostwritten he lives up to this declaration truest to the stated intent.

Both Nabokov and Sontag opined that novels are to be re-read for reasons that are universally justifiable. Notwithstanding the reasons, a re-read is never like the original read where the first time pleasure of encounter is mingled with a sense of progressive anticipation. In a re-read, anticipation is near dead. One knows the plot, one gets familiar with the characters and one is aware of the conclusion. The place of anticipation is taken by a quest for clarity, insight, analysis, a certain critical bent attended by slightly dimmed joy. While all of this may be true for a majority of books, David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” will remain a near certain exception to that

A wonderful book by one of the most talented writers of our time and a book worthy of reading many times over


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