Arundhati Roy, War Talk, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, 142 pp.
This small, powerful book is a testament to collections of essays. You can read War Talk in one sitting and be reminded of the importance of language, of expression, of passion, of the written word, to political discourse.
I am embarrassed to admit I had read none of these very short essays by Arundhati Roy. They have been scattered through small, left, literary, and Indian magazines like land mines in a field. But to walk straight through them is to feel the explosiveness of Roy's prose. She deserves to be more widely read as an essayist, though this collection is somewhat uneven.
Unlike The God of Small Things, her Booker Prize-winning novel about history, culture, caste, and the residue of colonialism and violence in India (which ranks with and is reminiscent of the style, subject and approach of Faulkner and Morrison) War Talk is highly polemical. At times, Roy’s anger and her carefully-honed, cutting words are telling and appropriate as in the essay, “Who Is She When She is at Home?” Here she describes the massacres of Muslims in Gujurat with the backing or at least implicit approval of the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP Party. At her best, as in an essay like this, Roy’s writing is full of wider implications (war, nukes, pogroms) than simply the dangers of religious and nationalist violence in the subcontinent. The uses of state-condoned terror and war has resonance for Americans, Europeans, Asians, everybody.
Other essays like one in praise of the work of Noam Chomsky are potent reviews and emotionally charged recaps of his scathing critiques of American policy and hypocrisy. But they are delivered so unremittingly, without nuance or wider, subtler appeal, that they fail as communications beyond Chomsky’s (or South End Press’) dedicated band of left intellectuals. But there is far more to like in War Talk as well. I was most taken, surprised, and deeply affected by her careful and fair delineation in the essay “Come September” of how September 11 has tragic overtones and memories for other cultures besides American as in the overthrow on that date of the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende by the CIA-backed military coup of General Pinochet. She notes, too, that it was on 9/11 in 1922 that the British government, ignoring Arab outrage, proclaimed a mandate in Palestine. And, she reminds us, it was on September 11, 1990 that President George Bush announced to a joint session of Congress his intention to go to war against Iraq.
The short pieces in War Talk are designed, it seems, more to stir than to elucidate. But given the scale of atrocities being carried out in the modern word and the complacency and complicity of much of the media, they make for a bracing tonic indeed. You will not fully agree with all of what Arundhati Roy has to say. But when you close the cover on this small book, you will undoubtedly want to jump up, stir others, and take action.
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