To "Brick Lane" from "David Copperfield".

Monica Ali's first novel "Brick Lane" was published in 2003.

As the world goes global, culture diffuses, to use the anthropologists' term. Jane Austen goes to India, in the movie "Bride and Prejudice". And Dickensian characters come to London's Brick Lane from Bangladesh. Admittedly, Dickens is not one of the authors that Ali claims as her influences.

Nazneen, the narrative character has a friend, Razia, whose description might be that of the author, Monica Ali herself:

When she smiled she looked deeply amused although her mouth turned up only slightly to indicate pity rather than laughter. She had a long nose and narrow eyes that always looked at you from an angle, never straight on, so that she seemed perpetually to be evaluating if not mocking you.

Monica Ali belongs to that school of novelists who, like Arnold Bennett, communicate in observant detail, the extraordinary interest of ordinary life. This is just as well, because Nazneen's father sold his girl off from Bangladesh to England in an arranged marriage with -- what must have been to her -- an old man. She is mainly confined to a flat and the visits of a few friends and neighbours from the same immigrant community.

The author's intelligent artistry makes the most of a little. But the fact that Nazneen's life is even more boring than one's own makes this long novel heavy going.

Other readers in our book club, whether they took to it or found it depressing, did not find it light reading. Another club title, "Pompeii" by Robert Harris, was to me easily the most entertaining that the club came up with. Unlike Brick Lane, it lifted the spirit, being always outdoors, instead of in, featuring the bay of Naples no less. Like Ali, Harris is for a reader of intelligence. Unlike Ali, Harris' best drawn character is Vesuvius, the volcano, which from the start makes its personality felt, at first subtlely, then with ever stronger hints, until it can only be described as deplorably over-bearing.

Monica Ali, however, is a character-driven novelist. I was continually grumbling to our reader's club that the usual run of committee prize-winning books, the publicity-driven best sellers have no character. The characters dont come alive out of the author's narrative. This is an old complaint, once made by G K Chesterton, who compared his own generation unfavorably with Dickens, our greatest novelist. Sherlock Holmes, he admitted was an exception. But nothing is made of minor characters. What would Dickens have made of Mrs Watson, for instance?

A novelist friend ( none other than the one named for this web site ) avidly read new novels long after writing novels herself. When I put this question to her, she thought that a decline of characterisation owed to the rise of the stream of consciousness novel pioneered by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf ( one of her favorites ). It seems that novelists dont get out of themselves as they used to do.

I admit, tho, that Monica Ali's characters dont compare badly, even with Dickens. In fact, I amused myself by drawing unlikely parallels between "Brick Lane" and another topographical-sounding title "David Copperfield". Actually, the comparisons of characters is somewhat topological. If you had known Mr Micawber, as well as Ali's main character, Chanu, his heroic pretensions would have been as sadly reduced. Chanu doesnt just wait for something "to turn up" but his attempts, to help fate on, keep being rebuffed.

Dickens is thought to be a rather unrestrained writer, whose novels luxuriate like character jungles. But Dickens could have let Micawber get out of control, as Chanu stretches over "Brick Lane" in the author's consciousness. In much the same way, W C Fields as Micawber, could have stolen the classic movie ( full of great character actors ) with his routines, had he been required to do so.

Chanu is a great character, great not only in the way he sprawls over the story but great in the way that the author does justice to a complexity that is recognisably human. He is man the microcosm of society, embodying its hopes and failures, wisdom and folly, knowingness and naivety, enlightenment and reaction, generosity and meanness, honesty and self-deception.

Chanu starts off as a career bore, who makes the reader wonder how demeaning can his naive ambition make him. In the end, he almost comes to the realistic self-assessment, that awaits us all. The defining moment is perhaps when he confesses however much he tried he never seemed to get anywhere.

His unsympathetic elder daughter Shahana, with a hard-set face and habit of kicking things, including her mother, turns human, at this confidence, and says: I know. Don't worry about it.

Chanu refers to another no-hoper in the immigrant community. Shahana points out this man took up "Right to Buy" his flat, as they should have done, and made a huge profit on rising property prices.

But educated Chanu, who isnt one of the "ignorant types", isnt listening to her. His remark, that they are father and daughter talking to each other, is a day dream. The communication, such as it is, is one way. He has learned nothing from the exchange.

Shahana, like David Copperfield himself, runs away.

Chanu isnt the type of enterprising and hard-working Bengali, who makes his pile abroad then re-invests it back home. Rather he is one of nature's civil servants, who believes the way to advancement is paved with qualifications, he collects with a mix of respectable ability and comical lack of discrimination.
There is a compensatory friendship with Dr Azad, the successful professional, who recognises Chanu as an educated man, tho he has no more status in his adopted country than a "rickshaw wallah".

When the bumptious Chanu repays his visits, despite never being asked, he finds out the compensation the doctor gets from Chanu's home life and respectable family. Chanu meets Dr Azad's somehow vaguely appalling wife and off-spring. Azad has a distinguished public life but his family life has somehow gone wrong. In the end, almost despite himself, he lets us know why:

'...We lived on a cup of rice, a bowl of dal and the love we did not measure...We thought that love would never run out. It was like a magic rice sack that you could keep scooping into and never get to the bottom...It was a "love" marriage, you see.' The puffy grey skin around his eyes seemed to grow, as if he had shed tears on the inside. 'What I did not know - I was a young man - is that there are two kinds of love. The kind that starts off big and slowly wears away, that seems you can never use it up and then one day is finished. And the kind that you don't notice at first, but which adds a little bit to itself every day, like an oyster makes a pearl, grain by grain, a jewel from the sand.'

...At the door, he turned. 'All the little irritations,' he said. 'Who would think they could add up to anything?'

In answer to that last question, not me. Ali lets us know, finally, that Chanu and Azad are not merely feeding off each other's misfortunes. Azad helps Chanu and when asked why, replies, no doubt sincerely: Because he's a good friend. Ali sees the range of relationships. She is not limited to a cynical view.

The philosophy of love learned too late in old age compares to a passage in "The Leopard" by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. ( First published in Milan 1958. Revised English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, 1961 ):

When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret; they had been days when desire was always present because always overcome, when many beds had been offered and refused, when the sensual urge, because restrained, had for one second been sublimated in renunciation, that is into real love. Those days were the preparation for a marriage which, even erotically, was no success; a preparation, however, in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief; like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.

Chanu's pretentious incompetance should live on in literature, like Micawber's. Mrs Micawber is driven, every time she opens her mouth to speak of Mr Micawber, to add: whom I will never desert. This is her mantra repeated like "peace be upon him". Nazneen, also an avowed sacrifice to fate, acutely faces the problem of whether to stay with her husband.

"Brick Lane" has other parallels with "David Copperfield", which makes the similarities a bit more remarkable. Nazneen's younger sister, Hasina is an innocent seduced, like Li'l Emily, by not one but several of the Steerforth type idol with clay feet. Hasina never loses her innocent spirit and this becomes the author's instrument of satire in her ungrammatical letters from Bangladesh to her sister. "Li'l Emily" finds her own voice.

Like Steerforth, Karim, the idealist, falls into adultery and eventually disappears to seek redemption.

The ambushing business corruption of Uriah Heep finds its counterpart in the usury of Mrs Islam, who is also hypocritical and scheming, with a sort of ludicrous repulsiveness.

Christianity and Islam, in their respective times and places, play comparable moral roles, whether in a novel by Dickens or by Ali. These two religions have much in common, tho not necessarily in the same place at the same time.

Mr Murdstone, like Razia's husband, would sooner break than free their charges. Razia is one of humanity's supportive souls. The sort of person in matters big or small, we too easily forget we could not have managed without, when we were in a spot of bother. Her kind is there for David Copperfield, as Betsy Trotwood.
Monica Ali reminds me of Margaret Atwood in that most male characters are gems well flawed.

But to a confined Bengali woman, the problems of the community appear mainly on the margins of the story. That is the high unemployment of young males, roaming the streets in gangs, roosting in the stairwells of the tower flats, where residents are prisoners in their own homes. While outside is drugs dealing and taking, the violent crime, as against local shop-keepers. ( It was featured in "No Go Britain", a BBC 3 program, on 13 november 2004. )
Ali's story does stage a riot in the end. But it didnt convince me she had witnessed one. If her novel is translated into film, no doubt some producer will "improve" on the riot scenes.

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Richard Lung
November 2004

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