Of Love, War, and Stories

Reviewed by Maude Lapierre

C. S. Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris and Shree Ghatage’s Thirst have much in common: as love stories that emphasize the importance of narrative, they also document the fractures created by the First and Second World War respectively. However, while Richardson’s novel is structured around the inevitable encounter between the two lovers, Ghatage’s text drives toward their separation.

The Emperor of Paris functions through multiple glimpses into the lives of various middle- to lower-class Parisians at the beginning of the twentieth century. The narrative focus is mainly on the Notre-Dames, a family of bakers whose son, Octavio, will inevitably meet Isabeau through the unintended help of a bookstall owner, a homeless painter, a forgotten book, and a fire in Octavio’s library. Before the lovers meet, Richardson constructs them as sharing a similar tendency to mask their perceived flaws through stories and story-telling. Octavio’s flaw is mostly invisible; he suffers from an inherited condition known as “word blindness,” which renders him practically illiterate. Through the tale of the emperor of Paris, his father teaches him his storytelling technique, which requires images and newspaper photographs to create narratives that will prevent others from noticing that they are illiterate. Once the newspaper photographs become traumatic reminders of the First World War, the Notre-Dame men begin to visit the Louvre, which is how Octavio and Isabeau, an avid reader and museum employee, first notice each other. The daughter of clothes designers, Isabeau cannot be incorporated within their glamorous world because of a disfiguring facial scar. Since Octavio had begun to collect books following his father’s death, readers know the two lovers to be perfect for each other: “She—was a reader. He had a library.” The novel then presents the multiple and fortuitous actions that will ultimately lead to their encounter. Because The Emperor of Paris shuns the clichéd representation of the Parisian flâneur, it constitutes the most convincing portrayal of urban life in a realist, non-experimental form. Numerous experiences are juxtaposed to provide a complex picture of the city, where the characters, limited as they are by their economic status, do not know their way beyond a single district.

Similarly, Ghatage’s Thirst focuses on love, but it also features the losses and sacrifices that accompany conflicting desires. It opens with a scene in which an unidentified Indian man has been rendered amnesiac following a hiking accident in Wales, and is thus currently residing at the home of Mr. Owens and his mentally ill daughter, Catherine. Feeling claustrophobic in the village, the young man is desperate to return to London to find out who he is, but before leaving, he proves unable to resist Catherine’s sexual advances. This lapse is particularly unfortunate, as Baba remembers who he is as soon as he arrives in London. At this point, the narrative returns to India in the months preceding Baba’s departure, where details concerning his arranged marriage to Vasanti, as well as his reasons for leaving India for England in the middle of the Second World War, are revealed. Initially hostile to the marriage because of his imminent departure, Baba cannot help but be ultimately seduced by his bride, who proves skilled at fostering intimacy by extirpating stories and memories out of her husband. While Baba grows more hesitant to leave for London, it is his father’s refusal to forsake his homosexual relationship that drives his decision to depart. His memories recovered, Baba wishes to return to India, but is prevented from doing so because he learns that Catherine is pregnant. An earlier promise “never to abandon his children” then conflicts with his love for his wife, and drives the novel’s dramatic conclusion. Ghatage’s novel then successfully explores conflicting thirsts, those desires that inevitably come at the expense of others, particularly since Baba is unable to reconcile tensions. In this way, Thirst resists facile conclusions as sacrifice comes to represent the cost of love.

Both novels are written in elegant prose. Yet, they contain the same conceptual problem: because they privilege the experiences of the male lover, they create an unbalanced account of the desires that drive the narratives. In both novels, it is the men who tell their stories, and the women who listen to them, which casts them in a passive role. Nonetheless, The Emperor of Paris and Thirst successfully provide insightful and subtle critiques of the violence which marks their politically charged setting, while remaining concerned with their characters’ immediate experiences of love and loss.

This review “Of Love, War, and Stories” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 164-65.

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