23 September 2006

“The fact is, both sides killed.”: Pairing Novels and Photographs

I posted a while back on a new novel Mohr by Frederick Reuss that consists in a fictionalized narrative that the author constructs on the basis of recently discovered photographs of his actual, but quite mysterious uncle. It is definitely worth reading and is a very interesting experiment. The pictures and text work together in surprising ways. But what of such pairings that are less closely integrated?

Today in The New York Times there is a story of a soon to be republished novel - Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956) - written in response to the partitian of India and Pakistan a decade earlier. The quoted passage in my post title is the first sentence of the novel. The new edition will include, in addition to the original text, nearly 70 photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. These images have heretofore been wholly unrelated to this text except that they address the same subject. Here are a couple of examples of the less graphic images:

Refugees on the Move (Margaret Bourke-White, 1947)

A boy in a Delhi refugee camp (Margaret Bourke-White, 1947)

I do not know much about Bourke-White beyond the fact that she collaborated on something like Agee & Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the title of the work escapres me) and that Eavns purportedly thought very little of her work. So here is short passage from The Times story:

"Bourke-White, known equally well in India and Pakistan for her portraits of Gandhi at his spinning wheel and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, sitting straight-backed in a chair, was among the most effective chroniclers of those wounds.

The photographs reproduced in the book are gut-wrenching, and staring at them, you glimpse the photographer’s undaunted desire to stare down horror. There is a street littered with corpses, an audience of vultures looking down from a roof. There is a dead man in a hand cart, his open eyes staring through the spokes of the wheel. There is an old man, only skin and bones, leaning on his pile of bedding, vacantly staring at the sky.

Two years before Bourke-White shot these pictures, she photographed the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. She was the first woman the United States Army accredited as a war correspondent during World War II.

The photographs were displayed recently at the posh shopping center Khan Market, near Mr. Singh’s home in Delhi; Khan Market was once known as a “resettlement” hub, where refugee traders from Pakistan were offered storefronts. The only thing more astonishing than the images blown up large as life was the number of shoppers who seemed not to register them, marching on instead to inspect the latest running shoes or stem crystal."

The article does not indicate what Singh thinks about the pairing of his novel with the photographs. It strikes me as an interesting idea. Here are some clsoing comments, though, from Singh:

“The wounds of partition have healed,” he likes to say as often as he can. “The poison is still in our system.” .... Mr. Singh, whose father constructed much of Delhi, a city reinvented by the flow of partition refugees, is among the last survivors of the era. For his generation he is unusual for wanting to speak of that horror, again and again. He reminds in words what Bourke-White’s photographs seem to scream on the page. “People should know this thing happened,” Mr. Singh insists. “It did happen. It can happen again.”

Unfortunately there is not yet an American publisher for the volume.

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