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The Wall by Gautam Bhatia

(HarperCollins, 2020)

Reviewed by Dan Hartland

If Gautam Bhatia’s debut novel has a governing geometry, it is circular. This adjective is often used pejoratively by reviewers, and so it’s worth foregrounding the unusual annularity of The Wall before proceeding any further into—or rather, around—it.

The city of Sumer has been enclosed by a high, deep, thick and impenetrable stone barrier for two thousand years. None of its inhabitants—not the novel’s flawed heroine, Mithila, or the tragic instigator of its events, Garuda, or its conflicted president, Hansa—understand fully where the Wall came from or why it is necessary. The Wall acts on the society within it powerfully: same-sex relationships are the norm, partly to militate against population growth; housing is arranged in a strict concentric pattern, each ring further out less prestigious the one that that preceded it. Yet the history of the city’s acquiescence to the stultifying limitations the Wall places upon its people’s development is so consistently static—so plainly fearful of the outside—that the few instances of rebellion that can be found in its past are remembered almost obsessively and always negatively.

Legends, on the other hand, are freely passed down from one generation to the next, their contents guarded and curated by a range of often competing factions. These seek not so much to explain as to justify the Wall’s existence, and the city’s ritualised origin story is largely undisputed: the Builders, a quasi-alien race of considerably greater sophistication than the Sumerians, punished the forbidden curiosity of one mythico-historical inhabitant of the city, building the Wall to ensure that none of his ancestors would ever again seek to break the Builders’ rule—and try to glimpse what lies beyond the bounds of Sumer.

This set-up offers Bhatia a canvas on which he can paint a picture—really, a series of pictures—of what the intellectual process of structural and systemic change might be. To be clear, The Wall is not a story of societal overthrow; it is a novel of interior shift, a book about how thought and words are as necessary for revolution as sticks and stones. In one memorable scene, ontological breakthrough is achieved by close analysis of verse.

Bhatia’s protagonist, Mithila, experiences a feeling all in Sumer refer to as smara, and which they understand to be a “longing for a world without [the Wall]”. This is a familial trait: her brother Garuda “dreamed of a new language […] that would be free” (p. 35). Over the course of the novel, Mithila explores first quite basically what it might take to be free of smara—that is, to destroy the Wall—and then more deeply what it might mean to do that, when others “just don’t want your—horizons—as much as you think they do” (p. 156). Mithila is for her part convinced that not to chase the horizon is “to be considered little children” (p. 308), but the fierce reac tion against her push towards radical change comes not just from those who would lose from it … but also from those who simply cannot imagine it.

The to-and-fro between change and stasis gives the novel its first and most consistent circularity. But in the concept of smara is its other, and perhaps more artistically powerful, instance: the manner in which The Wall repackages all of world history, seeding it across Sumer to make the city not an analogue or metaphor or simile, but a sort of Ark of humanity. Smara is not so different in form to the Brazilian-Portugese saudade; Sumer of course recalls ancient Mesopotamia; the main square of Sumer is the Maidan, in South Asia an open space in a town but through Ottoman Turkish also the name of the main square in Kiev, a symbol of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 (and in The Wall we read of Sumer’s Blue Revolution). There is a legend in Sumer like ours of Icarus; the Wall was built in much the way that the Gates of Eden were shut; and those in power could, like Trump on Fifth Avenue, “strike someone down in the Maidan next” and still have the support of the people (p. 227).

And yet Sumer is no woolly melange of a city. Bhatia also infuses it with a distinct culture, both unique and exciting here to explore, and evocative—in nomenclature, structure and its particular literacy—of Bhatia’s native India. In an excellent review of this novel at Strange Horizons, Arpit Merchant made the point that this fusion of generality and specificity is itself acutely Indian: “More than names of people and places that sound like mine,” he wrote, “what makes this story quintessentially Indian is its nuanced understanding of a sense of the past.” This underlines the importance of writers like Bhatia and books like The Wall—to SF’s ongoing intellectual expansion: other traditions immeasurably enrich and valuably reshape the literature, and this novel is ample evidence of how essential is the task ahead of SFF to make a better home for this sort of work. That is not to say that the book is perfect. A debut novel, it exhibits features one might expect to be debugged in Bhatia’s future work: an over-reliance on dialogue, a tendency towards a monovocal tone which doesn’t differentiate between characters, time periods or even the novel’s various texts-within-texts; and a taste for the prolix. But in a novel of ideas perhaps the dialogue is an apposite form, and perhaps discursiveness is necessary. Certainly a writer of Bhatia’s evident quality will sand off these rougher edges as his career proceeds.

So what of the circle? Sumer is depicted with rare geometric precision in the novel’s obligatory map, and—having begun with a character burrowing below them—the novel ends with a character high above the city’s spires. In this juxtaposition is not just a symbol of the hope Bhatia invests in the human imagination, but an embodiment of the balance and focus which characterise this wise, rich and surprising novel.

Review from BSFA Review 14 - Download your copy here.

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