Objectivity has no place in a novelist's life, says Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher, the author of Scenes from Early Life (2013), an Ondaatje prize winner that has Bangladesh as setting, uses history in his novels to set up a place, rather than use the form of the historical novel to tell his story. "As historical novel, this book would have too recent a history in it." he clarified. "Historical novels are about a time before the author was born."

Hensher's interest in Bangladesh is personal. His wife, Zaved Mahmood, a UN official, is from Bangladesh, and Hensher had heard too many good stories about it not to write it down. So how is that fiction? "As a novelist, you cannot worry about such things. What I was told were clearly family stories which are usually exaggerated. Objectivity has no place in the life of a novelist," he said.

The same attitude, he said elsewhere at a session, holds true for research. One collects facts, but one doesn't put it all in, in the novel. Rather, the 'novelist's way' is to forget about it. "Writing is a fight to forget what you know," he said.

The Bangladesh novel is about the impact of the Bangladesh war of independence on innocent bystanders, particularly the story of a patriarch and his middle-class family staying in Dhaka. How does the story leave him? What picture of a post-independence world does Hensher deliver? "In the western world, people are probably familiar about the country's famine but that's all. I wanted to show the glimpse of a vanished world, to show how different lives are like our own. Life passes through different circumstances and in the end we are changed. People die tragically but they also come through and understand what love and sacrifice means," he said.

As a Britisher in his 40s, how does he consider see the role of Britain in the history of the sub-continent? Was the winding up of the empire an act of grace, a moment of liberation? "It was very good for the British. It took them out of their homes to places they had never been before. The lesson from all this is that when people go to a different culture, they should respect it. The division of Bengal was one of the tragedies of 20th century history. United Bengal with Calcutta as capital would have been a great country."


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