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‘Pastiche of Angst’: A Tribute to James Joyce by Nilotpal Roy

The novel ‘Pastiche of Angst’ by Indian writer Nilotpal Roy is a classic and perfect example of a book written in the Joycean canon. Apart from that, it is also unique in another way. Since its inception, in the entire history of printed books in any language, ‘Pastiche of Angst’ is the one and only book in the world, in which each verso (left) page has odd page numbers in it and each recto (right) page has even page numbers in it, contrary to customary practice. According to book publishing convention, the first page of a book, and the first page of each section and chapter of a book, is always a recto page, and hence all recto pages bear odd numbers and all verso pages have even numbers; the sole exception being the right-to-left language books (e.g. Arabic, Hebrew, or vertical Chinese, vertical Japanese, vertical Korean etc.) where recto is the front (left) page and verso is the back (right) page; because when a text is written in a right-to-left language or in a vertical format, it is printed as a vertical book, and pages are read from right to left, with the binding at the right and pages progressing from right to the left. In ‘Pastiche of Angst’, Roy has topsy-turvied this entire pagination system by simply beginning the page numbering with a ‘zero’ (‘0’) in lieu of beginning it with the conventional ‘one’ (‘1’); and this orderly disorder is hinted to the readers, at regular intervals throughout the book, with such riddling clues : “You are staring at the tenth page of this part of this nilotpalisation but the page number of this page is ‘9’ and this page is not entirely meaningless.”

Apart from experiencing several other similar structural epiphanies, when you read the experimental novel ‘Pastiche of Angst’ written by Roy, you realize that the question of the possibility of writing a novel, is not simply that of the ability of the individual novelist, but is related to the conditions of the age in which he finds himself, and his insistence on variety is determined by his awareness of the variety and complexity of the civilization of his time, which makes it necessary for the novelist to become more difficult, allusive and comprehensive, rather than to sustain a single intense mood in one key.

Discussions about textual unity originate from the notion of organic form. This ‘organic’ unity is in contradistinction to the combination of discrete elements in a machine. In a ‘mechanical’ unity the parts are sharply defined and fixed; in ‘organic’ unity there is a complex interrelation of living, indeterminate and endlessly changing components. Here, in ‘Pastiche of Angst’, the novelist’s insistence on wholeness in his defense of the heterogeneity of this novel is evidently influenced by the notion of organic unity; and he is not altogether tendentious when he writes of unity and wholeness. Thus, Roy opposes merely mechanical views of artistic creation and draws attention to the subtle relationships that do exist between the different parts of the novel. Moreover, his concept of wholeness is not static but fluid.

T. S. Eliot felt that creative originality should be largely an original way of assembling the most disparate and unlikely material to make a new whole. In ‘Pastiche of Angst’, the creative composition, at times, approximates to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of ‘bricolage’ ― the artist makes do with whatever heterogeneous materials and tools are at hand and engages in a sort of dialogue with these materials and means of execution. A creative text is thus an arrangement, or an ‘assembling’ of this material, rather than an ‘organic’ unity.

In fact, Roy’s ‘Pastiche of Angst’ subverts the idea of organic unity, since it is composed of a plurality of voices, reworking on lines and passages from several texts in the contemporary context, and a variety of languages, styles and genres. The novel alludes to several systems ― among them the myths of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, Homer’s ‘Iliad’, Vedavyas’s ‘Mahabharata’, and also to ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian myths and the most recent Christianity. It also includes traits from several genres and forms ― the romantic folklore, the meditative lyric, the riddling ballads, the spiritual autobiography, the satiric elegy, the chivalrous romance, the epic and mock-epic, the avant-garde drama, the magic-realism prose, the absurd comedy etc. Various analogies have been used to explain the structure and organization of the novel. It can be interpreted as a musical drama in which all the words are sung with classical concert, and in which themes and motifs flow together and recur like a symphony-orchestra with a powerful emotional impact, but with no regular or predictable structural elements; as a Picassoesque Cubist painting which juxtaposes a variety of temporal perspectives, languages, genres and areas of experience; as a Godardian film with its technique of shifting perspectives, sharp transitions, sudden juxtapositions, and montage; as a Wagnerian opera-play with its deployment of a number of voices, characters and settings; as a surrealist poem in which subconscious anxieties, fears and desires are projected in apparently disconnected images, as in a dream.

Elements from different systems, genres, and techniques exist in the novel, but no single system of interpretation by itself can be used as the definitive key to its structure. Roy’s ‘Pastiche of Angst’ resists such unitary readings. To impose a unitary principle of structure would be to exclude the novel’s components, which may be equally important, but which do not necessarily fit into a single scheme. Or, conversely, the novel would be forced into the straitjacket of a theory and its complexity and range of reference diminished. ‘Pastiche of Angst’ is akin to Roland Barthes’ ‘text of bliss’ as opposed to the ‘text of pleasure’. The ‘text of pleasure’ is linked to a comfortable practice of reading; whereas the ‘text of bliss’ unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.

Roy’s ‘Pastiche of Angst’ explores the fragmented, shifting, discontinuous nature of identity. The different voices and points of view shift, merge, dissolve, and collide so that the boundaries between them cannot easily be demarcated. The pronouns, too, are indeterminate, displacing the reader and making it difficult to assign a fixed identity to the speaker or to the addressee. The plurality of voices cannot be unraveled with any degree of certainty. In this novel, the identity of pronouns, especially the ‘third person singular number’ ones ― the masculine ‘he’ and the feminine ‘she’ ― is always ambiguous. Any interpretation of these pronouns will depend upon the identity given to them, which, however, always remains ambiguous.

The ‘I’ of the novel, too, does not have an autonomous, determinate identity. It is fractured into a number of personae, as are those of the ‘he’ as well as, of the ‘she’. There are the ‘I’, ‘he’, and ‘she’ who seem to speak in the voices of Snow White and the seven dwarfs — Grumpy, Doc, Dopey, Sneezy, Sleepy, Bashful, and Happy. There are the ‘I’, ‘he’, and ‘she’ that assume the role of the three magi — Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; Krishna, Draupadi, and the five Pandavas — Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva; the twelve zodiacs — Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces; the seven sleepers of the fairy tale — Maximianus, Malchus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionysius, Constantinus, and Serapion, and many more.

The persona of the protagonist also encompasses multiple voices from the past in the form of re-workings (or quotations and allusions) in the contemporary context. It does not, however, consist only of a tissue of quotations; it also speaks with the immediacy of personal experience which is not derived from texts. The self is thus not a unified entity but is fluid and shifting, and consists of a plurality of voices. Besides the persona of each of the protagonists, the pronouns ― ‘I’, ‘he’, and ‘she’ are used also to designate others such as Nilotpal the character (not the author), Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ respectively. Respectively, sometimes these pronouns stand for Dante the writer (of ‘Divine Comedy’), Dante the character of the same, and Beatrice; at other times they denote Tiresias, Jove, and Juno in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’; sometimes they refer to Sychaeus, Aeneid, and Dido of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’; sometimes to Sartre the philosopher, Sartre the lover, and Simone de Beauvoir; sometimes to Milan Kundera the writer of ‘Immortality’, the poet-protagonist of the same Jaromil, and Jaromil’s daughter; sometimes to Kahlil Gibran’s Prophet Al Mustafa, T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, and the heartless grandmother of innocent Erendira of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story; sometimes to the unknown writer of the ‘Exeter Book’, and the Beast, and the Beauty of the fairy tale ‘The Beauty and the Beast’; sometimes to the mythical Phoenix, the Rood of the ‘Dream of the Rood’, and Wanda von Dunajew of Sacher Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’; sometimes to Agamemnon, Aigisthos and Clytemnestra of Aeschylus’ ‘The Agamemnon’; sometimes to Leonardo, the Groom, and the Bride of Lorca’s ‘Blood Wedding’; sometimes to Arsat’s brother, Arsat and Diamelen of Conrad’s ‘The Lagoon’; sometimes to the Cumaean Sibyl, the underground man of Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’, and so on and so forth. Although they are relatively more distinctive as ‘characters’, they remain fragments of diverse consciousnesses and can also be interpreted as roles assumed by the persona.

The boundaries between the subjectivity of the personal voice (as the first person narrator ‘I’), and the objectivity of the impersonal voices (as the third person narrators ‘he’ and ‘she’), and vice versa, are often blurred so that the narrative authority cannot be credited to either in isolation. The subjectivity of the pronouns is countered by the impersonal voices at several occasions; and the revelations initiated by the personal voices are supplemented with carefully prepared counter-statements exposed by the objectivity of the same pronouns.

            It may be debatable whether the diverse points of view, personae, and voices can be merged into a single identity. The readers need to understand that the voyeuristic novelist-narrator is one of the points of view in this novel, and not its unifying omniscient, presiding consciousness which subsumes all the others. As the other voices articulate their shattered human subjectivity, the satirical tone of Roy is bordering on contempt, throughout the novel; and his irony is directed at meaningless and sterile relationships, as the entire novel is saturated with a haunting ambience of failed relationships and presence or absence of feelings of guilt and remorse.

The use of allusions in ‘Pastiche of Angst’ is related to Roy’s exploration of the relationship of the past and the present. Different temporal perspectives, cultural contexts, and states of consciousness are brought into an uneasy, disturbing relationship. The concept of history in ‘Pastiche of Angst’ is not that of a unilinear, progressive development from the past to the present. Allusions from a variety of contexts and historical epochs are juxtaposed, as in a collage, to create an effect of simultaneity and to undermine the idea of evolutionary progress. The supposed grandeur of the past is demystified by being brought into a critical relationship with contemporary life, and the present predicament is set against varying historical perspectives.

            The past does not exist as a unified, static entity in ‘Pastiche of Angst’ but is constructed out of fragments. These fragments serve to evoke literary, historical, and cultural contexts in a manner similar to Eliot’s description of Joyce’s method : “James Joyce … uses allusions suddenly and with great speed, part of the effect being the extent of the vista opened to the imagination by the very lightest touch.” In fact, allusions in ‘Pastiche of Angst’ are a device for compression, for the novel is equivalent in content to an epic, just like what I. A. Richards observed about Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ ― without this device, twelve books would have been needed in lieu of twelve chapters.

It is also possible to read ‘Pastiche of Angst’ as an inventive act of literary history which attempts to obtain a tradition. Tradition in the novel is not something that is passively inherited; it is a subjective construction. Roy interprets the past in his selection, arrangement, and treatment of allusions, styles, and genres. The reader, in turn, is confronted with the double difficulty of interpreting the function of the allusions within the novel, and of placing and interpreting the source text. In fact, allusions are used in ‘Pastiche of Angst’ to constitute consciousnesses. On one hand, Roy appropriates voices from the past to construct the speaking subject; and on the other hand, allusions function as fragments of consciousness and modes of perception to provide alternative points of view. Waiting for more from Roy! Time will tell whether he would someday be called the Joyce of the 21st century or not.


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