Home > 1990, 20th Century, Abandoned books, Book Club, Indian Literature, Mistry Rohinton, Novel, State of the Nation > Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

  1. December 22, 2019 at 12:46 am

    I haven’t read this one, so I can’t comment, sorry!

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    • December 22, 2019 at 11:05 am

      To be honest, I went to your blog and looked for a review, hoping you had read it. I wanted to add a link to an actual review of Such a Long Journey.

      Like

  2. December 22, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    I’m not quite in agreement with you about words in the author’s own language. I find, reading Arundhati Roy for example, or many or our own Indigenous authors, that they include words that we English (or French) speakers could not possibly know. Partly, I think, to assert the importance of their mother tongue, and partly for us to come to understand as referring to concepts that English does not have word for. I mean, this happens in any language – hearing/seeing a word for the first time and slowly coming to realise what it means. I don’t generally refer to glossaries, but of course that is just my preference.

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    • December 22, 2019 at 2:53 pm

      Usually, it doesn’t bother me. Like you say, some things or concepts are impossible to translate and it’s better to keep the original word. I’ve read Arundhati Roy and I don’t remember minding her use of words in her mother tongue

      Here, there were too many of them, the meaning wasn’t always obvious and I didn’t always manage to understand what they were talking about. Plus, there’s not even a note somewhere to tell you which language it is and people don’t all speak the same language in India.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 24, 2019 at 11:43 am

    I think I would have struggled too. If a book has a very specific context and setting that isn’t likely to be familiar to the reader it helps to have notes or commentary. The risk is that you end up spending so much time chasing references that you don’t actually enjoy the reading of the book…

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    • December 25, 2019 at 12:59 pm

      I think a good foreword by the author or the translator would have been enough.
      I’m currently reading a crime fiction book set in Montana and fly fishing is important to the story. There’s half a page at the beginning to give the reader a few clues about the fly fishing world.
      Here, you don’t even know the language these words come from.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. December 25, 2019 at 1:44 am

    I was reading this as I took a flight to India and I remember making a list of words that I wanted to ask my colleagues to explain. It wasn’t a problem for me that there were may non-English words, often I could work out the meaning from the context plus I have a feeling that my edition did include a glossary but I thought my understanding would be enhanced

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    • December 25, 2019 at 1:00 pm

      What bothers me the most is that there’s not even a short foreword to disclose the language used and a few indications.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Vishy
    December 31, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    Loved your billet, Emma! I remember someone else saying that they didn’t like this book much. I haven’t read this book or any other book by Rohinton Mistry yet. From what you have said, it definitely needs a glossary. There are too many non-English words starting from the first sentence. One of the problems with the book is that it was written in English. If it had been written in an Indian language, all these words would have been translated. I think this is one of the problems with many Indian books written in English in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – books by Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Amitava Ghosh. I think Vikram Seth was better, because he either didn’t use Indian words or used very few of them. A glossary will definitely improve the reading experience. I hope the publishers are looking at that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    • January 1, 2020 at 9:49 am

      It a wasn’t a hit in our Book Club.

      I have to ask: what’s the language of these words?

      I think this book requires a note from the translator or the author. It’s probably written for a non-Indian audience and it’s a political book. A little note about the context would have been welcome. For example, there was a one page note in Les Mémorables by Lídia Jorge, a book about the Portuguese revolution.

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      • Vishy
        January 1, 2020 at 3:56 pm

        Sorry to know that it wasn’t a hit in your book club, Emma. But I can understand. The words that you have mentioned – they all seem to be from Hindi. I agree with you. They should have included a note or an introduction with the book. And definitely a glossary. This would help in understanding the context and the meaning of some of these non-English words. I hope the publishers do something about it.

        Like

        • January 1, 2020 at 9:45 pm

          Thanks for the info, Vishy.

          Like

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