Reviewed by Tommy Wallach
The Bengali writer Buddhadeva Bose published over one hundred sixty works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama between 1930 and 1974, and another forty have been published since then. He started and edited the renowned poetry magazine Kavita, and was famous for proponing a Modernist, Western agenda in Bengali poetry and prose. He was a visiting professor at many universities in both India and the United States, and was even a journalist for the major Indian newspaper The Statesman.
My Kind of Girl (Archipelago Books, 2010) was originally published back in 1951. It hovers between the genres of straightforward novel and short-story collection. The overarching plot is primarily a framing device: four men are on a train that ends up stopped at a station for the night due to a mechanical issue. A brief encounter with a young couple in love inspires the men to pass the time by telling stories of love from their own lives. Barring a short introduction and epilogue, these four stories make up the entirety of this 138-page book.
The framing device is the most directly “Modernist” trope in Bose’s book. Otherwise, the four tales are fairly traditional love stories, presented without any kind of narrative or stylistic gamesmanship. In the first, a contractor describes how, in trying to help a women he was in love with, he ended up earning her scorn. In the second, a well-known Bengali bureaucrat tells the tale of a woman he loved as a child, and how they shared one kiss but ended up married to other people. The third story is the only one that could be described as “happy”; a doctor treats an actress in love with his best friend, and falls in love with her himself. In the fourth story, a writer recounts how he and his two best friends were both in love with a girl, who eventually died in childbirth.
The stories are tied together by the theme of disappointment in love; even the doctor who ends up with the object of his devotion has to come to terms with being her second choice. Tonally, all four summon up an identical ambiance of nostalgia and regret. When the men first meet the young couple, they marvel at how oblivious lovers are: “Can they imagine that they will not continue much longer exactly this way? That is the most amazing part of this amazing illusion.”
To which another man responds, “Amazing illusion! Well put!”
It’s an odd answer, as there’s nothing particularly “well put” about the phrase. If anything, it is a cliché, one of many that pervade My Kind of Girl. In what feels like a failure of the translator, Arunava Sinha, to locate the gravity in Bose’s diction, the language can feel childish and shallow. The writer character encourages his cabinmates to share their stories by reminding them, “There’s no one who has never liked someone. What happened afterwards is not the point, the liking is what counts. Maybe it’s memory, too, that counts. Some kind of memory . . .” The use of the word “like” (was there some fear of the more obvious “love”?) is jarringly teenage. In other places, Sinha’s translation, with its numerous punctuation errors, fails even the test of logic: “. . . they advised trying to add color to one’s life, if temporary, and I was no exception to this.” No exception to what? Is the narrator trying to add color to his own life, or advising others to do so? It’s often difficult to work out the thrust of Bose’s sentences.
When the translation isn’t getting in the way, Bose’s work is still capable of evoking a sublime melancholy. The bureaucrat tells a story about taking a walk with the object of his affections and slowly realizing that the very act of walking means that their time together will eventually end: “Our existence is like that: living eats into our life, all the roads we love end because we take them.” In passages like this, one hears Bose the poet, famous for his meticulous craftsmanship, and can forgive some of the slips that mar the rest of the text. Unfortunately, it is not quite enough to salvage the novel.
In the end, the biggest problem with My Kind of Girl isn’t in the quality of the prose, but in the paucity of ideas. Bose attempts to portray the universality of love by describing four seemingly different men who turn out to have very similar tales to tell. Unfortunately, this makes them, and their stories, effectively interchangeable. The cumulative effect of reading four homogeneous stories one after the other seems to me no greater than that of simply reading the best of them on its own. I’d recommend the last thirty pages of the book as an enjoyable introduction to Bose’s fluid, lilting style, but for most, that won’t be reason enough to pick it up. While My Kind of Girl is easy to like, it will leave most readers hungry for something more substantial. Something they can love.
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