Existential dread is a tricky quality to capture in fiction. Do it too well and readers may shut the book gasping for air. Diary of a Malayali Madman pulls off the difficult feat of exemplifying the anxieties of being choked by the weight of social structures around us while also being compulsively readable.

A collection of short fiction by celebrated Malayali author N Prabhakaran, it revels in its Foucauldian despair and Borgesian undertones. The book’s translator, Jayasree Kalathil, whose own research deals with mental health, brings a strong curator’s eye to these stories, all of which deal with protagonists whose own realities collide with the artifice of life.

Odd and unpredictable

There are only five short stories in the collection, but all of them pack a punch with their fully realised worlds. In the titular story, inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story “The Diary of a Madman”, Aagney, an unemployed itinerant in his forties communicates with a suicidal rooster, goat, god, and even the Old Man of the Sea from The Odyssey.

“Pigman”, which Prabhakaran himself adapted into a feature film of the same name, follows a young man who, after working as a junior accountant on a farm that rears Berkshire pigs for slaughter, is slowly driven to hallucinating about pigmen.

The best story and also coincidentally the oldest is “Wild Goat” (the original in the Malayalam was published in 1987) in which the narrator George returns from college to find out his brother who has made a fortune off coffee plantations is making a run for political office.

What makes these tales so tantalising is that Prabhakaran’s protagonists are all odd, unpredictable characters. In addition to their repudiation of social norms, they are often trapped inside the hermetically sealed environments of their turbulent minds. “Like most people, I too am happenstance. My wishes or permission were immaterial to my being born, the basic structure and shape of my mind and body predestined.”

Many of the protagonists deeply identify with the egalitarianism of the left even as they are disillusioned by the anti-intellectualism of party politics. There is an existential nihilist worldview in the stories. Many of these characters share the belief that their lives are on autopilot constrained by forces beyond their control.

In “Pigman”, the animal itself becomes a symbol of human apathy and helplessness. “All through its life, the pig walks with its head lowered, looking downwards...And at the precise moment of its death, it raises its face to the sky for the first time. Poor thing! It dies with the knowledge that the sky, after all, is empty.” The idea of insanity is presented as collective madness – fictions of progression papering over parochial values. “In my estimation, the world has not changed all that much. Granted, there have been some cosmetic changes, but deep inside people still retain the same regressive mindset.”

Fractured families

Madness is a popular metaphoric preoccupation of Malayalam literature. In late Dalit writer C Ayyappan’s short story “Madness”, the protagonist who passes off as upper-caste is reluctant to accompany his sister who has to get admitted to a psychiatric ward for fear of having her madness and lower-caste status associated with him. Other writers like MT Vasudevan Nair and Kamala Das have also used the metaphor for delving into the fractures between social transformation and the ideological framework of politics.

Like these writers, Prabhakaran illuminates social frictions through fractured family dynamics in North Kerala.

George in “Wild Goat” is alienated by his brother whose lust for money and politics he fails to understand. The forest is the site of their polarised worldviews. His brother having made a fortune in coffee plantations sees it as nothing more than material resources. For George the forest represents symbiosis and catharsis.

In “Invisible Forests”, a prequel to Prabhakaran’s novel Theeyoor Rekhakal (Theyoor Records), Krishna is confounded by her family, made up of politicians with competing party interests and sisters whose energies are expended navigating their husbands’ possible infidelities. Life around her is also pervasively punctured by death. Krishna’s brother hangs himself. Her best friend kills herself. Another friend’s son is hacked to death.

Sreekumar in “Pigman” bemoans the fact that kinship seems to be lost. “...an inchoate fear sinks its teeth into my chest. I look up yearning for some kind of human connection, only to be met with heavy, brooding faces staring at the open files in front of them.”

Enjoyable and insightful

Prabhakaran’s penchant for playing with writing styles gives Diary of a Malayali Madman an enjoyably eccentric quality. In “Invisible Forests”, several sections include uninterrupted monologues delivered by Krishna sitting alone in her attic room. Presence is incidental.

Prabhakaran also enjoys self-referential digs at the reader. A translator who presents Sreekumar’s notes to the reader in “Pigman” notes, “Current consensus seems to be that these are the days of the reader and not of the author. If that is true, you have the right to come to your own conclusions.”

Prabhakaran is extremely aware of how language gives rise to political identities that our real selves can’t keep up with. His writing also astutely captures the stifling feeling of being unable to break out of socially imposed norms. In one stellar portion in “Wild Goat”, Prabhakaran captures the out of body experience that one has when psychologically burdened, by moving from first to third person. He also aims brickbats at present-day Malayalam literature. “Much of contemporary writing feels insipid to me, and reading it feels like hard work. The writers don’t seem to be emotionally invested in their own words or have a sense of commitment to what they write about.”

In an insightful interview between Kalathil and Prabhakaran appended at the end of the book, Prabhakaran says, “I believe that there comes a point in the narration of the life history of a region when history and fiction come together to become inseparable, when it becomes difficult to say where fiction ends and history begins.” One of the more bizarre moments in the book involves a monkey, imprisoned along with his owner, who develops a taste for alcohol. Yet as Prabhakaran reveals in the interview, this detail was based on an actual encounter by his late friend in prison. As Diary of a Malayali Madman often reiterates, the bizarreness of reality can truly mess with our minds.

Diary Of A Malayali Madman, N Prabhakaran, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperPerennial.