Fiction is very real for genuine fans. People form PG Wodehouse clubs or associations that refer to members as Baker Street Irregulars. Others go on organised tours of Dickens’ pubs. The Dublin municipal government has recognised the tourism revenue potential in setting up walks around Joyce’s town. The French do things on a grand scale – fans can actually retrace Jean Valjean’s steps in the Paris sewers.
So when Keshava Guha creates a fictional club for Harry Potter fans in his novel Accidental Magic, it seems entirely natural. Guha’s achievement is in building a fictional world around a Ur-fictional world. Here Harry Potter is a very real (?) sun and Guha’s characters are real/fictional planets. The Russian doll effect of layers within layers is complete and a tad breathtaking. It reminded me of an essay by David Shulman on how Indian writers of antiquity loved the idea of a tale within a tale within yet another tale. Guha is in good company when his writing reminds me of the great Bhavabhuti, whose Uttara-Rama-Charita is an enduring Sanskrit classic.
Guha has leveraged with considerable intelligence and ingenuity the fact that Harry Potter books were published in the age of digital connectivity. He is able to get together a variety of people who in earlier days would never have met, but who are able to “meet” in the age of blogs, social media and internet posts. This gives him an opportunity to create characters with different backgrounds. But they all have a nomadic touch to them. It is almost as if Guha wants to leave us with no doubt that in today’s world we are all virtual and real (?) gypsies.
Second order fictions
The tale is set in North America. But it could have been set anywhere. North America is just a convenient place for contemporary wanderers to end up. An Anglophile American “intellectual” of sorts, an Indian techie, who simultaneously adheres to and violates the implicit rules of his stereotype, a genuine intellectual, the daughter of an obsessive fashionable leftist father, a father who is compulsively driven to blackmail his daughter, a precocious young woman in distant provincial Chennai who is not precluded from being the fan of an English boarding school magician – the planets are assembled with fever-pointed dexterity.
Guha is a very “literary” writer. As he builds up the sketches of each of his characters, he liberally and sensitively uses literary allusions to welcome us into his personal parlour of insights and connections between seemingly unrelated texts, thoughts and writers.
The club does meet – not all together all the time. Their interactions are simultaneously quizzical and tangential. What does it mean to be a Harry Potter fan in this club? This club is part of a larger network of people who are creating second order fictions around the original tales. One is reminded of calculus where you move from first to second differentials. And it is important to remember that these individuals are not just fans – they are fanatical believers. For us readers who are not Harry Potter aficionados, the “club” is actually a cult of sorts.
Fervour and banality
Guha emerges as a brilliant fiction writer of this unusual genre when he lets us into a secret. The characters actually know what we readers are thinking about them! One of the principal characters, a diehard fan/fanatic says it explicitly with an unusual level of lucidity:
“…you could draw an analogy with a new religion,” Grimmett said. “The early Christians in the Roman Empire, say. I don’t mind the word fandom, after all I can hardly deny that I’m a fan, short for fanatic, a word whose origins lie wholly in the realm of religious devotion.”
And what do these religious believers think of us non-believing sceptics?
“But when people outside fandom use the word, it’s always pejorative, as if we’re members of some infantile cult. When it’s them who have no idea what they don’t know.”
I could not help thinking of a bunch of early Christians in a catacomb in Antioch or Corinth, getting together, holding hands, singing hymns, speaking in tongues and busily convincing each other that it is the unbelievers who are wrong and therefore to be pitied. Guha completes the word picture, when another fan has this to say:
“I hate to ask something practical,” Annabel said. “I didn’t want to bring this up during the meeting itself. But is there any way you would be open to moving these sessions to the weekend?”
In my mind’s eye, I could picture a young enthusiast asking Saint Paul if the Sabbath could be moved from Saturday to Sunday. And Paul responding that the idea was a good one! Good Christians may get angry that we are drawing comparisons of this kind. The point is not to lampoon Christianity. The point that needs emphasising and re-emphasising is that in today’s world, religious fervour can be generated around something as banal, in the opinion of many of us, as a pretentious English boarding school story. But the power of modern marketing and the interconnectedness of the digital world makes it happen. That precisely seems to me to be Guha’s point.
This reviewer is almost seven decades old and confesses to having read only one Harry Potter book and watched only one of the movies. It is precisely this which might qualify me to be a semi-decent reviewer. I am sure that Guha’s book has resulted in Harry Potter Fan Clubs around the world having numerous Book Club discussions and potluck dinners analysing, dissecting, summarising, criticising and expanding on it. Who should, who will, Hermione marry is a central and existentially important question to be engaged with by everyone who participates in the holy Potter communion. I am neither interested not intrigued.
But what I did find very chilling about Guha’s book is an incidental, but I am sure by no means accidental, aside. Two persons marry because they are Potter fans. The way the relationship unfolds can only be described as unpredictable, matter-of-factly terrifying and possibly prophetic. Guha seems to be warning us that if you get obsessively involved in the fictional and digital world, you run the risk of losing your moral compass in the real world. An Orwellian thought.
The majority of the readers of this book who are probably members of the fan club/cult may not relate to this. But it is surprisingly uncanny that Guha is able to get this reaction from an old fogey. It is an extraordinary tribute to a writer whose first book has so much to offer in the realms of ambiguous questions, layered characters, fictional settings which have a strong odour of reality associated with them and what I believe is a prescient warning.
All of the above is a bit meandering and obtuse. A simple summary would be to say that you should definitely read the book if you are a Harry Potter fan. And you should most definitely read it if you are not a diehard Harry Potter fan, but are interested in the intersections of reality and fictions, the connections between meanings and forebodings.
Accidental Magic, Keshava Guha, HarperCollins India.