Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

‘There isn’t a proper place in English culture for the energetic argument’

Philip Hensher is the author of The Northern Clemency and Scenes from an Early Life. In this interview, taken on the 2nd day of Dhaka Lit Fest 2018, he talks about his latest novel The Friendly Ones

Update : 10 Nov 2018, 06:21 PM

This is your second time at the DLF. What brought you back?

They asked me! I’ve always accepted an invitation to come to Bangladesh, to Dhaka. It’s always interesting, and I haven’t been here for five years and wanted to see what had changed. 

Your novel, The Friendly Ones, is an incredibly big book, quite literally. Tell us a little about it?

The story really is about two families who live next door to each other in England and have different histories. They’re all on friendly terms without really knowing much about each other’s private histories. It seems to be that one of the things the novel can do is show how these families came to be where they are. The novel is both about the present day involvement of cultures in a single place in Europe and also an excavation of a particular cultural history. 

The Spinsters, one of the families you chronicle in your book, are very weird. Were they pure invention or did you base them off of anyone?

They’re based on observation. As a novelist, I spend a lot of time in public places. I guess it’s just seeing how people react to each other, how a particular fact of life might emerge in particular relationships and particular characters. In the case of the Spinsters, I could tell for a long time when I was writing this that they related to the world in a slightly unusual way, but it wasn’t until I was 300 pages in that I realised that the reason they were doing this was because they were very short. I mean, it wasn’t my concept from the beginning. I was trying to understand Hilary Spinster, the father, who is very argumentative.

Towards the end of the book, we do see Hilary finding a friend in his neighbour to carry out his arguments with, which I felt were a fitting situation for both of them. 

This is something I absolutely love about Bengali culture. I think there’s a lot in common between English culture and Bengali culture. We understand in each other in lots of ways. But one of the ways in which we are different is that there isn’t a proper place in English culture for the energetic argument, and there is in here. All the Bengalis I know and am friends with, they very much like sitting down and having an energetic argument and Hilary Spinster, he is the sort of Englishman who really wants this argument, but his family won’t argue. When he says something controversial or a little bit obnoxious, they just say “if you say so” and walk away. And then later in life he finds a friend next door who actually does him the compliment of treating him like another Bengali and saying to him, “No, you’re completely wrong, let me explain to you why ... ”  

They develop, in an English suburb, a relationship based on adda. Now Hilary doesn’t understand what he’s got, this adda, but that’s all he has. 

A substantial portion of your book takes place in wartime Dhaka, which no doubt would’ve taken some research to write. Can you tell us about how that process went? 

There was a certain amount of research, but not in any academic sense. It was partly reading, and largely talking to friends who knew about the period and remembered the quality of life then. The thing that inspired me a lot was Jahanara Imam’s memoir Days of ’71 which I think is one of the great books of that time. It tells you so much about how people reacted to events at the time and not after long periods of reflection. l

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