Kurt Vonnegut (born November 11, 1922), who passed away on April 11, 2007, did not write about cricket and precious little about any other sport. Yet, in his writings, Arunabha Sengupta finds eerie, striking and painful description of the lot of the cricket writer.
Kurt Vonnegut passed away on April 11, 2007. So it goes.
He had very little to do with cricket. Why, apart from being a cricket-agnostic American, he was not really given to many athletic endeavours.
When he roomed with David Young in his young days, they did play a fiercely competitive game that revolved around bouncing tennis balls off the wall into their pockets. Other than that his sporting pursuits were limited.
There was perhaps another instance in his adult life that came close to a sporting deed. During a croquet game in Vonnegut’s huge yard, a ball bounced over the curb and sped downhill toward an intersection. Novelist Ian MacMillan, who had struck the ball, sprinted after it. Behind him, he heard someone pounding along, panting. It was Vonnegut, holding a glass of wine upright without spilling a drop. “He didn’t want to lose the ball down a sewer,” MacMillan recalled later. “After all, croquet sets were expensive.”
Vonnegut did write about sporting events for his school magazine Shortridge Echo, and later for the Sun. And later still, he landed a short-term job at Sports Illustrated, but apart from penning a few captions was not too sure what he was supposed to do for them. But all that was during his early days, before Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five.
That is perhaps all we can say about links between Vonnegut and sports.
Why then do we remember him in these pages?
Well, of course he did write the following passage in Mother Night that can form a defining part of the autobiography of most modern-day cricket commentators:
“I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me! Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”
The final line is so terrifyingly and absolutely apt in describing the gullible personality cults of cricket, the fanatical devotees of gods and gentlemen, of straight bats and skippers, of hip-hopping dancing champions and helmet-bemoaning doomsday clairvoyants.
But that is true for any domain, is it not? Why single out cricket? His warning, “We should be careful who we pretend to be” was also for the general world, not specifically for those cricketing irritants inflicting imbecilic indices on all and sundry.
The reason why we remember him today is that through his genius Vonnegut transcended his limited forays into the world of sports-writing and predicted the pathos in which the serious sports scribe finds himself today. To gauge this, we just have to look at one of his most enduring creations, Kilgore Trout.
I am talking of the minority group who still have the ethics or luxury to write about the relative merits of Clem Hill and Victor Trumper, or dwell on a splendid Test played in the 1930s. Or someone who resorts to actual statistical data analysis in inferring the quality of cricketers of the current or the bygone eras.
In other words, that particular near-extinct breed of writers who still swear by substance and put in more than a microsecond’s thought before penning an article.
And then they see their work popping up in the midst of thumbnail links of articles about ‘twenty celebrities who suffered wardrobe malfunction’ and ‘ten tips to increase the duration of orgasms’.
Next, on social media cricket groups these articles are shared between links announcing the Virat Kohli-Anushka Sharma breakup or cricketers’ dalliances with models or actresses. And of course it gets about 0.0001% of the likes and comments as attracted by a collage of two cricketers, with instructions to ‘like’ to vote for one, ‘comment’ for the other. And page views? Who can bother with such obscure cricketing history or thought-demanding analysis when there are Dwayne Bravos and Chris Gayles and Darren Sammys dancing to the tune of ‘#Champion’?
Let us turn to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s famed fictional character, the writer of science fiction. He first appeared in God Bless You, Mr Rosewarter, and continued to flit through many of Vonnegut’s works, becoming an important part of the plot in novels like Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five, Jailbird and Timequake.
It is in Breakfast of Champions that Vonnegut sets down the career of Trout in a passage to which the modern day cricket writer can find eerie similarities.
In the book the aging Kilgore Trout, reconciled with his lack of literary success, suddenly finds to his horror that a Midwest Pontiac salesman named Dwayne Hoover is taking his fiction as truth. The plot that follows is a hilarious satire encompassing weighty topics such as politics, pollution, war, sex and racism.
The way Trout’s work is published is described as follows:
“He got in touch with a firm called World Classics library, which published hard-core pornography.”
“They used his stories, which usually did not even have women in them, to give bulk to books and magazines of salacious pictures.”
“Here is what they paid him: doodley-squat.”
Sounds familiar, fellow writers?
“And the titles he gave to his stories were often changed. ‘Pan Galactic Strawboss’, for instance, became ‘Mouth Crazy’.
Ever had ‘The Controversial General’ changed to ‘The Man who changed the face of the country’s cricket’? Or ‘Batsman bias in the History of Knighthood’ to ‘Why it seems more worthwhile to become Tendulkar or Lara than Warne’?
Vonnegut goes on to describe the illustrations used for his stories. And here the parallels are incredibly striking.
There was a Trout tale about Delmore Skag, who finds a way to reproduce in a soup bowl with the help of cosmic rays and living cells taken from his palm.
“The illustrations for this book were murky photographs of several white women giving blow jobs to the same black man, who, for some reason, wore a Mexican sombrero.”
Need I say more?
Perhaps, when we talk of cricket writing in the very near future, we will have to add ‘So it goes’.