The relentless beauty of Arundhati Roy’s prose is becoming a problem. It made her 1997 novel The God of Small Things a sensation, but it has complicated the response to her essays. Roy’s critics call her arguments too neat, too emotional, too pretty to be convincing, but she makes no apologies. “My style is my politics,” Roy explained to the Indian magazine Frontline in 2000. She is a polemicist, whose writing thrills and enrages in equal measure; her new collection of essays, War Talk, continues the work she started with The Cost of Living and Power Politics. She touches on some of the same issues—nuclear weapons, big dams, privatization—but here aims squarely at the big, dirty picture: “The connection between religious fundamentalism, nuclear nationalism and the pauperization of whole populations because of corporate globalization is becoming impossible to ignore.” Roy stakes out the no-man’s-land between U.S. imperialism and religious extremism and proves that it is the only place where most people will ever feel at home. She is unequivocal in her criticism of U.S. foreign policy, but her zeal is illuminated by an abiding faith that there simply must be an alternative.
If Roy’s critiques of the U.S. are fueled by anger, the best, most subtle parts of the book are those fed on sadness, about the growing religious polarization and violence darkening India. “Democracy,” a response to the Indian government’s complicity in a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, is devastating. It bears witness to the state-sponsored violence that, Roy fears, may soon be answered by a broader militant Islamic movement within India. Of a Hindu nationalist politician’s visit to the scene of the atrocities, she writes: “His mouth moved . . . but no real sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned, bloodied, broken world.” This piece, like the others, is exhaustively sourced, and the footnotes document horrific episodes that have received relatively little attention in the U.S. press.
The last two essays are the weakest. “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky,” written to introduce a new edition of Chomsky’s For Reasons of State, is out of place; “Confronting Empire” repeats ideas fleshed out more fully in the previous essays. Even here, though, her clear, sharp voice seldom wavers: “Empire may well go to war, but it’s out in the open now—too ugly to behold its own reflection.” Most essayists are content to make you think; Arundhati Roy wants you to believe.