Anuk Arudpragasam: ‘There’s a lot of laughter in my life, but not when I read’

The novelist, whose A Passage North has been longlisted for the Booker prize, on being inspired by Descartes and the influence of Robert Musil

The book I am currently reading
I just finished reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, and am about to read some Elizabeth Bishop. In Tamil I’m reading Vaadivaasal, an elegant late 1940s novella by CS Chellappa about jallikattu, the centuries-old game of bull-taming that still takes place in parts of Tamil Nadu today.

The book that changed my life
I suppose there are many, but the one that comes to mind now is Descartes’s Meditations, which I came across by chance at a bookshop near our home in Colombo when I was in high school. I had no context for it when I was 16, but I remember being so impressed and excited by the idea that our knowledge of the world around us could be called into question so thoroughly. Reading Meditations led to a very long immersion in philosophy from which I still haven’t fully surfaced.

The book I wish I’d written
There isn’t a book I wish I’d written exactly, but there are definitely texts and passages I wish I was capable of writing. There’s a 20-page section in the middle of Péter Nádas’s novel A Book of Memories where two young boys in a farmhouse outside Budapest are standing in a sty under the light of an oil lamp. They watch as a pregnant sow twitches violently on the floor, on the verge of death after struggling for some hours to give birth. The braver boy enters the sty, kneels down in the sludge next to the sow, and rests his head on her chest. Looking at her for permission, he puts his hand slowly and cautiously inside her. Listening out for the instructions she gives through her grunts and her breathing, hefeels around inside until he can finally do what he needs to do to help bring out her litter. It’s the most profound and moving account of communication between two bodies that I’ve read.

The last book that made me laugh
To be honest, I don’t really read to laugh. There’s a lot of laughter in my life, but not when I read.

The book that most influenced my writing
Probably Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which was the book that made me turn from philosophy to literature. It’s full of long, essayistic digressions on philosophical subjects, but because they’re embedded within a larger narrative context, they’re emotionally charged in a way philosophy rarely is. Reading that book made me realise I wanted to write novels, though because it had such a strong influence I also unconsciously inherited a lot of its modernist biases, especially its scepticism about the notion of character. It was a long time before I could move out of its orbit.

The book I think is most over or underrated
One book I love that haven’t heard discussed very often is Andrei Platonov’s Soul, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler. It brings suffering and tenderness together in a way I haven’t seen done elsewhere.

The book that changed my mind
I read nonfiction very seldom, though one book I read a couple of years ago that really did change – or at least open – my mind was Angela Davis’s classic text on abolition, Are Prisons Obsolete?

The last book that made me cry
I can’t share the source of my tears so easily, unfortunately.

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta, £14.99) has been longlisted for the Booker prize. To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Anuk Arudpragasam

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