Jaya Posts

The art of biography, with Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ken Krimstein

Earlier this year I read two brilliant books. Both happened to be biographies. One is the long, detailed biography of Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch which took the better part of a decade to put together. In it he has scoured empirical evidence, mostly documents, scattered in different libraries and collections to create a magnificent biography of a man who rose from being the son of a blacksmith in Putney to the chief minister of Henry VIII in London. It is detailed and rich and yet not tedious to read.

The second one is a graphic novel written and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth was more than three years in the making but is one of the better introductions to Hannah Arendt that has been ever written. While the images and story frames continue to keep the plot moving in a straightforward narrative style, it is the layout consisting of footnotes and slowly increasing shades of green, till the last frame is soaked in the colour, that makes this a layered and textured reading.

Months after having read these two magnificent biographies, I came across the Guardian podcast where amazingly enough these two authors were speaking in quick succession. Have a listen:

8 November 2019

On Gael Faye’s “Small Country”

I read Gael Faye’s extraordinary Small Country earlier this year. It left a powerful impact upon me and months later, after much other reading, I still cannot forget this slim book. At the time I had written to the brilliant translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Unfortunately Sarah is convalescing and is unable to reply to the questions at the moment. But she did manage to reply to the email I sent upon reading Small Country. This is what she wrote:

” Dear Jaya, What an amazing e-mail!
Thank you for your extraordinarily heartfelt response to
Small Country.
I’d be delighted to answer your questions once I’m back.

So while I wish Sarah a speedy recovery I thought it best to post on my blog edited excerpts of the email lest I forget that this was one of the fascinating books I read in 2019.

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Dear Sarah, 

I simply had to write to you after reading Small Country. What an extraordinary book! I marvel at your translation abilities. A lot must have been called upon you to invest in this translation. To delve into another languages, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but you have done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading. 

Gael Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text. 

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gael Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always  speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gael Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gael Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide ? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? Then I wondered how on earth did you translate it, Sarah? This is not an easy passage to translate and the kind of engagement that is required of you will, I suspect, forever haunt you, Sarah. 

The fluidity of the prose is breathtaking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening, Sarah. It is ever more real for us in the subcontinent as these are many of the incidents occuring here too. The video clips showing lynching of innocent people has resulted in WhatsApp changing its global policy of forwards. So instead of being able to forward messages to 250 people at a time there is a restriction — now messages can be forwarded to only 5 people at a time. Anyway, I digress.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her neices and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. While I have a zillion questions for Gael on why this book? How did he come to write it? How did he choose the point of view? Why a boy-narrator? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement? Although this book has been launched as a debut novel the title refers to a song he wrote. When he is intentionally blurring the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why does he choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt. 

While there are many questions to be asked of Gael Faye, I could not help but marvel at your professionalism too, Sarah. What extraordinary reserves of inner strength it must have required to translate this slim novel. In fact its slimness belies the powerful storytelling and the pure, senseless, mad hatred man has for man. Sadly this is seen everywhere now in the world. I truly am amazed at how you stayed with this book and translated it, Sarah. Some of the questions that I wanted to pose to you while reading the book were:

  1. How and why did you select this book to translate? 
  2. How long did it take to translate Small Country
  3. When you translate a book such as Small Country do you only focus on the text or do you also have to read around to ensure you have captured the nuances?
  4. Did you keep Gael Faye in the loop at every step of the translation? When do you begin your conversations with the author regarding your translations?
  5. What is the nature of these conversations? What are the topics that are discussed most often while translating a book? Were there some exceptional insights to the writing and translation process for Small Country
  6. Would you know if subsequent translations of this book in other languages rely upon the English translation or do they read the text in French? Have you had conversations with translators of other languages of this book? 
  7. What is it that you seek in a good translation? 
  8. How do you choose the books you wish to translate? 
  9. How did you become a professional translator? 
  10. Which are the translated texts that you would consider your gold standard in translation? Who are the translators you admire? Do you think the “rules” of translations change over time?  

While reading Small Country, I was reminded of Fiston Mwanza Majila’s Tram 83 which I reviewed some years ago ( after which the rights to it were bought and an Indian edition was published). His performances at various book events involved a lot of music — fascinating performance poetry. 

One day I hope we can meet in person, Sarah. 
With warmest wishes,
JAYA

8 November 2019

Nabaneeta Dev Sen on “Women retelling the Ramayana”

It is sad to hear of eminent litterateur and academician Nabaneeta Dev Sen‘s passing away. She had been suffering from cancer for a while. She is known an incredible body of work but one essay of her’s that gets discussed often is “When women retell the Ramayana”, published in Manushi. Prof. Sen had presented this paper at “The Sita Symposium”, Columbia University, New York. ( Download the pdf.)

8 Nov 2019

“The Jamun Tree” by Krishan Chander

Or listen to Yasmeen Rashidi, The Wire, narrate it: https://thewire.in/books/watch-icse-drops-krishan-chanders-1960s-story-which-questions-centralised-governance

“Asterix and the Chieftain’s daughter”

Asterix and the Chieftain’s daughter is the 38th story in the series. It is written by Jean-Yves Ferri and drawn by Didier Conrad, translated by Adriana Hunter, the team behind the last three books. Stepping into the legendary shoes of Uderzo, Goscinny and Anthea Bell ( translator) has meant that the new storytellers are very mindful of the legacy they are responsible for. So they have created Adrenaline, the teenage daughter of famous Gaulish king Vercingetorix. Adrenaline is left in the care of Asterix and Obelix. This is a move widely being perceived as a way of updating the books and to cater to new audiences. Hence for the first time in 60 years, the Asterix series has a girl in a major role.

Asterix and the Chieftain’s daughter attempts to tell a young adult story in comic form about a rebellious teenager, who forms a motley crew with the youngsters at the Gaul village. Adrenaline is sketched as this typical irrational, rebellious, unpredictable teenager who has a reputation of being a “bolter”. She needs to be constantly watched. Despite the 24×7 surveillance the villagers try and maintain, Adrenaline does manage to escape and have some adventures of her own. Although she does have Asterix and Obelix, accompanied by her newfound friends, in hot pursuit of her trail. An adventure that takes her through the forest, encounters with Roman soldiers, a kidnapping attempt and to sail away on a pirate ship. These are only some of the adventures Adrenaline has!

While it is very charming to read about Adrenaline’s adventures, something about the storytelling does not come together. It is as if being ever so careful about the original stories, the present writers are jittery and thus tenuous in their handling of the story they have spun from the past stories. So while they are able to make Adrenaline’s presence plausible by selecting relevant frames from the older stories, the handling of the plot, the character sketches etc are far too thin. It lacks nuance that one would expect in the creation of a young adult character who is also meant to have shades of a strong woman’s traits. Instead it is as if the writers have capitulated to stereotypical notions of what constitutes a teenager and so Adrenaline wears black clothes, sulks a LOT, irresponsible and rebellious. This is a lost opportunity given how well the Asterix series sell worldwide. If the initial print run is of 5 million copies alone, it indicates a very strong market base. A base that could have been consolidated and grown further with a little more understanding of young adult fiction and feminism. Nevertheless a strong brand like Asterix will continue to sell and adding new titles to the list will in all likelihood increase the copyright period of these books. This will ensure a long association with the publishers too before the books are made available in the public domain.

6 Nov 2019

Interview with editor and translator, Mini Krishnan

Mini Krishnan worked with Macmillan India (1980-2000) and with Oxford University Press (2001-2018) to source, edit and promote translations into English of works by Indian writers from 13 languages many of which won national prizes and are included in study courses both in India and in universities overseas.

She is currently co-ordinating multiple publishers to build a programme of Tamil-English translations. This is an initiative designed by the Tamil Nadu government and located in their Textbooks and Educational Services division.

1.How did you begin your career as an editor of texts translated from Indian languages into English?

Well…I think it is fair to say that it began as both an accident and an affinity for things Indian long submerged by training in English Literature! I always felt a vague dissatisfaction with the texts I was reading / studying but had no clear idea of how to access materials written by Indians. Nor how to relate them to what seemed to be important intellectual tools gained in UG and PG degrees in English Literature. In the late 1960s-early 70s when I was a student, books were not that easily available. Because my father was with the Deccan Herald (Bangalore) I got to read the books he received for review and that was about all. My college and university libraries did not stock books by Indian authors.

Seven years after my post-graduation I got an opportunity to freelance with Macmillan India in Madras. I was put to work on anthologies of prose, poetry, fiction and so on. Quite dull work really but I kept asking my editor why she couldn’t include some Indian writers other than Nehru, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. “The members of Boards of Studies do not even consider other Indian writers worth teaching,” she said. I thought to myself that if I ever got a chance I would campaign for the inclusion of Indian writers in foundation English courses.

I got my chance when my editor (Viji Sreenivasan) left, creating a vacuum which I filled. I was a square peg in a square hole. A week later the Kerala Sahitya Akademi and Macmillan India signed agreements to produce a two volume publication titled Comparative Indian Literature edited by KM George; with 16 chief editors and 200 contributors, it was a stupendous work. The entire chronology of Indian literature was catalogued and described. Ancient Poetry (all the languages recognized at that time) Modern Poetry. Ancient Theatre, Modern Theatre. Fiction. Short and Long. And so on and so on. It was 4000 pages and took five years to push into shape. I worked on nothing else.

But where might all those Indian language works, described in this publication be accessed? Only a very small number of them were available in English translation. So, since fools rush in, I designed a project of modern novels from eleven Indian languages and tried to persuade Macmillans to invest in the idea. They were astounded. They were textbook publishers and I was their golden goose publishing for the school and college market. Why waste editorial time and money on translation? So I set about looking for support outside Macmillans. If I secured funding I would be allowed to do the project. For seven years I went from door to door trying to convince powerful institutions to part with some money for Indian literature. Mind you I had nothing to show anyone as a promise of what might be possible. Only a single failed translation by V Abdulla of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukal.

Finally, in March 1992, my friends Valli Alagappan, her father, Mr AMM Arunachalam and her aunt Mrs Sivakami Narayanan who jointly ran the MR AR Educational Society of Madras agreed to fund me. I still do not know why they decided to help me. I had nothing to recommend me but my enthusiasm and determination. I received a letter saying that they would set aside Rs 80,000 per book for 50 books.

No one was more surprised than my highly commercial management but there was trouble. Though my Vice President R Narayanaswamy supported me, my Managing Director Sharad Wasani was unwilling to let me spend a lot of time on what he saw as an unsaleable project. When he received the forms seeking his approval he refused to sign. I wrote him, “You are the only person in the world who will refuse funding for his country s literature”and closed by offering to resign. Only two people from that time left — Jayan Menon and Sukanya Chandhoke— who will remember this.

Anyway, after Wasani changed his mind, I invited eleven eminent writers to be the chief editors for the languages I had selected for the project ( Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi)  and they helped to make up lists of five post-Independence novels from their respective langauges. Because I had been dealing with 16 chief editors on the C.I.L volumes I didn’t think this strange at all but anyone who discussed the project with me was astonished at the volume of work I had undertaken. It didn’t seem like work at all to me ! At last I was getting to do what I had really wanted to do when I entered publishing 12 years before.

Many important works were published in full for the first time in English: Brushte ( Outcaste) by Matampu Kunhukuttan, Randamoozham ( Second Turn) by MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathipura by UR Ananthamurthy, Danapani (The Survivor) by Gopinath Mohanty, Subarnalatha by Ashapurna Debi, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki and Karukku by Bama.

In all, between 1996 and 2000 when I left Macmillans I published 37 volumes. They went out of circulation a year or two after I left the company and the C.I.I.L Mysore bought the whole project including unsold stocks in 2007 with a view to republishng the entire list. It never happened because the Director (UN Singh) whose dream it had been, left the Institute.

2. What were the languages you first worked on? How many languages have you worked upon so far? 

The first scripts I worked on were translations from Malayalam and Tamil. In all, I’ve worked on translations from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, and just one from Dogri.

3. How do you select which book is to be translated especially if it is a language you are unfamiliar with?

As I said because of the work I did on Comparative Indian Literature it wasn’t difficult to identify what needed to be translated particularly if the Sahitya Akademi had not already commissioned translations. Then again once the Macmillan project took off I was flooded with advice and suggestions. The difficulty was what to leave out. A great disadvantage is that I could not and therefore did not read the critical material on any of these works. I rely a great deal on the advice of others. But when it comes to translators I use a process of running trial drafts of different kinds of passages from the selected work — one might be a descriptive paragraph, a second something very emotional or lyrical, a third passage would cover conversation – to check the translator’s strengths and where s/he might back off, or skip or be lazy. The editing process can take anything from two drafts to six depending on the competence of the translator and the cooperation between all parties. Long silences, gaps in the process are not healthy for the project nor is impatience or being a speed queen the answer. As for the reception of a translation! Much depends on how well the publisher promotes the finished product. Publishing is only 50% of the responsibility. The other 50% depends on promotion and follow-up.

4. Do you think it is necessary for an editor to be familiar with the source language? If not, how can the editor ensure that the translation is true to the original text? 

Of course it is important for the editor to know the source language but then in how many languages can one gain proficiency? The editor/ publisher must appoint reviewers who will read the translation carefully to ensure (as far as possible) that nothing has been left out or distorted. Then the editor can take over and polish in consultation with the translator and author.

5. What are the kind of guidelines you think an editor of translations should be bear in mind while working on a manuscript? 

Listen very carefully to the voice of the author. Does it chime with the translator’s? It helps to have someone read out the original even if you do not know the language while you follow the English in a parallel reading. You cannot but help hear the inflexions and emotions as the reading proceeds.

Be respectful. Very important to gain the confidence of the translator. Make suggestions tactfully. Once the translator is convinced you are not out to destroy his work or appropriate it, he will breathe easy and work and redraft willingly. It helps to read other works from the same period and familiarize oneself with the language – bank of that time. You need to enter that world emotionally through images and atmosphere not just intellectually through words.

6. What is your definition of a “good translation”? What are the qualities it must have? 

This is something I have been trying to figure out for 30 years! Sometimes a smooth read will fail to capture the imagination of the reader. Sometimes even if a translation is jerky and appears to be rushing along, it will work. I think it is a combination of inspiration and zeal on the part of the translator and very patient work on the part of the editor. The qualities? The language must bring the author alive. It must make you think “If XY had written in English instead of in Marathi this is how he might have phrased it”. Now it is all very well to say this to ourselves but to someone who is not Indian, this might still not work at all. Basically I think we should be translating first for our Indian market before trying to reach spaces and minds outside India.

7. When you began translating texts into English for the Indian market, at the time, most publishing houses ignored translations. Today the reality is very different. Most publishing houses have dedicated translation lists and even the local literary awards are recognising translators. What in your opinion are the pros and cons of this deluge of translations in the market — locally and globally? 

It is extremely encouraging to see the increased interest in translations and the care with which they are produced but a worrying feature is the way publishers are responding to criteria laid out by the big literary bursaries and prizes for translation. There is a growing tendency to ignore works published more than 20 or 30 years ago and no one seems to want to do a fresh translation of a classic. Then there is the secret craving on the part of publishers to promote a translation as not a translation. So the translator’s name disappears from the cover page, a most unfair practice. I put this down to the second-classing of translations—as if they are something inferior and not worthy of being viewed as works of art in themselves.

8. Recently machine translations such as Google’s neural technology are making an impact in the space of translation. How do you feel about the impact of machine translation in the literary sphere? 

Any technology which helps the human translator will be of enormous help I’m sure but I doubt whether it can supplant imagination and nuanced word choices. For mundane passages for instance this interview can be processed by Google translation but — a poem full of feeling and fire? I doubt it. An approximation would surely be possible but would it be good enough? I’ve always maintained that the translator is as much an artist as the writer of the original work.

9. Your name in Indian publishing is synonymous with translation evangelism. You have been responsible for kick-starting many notable projects. The current one being the Translation Initiative of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University (TEMU). Please elaborate more on this project

Actually I did not initiate the TEMU project. That was designed by K Jayakumar the first VC of the University. It was a simple plan: an advisory committee selected works, I commissioned the translations and marketed the idea with multiple publishers. In some cases, the publishers already had scripts on hand; in other cases, I found the translators and did some light editing before handing over to the concerned group. The University signed agreements with the publishers to buy 300 copies at a discounted price and the publishers agreed to carry the logo and mission statement of the University in the selected works. I did not initiate any project other than the Macmillan list. In OUP I enlarged and diversified an already extant list which had not — till I began work in 2001— published a single woman writer. Nor had Dalit or Adivasi writers been considered. That was an arm I grew for OUP India and it has done well.

For a year now, I’ve been working with the Tamil Nadu Textbook Educational Services on a Tamil- English translation project modelled on the TEMU plan. Our collaborators in the first phase are OBS, Niyogi, OUP, Ratna Books, Harper Collins and Vitasta.    

10. Can the art of translation and editing a translation be taught or is it a lived experience? 

Commitment, determination and passion are crucial to sustained work in this area. To find a forgotten work, to convince people that it must appear in English, to struggle with the translator at its rebirth and to learn that a major publisher in the language of the original work decided to reprint the book (which had lain in a rabbit – hole for four decades) —- that is the best thing an editor of translations can hope to enjoy.

Strategies in translation can certainly be taught. Translator training is certainly possible and necessary but finally the translator is on her own except for her editor and together they complete the phantom work. It might succeed. It might not. It might succeed as an aesthetic product and bomb in the sales department. But then that is the fate of any human product which is judged by both ignorant people and by those who know far more than you do. No amount of reading about tennis or watching it on television can help you to be a good player on the court!

11. Translations are most often construed as being undertaken as a labour of love with little financial resources being available for underwriting the costs involved in the task. What are the economics of publishing translations in India? What has been your experience? 

Love is great but it won’t put food on the table. Translations need financial support either from a patron or from another line of books from the same publisher who sets aside resources for the translations list.

12. What do you think is the future of literary translations in the world of publishing? 

The world literary mart is only just waking up to the hidden power of translations and what they do to cross-pollinate creativity across cultures and civilizations. Consider all the talk about world peace! How can this happen if cultural understanding isn’t an organic process? One way to ensure this is to expose children and young adults to writing from different parts of the world at an impressionable time in their lives. Translation can help the humanities to make a brilliant comeback in a global sense. Comparative literature is impossible to teach without discussing the central role of translation. If we are to survive all the artificially orchestrated hatred and violence and misunderstandings created by politicians and power –mongers, venues of mutual understanding need to be very deliberately developed. Cultural competence, soft –skills — these are words one hears very often but what are we doing to build that theatre of human understanding? I think that if literary translations can be included in academic programmes and introduced into high-interest professions like management, finance and public policy it would help humanize these professions and give publishers the big print runs and inflow they need to keep doing what only they can do.

Note: Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (OUP) was a reprint of the Feminist Press publication, 1993, NY and not commissioned or developed by Oxford University Press.

5 November 2019

Edoardo Albinati’s “The Catholic School”

My review of Edoardo Albinati’s award-winning novel The Catholic School was published in The Hindu Literary Review on Sunday, 3 Nov 2019. It was publishing in the online edition on Saturday, 2 Nov 2019. Here is the link. Given the sudden space crunch, the published version of the review had to be shortened considerably. So I am c&p the longer version below.

Edoardo Albinati The Catholic School (Transl. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar) Picador, London, 2019. Pb. Pp. 1263 £16.99

The Catholic School by Italian novelist Edoardo Albinati is about the abduction and murder of two girls by three well-heeled boys — Andrea Ghira, Gianni Guido and Angelo Izzo —who belonged to the all-male Istituto San Leone Magno (SLM)The group had met at the Il Fungo, the Mushroom, a long time meeting spot for fascists. Over the next 36 hours, the two girls were tortured and raped. Rosaria was killed but Donatella managed to save herself by faking her death. The murderers dumped the bodies of the girls in a car boot. It was found after Donatella began banging on the roof of the boot. The notorious sex crime occurred on the weekend of 29 September 1975. The SLM is a private catholic school established in Rome (1887) by the Marist Brothers. It is also Edoardo Albinati’s alma mater. Albinati was a contemporary of the three school students accused of murder whom the popular press of the time described as “young and pitiless nabobs”.

Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is about this appalling crime while also attempting to understand the minds of these brutal killers. At nearly 1300-pages, this semi-autobiographical novel, mentions the Circeo massacre briefly. Otherwise the book mostly consists of long digressions —philosophical, literary, anthropological analyses. His musings are mostly on how masculinity has been defined over the decades, for which he relies on extensive literary and popular culture references. He investigates the peculiar position that men employ in Italian society: from being mammoni (mammas’ boys) to virile, bursting-with-testosterone men in public spaces who have to prove themselves as “men”. Expecting The Catholic School to bea firsthand account of the slow transformation of the school students into notorious “killers” is not what one gets except for glimpses into Angelo’s criminal mind. The novel is more of a meandering introspection on understanding the potent mix of masculinity, fascism, violence and sex, that converted these boys into monsters particularly when all SLM students were given a firm religious grounding in their formative years by the Catholic Brothers. Albinati believes that religious instruction in many ways taught suppression of emotions resulting in the boys being akin to ticking masculine time bombs.

Albinati acknowledges that while the novel employs the first person singular narrative to tell the story these may well “differ from the author cited on the cover” as he “freely [interbreeds] memory and imagination”. In the mid-nineties, Albinati became a teacher in the maximum security wing of the Rebibbia Prison, Rome, where Mafiosi and Camorristi were among the inmates. In fact, Albinati says that he made “use of police reports, deposition manuscripts, wiretaps, interviews, and legal verdicts” as is evident in his descriptions of Angelo. These multiple experiences of knowing his infamous contemporaries at school to being in his adult life in close proximity to criminals who required to be under maximum security creates an astonishing monotone in the novel. It comes across as the author is doing his best to understand the sex crime committed but not really quite comprehending it, instead by offering many philosophical expositions on it, he hopes to find a rationale for these despicable acts. Albinati fails to be a convincing narrator. The reader feels no remorse for the criminals. All that exists is undiluted rage for there seems to be no change in society towards its attitude to women. It is curious that the author while seeming to be empathetic to rape victims by referring to the predatory attitude towards women and of offering the etymology of the Italian word as “stupro” (indicating something that causes stupor, astonishment, something that one wasn’t expecting), meticulously documents his own sexual encounters and then in the acknowledgements bizarrely credits his daughter for transcribing parts of his manuscript that he had written by hand! If that isn’t a way of perpetuating gender violence then what else is it?!

The Catholic School is also a testament to Albinati’s ambition at creating that “large and engrossing novel” that he has so far been unsuccessful at discovering. Albinati is well read and with confident ease experiments with the literary form. There are unexpected sections in the novel that are like lists, a poem, only dialogue or long monologues. At times he addresses the readers directly encouraging them to skip a few pages if they are bored by what they have read. He also flips back and forth in time recollecting his childhood and comparing it with modern times, particularly his children’s lives. Yet the story remains drearily flat, with even the descriptions of male violence dulling one’s senses, as Albinati remains mildly detached. Never does he offer any solution for the male brutality documented but uncomfortably seems to be accepting of the way society is. According to him, “Being born a boy is an incurable disease”. Written forty years after the crime, this novel won the topmost literary prize in Italy — the Strega Prize 2016.

The translation from Italian to English by translator Antony Shugaar is commendable. It reads smoothly. Shugaar does not believe that there are untranslatable words. As he says, “my goal is to carry the reader across that space so quietly that the spell is not broken.” ( VQR, “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, 19 Feb 2014) Shugaar achieves this beautifully with The Catholic School for whatever the shortcomings one may find with the novel’s portrayal of its male world, there is no doubt that Shugaar has been faithful to his mantra of building bridges from untranslatable worlds to where we live.  

3 November 2019

Book Post 49: 29 Oct – 2 Nov 2019

Book Post 49 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

3 Nov 2019

The brave new mediocre: ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood reviewed by Anil Menon

Anil Menon wrote a fantastic review of Booker winner 2019 Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments for the Hindu. The review was published in print on Sunday, 27 October 2019 and in digital on Saturday, 26 October 2019. Here is the original url. With Anil Menon’s permission I am c&p the text below.

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A dystopian novel is where the Enlightenment goes to die. Since we’re awash in dystopian novels, perhaps it suggests that far from fearing this eventuality — the onset of a dark age — perhaps we’ve become resigned to it. As Cavafy suggests in his poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ for those weary of civilisation, barbarity may even represent “a kind of solution.”

There are two kinds of dystopias. In dystopias of the first kind — represented by Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and their numerous progeny — the prison gates are locked from the outside. This means there’s an inside and an outside; there’s a jailor and the jailed; there are secret messages and secret societies; there are betrayals and breakouts; and at the end, a door is either closed for good or left ever so slightly ajar for a sequel to squeeze through. In dystopias of the second kind — represented by Huxley’s Brave New World — the prison gates are locked from the inside. There’s no need for jailors, because the people have jailed themselves. These novels are much harder to write.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopia of the first kind, and at the end of the story, she chose to leave the door ajar. Thirty-four years later, the much-awaited sequel, The Testaments, tells the rest of the tale. For those who came in late, a brief recap might help. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that the U.S. has fragmented into a number of independent republics, and one of the largest fragments — the Republic of Gilead — is now run by a Puritan theocracy.

Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all theocracies are alike. The men are men; uninformed and uniformed, and uniformly jerks. But women in Gilead come in four basic models: the Aunts, celibate women in charge of female indoctrination; the Wives, who are just that; the Marthas, who do manual labour; and the Handmaids, who are wombs-on-rent. Then there are the whores. Of course, there are no whores in Gilead, just as there was no poverty in the Soviet Union.

This set-up offers a lot of scope for misery, and in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood used all the fine English at her disposal to depict just how ghastly a world based on the Womb and nothing but the Womb would be. This world is a dystopia not (only) because men have total power over women, but because women have been coerced, persuaded, indoctrinated, habituated into oppressing other women.

It’s clear Gilead is in deep trouble. Their science is Biblical, their society Saudi, their never-ending wars Balkan, and their economics Soviet. Dystopias of the first kind always have lousy economics. Consequently, for all the horror, the reader may relax: it’s only a matter of time. Nonetheless, it seems some readers couldn’t relax. Atwood mentions in the acknowledgements that she wrote The Testaments to answer a persistent query: “How did Gilead fall?” The urge to please readers is always inimical to great literature.

The Testaments is a plot-heavy novel and has three storylines. The first deals with the musings and machinations of Aunt Lydia, the most powerful of the four Founders of Gilead’s Aunt institution; the second with Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead; and the third with seemingly ordinary Daisy, who lives in Toronto and is being raised by two very nice and seemingly ordinary people. Daisy turns out to be not so ordinary, and her storyline is the usual Hero’s journey. Agnes serves no real purpose other than to illustrate the life of a “privileged” teen in Gilead. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia serves up info-dumps, while she waits for Daisy to turn up in Gilead and set the republic’s destruction in motion. The last dozen chapters compress everything into summaries, hasty action scenes, and neat resolutions.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, whose protagonist Offred is entirely ordinary, all the key characters in the sequel are exalted in some way. They are important on account of destiny or social role or birth or ability. It’s not just The Testaments’ plot-heavy nature or its disinterest in ordinariness that gives it a genre feel. Atwood has always had an interest in plot. But she is also interested in subtext. The Handmaid’s Tale had a plot — a threadbare one, to be sure, but there was one — and loads of subtext.

In The Testaments, however, there’s virtually no subtext. The meaning is all on the surface. What you see is what you get. Events cause other events, obstacles are external, sections end on cliffhangers, and characters remain unchanged by the plot. In Atwood’s short story ‘Happy Ending’ (now a writing workshop staple used to discourage plot-intensive stories), she remarks that plots are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” That’s not true, but here, in this novel, it is just that.

The writing is always competent — this is Atwood after all — but it could’ve been written by any competent writer. The Handmaid’s Tale requires one to pause frequently and contemplate, as when Atwood writes of a character who has just entered a room: “He was so momentary, he was so condensed.” Or “Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now.” The Testaments offers few such pleasures. At one point, in the middle of a flashback on how the Gilead Republic came to be, Aunt Lydia, bored by the all-too-predictable violence, tells us: “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment.” So too is a novel in the throes of enacting an unnecessary sequel.

This novel is entertaining enough; a film starring Meryl Streep is sure to follow. It boggles the mind however that the novel was even shortlisted for the Booker, let alone managing to win a share of the prize. Perhaps this is truly the age of the “new mediocre,” as The New York Times fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, recently said in another context. Brave new mediocre. If we have lost the ability to distinguish a mediocre literary effort from a superlative one, or worse, if we have lost the courage to even acknowledge there is a problem, then it is not corrupt institutions we should fear. It is ourselves. There is no rescuing prisoners who fancy themselves free.

30 October 2019

“Malamander” by Thomas Taylor

Malamander by author and illustrator, Thomas Taylor is a fantastical book about two (approx.) 12yo — Violet Parma and Herbert Lemon. The unlikeliest team who set off to find the truth about the mysterious disappearance of Violet’s parents from the Grand Nautilus Hotel. An event that occurred 12 years ago when Violet was found abandoned in a cot in the hotel room. Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the hotel. He is in charge of collecting abandoned articles and returning them to their rightful owner except that at times decades, even a century, passes by and no one comes forth to claim the lost articles. Then Violet (literally) tumbles into Herbie’s life through an open window in his cramped space. She believes that Herbie is the only person in the world who can help her —- “Because I’m lost…And I’d like to be found.” Brilliant opening line for a fabulous plot for middle grade fiction. And off the two of them go on an adventure plotted marvelously well in Eerie on Sea that seems forever to be encased in thick sea mist or snowfall. It involves wheelchair bound owner of the hotel, Lady Kraken and her cameraluna which operates well on a full moon night to give her a bird’s-eye view of the town in 3D; the charmingly eccentric beachcomber Mrs Fossil, the local celebrity, an author, Sebastian Eels who freaks everyone with his creepy presence, a mysterious character who has a boat hook for a hand and a few more equally fascinating characters. Local life is enriched by local legends that some may believe and some may not. One particular story is about the mythical amphibious creature, Malamander, who lives in the sea but when it emerges on land can walk upright like man. It’s egg is known to possess magical powers of being able to grant any wish.

“Malamander” is the first of a trilogy by Thomas Taylor, who is perhaps better known for his book cover illustrations of the UK edition Harry Potter novels by a then relatively unknown author called J K Rowling. This particular novel of his has a wonderful book trailer and the good folks at Walker Books have been kind enough to create a standalone website recreating the map and landscape of Eerie on Sea . Unsurprisingly, the film rights to this book have already been sold to Sony whilst the author is still working on his second novel in the series.

I cannot praise this book enough for its crisp storytelling, wonderful use of visual imagery without it becoming too overpowering and the fabulous descriptions that are sufficiently sketched to tickle the imagination without being too stifling for the reader. It conjures up a magical space that is seemingly in present day but could for all practical purposes of storytelling be set in any time dimension. It is vague enough in its location details to be not too hyper-local.

Read Malamander and you shall not be disappointed. ( with @Walker Books)

29 October 2019