Debut novel Posts

Shubhangi Swarup “Latitudes of Longing”

Former journalist Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel Latitudes of Longing is a plot spread across a few decades, loosely held together by some characters particularly the scientist Girijia Narain Mathur. The novel is a tramp through different climatic belts and geological formations while firmly remaining within the latitudes that define the subcontinent. It is also a walk through time and political upheavals in India and Burma. While the reader is a mute spectator to the events, it is fairly obvious that a man’s lifespan is just a blip if the forces of Nature are to be considered. The book is divided into four sections with each section focused on a different part of the subcontinent; beginning with the Andaman Islands, then Burma, Nepal and finally, Ladakh. There are a handful of characters but it is Giriraj Narain Mathur who remains a steady presence throughout, even after death. This is a novel which is a mix of fact, fiction and generous dash of magic realism so there are plenty of ghosts, or colonial ghosts as the author loves to refer to them. ( She first researched the colonial ghosts of Andaman islands in 2011.)

On Monday, 22 October 2018, I was in conversation with Shubhangi Swarup at The Bookshop, Jorbagh, New Delhi. Shubhangi Swarup is soft spoken but when it comes to describing the Panagea or the geological formations of the subcontinent she begins to speak animatedly. It excites her knowing that man is just a tiny being in this vast cosmos, geological formations are a testament to how long earth has been around. Or for that matter the landmass called India we take for granted is still in the process of formation with the tectonic plates constantly hitting each other to push the Himalayas higher and higher. Years of being a journalist and an activist have ensured that her first novel has innumerable incidents with plenty of backstories. At the beginning of the evening when being called upon to read an extract from her book, “I am not a performer!” but soon caved in and read a short piece about the drug smuggler in Thamel, Nepal.

Latitudes of Longing has been seven years in the making. While writing the book she also filed several articles and inevitably did stories that would help her travel in the areas she wished to research further for her book. There are portions in the book that seem heavily inspired by folklore. Whether it is the shapeshifting turtle or the appearance of Yeti or even the creation myth that Giriraj churns out to explain to his daughter Devi how she was conceived:

‘Where did you find me, Papa?’ she will ask, mildly annoyed by his grip. ‘Why did you bring me home?’

In conversation with Shubhangi Swarup at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi on 22 October 2018

Girija Prasad will weave a story from the embers of twilight to pacify her. ‘It was a beach just like this, an evening just like this, when your mother and I came across an empty bottle, half-buried in the sand. We opened it to find a note inside: Please put all the ingredients of your dreams in this bottle and shake vigorously. And so we did. Using a prism, I trapped sunlight in the bottle. I closed it with a cork and shook it vigorously for hours. Then your mother opened it. She took a deep breath and exhaled into the bottle. That was your first breath.’ For the ingredients, Girija Prasad will concoct a fantastical list to arrest her wandering imagination: golden sands from the dunes of Rajasthan and white sands from Havelock Island; shreds from the swiftlet’s nest and petals of a fuschia pink rose; a piece of bark from the oldest padauk tree on the islands; ash blessed by the riverbank baba; a crocodile’s tooth, an elephant’s eyelash; and drops of the monsoon mingled with Himalayan snow. 

Shubhangi Swarup’s reliance on folklore and local storytellers who could tell her neverending stories comes through stupendously in the story. Once she met an 8yo shepherd who was legendary in his village for the stories he told, mostly to entertain himself. He is like an intellectual jukebox. According to Shubhangi “You give him the elements you want to hear in a story and he immediately sets off. At some point he has to be told ‘enough’ and he switches off leaving the tale hanging in the air for the next time.” There are moments of pure beauty in the language used that seem to come from some place else, of having withstood time and developed a life of their own and found a place in this story. Whether it is that of the shape-shifting turtle or the Yeti that comes visiting and many other instances.

In her obsessiveness with faultlines and geological formations Shubhangi manages to weave a story across various geographies. In fact many of the episodes in her novel can be directly linked to a story she wrote as a journalist. For this she had a very valid explanation as in that she required to do the research but did not always have the necessary resources to undertake the trip. Being a journalist travelling on a story helped her tremendously. It is no wonder that Latitudes of Longing was on the JCB Prize 2018 shortlist. After this impressive debut many readers will await Shubhangi’s second offering but it will probably be some time in the making as she said “She has nothing on the cards for now. It has been seven years to write this book.”

Till she does opt to write, we will wait.

To buy on Amazon India

Kindle

Hardcover 

 

26 October 2018

“Crudo: A Novel” by Olivia Lang

Kim Jong-un had called Trump a dotard, perhaps they’d all be blown to smithereens. Still, ants at least would proceed, building up their infinite cities, stealing honey from the cupboards. She held on to her bag. She waited for her flight. She loved him, she loved him. Love is the world, pain is the world. She was in it now, she was boarding, there was nowhere to hide. 

Olivia Lang’s debut novel Crudo is about Kathy, a writer, and her impending marriage — the bare storyline. While reflecting on her personal life undergoing a massive transformation. She, who is in her early forties, successful writer and teacher who is at ease in Britain and USA, soon-to-be-married, third wife of her future husband, ponders over what it would be like to share spaces with a husband. While reflecting upon the changes in her life she inevitably begins to look at the socio-political landscape.  She cogitates about Brexit.  She wonders about the consequences of electing Trump as President of USA and few months into his presidency has been a series of catastrophes. She often remarks upon the acrimonious relationship between the presidents of USA and North Korea. She escapes to social media (” stalking the internet”) often but its a noisy universe.

People weren’t sane anymore, which didn’t mean they were wrong. Some sort of cord between action and consequence had been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway the space between them was full of misleading data, nonsense and lies. It was very dizzying, you wasted a lot of time figuring it out. Had decisions really once led plainly to things happening, in a way you could report on? She remembered it but distantly. A lot had changed this year. The people who opposed it were often annoying but that didn’t make them wrong. 

Kim Jong-un and Trump, Singapore, 12 June 2018

Olivia Lang captures exquisitely the loneliness of a person in a rapidly evolving world which engulfs an individual 24×7 in a cacophony of images, words and experiences particularly if they are hooked to social media. Olivia Lang’s character Kathy seems to be an amalgamation of all the lonely individuals Lang describes in her non-fiction bestseller The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. It is as if Lang wishes to explore further how an individual who seems to be successful in all senses of the word — professionally, socially and economically — how do they actually exist? The Lonely City is a collection of essays reflecting upon the decadence of humans on technology particularly noticeable in cities. And yet, ironically, while there is this veneer of being super connected, socially active and part of a thriving community there are many who are terribly lonely in the city.  In some cases this solitude is by choice. Olivia Lang is curious and understanding about this individuals while being inquisitive too and this inquisitiveness she hopes will be fulfilled to some degree by her character Kathy in Crudo who is an epitome of all the lonely souls of The Lonely City. The political commentary that is as fascinating to her as the changes in her personal space makes her a sharp and perceptive observer, a trait many quietly reserved souls exhibit. Towards the conclusion it is hard to discern the difference between Kathy the character and Olivia Lang the writer, they seem to become one:

Writing, she can be anyone. On the page that I dissolves, becomes amorphous, proliferates wildly. 

Concealed behind the thin guise of fiction, it is perhaps “easier” to express fear about the increasing political instability in global politics, its ramifications on the individual, and yet “she was in it now, …, there was nowhere to hide.” Take for instance the conversation about Kim Jong-Un and Trump, Kathy/Olivia are fearful of what the stubborness of the two leaders may result in and yet who was to know that weeks before the publication of Crudo* ( 28 June 2018) the two leaders would actually meet in a historic summit held in Singapore on 12 June 2018.

Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction lives off reality. Politics and literature have always been and always will be inextricably linked. Crudo is a stunning testament to the fact.

Olivia Lang Crudo Picador, Macmillan, London, 2018. Hb. pp.  156 

12 June 2018 

*I read an advance review copy ( ARC). While this blog post was composed and written on 12 June 2018 as mentioned it was not made public till after the release date of the book of 28 June 2018.

** All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright. If you do please let me know and I will update the blog with the correct information.

 

 

Luke Kennard “The Transition”

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Maybe there is something wrong. Something wrong with you which The Transition can’t fix. Your parents could take some responsibility there. They could have given you more of a sense of enterprise and self-reliance instead of coddling you into believing that the world owes you a living. They could have set you up with the basics in life, but then I suppose they were the sort of people to have five kids without thinking about it.’

Award winning British poet and critic Luke Kennard’s debut novel The Transition is about a young man, Karl, who after running up a tremendous credit card debt along with online fraud and tax infraction faces either imprisonment in a low security prison for fifteen months or has to join a programme called The Transition run by the government.

The Transition was founded, the notary public had explained to him, because there had been a steep increase in cases such as Karl’s. A generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it. 

Karl was considered to be an ideal candidate for admission to the programme since he had been “conditioned into total indifference”. He is required to move into his new home with his wife, Genevieve, as soon as possible.

The Transition is set in a dystopic world in the near future but it is unsettling for the scenario it etches is plausible. The seemingly middle class bonhomie presented in the pamphlets advertising the scheme is carried through with happy, smiley individuals and yet the mentors selected for every new couple moving in can resort to some particularly horrendous ways of disciplining their wards. The correction systems may have graduated from the poor workhouses of the nineteenth century to be transformed into genteel homes situated in middle class suburbs yet little else has changed in terms of measure of punishment meted out.

Karl tries to rebel against the system especially when it dawns upon him that he is probably part of an “exploitative social-engineering experiment”. He also wants to protect his wife who is mentally fragile and needs to be cared for, he is also good at recognising the signs of her spiralling downwards, except that his mentors who are so focused on the correction aspect fail to see Genevieve’s deterioration.

The Transition is a rare debut novel where the simple plot haunts one for days after having read it. As the Financial Times said it is “too real for comfort” yet entertaining.

Luke Kennard The Transition 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 328. 

28 Sept 2017 

 

Wyl Menmuir, “The Many”

Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to
save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.

The Many is Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel which has been longlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2016. It is a slim novel based in a fishing village in north Cornwall. It revolves around two men — Ethan and Timothy. Ethan is a local and Timothy Buchannan is from the city. They form an unlikely pair and yet seem to spend a lot of their time together — idling, talking and fishing. They are seemingly bound by the fisherman Perran who had disappeared mysteriously some years earlier — Timothy questioning Perran’s disappearance and Ethan reticent about sharing any information about a man he was close to. In fact it is Perran’s abandoned cottage and its spoilt contents which is bought by Timothy when he visits the village much to the local villagers surprise, distaste and discomfort. There is a sense of despair hovering in the air, with the stench of death literally personified by the wasted fish caught in the polluted waters. There is desperation amongst the villagers in trying to eke out an existence by farming the sea for fresh produce which is rarely forthcoming. Whatever little money is to be made is dependant very heavily on the price set by Clem on behalf of the fishermen. The catch is inevitably sold to a mysterious group of people who stand a little away from the beach fixing a price with Clem. It is never very clear what they intend on doing with the poor catch, probably recycle it for the pharmaceutical industry but it is a paltry income welcomed by the locals since that is all they have access to.ev_wyl_menmuir

While reading The Many there are many thoughts unleashed particularly about the slowly decaying lifestyle of a fishing village, the increasing dominance of city ways and yet the inexplicable power ( and cruelty) of Nature and its complicated relationship with Man. It manifests itself in this novel in many ways particularly in the mysterious fevers that plague Timothy and his hallucinations blurring the line between reality and fiction. Yet when reading the novel it all seems so plausible that it is impossible to query it.

This is a novel that has to be read at one go but one of those rare stories that once you have reached the end you start reading it all over again. There are moments one has to pause and wonder if it is reminiscent of similar writing in the past and then realise it would be unfair to compare The Many to any other writing. Wyl Menmuir’s style is wholly original, it grips one with its exquisitely chiselled style to create a stunningly beautiful and memorable novel much like the Cornish coast is. As with most longlists that put the spotlight on new voices and new styles of writing, the Man Booker judges have been correct in highlighting the debut novel of Wyl Menmuir. Whether he makes it to the shortlist or not is immaterial for now. This is a writer worth looking out for in the future. He is a confident storyteller who is aware of what it takes to be a master craftsman.

The Many is a debut novel with an earthiness to it and yet something so slippery and mysterious, with an almost magical quality to it.

Read it.

Wyl Menmuir The Many Salt Publishing, Norfolk, 2016. Pb. pp. 148 

9 August 2016 

*Book sent by the publisher, Chris Hamilton- Emery

* Images off the Internet

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015 

 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015

 

Marcos Giralt Torrente, “Paris”

parisNo word  can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes as the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged. 

Paris p.337)

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, won the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize in 1999 and the Spanish National Book Award in 2011. Fourteen years later it was translated from Spanish into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Hispabooks. It is about a young man who tries to recall his past and put together a narrative, for this he relies solely upon his own memory. At the same time observing acutely that “memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened?” ( p.69) He is trying to understand what happened when he was a young boy of nine and his father was whisked away by the police, release and subsequent disappearance from their life; his relationship with his mother and her’s with her sister, Aunt Delfina and the innumerable conversations he heard or was privy to. But he is most curious to know why his mother left him with Delfina and went off to Paris for eight months. He never discovered the reason or what she did there and now when he is trying to recall it is too late, his mother has dementia.

The novel meanders and explores but never gets dull. In fact the reader gets the feeling as if they are shadowing the narrator and being able to listen to all his thoughts and conversations clearly. It is an odd feeling of being in a space that is a peculiar blend of being immersed in a cinematic experience of watching the narrator talk, observe, reflect, reminisce and yet at the same time to read and absorb at leisure the events that unfold. There is nothing in the measured pace of storytelling that prepares you for the unconventional conclusion.

Paris was on the inaugural list of a new independent publishing house established in Madrid –Hispabooks. Founded in 2011 by editors, Gregorio Doval and Ana Perez Galvan, Hispabooks is a publishing house focusing on contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation, both in eBook and trade paperback format, targeting readers around the world who want to explore the best of today’s Spanish literature. ( www.hispabooks.com and an interview with the founders: http://bit.ly/1EnBdqc)

This is a fine book to have been published and worth reading. Hence I was a little disappointed when it did not make it to the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award 2015 ( http://bit.ly/1EnBRnO) announced on 5 May 2015.

8 May 2015

Play with Me

Play with Me

Ananth 1Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation. Play with Me

In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets ) 

Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.

AranyaniPlay with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over  a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced  in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.Blue

The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)

Back cover of Play with meErotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.

Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250

7 August 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

The_Black_Coat_a_novel_by_Neamat_ImamThe language of rebellion is simple whereas the language of governance is very intricate. ( p.148)

Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat is about newly independent Bangladesh in 1970s. It is set during Sheikh Mujib’s rule. It is a chilling tale about power, money, greed and survival. It is set against the backdrop of a new nation struggling to survive, a terrible famine that cripples the nation, the never ending stream of refugees to contend with and the lawlessness that exists even in the cities. Thieves break into homes to carry away a grain of rice, poor and old women steal clothes hung out to dry, and anything that can be sold is sold, anything to earn a few coins. The novel is about journalist Khaleeque Biswas who has lost his job capitalising on the talent of an uneducated young man, Nur Hussain, for mimicking the famous speech of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib delivered on 7 March 1971. Soon they are speaking at roadside corners, public spots and earning as well before the ruling party hires them to deliver the speech for political rallies organised during campaigning. It is a technique to evoke the patriotic sympathies of the citizens. The reference to the black coat in the title is the coat made famous by Sheikh Mujib.

It is a dark and horrifying tale. If the events mentioned were confined to history books then it may be easier to read. But it is not to be. There is poverty, lawlessness, social structures crumbling and the greed and manipulation of politicians. A cycle that is often repeated.

Neamat Imam is a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer. This is his debut novel. His book has been received with critical acclaim such as in this review http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Father-And-Sons-Or-The-Lie-Of-The-Land/285600 ( Indi Hazra, “Father And Sons, Or The Lie Of The Land”, Outlook Magazine, 3 June 2013). Yet the homepage of his website ( http://neamatimam.com/ ) has a distressing tale to recount. Read his post about seeking reviewers for his book ( “Wanted: Reviewers”).

Publishing is often referred to as an eco-system, a term borrowed from biology, an organic and evolving system, dependent upon the organisms that exist within it and their symbiotic relationship with each other. Similarly with politics and literature.  Literature and politics have always been inextricably linked. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. Literature is created out of the times/environment it is written in. Black Coat is a book that must be read as an example of fine literature describing a politically turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history. It is taut, has a perspective to offer (whether you agree with it or not) and the words are used with care. Neamat Imam’s post on his homepage is testimony to how closely literature and politics are interlinked.

Read Black Coat

Neamat Imam The Black Coat Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 250. Rs. 499.

23 June 2014 

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