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Books read during the lockdown, April 2020

It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.

Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)

Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.

The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.

The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.

And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.

The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!

14 May 2020

An evening to welcome the winners of the EU Prize for Literature, 24 Sept 2019

On Tuesday, 24 Sept 2019, Neeta Gupta hosted a wonderful evening to welcome the delegation of EU Prize for Literature winners led by Alexandra Buchler, Literature Across Frontiers. The three writers touring India were — Irish writer Jan Carson, Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan and Polish writer and filmmaker Marta Dzido. Neeta Gupta wears many hats as a publishing professional. Three of her responsibilities including managing the Hindi publishing firm, Yatra Books; her newly launched English publishing firm, Tethys and of course as Co-Director, Jaipur Book Mark — a B2B conclave that is held alongside Jaipur Literature Festival.

It was a small but select gathering of publishing professionals and diplomats which included EU Ambassador-designate to India, Ugo Astuto. But the evening highlight was to hear the three writers introduce and read out extracts from their books.

Irish writer, Jan Carson, offered a fascinating perspective of the Troubles as she is a Protestant. As she said, one month short of her eighteenth birthday she grew up surrounded by violence and then the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Her adult life has been spent in peace. But of late she has been questioning her identity a lot as being a Protestant she is considered a Britisher and has a British passport but her ancestors came to Ireland more than 300 years ago. Her accent is Irish. Her sense of belonging is Irish. And now with Brexit on the cards, she has applied for Irish passport. Having said that The Fire Starters offers her perspective, a Protestant’s witnessing if you like, of the troubles. It has led to some fascinating encounters at public readings where unamused members of the audience have walked away realising she would be offering a Protestant perspective as in their minds it is a view of the coloniser and yet a rarity amongst much contemporary Irish literature that tends to focus on the Catholic viewpoint.

Turkish-Dutch writer, Ciler Ilhan read extracts from her novel Exiles that won the EU Prize for Literature 2011. It is a collection of stories based upon newspaper clippings and witnessing some of the stories herself. So it sort of blurs the lines between truth and fiction but lands a mean punch in her sharp and incisive commentary about the shifts in Turkish society. She touches upon topics like gender violence, gender segregation, gender biases, honour killings, growing nationalism and with it the impact it is having on society. Powerful stories. Worth reading.

Here is the link to the TED Talk she gave earlier this year. It is an extract from her book:

Marta Dzido, is a Polish writer and filmmaker, whose works are only now being translated into English by Kate Webster. In fact, on this evening, Marta read out for the first time the English translation of some extracts from her award-winning novel Frajda. It is about two characters, both in their forties, named only as Him and Her. There was something in the manner she read as well as what she read that seemed to explore the intersections of her writerly and filmmaking strengths, by allowing her to write about the particular and yet by not really naming the characters, creating a space for universality. It was quite a remarkable experience.

“The Cut Out Girl” by Bart van Es

…her memories are not as clear as I have made them. She remembers scraps — the landings, the sirens, the crouching down in the cellar, the girls in their dresss of parachute cloth, the dead bodies of soldiers in the streets of Ede–but some of the rest I must patch together from other sources, such as history books and diaries, and the witness accounts that I will get from other people whom I have yet to meet.

Memory is selective and not always reliable. So many facts are irretrievably lost. 

Award-winning biography The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is about Hesseline de Jong, Lien for short. Lien is a Jew. One of the few Jewish children taken into safekeeping by non-Jewish families and kept hidden from the Nazis and the Dutch police force that were hunting Jews to pack them off to the concentration camps. Bart van Es is a professor of literature at Oxford University and his earlier publications were about Shakespeare and Spenser. Yet, he chose to write about his father’s foster sister, a Jew, looked after by his grandparents during the second world war.

Bart van Es could not understand why Lien had not been invited to his grandmother’s funeral. His grandmother died when Bart was twenty three years old. He was old enough to recall Lien being a part of the family but inexplicably all ties had been severed with her a few years before his grandmother’s death. Bart van Es’s family is based in the UK. They moved to Oxford when Bart was three years old. He became a professor of English Literature at Oxford University but he knew how to speak Dutch. Curious about this severance of ties he chose to begin an investigation on what happened to his father’s foster sister. It was then he realised that his mother had remained in touch with Lien and was able to help him.

The story that is told is astounding. It is probably like many other such stories. Yet the manner in which it is shared with the readers. The mix of oral history testimonies, plenty of archival research and detective work of visiting cities and towns that Lien recalled being taken to as a child and hidden away. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was swift and brutal. Astoundingly the extermination of the Jews that was carried out in a methodical manner at the behest of the Nazis was implemented by the Dutch police force and a semi-commercial agency that had been set up specifically to hunt Jews. Horrifically approximately 80% of the Jews living in the country at the time were caught and killed, many sent off to concentration camps. The “success rate” was attributed to the reward given to every person who brought in a Jew. It was approximately seven guilders for every Jew turned in to the authorities. Lien’s own parents were caught two months after they had sent their daughter away to safety. Within a month of their arrest, Lien’s mother and maternal grandmother were killed at Auschwitz while her father died a few months later. Lien, fortunately, became one of the 4,000 Jewish children who had been whisked away to safety. Whatever the immediate circumstance may have been a large band of common people were willing to risk their lives and safeguard these young lives. Some of the extraordinary lengths that the Dutch went to hide Jews are spelled out in the book, including the tunnels dug out under houses that seemingly looked like air passages built ostensibly to ventilate. This was a cover for any unexpected police raids that may occur and they did with great regularity. But if investigated closely the tunnel would lead deeper into the soil where an entire room had been carved out for a family to hide. There were many other kinds of intricate networks created between the Dutch to protect the Jews.

Lien was merely eight years old when her parents handed her over for safekeeping. At first Lien was traumatised and wept bitterly. Her ninth birthday was spent with her foster parents. But within eight months when she had to escape the police raids and was moved from home to home, city to city, it began to become a blur. She was vulnerable. In one of the foster homes she was repeatedly raped by foster father’s brother. Lien was twelve. Possibly the only reason why Bart van Es is able to put together a compellingly told elegant narrative is precisely because Lien maintained a scrap book and retained a few other mementos from the past. Also interviewing her over many days and checking up facts at various museums and archives, speaking to people in the neighbourhoods she recalled staying, the author is able to put together a very elegant but a very disturbing witnessing.

At the best of times, writing about war and its impact on people is a painful exercise. But it is aggravated many times over if it is a story such as this also affects the author and his family. It is impossible to gauge whether it is a biography of Lien or is it a memoir of Bart van Es curious about his grandparents who were saviours to a little girl and would like to know more about the past. The Cut Out Girl comes across as an act of creation of two individuals who began writing the book as complete strangers and a little careful of each other but by the closing pages are thickest of friends. So much so that as Bart is leaving Lien’s apartment to catch his flight home, she chooses to introduce him to her Buddhist circle as her “nephew”.

The Cut Out Girl may come across as an astounding biography that will be talked about for years to come at the incredible luck of a little girl surviving against so many odds. It also marks the arrival of a new style of writing biographies befitting the information age — not the classic style of a literary biography mapping every moment in the protagonist’s life but focussing on significant events in their life. Telling it more in the form of a documentary with plenty of detail but in prose. (It would be short work converting this book into a documentary. The script more or less exists in these pages.) But what truly stands out in this narrative is that during the second world war there were a bunch of individuals who worked relentlessly to save lives, risking their own in the process, but were determined to do so. With The Cut Out Girl what stands out starkly is that even in the most horrifically depressing times of xenophobic violence, intolerance and bigotry, there is hope. It is not absolute bleakness though it may feel so.

The Cut Out Girl won the Costa Book of the Year award in January 2019. Both Bart van Es and Lien were on stage to receive the award. According to the Guardian: ‘Without family you don’t have a story. Now I have a story,’ said Lien de Jong, the 85-year-old woman whose harrowing story is at the heart of Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl.  ‘Bart has reopened the channels of family,’ she said during the Costa Book of the Year award ceremony. Van Es and Lien de Jong embraced on stage in front of a packed room after he was announced as winner at the awards.

Read The Cut Out Girl.

5 Feb 2019 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

“Idris” by Anita Nair, book review ( 6 December 2014, The Hindu)

Idris( My review of Anita Nair’s Idris was published in the online edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/journeys-galore/article6667608.ece . It will be published in the print edition on 7 December 2014. This novel has been shortlisted for the Hindu Lit Awards 2014 as well. The winner will be announced in January 2015.)

He knew the folly of having friends. Friendship was a responsibility; it demanded making an effort to nurture relations and never asking why. It meant expectations and subsequent disappointments. A lone traveller needed no friends; what he needed to cultivate were acquaintances. (p.21)

Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is from Dikhil, a small place between Abyssinia and Somalia. He is a middleman who facilitates trade in anything — textiles, camels, spices, pearls, diamonds — but draws the line at the lucrative business of slaves. He arrives in Kozhikode, on the Malabar Coast, on the persuasion of a Yemeni merchant to attend the biggest cattle fair in the world—Vaniamkulam chanda. He gets separated from the Yemeni group and decides to wait the night out by a pond in a home. As it happens, it belongs to a Nair. He meets Kuttimalu, mother of his son, Vattoli Kandavar Menavan. When the boy is born, the midwife reminds the family the infant is the image of Kuttimalu’s grandfather. Otherwise Kandavar — who was as black as the night like his father — and his mother are in danger of losing their caste and being excommunicated.

Ten years later, in 1659, Idris returns to Kozhikode to witness the Mamangam festival at Thirunavaya. At the Mamangam, the Chaver Pada or Suicide Squad wants to ambush the bodyguards of Aswathi Thirunal, the new Zamorin. Unknown to the Chavers, Kandavar is following them since he wants to join them since he is eager to participate like his older cousin, Kesavan, a Chaver and trained at Kalari. Idris spots the boy hiding behind a tree and prevents him from proceeding further. He realises that Kandavar is his son andwhisks him away from the place, but not before they witness Kesavan (Kandavar’s cousin) being dismembered. Discovering he has a son Idris readily accepts Chandu Nair’s offer to be their guest and show Kandavar “how to think of other things, rather than grooming himself for certain death 12years from now”.

Idris takes his son under his wing. At Nair’s behest, Idris enrolls Kandavar in a different Chaver to the one the family traditionally went to—to prevent his head from being filled with “stuffed with nonsense like honour and pride in death”. But Idris gets restless and wants to proceed with his voyage. Persuaded by the Nair clan, he takes his son along too. They travel to Serendippo, contemplate trading in silk since the Dutch pay a good price for it, go pearl diving at Tharangambadi, but the ultimate aim is to reach Golconda diamond mines. Idris is curious about the “stones that turned men into hyenas…ready to lie and betray; worse, to kill and plunder”. It takes them over a year to travel and explore before returning home to Kozhikode.

In Keeper of the Light, the first of a trilogy, the recurring themes of Anita Nair’s fiction —gender and caste — are explored once more with competence. The rigid caste structures are challenged by the existence of the “family” of Idris, Kuttimalu and Kandavar. The objectification and identity of a woman in relation to the presence of a man in their life, even in Kerala’s matriarchal society, are challenged in the story, leave a powerful impression. The four women —Kuttimalu, Margarida (a child prostitute), Madinat al-Yasmin (a widow) and Thilothamma (a wealthy farmer) — are all seen briefly, usually as Idris’s lovers, yet they are strong and independent women. As Thilothama says “Women should be like trees. Growing towards the light, shaped by the wind…” Even Kuttimalu’s Brahmin teacher “… didn’t think education was to be decided by gender; it was the mind that he sought to fill.” A sentiment that echoes Anita Nair’s firm belief in promoting literacy irrespective of gender, as exemplified in her officiating as a guru at a Vidyarambham ceremony at Bangalore on Vijayadasami day.

Literary fiction can be challenging to read. Its complexity comes from the sophisticated, layered, and nuanced writing. In Idris, the reader’s patience is tested as one has to grapple with a bewildering storyline in the opening pages, not made any easier by the liberal sprinkling of Malayalam words. Also some issues such as the rivalry between the Zamorin and Chavers is never explained. Yet Idris is a pleasure to read.

Anita Nair Idris: Keeper of the Light Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, Hb. Rs. 599.

6 December 2014

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s debut novel. It is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. It is a tale about the young bride Nella Oortman, wife of the illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. She is given a wedding gift of a replica of their home which is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist. Nella tries on many occasions to meet the miniaturist but fails, only catches fleeting glimpses of the woman artisan — Petronella Windelbreke. Nella is mystified and at times terrified by how accurately the miniaturist depicts events in the Brandt household. She seems to be privy to secrets which even the family members are oblivious of. 

This is a novel that purports to be historical fiction but is not exactly one. It has the details and atmosphere of seventeenth century Holland, but for all purposes of storytelling it caters primarily to a modern reader. Some of the issues are about homosexuality–considered to be a criminal offence; out-of-wedlock mother; interracial alliances; women being the head of the household or not; emancipation of women etc.
Jessie Burton was inspired to write this novel after a weekend visit to the Rijk Museum where she spotted Petronella Oortiman’s miniature doll house. ( Here is more: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/works-of-art/dolls-houses and http://www.themagicaldollhouseblog.com/petronella-oortman/)  Soon thereafter she attended a creative writing course run by a literary agency. All this while she , was a struggling actress. So what she has achieved is a balance between an unusual story, creating the atmosphere, tackling something new, making it relevant to a modern audience and through it all kept her eye on strong storytelling. Even so this novel was five years in the making. Now it seems to be giving even Ms. Rowling a run for the top slot of bestseller lists of Europe. The Silkworm has slid below The Miniaturist on Booksellers charts within days of it being released.
01-11-2001; rgb 19-02-2007For many struggling writers, Jessie Burton’s dream run is like a fairy tale. She sold the novel for a six-figure deal to Picador. It has already been sold in over 30 countries and now a film option is being considered as well.

Oh well! It is a book meant to be read and enjoyed. It certainly is!

PS It has an incredibly stunning cover. Here is a wee bit more about how it was designed. — http://www.picador.com/blog/february-2014/the-miniaturist-book-cover-design

Jessie Burton The Miniaturist Picador, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 450 Rs. 599 

8 August 2014