English Posts

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Amit Chaudhuri

Telling-TalesIn 2014 Amit Chaudhuri published two books – Telling Tales ( a collection of essays) and Odysseus Abroad ( a novel). Some of the other notable literary engagements were delivering the Infosys lecture “The Origins of Dislike” (http://www.infosys-science-foundation.com/amit-chaudhuri-lecture.asp) , Guest Director of The Times Cheltenham  Festivals Literature 14, co-organising the second edition of The University of East Anglia India Creative Writing course in Calcutta ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/UEA-launches-International-Creative-Writing-Course-in-India/473787526006225?fref=ts ), a symposium on literary activism ( Anjum Hasan, “On Recovering the Literary through Literary Activism”, December 26, 2014 http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/recovering-literary-activism ), contributor to  Granta:130 focussing on India ( The first volume on India was Granta:57. Amit Chaudhuri is the only Indian author present in both issues, seventeen years apart). All these literary engagements are apart from his regular teaching assignments and musical performances.

Reading Telling Tales is a like the Casebook series of critical essays, popular in English Literature studies. The difference being the Casebook series consisted of a collection of essays by various critics, analysing a text or an author. Whereas in Telling Tales it is a melange of writing by Amit Chaudhuri. These were previously published as columns, introductory essays, commentaries, chapters from books etc. Pieces of writing that could not be accommodated elsewhere but are an integral part of Amit Chaudhuri’s development as a writer and critic. These essays are not necessarily meant to be read from cover-to-cover otherwise the monotonous of style will overwhelm the reader. It is preferable to dip into the essays and discover literature. Three related links: An interview Amit Chaudhuri gave to AuthorTV ( http://www.authortv.in/author/amit-chaudhuri ); a review in the New Statesman by Deborah Levy  where she says, “Chaudhuri’s intellectual project is not so much to cross academic boundaries as to remove the sign that says: “No playing on the grass”. Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless. For this reason I relished every tale and essay here, not least because Chaudhuri subtly politicises the ways in which both writing and writers are culturally placed, described and sanitised.” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/telling-tales-amit-chaudhuri-principle-mode-our-epoch-isnt-business-business) Finally a review by Dilip D’Souza where he says “Amit Chaudhuri has grown from a writer with humour to one in love with excess words.” [“Baffling verbosity” Tehelka, I March 2014, Issue 9, Volume 11 (http://www.tehelka.com/baffling-verbosity/?singlepage=1)]

Odysseus AbroadOdysseus Abroad is in a class of its own. It is better appreciated if familiar with some of Amit Chaudhuri’s writing. The novel is experimental—his experiments in literature, fascination with language ( English and Bengali), playing with words and meaning, hidden jokes in structure and of course the “journey” of the protagonist. The novelist Amit Chaudhuri has access to a number of literary gatherings, student conferences and is the bridge between two cultures — English Literature and Indian Literature. By being at home in two distinct cultural and geographical locations — India and Great Britain, there is a sense in Odysseus Abroad that Amit Chaudhuri is attempting to make a “bridge” between the high culture of classical literature and the low culture of the mundane and dull lives of ordinary folks. In an interview he gave to he Hindu in Nov 2014 he said, “plot is an overrated device”. ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/i-am-drawn-to-the-quirky-by-vaishna-roy/article6555245.ece )

2014 has been a prolific year for Amit Chaudhuri. What will 2015 bring?

3 January 2015 

 

Kitaabnama: Books and beyond, Ep#60

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseConceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, Kitaabnama has a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama shall feature books, readings and encounters with writers from the spheres of Hindi, English and various Indian languages, as well as guest appearances from International names and voices. The programme is telecast by the Indian government television channel, Doordarshan.

In June 2014 Ravi Singh, Publishing, Speaking Tiger and I were interviewed by Jasleen Vohra on the world of publishing and literature. The programme was aired on 15 November 2014 and uploaded on YouTube on 5 December 2014. Here is the link:

The second half of this episode has an interview with Reza Aslan.

7 December 2014

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 1 November 2014 and in print on 2 November 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-happy-readers/article6555142.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

A recent article, “The Percy Jackson problem”, argued that Rick Riordan’s rewriting of Greek myths for a contemporary audience is unacceptable since it lures young readers away from the “classics”. The journalist also did not subscribe to the view that kids should be allowed to read whatever they are reading as long as they are reading! Apparently the huge crowds of youngsters (outnumbering the adults) filling synagogues, theatres, and basketball stadiums to attend the interactions with Riordan, a former middle-school English and history teacher — who is currently on a tour to promote the last book in the Olympians series, The Blood of Olympus — was insufficient evidence that children were happy reading. A publishing colleague sent me a furious response to the article saying that it was mean spirited and unfair given that Riordan has touched thousands of kids’ lives in a positive way and reached many reluctant readers.

New generations of readers are crucial for the survival of publishing. While delivering his acceptance speech at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2014, Salman Rushdie said, “I always believed that the book is completed by the reader that out of the intimacy of strangers created by the act of reading emerges the book as it exists for that reader; and that out of that private act of union comes love, the love of literature, of reading, of that particular book …”

The powerful impact an author can have on a reader, even in a large group, was demonstrated at a literary evening that I curated at the Embassy of Ireland. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, three Indian authors were invited to a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by the ambassador H.E. Feilim McLaughlin. The authors spoke powerfully of their engagement with conflict and how it has influenced their writing. The audience sat in pin-drop silence. Some wept. Most had lumps in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences touched a raw nerve in many, especially those with direct links with Partition, the 1984 riots and communal conflicts.

Of late there has been a growing debate on how the Internet is cutting into the time of readers. It is estimated that, by 2018, 3.9 billion people will be online; many on smartphones. It is not surprising to discover that Adobe has been collecting data about its customers’ reading pattern. Last week, Nielsen announced that it was expanding its ratings to include all kinds of digital content. The writer-reader relationship is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. People are operating these devices not just to communicate with each other but also to read articles and books online. Consequently word-of-mouth recommendations will only grow. The relatively new ReadMyStori.com “is a platform that helps authors get readers to read, appreciate and popularise their work”. Authors say that at least 40 per cent of downloads are converted into book sales.

As Tim Parks points out in an NYRB article (June 10, 2014), “The conditions in which we read today are not those of 50 or even 30 years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”

An excellent example of such a response to the changing reading environment is Samanvay: IHC Indian Languages’ Festival (November 6-11, 2014), comprising 90 speakers and performers in 20 languages and dialects. The theme is “Translations Transnations” with focus on Indian languages that have a transnational presence like Bangla, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, English, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam, Punjabi and Sanskrit.

The effect of storytelling sessions and stress on reading books other than textbooks is also evident in the crowds of happy children that attend Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature (IGNCA, New Delhi, November 29-30, 2014). The youngsters can be seen mobbing authors and illustrators, seeking autographs, asking a zillion questions, offering authors manuscripts to read, listening in rapt attention to the writers, participating in workshops and buying piles of book at the temporary bookstore.

This year, 83 speakers such as Jamila Gavin, Natasha Sharma, The Storywallahs, Vivek Menon, Rui Sousa and Prayag Shukla will participate.

These children are accessing e-books and books in print, but it does not matter as long as they are reading!

2 November 2014

 

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

Shibram Chakraborty

Shibram Chakraborty

Shibram ChakrabortyThe Merry Adventures of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan is a delightful collection of stories about two brothers — Harshabardhan and Gobardhan. They are well-meaning but bumbling chaps. The stories are gently told but the brothers can get into some silly scrapes. With every story you want to read more and more. For once the book blurb encapsulates the stories well — “Mildly dishonest timber merchants, foolhardy adventure buffs, reckless explorers, blundering do-gooders, occasional philosophers and gullible blokes, the endearing duo creates the most hilarious misunderstandings, commits the silliest mistakes and falls into the weirdest traps.” I read the book in one go. Loved it!

According to the delightful author blurb in the book, Shibram Chakraborty ( 1902-1980) wrote extensively for both children and adults, using his trademark humour and wordplay to tell stories about the peculiarities of human beings. Chakraborty was a free spirit who ran away from home as a boy, took part in the freedom movement and went to jail as a teenager — he never finished school — and lived alone in a boarding house in Calcutta most of his adult life. His stories are about eccentric people in absurd situations, and brim over with fun and puns.

Arunava Sinha is an experienced translator. By now I have lost count of the number of books he has translated from Bengali into English. Many of his translations have been sold abroad as foreign editions in English and other languages. Here is the link to an interview  I did with him in 2011:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/08/22/arunava-sinha-on-translating-buddhadeva-boses-classic-tithodore-and-the-future-of-translations/ His translation of this particular book is as competent as the others I have read by him. This translation made me giggle and chuckle. Then I was left wondering. Did he have to intervene in the text to transmit and convey some of the original puns from Bengali into English? Is translating humour difficult? How do you translate wit? Did he have to worry about losing some of the original material or did he manage to retain much of it? And this is what he said ( quoted with permission):

Sometimes I think this book is really for adults, not kids. At least, the wordplay is not for children. The policy I followed was to always have a pun in the translation whenever there was a pun in the original. And yes, it was not possible to retain both the meaning and the pun in most cases, so it was pun first. In that sense there was a replacement of material, but none of it changed the story. The puns don’t really take the story forward, they are effects. I did some readings to kids in schools, and they seemed to enjoy the stories. 

I would happily recommend this book for confident readers of 11+ and above. But I suspect this book will go down very well with adults too. The stories would travel well to foreign shores too since they are not too complicated in cultural details. The illustrations by Shreya Sen Handley complement the stories well.

Shibram Chakraborty The Merry Adventures of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan. Translated by Arunava Sinha. Hachette India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 150 Rs. 250

28 June 2014

 

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

***

Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Harry Quebert Affair“…you asked why I wrote. I answered that I wrote because I liked it, and you said…”

“Yes, what did I say?”

“That life had very little meaning. And that writing gave life meaning.”

“That’s it exactly. And that’s the mistake you made a few months ago, when Barnaski was demanding a new manuscript. You started writing because you had to write a book, not because you wanted to give your life meaning. Doing something for the sake of doing it never works. So it isn’t surprising that you were incapable of writing a single line. The gift of being able to write is a gift not because you write well, but because you’re able to give your life meaning. Every day people are born and others die. Every day, hordes of anonymous workers come and go in tall gray building. And then there are writers. Writers life life more intensely than other people, I think. Don’t write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it’s the only legitimate way to make this tiny, insignificant thing we call life into a legitimate and rewarding experience.”

( p.250-251)

Joel Dicker’s debut novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, is about a young, successful author, Marcus, who is trying to prove the innocence of his mentor and teacher, Harry Quebert, in a murder case. Harry Quebert is also  a novelist, known famously for The Origin of Evil, which he wrote when he took up residence in Somerset, New Hampshire in the 1970s. Thirty-three years later the remains of a corpse are discovered in his backyard, along with a copy of the manuscript that propelled him to fame –unfortunately linking him to the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Marcus who is trying to write his second novel and is unable to do so, gets interested in this story. Slowly and steadily he begins to uncover stories, facts that leave even the current police investigators bewildered, as to why some of these obvious leads were not pursued when the murder first happened.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is about the murder. It is about the relationship between two writers, a mentor and his pupil. It is about publishing books, doing the number crunching and finding the next big seller that will mesh well with the reading environment by being contemporary, sensational, and inseparable from what is happening in real life. So to the publisher Barnaski it is immaterial whether Marcus writes a fictional ending, loosely based upon the events as they develop or he creates an account of the trial. Barnaski is interested in a bestseller, delivered in two months, with a team of editors (if need be ghostwriters too), sales and marketing people in place and he has already begun negotiations for optioning the film rights to Hollywood. There is a “theft” or a strategic leak of Marcus’s notes to the prominent newspapers of East Coast.

An extract.

He ordered champagne, spread the contracts out on the table, and went over the main points again: “Delivery of the manuscript at the end of August. The jacket art will be ready by then. The book will be edited and typeset in two weeks, and printing will take place in September. Publication is set for the final week of September, at the latest. What perfect timing! Just before the presidential election, and more or less exactly during Quebert’s trial! It’s marketing genius!” 

“And what if the investigation is still ongoing? I asked. “How am I supposed to finish the book?”

Barnaski had his response all ready and rubber-stamped by his legal department. “If the investigation is finished, it’s a true story. If not, we leave it open, you suggest the ending, and it’s a novel. Legally they can’t touch us, and for readers it makes no difference. And in fact, it’s even better if the investigation isn’t over, because we could do a sequel. What a godsend!” 

The novel is riveting. There are details about the story that slowly emerge through the layering in the storytelling. The narrative keeps going back and forth in time, relying upon testimonies of witnesses, newspaper clippings and police records. Funnily enough, despite it having this form of back-and-forth narrative and being a translation, it reads smoothly. There are obvious shades of Nabokov in it, at times it can be quite creepy and disturbing to read the story, but impossible to put the book down. Not once do you ever stop to wonder how could a Frenchman have written an American novel such as this? To explain: It has been written in French, translated into English, set completely in Somerset, New Hampshire on the East Coast of USA. Yet there are obvious influences of French realism as seen in French literature and cinema; an eye for detail, the care with the most astonishingly vile and repulsive detail is recorded, not once, but over and over again without the narrator/writer getting emotionally involved as if hammering the reader with it, till it is indelibly imprinted upon the reader’s mind, but also unleashing an unimaginable blackness. Without giving details of the plot, let it be said many of these incidents are pertaining to Nola. 

Joel Dicker is Swiss, 28-years-old, a lawyer with four unpublished novels and now this smashing hit of a debut novel — it has already sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in French in 2012. It was a book that caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012. According to an article published in the Telegraph, “in October 2012, ‘the French novel with the long title’ was genuinely the talk of the town. Everywhere you went, people would mention this book, sometimes pulling a folded piece of paper from their pockets to remind themselves of the name.” ( 1 Feb 2014.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10611852/Harry-Quebert-The-French-thriller-that-has-taken-the-world-by-storm.html) The English translation was finally acquired by Christopher Maclehose of MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books. ( Quercus is the same publishing house that translated Steig Larsson’s trilogy into English.) The Truth about the Harry Decker Affair  has won the Académie Française novel prize and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; it was shortlisted for the main Goncourt. The English translation has been published in May 2014. 

Read it.

Joel Dicker The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair Maclehose Press, Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. p. 630. Rs. 599

Translated by Sam Taylor.

Literati: “Catch them young”

Literati: “Catch them young”

From this month  I begin a new column in the Hindu Literary Review called “Literati”. It will be about the world of books, publishing and writers from around the world. Here is the url to the first column. http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/catch-them-young/article5969576.ece It was published online on 3 May 2014 and will be in the print edition on 4 May 2014. I am c&p the text below. 

Ghost BrideA friend called this morning expressing her delight that her 11-year-old son had finished the pile of books I had lent him. Now he was back to reading Calvin and Hobbes. A father worried about his tennis- and cricket-mad 10-year-old son says the kid only wants to buy sports almanacs.

The parents’ bewilderment is incomprehensible given the explosion of children and young adult literature. The focus is so intense that it has generated a lively intense debate along gendered lines. Should books meant for girls have pink covers? Dame Jacqueline Wilson says it is ‘pigeonholing’ and it is putting boys off reading. Of late, there have been articles wondering whether boys are not reading because they are simply unable to discover books that appeal to them.

An international imprint I have become quite fond of is Hot Keys, established by Sarah Odedin, formerly J.K. Rowling’s editor. Hot Keys is synonymous with variety, fresh and sensitively told stories and is not afraid of experimenting nor can it be accused of gender biases in content and design. Sally Gardner’s award-winning Maggot Moon, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride and Tom Easton’s hilariousBoys Don’t Knit belong to this list.

Other recently released YA titles available in India are Andaleeb Wajid’s No Time for Goodbyes, which uses the time travel formula to contrast contemporary life with that of the previous generation; Ranjit Lal’s blog Tall Stories, a collection of 100 stories about 10-year-old Sudha and 12 1/2-year-old Lalit, being uploaded weekly; and Joy Bhattacharjya’s delightful Junior Premier League ( co-authored with his son, Vivek) about a bunch of 12-year-olds eager to join the Delhi team of the first ever Junior Premier League tournament.

Some imprints that publish books for children and young adults in India are Puffin, Red Turtle, Duckbill, Pratham, Walker Books, Macmillan and Hachette.

Creating cultural wealth for children ensures there is little or no loss of cultural confidence, and creates a reading community in the long term. Pratham Books in partnership with Ignus ERG with funding support from Bernard van Leer Foundation is launching a new imprint called Adhikani. These books for young children will be published in four tribal languages of Odisha-Munda, Saura, Kui and Juang.

The idea is to make literature in print available in an otherwise oral culture whose stories are not normally visible in “mainstream” publications. They have already brought out 10 books and four song cards with Saura mural art based illustrations. Bi-lingual editions are also being considered in English with Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Urdu and Tamil.

The Pratham-IGNUS ERG experiment is not uncommon. The Good Books Guide: How to Select a Good Book for Children (published by NBT and PAG-E) cites other examples and introduces 800 titles from English, in translation and available in other Indian languages.

Today there are so many choices/distractions and readers are increasingly used to personalising their environment to their tastes and interests. Increasingly it is being done in classrooms, so why not in trade literature as well?

Readers versus writers?

Eighty per cent of readers ‘discover’ a book through word of mouth and 20 per cent through social media. The Malayalam edition of Benyamin’s award-winning novel Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) has gone into the 75th edition (it was first published in 2008) and Anurag Mathur’s Inscrutable Americans has gone into the 50th edition (first published in 1991).

Internationally, India is a dream destination for publishers. The overall market in physical books was up 11 per cent by volume and 23 per cent by value in 2013 over 2012 (Nielsen, London Book Fair, 2014). Production of books is increasing, but is there a corresponding increase in readers too?

Rahul Saini — whose Paperback Dreams is a tongue-in-cheek fictional account of publishing in India — discovered to his dismay that an author friend wanted the synopsis told. Apparently he did not have the time to go through the whole book.Rahul Saini

Saini says, “Everyone wants to write but no one wants to read. I think this is a dangerous phenomenon. If we don’t want to read then is it really fair to write and expect others to read our books?” Writing takes time and effort and for it to be recognised it has to be of high calibre.

Translation award

The inaugural V. Abdulla Award for translation from Malayalam into English will be given on May 10, 2014 in Kozhikode by writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair. V. Abdulla was the first translator of Basheer.

@JBhattacharji

jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

3 May 2014 

 

Cancer and literature for children and young adults

Cancer and literature for children and young adults

Seeing a child, even a teenager, ill has to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of life. Somehow the big C or cancer gets The Yellow World by Albert Espinosawritten about more than other diseases. In 2012, The Yellow World by Albert Espinosa was published and became an NYT bestseller. It charts the experiences of the young boy developing cancer and then battling the disease through much of his “young adult” life. It has been translated from Spanish into English. The first half of the book is far more readable as it documents his getting cancer, the treatment, the jokes shared with other patients, the friends who pass away etc. But this is a memoir. Quite unlike John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, another NYT bestseller and soon to be made in a Hollywood film. This is fiction but based on meticulous research done by Green. ( An example of his knowledge is evident in this YouTube where Green discusses the costs of American healthcare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSjGouBmo0M )  Fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars is a story about teenagers affected by cancer. To put it simplistically it is told through the friendships Hazel makes with Augustus Waters and Isaac and the other kids at Cancer Kid Support Group. The matter-of-fact manner in which the young cancer patients manage themselves and help each other is an eye opener. John Green also manages to get the nervousness, concern, worry of the adults very well too. The tone adopted by the writer is not surprising given that he spent a long time with Esther Earl, to whom the book is dedicated to as well. Esther Earl developed cancer at a very young age. Along with the support of her family and friends like John Green. As John Green says in the introduction to Esther’s book/memoir/diary This Star Won’t Go Out that she was EstherEarlterminally ill with cancer but she made the treatment for it seem “very standard and casual”. For instance one day they were  typing to each other when John Green realised Esther Earl was actually in the ICU with tubes coming out of her chest to drain fluid that had accumulated in her lungs. 

And then there is Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. A powerful novel with three short stories A Monster Callsembedded in it about a young boy who is worried about his very sick mother and is unable to utter the truth to anyone. This is a novel about loss, fear and courage. It is a story told with sensitivity, compassion and powerful storytelling. Ness wrote the novel based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd ( who died of cancer), he and illustrator Jim Kay won Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal and Greenaway Medal in 2012, presented to the year’s best children’s literature in the UK.  (Unfortunately the edition I read did not have a single illustration in it.) Recently it was announced that Ness is adapting the screenplay from his novel. The film is slated for released in 2016 and will be directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.

Every one of these books has been selling exceptionally well. The two books of fiction by John Green and Patrick Ness are being converted into films as well. Every time one reads books like these the power of literature to share, describe, comment, analyse or just present a situation is confirmed. It is as if the words on the page speak to the reader quietly, taking them into confidence and exploring a world that is otherwise frightening.

27 March 2014 

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