first novel Posts

Literati: A Spiderweb of Yarns ( 14 November 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 14 November 2015 and in print on 15 November 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-spiderweb-of-yarns/article7872752.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

The old lady chuckled. “Each story that sinks into the book becomes a part of an ancient spiderweb full of stories.”

“As more stories are added in, the spiderweb gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it forms an invisible blanket that covers every city and town, every village and every forest. And when someone who is walking by touches the web accidently, stories will flow into their head and from their head to their fingers and from their fingers on to paper…”

(Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children by Malavika Nataraj. A chapter book published by Puffin Books)

Suraya's GiftSuraya has been given an exquisitely designed blank notebook by her aunt. She scribbles stories in it for a while only to abandon it. Later, unable to locate it she encounters the Story Catcher who tells Suraya the book has been passed on to another child who has better use for it. Malavika Nataraj’s is a stunning debut.

Ranjit LalThe importance of stories can never be stressed enough. Ranjit Lal’s new novel Our Nana was a Nutcase (Red Turtle) is about Nana, who is bringing up his daughter’s four children. (Their parents are busy diplomats.) It is a super brilliant, sensitively told novel about the children witnessing their Nana’s gradual decline with Alzheimer’s, their coming to terms with it and slowly realising they have to be the caregivers for their Nana. A similar story about the heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson is found in the bittersweet David Walliam’s David Walliamsbestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape (HarperCollins).

Stephen AlterStephen Alter’s slim novella The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin Books) is a little beauty too. It introduces three school children to the magic within a forest they tumble into while walking to school. It is a secret sanctuary where they can be in close proximity to the animals without the beasts being aware of their existence. They discover nuggets of information from the naturalist, Dr. Mukherjee.

MananManan (HarperCollins) by Mohit Parikh is an “odd little tale” as he calls it. Manan attains puberty and is fascinated how reaching this milestone changes his perspective on life, transforming him in more ways than one. It is a first novel about an ordinary family in a small town.

MunnuMunnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins), a graphic novel by Malik Sajad with autobiographical elements, is already causing a stir internationally. Sajad anthropomorphises the Hangul deer to tell the chilling account of being a young boy in Kashmir when it was torn apart by conflict. Munnu capitalises upon his excellent drawing skills to draw political cartoons.

Some other examples of well-told stories are: Scholastic India’s annual offering For Kids by Kids featuring short stories by young writers between the ages of 10 and 16. Paro Anand’s Like Smoke (Penguin Books), a revised edition of her young adult stories Wild Child; Parismita Singh’s stupendous graphic story retelling the Naga folktale Mara and the Clay Cows (Tulika); Karishma Attari’s debut novel I See You (Penguin Books), a chilling horror set in Mumbai, and the gorgeously produced retelling of the Baburnama called The Story of Babur by Parvati Sharma, illustrated by baburUrmimala Nag (co-published by Good Earth and Puffin Books). Scholastic’s Branches book series like Dragon MastersThe Notebook of Doom and Owl Diaries ( http://www.scholastic.com/branches/), and Simon and Schuster’s travelogue series Greetings from Somewhere ( http://www.simonandschuster.com/series/Greetings-from-Somewhere) with helpful illustrations, easy-to-read text and simple plot lines designed for newly independent readers, are strong on storytelling Wimpy Kidtoo. Then there is the astoundingly popular Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School within a week of its release has already sold 100,000 copies in India. Timed with its release has been the launch of the Puffin Car that will be used to build excitement about books and the habit of reading among children.

For Kids By Kids 2015

***

Stories have a way of working their way into becoming a part of one’s mental furniture and creating cultural landscapes that stay forever. A wonderful example to ensure stories continue to be shared is the “Libromat” in South Africa bringing together laundry and reading established by social entrepreneurs from Oxford University.  ( http://www.libromat.com/ )Inspired by a study that said dialogic book-sharing is an interactive form of shared reading (http://1.usa.gov/1MVTK7E), an early childhood development centre in Khayelitsha was outfitted with washers and dryers, and the women were trained to read with their children. libromat-inhabitots

( Note: Images used on this page are off the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them.)

15 November 2015 

Saikat Majumdar, “The Firebird”

LR

LR

(Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, was published recently by Hachette India. I enjoyed reading it. Saikat and I exchanged a few emails. With the author’s permission, I am publishing an extract from the correspondence.) 

Dear Saikat,

I realised in my mail of the morning I did not specify how much I enjoyed reading your novel. I liked it for the sparing use of words but just enough to keep the story moving on. Yet it was packed with sufficient information to create an atmosphere. I would be careful not to use the word ‘detail’, since it does not have much, only that which is required. The story is evocative. And for many of us who may not have lived in Calcutta but were familiar with the Naxal movement and rise of the Communist Party, it does bring memories of stories conveyed by eyewitnesses. I particularly liked the way you wove in a decaying theatre with the determination of a young actress to work. Obviously given the set up at home there was no crying urgency for her to step out. Women were looked after. But I liked the steely resolve of this woman to step out every evening to perform, irrespective of the comments made at home, snide remarks directed at her in public and later the interference of the party members. She was trying to do the balancing act with no help from her husband. He really comes across as a weak man. In the slim novel, you take one through a range of conflicting emotions. I was not even very sure at the end whether to feel sorry or plain angry at the madman who strangled the young girl. I did feel very sad for the young girl and empathised with the young man when he left his mother’s apartment, years later. As for the father and aunt, no chance. Painful creatures.

It is a sad, sad novel with a claustrophobic air to it. But it gets the spirit of Calcutta and Bengali families ever so well. While reading it, my senses were tickled. I could get the smell and visualise much of Calcutta, even though it was not etched in as many words by you.

And yet, it is a wonderful story. Memorable.

One day, you must tell me more about it. How did you begin to write it? What inspired it? 8 years is a long time to spend writing it. Did it involve a lot of research?

I hope it sells well.

Warmly,

JAYA

Dear Jaya,

Thank you so much for your lovely words on The Firebird! It means the world to me! I wrote it after having done a novel and a book of criticism, as it were, getting the ‘firsts’ out of the way, after which I felt ready to write the ‘first’ real book! It sounds strange, but if you have read my first novel, Silverfish, you will perhaps know what I mean. I’m happy I wrote Silverfish and yet it obviously feels like a first novel now, and no, not one of the magical first novels that some writers produce either!

It took me about five and a half years to write this novel. I started this in August 2010, after abandoning about 80 or so pages of a novel that I realized was not going to work. Also, this was the period when I wrote most of Prose of the World, my book of criticism, so my attention was somewhat divided, especially during the early part of this period.

I think the most important that happened between my first and second novels is that I learnt, or rather unlearnt, the shadow of the intellectual, the metafictional, all that clever stuff that stays with us from our engagement with much 20th century fiction. Silverfish was similar to The Firebird in setting and even time period, but for all its attempt to evoke the local, there was something ethnographic about it, which is why, I think, the emotions did not pack the punch they should have. This one came out more viscerally, with more raw, physical power, almost beyond my control. However,  I worked hard to get the ‘spareness’ that you point out so well. I’ve always been a descriptive writer, something of a sensualist, but in The Firebird I learnt to achieve effect with minimal words, a hard lesson for a writer who grew up on Joyce and Woolf. Sometimes the narrative instinct and the descriptive instinct, I think, work against each other – one moves through time and the other through space – and description can slow down narrative. One of the most satisfying things about this novel for me is narration and description seems to have found a mutual equilibrium, and one has not hindered the other. People seem to be taking from it what they like. While most say they are gripped by the narrative, there are also those who have told me that the larger arc of the narrative seems – happily – overwhelmed by the fragrance of Chinese food or the odour of rum with Coke, or the blistering dust of burgeoning suburbs, whatever, and they didn’t even care about the narrative at those points. Completely paradoxical reactions, but I’m happy that the novel has evoked both.

Warmly,

Saikat

31 August 2015

Saikat Majumdar The Firebird Hachette India, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. 

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

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Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf  Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:

‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’ 

Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.

Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.

“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”

“What are you trying to say?” 

“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”

“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?” 

( p. 292-4)

Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.

It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book  in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.

Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.

However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)

With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.

Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499

31 July 2014