Malamander by author and illustrator, Thomas Taylor is a fantastical book about two (approx.) 12yo — Violet Parma and Herbert Lemon. The unlikeliest team who set off to find the truth about the mysterious disappearance of Violet’s parents from the Grand Nautilus Hotel. An event that occurred 12 years ago when Violet was found abandoned in a cot in the hotel room. Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the hotel. He is in charge of collecting abandoned articles and returning them to their rightful owner except that at times decades, even a century, passes by and no one comes forth to claim the lost articles. Then Violet (literally) tumbles into Herbie’s life through an open window in his cramped space. She believes that Herbie is the only person in the world who can help her —- “Because I’m lost…And I’d like to be found.” Brilliant opening line for a fabulous plot for middle grade fiction. And off the two of them go on an adventure plotted marvelously well in Eerie on Sea that seems forever to be encased in thick sea mist or snowfall. It involves wheelchair bound owner of the hotel, Lady Kraken and her cameraluna which operates well on a full moon night to give her a bird’s-eye view of the town in 3D; the charmingly eccentric beachcomber Mrs Fossil, the local celebrity, an author, Sebastian Eels who freaks everyone with his creepy presence, a mysterious character who has a boat hook for a hand and a few more equally fascinating characters. Local life is enriched by local legends that some may believe and some may not. One particular story is about the mythical amphibious creature, Malamander, who lives in the sea but when it emerges on land can walk upright like man. It’s egg is known to possess magical powers of being able to grant any wish.
“Malamander” is the first of a trilogy by Thomas Taylor, who is perhaps better known for his book cover illustrations of the UK edition Harry Potter novels by a then relatively unknown author called J K Rowling. This particular novel of his has a wonderful book trailer and the good folks at Walker Books have been kind enough to create a standalone website recreating the map and landscape of Eerie on Sea . Unsurprisingly, the film rights to this book have already been sold to Sony whilst the author is still working on his second novel in the series.
I cannot praise this book enough for its crisp storytelling, wonderful use of visual imagery without it becoming too overpowering and the fabulous descriptions that are sufficiently sketched to tickle the imagination without being too stifling for the reader. It conjures up a magical space that is seemingly in present day but could for all practical purposes of storytelling be set in any time dimension. It is vague enough in its location details to be not too hyper-local.
Read Malamander and you shall not be disappointed. ( with @Walker Books)
A few weeks ago my maternal grandmother, my Nani, passed away. She was the last of my four grandparents and the great-grandmother with whom I grew up. My grandparents and great grandmother were a part of my life. They were also for me examples of living history, my very real connection with the past, to a period of history that stretched as far back to the nineteenth century. Now all of a sudden with Nani’s passing it is gone. All our lives Nani had been an anchor for my brother and me. She was always there for us when we were children and later for our children, her great-grandchildren. If I am feeling bereft you can imagine how the great-granddaughters are feeling.
They have been trying to come to terms with their grief, not quite aware that they are also mourning their Badi Nani. Whether it is their physical reaction or the conversations with the children, both experiences have been spectacular. In terms of the physical absence of their great-grandmother the children are trying to relate it to the recent past. Upon being told that Badi Nani had gone to another place, the youngest child wanted to know why she went when she — this grandchild–had quite regularly given Badi Nani juice. It is incomprehensible for little children that one moment a person exists and next moment vanishes. My eight-year-old daughter Sarah cannot understand why Badi Nani’s bedroom is being cleaned pretty thoroughly. She does not realise tthat it is not only a practical way of disinfecting the room but it is also a ritual that helps the grieving adults to come to terms with the devastating loss. All that my child is concerned about is “but Badi Nani’s special smell will go away from the clothes in her cupboard!” (How do children figure these things out beats me?!)
When we got home after cremating my Nani, my eight-year-old daughter Sarah was curious about what happened to Badi Nani. She is still too young to process the passing away of an individual or even internalise the philosophical concept of mortality and death. Oddly enough the child was restless for most of the night. Early in the morning, around 1am, I had to take her to the swings in the playground. While swinging she suddenly remarked pointing to the night sky shining with stars, “There is Badi Nani. She is the brightest star shining golden in the sky.” Then she was ready for bed and slept deeply till late morning. It was as if she had completed a circle with her great-grandmother.
The following day was the burial of the ashes. Sarah decided to make a card to bury along with the ashes. The card was in shades of bright yellow as Sarah knew that yellow was Badi Nani’s favourite colour. Then of her own accord she added her postal address on it “in case Badi Nani wanted to visit her” and signed it “your loving great-granddaughter”. The reality of the ashes and visiting great-granddaughter later in life was one big mush in my daughter’s head but this slice of magic realism gave the child peace. Astonishing how children negotiate reality!
While pondering over these sad days I thought of the books that have stayed with me regarding grief upon losing a dear one or even how to broach the subject of death. Of course this year’s absolutely marvellous publication is Dr Kathryn Mannix’s We Lost the Art of Talking of Death. In it she shares case studies from her many decades of experience in palliative care. It is a stunning book that everyone should read even if it gets a little difficult to do so at times, but it is very sensitively told. From this attitude towards death as well as nuggets of information can be gleaned to share with the younger children in the family immediately after a bereavement. In children’s literature, some equally memorable fiction are Patrick Ness’s dark but very moving Monster Calls about a boy who is trying come to terms with his dying mother and is kept company by a monster who tells him stories. Sahitya Akademi award winner Paro Anand’s short story “grief (is a beast)” in her latest anthology of short stories for young adults called The Other: Stories of Difference is about the young narrator coming to terms with grief at losing a parent and realising “Grief is a beast which feeds off silence. The more you keep inside, the more you feed the beast.” Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat’s young adult novel Untwine is about Giselle who has to learn to untwine herself from sharing her life with her identical twin Isabelle after the latter’s death in an accident. British poet and storyteller Michael Rosen’s moving picture book written upon the death of his son — Sad Book. More recently Indian publisher and writer Richa Jha’s sensitively told picture book Boo! When My Sister Died is about a sibling and her family coming to terms with the loss of the sister. Australian children’s writer Ken Spillman’s is an exquisite picture book The Great Storytellerabout the grief at the passing of a wise and great storyteller, the elephant, which leaves his friends in the forest devastated. For a while they are incapable of doing anything except to mourn his passing by sharing memories and participating in what can be considered one long wake.
‘When we lost The Great Storyteller, we lost his stories. Every story gives us a new beginning. Each story took us on a fantastic journey. Our imagination made them real.’
Slowly they realise that the pain at losing a friend will always exist but with time it will dull. More importantly they can make their own stories and “imagine colourful worlds”. Laughter and cheer returns to the forest being aware that the treasured memory of a beloved companion will never fade even though there is a physical absence of the individual. It is a beautiful book in introducing the concept of death, the accompanying grief and the healing process to children.
In many cultures there are distinct rituals for death which usually help the grieving family come to terms with the loss. More often than not children are shielded from the event by being whisked away during the funeral. Later by way of an explanation for the physical absence of the individual, a simple story is trotted out for the children. The beauty is that the story usually works effectively! So I am curious to know about more the stories, whether folktales, poetry or books, that deal with explaining death to the young.
“Dark energy. It’s the energy that helps the universe keep expanding. You might call it a part of the universal life force.”
That sounded vaguely familiar.
“My Baba always tells me we’re all connected to energy — trees, wind, animals, people, everything.” I tried to get my ragged breathing under control. “He says that the life energy is a kind of river flowing through the universe.”
And that our souls are just a bit of that river water held inside the clay pitcher of our bodies?” Neel smiled at my surprise. “Year, I know that story too. They say that when our bodies give out, that’s just the pitcher breaking, pouring what’s inside back into the original stream of universal souls.”
“So no one’s soul is ever really gone,” I finished, repeating the words that Baba had said to me often.
Sayantani Dasgupta‘s The Serpent’s Curseis a delightful fantasy story about a twelve-year-old girl, Kiranmala, who sulks at the idea of being dressed up as a princess for Halloween. She refuses to believe her parents when they claim Kiranmala is a genuine princess and on her birthday ( which alas falls on Halloween) she must dress up appropriately. It is on her twelfth birthday that all sorts of odd things begin to happen. She discovers her parents have disappeared leaving a moving map in their wake for her assistance, two princes have arrived on winged horses to escort her, there are monsters in her backyard and much, much more. It is an exciting adventure she sets off on to locate her parents while trying not to get entangled in the affairs of the Serpent King and the Rakkhoshi Queen.
The Serpent’s Curse is a mish-mash of desi folklore and myths combined with the American experiences of an immigrant family told at a brisk pace. Even though the fantasy elements are familiar and many of the stories told are retellings of well-known Indian folklore, it really does not matter. The beauty of age-old stories is that they can be told once more by a master storyteller and still be magical. The same holds true for The Serpent’s Curse. The fight between good vs evil, the Serpent King / Naga, the Rakkhoshi Queen / Evil Queen, the Underworld, princes and princesses etc.
While this is being promoted as YAlit an eight-year-old reader I met was absolutely charmed by this book. The little girl told me solemnly “I picked up this book at the school book fair because the cover was so lovely. I am now enjoying the story too.” Then at my request she proceeded to write a short book review as well though in her note on the left hand side says it is an “interview”. This is what she wrote:
Interview of The Serpent’s Tail
I enjoyed the book a lot because there were spells, snakes, mysterious parentage and magical lands.
The story is about a girl who had annoying parents and one day she realized that her parents were gone and she set off with two princes one half demon other human and she realizes that her mum is actually someone else and so was her dad. Her mum is actually a moon maiden and her dad is the king of serpents!
I picked the book because it had a cool cover and serpents are cool.
I rate this book: 0/4 serpents and 4/4 moons
The action in The Serpent’s Curse moves swiftly. The dialogue is never dull despite incorporating a lot of “Indianisms”. Having grown up on a feast of stories and desirous of sharing this rich storytelling tradition prompted Dr Sayantani Dasgupta to create her own books that retell Indian myths and folklore for the youngsters of the Indian diaspora. Having said that the book works equally well for everyone! The author is a pediatrician by training but now teaches narrative medicine/health humanities at Columbia University. It probably explains the chatty and accessible style of her storytelling. There is a lovely rhythm to the pace without a word out of place. She acknowledges her colleagues for inculcating in her that “stories are the best medicine”.
The Serpent’s Tale is well worth checking out!
Sayantani Dasgupta The Serpent’s Tale Scholastic, New York, USA, 2018. Hb. Pp. 350 Rs 495
According to the biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener(Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías,Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.
Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.
Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”
Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.
But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.
Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.
We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.
What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).
Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp.
Zoe Gilbert’s debut collection of short stories Folkas the title suggests been inspired by folklore and oral tradition of storytelling. The stories are set in the fictional land of Neverness, a community of fishermen. The stories are not interlinked but stories revolve around the villagers and their rituals such as the gorse bush kissing game between the adolescents followed by the burning of the vegetation by the elders. Passing of time is measured by the ageing folk whose stories are told. It is a world where there is little difference between reality as most know it and that which exists within folklore. For instance the presence of Verlyn Webbe with his one human arm and one winged arm is unusual but not sufficiently enough to merit comment. When his son Marram is born with down on one hand his mother is agitated and keeps trimming it, otherwise no one else is particularly perturbed. This is life.
Folk is part of Zoe Gilbert’s Ph. D dissertation on the short story at the University of Chichester. Her guide is Alison MacLeod, a remarkable short story writer herself. Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 for her story ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ which is won when the public votes for the best story from a shortlist. It is about a deeply sad fishwife Ervet, newly married, who yearns for her former life. It is probably also about post-partum depression but what comes through is the intense repulsion Ervet feels for fisherfolk despite being one of them herself. Even her unborn child is constantly referred to as fish. It is a melancholic yet hypnotic story. Zoe Gilbert’s admiration for Angela Carter style of writing and her “adult interest in folktales and more-Grimm-less-Disney fairy tales” are brought together with elegance in Folk.
The fine magical beauty of folklore blossoms in Folk. Zoe Gilbert is a writer to watch out for in coming years.
Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”
It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.
The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.
When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.
Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”
In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.
But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.
The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.
In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”
The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.
After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.
Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”
Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”
Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.
Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.
Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”
Lawrence Liang adds:
So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .
I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .
But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.
We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins.
(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth and baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.
For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.
In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.
SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!
Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India)
The Revenant ( 2001) written by Michael Punke is tipped to win a few Oscars tonight ( 2016). It has been nominated for 12 Academy Award nominations across all categories including the Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio — probably his first in twenty years of being in the movie business. ( http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/feb/26/leonardo-dicaprio-the-revenant-oscars-academy-award ). I have not seen the film but the book is brutally magnificent and mesmerising with its focus on one man’s quest for revenge. It is powerful. Set in the American wilderness in the early 1800s, frontiersman Hugh Glass is badly mauled by a grizzly and abandoned by his fellow trappers ( intensely described in the stomach churning opening pages of the novel). Barely surviving his wounds, Glass is driven by thoughts of his family and a desire for revenge as he endures the frigid winter and pursues the men who left him for dead.
The author, Michael Punke, is a serving international trade expert and diplomat. He serves as the US Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. The Quartz profiled him: http://qz.com/626726/the-author-behind-the-revenant-is-an-international-trade-expert-and-diplomat/. This is what they say, “Despite the press frenzy ahead of Sunday’s Academy awards, Michael Punke can’t give interviews about his book or make promotional appearances due to his government position. He skipped the film’s December premiere to negotiate a $1.3 trillion trade deal in Nairobi. He can’t even sign copies of his 2002 novel.”
According to Wikipedia, the word revenant is derived from the Latin word reveniens, “returning” (see also the related French verb revenir, meaning “to come back”). A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that is believed to have returned from the grave to terrorize the living. Revenants share some similarities with zombies in modern fiction. This is a result of contemporary depictions of zombies having evolved from vampire fiction. The original folklore about zombies had less in common with revenant legends. Similarities are also obvious with the aptrgangr (literally ‘again-walker’, meaning one who walks after death) of Norse mythology, although the aptrgangr, or draugr, is usually far more powerful, possessing magical abilities and most notably is not confined to a deathlike sleep during the day – although it does usually stay in its burial mound during the daylight hours – and will resist intruders, which renders the destruction of its body a dangerous affair to be undertaken by individual heroes. Consequently, stories involving the aptrgangr often involve direct confrontations with the creature, in which it often reveals to be immune to conventional weapons. Such elements are absent from the revenant lore, where the body is engaged in its inert state in daylight, and rendered harmless. Also references of revenant-like beings come from the Caribbean and are often referred to as ‘The soucouyant’ or ‘soucriant’ in Dominica, Trinidadian and Guadeloupean folklore (also known as Ole-Higue or Loogaroo elsewhere in the Caribbean).
The last time a film based on a book written by a serving diplomat won many Oscars was Slumdog Millionaire (2008), based on Vikas Swarup’s Q&A ( 2005). He is now the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2016).
Michael Punke, The Revenant HarperCollins India, 2016. Pb.