France Posts

Indo-French Collaboration: Paris Livre 2020 and New Delhi World Book Fair 2022

Picture by Arpita Das, Founder-Publisher, Yoda Press

On the morning of 11 November 2019, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France, invited a few of us Indian publishing professionals to address the visiting delegation. The aim was to give the French visitors a bird’s eye-view of the Indian book market with specific aspects highlighted such as regional language publishing, literary prizes, and literature festivals.

I had been invited to address the gathering on the publishing market of India. I chose to dwell on the characteristics of the publishing market in India along with some important points to consider from the point of view of the French publishers.

In March 2020, India will be the “Guest of Honour” at the Paris Book Fair and in January 2022 France will be the “Guest of Honour” at the New Delhi World Book Fair. This reciprocal invitation for this collaboration was announced during the official visit of President E. Macron in India in March 2018 when he met Prime Minister N. Modi. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. The delegation consisted of journalists and cultural experts: Eve Charrin (Marianne and Books), Gladys Marivat (LiRE magazine), Lorraine Rossignol (Télérama), Sophie Landrin (Le Monde correspondent for India and South Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Catherine Fruchon (Radio France Internationale and editor-in-chief/ host of the show Littérature Sans Frontières ), Christian Longchamp ( Artistic advisor and playwright, and co-programmer of the annual multidisciplinary festival ARSMONDO, Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg), Sébastien Fresneau ( VP Book and Entertainment Events at Reed Exhibitions France and General Manager of Livre Paris, the Paris Book Fair) and Néguine Mohsseni ( Press Attachée, Institut Français, Paris).

Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.

Indian Book Market

India is geographically deemed as a sub-continent. It is large. Politically it is a federal structure with a centre and state governments. The population is over 1.3 billion people. 22 languages are recognised officially by the Constitution of India and English is not one of them; instead it is the lingua franca. Interestingly language spoken changes ever so slightly every 20 kms, making it impossible to consider India as a homogenous book market as there are so many languages and scripts to consider.

The Indian publishing industry consists of multiple players. There are publishing agencies like the National Book Trust and the Sahitya Akademi (the organisation for literature) that were established by the government, soon after Independence in 1947. Apart from these the well-known multi-national players exists and a number of independent publishers. Of late the self-publishing market is a growing segment that has resulted in a lot of people getting their works published and new vendors are being established.

Bookselling happens through brick-and-mortar stores as well as online such as Amazon and Flipkart. Online retail allows many customers/readers to access books from Tier 2 and 3 towns which was not possible earlier. According to Nielsen BookScan, the estimated value of the Indian book industry is approximately US$6.3 billion. It has been more or less at this position since the last Nielsen report of 2015. This is for various factors, most immediate being – GST (July 2016) and demonetisation (Nov 2017). Despite this the book market in India is undoubtedly growing and there is a book hunger. Again this is for multiple reasons, some of them being that more than 60% of the Indian population is under 35 years age, making it young, mostly literate[1] or still studying, so in need of text/books. The K-12 segment constitutes the largest segment of the Indian book market as 50% of the population is below the age of 25 years old. The next segment of interest would be the trade list that consists of MBS (Mind, Body, Spirit) children’s literature, women writing, literary fiction, general fiction (mythology, historical fiction, fantasy, romance, commercial fiction etc.) narrative nonfiction (history, biographies, commentaries, memoirs etc.), cookery books etc. The children’s literature market cannot be ignored for in the past decade it has grown phenomenally. This is not just for the school textbook market but for leisure reading. Some of the factors contributing to its growth have been the presence of school book fairs, literary weeks in schools and writing retreats for budding authors, initiatives started by Scholastic India and now adopted by many other players. Also the insistence of many schools to include supplementary readers and/or books for leisure reading alongside the prescribed curriculum. Also, ten years ago, one of the most popular book festivals for children called Bookaroo was established. Since then it has spread not only to other parts of the country but overseas too. The reading public in this country is growing and this is obvious by the rapid rise of piracy with many of the print editions available at vendors holding large piles of poorly published editions to sell at crossroads and temporary stalls seen on pavements.

Book fairs are very popular too. Unlike some of the international book fairs where the focus is also selling of rights, most fairs in India function as retail outlets. A book fair becomes an occasion for customers to throng the stalls buying their supply of books. The customer profile could vary from individuals, families to institutions browsing looking for titles amongst the front and backlists and often scrummaging through at the remaindered/second-hand bookstalls too. The biggest of these is the New Delhi World Book Fair but then there are many regional book fairs organised too.

A major contributing factor to the book hunger in this country has been the extraordinary growth in popularity of literature festivals beginning with the mother of them all – “Jaipur Literature Festival”. It is organised over a period of five days in January and has many parallel sessions with domestic and international speakers. This model has been emulated across the country with versions of it springing up. Apparently more than 80% of the half million visitors that visit JLF are below the age of 29 years old. This demographic seems to be more or less consistent for other litfests in the country with more and more of the young visible in the audience.

Advancements in digital technology have enabled readers/writers to access books from overseas, participate in online discussion groups, access literature on their phones/pen drives/ebook readers etc. And those that like reading the ebook, then purchase the print copy too. Increasingly it is happening in many scripts.

An indication of the robustness of the publishing are also the increasing number of business conclaves. Four of the prominent ones are the CEOSpeak Over Chairman’s Breakfast organised jointly by the National Book Trust and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce), PubliCon organised by FICCI, Jaipur Book Mark organised by Jaipur Literature Festival and Jumpstart organised by the German Book Office.

Apart from this there are many literary prizes, including specific ones focused on children’s writing, women’s writing, fiction, debut authors, translations etc that have been launched. Some are very lucrative, even awarding the translator, handsomely.

All said and done, the Indian book market is really many markets within a market!  

French Book Market

The French book market is smaller but equally robust. Some of the key characteristics are its Fixed Book Pricing, its protection of the brick-and-mortar stores from online players like Amazon and the prominent book fairs like Paris Book Fair. Also publishing translations of World Literature into French.

Indo-French collaboration

The French Book Office’s presence in India has helped foster Indo-French collaborations in the book industry. From sponsoring visits of Indian publishing professionals to France for specific book-related events and vice versa to actively promotes translations and publications of French authors into Indian regional languages under the aegis of the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore). French books translated in 2018: 75 titles including 1/3 supported by the Embassy of France. In addition to this the French Institute recently established the Romain Rolland Prize that translates French literature into a regional language. Apart from this consistent soft diplomatic initiative with the active cross-pollination of literature and cultures, the Institut Francais in New Delhi, now facilitated the crossed invitation from the governments of France and India regarding the book fairs. India is the guest of honour at Paris Book Fair 2020 and France will be at the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2022.

A great literary feast awaits the literary communities in both nations!


[1] According to the Census of India, the definition of “literate” in India is that person who can sign their name.

17 December 2019

Press Release: Launch of the 3rd edition of Romain Rolland Book Prize 2020

New Delhi, 24 th May 2019. The French Institute in India announces the launch of the 3rd edition of Romain Rolland Book Prize 2020, an award for the best publication of a French title in India.

Translations into all Indian languages (including English) will be considered for all genres published, except the ones already received for the 1st and 2nd editions.

Translators and publishers who wish to participate are invited to send the following materials for each title:  

–          5 copies of the book

–          PDF of the translated title

–          The synopsis and back cover of the title in digital form

–          Soft copy of original French text

–          The CV of the translator

          Details requested are available in the excel sheet .

 A curated trip to Paris Book Fair (Livre Paris 2020) awaits the publisher where India will be the guest of honour country and one month of residency in France for the winning translator.

Like in previous years, the eminent jury will be composed of professors from the different universities in France and India, literary translators from both countries to assess the quality of the translation.  The jury will be chaired by the Embassy of France in India.

 The awardee will be announced at Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2020 / Jaipur Book Mark 2020.

 Deadline: Before 15th June 2019

The Prize was launched during the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2018 and is an annual event. The Romain Rolland Book Prize is supported by Priti Paul via Apeejay Trust.

For communication about the call, please contact comm@ifindia.in  011 30410037

About IFI:

The French Institute in India / IFI (Institut français India) is the education, science and culture service of the Embassy of France in India. It facilitates academic and scientific exchange between higher institutes of learning and research, enables student mobility, promotes French language and artistic and cultural partnerships. Cooperation between India and France takes place through a number of sectors: Arts & Culture, Books & Ideas, French Language & Education, Study in France programme, Academic Partnerships, Science & Technology, as well as Innovation and Multimedia. To know more, visit www.ifindia.in

27 May 2019

“Poppy Field” by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction as a writer and nor does the illustrator, Michael Foreman. It is a formidable creative team that has together produced some magnificent books for children in the past. Morpurgo’s stories inevitably deal with stories set in conflict zones whether set way back in the past or in the more contemporary conflicts. This time too Poppy Field focuses on World War One. It is a significant publication as 2018 marks a century since the end of The Great War. Poppy Field is about the origin of using red poppies on Remembrance Sunday and 11 November. It is as always a beautiful story told by Morpurgo that has this quality of immersing the reader in the historical fiction completely. It is done so effectively with minimal details and yet it is a brilliant recreation of the historical landscape. Unlike for adult literature where many more details are provided, in Morpurgo’s landscape there is least amount of detail provided but sufficient markers ensuring that the period of the story cannot be ever mistaken. Poppy Field is the story of four generations. The story is set in a farmland that overlooks farms and poppy fields that were the erstwhile WWI battlefields. Cemeteries and memorials still exist but they are so much a part of the landscape that the present generation barely registers their presence. Martens Markel registers their presence as he often cycles across the fields with his family to visit his father’s grave. Martens father died while ploughing their fields with a tractor that went over an unexploded shell from the war that lay buried for decades in their land. The grandfather is narrating the tale about World War One and the poppy fields to his grandson, Martens Merkel, with references to the fragile piece of paper framed in their home. The framed but crumpled sheet of paper has a poem scribbled upon it with some words scratched out. A poem that would later go on to become very well-known as John McCrue’s “In Flanders Fields”.

Poppy Field is a stupendous hardback picture book that will work for children and adults alike. A hundred years after the war means that few recall the reason why poppies are used remember the many soldiers who lost their lives fighting “on one side of the other, depending simply on where they were born. They fought in a huge and terrible war, the war came to end all wars they called it, which happened so long ago now that no one is old enough to remember it.” The soldiers who lie in the cemetries were born in Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Canada, India, New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, America. The symbolism of using a red poppy to commemorate the fallen soldiers is credited to Moina Michael of the American Legion who two days before armistice was declared read John McCrue’s poem in Ladies’ Home Journal. It moved her tremendously that she promised to “keep the faith” with the fallen American soldiers and to symbolise the promise by always wearing red poppies. The practice was carried across to the United Kingdom by a French lady called Anna Guerin who persuaded the British Legion ( formed in 1921) to have a Poppy Appeal in time for November 11th. Ever since then the red poppies have come to play a crucial role in remembering fallen soldiers not just in the two world wars but other conflicts since then.  Poppies are also seen as a sign of hope — a hope that one day wars will really will stop for ever, and all the nations in the world will be reconciled and live together in peace. Poppy Field has been created in co-operation with the Royal British Legion.

Poppy Field has been published by Scholastic and is a stunning gift.

27 February 2019 

 

Decoding GST at the GST Expert Table at JUMPSTART, Friday 4th August 2017

GST has been implemented as of 1 July 2017. It is early days as yet but GBO is organising a roundtable on the topic. I will be moderating it. Here are the details. 

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the German Book Office!

In the view of the current GST regime, publishers and printers have many questions about the taxation purview. German Book Office cordially invites you to participate in the Round Table on GST at JUMPSTART 2017. This is an open round-table especially designed for clarifications on the matter of GST, to be held at India International Centre, New Wing. It will be moderated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International Publishing Consultant.

Expert:
1. Mr. Sujit Ghosh, Partner at ADVAITA Legal
2. Mr. Sanjay Garg, Partner- Indirect Tax, KPMG India

Agenda: Book publishing and printing – GST Do’s & Don’ts

Who should attend?
– Printers
– Publishers
– Authors
– Publishing professionals

The Publishing & Print Industry is in a state of dilemma with the new tax structure affecting the business. Come join us in this open house discussion while we decode GST.

Date
4 August 2016
Time
4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Venue
India International Centre, New Wing, New Delhi

To confirm your availability please contact the following number: 011 49120951. By invitation only.

Prashasti Rastogi | DIRECTOR

GERMAN BOOK OFFICE NEW DELHI

www.newdelhi.gbo.org

The German Book Office New Delhi is a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair And the Federal Foreign Office, Berlin.

_________________________________________
FRANKFURT BOOK FAIR: 11 – 15 OCTOBER 2017

GUEST OF HONOR: FRANCE

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 

Review of Fiston Mwanza Majila, “Tram 83” : Waiting for Godot in the Congo

I reviewed for The WireFiston Mwanza Majila’s wonderful debut Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser from French into English and originally published by Deep Vellum ( USA). It has been published in the Indian subcontinent by Speaking Tiger Books on their exciting new list for International Literature. Here is the original url: http://thewire.in/2016/06/02/review-waiting-for-godot-in-the-congo-39893/ . This was published online on 2 June 2016. I am c&p the text below. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a bold experiment in form, set in an anonymous ‘City-State,’ which unnervingly parallels the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.

These recorded sounds are historical monuments, works of literature, poems, tragedies. Through the rust and other elements, you can feel history, the history of peoples, the memory of migration. 

Fiston Mwanza Mujila burst upon the international literary landscape with his debut novel Tram 83. It was originally published in French in 2014 by Éditions Métailié and translated into English by Roland Glasser in 2015. Tram 83 is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the local economy is driven by diamond mining. The story is about ‘City-State,’ which could be anywhere, yet is distinctly a mining town. In City-State, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars is ‘Tram 83,’ and it is frequented by:

Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilisation and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.

This long passage is best read aloud and that is the distinctive breakthrough in the novel. It is less a novel than an oral performance. There is absolutely no point in trying to read it as a classically structured novel. The writing has a structural rhythm defined by the punctuation. In an interview, Glasser said that while working on the translation he would spend some time walking around in the garden reading the text out aloud to himself.

Mwanza Mujila is a performance poet, something that gives him a natural feeling for the song in the words. The fabulous performance that he and Glasser gave at Malvern Books, accompanied on the saxophone by Chris Hall, shows how in tune he and his translator are. Ever since he was a child, Mwanza Mujila wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but was unable to get one so instead he taught himself to use his voice as the instrument. He demonstrated it at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Woven along with these musical influences is the very strong impact of evangelical Christianity. The way that the words and lists build up to crescendos in the book are very similar to a tub-thumping pastor’s sermons.

It is fascinating to discover that Mwanza Mujila is pursuing a PhD in Romance languages & literatures. Romance literature emerged out of the textual recording of oral forms of storytelling like the Arthurian cycle. It is also phonetically written, lending itself to varying rhythms when read aloud. These stories also served a definite purpose of recording contemporary socio-political-economic events like the tin trade between France and Glastonbury but were also thoroughly entertaining. Obviously a form of storytelling that many centuries later continues to be popular.

A Beckettian relationship

This is not to say that the plot is unimportant. Tram 83 is primarily about two characters – Lucien, a writer, and Requiem, a hustler, who were close friends but drifted apart. Lucien is upright and ethical, while Requiem is wonderfully amoral, minting money however he can, from illegal sales to blackmail. Lucien returns from the “Back-Country,” having completed half of a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years…Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General”. He moves in with Requiem, who continues to flourish with his disreputable activities, but their relationship is now imbued with a deep-seated love/hate resentment towards each other. It is a particularly Beckettian relationship reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot especially with the refrain peppered throughout the text – “Do you have the time”. Many times the conversations do not make any sense unless read aloud. Out of nonsense emerges a narrative.

Around Lucien and Requiem swirl people and conversations, with a plethora of walk on parts. A few characters remain throughout the story, such as the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau. It is like a well-constructed theatrical performance, an opera, but it is surreal given the unnerving parallels with the DRC. In an interview with Asymptote the author said, “…the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country — no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighbouring states”.

Women are marginal to the story. Mwanza Mujila defended this decision in an online interview, saying, “Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women”.

Tram 83 has already garnered significant literary prizes, such as Grand Prix SGDL, the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria, 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature and had been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. It is a bold experiment in form and an absolutely marvellous debut – tough to read but intelligently crafted.

Buy it. Read it. Become a fan.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila Tram 83  Translated by Roland Glasser, Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2016, 210 pages, Rs. 350.

2 June 2016

 

Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?

A book worth reading.

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899 

Nuclear energy – pros and cons

Nuclear energy – pros and cons

Chernobyl

It is 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster ( 26 April 1986). It is a couple of years ( 11 March 2011) since the earthquakes and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactors. And the nuclear energy debates rages on in India, most notably about the Koodangulam nuclear power plant complex — http://kafila.org/2012/03/21/kudankulam-a-brief-history-and-a-recent-update/ . There are many pros and cons to setting up power plants based upon nuclear energy. It is a renewable source of energy that has to be considered when non-renewable sources like coal are becoming more and more expensive to mine and use. But setting up nuclear energy plants come with many disturbing aspects — displacement of people, the effects of radiation on the local community and eco-system and of course, the perennial dread of a nuclear disaster. The local eco-system would take centuries to “recover” from a nuclear spill or leak. An explosion as in Fukushima is still uncharted territory. For instance, the effect of the explosion on marine life is still undocumented.

Ramana, Examining nuclear energy in India

Two books, published recently in India — Voices from Chernobyl and The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India — are crucial in understanding the debates about nuclear energy, but also sobering reminders about what it entails. Voices from Chernobyl is a novel about the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster — contaminated food, metallic water, radioactive showers, deformed babies etc. It maybe a fictionalised account but it is horrifying since many of the stories seem to be based on real events and people. The unorthodox structure of the text does not ease one into reading the story for a moment. Instead it forces an engagement with the text. It has been translated from the Norwegian by Taralrud Maddrell. It won the Sult Prize in 2010.

The Power of Promise examines the nuclear energy programme of India, its growth, the economics of it and of course, the impact on international relations. It is probably no coincidence that these books are available soon after Indo-US bilateral treaty on nuclear energy was signed or the importing of Thorium from France. Now India’s conversations with Japan on a civil nuclear deal are being sped up. Here are a couple of reviews about The Power of Promise , published in the Frontline ( http://www.frontline.in/books/nuclear-questions/article4569496.ece ) and Kafila ( http://kafila.org/2013/03/21/understanding-the-empty-promises-of-nuclear-energy-nityanand-jayaraman/ ). There was a response to the Frontline review-article in the letters section by M. V. Ramanna but I am unable to locate it online. And here is another article by M. V. Ramanna on nuclear energy and safety in Kafila — http://kafila.org/2013/04/04/nuclear-energy-reassurances-dont-guarantee-safety-m-v-ramana/ and a debate on the subject http://kafila.org/2013/03/22/responding-to-a-debate-on-the-kudankulam-struggle-against-nuclear-energy/ .

Today it has been announced the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu is set to start functioning in less than two days. http://www.ndtv.com/article/south/kudankulam-nuclear-plant-to-start-soon-after-it-gets-all-mandated-approvals-390956?pfrom=home-otherstories . The question that begs to be asked is “are these the temples of Modern India” that Nehru dreamed about? If so, at what cost?

12 July 2013

M. V. Ramanna The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India Penguin Books India, New Delhi. Hb. pp. 366 Rs. 699

Ingrid Storholmen Voices from Chernobyl Harper Perennial, Noida, India. Pb. pp.200 Rs. 299