France Posts

Hilary Mantel and Kate Mosse

Historical fiction is always such a joy to read. If deftly created by an author with an informed imagination, then the pleasure of reading big fat tomes increases manifold. Two of the greatly anticipated books of this year arrived together — Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Kate Mosse’s The City of Tears. While Mantel’s book has already been released to great acclaim, Kate Mosse’s novel is due to be released at the end of May 2020. As expected The Mirror and the Light has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. ( The winner will be announced on 9 Sept 2020.)

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is the last in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. It is also the “fattest” volume of the three and was nearly eight years in the making. During the time Mantel was writing this particular novel, Wolf Hall ( the first in the trilogy) had been adapted for television.

The Mirror and The Light focusses on the final years of Thomas Cromwell. It begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn and concludes with Cromwell’s own execution. Many of these incidents are widely known even beyond the British Isles. It is a story that has gripped peoples imagination for centuries. But it is the manner of telling that is always new. Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of the incidents is entertaining as much has has to be imagined especially the conversations in private. It is a well-known fact that much of Thomas Cromwell’s papers were burnt at his request after his arrest. There are only snatches of correspondence and contemporary accounts that survive in different libraries and private collections. These have survived primarily because they belonged to others at the time of Cromwell’s death. To be historically accurate is a difficult proposition and this is where Hilary Mantel is able to exercise the creative freedom that a writer has to imagine scenarios. It is obvious that the author did spend a lot of time trying to be historically accurate as far as possible in terms of incidents, locations and other contemporary details. She makes a reference to it in this fabulous conversation with Pat Barker. Yet there were many moments while reading the novel that it made a lot of sense to dip in Revd. Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s incredible biography called Thomas Cromwell: A Life ( 2019). As an English historian and academic in Oxford University, specialising in ecclesiastical history and the history of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch spent more than six years researching and putting together details to recreate an astounding biography of Cromwell. So much so that even Mantel endorsed it saying “This is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. For Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell’s role as an ally of Henry VIII who facilitated the split in the church to create the sects of Protestants and Catholics is fundamentally a religious action guided by political motivation. The inextricable link between Church and State cannot be ignored in MacCulloch’s account and it seeps through the telling of the history as well. (Here is a fascinating The British Academy 10-minute talk he gave on Thomas Cromwell.) Mantel too cannot ignore this link as it is the premise upon which Cromwell’s reputation as a powerful statesman and a member of the Royal Court resides. But it is her telling of the story that blurs these lines. Increasingly it seems with every page of this story that Mantel is very aware of two facts — 1) that she is writing this story for a modern secular audience for whom faith is only one aspect of a story and 2) her writing style is heavily influenced by different forms of storytelling. There are incidents in the descriptions of the crowds that gather in the streets for parades, to welcome the newest Queen or to watch a hanging, or in the conversations recounted, that always seem to be one step away from a script ready to be converted for a screen adaptation. Clearly Mantel’s loyalties lie more towards her readers than to the historical characters who have inspired her to write this award-winning trilogy. Her description of Cromwell’s execution is superb but the ghosts in the story make absolutely no sense. Diarmaid MacCulloch admits that Hilary Mantel and he may be writing about the same man but the differences are apparent — primarily because he is a historian and Mantel is a novelist. Even so a renowned critic as Daniel Mendelsohn was moved to say in his New Yorker review of the book that he had “started to wonder—a thought unimaginable during my reading of the first two books—whether this particular historical figure really merits nearly two thousand pages of fiction.” Daniel Mendelsohn “Hubris and Delusion at the end of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor Trilogy” ( 20 March 2020, The New Yorker)

Interestingly the founder of the Women’s Prize, Kate Mosse, has also released a historical fiction novel called The City of Tears. ( It is slated for release on 28 May 2020.) It is the second part of a family saga that is set in France, a little after Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, during the Wars of Religion. Mosse’s historical fiction series is going to be spanning three centuries detailing the lives of the Huguenots (Protestants) and the Royal family (Catholics) in France. According to Mosse it will travel from sixteenth-century France and Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The City of Tears is set at the time of the St. Bartholomew Massacre of 23 August 1572. It is an immensely readable account of the conflict between the two factions. The main characters whose story is narrated in this series are purely fictional but are a means to enter the period and recount the horrific events of the time. Many of the details would resonate with the modern reader for the sectarian violence and the refugees created. As Mosse states in her note that the “characters and families are imagined though inspired by the kind of people who might have lived ordinary men and women, struggling to live, love and survive against a backdrop of religious war and displacement. Then, as now.” It is a pleasure to read The City of Tears for it may be classified as commercial fiction and tells a fantastic tale of a family, love and tears with some swashbuckling action thrown in for good measure but through it all Kate Mosse is very clear that the events detailed are because of religious differences. The violence and the misery it brought in its wake was wholly unnecessary then as it is now. The City of Tears is a gripping tale that can easily be adapted to screen but none of it intrudes in the telling of the story as happens in The Mirror and the Light.

Nevertheless it has been a pleasure to read both the novels in quick succession. And I am glad I did!

3 May 2020

Interview with Gaël Faye on his debut novel “Small Country”

I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!

Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.

Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.  

The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.

The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.

Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?

That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form.  At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.

Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?

One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.

2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?

It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.

3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?

Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.

And you, have you ever been changed by a book?

Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.

4.  Was it difficult to write about the genocide?

Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere

5. What about the pain?

No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.

So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.

Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.

7. What prompted you to write this book?

First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.

8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?

This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.

Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.

10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.

Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.

11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.

It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.

You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?

My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.

12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?

Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it?  I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise.  The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!  

17 April 2020

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 

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