Book Post 43 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
26 Aug 2019
Book Post 43 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
26 Aug 2019
Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.
The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.
2. Why did you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be multi-lingual as you are?
I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.
There are many differences between scouting and agenting but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job – their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights agents in house or in agencies.
3. How and when was London Literary Scouting established? What are the genres you specialise in?
As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages, on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages. London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously. Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow and in the future.
London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio
We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis in the other languages.
4. What are the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be gleaned from every experience!)
I think our successes are all in the breadth of our client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am proud.
5. How important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals to a literary scout?
Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when. Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.
6. You are an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?
Carefully. I think network and intelligence and understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more important.
7. As a signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely? Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of women writers?
This is a hard question to answer properly. I think the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.
8. The porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers, increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV & videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or commissioning a book?
I think that most publishers acquire and publish the books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian evangelical publishing houses.
9. A mantra that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into other book markets?
I think that the explosion of digital platforms and perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.
10. In your experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the trends to look out for in the coming years?
I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.
11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?
How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.
17 June 2019
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 12 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
1 October 2018
‘Who told you that?’
‘Father Prudence, years agone. They took a loan from the French government and another from another merchant in London. Being the case, the French authority might say those Fort Royal slaves and their descendants belong to them. The London merchant might say the same. Of course, the friars would argue otherwise but some would say they lost the right to the slave because of the debt and their misdoings.’
‘They might have repaid those loans since.’
‘No,’ Emile replied. ‘I asked around St. Pierre the other night. They never repaid one sou, to this day. Everybody knows they are in debt from Salines to St. Domingue. That’s why they want those slave back, to grow more cane. Cane is sugar, sugar is money. That’s all we are to them. But loan or no loan, the English will care not one farthing. Now they rule the land of Grenada, they must surely lay claim to the slaves at the hospital. And if we take Celeste and the rest without permission, those Goddams will say we stole them.’
Jane Harris’s third novel Sugar Money has been shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It is set in 1765 when two brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada and smuggle home forty-two slaves claimed by English invaders ( commonly referred to as “Goddams”) and working at the hospital. It is a tricky mission as there is the constant danger of the two brothers being caught. Since the two brothers are slaves themselves they have no option but to obey. Emile is under no illusions about how dangerous the mission is but is tempted to return to Grenada for he can meet his sweetheart Celeste. The action-packed novel spread over a few days is narrated by the younger brother Lucien who was taught English by a Scotsman working at the Grenada hospital. The French friars want “their” slaves back as they need help to till their cane sugar plantations in Martinique.
In the Afterword Jane Harris elaborates upon the true incident which inspired her story.
In 1738, the French Colonial Government in Grenada built a hospital overlooking the main town of Fort Royal (now known as St George’s). By 1742, the hospital had been handed over to the care of a band of mendicant monks or friars: the Brothers of Charity of the Order of St John the God — les Freres de la Charite — who had been running a hospital in the neighbouring island of Martinique for almost a hundred years. the friars looked after the sick but, in order to fund their charitable works, they also ran plantations alongside their hospitals — plantations which relied on the labour of enslaved people. The poverty-stricken friars took out loans in order to purchase these slaves, some of whom they trained as nurses to work alongside them in the hospital. the rest of the slaves were set to toil on the plantations, growing indigo and sugar cane. …the British invaded Grenada in 1763 and took over the hospital.
She continues that in August 1765, one of the mendicant friars, Father Cleophas, travelled from Martinique to Grenada in an attempt to persuade the slaves to return with him. Unfortunately he was discovered by the English and asked to leave. After which he persuaded a “mulatto” slave to go on a mission for him. It was disastrous as the English once again discovered the plan and prevented most of the slaves to escape. Of the 11 who did to Martinique had to return to Grenada and they saved themselves by blaming the mulatto slave. As a result he was the only one made an example of and hanged.
Sugar Money is an absorbing read with some truly horrific descriptions of how the slaves were treated by their masters. The brutal violence is relentless with the slaves living in constant fear. It is a story that is truly horrifying for what happened in the past but also with the knowledge that such situations continue to exist in many parts of the world even now*. It may not always be the colonial master and slave relationship but many people are being exploited in a similar fashion for purely business gains.
In an interview Jane Harris clearly states what set her off on this quest to write this historical fiction. Also being acutely aware of her white privilege; a fact which is good to know particularly in an age where conversations about cultural appropriation are constantly being resurrected.
Of course, I was – and am – very aware of my white privilege and did ask various friends, writers of colour, if they thought I was crazy to tackle such a subject. They told me that yes, I probably was crazy – but as long as I did it well enough, it wouldn’t matter. So, that was the challenge; I knew I’d have to write a good book.
Research is crucial. It begins when I have the idea for a novel and carries on all the way through to the final draft, even to proof-stage. I’m one of those writers who likes to be as historically accurate as possible, so the research never ends. However, I’m also a great believer in ‘hiding’ the research. Your research notes shouldn’t be visible to the reader. If a fact isn’t relevant to the story then, really, it shouldn’t be in the book.
Even though The Observations is entirely a work of imagination, not based on true events, the period detail still has to be accurate. Gillespie and I is also a work of imagination, set in the art world of Scotland in the late 1880s, at the time of the International Exhibition, and so I had to undertake a good deal of research to get the detail of Glasgow and the art world right.
When it came to Sugar Money, research had a hand in steering the plot. These were real people, enslaved people, and I felt I owed it to them to stick closely to the facts. Having said that, there are great gaps in what is known about the true story behind the novel, with the result that I had a lot of inventing to do. With some of the people involved, all I had to go on was a list of slave names and it was from those names that I built their characters. For instance, I just knew that someone called Angelique Le Vieux had to be a force of nature. At other times, in terms of narrative, I had to piece together the plot by looking at the motivation of a character and analyzing what actually happened in real life e.g.: X happened and then Y happened – so why did the person involved make the decision to do Y? That’s often how the narrative grew. So, the facts often drove the fiction.
Sugar Money is a gripping book waiting to be turned into a period film. The descriptions are so vivid that it seems the action is happening in front of one’s eyes.
Jane Harris Sugar Money Faber & Faber, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 452 Rs 499
*As I was writing this blog post news came in that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 from the Bible often used to defend slavery while defending his government’s policy of separating immigrant families.
15 June 2018
Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.
Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.
Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.
Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus .
Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis
Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!
An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!
Maylis de Kerangal Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India
Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India
Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books
Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury
6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017
On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.
Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House. On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.
“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.
At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.
Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.
There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own.
This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it?
When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.”
While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes.
When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.”
On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”
On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.”
On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.”
Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.
While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”. She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.
All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.
26 August 2017
( My review of Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was published on Bookwitty on 10 July 2017. I have c&p the text below. )
A rich literary tradition once flourished in Timbuktu, a crossroads where for centuries the imams as well as the general population were receptive to ideas that passed through the city. Visiting scholars brought religious as well as secular volumes, and an industry grew up around the copying, transliteration and translation of a wide range of texts.
Wealthy patrons kept manuscripts in family collections, bequeathing them to subsequent generations. In the twenty-first century, families still have trunks filled with these books. At seventeen years old, Abdel Kader Haidara inherited an extensive library from his father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidara. It consisted of gems such as “a treatise about Islamic jurisprudence from the early twelfth century; a thirteenth-century Koran written on vellum made from the hide of an antelope; another holy book from the twelfth century, no larger than the palm of a hand, inscribed on a fish skin, its intricate Maghrebi script illuminated with droplets of gold leaf.”
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is journalist Joshua Hammer’s detailed account of Abdel Kader Haidara’s achievement in amassing and protecting an extraordinary library of these manuscripts. In the 1980s, Haidara undertook expeditions, sometimes by boat or camel, far and wide across Northern Africa to persuade families part with their heirlooms.
Haidara curated the collection with care: “He was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance – pointing with pride to Ahmeda Baba’s denunciations of slavery, and to the strident correspondence between the jihadi sultan of Massina and Sheikh Ahmed Al Bakkay Al Kounti, a mid-nineteenth-century Islamic scholar in Timbuktu known for his moderation and acceptance of Jews and Christians. As time passed he became something of a scholar himself, revered by many peers in Timbuktu for his knowledge of the region’s history and religion, sought after by parents to offer their children guidance.”
Polite and discreet, Haidara was a deft negotiator in multiple languages. In return for the manuscripts, Haidara compensated the families handsomely, be that in currency or with livestock, grains or camels—or once, with a commitment to build a mosque and school. Meanwhile, funding poured in from a long list of sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation, the Princess of Luxembourg, and Muammar Qaddafi.
Haidara housed the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute, where it could be conserved and digitally archived. But in 2012, Timbuktu fell to the Al Qaeda-supported Islamists, Ansar Dine, and the collection was no longer safe. So, in an extremely delicate and high-risk operation, Haidara masterminded the smuggling of 350,000 volumes out of Timbuktu to safe houses to Bamako, a government territory.
The rescue entailed quietly gathering the manuscripts into 2,500 metal trunks, and then spiriting them away under the rebels’ noses, primarily using teenage sons and nephews of Timbuktu’s librarians as couriers. Haidara monitored the operation from a control room in Bamako, eight phones ringing every fifteen minutes with updates. Incredibly, every single manuscript was evacuated to safekeeping, though some received rough treatment by soldiers at roadblocks. Ansar Dine was overthrown by French forces in 2013, but the manuscripts remain in hiding.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is rich with historical and military detail, to the extent that at some points maps would have been welcome, giving more breathing space in the text. Joshua Hammer follows two distinct narrative strands: the literary history of Timbuktu and its librarians, and the changing political landscape (and resulting war tactics) within the Maghreb. The result is a fascinating, if at times dense, account to read.
Joshua Hammer The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Simon and Schuster, 2017, Pb.
11 July 2017
An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)
I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.
My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”
In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,
had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.
Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.
In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”
He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.
In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:
Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?
In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.
Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”
In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.
Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.
Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.
The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.
17 March 2017