Isabel Fargo Cole Posts

Julian Barnes, “The Noise of Time” and Wolfgang Hilbig, “I”

julianbarnestnosiseoftimeBut endless terror continued for another five years. Until Stalin died, and Nikita Khruschev emerged. There was the promise of a thaw, cautious hope, incautious elation. And yes, things did get easier, and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage. And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated. The terrified wait by the lift and the bullet to the back of the head became things of the past. But Power did not lose interest in him; hands still reached out – and since childhood he had always held a fear of grabbing hands. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is about the Russian composer Shostakovich. It is about how he Shostakovichpractised his art, trying to lead a normal life during Stalin’s regime and it was not easy. Shostakovich never joined the Communist Party while Stalin was alive. He  did so much later in 1960 when he was to be appointed by the government as General Secretary of the Composer’s Union and had to be a party member in order to hold the post. ( It was the second time in his life that Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, saw his father weep.)  Julian Barnes has for more than fifty years been a fan of Shostokovich. As he says in an FT interview, “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.” ( 22 Jan 2016, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b6432f9e-bf64-11e5-846f-79b0e3d20eaf.html )

The Noise of Time opening scene is about the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 26 January 1936 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich attended the operatic performance in the presence of Stalin and his Politburo comrades, Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. It had been a success at home and abroad for more than two years, making Stalin curious. Two days after Shostakovich witnessed Stalin at the theatre, the Pravda carried a scathing article — “Muddle instead of music”. Subsequently, many commissions for Shostakovich dried up. It is said his income fell to at least one-third of what he had been earning. Even his patron,  Marshal Tukhachevsky, was unable to help. During the Great Terror which was to follow Shostakovich was fearful of his life. He lived in great dread of being taken away in the middle of the night as many of his friends and neighbours had been and shot including Marshal Tukhachevsky. But he never was. ( The sketch of the man on the book cover looking over his shoulder anxiously while holding a suitcase is meant to be the composer who for a while waited with a packed suitcase every night waiting to be picked up.) Within these stifling circumstances he tried to lead as normal a life he could, much like his father who ‘was an entirely normal human being’. ( p.22) His music began to be more conservative and in 1946 he composed a cantata, Song of the Forests, praising Stalin as a great gardener. Yet Shostakovich never left Russia. He did go abroad for performances and represented his country officially but he never left unlike Stravinsky.

Keeping an Eye OpenJulian Barnes novel is bio-fic ( to use David Lodge’s term for such literature). It is a sophisticated tribute by one artist to another, the writer imaging the trauma the composer experienced during Stalinism. In his book Keeping an Eye Open ( published 2015) a collection of essays on art and artists, Barnes says, “Artists are greedy to learn and art is self-devouring… .” ( p.103). He then puts forth an old idea of the artist being a voyeur. “This is exactly what the artist should be: one who sees ( and voyeur can also carry the sense of hallucinatory visionary).” (p.123)  In The Noise of Time Barnes probably is so focused on the relationship that Shostakovich had with the Stalinist state that it occupies the bulk of the story. Then the writer gallops through the remaining years reducing even Boris Pasternak to a passing reference and not even mentioning  the legendary black and white production of Hamlet ( 1964). It was based on Pasternak’s translation and Hamlet ( 1964)Shostakovich composed the music.

While one can appreciate Julian Barnes tribute to a musician he has long admired, it is the timing of the publication of the novel that has to be lauded. The Noise of Time is published in 2016, the 400 year birthday celebrations of Shakespeare’s wherein the story of Shostakovich revolves around his musical interpretation of Macbeth. It is also exploring the life of an artist under Stalin’s version of communism in Russia. A form of government that came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, nearly a hundred years ago.

Another book that is worth mentioning here given the many similarities it shares with The Noise of Time is I Hilbigby Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. It is not an easy book to read for its shifts in literary texture and excessive reliance on interior monologues that can be disconcerting. It is a fear that he lived with in East Germany given how the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, employed a vast network of official collaborators including literary figures. So Hilbig was never able to trust anyone even though he was never implicated.  , is a book  that leaves the reader very disturbed for the paranoia conveyed by Hilbig in his book written from the perspective of a writer-informant. This feeling of fear is what one is left with upon closing the book.

This unforgiving and constant fear can only be experienced and it is not a figment of anyone’s imagination or relegated to history books. It is still to be found in nations where freedom of expression is stifled and it is even more alarming when it is done using official machinery. At such moments it is immaterial whatever the political system — whether a communist or a democratic state. The full import of living with this kind of round-the-clock anxiety can never really understood by writers and readers distanced from such authoritarian regimes but these stories could be read as appreciating art for art’s sake. Having said that The Noise of Time and are going to be spoken about for a long time to come for the tremendous impact they are going to have on literature and the art of writing.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Jonathan Cape, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 180. 

Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Pb. 280

Wolfgang Hilbig I (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole), Seagull Books, 2015. Hb. 

28 January 2016

 

Literati – “On translations” ( 7 June 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 June 2015) and will be in print ( 7 June 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article7286177.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

Reading two travelogues about Afghanistan in the 1920s — when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls — is an enriching experience. Both Desh Bideshe by Syed Mujtaba Ali (translated from Bengali as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger Books) and All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books) offer an absorbing account of Afghan society. The writers had access across various strata of society; a privilege they did not abuse but handled with dignity. 

 

Texts translated competently into the destination language give the reader an intimate

KRASZNAHORKAI_AP_2_2430230faccess to a new culture. Many of the new translations are usually in English — a language of socio-political, economic and legal importance. Even literary prizes recognise the significance. For instance, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded once in two years. Lauding his translators — George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet — Krasznahorkai said, “In each language, the relationship is different.” He uses unusually long sentences and admits, “The task was to somehow find a new Krasznahorkai English”. He continues, “In China once, I was speaking at a university about my books and said that, unfortunately, you couldn’t read them there, and someone in the audience put their hand up and said that there was a translation of Satantango on the net that had been done chapter by chapter by people who loved it. Of course, I was delighted.” (http://bit.ly/1Kx4R1g )

Readers matter

At BookExpo America 2015, New York, Michael Bhasker, Publishing Director, Canelo Digital Publishing said, “Readers are the power brokers who matter most. Readers are the primary filters.” This is immediately discernible on social media platforms — extraordinarily powerful in disseminating information, raising profiles of authors, creating individual brands rapidly circumventing geo-political boundaries, transcending linguistic hurdles and straddling diverse cultures. According to Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, “Indian language writers are as good as or often better than their contemporaries writing in English. Often they are not proficient in English and savvy in handling social media, limiting their exposure on the national and international stage and media. I represent many such writers in Tamil like Salma and Perumal Murugan and have managed to get many of their works published in English, Indian and world languages.”

‘India@Digital.Bharat’, a report by BCG and IAMAI, forecasts India becoming a $200 billion Internet economy by 2018. The use of vernacular content online is estimated to increase from 45 per cent in 2013 to more than 60 per cent in 2018. (http://bit.ly/1Kx9ZCv). Osama Manzar, Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation says, “The Internet is English centric by its invention, character and culture. It has been growing virally and openly because it is brutally democratic and open. Yet, it is highly driven through the medium of writing as means of participation, a challenge for Indians who are more at ease with oral communication than written. Plus, they are fascinated by English as a language. More so, responsiveness and real-time dynamism of various applications is making people join the Internet even if they don’t know the language of prevailing practices. And because of multi-diversity oriented people joining the Internet, application providers are turning their apps and web multilingual to grab the eyeballs of people and their active participation.”

Writer and technologist Anshumani Ruddra asks pointedly, “If India is to hit 550 Million Internet users by 2018, where are the vernacular apps for more than 350 million (non-English speaking) users?” (http://bit.ly/1Kxa4Gx ) Venkatesh Hariharan, Director, Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, adds “the time is right for Indian language computing using Unicode, especially since the government of India is actively promoting e-governance”.

A constructive engagement across linguistic and cultural boundaries is essential. An international funder once told me supporting writers is a cost-effective way of fostering international bilateral relations. It is easier, in the long run, to negotiate business partnerships as the two nations would already be familiar with each other culturally via literary cross-pollination programmes.

EXCLUSIVE: OxyGene Films (U.K.) has announced a film project based on Tabish Khair’s recent novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. Details of the Danish-British collaboration, with possible Bollywood connections, are to be announced later.

13 June 2015

On travel writing and translations

Between WorldsIn recent months I have read two books of travel writing translated from Urdu and Bengali respectively. They were first written a century apart but the English translations were made available six months of each other. The two books are:

1. Yusuf Khan Kambalposh Between Worlds: The Travels of Yusuf Khan Kambalposh, translated and edited by Mushirul Hasan and Nishat Zaidi, published by Oxford University Press ( 2014). Original title: Tarikh-i-Yusufi (1837-38), first published by Naval Kishore Press ( 1898)

2. Syed Mujtaba Ali In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan translated by Nazes Afroz, published by Speaking Tiger ( 2015). Original title: Deshe Bidishe, first published in 1948

There is something fascinating about accessing the past through contemporary literature. Making translations of such texts available to a modern audience is a commendable effort since many such texts are tucked away in personal collections, archives, and libraries. Selecting an “appropriate” text for a 21-century reader is dependant on a variety of factors — not just on the book’s own merit. It is probably relevance of the text being translated. For instance, Between Worlds, is about thirty-three-year-old Yusuf Khan Kambalposh who decides to visit England. He had no patronage, was not dependent on anyone for financial support or for social contracts but made the journey on his own. He was in London to see Queen Victoria being coronated. All though he often wrote in Persian, this travelogue was written in Urdu, a fascinating choice given the time it was written in. But it also shows the impact the Delhi Vernacular Translation Society ( 1843) had in popularising the language among the masses of readers in North India. Most translations were made available in Urdu. It is also a significant travelogue since it is a rare perspective offered by an Indian and not necessarily from a Colonial perspective. It is also about Victorian England at a time when modern literature about Queen Victoria is gaining importance.

With In a land far from home there is a firsthand account of a non-Afghan, a Bengali traveller, having travelled so far North, living in land_far_from_home_coverAfghanistan, witnessing a tumultuous period of history. It is when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. ( An extract from the book may be read on Caravan magazine’s website: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/why-bengali-traveller-was-flummoxed-afghani-hospitality . )

Both the translated texts are worth reading from an academic point of view. They are footnoted and with plenty of prefatory material. Fascinating for the old world they reveal especially when seen through the prism of contemporary socio-political-economic conditions in these regions. Otherwise not easy to read. Somehow I found a few travelogues written by women easier to read particularly a lovely one All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole). She too is in Afghanistan at the time of Amanullah’s reign but her account is easier to relate to, probably because these were meant as regular dispatches to various newspapers in Germany. ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/blog/of-women-travellers-and-writing/ )

Having said that the anecdote about the massacre of sunbathing turtles on the high seas to be later made into a feast of kebabs in Between Worlds is just the reason why one picks up travel books. To get a random detail that is not commonly heard of but will forever remain embedded in one’s brain as a piece of trivial but astounding information.

6 May 2015

 

 

Of women travellers and writing

Of women travellers and writing

All the Roads are Open

In recent weeks I have read three books. All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole); The Nanologues: 10,000 kms across India in the world’s cheapest car by Vanessa Able and Almost Intrepid by Anjaly Thomas. Except for All the Roads are Open, the other two are contemporary accounts by women travellers — Vanessa’s account of travelling in a Nano across India and Anjaly Thomas backpacking across the world. As for Annermarie Schwarzenbach, she travelled in a new Ford across Afghanistan with Ella Maillart from 1939-1940. The translated text contains snippets of her writings and dispatches to various newspapers describing the country, the exquisite gardens, the reception that they received etc. A comment made “In the garden of the beautiful girls of Qaiser” is about the “young King Ammanullah, upon returning from a trip to Europe, had instituted hasty reforms in Afghanistan, attempting to follow Turkey’s example in particular. He had moved too quickly. More than anything else he was reproached for emancipating women. For a few weeks the chador had fallen in the capital of Kabul; then the revolution broke out,women returned to the harem, to their strictly cloistered domestic life and from then on they could not show themselves on the street without a veil.”

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For Vanessa Able travelling in her Nano, whom she affectionately refers to as “Abhilasha”, winding her way through India, its crowds, is a frank account of her drive through India. It is a challenge to be a driver on the roads of India, but to be a woman and a foreigner at that, can be a challenge indeed! Vanessa Able braves it well, making some good friends along the way, but also getting a firsthand experience of they way men view/treat women. For instance, the young men loitering on the streets or the cab drivers misbehaving. At times she would worry about the fast roads and the sanitised lodgings were killing the spirit of the journey, but then the images of the Ambassadors and the over-zealous chaperones would remind her of the reasons for being on this trip. When Ratan Tata met her, he remarked that it was very enterprising of her to have driven the Nano through India. But Nanologues is a mixed bag of a traveller’s account with plenty of anecdotes, all though it could have done with a few photographs. Though she did blog regularly – http://www.nanodiaries.com/ and http://www.vanessaable.com/

Almost Intrepid
Anjaly Thomas’s comes across a feisty young woman, who is game for any sort of adventure. All her trips have been impulsive decisions. She has travelled through Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Indonesia, and India. Her account is of the kind that would be useful for women to use as a checklist, also take a leaf or two from her book of being fiercely independent, determined and focused about her goals. The common fears/questions that would prey upon any woman traveller’s mind came to her often. Such as afraid of being robbed/mugged/raped? did she have her parents approval? did she sleep alone in the hotels? how did she cope with female issues of dealing with her periods to washing underwear? where did she get her money from? did she ever get any help? was she scared of being labelled? She comes to the conclusion that these questions, including that of danger lurking, can even happen to a woman comfortably ensconced at home. It really depends upon the individual and the circumstances. To her surprise and relief she actually found a lot of help on the road. A few lessons she learned from travelling solo were confidence, self-dependence, patience, responsibility, love and compassion, prioritizing, letting go, and dreaming.

Women travelling alone is not a new feat. It has been done umpteen times before. Many wrote about it too. Lady Mary Whortley Montague and Alexandra David-Neel come immediately to mind, but there were many more. Yet the fascination that travellers hold, definitely when they are women, always make for captivating accounts.

19 July 2013

Annermarie Schwarzenbach All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2011. Hb. pg. 140.

Vanessa Able The Nanologues: 10,000 kms across India in the world’s cheapest car Hachette India, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 324. Rs. 399

Anjaly Thomas Almost Intrepid Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp.220 Rs. 299