Joel Dicker Posts

Michel Bussi, “After the Crash”

Michel BussiInteresting little book. It is a translation. A thriller. Detailed as you would expect mystery stories to be. Bulk of the action takes place in 48 hours, although the air crash and mixed-up identities around which the story revolves took place eighteen years earlier. It employs the literary technique of interspersing journal entries with the plot moving in real time as well. So it is not always the flashback technique in a straightforward narrative but text that appears at the right moment — just when the character reading the journal and  reader of After the Crash begin to have questions, they are neatly supplied by the journal. Many readers and critics of After the Crash are putting Michel Bussi in the same league as Steig Larsson and Joel Dicker. The comparison is inevitable since all three authors have written gripping thrillers, each unique in its treatment of plot, style and storytelling and curiously enough, the books are translations that seem to have transcended all cultural barriers and caught the imagination of readers worldwide. Michel Bussi too is a man worth reading. 

Michel Bussi After the Crash ( Translated from the French by Sam Taylor) Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Hachette, Great Britain, 2015. Pb. pp.390 Rs 399

1 September 2015

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

***

Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Harry Quebert Affair“…you asked why I wrote. I answered that I wrote because I liked it, and you said…”

“Yes, what did I say?”

“That life had very little meaning. And that writing gave life meaning.”

“That’s it exactly. And that’s the mistake you made a few months ago, when Barnaski was demanding a new manuscript. You started writing because you had to write a book, not because you wanted to give your life meaning. Doing something for the sake of doing it never works. So it isn’t surprising that you were incapable of writing a single line. The gift of being able to write is a gift not because you write well, but because you’re able to give your life meaning. Every day people are born and others die. Every day, hordes of anonymous workers come and go in tall gray building. And then there are writers. Writers life life more intensely than other people, I think. Don’t write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it’s the only legitimate way to make this tiny, insignificant thing we call life into a legitimate and rewarding experience.”

( p.250-251)

Joel Dicker’s debut novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, is about a young, successful author, Marcus, who is trying to prove the innocence of his mentor and teacher, Harry Quebert, in a murder case. Harry Quebert is also  a novelist, known famously for The Origin of Evil, which he wrote when he took up residence in Somerset, New Hampshire in the 1970s. Thirty-three years later the remains of a corpse are discovered in his backyard, along with a copy of the manuscript that propelled him to fame –unfortunately linking him to the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Marcus who is trying to write his second novel and is unable to do so, gets interested in this story. Slowly and steadily he begins to uncover stories, facts that leave even the current police investigators bewildered, as to why some of these obvious leads were not pursued when the murder first happened.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is about the murder. It is about the relationship between two writers, a mentor and his pupil. It is about publishing books, doing the number crunching and finding the next big seller that will mesh well with the reading environment by being contemporary, sensational, and inseparable from what is happening in real life. So to the publisher Barnaski it is immaterial whether Marcus writes a fictional ending, loosely based upon the events as they develop or he creates an account of the trial. Barnaski is interested in a bestseller, delivered in two months, with a team of editors (if need be ghostwriters too), sales and marketing people in place and he has already begun negotiations for optioning the film rights to Hollywood. There is a “theft” or a strategic leak of Marcus’s notes to the prominent newspapers of East Coast.

An extract.

He ordered champagne, spread the contracts out on the table, and went over the main points again: “Delivery of the manuscript at the end of August. The jacket art will be ready by then. The book will be edited and typeset in two weeks, and printing will take place in September. Publication is set for the final week of September, at the latest. What perfect timing! Just before the presidential election, and more or less exactly during Quebert’s trial! It’s marketing genius!” 

“And what if the investigation is still ongoing? I asked. “How am I supposed to finish the book?”

Barnaski had his response all ready and rubber-stamped by his legal department. “If the investigation is finished, it’s a true story. If not, we leave it open, you suggest the ending, and it’s a novel. Legally they can’t touch us, and for readers it makes no difference. And in fact, it’s even better if the investigation isn’t over, because we could do a sequel. What a godsend!” 

The novel is riveting. There are details about the story that slowly emerge through the layering in the storytelling. The narrative keeps going back and forth in time, relying upon testimonies of witnesses, newspaper clippings and police records. Funnily enough, despite it having this form of back-and-forth narrative and being a translation, it reads smoothly. There are obvious shades of Nabokov in it, at times it can be quite creepy and disturbing to read the story, but impossible to put the book down. Not once do you ever stop to wonder how could a Frenchman have written an American novel such as this? To explain: It has been written in French, translated into English, set completely in Somerset, New Hampshire on the East Coast of USA. Yet there are obvious influences of French realism as seen in French literature and cinema; an eye for detail, the care with the most astonishingly vile and repulsive detail is recorded, not once, but over and over again without the narrator/writer getting emotionally involved as if hammering the reader with it, till it is indelibly imprinted upon the reader’s mind, but also unleashing an unimaginable blackness. Without giving details of the plot, let it be said many of these incidents are pertaining to Nola. 

Joel Dicker is Swiss, 28-years-old, a lawyer with four unpublished novels and now this smashing hit of a debut novel — it has already sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in French in 2012. It was a book that caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012. According to an article published in the Telegraph, “in October 2012, ‘the French novel with the long title’ was genuinely the talk of the town. Everywhere you went, people would mention this book, sometimes pulling a folded piece of paper from their pockets to remind themselves of the name.” ( 1 Feb 2014.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10611852/Harry-Quebert-The-French-thriller-that-has-taken-the-world-by-storm.html) The English translation was finally acquired by Christopher Maclehose of MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books. ( Quercus is the same publishing house that translated Steig Larsson’s trilogy into English.) The Truth about the Harry Decker Affair  has won the Académie Française novel prize and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; it was shortlisted for the main Goncourt. The English translation has been published in May 2014. 

Read it.

Joel Dicker The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair Maclehose Press, Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. p. 630. Rs. 599

Translated by Sam Taylor.