Joseph Anton Posts

Literati: ” A book in any other form” ( 20 December 2015)

(My column, Literati, in the Hindu was published online on 19 Dec and in print on 20 December. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-reading-experience/article8005049.ece )

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300Book-lovers want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world

My daughter Sarah and I have a bedtime ritual. She brings along a book (if I am lucky, it is only one!) to read. She plumps up her pillow, tucks herself into the crook of my arm and orders, “Read.” It is a long process since I have barely begun to read when her questions come tumbling out or she reads out words in no particular order before I do! She is not yet six, so requires assisted reading. To her the length of the book is immaterial. It is the joy of storytelling, appreciating different styles of illustrations and discovering new landscapes. Sometimes when there is that unnerving-silence-which-should-not-be with a kid at home, I discover Sarah lying on her tummy flipping through her books.

She is charmed by the Kingfisher Encyclopedias, especially the scatological one Don’t Flush, she wants to try the tricks in DK’s illustrated Children’s Book of Magic and squeals with delight when she opens up The Pop-Up Book of Ships or reads over my shoulder L. Pichon’s hilarious The Brilliant World of Tom Gates. She strokes the magnificently detailed illustrations by P.J. Lynch in Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomeyand is very satisfied to discover it matches the text when she impatiently asks, “Show, show!”

Grown-ups are no different. They too want to be satisfied with time spent reading. It could be in different formats as long as the reading transports and immerses the reader into a different world as does Helen MacDonald’s moving memoir H is for Hawk. In 2015, it is claimed printed book sales surpassed ebook sales, yet reading on smartphones is on the upswing as is evident by the establishment of Juggernaut Books and the launch of Pratham Books’s Storyweaver. A survey of bestsellers and critics concluded that the average length of books has increased by 25 per cent in the past five years. For instance, Man Booker Prize winner 2015 Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind and Hanya Yanagihara’s deeply disturbing A Little Life. Yet there has also been a noticeable boom in short stories with Colum McCann’s absorbing but stunningly painful Thirteen Ways of Looking, the incredible range of writing exhibited in the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories translated by Katrina Dodson with plenty more being published in stupendous online spaces like Guernica, The Literary Hub, The Electric Literature, Asymptote and Words without Borders. In fact, the popularity of translations to access world literature can no longer be ignored. Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, announced its Arab list to be launched in 2016. According to the Bookseller, reclusive Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s has made in the U.K. “£1.6m this year through BookScan, 1,254 per cent up on her sales in 2014”. Chad Post in his Three Percent blog post on translation databases in the U.S states that Amazon Crossing has been responsible for a large number of translations, surpassing many independent presse (http://bit.ly/1QrGxV7). Indian publishers too are increasing their translation programmes with notable titles of this year being Daya Pawar’s Baluta (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger), Tiruvalluvar’s The Tirukkural (translated from Tamil by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph), Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi’s Sarasvatichandra Part 1: Buddhidhan’s Administration (translated from Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud, Orient Black Swan), Bhisham Sahni’s Today’s Pasts: A Memoir (translated from Hindi by Snehal Shingavi, Penguin), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin), Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins) and the Hindi edition of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton published by Vani Prakashan.

With this mish-mash of emerging “trends” in international publishing, it is not surprising for firms to ensure a reliable stream of income by publishing manuscripts of dependable storytellers. For instance Wind and Pinball, the early novellas of Haurki Murakami, Ideal: the novel and the play by Ayn Rand, Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, The Mountain Shadow by Gregory Roberts, the to die-for-richly illustrated editions of George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (illustrator: Gary Gianni) — prequel novellas to A Song of Ice and Fire and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrator: Jim Kay).

I cannot say whether Sarah will become a voracious reader, but she has unknowingly discovered that reading is like meditation. The same holds true for adults. The genre is not always crucial to the experience.

Salman Rushdie, ” Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights: A novel”

RushdieHistory is unkind to those it abandons, and can be equally unkind to those who make it. (p14)

Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is fiction like nothing before it. It is in the same class as Midnight’s Children —ground breaking literary fiction. Like the One Thousand and One Nights that it echoes in its title it is an intricate web of stories within stories, which showcase Rushdie’s technical, verbal and literary expertise. It is tales within tales spread over many centuries. It is about a Djinn, Duniya, and her love for a human – Ibn Rashd better known in the West as Averroes– and their family. ( Ibn Rashd was also the name Rushdie’s grandfather adopted and adapted to created his surname. “Rushdie” is not an inherited family name.)

He has created a world, sufficiently far-off in the future to create and discuss life today without really disturbing anyone’s equanimity in the present. It is very hard not to consider parts of it as being autobiographical, particularly when the authorial narrative intrudes to comment upon war, freedom, choices made as humans etc. Although in an interview with poet Tishani Doshi for the Hindu, Rushdie says categorically that autobiography is less and less important for him. He writes “something original and strange and unusual, and now there’s a mood for real life stories and so my book is the kind of anti- Knausgård”. ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla ) Yet it is hard to separate the two parts of a man — the lived/autobiographical element and the literary fiction. For a man who has lived under the shadow of a fatwa, he has lived daily with the fear of death, much like Scheherazade the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. In Rushdie’s case, it has made him fearless and outspoken. His speeches and articles on freedom of expression are admirable for their clarity and sharpness. For instance, listen to Rushdie at the India Today Conclave on 18 March 2012:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNzGgYvz92s . It is this confident, breezy style evident in his literary experimentation. From his very first novel it has been evident but over time it has been taken to another level — another landmark in modern literary fiction for writers to admire, probably emulate.

In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Rushdie sparkles when his anger simmers through the novel, but at first glance it does not seem so to exist. It just seems like a magic realism tale where innumerable characters waltz on and off the page as and when they need to play their parts. There is little time for the reader to create a “bond” with any character save for a tenuous one with Geronimo the levitating gardener. It is more like a manifesto of Rushdie’s experiences as  a writer. In a Paris Review interview of 2005, he had said: “My life has given me this other subject: worlds in collision. How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story? It’s one thing to say it, but how can you make a reader feel that is their lived experience?” (Salman Rushdie, The Art of Fiction No. 186 Interviewed by Jack Livings, The Paris Review, Summer 2005, No 174 http://bit.ly/1OmU2Tv ) This twelfth novel too is like an amalgamation of his experiences — cultural and literary — brought forth as a fabulist tale. It can be read for what it is at first reading or appreciated for its multiple layers. Richness of the text lies in the degree of engagement you can have with it as a reader. Ironically this novel makes a mockery of the information-overloaded age since many of the literary, cultural, political, historical and linguistic references are acquired over a period of time with reading and experience. The text cannot be deciphered by looking up references on Wikipedia. It won’t make the text work satisfactorily. Rushdie is delightfully unapologetic about blending languages and cultural references. He is what he is. This is it.

In the 2005 Paris Review interview Rushdie had been asked, “Could you possibly write an apolitical book?”. He had replied, “Yes, I have great interest in it, and I keep being annoyed that I haven’t. I think the space between private life and public life has disappeared in our time.”

If possible, read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights  in conjunction with Joseph Anton, his memoir. But read you must.

Here are links to some recent articles and interviews with Rushdie published to coincide with the launch of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Rushdie interviewed by Tishani Doshi in The Hindu, 13 September 2015. ” ‘I kind of got sick of the truth’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmOcla)

Nilanjana Roy’s wonderful analysis of the novel in Business Standard, 7 September 2015. “2.8.28: More hit than myth”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmP0qe )

Salil Tripathi’s review-interview with Rushdie in The Mint, 4 September 2015.  “Salman Rushdie: ‘I have no further interest in non-fiction’ ”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmQnVW )

A profile in the Guardian. An interview conducted in Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie’s office, by Fiona Maddocks, 6 September 2015  “Salman Rushdie: ‘It might be the funniest of my novels’ ” ( http://bit.ly/1OmNtAn )

Ursula le Guin’s review in the Guardian, 4 September 2015   “Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie review – a modern Arabian Nights”  ( http://bit.ly/1OmNKDF )

An interview with Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, 4 September 2015. “Salman Rushdie on His New Novel, With a Character Who Floats Just Above Ground”  (http://nyti.ms/1OmPhJU )

“The novel is vividly described and rich in mayhem – Isn’t this mayhem reminiscent of the knowledge we carry in our head” Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, 12 September 2015.  “Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights review: Rushdie on overdrive” ( http://bit.ly/1OmPWec )

Salman Rushdie Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books India, Gurgaon, 2015. Hb. pp. 290 Rs 599

13 September 2015

Granta: Best of Young British Novelists 4

Granta: Best of Young British Novelists 4

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( My review of the Granta: Best of Young British Novelists 4 was published in the Hindu Literary Review. Online 3 aug 2013 and in print 4 Aug 2013. Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/literature-for-the-facebook-generation/article4985464.ece )

…Qayyum listened to them and tried to imagine telling his mother she should be more like the women of Europe – she’d hit him about the ears with a shoe as if he were still a child.
Without warning, the air became driving rain, and Kalam’s words smeared across the page. Qayyum ducked his head and, as quickly as his fumbling hands could manage, threw the blanket over his head. The day his youngest sister put on a burqa for the first time she wore it backwards, no face mesh for sight or breath, and she had burst into tears until Qayyum lifted it off and put it on the right way round: she was still young enough to throw her arms around him and say, Lala, forget the army, stay here and defend us from our mistakes. …

Kamila Shamsie, “Vipers”, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel.

Best of Young British Novelists 4 is Granta’s once-in-a-decade attempt to identify writers with a promising future. Many of the writers discovered through earlier attempts have gone on to establish glittering literary careers. To name a few – Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iain Banks, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, HariKunzru, Monica Ali, Jeanette Winterson and Pat Barker. In this

Best of Young British Novelists 4 has a fantastic line-up of writers: Benjamin Markovits, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, Nadifa Mohamed, TahmimaAnam, Sunjeev Sahota. Zadie Smith and Adam Thirlwell have the distinction of being in the previous decade’s list too. It is difficult to review a collection that consists of 20 fine literary contributions. Every work included here is distinct in terms of its landscape, atmosphere and plot. The range of stories deal with war in Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh; floods in England; a mother dying of cancer; the realignment (or fluidity) of relationships; details of social networks like family, university friends, employer-employee that in the globalised world are crumbling or evolving (depending upon how you see it) across class, caste, economic, geo-political lines. Sensitive issues like immigration/asylum seekers, xenophobia and religion are tackled head on, yet tactfully.

At times there seems to be a very thin line between reality and fiction with powerful descriptions that lie in the rich complexity of detail. It is literature suitable for the literary palates of the Facebook-generation, netizens who are exposed to different cultures in daily conversations with friends and acquaintances flung around the globe. The young under-40, authors felicitated in Granta 123 are definitely ushering in a new era of writing. And “if they are good enough, novelists are dangerous individuals.” In his Introduction, John Freemanreveals that over 150 authors applied for this distinction. Twenty were selected — 12 women, eight men with women outnumbering the men for the first time. Funnily enough “despite not having discussed the need for diversity, gender balance or multiplicity of background, the selection revealed it to be so.”

The kind of fiction selected marks a tectonic shift in international fiction. These writers are global citizens, comfortable with any part of the world they reside in. Nothing distracts them from their sharp focus on their work. They are sensitively attuned to the cultural differences in every region. They use their command over words, especially in English, to write a form of fiction that is understood, accessed and appreciated by a wider audience; the “readerly” audience that James Freeman rues is fast disappearing. (“We live in unreaderly times.”) The flavour of such literature is that it has a universal appeal it is highly sophisticated and polished, with not a word out of place. It is excellent craftsmanship. It is infused with a great deal of experience at reading, literary interactions, professional conversations and presentations.

In his memoir, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie writes about the judging for the Best of Young British Novelists 2, 1993, “It was a passionate, serious debate … Then the list was published and the piranhas of the little pond of the London literary scene went after it….Welcome to English literature, boys and girls.”

Likewise with this volume the literary potential of the 20 anointed writers is discernible, but the maturity of many is as yet to be achieved. It will be honed in the stormy and choppy waters of literature.

Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie, on writing

Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie, on writing

Joseph Anton

‘Are you serious about this writing business?’ Vonnegut unexpectedly asked him as they sat drinking beers in the sunshine, and when he replied that he was, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five told him, ‘Then you should know that the day si going oto come when you won’t have book to write and you’re still going to have to write a book.’ (Joseph Anton p.62).

“‘Unsafe’ was a feeling he was familiar with.”

“‘Unsafe’ was a feeling he was familiar with.”

Joseph Anton

Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton was released in 2012. Well before it was published it was being discussed–what will be said, what will not, will it live up to expectations etc. The title is borrowed from the names of two writers whom Rushdie admires, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The nearly 600 pages are preoccupied with a decade of living under the fatwa, a death threat issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie having written Satanic Verses. From the announcement of the news on 14 February 1989 till the threat perception was reduced to level four by Scotland Yard, Rushdie documents his complete bewilderment, growing frustration, simmering rage and absolutely disgust at the reactions of many who did not support him. He meticulously records his growing isolation from family and friends; the desperation at wanting to socialise but never being able to, at least not without prior planning with the police officers deputed to protect him; and then his growing rage at the hijacking of freedom of expression especially at the altar of religious zealots. He does not mask his distaste for his colleagues in the creative industry who fail to support him, including the “big unfriendly giant Roald Dahl”.

Interestingly he uses the third person technique to write. As if he is a dispassionate observer of what Joseph Anton experiences, though at times “Salman” does intrude and speaks, introspects and reflects. It is curious that many of the reviews ( a few are reproduced below) comment upon the technique recognise it to be a unique way of writing, but do not understand the import of it. Whereas if you read any written account by a woman of a trauma that she has experienced, when the moment comes to describe the actual event, she inevitably switches to the third person narrative. ( It is rare indeed for it to be ever written in the first person. And if it is, then it is usually a draft that has been worked upon extensively till it is worked out of the system of the victim.) In Joseph Anton Rushdie describes a period of his life that must have been fraught with anxiety for every second of the day and night. So it is not surprising that even though he had his diaries to refer to he opts to use a technique that makes the memory of living with terror 24×7 easier to write about. It is fascinating to see him use a writing technique that is normally not associated with men.

Joseph Anton is a detailed account of what happened in that frightful decade of Rushdie’s life, but also consists of references to his family and friends. It is a delightful balance of the personal and professional aspects of a very public figure. Graham Greene was amused that Rushdie had got into more trouble than Greene himself ever had! Whereas Gabriel Garcia Marquez never asked him about the fatwa. They had a straightforward conversation about writing and books, much to the relief of Rushdie. And of course the famous literary spat that John le Carre and Rushdie had in 1997. It was finally called off in November 2012 ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2012/nov/12/salman-rushdie-john-le-carre-archive-1997 and http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/12/salman-rushdie-john-le-carre ). The ups and downs with the family, understanding his parents and their marriage and his utter and complete adoration for his two sons born eighteen years apart — Zafar and Milan– comes through very clearly. The passages on publishing, literary agents, sale of rights, publishing schedules makes one wonder whether the digital age revolution has really changed anything at all. The details, the arguments, the negotiations are the same, whether it was in the 1980s or now. There are moments when the editorial inputs should have been stronger since the text tends to get a little clunky and tedious, yet it reads well.

Years ago I recall attending a literary event where Salman Rushdie with Padma Lakshmi were also present. It was at the Oxford Bookstore, Statesman House, New Delhi. They were (I think) guests of William Dalrymple who was at the store to do a reading. For a long time I reflected upon that evening, but after reading Joseph Anton, a lot is explained especially the sheer joy of Rushdie at being able to live a normal life.

Whenever Rushdie writes non-fiction he does it extremely well. Those years of being “invisible” and yet not, being catapulted onto the front pages of the newspapers worldwide gave him the confidence to speak clearly and strongly. He says what he wants to say. One of the most recent examples being the speech he gave at the concluding dinner at the India Today Conclave, New Delhi held on 18 March 2012. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNzGgYvz92s). He insists that everyone should be allowed to speak without fear. He never really did, now he definitely does not, feel the need to mince words. I liked Joseph Anton.
30 May 2013

Salman Rushdie Joseph Anton: A Memoir Jonathan Cape, London, 2012. Hb. pp. 650 Rs 799

    Examples of reviews of the book, dwelling upon the third person technique

http://observer.com/2012/10/gone-underground-in-a-new-memoir-salman-rushdie-looks-bach-at-his-fatwa/ “The first thing readers will notice about this memoir is that the memoirist has written it in the third person. It is not a perspective often associated with self-awareness.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/18/11-revelations-from-salman-rushdie-s-memoir-joseph-anton.html “…the book is written in the third person, as if a ‘biography’ of Rushdie/Anton…”

Pankaj Mishra in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/18/joseph-anton-salman-rushdie-review ) “In his memoir, where Rushdie bizarrely decides to write about himself, or “Joseph Anton”, his Conrad-and-Chekhov-inspired alias, in the third person, … .