novella Posts

Tuesday Reads (Vol 1): 11 June 2019

Dear Reader,

There are so many exciting new books being published that sometimes it is a tad challenging writing about them as fast as one is reading them. I have truly enjoyed reading the following books. Each one has had something special to offer.

The Remainder by Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán and translated by Sophie Hughes is a darkly comic road novel. It is about an unlikely trio in an empty hearse chasing a lost coffin across the Andes cordillera.  Felipe, Iquela and Paloma are the three friends who are in search of Paloma’s mother’s coffin. It was “misplaced” in the journey from Germany to Chile. Paloma’s mother passed away overseas but wanted to be buried in her homeland. It is a bizarre journey they embark upon, narrated by Felipe and Iquela. The three were young children and often refer to the referendum night of 5 October 1988 when the people voted to topple Pinochet. At one level the journey can be perceived as a bildungsroman but it is also a coming-to-terms moment for the three with their past. A dark past that cast a long shadow upon Chile. Alejandro Zambra has called such novels belonging to ‘the literature of the children’. It is probably pure coincidence but it oddly parallels a Bollywood film called Karwan in which too an unlikely trio go on a road trip to sort out a coffin mix-up that occured at the airport. The Remainder was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and was the winner of a PEN prize.  It is a remarkable book!

Another translation that I read but would possibly exist at the other end of the spectrum from the frenzied The Remainder is the quietly meditative The Forest of Wool and Steel by Japanese writer, Natsu Miyashita. It has been translated by Philip Gabriel who is better known for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Set in small-town Japan, it is about Tomura who is charmed by watching the piano tuner working on the school piano. He is convinced that this is the career he has to pursue. It is impossible to offer a gist of this beautiful novel. Suffice to say that a million Japanese readers who bought the book could not be wrong! Hitsuji to Hagane no Mori won the 2016 Booksellers novel and was also turned into a film. The English translation was published recently. It offers the confidence of one’s convictions to pursue a career that is out of the ordinary. The Forest of Wool and Steel is stunning for its peaceful stillness in an otherwise noisy world.

Saudade by Australian Suneeta Peres Da Costa is an equally gripping coming-of-age novella. It is set in Angola in the period leading up to its independence from Portugal. The young girl who narrates the story is of Indian origin. Her parents are Goans. Her father is a labour lawyer, working for the Ministry of Interior, preparing workers’ contracts. Her mother is a housewife. Saudade is a novel about domesticity and the impact the outside socio-political developments on the family. Saudade is also about the relationship between mother and daughter too. Caught between the different worlds of Portugal, Goa and Angola, the little girl, is finally packed off “home” to Goa by her mother. The little child experiences what her parents were never able to articulate — a sadness, a saudade, a lostness, a feeling of not having a place in the world. Saudade is a memorable story for it wraps the reader in its wistfulness, its sadness, its pain and it is not easy to extricate oneself from it for days after. Suneeta Peres Da Costa is a young writer worth watching out for. Hopefully one day she will write that that big inter-generational novel spread across continents. Let’s see.

More in the next edition of “Tuesday Reads”!

JAYA

11 June 2019

Graham Swift, “Mothering Sunday”

Mothering SundayThe Beechwood library has its wall’s worth of books, most of which ( a maid knows) had hardly ever been touched. But in one corner, near a buttoned-leather soft was a revolving bookcase ( she liked to twirl it idly when she was cleaning) in which were kept books that clearly had been read. Surprisingly perhaps, in such a generally grown-up place, they were books that harked back to childhood, boyhood or gathering manhood, books that she imagined might once have flitted between the library and those silent rooms upstairs. There were even a few books that looked newly and hopefully purchased, but never actually begun. 

Rider Haggard, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Stevenson, Kipling … She had good reason to remember the names and even the titles on some of the books. The Black Arrows, The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines …she would always see their grubby, frayed dust jackets or the exact coloration of their cloth bindings, the wrinkling and fadings of their spines. 

Of all the rooms at Beechwood, in fact, the library, for all its dauntingness, was the one she most liked to clean. It was the room in which she most felt like some welcome, innocent thief. 

( p.66-67)

 

Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday is a dazzlingly splendid meditation on reading. If it were not for the fabric of a plot and the misleading subheading in the title “A Romance”, this little novella would be a prime example of a powerful interior monologue by an accomplished writer exploring his individual talent in a literary tradition.

Read it. Read it for the story at its face value. Read it for its social commentary. Read it for a century of world of English literature and translations it unveils. Read it to find your inner equilibrium. (It is incredible how much more at peace I was at for having read this slim book.)

Graham Swift Mothering Sunday Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016. 

9 March 2016 

Literati: A Spiderweb of Yarns ( 14 November 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 14 November 2015 and in print on 15 November 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-spiderweb-of-yarns/article7872752.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

The old lady chuckled. “Each story that sinks into the book becomes a part of an ancient spiderweb full of stories.”

“As more stories are added in, the spiderweb gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it forms an invisible blanket that covers every city and town, every village and every forest. And when someone who is walking by touches the web accidently, stories will flow into their head and from their head to their fingers and from their fingers on to paper…”

(Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children by Malavika Nataraj. A chapter book published by Puffin Books)

Suraya's GiftSuraya has been given an exquisitely designed blank notebook by her aunt. She scribbles stories in it for a while only to abandon it. Later, unable to locate it she encounters the Story Catcher who tells Suraya the book has been passed on to another child who has better use for it. Malavika Nataraj’s is a stunning debut.

Ranjit LalThe importance of stories can never be stressed enough. Ranjit Lal’s new novel Our Nana was a Nutcase (Red Turtle) is about Nana, who is bringing up his daughter’s four children. (Their parents are busy diplomats.) It is a super brilliant, sensitively told novel about the children witnessing their Nana’s gradual decline with Alzheimer’s, their coming to terms with it and slowly realising they have to be the caregivers for their Nana. A similar story about the heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson is found in the bittersweet David Walliam’s David Walliamsbestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape (HarperCollins).

Stephen AlterStephen Alter’s slim novella The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin Books) is a little beauty too. It introduces three school children to the magic within a forest they tumble into while walking to school. It is a secret sanctuary where they can be in close proximity to the animals without the beasts being aware of their existence. They discover nuggets of information from the naturalist, Dr. Mukherjee.

MananManan (HarperCollins) by Mohit Parikh is an “odd little tale” as he calls it. Manan attains puberty and is fascinated how reaching this milestone changes his perspective on life, transforming him in more ways than one. It is a first novel about an ordinary family in a small town.

MunnuMunnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins), a graphic novel by Malik Sajad with autobiographical elements, is already causing a stir internationally. Sajad anthropomorphises the Hangul deer to tell the chilling account of being a young boy in Kashmir when it was torn apart by conflict. Munnu capitalises upon his excellent drawing skills to draw political cartoons.

Some other examples of well-told stories are: Scholastic India’s annual offering For Kids by Kids featuring short stories by young writers between the ages of 10 and 16. Paro Anand’s Like Smoke (Penguin Books), a revised edition of her young adult stories Wild Child; Parismita Singh’s stupendous graphic story retelling the Naga folktale Mara and the Clay Cows (Tulika); Karishma Attari’s debut novel I See You (Penguin Books), a chilling horror set in Mumbai, and the gorgeously produced retelling of the Baburnama called The Story of Babur by Parvati Sharma, illustrated by baburUrmimala Nag (co-published by Good Earth and Puffin Books). Scholastic’s Branches book series like Dragon MastersThe Notebook of Doom and Owl Diaries ( http://www.scholastic.com/branches/), and Simon and Schuster’s travelogue series Greetings from Somewhere ( http://www.simonandschuster.com/series/Greetings-from-Somewhere) with helpful illustrations, easy-to-read text and simple plot lines designed for newly independent readers, are strong on storytelling Wimpy Kidtoo. Then there is the astoundingly popular Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School within a week of its release has already sold 100,000 copies in India. Timed with its release has been the launch of the Puffin Car that will be used to build excitement about books and the habit of reading among children.

For Kids By Kids 2015

***

Stories have a way of working their way into becoming a part of one’s mental furniture and creating cultural landscapes that stay forever. A wonderful example to ensure stories continue to be shared is the “Libromat” in South Africa bringing together laundry and reading established by social entrepreneurs from Oxford University.  ( http://www.libromat.com/ )Inspired by a study that said dialogic book-sharing is an interactive form of shared reading (http://1.usa.gov/1MVTK7E), an early childhood development centre in Khayelitsha was outfitted with washers and dryers, and the women were trained to read with their children. libromat-inhabitots

( Note: Images used on this page are off the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them.)

15 November 2015 

Literati – “The Critic” ( 19 July 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 18 July 2015) and was in print ( 19 July 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-world-of-books/article7429521.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

In a column on January 11, 2015, The New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s review of Harper Lee’s much-awaited Go Set A Watchman(@GSAWatchmanBook ) — on the front page, no less. There have been energetic nitpicking conversations about this review. But the truth is that any space given by a mainstream newspaper to a book review is unusual. For, despite the 50-year gap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter has a two million print run. Lee’s resurrection of Atticus Finch has excited readers. According to Bloomberg, US, “it is the most pre-ordered book in her publisher’s history.” (July 9, 2015, http://bloom.bg/1HXxgij )

This pre-publication hype is any writer’s publicity dream. Space for reviewing books in print media is fast dwindling while rapidly gaining momentum on social media, prompting many writers to be creative in getting their books discovered. Popular writer, Ravi Subramanian has launched an app to help promote his books. Booksellers too have to be innovative — curating literary engagements or as the portly owner of Haji Suleiman and Sons tells Hafiz in Anis Shivani’s lengthy debut novel, Karachi Raj “Shelving is an art. Mixing the old and the new on the same subject is more important than getting the alphabetical order just right.”

An important part of the publishing ecosystem is the critic. The few well-read critics like James Wood, Amitava Kumar, Tim Parks and John Freeman are known and greatly valued for their honest, straightforward and informed observations. Whether in print or virtual space, by critics or others (publishing professionals use their Facebook walls to air frank opinions), a good review should generate conversation. Recently, Daniel Menaker — writer and former Editor-in-Chief, Random House Publishing Group — said of the new Harper Lee novel : “Here’s the thing: it is natural and inevitable for readers and experts to compare these two Harper Lee books to each other. But the comparisons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of each book. They are two different objects. You can get historical perspective about an artist by comparing an early landscape to a late one, but the value of both remains entirely independent of their relation to each other. Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits is an excellent source of historical, biographical comparison, but as works of art they must be judged on their own merits. [Alexander] Alter’s piece in The Times is where it should be — outside the review arena. Kakutani’s “review” should have given no more than a nod to TKAM in discussing GSAW, if you ask me. The rest of the review would have been actually more useful if it had addressed the merits and problems with GSAW on its own terms. Seems to me.” (Quote reproduced with permission.)

With this, Menakar sparked off a crackling literary conversation about the merits of reviewing. To be a professional critic is never painless. It is particularly tough when the critic is an integral part of the literary set of concerned editors, publishers and authors; some of whom have acquired demi-god status. Thus Shamsar Rahman Faruqui’s The Mirror of Beauty and The Sun that Rose from the Earth, and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, which are rich longwinded tapestries of the past, have had reasonably good sales and glowing critical acclaim. In his Afterword to Mantonama, Saadat Hasan Manto declares: “know-it-all pundits” can have a powerful impact on an author, but solace lies in realising that “literature…is a self-existent entity. …Literature is as alive and exuberant today as it was before it was discovered.” (My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)

In ‘Bad News’, an essay in his splendid book, Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar sums it: “With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. …It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.” Saikat Mazumdar’s exquisite The Firebird and K. R. Meera’s disturbing novella And Slowly Forgetting that Tree (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika) are fine examples of such satisfying literature.

15 August 2015 

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm ToibinAt a little over a 100 pages The Testament of Mary is the slimmest novel on the ManBooker Prize shortlist. In this novella Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, narrates in first person the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. She recounts the story in her old age to two people, whom she refers to as “Guardians”, but were probably those who were recording the events marking the life of Jesus. These testaments were to be later compiled into a text. All though in the Bible the only four gospels are by men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No women.

The Testament of Mary is a novel that has been adapted from the play of the same name, written by Colm Toibin. It was nominated for a Tony Award Best Play,  Best Actress, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design of a Play. Even two thousand years or so after the Bible was created and nearly seventy years after the Gnostic gospels were discovered ( in which there was a script by Mary Magdalene ) it is rare to find a woman’s testimony on the events surrounding Jesus Christ. ( Recently there have been attempts to create a feminist Bible as by the German evangelicals and the new version of the Bible being translated by the NIV Committee on Bible translation is gender sensitive too. ) So Colm Toibin’s attempt at writing this testimony is significant within theological traditions and literary fiction. To create a woman character who speaks at length, it is like a monologue, but remains an observer. The story works dramatically and it is not necessary to be familiar with the events in the Bible to understand or even appreciate this novella. Yet I was left wondering at when Mary witnesses the crucifixion of her son on the cross, she continues to recount the events in the first person, whereas if a woman ever tries to record a traumatic incident in her life, she is only able to do so in the third person. It is a dramatic shift that occurs. So it is curious that Colm Toibin retained the first person narrative even for this section–maybe it worked well on stage? ( Passages on p.76-77.)

Recently it was announced that  actor Meryl Streep would be doing the audio version — http://shelf-life.ew.com/2013/09/10/meryl-streep-testament-of-mary-audio-clip/ .This is a good example of literary fiction. It will be read and it will be discussed over time. But whether it wins the ManBookers Prize on 15 Oct 2013 remains to be seen.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary Viking, Penguin Books, London, 2012. Pb. pp. 108 Rs. 299

9 Oct 2013 

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

“No Child’s Play” Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

9789350297018.20130731184251

“Charming” is how Samit Basu describes No Child’s Play. Charming it certainly is. A novella written in Bengali (1990) and recently translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. It is a simply told sci-fiction novel, something that we would probably bracket in speculative fiction now. It has all the fancy footwork of embedding chips in the brains of foetuses by an evil-minded doctor, so as to control them and create an army of workers. It has all the lovely bits of bad men on the run, a scientist escaping from China and using false passports to reach America in order to help a baby who has been used as an experiment and then the creation of a sensitive robot. Much of this now seems plausible.

It is like reading a Gene Roddenberry story now. At the time of publication it must have been amazing to see how the imagination works, and the possibilities that lie with science. For instance his descriptions of the doors opening automatically when a person approached. Now such technology is common. So when many of the things that they describe come to pass it no longer seems extraordinary. Yet the story does not lose its charm. It remains a good story. Likewise with No Child’s Play.

As for the translation. It is done competently but “Indianisms” like “dicky” (instead of “dickie”) are retained in the English translation. Instead of translating it as the trunk or the boot of the car, the word “dicky” is used. It left me wondering how many allowances can we make in a translation transmitting a culture too. Do we aim for perfection in the destination language or make concessions for such words?

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay No Child’s Play Translated from the Bengali by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay Harper Perennial, HarperCollins, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 250.