Douglas Smith’s Rasputinis a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.
Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:
Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.
Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita.
Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599
Pan Macmillan India announces the appointment of Prasun Chatterjee as Editorial Director
Prasun Chatterjee sets to join Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited as its Editorial Director this September. With over 12 years’ experience in the industry, Prasun brings in a rich editorial experience, having worked with publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Pearson.
Prasun started his career in publishing in 2005 as an Editor for history books at Oxford University Press India. His last assignment was as Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press where he acquired a diverse portfolio of books in areas such as history, politics, religion, and philosophy. During his two five-year terms with Oxford University Press, he has worked with some of the renowned scholars across disciplines.
Among the many writers Prasun has published are Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar. In 2015, several of his commissioned works received national and international recognition at major conferences, including awards at the American Historical Association, Association for Asian Studies, and the Indian History Congress.
As an Editorial Director, Prasun will be responsible for the imprints under Pan Macmillan India, including Picador India, Pan and Macmillan. He will be working closely with Jeremy Trevathan, Publisher, Pan Macmillan UK, to shape the Editorial list. Reporting to Rajdeep Mukherjee, Managing Director, Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited, Prasun starts with the company on 15th September, 2017.
Prasun Chatterjee said: ‘I find this shift symbolic of the increasing convergence between academic and non-fiction publishing; two streams which will draw upon each other even more closely in the coming years. From the works of V.S. Naipaul to Ramachandra Guha and the books by Patrick French to Pankaj Mishra, the range of non-fiction from Pan Macmillan has the timelessness and quality of a mature publishing programme. I would like to contribute to this list of distinguished, yet accessible writing.’
Jeremy Trevathan said: ‘I’m delighted to welcome Prasun into the Pan Macmillan fold. Our local publishing in India, across both fiction and non-fiction, is key to our international strategies for growth going forward. As the distinctions between academic and commercial publishing continues to blend, Prasun brings a wealth of experience and a strategic thinking to our publishing in the sub-continent.’
Mrs C Remembers is Himanjali Sankar’s first novel for adults. It is about Mrs Anita Chatterjee and about three generations of the family. It starts with the death of Mrs Chatterjee’s bedridden mother-in-law. The other woman’s perspective brought in is that Mrs Chatterjee’s daughter. The novel is remarkable for its gently told empathy towards ageing and the worrying and lonesome task of caregiving. It is a well-crafted portrait of a competent wife, mother and grandmother who sadly begins to become paranoid and loses her memory. Though fictional this novel is very close to Himanjali Sankar’s reality; as she wrote in Daily O her mother has Alzheimer “Memories of my mother that Alzheimer’s can’t wipe clean”
This book is written simply and straight from the heart. It is going to be a constant seller if the publishers can ensure it remains in circulation for it will resonate with many caregivers. It will help in giving solace to many realising they are not alone in this experience.
Read it. Share it. Circulate widely.
Himanjali Sankar Mrs C Remembers Pan, Pan Macmillan India, 2017. Pb. pp. 198 Rs 299
It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream. Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.
“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”
Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,
“We need to go faster“,
” I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,
“But you always miss the important thing“,
“I’m not interested in thisanymore” and
“Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.
Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.
Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.
“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,
“We’re almost there“,
“This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,
“It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”,
“It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you gothere.”
Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood. It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.
There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.
Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.
As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith),Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.
Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India)
Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.
The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!
It has recently been announced that Seagull Books and Pan Macmillan India have entered into a partnernship to distribute Seagull World Literature in India. It is a fantastic announcement since this is a list which needs to be read widely. Here is a note from the founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore.
naveen in office
Let me begin with the impulse. After all that is what brought me to the world of books. And publishing. Impulse. And of coursetheimpulse. This one. The one that makes me write-talk to you and others. Others like ourselves. The ones that act out of a sense of community. The larger good. Not entirely out of a sense of the romantic. Though I confess it is a consideration. But also because it makes fine business sense to help the publishing environment I call ‘community’ flourish by giving it creative and persistent nourishment.
The retail in India is to put it simply gasping. For breath yes. But also for ideas. It is fairly bankrupt. Not only for lack of money. It lacks the vision to attempt something fresh. Different. Risky. Easier to moan about the flipkarts and the Amazons. They are visible enemies. But the enemy within. As in the retailing mentality that is totally bereft of passion is far more dangerous.
Thirty years ago it was different. Quite simply a few good men were importing the best of world literature and making it visible and available to all of us young adults. You name it and it was there. Even on the pavement stores of Calcutta one could and yes one did find Audre Lourde and Tillie Olsen.
Soon this would fade away. Primarily because people in publishing discovered other ways of crunching numbers. Profits replaced instinct. You know the rest.
Now the stores have very little choice. The books being imported are those that have either front list excitement and therefore short-lived or popular fiction that qualifies in polite parlance as pulp. The publishing that qualifies as ‘Indian’ is a bunch of multinationals based in India that are all scrambling for a certain kind of idea of India either in English or translated from other Indian languages. No. World. Literature.
I like taking risks that have a fifty fifty chance of paying off. This is one such impulse. Fiction Poetry Non-Fiction of a ‘popular kind’ somewhat like the early Pelicans Translated Literature Philosophy for the lay intelligent readers and Politics and History and Ethics.
Not slowly. Swiftly. In numbers. To create that good old fashioned ‘critical mass’ that presents itself like a corpus of thoughtful ideas as books. To offer a choice to booksellers on a scale that competes with the mass of self-same books that fill up our shelves.
The idea is to do at least 50 books a year. For the next three years. Scaling it to 100 maybe from year four.
Seagull World Literature presents a splendid and constantly growing list of must-read books from all corners of the globe—some originally in English, others in outstanding English translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese and many other languages. Encompassing fiction, poetry, philosophy, art and literary criticism, and exquisitely produced in Seagull’s signature style, Seagull World Literature brings together a fascinating array of critically acclaimed writers, from Nobel Laureates to promising, young award winners.
A most enriching world of letters is now yours to explore.
( This interview was first published in Bookwitty on 7 January 2017. The book has been published by Pan Macmillan India. )
Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (1920–2002), modern Urdu literature’s great master, worked as an electrical engineer in Karachi and began writing while still in service. He was a prolific writer whose oeuvre consisted of novels, short stories, essays, reviews, parodies and travelogues. His short story Khoya hua ufaq (written in 1943) was published by noted writer Saadat Hasan Manto in 1953. He is also known for his translations into Urdu of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. He was awarded the Aalmi Farogh-e Urdu Award for lifetime achievement by Majlis Farogh-e-Adab, Doha. Although he is known as an Urdu writer, Dawn newspaper published an article in which in a letter to his friend Mohammad Kazim dated July 11, 1954, when Khalid Akhtar was in his mid-30s, he wrote ‘Urdu is my darling, but after so many years, I have yet to learn the craft of using it properly. My vocabulary is limited. Even today the thought comes in English and has to be delivered in Urdu. I have to make a conscious effort to convey an idea in Urdu. Every sentence is an effort, an agony.’
According to well-known Pakistani writer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Khalid Akhtar’s earliest writings were parodies written in English. When they first met, Farooqi was 24 and Khalid Akhtar 72. Khalid Akhtar quietly began to mentor Farooqi by encouraging him to read and lending him books from his personal library and later being his first reader/critic. Farooqi recalled that Khalid Akhtar “mentioned to me that some well-meaning people who had read my Urdu prose, and knowing of his influence with me, had suggested to him that he should persuade me to write in Urdu. I told him that I had decided to write in English because most of the fiction I read was either originally written in English, or was translated into it, and when I thought of writing something it became difficult not to think in the language I read all the time. He knew the problem and told me that his first writings were in English too, but persuaded by friends to write in Urdu, he gave up writing in English.”
Nearly fifty years after Chakiwara main Visal (1964) was published, the English translation along with three other stories, The Smiling Buddha, The Love Meter and The Downfall of Seth Tanwari, based in Chakiwara, a Karachi neighbourhood, was just published by PanMacmillan India as Love in Chakiwara and other misadventures. The smooth translation of these stories from Urdu to English is by noted Pakistani writer Bilal Tanweer. In the title story (which is more a novella), Love in Chakiwara, the writing is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s satirical wit. Oddly enough, Swift’s humorous writing style perfected to an art form a few centuries earlier is a befitting literary technique used by Khalid Akhtar when recreating the sights, sounds and conversations of a Karachi neighbourhood. The credit for these stories in pitch perfect English translation, seemingly Swiftian, most definitely goes to Bilal Tanweer who labored long and hard with this collection of stories.
Tanweer teaches creative writing at Lahore University of Management Sciences. His short stories, essays, and poetry have been published by Granta, Critical Muslim, Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing From Pakistan, Vallum, Dawn, The Express Tribune, The News on Sunday, and The Caravan (India); his translations from the Urdu have appeared in Words Without Borders and The Annual of Urdu Studies. In 2010 he received the PEN Translation Fund Grant for Chakiwara chronicles; in 2011 he was selected as a Granta New Voice.
Following are excerpts of an interview conducted with Bilal Tanweer.
Why did you select Chakiwara main Visal to translate? Which of the stories included in this collection did you enjoy translating the most?
Credit goes to [noted Pakistani writer] Musharraf Ali Farooqi who recommended that I read the book and take on the project. I translated an excerpt from another story by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, which was published in Words Without Borders, and received a positive response from the readers. That encouraged me to undertake a longer project, which has taken some six years.
How many times did you read the original story in Urdu before you began the translation?
During my last translation project, I realized that the translated text becomes choppy and loses its flow if you continually pause to look up words. So now I begin by reading the whole text first to get a sense of the tonality of the text. Then I read the chapter which I have to translate, underlining all the words that are confusing to me, or that could be translated several ways. Then I look up unknown or confusing words. I also try to find solutions for words whose translation could be difficult or tricky. Once all this is done, I begin translating. I try to work quickly without taking too many breaks; it really helps preserve the flow of the text.
What is your translation routine? Do the methodologies of writing and revising differ considerably between translated literature and original fiction?
Yes, they do. With translation you are focusing mostly on language. So revisions are limited to make the best linguistic choices. With writing, everything is up for revision.
When and why did you venture into translations?
I was a student in New York living on a slim stipend when I saw an advertisement for a $5000 translation prize. I thought I should have a crack at it. I did not win the prize but I realized translating was a lot of fun—much more than I had imagined. So I carried on.
Urdu literature is known for its rich embellishments and exaggerated descriptions. Are these easily translated into English?
Usually these poetic flourishes are not easy to translate. These were particularly a problem in my last project of Ibn-e Safi’s work where prose is playful, and contains many allusions from Urdu poetry. With Khalid Akhtar, the problem did not arise because he writes in a more “urban” prose where the use of poetic exaggerations are ironic, which can be communicated to the reader.
Fictional landscapes such as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and R K Narayan’s Malgudi become permanent fixtures in a reader’s mind. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara is similar. As a novelist yourself would you ever consider creating such a landscape and use it consistently in your fiction? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
I am a strong believer in the dictum that great fiction is fiction of place. Great writing emerges from deep engagement with specific places, and Chakiwara is no exception to this.
( My interview with popular writer Jeffrey Archer was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017. The Clifton Chronicles are published in India by PanMacmillan India. )
The Clifton Chronicles by Lord Archer is about Harry Clifton, a dockyard worker’s son who rises to become a very successful author and hold a respectable position in society. The series arc is set across three generations in 20th century Britain. It begins during the First World War and ends with the Thatcher era.
While reading the Clifton series, I could not help but draw comparisons between Charles Dickens and Jeffrey Archer as extraordinarily popular authors of their times. Later I discovered that in an an interview Lord Archer acknowledged Dickens as one of his literary heroes. Each portrays characters embedded deeply in socio-economic divisions, while creating an atmosphere with their language, expressions and manner of engagement. Unlike in literary fiction, where much of the time is spent detailing dress and manners and manner of accents, The Clifton Chronicles focus on how to operate within specific socio-economic divisions. There is a nuanced reflection of what society was like. The character building does not happen much with authorial intervention, with long expositions about an individual, but is achieved through their engagement with the surroundings. The way Lord Archer captures the manners and speech reflecting the class of an individual may not be something to mention in polite society, but it is most certainly a discreet cultural language everyone is acutely aware of.
Dickens may be very popular now and is the darling of academics worldwide, but soon after his death he was not much talked about. It was a while after his death, probably in the early 20th century, when it became fashionable to read and discuss him. Similarly, with Lord Archer’s novels there is a very deep silence amongst the literary establishment that exists in acknowledging him as a storyteller (in fact he makes some astute observations on the big literary fiction prizes in these novels). Surely commercial fiction like his has a reason to exist? Certainly the numbers of units sold worldwide, including in India, tell a pretty good story too – it is the kind of success literary fiction writers aspire to. So this deep distaste for popular literature is unfathomable? Probably the classical divide between “high” and “low” art continues to be deeply entrenched. Hence popular fiction like The Clifton Chronicles is seldom considered for literary prizes.
On finishing the series I corresponded with Lord Archer, facilitated kindly by his publishers, Pan MacMillan India. Below are edited excerpts of our correspondence.
Before you began writing The Clifton Chronicles did you broadly plot out a series arc?
No, initially I envisioned only three books, then five, but as I wrote, the characters grew and changed, and I needed to keep going in order to get them to where I wanted the saga to end. I rarely map out the whole plot of a book, although I do always have an idea of how I want it to end – though it sometimes takes a different direction half-way through!
Dickens and you serialised stories – he in Household Words and you with The Clifton Chronicles novels. Both have had the effect of keeping readers waiting in great anticipation for the next instalment. Why did you choose to write a series and not a single fat doorstop of a novel chronicling the Clifton and Barrington saga?
I looked on this as a new challenge as I’d never written a series before.
Creating and sustaining the plot for 3000 pages spread over so many decades must have required tremendous research and fact-checking. How did you do it? Do you work with a team of people?
I don’t have a team of people – I read a lot beforehand, and I have a researcher who helps me with some background research, and along the way I will speak to different experts in their fields if I’m writing about a particular subject or place for example.
How often do you revise your manuscripts?
I will write out a chapter maybe three times during the first draft, and then when my PA has typed up my handwritten pages, I’ll then work on them for several more drafts. I then discuss this with my editor and revise it again. So it could be revised a dozen times.
How do you name your characters? (There are so many!)
I’m always looking for new names to use – I might be watching TV and as the film credits roll, think ah, that surname is interesting, or be reading a newspaper and spot a name I haven’t used before which would suit a particular character. They could come from anywhere – I think I may even have used a couple of names from my local rugby team.
You have been publishing for more than four decades now. What are the transformations in this industry that you have witnessed?
The biggest change is of course the incredible rise in eBooks. But I think this has only changed the industry for the better – encouraging more people to read.
Have these in any way affected your style of storytelling and its productivity? How has it in particular affected the author-reader relationship? Has the demographic of your reader changed or remained constant?
My readership has grown with The Clifton Chronicles, and my fans might be 9 or 90!
Many claim your books to be inspirational for their stories of triumph, yet you portray society as it is. It makes me wonder if these books are semi-autobiographical. Are they?
Some of the characters and the events within The Clifton Chronicles series are certainly inspired by my own life and even people I knew. I was brought up in the West Country of England, so have always wanted to set a novel in that area. There is a little bit of me in Harry Clifton – we’re both authors for a start, and certainly Emma was based on my wife Mary.
Who is your favourite character in the book?
Lady Virginia, without a doubt. She turned into a fan favourite. I was going to kill her off after book three, but she demanded to continue!
What kind of books do you like to read?
I read many different genres including biographies and non-fiction for research, but my favourite is fiction, from the likes of Dickens, Dumas, H H Munro and Stefan Zweig.
Will you have these books optioned for a period drama?
I would love to see The Clifton Chronicles as a TV drama series.
What next after The Clifton Chronicles?
I have a new book of short stories coming out this year, and am currently working on my new novel.
( My review of the Man Booker Prize 2016 winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty was published by Scroll on 26 Oct 2016, a day after the win was announced. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819961/american-writer-paul-beatty-brings-back-slavery-and-segregation-to-win-the-ps50000-man-booker-prize . I am also c&p the text below. )
‘The Sellout’ is a wicked satire on racism, and makes Beatty the first American to win the Man Booker.
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store…But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost while to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall. I was the “diversity” the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class.
Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout is a magnificently absorbing story told by a nameless narrator who is referred to by his girlfriend as “Bonbon”. The novel opens with him in court not for a petty crime like stealing, but for encouraging racial segregation and slavery. The narrator has been born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles.
A work of contemporary fiction that revolves around histories of family,The Sellout comes with a twist. It covers only two generations – father and son, and what happens next. Among other things, this includes the reintroduction of slavery and segregation. The father of the narrator is a single parent and a sociologist, who turns his only son into an on-going social experiment in childrearing methodologies.
For instance, the father ties his four-year-old son’s right hand behind his back so that he can grow to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. Or, he tests the “bystander effect” as it applies to the “Black community” on his eight-year-old son by beating the boy in front of a throng of bystanders who don’t stand around for too long. Sadly the father is killed in a police shoot out. The narrator is left bewildered.
You’re supposed to cry when your dad dies. Curse the system because your father has died at the hands of the police. Bemoan being lower-middle-class and coloured in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones. But I didn’t cry. I thought his death was a trick. Another one of his elaborate schemes to educate me on the plight of the black race and to inspire me to make something of myself, I half expected him to get up, brush himself off, and say, “See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t shoot niggers on sight.”
The inheritance is downright bizarre – the son, like his father, becomes a “nigger whisperer”. It is one of these men he “rescues”, Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals”, who becomes a devoted slave to the narrator. Curiously enough, just as he was his father’s little social experiment, the narrator turns his neighbourhood into a larger sociological study by promoting segregation to the extent of drawing a white boundary line around the space.
The Sellout maintains a mad pace of breathless storytelling that sometimes only works effectively if read out aloud. In an interview recorded in May 2015, Beatty, pokes fun at racial politics but insists that the novel is about a ton of other things too. ( (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4PYhbZvz_g ) He refers to his work as a metaphorical tale wherein he has been thinking about segregation and how it will be in modern times. Acknowledging it also changes one’s outlook. He adds, “I don’t try to be satirical but I think in my head and on paper and it takes a long, long time to be poetic and I have a little bit of agenda which is hard to pull off.”
The Man Booker winner says his approach involves humour and personal experience. “I am starting from myself.” With the American presidential elections due in less than a month, was the jury specially influenced by the issues raised in this novel? It is a stupendous decision by the Man Booker Prize judges in awarding the £50,000 award to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It is the first time an American has won the prize. It is a doubly sweet win for independent publishers Oneworld who have probably made publishing history for their back-to-back win at the prestigious literary award. The Man Booker Prize 2015 awarded to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was a Oneworld publication too. In the subcontinent Pan MacMillan India represents and distributes Oneworld.
As a poet, writer, and a trained psychologist, Beatty has brought his vast experience in writing and understanding human behaviour to produce a magnificently raw, hard-hitting, fantastically honest, take-your-breath-away work of dark humour. The Sellout is satire at its finest. At times it is hard to believe this is fiction and not excellent reportage.
Paul Beatty The Sellout Oneworld,London, 2016. Pb. pp. 288 Rs 399
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
28 June 2016
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