Pankaj Mishra Posts

Vera Michalski-Hoffman’s keynote address at Jaipur Bookmark, 25 Jan 2019

The Jaipur Bookmark is a business conclave held during the Jaipur Literature Festival. In fact it begins a day before the litfest is inuagurated. It is a fantastic space for publishing professionals to congregate from around the world and discuss new trends and share ideas and experiences. On the third day of the conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address and with her kind permission it is reproduced here.

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L-R: Anna Solding, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vera Michalski-Hoffman, Jeremy Trevathan, Karthika VK

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. 

Vera Michalski’s tremendous work in supporting literature with the establishment of Libella group and it’s acquisitions of fine independent publishing firms have ultimately benefitted the fine stable of authors as is noticeable with World Editions and it’s recent expansion plans.  “The group is unique in its total financial independence and the diversity of its editorial production: French and foreign literature, travel stories, essays, documents, music, ecology, illustrated books and creative hobbies. Priority is given to quality, especially to the quality of writing.” 

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I thought that I would focus my speech on the specificities of Libella, being neither a giant nor obviously an Indie so that this case study of an untypical small publishing house evolving into a publishing group publishing in 3 different languages could form a sort of starting point for our discussion.

Let me tell you the story of how this independent group came into existence by a succession of launching new imprints and acquiring existing ones and what fields it covers now, naturally mentioning the Indian or Jaipur connection when appropriate. Forgive me for not respecting a strict chronology for it is a complicated story unfolding in different territories.

The whole story started in 1987 in Switzerland when my husband and I opened les éditions Noir sur Blanc, a niche publisher aiming at bringing mostly Polish and Russian authors to the  French-speaking market (France, Belgium, Quebec, Switzerland) and covering both fiction and non-fiction. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall so not that obvious. Later we covered other fields, like narrative history and published quite a few Jaipur regulars such as William Dalrymple, Giles Milton, or Anthony Sattin. We now bring out as well illustrated books mainly about drawing and photography. A total of over 400 titles.

We soon decided that it was important to publish in Polish as well and opened a Polish branch in 1989 where we started by introducing famous international authors into Poland that were then still unpublished. Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Paul Auster, to name just a few. We published Umberto Eco’s novels and brought out detective stories with a travel angle. The likes of Donna Leon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and Andrea Camilleri were unknown then. We have published so far well over 500 books in Polish.

Still in Poland but later, in 2002, Wydawnictwo Literackie, one of the  most literary publishing houses founded in 1953  under communist rule and still state owned, came up for sale in the frame of privatization. We stepped in. That magnificent company’s list and backlist never cease to amaze me. Let’s mention just a few names: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, and Orhan Pamuk. Not to mention the best of Polish literature with names such as Olga Tokarczuk, recent winner of the Man booker International,Witold Gombrowicz, or Szcepan Twardoch.

In the year 2000, in Paris, we had acquired Buchet/Chastel, a literary publisher established in 1929, a well-regarded publisher of fiction. This allowed us to touch French literature which we were very keen to do, alongside some significant international authors. Buchet had been the publisher of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, or Henry Miller to mention just a few names. However, in 2000, Buchet /Chastel was well past its glory. People called it “La belle endormie” in reference to the famous tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, but remembered the iconic bright orange covers.

It made for a real challenge to bring it back to the forefront of literary life. We hired editors for the different lines we wanted to exist: French literature, world literature, non-fiction. We then took a good look at the impressive backlist and decided what directions we wanted to keep. The founder of Buchet /Chastel, Edmond Buchet was a keen musician and a rather good pianist. He had made friends with a number of famous musicians among them Yehudi Menuhin. He published quite a few books about music. We decided to maintain that line. We opened new fields and started an environmental series. France was then not very receptive to these topics, the field being covered mostly by very politicized books on the verge of pamphlets, on marginal topics. Nobody was focusing on important issues and providing objective material, food for thought so to speak, which we aimed at doing. We decided as well to keep the famous orange covers that people remembered modernizing them by using a different cover paper and different typo. Because we all know that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water! Sometimes there needs to be a sort of continuity. Over the years, we published quite a few Indian writers, in fiction and non-fiction, among them our biggest success was Tarun Tejpal, (The Alchemy of Desire). Our list boasts as well with Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Gurcharan Das, Pankaj Mishra etc.

Shortly before 2000, we had acquired les éditions Phébus, a house founded in 1978, with an excellent reputation especially in foreign literature and stories of great explorers, or rediscovered classics, as Alexandre Dumas’s Le Chevalier de Saint Hermine. Phébus had created a paperback imprint a few years before under the name Libretto, now a very important part of the Libella group.

In 2003 we opened a brand new field, drawing, and started publishing big format soft cover beige albums typeset in a classical elegant way and printed on quality paper under the name Les Cahiers dessinés. The aim was to bring back drawing to its rightful place as one of the important disciplines of art alongside painting or sculpture. We now have more than 100 titles in our backlist and some books sold quite well, like Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Without End.

Photography is represented in the Libella group by 2 imprints: Photosynthèses which was started from scratch in 2013 in Arles, in the south of France, (the first book published in 2014 was Lou Reed’s Rhymes). Every book is considered unique and different formats co-exist in the list. They are printed with the utmost care. Libella acquired editions Robert Delpire, founded in 1951, when the founder chose to retire a few years ago. We are gradually opening the list to new authors while remaining careful not to alter the excellent image the house has enjoyed in the past with famous authors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, or Robert Franck. Under these new circumstances, we reacted quickly when the gallery adjoining the Delpire office became available. We relabeled it FOLIA, a name that seemed to reconcile book and image, and produce now 5 exhibitions a year showing both our authors’ work and others whose work fits into the concept. The aim is to show photography with a literary angle.

Another line in Libella needs to be mentioned, practical books under the imprint Le Temps apprivoisé, a part of Buchet Chastel  when we acquired it. We decided to keep it in spite of a relative distance to the main part of the catalogue and a sector fragilized by the competition with internet sites and cheap books produced by the giants able to have huge print runs.

One recent development is very important to me. In 2016, World Editions joined Libella and we now publish in English a small list of 8 books a year under the motto Voices from around the globe. The office is in Amsterdam. The idea is to help interesting books, often from peripheral languages, to get access to translations and the world market in an age where translations, expensive as they are, tend to stick to mainstream authors and main languages leaving some authors alone.

In between, in 1991, we had intervened in order to prevent the closing of the Polish Bookstore established in Paris since 1833.This very well located shop, then selling mostly books in Polish or translated from Polish. It is now a very active general bookstore. It welcomes any kind of literary event in a part of Paris where books have sadly given way to clothes in spite of the fact that it was home to most publishers until recent years saw a consolidation of the industry bringing about the need for bigger office space that the old district of St. Germain des Prés could not offer. This happened recently as a result of the consolidation in the publishing industry, most small literary publishers had to leave the area to move in with their respective groups often located outside the historical centre of town. The bookstore and the gallery became an important part of our publicity and ensure an improved visibility in Paris.

I believe I gave you the general picture of Libella, a confederation of small almost niche mostly literary publishers, publishing in 3 languages out of offices in Lausanne, Paris, Arles, Warsaw, Krakow, Amsterdam and New York.

In spite of our relatively small size, we have a certain complexity, publish over 300 books a year. So where do we stand? Let our discussion clarify that point.

12 Feb 2019

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

[bwwpp_book sku=’97803458160230000000′]

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:

 

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
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The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl
MODERN MAN IN SEARCH OF A SOUL by Carl Jung
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Mircea Eliade
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER by George Orwell
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

2017 Reading Order, Asian Age

My annual feature in Asian Age which highlights the forthcoming titles of the year was published on 8 January 2017

2017 is going to be a fascinating year for books with big names too. 2016 was extraordinary for the number of strong debuts, overabundance of thrillers, revisionist accounts of history and established names releasing new books. There is a tremendous list of books to look out for – Amitava Kumar (The Lovers), Elif Shafak (The Three Daughters for Eve), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints), Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Nadeem Aslam (The Golden Legend), Irwin Allan Sealy (Zelaldinus: A Masque and a travelogue called The China Sketchbook), S.V. Sujatha (The Demon-hunter of Chottanikkara), Sami Shah (Boy), Neil Gaiman’sCinnamon illustrated by Divya Srinivasan, Namita Roy Ghose’s historical fiction (The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the time of Netaji) and The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan.

Debut novelists slated for 2017 that are already being spoken of highly include Prayaag Akbar’sLeila, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds, Torsa Ghoshal’s Open Couplets and Devi Yashodharan’s novel, Empire.

 

natasha badhwar

Mythology continues to be hugely popular (backbone of local publishing) with its innumerable retellings. For instance the eagerly expected Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Others include Mandakranta Bose’s The Ramayana in Bengali Folk Paintings, The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (Translated by Rohini Chowdhury) and popular storyteller Krishna Udayasankarreturns with The Aryavarta Chronicles (4). A curious one to watch out for would be Jaya Misra’sKama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana — a fictionalised biography of the author of The Kama Sutra(illustrated by Harshvardhan Kadam). Then there is Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Kurukshetra War: A Reconstruction and the ever-prolific Ashok Banker who has been commissioned by PanMacmillan India to write The Shakti Trilogy and by Amaryllis to deliver The Shivaji Trilogy.

The winning genre of thrillers is set to burgeon with some new and some established writers, such as Karachi-based police officer Omar Shahid Hamid’s third novel, The Party Worker, award-winning writer Jerry Pinto’s first detective fiction, Murder in Mahim, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Here Falls the Shadow, Sanjay Bahadur’s Bite of the Black Dog, Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her,Nikita Singh’s Every Time It Rains and long-awaited Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters. The bestselling duo Ashwin Sanghi and Dan Patterson are back with Private Delhi. Three intriguing books based on investigative reporting by prominent journalists are in the offing: The Nanavati Case by Bachi Karkaria, Sheena Bora Trail by Manish Pachouly and Who Killed Osho? by Abhay Vaidya.

Women’s writing continues to be a popular segment and has firmly established itself as a well-defined market. Some of the anticipated non-fiction titles are Status Single by the sharply perceptive Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by the extraordinary feminist Laurie Penny, fabulous writer and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s memoir My Daughters’ Mum: Essays and popular mommygolightly blogger Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Stick Bits of Being a Woman. Finally significant women in history and myth will be highlighted with books like Women Rulers in Indian History by Archana Garodia, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History by Ira Mukhoty.  Some of the other significant titles planned are Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes, Sanam Maher’s The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch and Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Ground Reportage on Rape from the World’s Largest Democracy.

Translations are slowly expanding reading horizons by becoming a robust addition to the local imprint. Some prominent translations expected in 2017 are well-known Malayalam writer, Sethu Madhavan’s novels The Saga of Muziris (translated by Prema Jayakumar) and Aliyah (translated by Catherine Thankamma) which is about the migration of Kerala’s black Jews to the promised land of Israel. Rakshanda Jalil’s translation of Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander is titled Traitor, and there’s also the magnificent 900+ page novel Against the World by Jan Brandt (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire), award-winning writer Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm andThe Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (Vol I, translated by Nasreen Rehman) to look forward to.

Evidence of a mature Indian publishing and a stable nation are the increasing number of academic analysis of the literary traditions. For instance two volumes edited by Rakhshanda Jalil — An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai and Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On (with eds.Tarun Saint and Debjani Sengupta).

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will take place in 2017. Plenty of books are in the pipeline. Sudhai Pai’s Uttar Pradesh: A Political Biography, Sajjan Kumar’s The Ailing Heartland: Communal Politics in Uttar Pradesh Since Independence and Venkatish Ramakrishnan’s Dateline Ayodhya. Coincidentally, 2017 is Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year too and her constituency was Allahabad, home of the Nehrus. Two biographies planned are Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife and Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. Ashoka University’s Rudranghsu Mukherjee’s The Nehru Reader is also slated for release.

2017 is also the 70th year of Indian Independence. Some of the books slated straddle academia and lay readership. For instance  Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Barney White-Spunner’s Partition, Sheela Reddy’s long-awaited Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Bertil Lintner China’s India War, Nikhila Henry’sThe Ferment and Aruna Roy’s The RTI Story. Journalist Poonam Snigdha’s Dreamers: The Heart of Modern India is a much-anticipated title for it focuses on the majority of India

Paddy Rangappa

which is under the age of 25. Another title bound to cause ripples with its publication is Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, a polemic on the Western intellectual origins of Islamic fundamentalist. Delhi, seat of political power of the subcontinent for centuries, continues to be the favourite city for writers. Three books due are — Delhi: Power Politics Destiny by Sheila Dikshit, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by historian Swapna Liddle and Maps of Delhi by Pilar Maria Guerrieri.

Business books continue to be bestsellers. Two prominent titles are Paddy Rangappa’s Spark: The Insight to Growing Brands and financial journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets — which has been a long time in the making.

14 February 2017 

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

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Literati is the book-club at SAP Labs India, and India’s largest corporate book-club.

Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, with locations in more than 130 countries, SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and software-related services. SAP logo

 

Literati aims to bring together books, readers and writers. Here’s a list of authors who have spoken at Literati:

  • Amit Chaudhuri
  • Alex Rutherford
  • Alice Albinia
  • Amish Tripathi
  • Amitabha Bagchi
  • Amitava Kumar
  • Anand Giridharadas
  • Anjum Hasan
  • Anita Nair
  • Anuja Chauhan
  • Anuradha Roy
  • Arun Shourie
  • Ashok Ferrey
  • C P Surendran
  • Chetan Bhagat
  • Geeta Anand
  • Harsha Bhogle
  • James Astill
  • Kiran Nagarkar
  • Manil Suri
  • Mark Tully
  • M J Akbar
  • Mita Kapur
  • Mridula Koshy
  • Mukul Kesavan
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Namita Devidayal
  • Navtej Sarna
  • Omair Ahmad
  • Pallavi Aiyar
  • Pankaj Mishra
  • Partha Basu
  • Pavan K Varma
  • Peter James
  • Poile Sengupta
  • Raghunathan V
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Sam Miller
  • Samantha Shannon
  • Samit Basu
  • Samhita Arni
  • Sarnath Banerjee
  • Shashi Deshpande
  • Shashi Tharoor
  • Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Shobhaa Dé
  • Sudha Murthy
  • Suhel Seth
  • Sunil Gupta
  • Sudhir Kakar
  • Tabish Khair
  • Tarun J Tejpal
  • Tishani Doshi
  • Vikas Swarup
  • Vinod Mehta
  • Vikram Chandra
  • William Dalrymple
  • Yasmeen Premji
  • Zac O’Yeah 

Contact: Sumeet Shetty (sumeet.shetty@sap.com)

Sumeet Shetty is a Development Manager at SAP Labs India, and is the President of Literati, India’s largest

corporate book-club.

 

“‘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, … .