Poland Posts

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg

Swallowing Mercruy is Wioletta Greg’s first novella is set in the fictional village of Hektary in the 1970s and 80s of communist Poland.  It is about the mundaneness of existence in the village but the sketches which are primarily autobiographical bring out the distinct flavour of what it meant to be in communist Poland. While the narrator’s father is an atheist, her mother and grandmother continue to be practising Catholics at least to the extent of having an altar at home. The clash between the communist government and the ground reality in the village which is still observing rituals learned over decades is a constant undercurrent. Whether it is the women of the village getting excited about the imminent arrival of the Pope and the atheist members of their family scoffing at their piety or sending the wind up the sails of the local school authorities upon being visited by inspectors from the city to investigate the smudged painting of Moscow done by a school girl as they misunderstand it as an affront to their authority!

It is a beautifully written book by Wioletta Greg while recollecting her childhood in Poland. It makes alive a recent past though it seems as if belongs to a different era altogether. So much has changed in the world after the fall of communism in 1989.  The greatest symbol of the fall of communism and end of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall coming down. Today, 5 February 2018, marks 10316 days since the Wall was broken — the exact number of days it was up and has been broken for!

Reading fine literature like Swallowing Mercury today is like reading a sliver of history but not necessarily of long ago — this is history which is very much a part of our living memory.  A time where the concept of individual freedom as we now know it did not exist. It was a period of learning to live with systems that were by nature autocratic and usually accepted as given by the common people. Today many democracies are returning to such a dictatorial order  with the difference being that individual expression flourishes ( although for how long is a different question!).  Swallowing Mercury while entertaining for the story it shares is also a sobering reminder that we should not forget the past. Learn from it. Don’t ignore it.

Wioletta Greg Swallowing Mercury ( Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak) Portobello Books, London, 2017. Hb. pp.150 Rs. 799

5 February 2018 

 

Links (27 Feb 2017)

Literary Prizes

Scholastic Writing Awards 2017, deadline 28 February 2017

Winners of the PEN (USA)

Barnes & Noble Announces the Salam Award for Pakistani Science Fiction

Shortlist Announced for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2017

2017 longlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction

LA Times Book Prize finalists

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston has won the Bologna Ragazzi Award for fiction

Branford Boase Award longlist

All-white Carnegie medal longlist provokes anger from children’s authors and here is the response from CILIP responding to lack of diversity

 

Miscellaneous Links 

Ukraine publishers speak out against ban on Russian books

How Flap Illustrations Helped Reveal the Body’s Inner Secrets

Invisible, a book written by the homeless, can be read only when it’s cold (Kapucynska Foundation, Warsaw, Poland) A special temperature-sensitive paint was used to print the text. The letters, the words, the sentences will become readable after a couple of minutes – but only if the temperature is lower than 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)

Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write

The Woman Who Cut of her Breasts :  The real story of how one woman’s rebellion against oppressive feudalism has been hijacked and repurposed by the patriarchy

Rafia Zakaria on Carson McCuller’s birth centenary

Pixar offers free online lessons in storytelling via Khan Academy

An Elegy for a Library” by Mahesh Rao

A lovely essay by writer Andaleeb Wajid “Learning to be myself: Can you overcome obstacles by yourself?”

Global Literature in Libraries Initiative: Publishers Showcase — fantastic idea to have a global catalogue of translations from independent presses. h/t Rachel Hildebrandt

Reviewer and critic, Laura Miller’s fantastic interview by Michael Taeckens in Poets & Writers

An excellent interview with publisher Robert Giroux by George Plimpton in Paris Review 

An interview with Pakistani independent publisher, Shandana Minhas, Mongrel Books

An interview with Yemeni author Ali al-Muqri

Award-winning writer Tope Folarin brilliant essay on “Against Accessibility: On Robert Irwin, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers

Something to cheer about: Human translators rout AI in much-hyped translation event

Himanshu Rai, the boss of Bombay Talkies, and his two wives

 

Literati – “Readers return to book fairs” ( January 2016)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My column, Literati, has been published online on 16 January 2016 and will be published in print in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on 17 January 2016. I am c&p the text below. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-how-readers-are-returning-to-book-fairs/article8113687.ece 

Publishers across languages were taken aback by the phenomenally positive response at this year’s World Book Fair

“Because I have time to spare, and for the first time in my life nobody expects anything of me. I don’t have to prove anything. I’m not rushing everywhere; each day is a gift I enjoy to the fullest.”

                                                                                                                                           Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, ( Simon & Schuster) is a breathtakingly elegant novel, full of quiet grace, about ageing, love, and friendships across generations. There is violence in the story, plenty of it. It is impossible to escape it. Allende writes about her Jewish protagonist Alma Belasco who flees from Nazism in Poland as a young child, the setting up of camps for Japanese families in America after Pearl Harbour, and the devious rings of online child pornography, which Irina Bazili, a refugee from a Moldovan village, experienced. Yet, surprisingly, The Japanese Lover radiates peace. It is written by a 73-year-old novelist who is herself no stranger to violence, having fled Chile during General Pinochet’s coup. As in Toni Morrison’s stupendous God Help the Child, ( Penguin Random House) these two writers come to terms with the fact that there are hardships, but it is important to treasure life one day at a time.

It is this spirit that across during the World Book Fair this year. The fair was brought forward by a month since the country of honour, China, had requested it. Many Indian publishers were apprehensive about the move as they were not very sure about the impact it would have on sales. Yet publishers across languages have been taken aback by the phenomenally positive response.

Piyush Kumar, Publisher, Prabhat Prakashan, whose family has been selling Hindi books for many decades, was astounded by the response. He noted with happy astonishment, “After the crowds left on Sunday evening, our stall looked as if it had been looted. My father who started this business has never seen such record sales.” Across publishers and languages, everyone is reporting unprecedentedly brisk and healthy sales.

At the CEOSpeak on 10 January, organised by FICCI and NBT, Le Yucheng, the Chinese Ambassador, stressed that “books matter in bilateral exchanges”. The presentations focused on translations, digitisation, volume printing and paper trade. But the shocking rates offered by Indian publishers to translators needs to be addressed before such bilateral publishing programmes can be explored.

For instance, the range varies from no payment to an absurd 0.25 paise per word (which has no value given that the denomination is no in circulation) to an acceptable sharing of the author’s royalties. The Translators Association of UK recommends that translators be paid between £80 and £90 per 1000 words but it is still an uphill task to ensure that publishers pay this fee.

Talking of healthy sales, some reasons publishers gave for the phenomenon was that readers are now shunning online stores because of the fluctuating discount structures, the improved connectivity to the fair with the Metro, the fair being organised at the beginning of the month before household budgets are exhausted., the excellent weather, Delhi schools being shut to implement the odd-even traffic rule, and the discernible long-term impact of government programmes like ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ that have encouraged literacy and reading.

The size of the Indian publishing industry is estimated at Rs. 260.7 billion (2013-14) with a CAGR of 20.4 per cent. Manisha Chowdhury of Pratham Books remarked, “India is a country of more than 780 documented languages, 66 scripts, only 22 scheduled languages and we have lost 250 languages in 50 years. Sixty per cent of books published are for education. Children’s books are at 30 per cent. We do have a book hunger in this country where there is only one book available for every 20 children. Publishing for children is important only for textbooks whereas every child’s childhood should find a reflection in their literature.”

Having said that, at the book fair, children and adults were seen buying all kinds of books or attending conversations at Author’s Corners with equal enthusiasm. Online conversations like this, “M not into reading but my son is … nd he is after my lyf for wbf .. nd finally gng tmrw” are popping up often on social media newsfeeds. As a publisher said to me, “The glitz and glamour in Delhi is a mirage; people in this city are poor too, so those who come to the fair today may be on a budget, but they come to spend.” They live life to the fullest.

16 January 2016 

Alex Bellos, “Alex Through the Looking Glass”

9781408845721I spent the better part of a morning reading bestselling author Alex Bellos’s absolutely delightful book Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life. ( The American edition is called The Grapes of Math.) He uses anecdotes and examples from real life but neatly dovetails it with the history of modern mathematics, interweaving it with accounts of legendary mathematicians. Some of the text is very technical but is still accessible. This book is written for the layperson, not a specialist. But golly, this man is informative. I love the way he has strung together maths trivia with crucial bits of knowledge effortlessly. I admire the way he talk about eminent mathematicians as if they were his buddies but very respectfully places them in context. It could be Newton, Leibniz, Archimedes, Brahmagupta et al. He makes you chuckle when making reference’s to Euclid’s Elements reads like a recipe book.

And then I discovered this tweet. The book has been shortlisted for an award.

Alex Bellos (@alexbellos) tweeted at 3:22 PM on Wed, Aug 05, 2015:
Thrilled to make @royalsociety Winton Prize shortlist w @matthewcobb @WanderingGaia @jimalkhalili @jonmbutterworth +https://t.co/5y2aKNm7VP
(https://twitter.com/alexbellos/status/628866049467940864?s=03)

His previous book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. Alex Bellos writes a blog for The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/alexbellos It is worth browsing through. He makes maths fun!

He helps rearrange one’s muddled significance and timeline of eminent mathematicians through the ages but contextualises them very well, it won’t be easy to dismiss as “boring maths”.  For instance, “Thales is ..the first person to have a specific mathematical discovery named after him: Thale’s Theorem, which states that the triangle inscribed inside a semicircle has a right angle. He also used his deductive powers to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, and improve after a few bad years. He bought all the olive presses he could at rock bottom prices and when the upturn came he got rich. A century later, the comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of the great sage by having him fall in a ditch because he was lost in thought, gazing at the sky. Thales is not just remembered as history’s first mathematician and philosopher, but also as history’s first absent-minded professor.” (p.59)

Or the story about The Scottish Book

Between the First and Second World Wars, a clique of mathematicians in Lwow, Poland, met regularly in a coffee shop, the Scottish Cafe, to discuss mathematical morsels such as the pancake theorem. Hugo Steinhaus, a principal member of the group, wondered whether the theorem could be extended into three dimensions. ‘Can we place a piece of ham under a meat cutter so that meat, bone and fat are cut in halves?’ he asked. His friend Stefan Banach proved that such a cut is possible, using a theorem attributed to two others in a group, Stanislaw Ulam and Karol Borsuk. Banach’s result has subsequently been popularized as the ‘ham sandwich theorem’, because it is equivalent to stating that one can divide a ham sandwich in two with a single slice that cuts each slice of bread and the ham into two equal sizes, no matter how each piece is positioned and whatever is shape.

The mathematicians who gathered in the Scottish Cafe kept a thick notebook of all the questions they asked each other, which they entrusted to the care of the head waiter when they went home. Eventually known as The Scottish Book, it is a unique collaborative work, and not just because of how it was written. ( It was never published as a book, but some of its problems appeared later in journals.) 

(p.236-7)

Ulam later joined the Manhattan Project.

I would strongly recommend buying this book. It is the kind of nonfiction book you dip into and come away feeling time has been well spent. It would also be a useful addition to the reference section of a library, particularly of schools.

Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life Bloomsbury, London, 2014, rpt 2015. Pb. pp. 340 Rs 399.

13 August 2015 

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

I was asked by Asian Age to  interview Kalyan Ray and review his new novel, No Country. The review-cum-interview was published in the Sunday edition of Asian Age on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://wwv.asianage.com/books/looking-neverland-504 . I am c&p the article below.) 

no countryThis was no country the world outside cared to know.
(Page 469, No Country)

No Country, Kalyan Ray’s multi-generational second novel, spans nearly 200 years, several continents. Beginning with the murder of a couple of South Asian origin in 1989, it jumps back in time, to Mullaghmore, Sligo County, Ireland, 1843, and three friends — Padraig Aherne, Bridget Shaughnessy and Brendan McCarthaigh — whose lives become inextricably linked with the birth of Padraig and Bridget’s illegitimate daughter, Maeve. Bridget dies in childbirth after Padraig has sailed off to India, later to become a successful timber merchant, and Maeve is cared for by her paternal grandmother, Maire, who on her deathbed hands Maeve to “Papa” Brendan. The potato famine is on; the starving Irish flee to America on overcrowded ships. Papa Brendan and Maeve survive a shipwreck and arrive on a farm in Canada. From here the story moves to two continents, told by various narrators with different points of view, coursing its way through Canada, India, Bangladesh, famines, refugees in America, Ireland, Odessa, Poland… The zooming about is dizzy, and often characters pop up only to disappear soon — we meet Armenians in Calcutta; Padraig Ahern marries Kalidasi; the Easter Uprising of 1916 is reported in the Bengali papers two weeks after it happened, and that reconnects Padraig to his motherland; Padraig’s son and grandson Robert Ahern are caught in the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919; Jewish pogroms begin just when Jakob Sztolberg, a Polish Jew, marries Maeve; India’s Partition. Dizzying. But it flows smoothly.

Ray attributes his ability to weave various voices in various places to being “born into the rich oral culture of India.” “I have been deeply and permanently influenced by that. I grew up listening to a vast variety of folk stories, tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana, and have been fascinated by the story-telling techniques of the Pandavani. Even our folksongs are voices telling stories. All this colours my palette in conscious and unconscious ways,” he explains. According to him, the responsibility of the writer lies in making the reader sit up all night to read. “If you write about characters that you care deeply about then the reader will be mesmerised; that is the responsibility of the writer.” Ray says that he had to be “particularly careful” about the 10 distinct voices in his novel, ranging from 19th century rural Irish voices to those of Billy Swint of 1960s New York and Kush Mitra of the early 1990s.

Ray took an eight-month sabbatical from his teaching job to immerse himself in Irish literature of 1835-1847 — books, political Kalyan Raypamphlets, newspapers and posters. He said that “later historical research often challenged and corrected contemporary perceptions of events, but I needed to keep in mind that for a novelist, the early estimations, even rumours — especially early rumours — must mark the pigment on the canvas.” The novel is packed with delightful details. “I owed it to my readers to paint the past as vividly and accurately as I could, with its sights and sounds, contemporary opinions and mindsets. So I needed to use numerous books of history, memoirs, and contemporary journals… (I) put in a great deal of effort not to let the research show in the telling of the story…” Grafton Street in Ireland is pointedly described as being paved with wood, whereas most Irish streets were packed with sod. He learnt this tiny fact after “many hours spent often with a magnifying glass in hand peering into photographs of early Victorian-era cityscapes of Dublin, and at Irish landscapes of that period”.

Women are pivotal to the novel, yet they have been described only in terms of their sexuality and the choices they make after becoming pregnant (mostly out of wedlock). Though Maeve’s character develops logically, she comes across women often do in mythology — mostly just strong survivors of circumstances. Though she can read before she is four years old, she is never shown to be doing anything with her literacy. Instead, she swiftly adapts to farming. Ray says that he has been influenced by William Faulkner. Perhaps this slide of realism into myth comes from Faulkner.

Migrants don’t necessarily have the leisure to recall stories, occupied as they are in putting their lives together, making new friends, learning new language, culture. No Country tells their story. In an interview he gave to his publishers, Ray said, “I consider this story to be a seismic shrug, a novel that consists of individual migrations. These are stories about people looking for a country, a place where they could set roots but find it nowhere.” Ray too is a migrant, dividing his time between Kolkata and America. Paradoxically, No Country does not read like a story told by a migrant. Though I read the novel in two sittings, I remained dissatisfied with the outsider’s perspective.

Post 9/11, a noticeable shift in contemporary literature, particularly fiction, is an excessive stress on identities, akin to ghettoisation of literature according to ethnic, regional and religious identities, and literary criticism has always been preoccupied with genres. But No Country is refreshingly rich in multi-cultural diversity and is able to bringing out the commonality amongst migrants.

Kalyan Ray No Country Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2014. Pb. pp. 560. Rs. 599