satire Posts

“The Jamun Tree” by Krishan Chander

Or listen to Yasmeen Rashidi, The Wire, narrate it: https://thewire.in/books/watch-icse-drops-krishan-chanders-1960s-story-which-questions-centralised-governance

Mohammed Hanif’s “Red Birds”

Nihilistic resistance is the worst kind of enemy; it was all the rage, we were taught in our Cultural Sensitivity 101.  Colonel Slatter had laid out the foundations: We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. No lands captured, no slaves taken, no mass rapes, fuck their oil wells, ignore their mineral deposits. You can outsource mass rape. War has been condensed to carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees. People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who belived in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, not they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks. 

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds is a brilliant political satire using primarily three narrators — Momo, a teenager who dreams of becoming a millionaire after having read Fortune 500; Ellie, a US fighter pilot who ejected out of his burning plane in to the desert and Mutt, Momo’s dog, who has been anthropomorphised by the novelist. The three sections of the book are the three locations where the story is set — the desert, the camp and the hangar. These are in a geographical location that is never very clear where it exists but many readers will recognise it to be an amalgamation of many conflict zones around the world. For the first two sections of the book the women characters of Mother Dear and Lady Flowerbody are present and contribute to the conversations but it is reported speech. Mother Dear is Momo’s mother and absolutely furious with her husband for having taken away their elder son, Bro Ali. Father Dear introduces Lady Flowerbody as his co-worker. Lady Flowerbody is the new Coordinating Officer for the Families Rehabilitation Programme who “works with the families affected by raids and is conducting a survey on post-conflict conflict resolution strategies that involve histories and folklore”. Whereas Lady Flowerbody claims she is writing her “PhD thesis on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires; it might come out as a book called The Children of the Desert“. It is only in the third section of the novel, “In the Hangar”, that the women characters speak and when they do it is powerfully and lucidly.

If the story can be encapsulated in a nutshell it would be about the family in the refugee camp whose elder son went off to the hangar but never returned. Dear Father is suspected by his family of having sold off his elder son. Dear Mother who is mostly confined to the kitchen cooking is given to ranting but she is mostly “off stage”. The male characters — her husband and son, later to be joined by the pilot and a nomad-turned-doctor — mostly hear her out with the husband being the most dismissive of her angry monologues particularly when he cannot understand her obsessiveness with the lack of salt and her inability to cook a decent meal. Ellie is a participant and a spectator to this, more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but he has his own concerns to worry about. Ellie worries about his wife and his job.

Former Pakistan Air Force pilot-turned-journalist Mohammed Hanif scathing political satire Red Birds is reminiscent of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Apparently cadet Hanif discovered Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 in the Air Force Academy library. In an interview with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in 2014, Hanif said he loved Heller’s novel and read it “at least 22 times”. He said he found the book funny but their lives were not unfunny. Hanif adds that Heller certainly changed Hanif’s outlook on the world he was living in.

Red Birds is a fine novel. The deadpan style of writing reveals the absurd situations of war zones. The absurdity of the scenarios are funny too. But it is chilling to realise that these absurd moments are plausible in a conflict zone. Take for instance Father Dear carting piles and piles of files, the nomad-turned-doctor who is called in to treat Mutt, the teenager Momo who learns to drive and steers while sitting on a pile of cushions or Mother Dear who is worried about the lack of salt ( which is actually not unfunny for many, especially women, who have lived in conflict zones).

Red Birds is a sharply satirical novel that cannot be ignored. It is bound to be on the literary prize lists in the coming year. Perhaps even win a prize or two. Read it!

To buy on Amazon India:

Hardback

Kindle

7 November 2018 

“Note on Translating the Novellas” by Velcheru Narayana Rao on translating from Telugu the novellas by Viswanadha Satyanarayana

Velcheru Narayana Rao has translated from Telugu the two novellas by twentieth century writer Viswanadha Satyanarayana — the magic realist short story Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse headed God in Trafalgar Square and the satirical Vishnu Sharma Learns English. These have recently been published by Penguin India.

With the permission of the publishers the translator’s note is reproduced below. It is a fascinating account on the choices writers like Viswanadha Satyanarayana make while writing fiction. These choices are not restricted to the form itself but also to the choice of language and expression and how to assert their identity through the written word. The translator’s note is fascinating to read as it sheds light on how the destination language of English misses out these deliberate linguistic choices made in the original Telugu text along with the liberties the translator himself took.

*****

Satyanarayana dictated his novels to scribes. He rarely wrote himself. He often dictated very short sentences, with a staccato effect, interspersed by long Sanskrit compounds. However, in these novellas the style is simple with no high- flown Sanskrit. The first novella, Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse- Headed God in Trafalgar Square, reads well, with every sentence carefully constructed, though there are occasional lapses in syntax and in marking paragraphs, which could be due to irresponsible printing. However, by 1960, when he was writing Vishnu Sharma Learns English, Satyanarayana had grown somewhat carefree. He began writing novels by the dozen, often dictating several novels the same day to scribes who worked in shifts. He dictated sentences as he pleased, never looking back to read what his scribe had written. The manuscripts were sent to press as they were. No one edited his work, and apparently no one proofread it either. One can find paragraphs that run to pages on end, because the scribe was not told to begin a new paragraph. The punctuation is inconsistent and spelling  arbitrary.  We do not have adequate information about the scribes themselves and their writing habits; and we have no way of checking if the spelling is the author’s or the scribe’s.

I call these novels oral novels, which have to be read with a different poetics in mind than those we apply to written novels. I tried to develop for my translation strategies that reflect the specific nature of the original novels. However, a certain degree of written quality inevitably enters my translation—for the very reason that I am writing and not dictating.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the question of the dialect in which literature was to be written was hotly debated. Telugu literature until that time was mostly in verse. Classical metres were largely syllabic and they allowed only a fixed set of syllabic clusters to be used in a verse. Variations in the canonical shape of morphemes were not allowed in these metres. It was due largely to the continued use of these metres that the spelling of words and patterns of syntax in literary use remained fairly homogeneous through a period of about nine hundred years—quite a phenomenon in the history of any language. Furthermore, Sanskrit, which ceased to be a spoken language but continued to be used as a vibrant literary language for about a thousand years more, gave the Telugu literary dialect a source of sustenance and inspiration to remain uniform and distinct from its various spoken dialects. However, the emergence of the printing press in the nineteenth century generated an increased need for prose.

Paravastu Cinnaya Suri (1809–1862),  a  Telugu scholar in the employment of the East India Company, wrote a grammar of Telugu modelled after the prescriptive style of the venerated Sanskrit grammars, efficiently encompassing the literary Telugu that had been in use for writing verses for about a thousand years. He thought his grammar could be followed for writing prose for discursive purposes, ignoring hundreds of years of the practice of using a different variety of prose in commentaries and common business transactions. The administrators of the East India Company, in charge of public education, most of whom were trained in England in classical languages, prescribed Suri’s grammar in schools. However, the variations in syntax and in the spelling of words between what was acceptable in writing according to Suri’s grammar and the way educated people wrote in their daily use was so great that they almost looked like two different languages. Young men and women were told that the words and sentences as they had habitually written them were ungrammatical, and they had to learn a whole new set of rules to learn how to write.

Modern scholar Gidugu Ramamurti (1863–1940), spearheaded a movement to change the way of writing Telugu. He called the language that followed Suri’s grammar grāndhika-bhāsha, book-language, and argued in favour of adopting for writing vyāvahārika bhāsha, language used by educated people in their daily life.

His argument made a lot of sense: It was clearly artificial to try to write prose for modern use following the rules that were prescribed for writing verses in the past. However, when Ramamurti rejected Suri’s grammar as outdated, it sounded like a call for rejection of grammar as such, like telling people they can write the way they speak—without any regulations. The Telugu literary community was divided into two camps: the ‘traditionalists’ insisted that Suri’s grammar should be respected, and the ‘modernists’ argued that such restrictions fettered the freedom of writing. The arguments were fierce and the battles were endless. It was unfortunate that the debate lacked conceptual clarity. Gidugu Ramamurti, with all his great scholarship, failed to state that he was calling for a new set of regulations  and conventions for a new written language, and not for   a state of chaos where people wrote as they spoke. His argument in favour of a language used by educated people in their daily use (sishUa vyāvahārika), left room for a lot of misunderstanding. In the confusion that followed, it was not realized that nowhere in the world do people write as they speak and that all languages develop written forms that change in time, but still remain distinctly different from speech.

Satyanarayana  took  the  side  of  the  traditionalists, primarily because most of his writing was poetry. But oddly, he continued to support the traditionalists even when he wrote novels on themes of contemporary life. However, as he began to dictate his novels, his style inevitably showed the influence of spoken forms. In the end, the style in which his later novels appeared came out in an incongruous mix of styles, old and new, with words written in a variety of spellings, neither following the old grammars nor following the contemporary spoken forms. His syntax, however, was brilliantly conversational and his sentences powerfully expressive. His desire to follow an outdated grammar failed to suppress his creative energy. In the end, what Satyanarayana achieved was an arresting atmosphere created by an entirely new language that could only be named after him. His prose style became the hallmark of his novels.

Dictating the novels caused other problems as well. As Satyanarayana dictated, he tended to digress frequently from the context of the narrative. Often the digressions were so far removed that whatever he was thinking at the moment found place in the novel, either as a part of the conversation between characters or as a long commentary by the author on the situation at hand. His novels acquired a charm of their own because of these digressions and are loved by his admirers.

While translating Ha Ha Hu Hu where such digressions were few, I followed the original fairly closely. But in translating Vishnu Sharma Learns English, I decided to take some liberties. To translate the printed text as it is might be of interest to critics who might wish to study the author’s mind at work in dictation, but it would tax a non-Telugu reader, and for that matter, even a Telugu reader. Apart from the digressions, which impede the narrative, incidents with local and contemporary references would require endless footnotes. I abridged the novella, eliminated digressions and paraphrased some sentences rather than translate every word. I am aware that in the process my translation might change an oral novel into a written novel. But I hope the oral nature of the novel is still apparent. I made sure that the changes I made are minimal and do not affect the integrity of the story. I maintained the basic style of the narrative and meticulously preserved the dream.

Viswanadha Satyanarayana Ha Ha Hu Hu: A Horse headed God in Trafalgar Square ( translated by Velcheru Narayana Rao) Penguin India, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 399

18 April 2018 

Interview with Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic “Love in Chakiwara”

( 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.

Bilal Tanweer
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.

14 February 2017 

American writer Paul Beatty brings back slavery and segregation to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize

( 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 

26 Oct 2016 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015

 

Edward St Aubyn “Lost for Words”

Edward St Aubyn “Lost for Words”

Lost for Words‘Sometimes you have to read the judges rather than the books,’ he could imagine himself saying in the long Vanity Fair profile that would one day inevitably be written about him. ( p.222)

‘What we have offered the public is the opinions of five judges who were all asking themselves the same basic question: Which one of these books could be enjoyed by the largest number of ordinary people up and down the country?” ” ( p.251)

Award-winning novel Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is meant to be a satire on the Man Booker Prize. The story is ostensibly about the five judges selecting books for the Elysian Prize and the process by which the winner is arrived at. As the author points out that the “gentlemanly mist that still lingered over the field of publishing” made it impossible for people within the industry to seek clarifications about a project/book, let alone money. There is the usual bickering and informed decisions and then the subjective off-the-cuff remarks that add up to pick a surprise winner.

Except for a handful of smart observations about the publishing industry which only an insider can divulge, Lost for Words is one of the dullest novels I have read for a long time. It plods along. Never does it seem to trot or even canter tolerably well. The conversations about literature seem to meander with no sparkling wit or analysis; the attempts at creating extracts from different novels in the running for the prize are mediocre with the voices sound very similar; but the icing on the cake is the caricature of the “Indian novelist”, Lakshmi Badanpur or Auntie — it is unsavoury, making you cringe with embarassment.

The last novel based on the publishing industry I particularly liked was David Davidar’s Ithaca. ( http://www.thehindu.com/books/an-insiders-tale/article2503277.ece )

Edward St Aubyn Lost for Words Picador, London, 2014. Hb, pp. 260. Rs. 699

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

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Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf  Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:

‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’ 

Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.

Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.

“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”

“What are you trying to say?” 

“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”

“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?” 

( p. 292-4)

Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.

It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book  in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.

Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.

However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)

With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.

Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499

31 July 2014 

 

 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!