Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me has a protagonist who shares the same name as the author. It has been translated from Spanish into English by Daniel Hahn. The fictional Juan like the real Juan did has plans to move from Guadalajara in Mexico to Barcelona in Spain to pursue a doctorate in literary theory made possible with an EU grant. This is where the similarity ends ( at least we hope so!). The fictional Juan has a cousin who is of no good and hobnobs with local criminals. Practically on the eve of Juan’s departure, the criminals kill the cousin and persuade Juan to run an “errand” for them in Barcelona. He is asked to “infiltrate” the literary postgrad world in order to acquaint himself with a wealthy Catalan magnate’s daughter, Laia. The devious plan involves the Mexican cartel wishing to extort money from the wealthy man. Juan agrees to this preposterous plan. He enrols himself to study humour in Latin American literature. Meanwhile his life outside the classroom flip flops between third grade crime fiction and literary fiction. Juan on a mission encounters the dirty underbelly of society. He comes face to face with dodgy folks of all kinds, he hears gutter language, he experiences xenophobia and it is contrasted with the more genteel talk of the educated and socio-economic elite. It is an absurd situation to be in. Ripe fodder for his thesis but mindboggling to be in the heart of it while trying to ensure one’s sanity and safety of his family.
Reading I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is almost like television channel surfing pausing for a moment on a thriller and the next moment on a more sophisticated drama and then a mindless serial, each with multiple accents and settings. Only difference being here that this is a single novel with four distinct voices, crafted by one man, the Spanish writer Juan Pablo Villalobos. The four characters who offer four different perspectives on the plotline hail from different parts of society. Apparently the original novel had very distinctive kinds of Spanish attributed to these individuals. Daniel Hahn, the translator, had quite a challenging time translating the different registers of Spanish spoken into English. He has written a fascinating essay at the end of the book which recounts in detail how he achieved this feat. It is an extraordinary essay which is worth reading especially by many Indian translators who struggle to translate different dialects of a single Indian language into English. One of the toughest challenges is to carry forward the different registers of the original language into the destination language without corrupting the literary intention and craftsmanship of the author. Daniel Hahn shares some of his insights. His essay is truly brilliant!
The novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a comic romp though multiple socio-economic layers of Spanish society. For the most part they are invisible to each other but it needs a Juan to meander through it, making visible much that would prefer to remain under the radar. But the mirth created by fast paced, pitch perfect novel, cannot really mask the racism and immigrant related tensions that abound. It is a novel not easily forgotten. Worth reading!
It has been published by the fabulous independent publisher based in London, And Other Stories.
( My interview with Anita Nair on her new book, Muezaa and Baby Jaan , and launch of a new independent publishing press, Attic Books, was published in Bookwitty.)
Award-winning and bestselling Indian author Anita Nair is the editorial director of the recently launched Attic Books, an independent publishing firm focused on making world literature available in English in South Asia. This new responsibility has coincided with the publication of her new book, Muezza and Baby Jaan— a beautifully illustrated (by Harshad Marathe) book for children that retells stories from the Qur’an. The succession of events that birthed this book were Anita’s research for Idris which required familiarising herself with the stories but more importantly it was the equation of terrorism with Islam, which troubled her, and she felt needed addressing. As she says passionately in her preface:
“Acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists had already made many non-Muslims wary of the religion. And I thought this was grossly unfair to Islam and what it taught. I had been brought up as a secular individual and felt a calling to clear this misinterpretation in my own way.
No religion preaches hate or violence. No religion condones killing or the taking of human life. However, flawed interpretations do lend a religion a misguided twist that it does not claim in the first place. Those with vested interests manipulate aspects of a religion to justify heinous crimes and the massacre of innocents. And so it had happened with Islam.”
Anita Nair kindly answered questions about her new book and her new job:
You are a rare kind of writer who has the ability to write books for children and adults. Given the current milieu why retell stories from the Qur’an in Muezza and Baby Jaan for children and not adults?
Three specific reasons why I chose to re-tell stories from the Qur’an for children and not adults are:
I am not an expert of Islam and my understanding of the scripture is at a basic level. I read the scripture for what is it and didn’t want to read sub texts hence, it occurred to me that the Qur’an as I understood it, would be more apt for a child’s reading rather than an adult seeking spiritual guidance.
Any religion is best understood when explained in the form of stories. Children are more receptive to stories rather than adults who seek complexities, twists and justifications.
If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood and I thought it important that our children learn about Islam through the stories from the Qur’an so as to accept it as another scripture that like all scriptures advocate only peace and love.
If inclusiveness and tolerance need to be part of our psyche it needs to begin from childhood…
Is there any reason why you selected these particular stories to retell?
During the course of my research I discovered the stories of the ten blessed animals and wanted to build my stories around these animals for they brought in accounts about various Prophets. Some are familiar names from the Old Testament, which furthered my cause that all religions are the same to a great extent, and also it helped me follow a certain chronology in the telling.
Today communal intolerance particularly towards Islam is on the upswing globally. Do you think by this pushback of sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help to create a secular future?
I certainly do believe sensitizing children to Islamic stories will help in creating a secular world, where a person is judged by what they do and not what religion they follow.
Why did you opt to anthropomorphize the cat and the camel to share the Qur’an stories rather than merely retell them yourself?
Apart from wanting to open up the Qur’an for general reading I wanted to bring alive Islamic lore and it seemed to me the best way to do so was by anthropomorphizing the two protagonists of the book namely Muezza the cat and Baby Jaan the camel. When they voice our thoughts, be it on friendship, prejudice, peace or trust, the characters strike a chord in our hearts and we immediately start relating to the stories on a very personal level
As a successful writer yourself you have been published worldwide but why have decided to launch a publishing house: Attic Books? Who else is on the team?
The reason I decided to start a publishing house is because we are all exposed to literary giants and Nobel laureates writing in languages other than English but we are oblivious to all other wonderful writing from around the world. Attic Books was conceived to be a small boutique-publishing house that will focus on a small number of books from spectacular authors that the Indian reader has yet to encounter. I want to bring these authors the readership they deserve.
As of now, we are working with only international fiction. But we hope to expand to international non-fiction as well and one work of translation from an Indian language. The only Indian fiction we will be publishing at this point is the anthology of short fiction drawn from my creative-writing mentorship programme in Bangalore, Anita’s Attic. The plan is to keep to the promise of what an Attic holds: Hidden treasures and surprises so as the curator of the list, I may decide to mix up fairy tales with crime with lit fiction to travel. I do hope we can acquire rights to unpublished works but given that we have no angel investors, commissioning an original translation of international fiction may be an expensive prospect.
Our 2017 list comprises of Evald Flisar’s literary novel If I Only Had Time (Slovenia), Suchen Christian Lim’s literary romance The River’s Song (Singapore), Andres Neumann’s literary novel Talking to Ourselves (Argentina/Spain), Bei Tong’s LGBTQ novel Beijing Comrades (a translation by Scott Myers) and I. M. Batacan’s crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Philippines).
I am in the process of acquiring books for 2018. There are so many good books out there but I don’t want our list to repeat themes and I have to be diligent about the list we are putting together. Attic Books is a partnership between Anita’s Attic (which is a company made of Anita Nair and a digital agency, *ConditionsApply) and Logos – a Malayalam language publisher based in Kerala.
Given the range of genres you publish in, will there be any overlaps with your plans for Attic Books?
No, I am very certain that it will not clash with my own work, which will always be housed as it always has been in publishing houses where I have a sound editor to work with. I value the role of an editor in my writing process and wouldn’t want to lose that objectivity and editorial input.
Does your personal experience of being published by others inform the business of establishing your own publishing firm?
Business-wise the decision to try and turn publisher ranks along with that of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the old knight for trying to keep alive the romanticism of a period even though it may seem delusional to everyone else. However, over the years I have drawn my own insights on what makes publishing exciting and would like to see if they are really true.
How do you find time to balance writing, mentoring and now publishing?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that. I guess I just don’t stop. And that what I am doing is exciting makes me put in long hours without thinking of it as a job to be done.
Is there space for another publishing firm in India?
Yes and no. Yes, if one can move away from the traditional confines of publishing. No, if one is seeking to replicate what is already there and available.
Will you focus only on print or also digital? How do you plan to distribute your books?
We will be only be focusing on print. One of our visions for Attic Books is to help people put together a library of their own at home. Books that people will read, keep, and read again and pass on hopefully to their next generation; hence, the stringent process of choosing who we publish.
Distribution will be through select bookstores and online sales. And we have created Attic Club, which is a subscription model where a reader can take an annual subscription at a fabulous price that will bring the books to their homes and will also put them on a list to the exclusive book events we will host.
It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017. In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.
Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects
New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)
Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim
Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill
Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate
Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Herman Koch Dear Mr M
Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide
Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke
Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba
Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak
Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal
Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History