Steig Larsson Posts

Jin Yong or Louis Cha, “Legends of the Condor Heroes”

Jin Yong was the nom de plume of Louis Cha. He is considered the maestro of the wuxia genre, a form of martial arts-heavy fantasy literature set in historical China. A native of Zhejiang province, born in Hangzhou, Jin moved to Hong Kong in 1948. Cha began writing wuxia serials in the 1950s after settling in Hong Kong. He enjoyed almost immediate success, and his career as a novelist enabled him to found his own newspaper, the influential Ming Pao Daily News in 1959. Many of his editorials were highly critical of Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1976. His novels were banned in turn. But one of Jin Yong’s earliest readers in mainland China was none other than Deng Xiaoping, the leader who pushed for economic reforms and opening-up in the 1970s and 80s. As was another former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, Cha said, was a great fan. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, the novel that cemented Cha’s reputation as the king of wuxia, is likely best remembered more for its numerous film and television adaptations over the past four decades. ( Strange Horizons, “A HERO BORN BY JIN YONG, TRANSLATED BY ANNA HOLMWOOD“, 18 Feb 2019)

The Legend of the Condor Heroes was first serialised in a newspaper. Over the years then it was collected and published as books. According to reports the series is spread over 12 volumes and has sold over 350 m copies in Chinese. His stories often feature heroes who defend the powerless. (Lily Kuo, ‘China’s Tolkien’: millions mourn death of martial arts novelist Jin Yong“, 31 Oct 2018) Some call it fantasy whereas others are saying it is really a heroic epic set in medieval China. Also comparing it to the Arthurian Romance cycle for the minor characters in this Chinese epic are given equal weightage as the main characters. Yet others are referring to Jin Yong as the Chinese Tolkien. If media reports are to believed Jin Yong began writing these stories as serials in a local Chinese newspaper while residing in HongKong. So these stories can be construed as political allegories that were anti-Mao and really spoke of the Chinese refugee situation. The first story appeared in the late 1950s.

According to Nick Frisch, a doctoral student at at Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies who met the then 90-year-novelist and was granted a rare interview, the “Master Hong of the Mystic Dragon Sect, the antagonist of his last novel The Deer and The Cauldron, alludes to Chinese leader Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution [Hong is a cult leader with superlative martial arts skills, but he is also ruthless and loves nothing more than power and flattery]. If you look at his past statements on the matter, he never completely denied it, but said that fiction that satirizes only an individual moment in politics would not have lasting value. But using allusions is a big tradition in Chinese literature, and he was so involved with current events as the editor of Ming Pao. He was threatened during the Cultural Revolution and was put on an assassination list by the communist underground. He had to leave Hong Kong briefly for safety.” He wrote 15 wuxia novels. The last was published in the early 1970s after which he stopped writing. ( Grace Tsoi, “New translation brings literary maestro Jin Yong to the West“, Inkstone, 19 April 2018)

Writing in The New Yorker, Nick Frisch says:

The success of “Condors,” his third novel, allowed him to found his own newspaper, Ming Pao Daily News, in 1959. In the paper’s early years, Cha wrote many of its front-page stories and editorials himself, decrying Maoist excesses during the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution. At first, Ming Pao hovered near bankruptcy, but it was kept afloat by its must-read fiction supplement, which serialized other people’s novels as well as Cha’s own, in genres ranging from dime-store noir to Lovecraftian horror. Cha staffed the newsroom of Ming Pao with classically trained historians and poets, mostly refugees from mainland China, and this gave his newspaper, along with his novels, a classical texture that Communist cultural reforms starched out of much post-revolutionary literature (including most contemporary Chinese books translated into English today). Cha’s stridently anti-Maoist editorials earned him credible death threats from Hong Kong’s Communist underground, and, in 1967, he briefly left Hong Kong for the safety of Singapore. When he returned, his reputation as a political journalist who risked his life for the cause of his fatherland had grown.

In 1981, Cha’s prominence in Hong Kong earned him an invitation to Beijing, to meet Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s pragmatist successor. Deng treated Cha’s family to a private dinner and professed himself an avid fan. Cha returned the compliment, telling reporters that Deng had a noble bearing, “like a heroic character in one of my books; I admire his fenggu,” the wind in his bones. Then, as the 1997 termination of Britain’s colonial lease of Hong Kong approached, Cha was appointed to a prestigious political committee charged with implementing Beijing’s vague promises of political “autonomy,” the price extracted by London in exchange for a peaceful handover. Hong Kong, a city full of refugees from the regime, watched nervously as Cha staked out conservative positions on democratic representation. Supporters of his anti-Communist editorializing felt betrayed, finding his new positions too accommodating to Beijing; others wondered if his desire to participate in the politics of his fatherland, and his newfound coziness with the Communist Party, had an ulterior, authorial motive: to be read. Deng, by lifting the Communist Party’s censorship ban on “decadent” and “feudal” wuxia novels, uncorked a reading craze. The timing was good: after Mao’s vandalisms, many Chinese sought to xungen, or return to their roots. Cha’s novels offered narrative pleasures steeped in the splendors of China’s past.

… But Cha’s books have resisted translation into Western languages. Chinese literature, which traditionally prizes poetry over fiction, derives much of its emotional force from oblique allusions, drawing on a deep well of shared cultural texts, and Cha’s work is no exception. In February, the first installment of Cha’s most revered trilogy, “Legends of the Condor Heroes,” was published in English translation by Anna Holmwood by the U.K. publishing house Quercus. (An American edition is currently under negotiation.) It is the first time a trade publisher has attempted a translation of the trilogy, which begins in the year 1205, just before the Mongol conquest of China, and ends more than a hundred and fifty years later, after approximately two million eight hundred and sixty thousand Chinese characters—the equivalent of one and a half million English words. (Over three times the length of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series.) Holmwood’s translation offers the best opportunity yet for English-language readers to encounter one of the world’s most beloved writers—one whose influence and intentions remain incompletely understood. ( Nick Frisch, “The Gripping Stories, and Political Allegories, of China’s Best-Selling Author“, 13 April 2018)

Jin Yong died in 2018 at the age of ninety-four after a long illness. ( Marcel Theroux, “Jin Yong Obituary“, 12 Nov 2018 and Lily Kuo, ‘China’s Tolkien’: millions mourn death of martial arts novelist Jin Yong“, 31 Oct 2018) Despite there being generations of readers who grew up on these stories, many films, tv adaptations, games and comics of the stories being made, these books were never translated into English except for a rare one of The Book and the Sword translated by Graham Earnshaw. In fact Earnshaw began the translation in 1979 and then put it aside. Only to resume it 15 years later when he was contacted by Cha or OUP about publishing it. “Cha and OUP had created a plan with the master translator John Minford, who had done a large part of The Story of the Stone – an English version of Dream of the Red Chamber. The plan was that John would translate the entire Jin Yong oeuvre for OUP, the only exception, at Cha’s insistence, being The Book and the Sword. John did the first book to be published in the series, The Deer and the Cauldron, the last of Cha’s novels; mine was the second, published in 2004.” ( Graham Earnshaw, “I translated Chinese writer Louis Cha ‘Jin Yong’. Here’s why he never caught on in the West“, South China Morning Post, 1 Nov 2018)

Years later the entire 12 volumes of The Legend of the Condor Heroes is being translated by Anna Holmwood. The first volume A Hero Born has recently been released by MacLehose Press. The same press that published the fabulous translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. Anna Holmwood is a professional literary translator and literary agent based in Sweden who is committed to publishing the entire series. ( Mei Jia, “Translator thrilled to bring Jin Yong’s martial arts works to Western audienceChina Daily, 19 June 2018; Pan Xiaoqiao “A Legend is BornBeijing Review, 21 June 2018; Vanessa Thorpe, “A hero reborn: ‘China’s Tolkien’ aims to conquer western readersThe Guardian, 26 Nov 2017; Olivia Ho, “Singapore Writers Festival: Jin Yong’s English translator Anna Holmwood on translating a legendThe Straits Times, 11 Nov 2018; Feng Yu “Translator Anna Holmwood is the hero of Jin Yong’s wuxiaGlobal Times, 4 March 2018 and BBC Sounds, Last Words, an interview with Anna Holmwood)

In a speech published in 2005, Cha said “It does not matter to me whether I become a historical figure. All I want is that after one or two hundred years, there will still be people reading my books.” The backstory of the publication of the English translation as well as of the epic itself is fascinating. With the books now being made available in English the stories will probably grip the imagination of many more readers.

22 February 2019

Michel Bussi, “After the Crash”

Michel BussiInteresting little book. It is a translation. A thriller. Detailed as you would expect mystery stories to be. Bulk of the action takes place in 48 hours, although the air crash and mixed-up identities around which the story revolves took place eighteen years earlier. It employs the literary technique of interspersing journal entries with the plot moving in real time as well. So it is not always the flashback technique in a straightforward narrative but text that appears at the right moment — just when the character reading the journal and  reader of After the Crash begin to have questions, they are neatly supplied by the journal. Many readers and critics of After the Crash are putting Michel Bussi in the same league as Steig Larsson and Joel Dicker. The comparison is inevitable since all three authors have written gripping thrillers, each unique in its treatment of plot, style and storytelling and curiously enough, the books are translations that seem to have transcended all cultural barriers and caught the imagination of readers worldwide. Michel Bussi too is a man worth reading. 

Michel Bussi After the Crash ( Translated from the French by Sam Taylor) Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Hachette, Great Britain, 2015. Pb. pp.390 Rs 399

1 September 2015

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Joel Dicker, “The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair”

Harry Quebert Affair“…you asked why I wrote. I answered that I wrote because I liked it, and you said…”

“Yes, what did I say?”

“That life had very little meaning. And that writing gave life meaning.”

“That’s it exactly. And that’s the mistake you made a few months ago, when Barnaski was demanding a new manuscript. You started writing because you had to write a book, not because you wanted to give your life meaning. Doing something for the sake of doing it never works. So it isn’t surprising that you were incapable of writing a single line. The gift of being able to write is a gift not because you write well, but because you’re able to give your life meaning. Every day people are born and others die. Every day, hordes of anonymous workers come and go in tall gray building. And then there are writers. Writers life life more intensely than other people, I think. Don’t write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it’s the only legitimate way to make this tiny, insignificant thing we call life into a legitimate and rewarding experience.”

( p.250-251)

Joel Dicker’s debut novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, is about a young, successful author, Marcus, who is trying to prove the innocence of his mentor and teacher, Harry Quebert, in a murder case. Harry Quebert is also  a novelist, known famously for The Origin of Evil, which he wrote when he took up residence in Somerset, New Hampshire in the 1970s. Thirty-three years later the remains of a corpse are discovered in his backyard, along with a copy of the manuscript that propelled him to fame –unfortunately linking him to the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Marcus who is trying to write his second novel and is unable to do so, gets interested in this story. Slowly and steadily he begins to uncover stories, facts that leave even the current police investigators bewildered, as to why some of these obvious leads were not pursued when the murder first happened.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is about the murder. It is about the relationship between two writers, a mentor and his pupil. It is about publishing books, doing the number crunching and finding the next big seller that will mesh well with the reading environment by being contemporary, sensational, and inseparable from what is happening in real life. So to the publisher Barnaski it is immaterial whether Marcus writes a fictional ending, loosely based upon the events as they develop or he creates an account of the trial. Barnaski is interested in a bestseller, delivered in two months, with a team of editors (if need be ghostwriters too), sales and marketing people in place and he has already begun negotiations for optioning the film rights to Hollywood. There is a “theft” or a strategic leak of Marcus’s notes to the prominent newspapers of East Coast.

An extract.

He ordered champagne, spread the contracts out on the table, and went over the main points again: “Delivery of the manuscript at the end of August. The jacket art will be ready by then. The book will be edited and typeset in two weeks, and printing will take place in September. Publication is set for the final week of September, at the latest. What perfect timing! Just before the presidential election, and more or less exactly during Quebert’s trial! It’s marketing genius!” 

“And what if the investigation is still ongoing? I asked. “How am I supposed to finish the book?”

Barnaski had his response all ready and rubber-stamped by his legal department. “If the investigation is finished, it’s a true story. If not, we leave it open, you suggest the ending, and it’s a novel. Legally they can’t touch us, and for readers it makes no difference. And in fact, it’s even better if the investigation isn’t over, because we could do a sequel. What a godsend!” 

The novel is riveting. There are details about the story that slowly emerge through the layering in the storytelling. The narrative keeps going back and forth in time, relying upon testimonies of witnesses, newspaper clippings and police records. Funnily enough, despite it having this form of back-and-forth narrative and being a translation, it reads smoothly. There are obvious shades of Nabokov in it, at times it can be quite creepy and disturbing to read the story, but impossible to put the book down. Not once do you ever stop to wonder how could a Frenchman have written an American novel such as this? To explain: It has been written in French, translated into English, set completely in Somerset, New Hampshire on the East Coast of USA. Yet there are obvious influences of French realism as seen in French literature and cinema; an eye for detail, the care with the most astonishingly vile and repulsive detail is recorded, not once, but over and over again without the narrator/writer getting emotionally involved as if hammering the reader with it, till it is indelibly imprinted upon the reader’s mind, but also unleashing an unimaginable blackness. Without giving details of the plot, let it be said many of these incidents are pertaining to Nola. 

Joel Dicker is Swiss, 28-years-old, a lawyer with four unpublished novels and now this smashing hit of a debut novel — it has already sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in French in 2012. It was a book that caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012. According to an article published in the Telegraph, “in October 2012, ‘the French novel with the long title’ was genuinely the talk of the town. Everywhere you went, people would mention this book, sometimes pulling a folded piece of paper from their pockets to remind themselves of the name.” ( 1 Feb 2014.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10611852/Harry-Quebert-The-French-thriller-that-has-taken-the-world-by-storm.html) The English translation was finally acquired by Christopher Maclehose of MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books. ( Quercus is the same publishing house that translated Steig Larsson’s trilogy into English.) The Truth about the Harry Decker Affair  has won the Académie Française novel prize and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; it was shortlisted for the main Goncourt. The English translation has been published in May 2014. 

Read it.

Joel Dicker The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair Maclehose Press, Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. p. 630. Rs. 599

Translated by Sam Taylor.

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

The Gurkha's daughterI first heard about Prajwal Parajuly in winter 2012. He had the book launch of his short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, in December 2012. He was being discussed as a new author to watch out for. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, world’s largest literary prize for young writers. It was extraordinary that his debut as a writer was marked by a collection of short stories. To top it he had signed a two-book deal with Quercus in London, UK and then launched in India by Penguin India. ( Quercus are known as the English-language publishers of Steig Larsson.) It is understood that he has sold the rights to his books in twenty-six countries, a dream run that any debut author would be pleased to have. In 2014, Prajwal Parajuly has already launched his novel, Land where I flee, and is promoting the book extensively in South Asia, USA and UK. Every time Prajwal and I meet, we have intense discussions about writing and publishing, but this conversation was conducted via email. 

prajwal-parajuly-land-where-i-flee1.  How do you visualise your stories? Do you create back stories or does an idea grip you? 

I don’t visualise my stories. I really don’t. I have tried doing it in the past, but the characters do crazy things and the plot sprouts wings of its own. I sit down to write and things happen. Wow, I am so pretentious. Ha.

2.  During one of our conversations about writers and writing, you mentioned that you write of the “very ordinary”, which may be true, but the detailing is minute. Do you take extensive notes while meeting and observing people or does storytelling come naturally to you?

No, I don’t. I am not one of those writers who think about writing every second. I am so far removed from writing most of the time that it never occurs to me to take notes. Observing people and their idiosyncrasies comes naturally to me – I don’t even ‘feel’ myself doing it – as I am sure it does to a lot of writers.

3.  In the recent article in New Statesmen “What use is Gross Domestic Happiness to Bhutan’s 106,000 global refugees?” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2014/02/what-use-gross-domestic-happiness-bhutans-106000-global-refugees) you are not referred to as a successful author but someone who writes about “about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan”. Isn’t this identity exactly what defines your writing?

Well, for now, yes. I am two books old, and both my books have been about the Nepali-speaking world. Perhaps my third book will be different? I don’t know.

4.  When and why did a copywriter, based in NYC, opt to write best-selling fiction? 

I wasn’t a copywriter. I was an advertising account executive. I am impulsive by nature. The job was fun in the beginning, but do it for three years, and you want to do more exciting things. Also, the idea of returning home was appealing at that time. It helped that I was gradually forgetting how to read and write in Nepali – that reads dramatic, but it once took me 45 minutes to read what I’d have normally done in 15. Writing just happened. I had traveled a bit and didn’t know what to do with my life. Telling the world I was working on a book meant I was semi-okay and not frittering my life away.

5.  What do you think is lacking in contemporary writing in, about and from the northeast and Nepal that makes your fiction and voice stand out so distinctly?

I don’t think there’s anything lacking. English writing from the northeast and Nepal continues to grow. Perhaps one reason I stood out was – and this has nothing to do with how good or bad a writer I am – because I garnered a lot of  (undeserved) press even before the books came out. That’s how it is in India – we still look at the West for approval. Had mine not been a multi-country book deal, chances are I’d have received very little press. So, yes, I stood out even before my books came out – I doubt my voice and fiction had anything to do with it.

6.  Your short stories and novel are linked yet can be read independent of each other. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen? Also which came first in creation – The Gurkha’s Daughter or Land where I flee?

Yes, there are very, very minor links – so insignificant that the novel can survive without the references to the characters in the short-story collection. I call it my attempt to nudge-nudge-wink-wink at a very serious reader. I thought it would be fun. The Gurkha’s Daughter was written before Land Where I Flee.

7.   You have done a master’s in creative writing course from Oxford. Do you think it helps an author to enroll in at least one course while writing? Are these of any help?

It depends on your personality and the nature of the course. I joined my course because there was nothing to do. My course helped me become a better poet, a mediocre screenwriter (I knew nothing about screenwriting when I started the course) – which made me a better writer of fiction. And I didn’t have to go to class every day – definitely my favorite thing about the course.

8.   What next? Will it be more fiction about Nepali-speaking people or will you explore fiction? 

So many plans. Phew. I am tired of writing about the Nepali-speaking world, but I am tempted to write a sequel to the stories in The Gurkha’s Daughter. Or a Land Where I Flee prequel. Or a children’s book. Or an American-campus-based novel. I will be on tour almost all of this year. After I get done with the promotion of Land Where I Flee in India, the UK, South Africa and Ireland, I need to go to America, where The Gurkha’s Daughter comes out in June.

9.   Is it fair to ask if there are any autobiographical elements in these two books? Is Ruthwa loosely based upon your experiences as an author?

Ruthwa isn’t who I am, but some of his experiences are what I experienced as an author. When I was writing Land Where I Flee – which I did once the book deal happened and triggered a media frenzy – I’d often lie awake wondering what would happen if the same media declared I wasn’t worth the hype. That’s how Ruthwa’s character came about. I wouldn’t be very comfortable writing about my family the way Ruthwa does, though. I don’t understand the entire ‘your-first-book-is-almost-always-about-your-life-and-family’ claptrap. I lead too dull a life for it to translate into a good book.

10. Your fascination by strong women characters, is that a conscious choice made in writing? 

Female characters, especially strong women, are fun to write. I am tired of reading about the veiled, subservient Indian grandma.

11.  Your novel is one of the recent publications that seems to work like a novel and not with chapters in it that can work as “long reads” online. While drafting Land where I flee who was your ideal reader? The online or print reader?

I still don’t visualise an online reader. This is the first time someone has asked me this question. Interesting. Have writers begun thinking about whether they will be read online or print? Should I be mindful of it? Perhaps not.

4 March 2014 

The Reader, my column in Books & More

The Reader, my column in Books & More

Reader

The sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in a book, flipping through its pages, dipping into it in parts, inhaling the heavenly smell of ink and freshly printed pages, stroking the cover to feel the design, are all part of the experience for me. It is fast becoming an equally thrilling adventure for my twenty-eight-month-old daughter, Sarah. She brings out her books and says, “Mummy padho.” What I find exhilarating is to see Sarah browse through the books that I owned as a child, to discover a fascinating new world. The spine of the book maybe falling apart, the pages have turned yellow and there are doodles done by me in pencil, years ago, but The Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh continues to enchant Sarah, representative of a new generation of readers. These are tangible objects that she can touch, feel, flip the pages, trace the images and letters with her fingers, and crumple the pages…the first step to reading, recognising alphabets, words and creating a language and becoming a reader herself.

The modern reader, however, is faced with an over-abundance of choice. Today the market is flooded with books. There is a variety that is available to suit all reading sensibilities. Publishers are willing to experiment and develop lists, especially in the category of mass market fiction after the phenomenal (commercial) success of Chetan Bhagat, Advaita Kala or of Penguin’s Metro Reads. There is an abundance of fiction dealing with years spent in college or school like Arjun Rao’s Third Best or Amandeep Sandhu’s forthcoming novel, Roll of Honour. There is a wonderful variety in crime fiction ranging from Steig Larsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Lee Child, Madhulika Liddle, Andrew Lane, and Jo Nesbo to name a few. For a niche genre like historical fiction, Indian fiction in English is spoilt for riches with Indu Sundaresan’s Taj Trilogy, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Victory Song, Greta Rana’s Rana Women of Nepal, Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Mughal series and an old one (but a classic) of Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold.

There are finer distinctions like chick-lit and narrative non-fiction that are doing well, but it does beg to ask the question, what is the profile of the reader of [for?] this literature. Who is this person/s? Who is buying these books? In spite of experimentation, publishers are careful of their bottom line and do not necessarily publish all that comes their way. Yet the examples cited illustrate that professional editors still have a good sense of the kind of books that will sell.

The other solution is to reach out to readers, make them part of the process. The internet and the blogosphere provide a range of opinions and at times provide a platform for literary tastemakers [who] to inform and shape the discourse. It is especially important for publishers to continually create a new generation of readers. It happens by creating targeted marketing campaigns, fostering and nurturing literary spaces. Literary soirees and book-launch parties are fashionable, but an engagement with the readers is a long term relationship. These could start early (as is happening with Sarah) or via book clubs, literary societies in institutions, or even literary festivals. The presence of efficient online book retailers that ensure an order gets shipped anywhere, anytime and at a reasonable cost to a customer, will only strengthen the reading environment. Today, with books available in a variety of formats, makes the profile of a reader even more difficult to ascertain. Yet, it is an exciting challenge for publishers. Anil Menon, author of The Beast with Nine Billion Feet says “reading might (in future) be a social act. A print book enforces a solitary experience. But I’ve noticed that when I’m reading on the Kindle, I can access other people’s comments if I feel like it. The solitary reader may be a thing of the past. Books written to facilitate social reading might be different from books written for the solitary reader. Children’s books– very young children– are already designed to be read by parents and children together. I can imagine books for teens written to be enjoyed in a group.” All these factors can only add up to the growing significance of the reader, who forms the market.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant.

(p.58, Books and More, June-July 2012)