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Interview with award-winning New Zealand author, Gavin Bishop

Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commissioner’s residence. Photographer: Satadru Mukherjee 


In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes. Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.  

Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
  1. How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often? 

A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child. 

 Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages.  Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.

2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about?  Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?   

For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.

My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.

Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of. 

Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.

3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words? 

When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.

4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories? 

These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano  Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself. 

This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,

5. How would you define a compelling story? 

The best stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into producing the best story they can. 

6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act? 

 I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it. 

7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve? 

To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.

A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.

8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?

My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them. 

9. How did you get into bookmaking?  Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?  

In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts  and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.

My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago  I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world. 

I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died —  Mister Whistler .

10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated? 

My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.

Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage.   Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori. 

But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.

Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission. 

In Conversation with Gavin Bishop

We met author Gavin Bishop and discussed books, writings and much more!Big Thanks to: New Zealand High Commission to India, Bangladesh, Nepal & Sri Lanka Scholastic New Zealand

Posted by Scholastic India on Monday, December 10, 2018

14 December 2018 

‘Children are shape shifters who go easily into a story, but adults hesitate’: Writer Cornelia Funke

I interviewed legendary German writer of fantasy fiction for children Cornelia Funke. Scroll published the interview on 2 December 2018. It is c&p below too. 

Award-winning German writer Cornelia Funke, whose books for children have sold millions of copies worldwide in several languages, released The Griffin’s Feather – the sequel to her immensely popular Dragon Rider after a gap of 16 years. The novel, whose animated version is in the works, is about young Ben and his silver dragon Firedrake who go on a magical quest in search of the Rim of Heaven, a quiet and safe haven where dragons may live in peace without being disturbed by human beings.

The Griffin’s Feather marks the return of Firedrake, Ben and his adopted family – the Greenblooms. They all live in MIMAMEIDR, Norway, where accommodation may be found for fabulous guests such as trolls, impets, fossegrims, mermaids, dragons and winged horses, since they would pass unnoticed more easily in the country’s remote forests.

The quest is for a “Griffin’s Feather”, which can be swiped over the three eggs of the winged horses so that their children can either be born or face extinction. Unfortunately, their mother has been killed. So it falls upon Ben and Firedrake to ensure their survival, but not before many incredible adventures along the way. The reading experience is made all the more remarkable with the incredible illustrations accompanying the text.

Funke spoke to Scroll.in over email to talk about her new book and her methods of working, accompanying her answers with this note: “India has a very special place in my heart and I feel so honoured by how passionately my stories are welcomed there. Please give my love to India!” Excerpts from the interview:

How did these magical landscapes of Rim of Heaven, MIMAMEIDR, temple of Garuda and Pulau Bulu come to be?
There is often the misunderstanding that fantasy is about other worlds. I don’t believe that. My stories are always a love song for this world and all the landscapes you travel in them are inspired by places and landscapes of this planet. When I sent the dragons to the Himalayas I did that because I thought it believable that dragons can hide between its mountains.

It’s much harder to find such a refuge in Europe, but the woods of Norway felt like a believable home for MIMAMEIDR and a refuge for fabulous creatures. The temple of Garuda speaks of course of my love of India! And Pulau Bulu…where else would Griffins be able to hide but on one of the countless islands of Indonesia? A boy from Indonesia, Winston Sevala, who visits my website regularly, helped me with research and names so I made him a dragon rider to show my gratitude.

To say one more thing about the Rim of Heaven: I bought 10 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains to keep them wild and to one day bring young artists from the countries I am published in to this magical place and see what the wilderness inspires in them. I promise that of course at least one will come from India!

When Anthea Bell (who also translated, among others, the Asterix comics) was translating the books, how involved were you with the process? Did you compare the German and English texts? Are these in any way different?
Of course every language has its very own voice, even with as brilliant a translator as Anthea. At a panel in Jaipur I learned about the impossibility of transferring the lushness of Hindi to an English translation. But Anthea tailored the English clothes for my stories so beautifully that sometimes I liked them even better than the German clothes. We worked very closely together, especially when it came to names and translating them, and Anthea’s research and intricate knowledge of almost everything always fascinated and enchanted me and made the translation process magic in itself.

Why is there a long gap between the two books in the series? Dragon Rider came in 2000 and Griffin’s Feather wasn’t published till 2016.
In Germany it was even longer! I tried several times to write a sequel to Dragon Rider, but each attempt felt repetitive and not as strong as the first adventure. Then I developed the iPad App for Reckless with Mirada and was so happy with the visual interpretation of my world that we began to work on something similar for Dragon Rider. While playing with stories and motives (I just released an audio play based on the work.) I once again fell in love with the characters and suddenly I saw so clearly how the story continues that The Griffin’s Feather almost wrote itself. The digital version had inspired the printed word!

Your stories about “fabulous creatures and other rare things” are imaginatively happy and joyful stories for children. What prompted you to write such stories?
I just write stories I love to read myself. And I am profoundly enchanted by children and young readers, by their openness and curiosity, by their will to still ask the big questions about the world: where do we come from? What is this all about? Why is the world so beautiful and terrible at the same time? Children also still understand that we are just part of a huge web and connected to every plant and creature on this planet. They are still shape shifters and go easily into a story, whereas adults often hesitate to allow their imagination to give them feathers and wings.

Your knowledge about fairies, folklore, myths and legends around the world is encyclopaedic as evident in these novels. How much research was required for writing these books?
Not as much as for the Reckless books. That series actually taught me much about research and how to weave myth and the past into my stories. By now I use my research always on my three worlds: Mirrorworld, Inkworld (which is Mirrorworld 500 years earlier) and the world of Dragon Rider. They all inspire each other, which makes it easy to work on all three at the same time – which I love to do.

Given that you illustrate your own books, do you see the story as a combination of text and illustrations, or is it more of a case of the text being bolstered by the illustrations?
In the past few years illustration have become more and more important for my storytelling. It started when I began to write my stories by hand. I often added sketches, and for The Griffin’s Feather I drew all the characters first before describing them. I love that drawings often reveal aspects of a character that I would have missed by just describing them. For my new Reckless book, The Islands of the Fox, some of my characters even showed up on canvas while I was painting with oil colours, claiming a part in the story or making me realise that a character whom I thought to have human shape does indeed prefer to show himself as a Zentaur.

If you are particular about the layout of the printed text, how do you envision these stories will work in other formats such as digital, interactive apps, films, etc?
I am slightly disenchanted by the movies, as nine adaptations have proved how much is lost from page to screen. I guess my books might do better in a TV format, as they have so many layers and characters. My favourite adaptation by far is the Reckless App for iPad. It made all my dreams about a visual adaptation come true, and instead of shrinking my world, it grew it.

How did you select the opening quotes for each chapter in Griffin’s Feather? Is the lay-out of the page (opening quote, story, illustrations) as important as movement of plot and action in the story?
Choosing quotes is always quite a time-consuming process (and my publishers have a lot of work clearing the copyright), but I love to have other voices in my books. As for the layout – as a visual artist I do love of course to play with initials or chapter headings and this time I did more than 100 ink drawings.

The manner in which you play with figures of speech and minutely describe the magnificent landscapes and its creatures makes me wonder if after writing the manuscript you “test” the stories on younger readers by sending them pages or reading aloud to them.
No, I actually don’t. I only read aloud to myself – and I send the manuscript to my daughter Anna, who is 27 by now and my very best editor (and the strictest one). My son Ben prefers to be a character in my books.

The underlying themes in these books is conservation of the environment and its creatures. In fact you have chosen to immortalise Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall – three of the giants of environmental conservation in the Twentieth Century. Why them?
Not to forget Sylvia Earle! Their passion for the non-human world is exemplary for me, but there are for sure many many more who deserve to be named.

What did you like to read in your childhood? Did you ever desire books like the ones you create?
I always loved fantasy and adventure stories, so yes, I guess I am writing what I looked for in the library as a girl.

3 December 2018 

“Sexographies” by Gabriela Wiener

According to the  biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.

Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is  “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.

Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”

Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: nathan@restlessbooks.com )

*******

Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.

But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.

Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.

We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.

What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp. 

2 May 2018 

 

 

Taslima Nasrin’s “Split: A Life”

…the director general [ of the Bangla Academy] raised his eyebrows and turned to me…’Despite being a woman why do you try and write like a man?….’

‘Why should I write like a man? I write what I feel,’ I countered immediately. 

This exchange between the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the Bangla Academy director general Harunur Rashi takes place at a book fair where a procession had been organised by the Taslima Nasrin Suppression Committee, “to quash the nefarious ‘sex writer’ Taslima Nasrin”. This incident happened on 17 February 1992.

On 6 December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid there were communal clashes in India and Bangladesh. Taslima Nasrin was deeply disturbed by the riots and wrote Lajja ( Shame). It was a book which made her an international name even though it was banned in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.

Her memoir Dwikhondito ( 2003) now translated as Split: In Two by Maharghya Chakraborty met a similar fate when it was banned in West Bengal, India. It was banned by the West Bengal government for allegedly hurting sentiments of the Muslim community. The government lifted injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005. Yet in the English edition of the memoir published by Penguin Random House India there is a blank page with a note by the author.

Split is a memoir by an author who achieved fame fairly early on in her literary career. It is not very clear if the memoir was written at one go or over a period of time. There is no author’s note or a translator’s note in the book making it a little challenging to figure out the context. The memoir is presented as more or less a chronological narrative of a writer’s awakening, not necessarily an autobiographical account of Taslima Nasrin. Reading it from cover to cover a confident tenor to the writing is discernible particularly after Taslima Nasrin wins the Ananda Puraskar in early 1990s. It is a watershed moment in her literary career not least because she was the first writer from Bangladesh to have been awarded what is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Bengali literature. Writers senior to her in age and work had been ignored. The change in her writing style is apparent not only in the manner in which she asserts herself in company with other writers, shares her views on a variety of subjects and takes the social responsibility of an author seriously. She is at the same time grappling with the very serious threat to her life on the basis of her writing and despite her mother’s pleas Taslima Nasrin never tempers her tone.

A snippet from her acceptance speech of the Ananda Puraskar illustrates why her feminist views were not being tolerated in an increasingly conservative society.

Our scriptures and ther rules governing our society would like to reinforce one primary fact: that women cannot have independence. But a woman who is not physically and mentally independent cannot claim to be a complete human being either. Freedom is primary and a woman’s freedom has now been put under arrest by the state, with religion being the chief impediment to her natural growth. Because religion is there most women are still illiterate, deprived of property, more are married off when they are children and are victims of polygamy, talaq and widowhood. Because men wish to serve only their own ends, they have defined and valourized a woman’s feministy, chastity and maternal instincts. 

There are many sections in the book that are fascinating to read for the insight it offers in the evolution of a woman writer particuarly when Taslima Nasrin chooses to reflect. There is an almost meditative quality to her writing in those passages that haunt her writing. These are the better parts in Split as compared to the long sections about her relationships and her family which tend to meander. These instances are significant for her growth as an individual and as a writer since with each relationship she realises what exactly she desires, and it is not always male companionship. Unfortunately these sections are not as well written as those in which she comments upon literature, Bengali literary society in Bangladesh and West Bengal and reflects upon what interests her as a writer.

Split will probably be viewed in coming years as seminal as the writing by other women writers from the subcontinent such as Salma’s Hour Past Midnight and Bama’s Karukku. Taslima Nasrin’s Split‘s relevance to contemporary politics in the subcontinent and not just Bangladesh for the issues it raises about censorship, women’s rights, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, right to live and equality among men and women are critical particularly in this age of religious fundamentalism blowing across nations.

Spare some time and read it.

Taslima Nasrin Split: A Life ( translated by Maharghya Chakraborty) Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2018. Hb. pp. 502. Rs. 599

19 March 2018

 

 

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

Haruki Murakami’s “Men Without Women”

The new collection of  short stories by Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women, is delightfully unpredictable and mesmerisingly insightful. The stories are inevitably from a male point of view. They are exploring, if not at times blurring the “socially defined” gendered roles between men and women such as relationships within a marriage or without, affairs, coming to terms with changing rules in modern society and yes, delving into those grey areas as suggested by the title. Fascinating stuff. This one sentence describing ffifty-two-year-old Tokai, single, immensely successful cosmetic surgeon, illustrates it well: “Like most people who enjoy cooking, when it comes to buying ingredients money is no object, so the dishes he prepares are always delicious.”

With Men Without Women Murakami pays tribute to two literary giants Of American literature — Ernest Hemingway from whom he has borrowed the title and to Raymond Carver for the style of storytelling as pointed out in Seattle Times. Another recurring element in the stories is Murakami’s love for music. It adds a rich layer while telling a great deal about the characters such as in the title story “Men Without Women”:

What I remember most about M is how much she loved elevator music. Percy Faith, Montovani, Raymond Lefevre, Frank Chacksfield, Francis Lai, 101 Strings, Paul Mauriat, Billy Vaughan. She had a kind of predestined affection for this — according to me– harmless music. The angelic strings, the swell of luscious woodwinds, the muted brass, the harp softly stroking your heart. The charming melody that never faltered, the harmonies like candy melting in your mouth, the justright echo effect in the recording. 

I usually listened to rock or blues when I drove. Derek and the Dominos, Otis Redding, The Doors. But M would never let me play any of that. She always carried a paper bag filled with a dozen or so cassettes of elevator music, which she’d play one after the other. We’d drive around aimlessly while she’d quietly hum along to Francis Lai’s “13 Jours en France.” Her lovely, sexy lips with a light trace of lipstick. Anyway, she must have owned ten thousand tapes. And she knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world. If there were an Elevator Music Museum, she could have been the head curator. 

Men Without Women is worth reading!

Haruki Murakami Men Without Women ( Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) Harvill Secker, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 230

26 June 2017

Jaya’s newsletter 5 ( 1 Dec 2016)

shauna-singh-baldwinSince the last newsletter it has been a whirlwind of book releases, literature festivals and fabulous conversations. For instance a lovely evening spent at the Canadian High Commissioner, H. E. Nadir Patel’s residence for the launch of Indo-Canadian writer, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s essays — Reluctant Rebellions. Shauna read out an extract comparing the freedom women had in different geographies. She added that writing non-fiction was akin to being naked. There is no literary device as there is in fiction to hide the author’s true sentiments. Dr Shashi Tharoor spoke at the event too.

To attend the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai was award winning Australian author, Geoffrey Moorhouse. He is known for his historical fiction such as on the League of Nations. During a quiet lunch at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, it was incredible to hear Moorhouse describe the research involved for the books. He had thought it would take a few weeks but he spent nearly four years in the Geneva archives. Mostly he was the only person reading the documents.

On 17 September 2016, H.E. Syed Muazzem Ali, High Commissioner, Bangladesh released the gently told but vividfazlur-rahman-book-launch memoir of haemotologist-oncologist Dr Fazlur Rahman. It charts mostly the journey of the doctor from a village to Texas in 1969 with some insights into his experience as an oncologist, caregiver and in setting up hospices. But as the high commissioner pointed out it is in exactly such literature that the history of the subcontinent will be mapped and preserved. During the panel discussion Dr Rahman stressed the importance of empathy for the patient and caregiver and the significance of medical, physical and spiritual sustenance.

with-namita-26-nov-2016The Times Lit Fest (26-27 Nov 2016) was a tremendous success. It was a crackling good mix of speakers and the panel discussions were well curated. Everything ran with clockwork precision even though there were tremendous crowds to be seen everywhere. To discuss her elegant new novel, Things to leave Behind, I was in conversation with Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival. This multi-generations novel is set in the Himalayas, in the Nainital and Sat Tal region, putting the spotlight on socio-economic relationships, independence of women, spread of religious philosophies and the rigid caste system.

As the year draws to a close some significant literary prizes / longlists have been announced.

  1. Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize was won by Akshaya Mukul for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu Indiagita-press
  2. Swimmer among the starsTata Literature Live! Awards were presented with Amitav Ghosh getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and Kanishk Tharoor winning for his stupendous debut collection of stories.
  3. The International Dublin Literary Award ( formerly the IMPAC) longlist was announced and it included two Indian writers on it — Keki Daruwala and Vivek Shanbhag.
  4. The 14th Raymond Crossword Book Awards had an impressive list of winners. Sadly this time there were no

    ranjit-lal

    (L-R): Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

    cash prizes awarded instead gift vouchers were given to the winning authors.

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Jaya Recommends

  1. matt-haig-1Matt Haig’s incredibly beautiful must-have modern fairy tales A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas  ( Canongate Books)
  2. Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind  ( Penguin Random House) namita-gokhale-book-cover
  3. Ranjit Lal’s Our Nana was a Nutcase ( Red Turtle)
  4. Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari Conversations ( 1 & 2) , Seagull Books jorge-luis-borges

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New Arrivals

        1. Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz ( Simon and Schuster)
        2. Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak ( Speaking Tiger Books)
        3. Uttara: The Book of Answers translated by Arshia Sattar ( Penguin Random House)
        4. Bestselling author Stephanie Meyer’s new book is a thriller called The Chemist ( Hachette India)
        5. White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas by Robert Twigger ( Hachette India)

being-a-dogamba

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Publishing News and links 

  1. Nineteen years after working at PRH India, Udayan Mitra, Publisher, has quit.
  2. The two week long Dum Pukht residential workshop with facilitators Anil Menon, Pervin Saket, Akshat Nigam and special guest Amit Chaudhuri premieres at Adishakti, Pondicherry this Monday, 5 Dec 2016. The workshop also features one-day talks / sessions by poet Arundhati Subramaniam and historian Senthil Babu.
  3. Utterly fabulous BBC Documentary on UK-based feminist publishing house, Virago Press
  4. Neil Gaiman on “How Stories Last
  5. Two centuries of Indian print. A British Library project that will digitise 1,000 unique Bengali printed books and 3,000 early printed books and enhance the catalogue records to automate searching and aid discovery by researchers.
  6. shashi-tharoorTwo stupendous reviews of Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era Of Darkness. The first one is by historian Indivar Kamtekar and the second by journalist Salil Tripathi.
  7. A lovely review by Nisha Susan of Twinkle Khanna’s short stories — The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.the_legend_of_lakshmi_prasad_300_rgb_1478507802_380x570
  8. Gopsons prints Booker winner, yet again
  9. Best of 2016 booklists: Guardian ( 1 & 2) , New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2016 and Publishers Weekly 

1 December 2016 

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

Perumal Murugan “Pyre”

“…if we start this festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. ‘ I have married her,’ he snapped, barely concealing his irritation in his voice. ‘What is it that you want me to do now?’

‘Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival.’

( p. 132- 34)

Award-winning writer Perumal Murugan shot to fame with his novel, One Part Woman, translated from Tamil into English. Unfortunately it was the sort of fame he could have done without since he was unnecessarily persecuted by lumpen elements that took offence at his novel. He was forced to publicly announce that he would no longer be writing. Yet there was one more novel – Pyre. A slim one revisiting his pet themes — male protagonists, social structures, caste, rituals and ordinary and believable people. Pyre is about Kumaresan who leaves his village in search of work where he falls in love and elopes to marry his beautiful neighbour. Alas this marriage is not welcomed in his village instead they are ostracised. Curiously enough Perumal Murugan never mentions the castes explicitly. There are enough indications in the book that the bride, Saroja, is a Dalit or the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables”. A sad practice that continues to be prevalent in India.

Pyre or Pookkuzhi was first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. On my behalf Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu asked Perumal Murugan if in the original text he had ever mentioned the castes. He confirmed he had never done it. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan by a brief introduction that dwells upon the novel being about caste and the resilient force it is, the unusual reliance of Perumal Murugan on direct speech, the difficulties of translating Tamil dialects used extensively in the story such as Kongu and  Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s own habit as a translator to first draft a “very idiomatic translation”. But once again there are no references to this being a story involving a Dalit girl. So I posed a few questions to the translator.

  1. How true is the English translation of Pyre to the original Tamil? The English translation of ‘Pookkuzhi’ is very true to the original — nothing has been changed or consciously re-interpreted.
  2. How did you work on the translation? Only with the text or did you keep asking Perumal Murugan for assistance? I worked on the translation over several months. It took a lot of time mainly because my graduate school work grew more demanding. I did a first draft, in which I tried to keep the translation as close to the Tamil syntax as possible. So, necessarily, that would read quite a bit awkward in English. Perumal Murugan was, at the time of translating Pookkuzhi, caught in the middle of the tyranny whipped up around Madhorubagan. So I wanted to give him his space and approached Thoedore Bhaskaran for help with questions about Kongu Tamil. He was most kind. But at the later stage, I was able to consult Perumal Murugan.
  3. Did the author “tweak” the text for the English translation? In the Tamil edition does Murugan mention any of the castes? The English translation does not mention any but it is obvious that the caste angle is the basis of the anger in the story. PM didn’t tweak the text for English translation. ‘Pookkuzhi,’ in the Tamil original, does not have explicit caste names or place names. There are some recognizable markers and cues, but it does not take names. The caste angle gets foregrounded without explicitly naming castes. Through conversations, through references to people’s faith in caste hierarchy and practices, the novel manages to put caste and the difficulties of inter-caste marriage at the center.
  4. Is the “Tholur” mentioned in the novel in Kerala or Tamil Nadu? ‘Tholur’ mentioned in Pyre is, according to the plot of the novel, in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think it is an actual place, but a middle-sized town Perumal Murugan creates as a setting for Saroja and Kumaresan’s meeting and romance.
  5. Is Saroja a Dalit? Again, it is never explicitly mentioned, but the story itself and how she is perceived and treated point us in that direction.
  6. Why did you not include a more detailed introduction to the translation? I didn’t include a more detailed introduction, because I think there is an immediacy and accessibility to the narrative, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I didn’t want to assume that the readers needed such a mediation besides the translation itself, which is, in itself, an act of mediation. I do hope I will soon be able to write about the process of translation itself and how it works for me. So far, despite the labour and the time involved, translating has been sort of a zen place for me.

Pyre is a novel that is not easy to provide a gist of except to say it is one of those books that will forever haunt one especially the dramatically chilling end. It is seminal reading. It is stories that like this that bring out the rich diversity of Indian literature.

Perumal Murugan Pyre ( Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 399.

6 June 2016

 

Robert Seethaler, “A Whole Life”

A Whole LifeYou can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. ( p.37)

Robert Seethaler’s novel A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who never grumbled about work and did it diligently through all seasons. He was “considered a cripple, but he was strong”. He was orphaned at two but sent to live with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker. At eighteen his uncle threw him out of the house and Andreas began working for Bitterman & Sons construction teams which were setting up cable cars in the mountains. Later he was conscripted during the war, became prisoner of war at a Serbian camp, Voroshilovgrad, for eight years, and returned home to discover the construction firm had gone bankrupt and he earned his living as a tourist guide. There is hardship. There is immense loneliness. There is brutal violence like flogging of the young Andreas Egger by his uncle and breaking his leg earning him the nickname in the village “Gammy Leg”. Despite being a nondescript novel at one level there are moments of pure earthy tenderness such as his proposal to Marie. Adapting the tradition of Sacred Heart Fires — huge fire pictures that were lit on summer solstice, illuminating the mountain by night. He enlisted the help of his co-workers and emblazoned on the Austrian mountainside “For you, Marie”. Unfortunately after her untimely death in an avalanche Andreas Egger remains a widower for the rest of his life.

A Whole Life is a seemingly nondescript novel but comes alive upon second reading with the tiny details embedded in it that illuminate it much like the summer solstice fires emblazoning the rugged mountainside with moments of extraordinary beauty. The deep loneliness of Andreas Egger is enhanced by the story being very masculine not because it is about a male protagonist but for a man who chooses to be a loner and hardly anyone is inquisitive about it.  ( For a woman it would be an entirely different story!) It is no wonder that the slim novella exquisitely translated by Charlotte Collins from German has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Whole Life is like old gold. It will become a modern classic.

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, London, 2015. 

( Originally published in German 2014 as Ein ganzes Leben  by Hanser Berlin, an imprint of Carl Hanser Verlag, Berlin.)

15 May 2016