translation Posts

In conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun

On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir. The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Amutharasan Paulraj. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.

This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!

To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!

Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy MarriageThis Blinding Absence of LightThe Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).

Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision? 

When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.

When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!

This was my debut as a writer.

Q2. You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?

Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.

Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter? 

For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.

Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.

Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion.  Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco? 

For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.

In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.

Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working.   Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)

This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.

Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction? 

Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.

Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative? 

An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.

Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?   

When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.

Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?

The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.  

To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.

Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?

France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.

Q11. What next? 

What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.

Here is the video recording of the session:

Digital Launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India present the launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun, award winning Franco-Moroccan author.The author will be in conversation with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amutharasan Paulraj, S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and Dr. Christine Cornet.TAHAR Benjelloun-officiel Jaya Bhattacharji Rose @amutharasan.paulraj @christine.cornet.96 #DigitalPremiere #OxfordBookstore

Posted by Oxford Bookstores on Tuesday, 30 June 2020

4 July 2020

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me”

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me has a protagonist who shares the same name as the author. It has been translated from Spanish into English by Daniel Hahn. The fictional Juan like the real Juan did has plans to move from Guadalajara in Mexico to Barcelona in Spain to pursue a doctorate in literary theory made possible with an EU grant. This is where the similarity ends ( at least we hope so!). The fictional Juan has a cousin who is of no good and hobnobs with local criminals. Practically on the eve of Juan’s departure, the criminals kill the cousin and persuade Juan to run an “errand” for them in Barcelona. He is asked to “infiltrate” the literary postgrad world in order to acquaint himself with a wealthy Catalan magnate’s daughter, Laia. The devious plan involves the Mexican cartel wishing to extort money from the wealthy man. Juan agrees to this preposterous plan. He enrols himself to study humour in Latin American literature. Meanwhile his life outside the classroom flip flops between third grade crime fiction and literary fiction. Juan on a mission encounters the dirty underbelly of society. He comes face to face with dodgy folks of all kinds, he hears gutter language, he experiences xenophobia and it is contrasted with the more genteel talk of the educated and socio-economic elite. It is an absurd situation to be in. Ripe fodder for his thesis but mindboggling to be in the heart of it while trying to ensure one’s sanity and safety of his family.

Reading I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is almost like television channel surfing pausing for a moment on a thriller and the next moment on a more sophisticated drama and then a mindless serial, each with multiple accents and settings. Only difference being here that this is a single novel with four distinct voices, crafted by one man, the Spanish writer Juan Pablo Villalobos. The four characters who offer four different perspectives on the plotline hail from different parts of society. Apparently the original novel had very distinctive kinds of Spanish attributed to these individuals. Daniel Hahn, the translator, had quite a challenging time translating the different registers of Spanish spoken into English. He has written a fascinating essay at the end of the book which recounts in detail how he achieved this feat. It is an extraordinary essay which is worth reading especially by many Indian translators who struggle to translate different dialects of a single Indian language into English. One of the toughest challenges is to carry forward the different registers of the original language into the destination language without corrupting the literary intention and craftsmanship of the author. Daniel Hahn shares some of his insights. His essay is truly brilliant!

The novel I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a comic romp though multiple socio-economic layers of Spanish society. For the most part they are invisible to each other but it needs a Juan to meander through it, making visible much that would prefer to remain under the radar. But the mirth created by fast paced, pitch perfect novel, cannot really mask the racism and immigrant related tensions that abound. It is a novel not easily forgotten. Worth reading!

It has been published by the fabulous independent publisher based in London, And Other Stories.

4 July 2020

“The Gospel of the Eels” by Patrik Svensson

If there is only one book you can read in 2020 then make it this superb translation from Swedish by art and culture journalist, Patrik Svensson called The Gospel of the Eels. It is part-memoir of Svensson and part-history of eels. It is at one level an exquisitely meditative reflection upon the mysteries of life, why we do certain things in the manner we do — whether it is man or the very mysterious eel. Like man, who has distinct stages on his life, the eel too has been documented of having four very distinct stages of development. It’s transformation from the glass eel to brown to the sexually mature grey/black eel is a stunning form of evolution that no scientist has ever been able to document in detail. It is as mystifying as the vast amounts of water the eels traverse. From the salty water of open seas to going upstream in search of fresh water of inland rivers. These patterns of movement happen at distinct moments in an eel’s life but why they happen no man knows. It is as puzzling as how do these creatures remember their places of birth in Sargasso Sea and return to it for spawning. Svensson’s fascination for the creatures began when his father would take seven-year-old Patrik eel hunting in the local stream. The author himself was never fond of eating the creatures but he developed a lifelong fascination for the mysteries surrounding eels. While seemingly recalling his warmly affectionate relationship with his father and sharing his family history, Patrik Svensson is able to dwell upon how eels have a history in literature dating as far back as Aristotle, who thought eels bred in mud. Pliny the Elder had an equally fascinating theory which stated that eels were born by rubbing two stones together. Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered scarophagi containing eels. Freud’s first academic paper was on the sexuality of eels after he spent a month living in a tiny fishing town dissecting over four hundred eels. Decades later the eel’s sexuality is still not fully understood. It is a fish whose life cycle has not been documented as yet. This despite efforts to tag fish returning to Sargasso Sea or observing them in tanks but nothing has worked. This fish cannot be artificially reproduced. Now it is in danger of becoming extinct for various reasons, many of them can be attributed to man.

The Gospel of the Eels is a book not to be missed. It raises many questions about life, mortality, man’s excessive need to know, what are the limits man should set for himself as an individual and a race and in his interaction with nature, how much knowledge is necessary and how much pursuit of gaining that knowledge is essential. Like his father who was content with living his life and not particularly keen to investigate into his past or that of his beloved mother, similarly, it may not be a bad idea if we let God’s creatures live in peace and if man learned to live in harmony with them and each other. None of this is really spelled out so explicitly by the avowed atheist Patrik Svensson but it is implied and graciously acknowledged. In fact these are some of the questions that are pertinent more so now during the pandemic. If theories are to be believed, the Covid19 is a health crisis created by crossing or rather violating these very same sacrosanct boundaries between Man and Nature. Of course this book was written much before the pandemic happened but its publication is very timely.

It is a stunning book that has been beautifully translated by Agnes Broome. Well worth buying a copy or even gifting generously.

29 June 2020

“Chorashastra: The subtle science of thievery”

Chorashastra: The subtle science of thievery is an oddly gripping novella by award-winning Malayalam writer V. J. James. Absurdly imaginative storyline that within a couple of pages seems to be so believable that it is impossible to put the book down. A thief breaks into the house of a professor who has spent his days salvaging ancient texts, long forgotten or overlooked by scholars of present times. On the night of the theft, the professor is poring over an ancient manuscript called Chorashastra that holds within its pages mind-boggling tips and tricks for thieves. The professor persuades the thief to become his disciple. And thus begin a series of ridiculous adventures for the thief. This is a story easily read during these surreal times. Perhaps a plotline that will fascinate readers after the pandemic is over too. Read it at face value or search for alternate meanings. It is a choice left to the reader. It is certainly a plot that will not be easily forgotten. It has been translated smoothly from Malayalam into English by lawyer Morley J. Nair, who is now based in USA. Meanwhile V J James works as an engineer in a space research organisation.

There is a fascinating interview between two legendary award-winning contemporary writers, Benyamin and V J James at the end of the book. An excellent element to include with the novella as Benyamin asks all the questions one wishes to have asked V J James!

Good stuff! Worth reading.

26 June 2020

“Letters to Mother”

New age publishing in India = celebrity publishing.

This is the latest offering from HarperCollins India.

19 June 2020

Books read during the lockdown, April 2020

It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.

Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)

Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.

The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.

The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.

And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.

The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!

14 May 2020

“Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” by Sudhanva Deshpande

Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi is an account of the left activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered on 1 Jan 1989 at Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old. Jan Natya Manch was staging a 30-minute play called “Halla Bol” on the road when the actors were interrupted by some politicians who wished to cross. Hashmi requested them to return in a little while. They seemed to listen and turn away except they returned bearing iron rods. They attacked the troupe leaving Safdar Hashmi very badly injured. He had been hit on the head many times. By the time of his death Hashmi had been hugely influential in street theatre with his group called Jan Natya Manch or Janam. He was a member of the CPI ( M).

In Halla Bol Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the earth-shattering events of the day. He was one of those who took the injured Safdar Hashmi to hospital. Working “backwards” from the opening scene of the murder of Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the main highlights of Safdar Hashmi’s life. Both men share similar qualities of being street theatre practitioners and a political activists. So while this book is promoted as a biography, it falls more into the category of a memoir and an unusual one at that — a collective memoir. Through much of the book Deshpande is able to rely upon memory as in many instances he bears witness to the events that occured but for many others he interviewed many people who knew Safdar Hashmi and/or had worked with him. There is a veritable army of people mentioned in the text and acknowledged at the end of the book too. It is a democratic inclusiveness of all those who knew Safdar Hashmi — as a man, a colleague, a relative, a theatreperson, a political activist etc. Deshpande’s account while highlighting that Hashmi used the arts for communicating his politics. As cultural critic Kunal Ray mentioned in his review of the book, “Street theatre is political. It began as a workers’ movement against capitalism. As a medium of performance, it facilitates direct conversation or confrontation with the audience or onlookers defying the restrictions and gentility of a proscenium space. It also undermines the hierarchy of the performer and the audience. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a vision of the arts that is secular and people-oriented. He also believed in an art advocating social justice. It is therefore impossible or perhaps unpardonable to think of Safdar without his politics.” ( Kunal Ray, “Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande”, Hindustan Times, 24 April 2020) . Interestingly enough National Street Theatre is 12 April which is also Safdar Hashmi’s birthday.

Nandita Das, Sudhanva Deshpande, Moloyshree Hashmi et al reading out the first two scenes of Halla Bol in Mumbai, March 2020.

Halla Bol is an interesting testimony of a life well lived and rudely cut short by hooligans. It may be considered a biography but is more of a primer on theatre in India with a fascinating account of the evolution of street. More importantly an amalgamation of traditional forms of artistic expression that was combined with drama for a public performance. Today we take this for granted, whether watching a play, reading a book or even watching a film. In the 1980s it was still a brand new concept and had the desired impact upon the audience, mostly workers for Jan Natya Manch performances, and who suddenly did not feel alienated any more from cultural performances as plays like “Halla Bol” used vocabulary, situations, dialogue etc that was familiar — “Just like us”. Safdar Hashmi was undeniably sharp, intelligent, a hugely gifted artist, a visionary and knew how to combine smartly political acts with creative expression. Yet there are moments in the book which make it seem like a hagiography since all those interviewed or reminiscing about Safdar Hashmi continue to miss the man fiercely. In a biography one expects there to be a distancing between the author and his subject offering a perspective to the reader but this does not always happen in Halla Bol. Nevertheless this book is a treasure trove of memories, a people’s history of theatre movement in India, evolution of street theatre, documentation of various attitudes towards performing theatre, empowering future generations of theatrepersons by enabling them to be confident in borrowing elements from traditional forms of theatre/ folk art and making it their own. Within months of its publication the book has been translated into quite a few Indian languages. It is a seminal book on Indian theatre.

Read Halla Bol

4 May 2020

Interview with Gaël Faye on his debut novel “Small Country”

I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!

Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.

Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.  

The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.

The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.

Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?

That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form.  At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.

Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?

One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.

2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?

It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.

3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?

Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.

And you, have you ever been changed by a book?

Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.

4.  Was it difficult to write about the genocide?

Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere

5. What about the pain?

No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.

So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.

Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.

7. What prompted you to write this book?

First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.

8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?

This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.

Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.

10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.

Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.

11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.

It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.

You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?

My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.

12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?

Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it?  I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise.  The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!  

17 April 2020

Ariana Neumann “When Time Stopped”

…it was during a period he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.

How could time have stopped?

‘Because,’ he said, ‘and you will understand this when you are older, sometimes you feel that everything around you has come to an end. You feel that you are completely alone, that time is frozen and that you are invisible. At first, you might feel exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but then you’ll be frightened that you are lost and you will never be able to go back.’

He explained that when he first felt this, he had been isolated and afraid and had prised open his watch case to verify that time was indeed passing. The rhythm of the watch might have been imagined. Sound was not enough, he needed to see and touch it. It was the first time that he had dismantled a mechanism. The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.

It was then that he had comprehended the importance of time.

Ariana Neumann was raised in Caracas, Venezuela as a Catholic. Her father, Hans Neumann was an established businessman who was also seen as a patron of the arts. Ariana was Hans’ daughter by his second wife. Ariana had a fairytale upbringing. Living in a large home, stuffed with beautiful pieces of art. She had loving parents and had everything that she desired. It is evident in the book trailer which is based on a series of home movies.

Ariana Neumann’s debut book When Time Stopped is a memoir about uncovering the truth about her father’s past. Despite the idyllic childhood he gave her, there were certain topics that were taboo. One of these were questions about his past. It was during a “spying” game that nine-year-old Ariana had created with her friends that one of her friends/spies reported that they had witnessed her father carrying a cardboard box into the library. Later in the day she decided to investigate for herself. Ariana found the box. Ruffled through its contents. Found it contained only a slim collection of papers. Most written in a language she could not comprehend. Then she spotted an identification document with an unrecognisable name — Jan Sebesta– and a young man’s photograph, an unmistakable likeness to Hans, and stamped below it was also a picture of Hitler. She was startled. She ran to her mother distraught at her discovery. Her mother placated Ariana and told her not to worry. Yet it shook Arian’s world realising that her father was not who he was. After that the box disappeared. She never saw it again. Until her father passed away and she was clearing his drawers. She then discovered the box once more. This time it was stuffed with more papers, mostly in languages she could not read. Equally puzzling were the nightmares her father had when he would scream aloud in a language Ariana could not understand.

Berlin identity card dated October 1943 found by Ariana Neumann as a girl. It had a photo of her father Hans Neumann as a young man on it, but the name stated was Jan Šebesta.

When Time Stopped is a memoir that reads like a well told mystery story as Ariana uncovers the truth about her father. A beloved father who was exceedingly busy and built an extraordinary business empire established first in the paint industry. A father who was so immersed in his work that even his own daughter had to seek an appointment with his secretary in order to have some time alone with him. A father who threw himself into his work that he was effectively able to compartmentalise his life and seemingly not let anything deter him. It was this father whom she had persuaded to visit Prague as part of a business delegation in the early 1990s. She had accompanied him. At the time he had let his mask slip briefly when broke down at the fence of Bubny station.

Hans Neumann’s deportation ticket. He absconded and did not show up at Bubny station in Prague as ordered.

When Time Stops is a fascinating account of how Ariana uncovers her father’s past, discovers he was a Holocaust survivor, who had lost twenty-five members of his family in the pogrom conducted by the Nazis. He had managed to escape by extraordinarily living in Berlin, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, as a Christian. He was convinced that “the darkest shadow lies beneath the candle”. From there he fled to Venezuela with his older brother. Unfortunately his parents and extended relatives perished in the gas chambers. The Neumann’s had a thriving painting business in Prague. They were Czech Jews whose lives had been upturned with the invasion of the Germans in March 1939.

While researching for this book, Ariana Neuman discovered that she had relatives spread acrosss the world. She contacted them. Also discovered that there was a list of Jews who had perished during the war posted on the walls of a synagogue in Prague. She found her father’s name that had a question mark against his death. When she called and asked him about it, he merely said, “I tricked them”. Ariana also discovers that her paternal grandparents had been sent to a concentration camp that ordinarily operated as a labour camp so rules governing its administration were relatively “freer” than the other camps. Hence her grandparents while being incarcerated inside were able to send letters and parcels to their sons and at times receive illicit parcels containing packets of food and bare essentials. Extraordinarily it is the emergence of these letters after more seventy years that for the first time reveals to many the manner in which these camps operated. They had a well-defined economy and administrative structure. Ariana’s grandparents letter shed light on these internal mechanisms as well as some of the despicable horrors, many of which they were unable to recount, yet alluded to them. Ariana stumbled upon these parcels while investigating into her past. As she reached out to newly found relatives she discovered that they had similar boxes of papers as she had. These contained letters and pictures. Using the services of a Czech translator, Ariana painstakingly translated and read all the correspondence. Then filled in the gaps with her research. Result is this book. This extraordinary memoir.

When Time Stops is about Ariana discovering that the stray remarks fellow students made at school and university questioning her Catholic upbringing and at times bluntly saying she was a Jew were all true. They knew. She did not. It is more than just the passionate love of her father’s for his 297 clocks that he so carefully cared for. He had his own workshop in a windowless room where he tinkered with his precious watches, some of them going back a few hundred years. Yet of all the beautiful pieces he owned, it was an ordinary dull gold one that he was most fond of as it reminded him of the time piece his own father possessed. A link that the daughter put together after her decades of investigation into her past.

While being an fascinating account of a life, When Time Stops is also a horrifying read for the many parallels it has with modern life. Many countries today are questioning the citizenship of their people and creating scenarios that are eerily similar to those described in this book. It is worth reflecting upon. How much of the past needs to be shared and kept alive through memories as a lesson to future generations on the horrors that humans can inflict upon their own? How much of the past that is kept alive is actually used by future perpetrators as case studies? It is a tricky balance to achieve in this grey and gloomy world. Having said that When Time Stopped is worth reading for it stands out as a very well written memoir, balancing extensive research with the personal stories.

*The pictures used in this blog post have been published in the book and on The Israel Times website.

9 March 2020

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019