Baby Dollby Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.
Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.
Beginners by best-selling author, Tom Vanderbilt is a self-help book. Psychologically very uplifting. It is down-to-earth and humble. It is nice to see a memoir-cum-selfhelp book share with all humility one’s own shortcomings and the learnings gleaned from challenging oneself. It is very challenging at the best of times to hurl oneself into an “intensely immersive learning environment” but to do it over and over again as the author has done is commendable. One does learn even if it is to come to terms with one’s own limitations, not be an over reacher and yet continuously be alive to the myriad learning prospects life throws up— accept them and be challenged.
To begin the book with a chess match where he loses to his own daughter is a great start. Tom Vanderbilt does not come across as a snoot or with a large ego. But what is astonishing is the number of things he tries his hand at — chess, jewellery design, swimming, choral music, surfing etc. This book talks about how one is challenged to think beyond one’s own comfort zone especially once the children are born. This is a curious book as it criss-crosses genres such as self-help, parenting, psychology, education, lifeskill classes/workshops, corporate trainers etc. It will work also because it is so accessible in its easy style of chatting to the reader. It is also a positive book to read during the pandemic as it is motivating in the classical sense. It will do well in translation.
Those Who Forget by Geraldine Schwarz, published by Pushkin Press. It has been translated from French into English by Laura Marris. It is about Schwarz discovering that her paternal grandparents were Nazis but more than that she meticulously puts together sufficient evidence to show how Nazi sympathisers continues to exist in society and have ultimately contributed to the rise of the modern right wing movements.
This memoir is about the rize of Nazis, end of WWII, denazification by the Allied forces, the new Chancellor of Germany while agreeing to pay “blood money” to the newly formed country Israel also gave prominent positions in his cabinet to former Nazis. Schwarz’s argument is that the rise of the alt-Right in Europe should be no surprise as the sentiments that ruled Nazi supporters were allowed to exist in societies even after the war. All this despite efforts like the Nuremberg trials or tribunals set up by the Allied forces to weed out Nazi supporters and sympathisers. She interviews people who lived through Nazi Germany and are now in their 90s. Jews who fled but also Germans who continue to believe in their Fuhrer. She talks about the collective and personal memories and the tangle of guilt, denial and confession that has characterized Germany since the Second World War. She talks about the impact of right wing forces on a nation and then the politics of memory, remembrance culture, work of memory vs tyranny of memory etc.
It is an absorbing read albeit chilling at times for the historical details she documents have parallels in modern politics. Stunning book.
Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s latest novel Estuary has been translated by Nandini Krishnan. Estuary is a curious book. Flat in its tone but the preoccupation of the government clerk Kumarasurar for his son, Meghas’s, welfare is universal. Many parents will identify with it. Perumal Muruagan captures the parental anxiety very well. Bulk of the story revolves around Meghas’s request for a fancy smartphone that Kumarasurar may or not be able to afford. It sort of is in step with Kumarasurar’s general anathema towards electronic devices. It is illustrated well in his locking up the government issued computer into a cupboard instead of using it. It is only when he is introduced to the vast possibilities browsing the Internet can unleash that Kumarasurar begins to understand the younger generation’s fascination with smartphones too. The enthusiasm of the younger man for edevices rubs off on to his father, a Luddite where digital technology was concerned, and transforms Kumarasurar into a new man.
Estuary is a commentary on society and a gentle dig at people who are immune to external influences and refuse to evolve. Estuary drives home the point beautifully that as the elder person you must evolve even if it means graciously acknowledging your limits. By stonewalling and refusing to understand the needs of the younger generation, you will merely alienate them and perhaps lose them forever. In a peculiar way Estuary is a bildungsroman but not of the young man Meghas but that of his father. So the metaphor of “Estuary”, the mixing of the salt water with fresh water, works beautifully in the conclusion of the book, when tables are turned where the father now hankers after the smartphone unlike his son.
Estuary is contemplative and relatable. But as with many translated works, credit has to also be accorded to the translator. Namely, Nandini Krishnan. I am unable to pinpoint what exactly it is, but her translation really soars. The sentences click. There is a rhythm but it is ever so slightly different to that of reading a text written originally in English. Yet the translation is breezy. At no point does one get the feeling that the translator is getting carried away with their art and losing the author. On the contrary. Her respect for the storyteller and his story comes through. I do not even know how to explain that any further than except urge others to read the book. Of course there are instances in the book where the dreariness and monotony of Kumarasurar’s anxiety gets to the reader. The dullness of the storytelling is an art in itself and probably intentionally created by Murugan. At such moments in the novel the only reason for reading further is the exquisite quality of translation.
Nandini Krishnan is the author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013) and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018). Perumal Murugan’s Estuary is her first translation from Tamil. She lives in Madras, among nine dogs, eight cats, and several thousand books!
Here is an interview with her conducted via email:
Q1. How long did it take to translate Estuary?
It’s hard to calculate the man hours, but going by the calendar, I started in November 2019 and the novel went to print in May 2020. I’d promised V K Karthika, Publisher, Westland Books, that I would have a first draft ready in a month so that Westland could publish the following summer. And so, I pushed aside all my other writing projects and dedicated myself entirely to the novel. Of course, I had read it twice already, and had perhaps translated it in my head to some extent. I must have spent between five and eighteen hours on Estuary each day, depending on the sections I was doing. I had a break until they got back to me with a line edit and copy edit, and that was another intense period of immersion in Asuralokam.
Q2. What was your methodology in translating? For instance, did you translate it in snatches, refine and then proceed or did you first translate the entire novel and then edit it further?
Actually, all of the above!
I had a very tight self-imposed deadline, and I had to translate at least one chapter a day, more if I could. If I had doubts or dilemmas about which words to use, I would shortlist my options in parentheses to deal with later.
I’d take a few hours off to get mauled by my dogs and then return, entice my kitten off my laptop with food, and start restructuring and rephrasing each sentence after comparing it with the Tamil original.
Once I was done with all forty chapters, I took two days off, and then spent a few more days re-reading and editing the entire novel.
By the time it came back to me with a line edit, I had made a new document with notes on which words I must replace in the first draft, after yet another re-read of the original and my translation. So my second and third drafts were done with at least four windows open at once on the computer. While I was waiting for a final copy edit, I read the Tamil novel for maybe a fifth time, so I ended up doing a fourth draft of the entire novel before it was typeset.
Q3. Do you pause and read other translations while working on a project?
As you can probably tell from my previous answer, I don’t really have a pause mode. But I can’t eat or sleep or even sit without a book in hand, so I’m always reading. Some of the books I read while working on Estuary—and indeed my own books—were or are, inevitably, translations.
Perhaps I’m a little more tuned in to a translator’s role in my reading as well, now that I’ve translated a book. While reading Banaphool’s Wildfire (Seagull Books), translated by Somnath Zutshi, I found myself analysing the translator’s craft in particular—something I haven’t consciously done before.
Q4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in the translation?
I used to be fond of saying that I’m in something of a trance when I write fiction, that I write intuitively and it feels as if I’m simply a medium for a story that wants to be told. But I began to rethink this when I heard Akhil Sharma—a writer I admire hugely—talk about how only writers can sense the craft in his novels, at the Festivals des Écrivains du Monde, 2014, in Paris. He went on to analyse some of his sentences, and the use of a particular word instead of a synonym. For the first time, I found myself applying this principle instinctively, and could relate to what he’d said. This exercise really develops your language and craft.
I also feel being in such a long relationship with a work of literature in another language makes a certain cadence percolate one’s own language and enrich it. I can speak only one language so that it can be understood by its native speakers—English—but I read many, and therefore I can access various literatures in the original. I find that each new language adds a layer of nuance to one’s thinking and a lilt to one’s vocabulary in other languages, rendering one’s writing more versatile and one’s imagery more vivid.
I’m making the first of many references to Vikram Seth in this interview, but I think the beauty of his English has a lot to do with his being not just a polyglot, but also a translator.
The only “con” is the sense of heartbreak at the end. As mother of a houseful of dogs and cats, I can make something of a comparison to fostering a fur baby. You love this little puppy that needs you for nourishment, and he or she loves you too, but then you’re always aware you’re not the parent and that you eventually have to let go.
Q5. Did you have to consult Perumal Murugan during the translation?
I have a funny story to tell you. The first time I spoke to him about the translation, he asked me, “Andha pagadiye aangilathule konduvara mudiyumaa?” which means, “Will the pagadi translate into English?”
And it was a most inauspicious start because I had to ask sheepishly, “Sir, what does ‘pagadi’ mean?” He explained that it was parody, and then said, “You must have heard people say ‘pagadi-ya pesuvaan’—he is sarcastic—surely?” I had to admit I never had. I did a quick survey around my house and told him none of the Tamil speakers in my family had heard of the word either, and he began to laugh. He must have thought about how different the milieus in which we were raised are. My only brush with rural life has been through cinema and literature. And although I studied Tamil for thirteen years in school and college, I find it easier to translate Sangam poetry than contemporary literature because the syllabus was partial to the former.
Now, Perumal Murugan uses certain words and describes certain traditions which are so particular to a region that even Tamil dictionaries draw a blank. So he was often my only dictionary and encyclopaedia. I also consulted him when I had to make a choice between two phrases or idioms—I would translate the English literally into Tamil and ask him which he preferred.
I had the advantage of having read nearly all his Tamil novels and several of his short stories, because of which I’m tuned in to his style and rhythm. I’ve met him in person often, and I can hear his writing in his voice, which helps me render it with some authenticity into English.
Q6. Has your translation been absolutely faithful to the original Tamil text or did you (with the concurrence of the author) have to tweak portions of the novel?
That’s a layered question, and it deserves a layered answer.
Let me assemble the first layer with an example. The opening lines in Tamil are:
Yaman azhaippu urudhi
Magan azhaippu aridhu
Now, even if you don’t understand Tamil, you can feel the music and sense the significance of wordplay in those lines. This is a crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
“Azhaippu” can mean both “call” and “invitation”. “Aridhu” means “rare”, but also has the connotation “precious”. This is another crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
It would be impossible to be absolutely faithful to the sense of irony and the semantic meaning of the first line. If I were to write “Yama’s invitation is certain”, the reader would be bewildered. I eventually went with “The call of Yama is certain”, but this doesn’t contain the wryness of the Tamil sentence. So I would have to find a way to bring that into the next line.
I also had to bring in the musicality of the two sentences, almost a couplet. If I were to write, “The call of Yama is a certainty. A call from one’s son is a rarity”, it would sound like those cringe-worthy traffic police slogans—you know, “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers” or “Rash driving is crash driving.”
I had three options for the second line—“A call from one’s son is rare”, which is faithful to the semantic sense; “A call from one’s son is cause for celebration”, which is faithful to the emotional connotations; “A call from one’s son is an event”, which was the Goldilocks mean for me. It conveys the meaning and emotion; it has almost the same syllabic count as “The call of Yama is certain”. The last word of each sentence is dental, with emphasis on the
“t” and “en” sounds. And the second sentence contains the wryness that I wasn’t able to bring into the first, so the “couplet” works in translation.
Now, for the second layer—there are various vocabularies to be translated, because the third-person narrative is not always the author’s voice. Sometimes, it is a disguised first-person narrative. When the third-person narrative describes a character’s thoughts, it often assumes the voice of that character. I had to translate that character’s vocabulary accurately.
There are lyrical passages and empathetic ones and scholarly ones and playful ones, all of which carry Perumal Murugan’s signature. Then, there are passages in Kumarasurar’s voice. This man is a government employee who believes he is a gifted poet. But Perumal Murugan does not appear to think too highly of Kumarasurar’s poetic sensibilities. When Kumarasurar’s thoughts are narrated, his whimsical self-indulgence is interrupted by another tone—imagine a man who spends most of the day typing letters that probably go something like, “Dear Sir/ Regarding the statistics requested by you, kindly find enclosed forthwith the numbers as also a circular issued by the Department of Revenue regarding…/Kindly acknowledge receipt of the same.” The drudgery of this, the monotony will naturally seep into his thoughts too, and this is illustrated by flatness in tone. As for Mangasuri, she probably spends most of the day watching television soap operas and devotional programmes, and therefore she has a tendency to make dramatic pronouncements and perhaps imagines her reactions to be replayed twice. Meghas is clearly a caring son, but also has the impatience, quickness, and dry humour of an intelligent teen dealing with wide-eyed parents.
This is why the foreword is so important—when Prof. Murugan speaks of “deviance”, he could be referring to this little game he has played, where not just the vocalised dialogue but the internal dialogue too is in the voices of his characters.
And the voice of the narrator is not uniformed either. Sometimes, the author has a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he is seething with rage. And in the tightness of his clipped sentences, one feels the immense pain and fear he underwent during his years of exile.
So to be truly faithful to the novel, I had to extrapolate the lives of all the characters as well as the author himself, and rent some space in his head for the duration of the translation.
Q7. In an article you said that there were portions of the text you had enjoyed so much that you could recite them from memory. I found that such an extraordinary comment. As if you were more than just a translator but channelling it before making it your own and yet very clear that it was a Perumal Murugan story. So, what are your favourite sections in the novel? Does it have to do with the story or the style of storytelling? And the fondness that you have for these sections remain true for Tamil and English or only in Tamil?
I’m gratified by what you said about the translation. I haven’t quite articulated my modusoperandi to myself, but you put it quite beautifully.
Initially, my favourite sections in the novel were perhaps the ones I translated for Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu, Perumal Murugan’s Tamil publisher, to pitch to prospective English publishers, even before the translation was commissioned—the opening chapter where Kumarasurar goes on his morning walk, his analysis of the seven questions he asks his son, their visits to these draconian colleges with over-the-top controlling mechanisms for their students, reports on selfies causing accidents, and the chapter where Kumarasurar has a psychotic episode. But one sentence hit me so hard I had to put the Tamil novel aside—it is the moment when Kumarasurar goes to bring Meghas home on the last day of school and hears of a “curated cemetery”. The paragraph about students passing away in college and their families not being informed about it comes out of nowhere, and it breaks the reader. I would not call it a “favourite”, because one would have to be particularly perverse to enjoy that scene, but I felt a great sense of responsibility because the English paragraph had to be as powerful.
Having completed the translation, I think my favourite chapter is the one which describes Kumarasurar’s second visit to the estuary. I’m satisfied that I have captured the tone, imagery, mood, and undercurrents in this very complex portion, and it is my greatest triumph with the novel.
To explain why I like these sections so much, I have to make an admission. When I read the Tamil novel for the first time, I kept searching for the Perumal Murugan I knew and couldn’t find him. It seemed such a mild novel, without the bite of his previous work. The premise seemed so light. I knew I was missing something, because Perumal Murugan wouldn’t write a simple story about the generation gap. So I read it again, and only to realise that was not the subject of the novel at all. It is, in some ways, a microcosmic, twenty-first century parallel to A House for Mr. Biswas, a quiet yet searing contemplation of the wrenching failure of an unremarkable life, the devastation of a man who was once the talk of town at the notion that he might be the only one who imagines that he is important.
It took me, an avid admirer of Perumal Murugan, two readings and a lifetime’s consumption of his works to understand the essence of the novel. His English readership has only received him in translation, and so far, his plots have stood the test of language. This novel is a work of art which is carried as much by style as by story. These sections were the ones that brought this fact home to me, and they were my own pookkuzhi—trial by fire. Because, unlike Prof. Murugan with me, I would have only one shot with the reader. And both he and Kannan had placed a lot of faith in me by insisting that I be the translator. I had to repay that trust by conjuring the same magic in English, and by fighting over every word on behalf of the writer.
I was terribly nervous until a brilliant review by Saudamini Jain in the Hindustan Times reassured me that my job was done. So, with a smug little pat on my own back and a sheepish smile, I can confess that I like the sections in both Tamil and English.
Q8. How do you assess/ decide when to take on a translation project?
To be honest with you, money is an important consideration. Respect and transparency are others. I’ve taken on two translation projects so far, and both were largely because of how beautifully both editors wrote to me and how my interactions with them made me feel.
This is particularly relevant because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with representatives from tight-fisted publishing firms who’ve tried various tactics to get me on board. It feels almost like you’re being sold insurance, really. Or dealing with an HR person who’s trying to convince you to stay on after a pay cut. “See, you have to look at the unquantifiable factors. Think of what this could do for your career.” “Our profits have taken a beating this year. We need people like you to pitch in at this critical time.” “Think of this as a service you’re doing a profession that you love.” “This is actually a much better deal than anything we’ve offered anyone else.” “You need to be realistic here.” “If you don’t want it enough, I can’t do anything except say we’re sorry to see you walk away from an opportunity.”
This is yet another reason I admire Vikram Seth—he has never allowed the publishing industry to dictate his worth to him, and he has justified every penny spent on him. He has taught writers that weighing one’s efforts is not mercenary. I also owe Jeet Thayil for this—he’s one of the kindest, most generous people I know, and perhaps an unconscious mentor to writers who are just about finding their feet. From him, I’ve learned not to be embarrassed about asking for what ought rightly to be offered.
Q9. How would you define a good translation?
A good translation must strike a fine balance—it should not read like a translation, but should also carry some of the flavour of the original. The reader must hear the syllables of a language that is not-quite-English and yet not explicitly so. He should feel he is exploring, but never be lost. I guess it’s like holidaying in an exotic country and staying at a resort that caters mainly to tourists.
Often, the choice or arrangement of words can give the reader a whiff of an unknown language. For example, if I were translating from French, I may go with “armoire” over “cabinet” or “cupboard”, and “boudoir” over “dressing room”, because these are French words assimilated into English. If I were translating a Hindi novel, I wouldn’t change “Dadima” to “Granny” or “Jiju” to “brother-in-law”. If it were a Delhi novel, I’d make sure I used “By god” instead of “I swear” and “Mom-Dad” instead of “my parents”.
If you read the first few pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, you feel the place might as well be London as Cairo. This is perhaps because most of his early works were translated by teams—someone would translate it literally, someone else would correct the grammar, and yet someone else would Anglicise it for a global readership. The work that kept coming to mind when I visited Egypt was Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Bulding. It was translated by Humphrey T. Davies, who has been based in Cairo for decades.
Q10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
A translator is really a writer who is fluent in more than one language. I don’t believe writing can be taught. Perhaps one can find the tools to be a better writer, but it is also an instinct, a flair. One can always tell which translators are creative writers in their own right.
If you’ll forgive yet another analogy, I might liken a translator to an artist who is creating a portrait. One’s craft must come into play, but the artist must not encroach into the territory of the creator of the original. He cannot make the model’s nose sharper, and cannot afford to miss a single sinew. The artist may be Picasso, but this is not his palette for expression.
Often, translations fail either because the translator is not a writer or because the translator is a writer whose footprint contaminates the original author’s.
A case in point is Salma, whose novels and poetry in Tamil have not been done justice in English. Many of her translators focus on the “shocking” aspect, without contextualising her work within their milieu. The shock value is incidental to Salma’s craft. It is also a pitfall to see her work through the prism of one’s own politics, of gender or religion. It would be far more important for the translator to ask himself: “Can the reader hear the language of a Tamil Muslim household?” “Should I say ‘death’ here or retain ‘mowthu’ or use the uncorrupted Urdu original ‘maut’?”
Q11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
No. I think poor translations exist because most publishing firms sacrifice literary value at the altar of profit margins.
A skilled translator will find ways to make any sentence work. If you think about it, even books written in English but set in a milieu where English is not spoken contain the dialogue in translation—such as Junot Diaz’s entire oeuvre and a fair bit of J M Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. An example that comes to mind right away is a line from Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, where two friends are speaking to each other:
‘You should get a walking-stick, Mini,’ said Khuku. ‘It’ll be much easier for you. Your leg,’ and in Bengali the words ‘tor pa’ sounded so affectionate, as if she were referring to her leg as if it were her daughter, ‘won’t have to take the weight.’
I remember reading this when I was in college, and thinking “If I ever have to translate the phrase kaadhal-kathirikka, this is what I will do.” Google Translate will tell you I’ve written “love-eggplant”.
We’re fond of repeating received notions, like “English can never have the beauty of the mother tongue” or that the elegance or poetry in prose is lost in translation, without analysing them for truth. As someone with no real “mother tongue” and a passion for languages, I feel English is the most beautiful language I know, because it absorbs something of every other language I learn—it is my home, which somehow accommodates souvenirs from around the world.
Q12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
My favourite translator is Vikram Seth—he translates not only between languages, but between genres and disciplines and art forms. Who else would marry music and calligraphy and poetry (as he does in The Rivered Earth)? His Three Chinese Poets, from which I recently read poems, is a revelation to me—he dismantles and reassembles poems to stay faithful to rhythm and sense and imagery. He seems to be my gold standard in everything, no? J But we had poems from Beastly Tales when I was in Class 6 and 7, and I can never forget “Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks/Insults or complaints or bricks/Stilled the frog’s determination/To display his heart’s elation.”
In terms of translated texts I admire, I thought Aniruddhan Vasudevan achieved the near-impossible with his translation of Lara Fergus’ quite stunning My Sister Chaos. He translated it into Tamil as Izhappin Varaipadam, and the sections I read were just as stunning. Mr Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s Manasarovar carries all the heartache and intensity and ethereality and complexity of the original.
I’m not sure it would be fair for me to speak about translated texts whose source language I don’t read, but I enjoyed Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar-Ghochar, Rimli Bhattacharya’s translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, Arunava Sinha’s translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee, all of Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk, and all of Howard Goldblatt’s translations of Mo Yan.
Vasily Grossman”s Stalingrad is a prequel to Life And Fate. Life and Fate (Russian edition, Soviet Union, 1988) was translated from Russian into English in 1985 by Robert Chandler and Stalingrad ( 1952, Russian edition) in 2019 by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Life and Fate had been completed by Grossman before he succumbed to cancer in 1964 but the English translation was published before permission was granted for the Russian edition. It became possible after glasnost.
Vasily Grossman was a correspondent in World War Two. His novels borrow heavily from all that he witnessed. Recently, Robert Chandler wrote a magnificent essay, “Writer who caught the reality of war” ( The Critic, July/August 2020 ). Grossman was a correspondent for Red Star, a daily military newspaper as important as Pravda and Izvestia, the official newspapers or the Communist Party and the Supreme Soviet. It was a paper read by both military and civilians. Chandler writes “According to David Ortenberg, it’s chief editor, Grossman’s 12 long articles about the Battle of Stalingrad not only won him personal acclaim but also helped make ‘Red Star’ itself more popular. Red Army soldiers saw Grossman as one of them– someone who chose to share their lives rather than merely to praise Stalin’s military strategy from the safety of an army headquarters far from the front line.”
Stalingrad is a massive book to read at nearly 900 pages. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace in three days flat but Stalingrad was far more difficult to read. Perhaps because it was written so close in time to the events it describes. Within a decade of the Stalingrad blockade by the Nazis, Grossman’s novel had been published. Whereas “War and Peace” was written fifty years after the events fictionalised by Tolstoy. It makes a difference to the flavour of literature. Reading “Stalingrad” during the lockdown is a terrifying experience. More so because today nations around the world are dominated by right wing politicians who see no wrong in implementing xenophobic policies. The parallels with Grossman’s accounts are unmistakable. Having said that I am very glad I read Grossman”s novel. It is a detailed account of the blockade using the polyphonic literary technique. Sometimes it can get bewildering to keep track of so many characters. Also because there are chunks in the text over which Grossman does not have a very good grasp. His details of the battlefield or the stories about the Shaposhnikovs are his strongest moments in the novel. Perhaps because the war scenes are first hand experiences, much of which is brilliantly accounted for by Chandler in his recent article. And the weaker portions were written during Stalinism and Grossman probably had to be careful about what he wrote for fear of being censored.
After reading Stalingrad, I reread portions of Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin’s A Book of the Blockade ( English translation by Hilda Perham, Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1983; Russian edition, 1982). This book is about the nine hundred day siege too. The auhors recreate the event by referring to diaries, letters, poems written during the blockade, and survivors’ testimonies. They also interviewed “the strong and the weak, and those who had been saved and those who had saved others”. At times it felt as if there was little difference reading Grossman’s novel or these eye witness accounts that had been gathered by Adamovich and Granin.
These are very powerful books. I am glad the translations exist. Perhaps this kind of war literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially during the lockdown but it is highly recommended. Sometimes it is easier to understand our present by hearkening back to the past. These books certainly help!
Moscow, 1942. Summer. There were several reasons why people felt calmer … it is impossible to remain very long in a state of extreme nervous tension; nature simply doesn’t allow this.
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 ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. 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 Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The 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.
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.
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.
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!