…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 notenough, 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.
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.
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.
There is a sudden deluge of books being released to coincide with the
ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair, the mecca of publishing and of course, as a run-up
to Christmas/ gifts. Some of the big name releases that have happened in recent
weeks have been Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning The Dutch House and
Jio Talentino’s absorbing collection of essays called Trick Mirror. There have been other books too like Melinda Gates The Moment of Lift, Candace Bushnell’s Is there still sex in the city? Or the
absorbing but light biography of The
Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie.
Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is such
a beautiful book that it is impossible to describe. I read it weeks ago but
could not bring myself to spoil the heartbreakingly fabulous experience of
reading it. It is historical fiction for it is set at the time of the second
world war in Philadelphia. It is about two siblings –Danny and Maeve– whose
father, Cyril Conroy, a landlord, made it supremely rich through sheer hard
work and wise investments. As a result he was able to haul his family out of
impoverished circumstances to buy a magnificent house with its contents built
by Dutch immigrants – the VanHoebeek. It is an unsettling experience for their
mother who soon abandons their family to mysteriously vanish from their lives. It
is said she left for India. Meanwhile Cyril Conroy marries again. This time a
woman with two daughters. The stepmother in true fairy story style banishes the
children from the home once Cyril dies unexpectedly. Maeve and Danny learn to
fend for themselves. Slowly putting their lives back together. Years later they
reflect upon their childhood. As Ann Patchett points out in an interview with The
Guardian that we are embarrassed by grief, and The Dutch House is multi-layered because of the varieties of grief
it addresses. Every time leaving a large gaping hole even in the reader’s heart
but a sense of yearning to read more. It is a stunning novel which will haunt
one for a long time to come. It is bound to find a place on the longlist of
next year’s Women’s Prize.
New Yorker staff writer Jio Talentino’s Trick
Mirror is a collection of her essays published previously. It is a
combination of reportage and memoir. It is not easy to read at one sitting for
its very thought provoking ideas on feminism, sexual assault, universities,
wedding festivities etc. It is such a wide range of subjects that she tackles, always
with an incisive feminist outlook, that it becomes immaterial after a point
that many of her observations are based on very local and personal experiences.
This is the beauty of essay writing that if the ideas discussed in the essay
resonate with readers beyond a specific geographic landscape – beyond Trump,
UVA in Charlottesville etc– and cut through borders of all kinds to have the
desired impact of evaluating and challenging one’s thoughts, then it is
extremely powerful writing. There are two excellent reviews of Talentino’s book
of my Self-Care” by Jacqueline Rose in the New York Review of Books ( 10
October 2019) and “Trick
Mirror by Jia Tolentino review – on self-delusion” by Lidija Haas ( 2
Billionaire Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift is a curious little book. The Gates couple are known for their philanthropy and have been in the public eye for years. They are very guarded about their private life which is fair. For instance, when their children were enrolled in school it was using their mother’s surname rather than their father’s more famous last name. This strong desire to withhold their personal space from the public eye in the memoir is also fair except that it makes the tenor of the book very bland. There are glimpses of the tussle Melinda Gates may have had with herself in making what are seemingly “simple” decisions such as venturing into the promotion of contraceptives for women. Given her very Catholic upbringing where her mother attends mass five times a week, this could not have been an easy focus area for Melinda to pick for her philanthropy. There are many instances in the book that while it is obvious Melinda Gates has the privilege to access information easily, she remains a reserved individual who does not allow any glimpses than are absolutely necessary into her private space. Justifiably a fair choice except that in a memoir that functions more than just an account of her life but is more like a publicity statement for her magnificent work in women’s healthcare. These barriers to her privacy as well as to the information that she is being shown that can cause complications creating a very insipid book for its statistically rich in data but bland in context. Her ambiguity about expressing herself strongly about her Catholic upbringing with the reality she sees in the poverty stricken parts of the world. Or for that matter her problematic narrative of India which seems very focussed on it being a casteist Hindu society with absolutely no mention whatsoever about the syncretic cultural fabric of this democracy. Even the heavy sprinkling of anecdotes cannot relieve the boredom, this despite the celebrity buzz with even President Barack Obama releasing videos supporting the book. Having said that there is one incident that Melinda Gates refers to in her book of a little girl child of a scavenger’s community in Kanpur. The child was bold enough to ask the Gates Foundation delegates for a teacher. This is a perfect match to a beautiful wordless picture book calledPuu published by Scholastic India.
The other big ticket release recently has been the unauthorised biography of
the Mountbattens – Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India who
oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan—one of the many prestigious positions
of authority he held. He was also Prince Philip’s cousin and instrumental in
insisting that the British Royal family taken on the name “House of Windsor”. The Mountbattens is written by Andrew
Lownie and based on extensive research, interviews with family members as well
as those who knew the Mountbattens well. Lownie even acknowledges Queen
Elizabeth II for granting access to her archives as part of his research. So
for the first time there are accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s career, his
mistakes and successes as well as of bisexuality (denied by the family). The “detailed”
account of Lady Mountbatten as the poor little rich girl, who was the richest
heiress of her generation when she married Lord Mountbatten is equally focused
on her promiscuity as it is with all other details of her life. There are
photographs, an extensive bibliography, footnotes and a detailed index. The
book has plenty of anecdotes that make for a rollicking good read except that
it all falls apart towards the end when Lownie acknowledges that the
Mountbatten’s myth is managed by exercising control at the archives in
Broadlands or closed under Ministerial Directive at the Hartley Library. All
said and done it is a book that makes for an interesting read and will probably
be optioned for a film or a TV miniseries very soon for its got all the razzmatazz
that will go down well with a global audience of a period drama.
In a similar vein is the memoir that Candace Bushnell has written after
crossing sixty — Is there still sex in
the city? It is a light and superficial read about a woman worrying about
money and life even though she and her girlfriends can afford to own homes at the
Hamptons, New York. Privileged women can offer quite a bit through their
memoirs as they are privileged not just in financial security but have easy
access to information, data, statistics — which increasingly have a price
barrier to them. Thus offering a broader perspective on issues that preoccupy women
as they become older. Issues like marital relationships, separations, losing
dear friends, how to come to terms with old age, healthcare, having the energy
to be with family and friends, increasing loneliness, managing busyness of life
etc. Of course there will be vast degrees of differences between those in
different points of the socio-economic scale but certain learnings are the
same. Oh well! It is an opportunity lost with Candace Bushnell’s memoir.
Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.
Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?
A.: When I was seven, my school
was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was
told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an
approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They
printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what
I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my
name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing
it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it
out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on
his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a
typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a
computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no
greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or
discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might
find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.
I began my career in journalism as a
reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter
never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story
ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have
this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective
about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a
journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be
objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily
or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of
the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to
write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know
I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or
The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.
2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?
A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.
3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?
A.: Researching for a book is among the
most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have
become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the
research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I
would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to
base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India
theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some
1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift
through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46
medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin
because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material
is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is
knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or
marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.
I begin with a basic idea about the
plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I
take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or
argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the
highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material
which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of
the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room
floor) also gets priority.
I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.
4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?
A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.
5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?
A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very
appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a
lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very
encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable
advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.
There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.
6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?
of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by
it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’
movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what
I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and
Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even
though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was
conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also
tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering
different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live,
how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what
the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it
remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that
of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these
insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.
Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.
7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?
A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my
thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find
the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and
European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a
wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and
the Age of Exploration.
There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.
8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?
A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.
9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?
A.: It is possible that some researchers
might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are
planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a
subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select
those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift
through the material I obtain.
There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.
10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?
A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?
A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.
12. What next?
A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.
Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.
Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.
All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014 http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?
A book worth reading.
Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899
( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )
Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.
Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.
This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.
“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.
Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”
Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.
Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).
Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.
The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.
Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.
Update ( 6 December 2014):
In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.