Started reading Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart. The long awaited second novel by the Booker Prize winner. His first novel, “#ShuggieBain” has exceeded a million copies sale. In fact, he received the PanMacmillan Golden Pan Award for achieving this glorious sales figure.
Unusually, but understandably, the Indian/South Asian edition of the book uses the cover design of the American edition, not the British. Publishers need to be cognizant of sensibilities in the local book market. Pan Macmillan India made the right decision. Douglas Stuart is a fabulous writer. Sometimes tactful decisions need to be made in the interests of business. Here is hoping that Young Mungo sells consistently.
…the fundamental knowledge that is acquired should be transfered to the next generation through our genes. When animal instincts are thus transmitted, why aren’t intellectual capabilities inherited?” “That is because mankind’s collective intellectual achievements are monumental. Only a very small part of the immense knowledge gained by society is stored in the brain of an individual. Most of us retain only relevant information about our chosen field of expertise and even that would be a tiny percentage of the existing knowledge in that particular field. Even an extremely intelligent geologist or a doctor would have assimilated only a small part of all existing knowledge. Knowledge is recorded and preserved in millions of books and computers to be used when needed. A man who learns to drive a car doesn’t genetically pass on this ability to his progeny; he has to teach them. In the same way, education from a qualified teacher is an important aspect of growing up. This limitation of the human brain has been confirmed by this experiment. This is a problem for geneticists. Even if a highly intelligent person’s cells are used to create a baby, knowledge needs to be imparted to the child as it grows up. The human brain might be a supercomputer that works quickly and as accurately in relation to the available data. So if you deliberately do not feed the computer of data or deprive it in a language that the computer understands, it will helplessly deteriorate just as the evolved modern-day humans will become like cave people.’ p.116-117
Alphaby award-winning T. D. Ramakrishnan ( translated from the Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is his debut novel about thirteen people who live on an island called Alpha for twenty five years. It is published by PanMacmillan India. It is an experiment conducted by anthropologist professor Upelendu Chatterjee at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The twelve members of his team were from different Indian states and faiths. The experiment was unique in that the investigators had to be their own subjects. The professor had discovered this remote island that was not to be found on any published map. The people he took on this experiment were academics, bureaucrat, artists, painters, doctor etc. They were young, knowledgeable and were enthusiastic practitioners of their discipline. The professor was clear that if they were to accompany him to Alpha, then “They would have to give up all knowledge gained since the uncertain emergence of their lives. Go back to zero — the beginning — and from there start once again. In other words, alpha, beta gamma.” The professor plans the experiment meticulously. So much so that he leaves instructions with one of his students to search for the island in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, the student, Professor Satish Chandra Banerji, himself falls ill and is paralysed, so he persuades in turn one of his students, Avinash, to go in search of this island and ascertain if there are any survivors. When Avinash arrives at the island, he discovers three of the original team have survived. But there is also a small community of forty-seven people — men, women, and children. He brings home the three survivors — Malini, Santosh and Urmila.
Alpha turns out to be an experiment that went horribly wrong. The participants had to follow strictly the rules imposed by the professor including avoiding all learned language, speech, and therefore communication of ideas. They also had to forget all their knowledge about medicine, anthropology, science, arts etc. It made for a very chaotic but also carnal form of communal living. There were no rules for social and moral conduct and yet there were the rules as stipulated by the professor. Also, over a period of time, a peculiar hierarchy had come into place, where the professor by virtue of being the seniormost by nearly a generation was given his special cave dwelling and accorded a respect that was not necessarily reserved for the others. All individuals were meant to be treated at par. When the next generation was born, they had no knowledge of the previous generation’s skills and accomplishments, nor did the parents deign to teach their kids any skills. They were left to fend for themselves. It was back to a primeval form of living. Base. Violent. No rules. No authority except for the authoritarian professor.
T. D. Ramakrishnan wrote this book in 2003. The author is an Indian Railways officer. Perhaps it is a coincidence that this novel was written soon afer the Godhra riots of 2002 that were sparked off by the burning of a railway carriage. Yet, the story itself is set between 1973 and 1998. It begins at the time of the former prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. But the lens that fiction provides for contemporary society cannot be ignored. The uneasy commentary provided by the author that centuries of learning, culture and knowledge are completely disrupted by authoritarianism is a worrying idea. Once the damage is inflicted, how does society recover? Is it possible? Or does the island in the story become a metaphor for real life that such a society if forever marooned, it regresses and will take a long time to recover or be at par with rest of civilisation.
Interpreting Alpha as an allegory is perhaps doing it a disservice but it is hard to read it in any other manner. Otherwise reading it as a straightforward story results in asking many more questions than the story itself posed. The author pushes the limits to every boundary, especially that of time, knowledge, life skills, and brain development in speculating its impact on the individual and society and what does it mean to be human?
Alpha is a peculiar story. It is powerfully told. No wonder it achieved the success that it did in Malayalam. This is the first time it has been translated into English. Read it. It is going to be talked about for a long, long time to come. It is not going to be easy to forget. Try it.
In The Christie Affair , Nina de Gramont ( Pan Macmillan India) attempts to figure out where exactly did the popular crime writer, Agatha Christie, vanish for eleven days. It is a mystery that has never been solved.
This novel is a lovely, light read and is very much like a story that Kristin Hannah would write. Focussed on the women characters, delving into a historical period, recreating it but telling the story firmly with a very modern perspective. So while “The Christie Affair” is immensely readable, it does leave you wondering if the author used Agatha Christie as an excuse to kickstart the story. Ultimately, Nina de Garmont tells a mystery story that is very much in the style of an Agatha Christie story. Bewildering turn of events but no point in overthinking it. Just enjoy the story for what it is.
Elsewhere, the blacksmith of the village busied himself with a small glob of brass, shaping it into the form of a head. Each head a warrior claimed was rewarded with a small brass replica, worn as a pendent on a red beaded necklace.
Digonta Bordoloi’s second novel, Second World War Sandwich is set against the backdrop of the Kohima War. It took place in stages from 4 April to 22 June 1944 in and around Kohima in northeast India. Later, in independent India, Kohima became the capital city of Nagaland. The battle was fought between the British forces and the advancing Japanese troops. It was a fierce battle fought over the hilly terrain for Kohima’s strategic importance in the wider 1944 Japanese Chindwin offensive lay in that it was the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India. During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. Against this the Japanese had lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives. ( Source: Wikipedia)
Second World War Sandwich revolves around Captain Timothy Hastings, a former tea-estate manager; his wife, Sandra, a nurse, who too had grown up on a tea-estate in India; Raan, who is far happier being a cook, carrying pots and pans, rather than wielding a gun; Chetri, a Gorkha, brave as any legend about the Gorkhas is; and Mongseng, a Konyak, a prince, heir to his father’s throne, the ang of his village, Poilung. They are thrown headlong into battle with the Japanese and are a motley troop. Everyone is wary of Mongseng at first but after a certain turn of events, they discover that this naked, tattooed, “savage”, whose only weapon is an extremely lethal dao/machette, does not intend them any harm. Also, lo and behold, Mongseng speaks a smattering of English, taught to him by the Padre in their village.
Now therein lies the extremely fascinating history of the Christian missionaries who visited north east India from the nineteenth century onwards. In Nagaland, they were mostly American Baptists who would roam around, although in the novel, the Padre is an Italian. His denomination is never made clear even when constructing the church in the village. The description exists but no more. Mongseng is a Konyak — one of the many Naga tribes but they are unique as in they used to be headhunters. This was the only way of life that they knew. Their village was constructed and still exists like this — with wooden huts, thatched roofs, intricate carvings on their door posts, carcasses of kill drying in their “verandahs”, with the kitchen being the centre of their homes. The hearth or the embers upon which the food is cooked is in the centre of the room. Above it hangs these large metal plates upon which the meats are slow cooked. And tea remains a constant offering. Something that Mongseng compares too when offered a rather watered down version of tea by Raan. He yearns for his freshly roasted tea leaves, bitter morning brew. The ang, or tribal elder/king, presides over the village and rules in a just and fair manner. At the centre of the village is the morung, or the male dormitory, where the unmarried men congregate and spend their time. It is also the place in the novel where the village elders gather for a chit-chat and more often than not to drink the addictively bittersweet brew that the Padre plies them with. It turns out to be rum. In fact, if you visit any of the Konyak village cemetries as I did with my father ( Romesh Bhattacharji) in the late 1990s, the headstones very proudly bear the inscription that the recently deceased scalped so many individuals but also was a Christian. A dichotomy if there was ever one! In fact, the brass necklace in the picture was gifted to me by a minister in the state government when he discovered I had completed my post-graduation. He was so impressed that I had achieved so many degrees whereas he had only cleared his eighth grade that the following morning as we were departing he put a parcel wrapped in newspaper in my hands saying this is for you. In it were a bunch of necklaces that I treasure decades later. We were all staying in the same guest house as dad was an Election observer and the minister was on the campaign trail. The villages we covered on this tour were those of the Konyaks — Chenmoho, Chenwenyu and Chenwengtu. So when I came across the description of these brass heads being fashioned in the village when Mongseng made his first kill, I realised the signficance of this brass necklace that I have had for many years.
Second World War Sandwich begins incredibly grippingly with a fine description of the landscape and an introduction to Timothy and his team. Mongseng drops into their lives. The establishment of the relationship between the four men, the varying degrees of masculinity that shines through the text is absolutely fascinating to read. It is as if the author has spent hours working upon the details and trying to get the tenor right. The battle outside makes it presence felt often enough in the narrative with falling mortar, wounded crowding the makeshift hospitals, the dead piling up, the horrific mix of the raw and trained soldiers who are battling against a very sophisticated enemy etc. The immense knowledge and experience that Mongseng brings is dealt with respectfully and at par with the white man. It is interesting to see this equilibrium being set by Digonta Bordoloi even if it is a tad hard to believe that there would be so much trust between a white man and a native in British India. Nevertheless, it makes for an interesting read.
After a rollicking good start, the plot begins to drag. The extremely long backstories about every main character while interesting by themselves are so unnecessary beyond a point as they are distracting about the battle itself. The inter-personal relationships can easily flourish under the brutal conditions of warfare. These long-winded descriptions needed to be worked out elsewhere and then only significant portions used in the main narrative. Having said that if the backstories are read as short stories, they are lovely digressions. The particularly sensitively drawn one is that for Mongseng. It makes sense when the author acknowledges the wangra ( village chief) of Hamphui and his fellow village elder-men — Nagaland’s last surviving headhunters. The fine descriptions of the Konyak lifestyle are worth reading. But then the second half of the book dissolves into a chaotic mess where the frenzy of battle overtakes the characters but it also makes the author lose his grip on storytelling. It is as if he is getting pulled into the personalities of each character more and more while at the same time very eager to get his facts right about battle strategies. There are neat illustrations accompanying the story marking out the terrain and the peaks that were crucial in the real battle. But sadly, they do not help retrieve a potentially good novel. Maybe if the possibility of narrating the past by a dying Mongseng to his grandson, Angsen, had been pursued a little more aggressively, the structure of the plot would have fallen into place, much as it did for Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It allowed for the possibility of there being lapses into modern day and thereby offered a perspective on historical events.
Perhaps those with a greater in-depth understanding of the battle may appreciate the book. But for now, there is confusion between “Second World War Sandwich” being a literary fiction, commercial fiction, historical fiction, war novel or rescuing the history of the Konyaks. Having said that this is a book worth recommending as it puts the spotlight on a part of India’s history that is little known about. The last time a stupendous novel on this very same subject was written was by Siddhartha Sharma, “The Grasshopper’s Run”. It won the Crossword Prize 2009 and in 2011 was shortlisted for the Sahitya Bal Puraskar. Hopefully, Digonta Bordoloi will be recognised to a certain degree for his strong writing and he will be on some literary prize lists. This book deserves to have a long life. Meanwhile, it is crying to be optioned for a limited television series.
Ann Cleeves is known for her mystery novels mostly set in Devon and the Shetlands. She has been writing for many years but the recent success of her Shetland novels adapted for TV by the BBC has sparked a renewed interest in her books. It has definitely got her a new fan base.
On 26 October 2017, Ann Cleeves was presented with the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honour in British crime writing, at the CWA’s Dagger Awards ceremony in London. In 2006 Ann was the first winner of the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for Raven Black, the first volume of her Shetland series. In addition, she has been short listed for CWA Dagger Awards, once for the short story dagger, and twice for the Dagger in the Library award which is awarded not for an individual book but for an author’s entire body of work.
Her new novel, The Long Call, features a new detective, Matthew Venn. It is set in North Devon where Ann Cleeves grew up. Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is a reserved and complex person, estranged from the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, and from his own family, but drawn back by murder into the community he thought he had left behind. The Long Call seems very contemporary in its writing style, the scenarios presented, the flexibility in character movement, the plot lines etc. There are all the classic elements of a mystery novel keeping the reader in suspense but the modern touches to the storytelling are refreshing too. For instance the vulnerability of Matthew Venn in his personal space is very well done. Juxtaposed with the toxic masculinity he has to contend with while working on a case is fascinating to read. Although it is hard to pinpoint a specific point in the novel but it feels almost as if the recent years of having had many of her previous novels adapted for television has affected Cleeves writing style — although she denies it to be so in the interview below. Be that as it may, the story is fabulous. Read it.
Here is an interview conducted via email:
What drew you to writing mystery stories? Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? And as a reader which form do you prefer?
Although I’ve always read very
widely, mysteries were my comfort books, the books I turned to when I had a
cold or was miserable. I planned to write a great work of literary
fiction when I started out, but the novel only really took off when I killed
off one of the characters! I find the structure of the classic detective
story rather liberating, and it still allows me to explore the topics which
interest me: the family, social justice and the way that place influences the
Short stories are very difficult to write. Every word has to count. I can experiment with short fiction, write from the first person, for example, which isn’t a natural voice for me. I prefer reading novels; it’s a more immersive experience.
2. How long does it take you to write a novel? Does a series arc require extensive planning or do you let it evolve over time?
I’m contracted to do a book a year, but the book usually takes about nine months to complete. I don’t plan my work at all. I write like a reader, I think. I can’t start until I have an idea about the world I’m creating, a vague sense of what it would be like to live there, but the details, even the details of character, come with the writing. So, I’ll write the first scene and because I want to know what happens next, I write the second. By the time I’m halfway through, I have a notion about what the resolution will be, but even then I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there.
3. How did you get your first break in publishing?
It was a lot easier to find a publisher when I started out in the late nineteen eighties. I wrote my book, went to my local library to see who published the kind of novel I’d written, then sent letters and synopses to them. The fourth publisher I tried accepted it. It was much harder getting any commercial success. That took twenty years.
4. The “Dear Reader” format is fascinating. It is a direct acknowledgement of how aware you are aware of the reader. How does this constant awareness of the reader affect your writing style?
I wrote a letter to my readers at the beginning of The Long Call because it was the first book in a new series and I hoped to persuade the people who’d enjoyed the Vera and Shetland books to give it a try. When I’m writing I’m not really aware of the reader at all. It’s a very selfish process. I write the book that I’d enjoy reading, I’m revelling in the process, in becoming my characters and seeing the world through their eyes. It’s a sophisticated form of a child playing make-believe. There’s nothing wrong with escapist fiction, either as a reader or a writer.
5. How do you create characters? Do they evolve once the plot develops as well or do you first create people sketches and then work them in to the plot?
I don’t create people sketches. Of course I know my returning characters rather well – I’m writing them from memory not imagination – but the individuals who only appear in one book grow as I’m writing. Then of course I have to go back and make sure that they’re consistent from the beginning.
6. Does the gender of a character make a difference to the degree of insight and work required on your part as an author? (I get the sense that your women characters are far more nuanced than the male characters. Not to say the male characters are not well portrayed but there are tiny details about the women that makes them to be more rounded. It is almost as if at times you are sympathising with them.)
This is a really interesting observation! I hadn’t thought the gender made any difference, but perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I’m rooting for my women and have more understanding of their problems and stresses. It doesn’t feel any easier when I’m writing them though.
7. Do you like observing people?
Yes! I’m perpetually eavesdropping and watching. I don’t know how you could be a writer if you don’t use public transport, for example. That’s such fertile ground for observation.
8. Have the recently successful TV adaptations of your books, especially The Shetland series, affected your writing style?
I don’t think so. The more recent Shetland TV series – they’re about to film series 6 – have moved away from the books. They retain the atmosphere and the sense of place, but perhaps they’re darker, a little more Gothic in tone. But the theme of kindness, which I hope is at the heart of the novels, is still very much there. The double Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn plays the central character in Vera and we’ve already had ten seasons of those shows. She absolutely captures my character and I do hear her voice in my head when I’m writing dialogue.
9. Where do you find the inspiration of your stories especially the intricacies of the mystery?
The mystery and the plot twists seem to take care of themselves. Deciding the essence of the book is the most important thing for me. For example, I think The Long Call is about powerful men deciding that they’re entitled to cover up a crime. And in the end the cover up is more toxic than the crime itself.
10. To create the settings of your novels, do you visit the places beforehand to get a sense of the geography and its locals or does it involve a lot of armchair research or a bit of both? I ask because at times it seems almost as if the descriptions are written down as if you had observed them yourself.
I can only write about place that I know well. I have been visiting Shetland for more than forty years and lived there for a while. I grew up in North Devon and still have friends there and I live in Northumberland where the Vera books are set. My daughter is an academic, a human geographer, and I think that’s what I do: explore community and the individual’s place within it.
11. What is your writing routine?
I write best early in the morning, at a laptop on my kitchen table, drinking lots of tea.
12. Who are the writers who have influenced your writing?
When I was younger I read all the Golden Age mystery writers – Christie, Sayers, Allingham – but my real reading passion now is crime fiction in translation. I think we get a real sense of another culture’s preoccupations by reading their popular fiction. I’m especially a fan of Simenon’s Maigret books. They’re so tight and precisely observed.
Douglas Smith’s Rasputinis a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.
Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:
Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.
Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita.
Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599
Pan Macmillan India announces the appointment of Prasun Chatterjee as Editorial Director
Prasun Chatterjee sets to join Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited as its Editorial Director this September. With over 12 years’ experience in the industry, Prasun brings in a rich editorial experience, having worked with publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Pearson.
Prasun started his career in publishing in 2005 as an Editor for history books at Oxford University Press India. His last assignment was as Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press where he acquired a diverse portfolio of books in areas such as history, politics, religion, and philosophy. During his two five-year terms with Oxford University Press, he has worked with some of the renowned scholars across disciplines.
Among the many writers Prasun has published are Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar. In 2015, several of his commissioned works received national and international recognition at major conferences, including awards at the American Historical Association, Association for Asian Studies, and the Indian History Congress.
As an Editorial Director, Prasun will be responsible for the imprints under Pan Macmillan India, including Picador India, Pan and Macmillan. He will be working closely with Jeremy Trevathan, Publisher, Pan Macmillan UK, to shape the Editorial list. Reporting to Rajdeep Mukherjee, Managing Director, Pan Macmillan Publishing India Private Limited, Prasun starts with the company on 15th September, 2017.
Prasun Chatterjee said: ‘I find this shift symbolic of the increasing convergence between academic and non-fiction publishing; two streams which will draw upon each other even more closely in the coming years. From the works of V.S. Naipaul to Ramachandra Guha and the books by Patrick French to Pankaj Mishra, the range of non-fiction from Pan Macmillan has the timelessness and quality of a mature publishing programme. I would like to contribute to this list of distinguished, yet accessible writing.’
Jeremy Trevathan said: ‘I’m delighted to welcome Prasun into the Pan Macmillan fold. Our local publishing in India, across both fiction and non-fiction, is key to our international strategies for growth going forward. As the distinctions between academic and commercial publishing continues to blend, Prasun brings a wealth of experience and a strategic thinking to our publishing in the sub-continent.’
Mrs C Remembers is Himanjali Sankar’s first novel for adults. It is about Mrs Anita Chatterjee and about three generations of the family. It starts with the death of Mrs Chatterjee’s bedridden mother-in-law. The other woman’s perspective brought in is that Mrs Chatterjee’s daughter. The novel is remarkable for its gently told empathy towards ageing and the worrying and lonesome task of caregiving. It is a well-crafted portrait of a competent wife, mother and grandmother who sadly begins to become paranoid and loses her memory. Though fictional this novel is very close to Himanjali Sankar’s reality; as she wrote in Daily O her mother has Alzheimer “Memories of my mother that Alzheimer’s can’t wipe clean”
This book is written simply and straight from the heart. It is going to be a constant seller if the publishers can ensure it remains in circulation for it will resonate with many caregivers. It will help in giving solace to many realising they are not alone in this experience.
Read it. Share it. Circulate widely.
Himanjali Sankar Mrs C Remembers Pan, Pan Macmillan India, 2017. Pb. pp. 198 Rs 299
It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream. Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.
“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”
Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,
“We need to go faster“,
” I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,
“But you always miss the important thing“,
“I’m not interested in thisanymore” and
“Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.
Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.
Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.
“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,
“We’re almost there“,
“This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,
“It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”,
“It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you gothere.”
Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood. It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.
There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.
Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.
As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith),Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.
Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India)