Sunday, May 31, 2015

IFFP 2015 winner

The winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for both the Shadow panel and the official panel is....

Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, translated by Susan Bernofsky from the German! You can read my review here.

I would also like to give special mention to Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell. Zone barely lost to The End of Days in the final shadow panel voting. You can read my review here. 

Reading together with the other members of the shadow panel was a great experience; for once, all of us book bloggers had actually read the same books! This allowed me to really get a feel for what the other bloggers are interested in, and made for some very good discussions.

But I was less than satisfied with the books that made the IFFP longlist. They were not diverse enough for my taste (at least 9 out of the 16 we read were from Europe...), and took me too far away from the regions that I am most interested in.

I thought that maybe shadowing the American Best Translated Book Award might be more to my taste. But then I saw that my least favorite book from the IFFP longlist, Can Xue's The Last Lover, which I found completely unintelligible, won the BTBA this year. So maybe I wouldn't like that award better.

I am happy that I did the shadow panel this year, as it gave me the opportunity to make friends and read some books that I loved (Zone, Bloodlines, The Ravens) that I wouldn't have picked up otherwise. But I don't see myself doing it again next year.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chander & Sudha by Dharamvir Bharati, translated by Poonam Saxena

Chander & Sudha
Dharamvir Bharati
Translated by Poonam Saxena (Hindi)
Original published 1949, I read 2015
351 pages, romance, social criticism

Many thanks to Penguin India for providing me with a review copy of this book. 

The setting: 1940s Allahabad, shortly after independence. A sleepy university town.

Chander is a Ph.D. student who is has a very close relationship with his supervisor and mentor Dr. Shukhla. He spends much of his time studying in the office at his supervisor's house and is considered part of the family. Dr. Shukhla's daughter, Sudha, has grown up with Chander; they have a playful relationship, teasing and joking with each other all the time. It's obvious to their friends that they are in love. They just haven't realized it yet.

Sudha's cousin Binti, whose wedding is coming up, comes to stay with them in Allahabad to help prepare for the ceremony. But suddenly Binti's mother and Sudha's father decide that Sudha, as the elder of the two girls, should get married first. Sudha refuses, stating that she does not want to get married and she would rather study further. But her father chooses a boy, a political activist that had once rescued him from a difficult situation. Chander takes it upon himself to convince Sudha to marry this man; in the end, he tricks her into promising that she will and forces her to keep that promise.

Then, after Sudha gets married, Chander doesn't know what to do. He becomes terribly angry and heartbroken, and starts to hate her for being someone else's wife. He falls into an emotional paralysis, trying to escape from the suffering. He writes to Sudha telling her not to contact him. None of this reduces his psychological anguish. The only thing that gives him a respite is having sex with an Anglo-Indian friend. But when he is reminded of his love for Sudha, he falls back into despair.

He realizes that he has made a huge mistake. But what can he do about it now?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, the writing is gorgeous - especially the way Dharamvir-ji portrays the emotions of the characters in both their mental and physical manifestations. But on the other hand, Chander is an idiot. I found myself pausing every few pages wanting to hit him over the head with the (hardback) book I was reading. It's a mixed bag.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

INTERVIEW: Suman Ghosh on his film Kadambari

Suman Ghosh is both a director of crossover Bengali-language films and a professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University. His previous films include Footsteps (2006), Dwando (2009), Nobel Chor (2011), and Shyamal Uncle Turns Off the Lights (2012).

After seeing his newest film Kadambari (read my review here), I wanted to know more about how the film was made. He graciously accepted my request for an interview, so it is my great pleasure to present some behind-the-scenes information on this brilliant film!

Lightly edited for clarity. 

First, I wanted to thank you for making this movie. Was it considered controversial when you first proposed it?
A film which features Rabindranath Tagore will be controversial to begin with. And also the fact that the film focuses on an episode which is sensational adds to the controversy. But somehow that did not bother me too much since I was quite clear as to how I want to present the film.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

The End of Days 
Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated by Susan Bernofsky (from German)
2012, I read 2014 ebook version
239 pages, meditation, family, politics, life and death

A baby dies and the family falls apart.
But what if it didn't?
A young woman commits suicide after being rejected in love.
But what if she didn't?
A German emigre to the Soviet Union is accused of Trotskyism and sent to a work camp, where she dies.
But what if she wasn't?
A famous East German writer dies falling down the stairs.
But what if she didn't?
The same woman dies comfortably in a nursing home at the ripe age of 90.

Jenny Erpenbeck's novel traces the life of a woman in Europe during the 20th century, and, specifically, how she could have died at different parts in her life and what the fallout would be for those around her. The author gives us five scenarios, connected by musings on how things could have turned out differently, if, for example, she had gone down the stairs five minutes later. Then, the following section assumes that she had not died, and the alternative scenario is the one that actually happened.

It's sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book for grown-ups.

In less capable hands, this style of writing could have turned into a terrible gimmick. But Erpenbeck manages to pull it off, all while including some beautiful commentary about the connections between people and the role of history in our lives. While not my favorite book from the IFFP longlist, I can understand why it has such widespread appeal.

Crowdfund This: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume 3

If you've spent much time browsing through this blog, you may have noticed how much of a Blaft Publications fan I am. This independent publisher based in Chennai, India specializes in translating the truly forgotten works of literature - the pulpy novels filled with violence, ghosts, detectives, curses, possessions, sex, drugs, and anything else that don't quite fit most people's idea of "quality literature."

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction series is probably the best example of Blaft's unique selection. The first volume, featuring a wide range of short stories that are primarily detective fiction, was one of Blaft's first publishing endeavors. The second volume featured longer stories, including a complete novel by one of my favorite authors. I have reviewed both volumes here and here.

Now you can help fund a third volume of this fantastic series via Indiegogo.

It will reportedly feature (according to the Indiegogo page) a science fiction epic involving "a race of nitrogen-eating aliens, a disembodied brain, and extraterrestrial encounters with Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie"; another novel by Rajesh Kumar, the world's most prolific living novelist; two detective stories, one involving a psychic informant; and a story by Indra Soundar Rajan, my favorite Tamil pulp author, about a murder and a possessed girl. Sounds exciting!

And, of course, since this is crowdfunding there will be perks! $5 buys you an ebook copy of the published novel. For $8 (India) or $15 (international), you can get a print copy of the published novel.

For $300, Rajesh Kumar will write a novel starring you!!!! Unfortunately, it will be in Tamil, so you're out of luck if you can't read Tamil.

Unless you give them $600, in which case they will translate the Rajesh Kumar novel starring you into English!!!

But wait, there's more! If you give Blaft $1200, you'll get 10 paperback copies of your novel translated into English, with a special painting of your face on the front!!! How cool is that?

Check out the crowdfunding page to see these and other perks. Please help out with getting the 3rd volume of this awesome series published.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Zone by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell

Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell (from French)
2014, I read ebook version
528 pages, reflection on war, internal monologue

Francis Servain Mirkovic is taking a train from Milan to Rome with only a suitcase - a suitcase filled with sensitive information from his 15 years working for the French Intelligence Service with a specialization on the Mediterranean basin, especially the war-torn regions of Northern Africa and the Middle East, where he travelled extensively to meet with contacts from all sides of the conflicts; he is traveling to Rome to finally hand off that information to a representative of the Vatican, which will allow him to escape from the chaos of his "Zone" as his area of specialization is called in the business, although it won't allow him to go home; although he was born and raised in France, he is of Croatian origin, and by joining the Croatian army during the Balkan Wars, he identified with his ethnic origin, although now he has little connection with the new states formed after that war, so he has fallen into the abyss of truly not belonging anywhere but having ties, information, and interests everywhere; hopefully the woman he hopes is still waiting for him in Rome will be happy to see him, and will accept the change of his name, taken from a man from his neighborhood in Paris who has been in a psychiatric hospital for many years, and maybe they will even be able to run away together and he will escape his past once and for all and become a truly new person with no Zone and no need to remember the atrocities committed there, but now while he's on this train he must find a way to while away the time; he brought a novel along, which is set in his Zone, recommended by a woman in a bookshop who couldn't know about him could she?

Enard uses this intense, impelling prose to describe Francis's inner monologue during the entirety of his train journey. The result is a meditative investigation of war, violence, and what it does to a person when he or she gets involved, either directly or through research.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kadambari directed by Suman Ghosh

India (Bengali), 2015
90 min, biopic, history, period drama
Directed by Suman Ghosh
Starring Konkana Sen Sharma and Parambrata Chattopadhyay 

Read my exclusive interview with the director, Suman Ghosh

In 1868, the ten year old Kadambari was married into the famous Tagore household of North Kolkata, a wealthy, learned, progressive family at the forefront of Bengali society. Her husband, Jyotindranath Tagore, is nine years older than her; with no friends her age, she has a hard time acculturating to her strange new life in the Tagore household. That is, until she begins to play with Robi, as the then-8-year-old future Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature Rabindranath Tagore is called.

Growing up together, Kadambari and Robi become close confidants. She is highly educated, and provides critiques and encouragement that stimulate Robi's budding interest in poetry. Over time, Kadambari's already-distant relationship with her husband becomes more strained, especially after hearing rumors of her husband's affairs. Having never quite felt like a part of the family, she finds herself even more isolated from the other women after the accidental death of a niece while in her care.

All of this comes to a head when the family learns about speculation that Robi and Kadambari's relationship is more than brother-and-sister-in-law. While it is unclear whether their friendship actually flourished into a romance, it seems that Kadambari did have feelings for her brother-in-law. Their scandalized relatives hurriedly arrange Robi's wedding, driving a wedge between Kadambari and her last source of emotional support. This proves to be too much when she finally obtains proof of her husband's extramarital activities.

Kadambari committed suicide in 1884, four months after Rabindranath's wedding. In order to prevent further scandal, the family covered up the suicide, saying that she died of natural causes. For this reason, it has been very difficult to find concrete information about how and why she died.

In this biopic on Kadambari's life, director Suman Ghosh finally has the opportunity to explore the events leading up to her death. Using established facts and historical sources (especially Rabindranath's writings), he has created a tight narrative that hints at what may have been without sensationalizing the possibilities. The result is a beautiful glimpse of the occasionally satisfying, more often frustrating life of a woman married into the first family of Bengali society during the Bengali Renaissance.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Harano Sur directed by Ajay Kar

Harano Sur (The Lost Melody)
India (Bengali), 1957
162 min, romance, drama, amnesia
Directed by Ajay Kar
Starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen

Rama, a female psychiatrist at a mental institution, quits her job in protest of an older doctor's treatment of Alok, a patient who has lost his memories after a train accident. When Alok tries to escape from the hospital and takes shelter in Rama's institution housing, she decides to take him with her to her village. Having been trained in a newer form of psychiatry, she knows that Alok will not improve under treatment by the doctors at the hospital, and that she is the only one who knows how to treat him properly.

As Alok settles in with Rama and her father, he improves thanks to Rama's expert treatment and the countryside environment. In time, Rama falls in love with him and they are married with her father's blessings. While Alok tries to apply for jobs, Rama makes a bit of money working as an ordinary physician for the villagers. One day, on his way to mail an application, Alok has another accident which returns his previous memories, while making him forget all about the last few months at the hospital and his time with Rama. Confused by his situation, he returns to Calcutta and his old life as a wealthy businessman.

Rama follows him to Calcutta, and after wandering through the streets for days serendipitously sees him entering his office building. After a brief meeting, she takes up a position as his niece's governess. Alok has no memory of her at all, but she hopes that, by staying near to him, she can jog his memory. But then she discovers that he has a fiancee, Lata, who is suspicious of Rama's intentions. Will Alok's memories return in time? Or will Rama be humiliated and sent home in shame?

Harano Sur is a famous Bengali movie from the Golden Age of Bengali cinema. It stars one of the favorite screen couples of that era, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, as Alok and Rama. But how does it hold up 60 years later?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Colorless Tsukaru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel

Source: Goodreads
Colorless Tsukaru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel (from Japanese)
First published in Japanese in 2013, I read 2014 translation
298 pages, friendship, loss, grief, rediscovery

In high school Tsukaru Tazaki had four close friends, two girls and two boys. Except for Tsukaru, everyone's name had a color in it: Blue, white, black, and red. He felt a bit left out. But for years, until Tsukaru's second year in the University, the five of them were the best of friends.

That was when they suddenly banished him from their group, giving no explanation and cutting off all contact.

At the age of 36, Tsukaru is still drifting, unable to form intimate relationships. He lives in Tokyo and has a good job designing railway stations, something he has been interested in since he was a little kid. Then he meets Sara, a hard-working professional who wants to know about his high school life during their first date. Surprised, he finds himself opening up to her. His search begins - to discover what happened all those years ago, to meet his friends again, and to mentally heal himself so he can begin a new relationship.

This is the first Murakami book I have ever read and I absolutely loved it. I was very happy to see that it made both the shadow panel and official International Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. I look forward to reading more works by Murakami in the future.

The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta

Source: Goodreads
The King's Harvest
Chetan Raj Shreshta
Published 2013 by Aleph Book Company
151 pages, novella, crime, social commentary, women's rights, peasant issues, historical fiction
Found: signed first edition copy (!) at Rachna Books, Gangtok, Sikkim

This beautiful volume contains two novellas set in the author's home state of Sikkim, India.

"An Open-and-Shut Case"

When a police officer is brutally murdered by his wife, it seems like the case will be easy to settle. It falls upon the new head of the local police department, a tough female officer named Dechen, to clear up the case as quickly as possible. But when Dechen talks to the accused and her daughter, the lines between murder and self protection begin to blur. And then there is the little matter of the terrible rape and torture committed by her predecessor, which the locals are still angry about...

"The King's Harvest"

In June 2005, after spending 32 years farming in a remote mountain valley, a man named Tontem arrives in Gangtok in search of the king's palace. For the last three years, no one has come to collect the king's share of Tontem's crops. His whole valley is filled with the stench of unused, rotting crops, so he decides to set out on a journey with his two youngest children to find out what happened.

In more than thirty years, Sikkim has changed to be nearly unrecognizable. What will he find after he braves the journey to the capital in a taxi, or as he terms it, a "giant wheeled rat"?

The irony of this story comes from the history of Sikkim, of which Tontem is blissfully unaware. The Sikkimese monarchy was abolished in 1975, at which time it became a state of India. Tontem, isolated in a remote valley, has not been informed of this; he continues to profess his loyalty to the former king and does not realize that he has become the citizen of another country.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

INTERVIEW: Krishnarjun Bhattacharya on Scifi/Fantasy publishing in India and his novel Tantrics of Old

Krishnarjun Bhattacharya is the author of the dark fantasy novel Tantrics of Old, which features an alternate, dystopian version of Kolkata. After writing my raving review of this wonderful novel, I knew I needed to talk to him about his work and the state of fantasy/sci-fi publishing in India.  He was kind enough to agree to an interview, and I'm happy to present our discussion here.

Apart from writing brilliant fantasy novels, Krishnarjun-da has dipped his hands in many areas of art and performance. He has degrees in film direction and video editing, and is also interested in graphic design, photography, and gaming. He was a videogame reviewer for the national magazines SKOAR! and Yuva for more than four years. As part of a residency at Khoj International Artist's Association, he developed a fully functional board/card game in which "every person plays as a Mythical Entity racing each other on the road to Reality, towards and for the right to exist." Playable characters include Cthulu and Edward Hyde. (Readers, if this game sounds as interesting to you as it does to me let me know; maybe we can get Krisnarjun-da to share it with us!) He used his knowledge of film and directing to make a great book trailer for Tantrics of Old, and also designed a shadow play in collaboration with Fourth Bell Theaters to celebrate the book launch.

Pulling on his deep interest in horror, the supernatural, Krishnarjun-da's new project, "Stories of the Supernatural," seeks to explore the power of storytelling. He invites you to join him for "intimate, invisible-campfire sessions" in which you can disconnect from the world and lose yourself in passionately told spooky stories, about the dead, ghosts, wraiths, and spirits. You can contact him for more details about this newest project.

Finally, he is working on the second novel in the Tantrics of Old trilogy, Horsemen of Old, which he hopes will be released by late 2015. This will be followed by the grand finale Myths of Old.

Without further ado, on to the interview: 

Thank you for taking time to talk about your work!

Thank you for your interest! What would you like to start with?

First, could you say something about the state of Science Fiction/ Fantasy publishing in India? Did publishers think that your book would sell? Why or why not?

SFF is having a difficult time in India. The internal workings of the genre, the machines and cogs—these might be getting more attention because of the recent surge in television series delving in fantasy (Game of Thrones comes to mind) but it’s still TV. I think the habit of reading in itself is diminishing. People simply don’t have the time, and if they do, they refuse to invest in a book. The numbers say people don’t want books that make them think. A badly written romance, for example, is easier to read, finish, and possibly throw away.
When you talk about publishing, things are difficult, and publishers are not really supporting SFF authors wholeheartedly (sometimes not at all). I wish they would, and take the genre forward rather than sit back and play it safe with their innumerable grammatically incorrect paperbacks. Like everything else, the market governs the priorities.
 I make it sound extremely dark, don’t I? No, there’s hope. There are people still reading voraciously, a rare species of reader who reads SFF like there’s no tomorrow. I often get letters from them, and I make it a point to remind them how much they matter. SFF authors are also rising in India, and some of them have extremely interesting things to say.
My publisher, Fingerprint! is extremely supportive—I don’t know how much they trusted Tantrics of Old to sell, but they took more than a few leaps of pure faith with me and my harebrained schemes. The Shadow Play, the Book Launch, the Brochure, the publishing of the book itself—they’ve been doing their bit for me. We don’t have funds to rent billboards, of course, but the little things matter the most. We’ll get there if we keep trying, we still need to do more.  

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Nirbaak directed by Srijit Mukherji

Source: Wikipedia
Nirbaak (Speechless) 
India (Bengali) 2015
107 minutes, drama, love story, quirky, fantasy elements
Directed by Srijit Mukherji
Starring Anjan Dutt, Jishu Sengupta, Ritwick Chakraborty, Sushmita Sen

A man who loves himself a little too much. The erotic fantasies of a tree in a park. A golden retriever who doesn't approve of her owner's fiancee. The overseer of a hospital morgue's overactive imagination from watching too many Hindi films.

In this non-linear, meditative reflection on life, love, and loneliness, each of these everyday stories feature one silent and one active character. Each asks how to cope with the loneliness of life. And all are connected, however loosely, through the participation (however minimal) of one woman who is doomed to die.

Through brilliant physical acting and the creative use of camera angles and techniques, Srijit Mukherji brings these at times creepy, at times quirky narratives to life.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar by Indira Goswami, translated by Aruni Kashyap

Source: Goodreads
The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar
Indira Goswami (1942-2011)
Translated by Aruni Kashyap (from Assamese)
Published by Zubaan 2013
132 pages, folklore, nationalist
Found: Kolkata book fair 2015

This is the last book by the well-regarded Assamese author Indira Goswami, known for her use of literature to advocate for social and political change. Drawing on the idea of a strong female character described in local Bodo folktales, Goswami demonstrates the importance of the Bodo people in the nationalist fight against the British colonialists and therefore in the formation of the Indian nation and the state of Assam (an important political statement due to the continued violence and calls for the creation of Bodoland as a separate state).

Tengphakhri is a tribal Bodo woman who was chosen to act as a Tehsildar, or tax collector, for the British in the late 1850s. Accompanied by her group of soldiers, she rode through the villages to collect taxes, using force if necessary. She has a close relationship with several of her British superiors, who she admires. When other British officers come to take over, leading to changes in policies, she is compelled to choose whether she wants to continue working with them or join the freedom movement.

The description of the character Tengphakhri is interesting. She is obviously a strong person, who can handle horses and do the duties required by her job. Like most women in fiction, "Her beauty and personality mesmerized everyone. They had just one complaint: why doesn't Tengphakhri speak?" She is mostly a silent character, and the story is told through descriptions of her sometimes ambivalent actions.

While this story is based on a folktale, it doesn't read like one. This is a flaw, in my opinion. The mostly emotionless descriptions of Tengphakhri's actions were not interesting to me. I did not enjoy this book for the story or the characters (who were disappointingly flat).

The only thing that seemed interesting to me is the way Goswami tried to use this book to protest against the violence in Assam related to the Bodoland movement. But because that was the purpose of this novel's existence, nationalist sentiments took center stage, stealing the focus from the characters and story. If you are interested in Assamese politics, especially the question of an independent Bodo state, you might find something in this book. If not, it's not really worth your time.

Further reading: 

Wikipedia article on Bodoland 
"Bodoland Movement: A Study" by Topu Choudhury (a scholarly article on the history of the movement) 
"Why is Indira Goswami Great?" by Aruni Kashyap (translator of this novel) 

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