Monday, January 31, 2011

Telling a Singapore Story

In its November-December 2010 newsletter, INSTEP, the National Arts Council (Singapore) has profiled two of the 11 literary artists (whose projects have been) selected for support under the 2010 Arts Creation Fund scheme (Literary Arts). The details about the selected artists can be found here (click on the annex toward the end of the press release).

Other successful writers include Michele Koh (Baggage), Rosemary Charlotte (Dat Ting Dare), Ling Yang (Family Portrait), Alfian Bin Sa'at (Malay Sketches), Jeremy Jeyam Samuel (Macdonald House), Yeo Wei Wei (In the South), Lee Yew Leong (On a scale of 1 to Infinity), Jason Wee (By Thirds and Halves) and M. Balakrishnan (Bird Sanctum).

One of the two writers profiled in the newsletter is Lee Ju-Lyn, a 28 year old human resource executive who is working on a novella centered on the character Millie. Ju-Lyn's work is tentatively titled, Millie and Her Dreams.

The second profile is mine where I talk about my project, Singapore Decalogue, and what the ACF grant means to me.

Read the write-up on Ju-Lyn and me here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jaipur Literary Festival 2011

First thing, right up top, you should know about this post, before you read any further, is that I did not attend this year's Jaipur Literary Festival. In fact, I have never attended any of its past editions (is that the right word?). But, yes, I have been to Jaipur once, in winter, to attend a wedding, and what I have so far read and heard about the festival, to my own mind, given my experience with Jaipur, I feel qualified to write a few lines about it (and modesty be damned, certainly hold an opinion on it and give it an expression).

The literary festival at Jaipur has acquired a sheen of glamor over the years. It has become kind of a literary Cannes or Sundance, never mind the drumbeats and the bhangra. This year was special as one of my favourite writers, J M Coetzee, attended the festival. I have always associated him with the unglamorous side of the writerly life, the savouring of which is the true mark of a writer, a ceaseless media-shy literary warrior committed to inconspicuous consumption, a monk among the literary cheerleaders and exhibitionists. Now that he has broken my heart by appearing in public (I take consolation in the fact that he refused Q&As, declined interviews and read aloud only a short story in public, and thank God, did not smile even once) in Jaipur, my only hope now, this side of the Atlantic, remains in Aravind Adiga. But I read sometime ago that he had appeared in a lit fest in England (perhaps it was a lapse of judgment on this great writer's part). It seems there is no hope for me. I am running out of models and ideals who will not cave in to the pressures of the market or the temptations of taking a little jump in the puddle of celebrity. Ah, I know you are already pointing me toward J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon but the problem is that my battered freighter is yet to reach one of the harbours of the New World.

That is one big reason, if you ask me, why I go back to the dead writers: Joyce, Kafka, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. They can't come back from the dead to claim their share of the limelight under the neem tree (isn't that good news for the fame-seeking new writers?). Interred, far from the madding crowd, they are comfortable with their solitude and do not suffer from nervous breakdowns if denied the regular supply of the Ecstasy of the mass media. I go to them and drink in their company and learn to nurture my solitude from them and as advised by Rilke, look deep inside me (often to find an unfathomable shallowness, which I plumb with my artistic compass, resulting in a feeling of inadequacy and melancholy and many more unspeakable weaknesses that are ready to slip off my tongue like uncontrollable snakes).

So, to go back to the beginning (you can see I have the habit of running ahead of myself), the drumbeats of Jaipur Lit Fest reached my ears in Singapore. One of the discordant notes came from Hartosh Singh Bal who accused Sir William Dalrymple, of the hyphenated White-Mughals (the hyphen is mine), one of the festival's organisers, of acting like a burra sahib and enthusiastically collecting specimens of white writers for the festival, making Indians suffer from a colonial hangover even after 60 years of British colonial rule. What an injustice! Why should an Englishman be an arbiter of Indian literature at Jaipur? That was the complaint, and it implied that Indian writers still needed the patting and recognition from their erstwhile white masters to get into serious literary play in the akhada of literature. The gentlemen that he is, Sir Dalrymple, got back to his accuser by saying that the plaintiff was indulging in a well-known but less coveted sport of reverse-racism. “That piece felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant’s letterbox,” Dalrymple said. Sir Dalrymple is ever so eloquent, don't you wonder?

In my opinion, both Sir and Singh have a point. Though I have great regard for Sir Dalrymple (we Indians have a great talent for veneration and we are always in search of demi-gods to applause and worship), perhaps he does not grasp the bigger picture of what is going on here. As Malcolm Bradbury wrote in one of his essays, the British society was tooled up, so to speak, for empire-building. The building has stopped and the Britisher has no real place to exercise his talent. After the British empire ceased to exist (now it is restricted to seeking lost glory in organising the Commonwealth games and bestowing Commmonwealth awards), the immediate vacuum in the British society was filled with the need to thrash up the former subjects -- on the British soil. It did not result in anything salubrious, except that it gave us Hanif Kureishi. This reminds me of the churning of the primordial elements, the heavens and the earth, that gave rise to Adam and Eve. Nature has this old habit of creating something beautiful, and mind you, irreverent, out of chaos.

The reverse of what Bardbury has said is also true, which escaped the attention of Mr. Singh. The Indian society, especially the Indian middle class, was tooled up, so to speak, for empire-worshiping (I don't have to remind you of Macaulay's words, Mr. Singh, do I?). The empire is not there anymore, so the only place an educated Indian can bow his head is in front of the offsprings of the empire-builders. So, actually, both need each other to grow culturally, unless you want more Chetan Bhagats in India (no offense to Mr. Bhagat--I haven't read you any deeply than I have read Mark Twain or Faulker; so, you are in great company; therefore, please do not think of suing me).

Other interesting notes from the festival came from Coetzee, (yeah, what do you expect? I am a fan), and Orhan Pamuk. They spoke for writers writing in languages other than English and how they are often neglected by publishers and readers (and unless they win Nobel Prizes, they aren't even invited to festivals like Jaipur Lit Fest). My heart always beats for those who are unjustly neglected. So, Coetzee and Pamuk score big in my book for what they said in Jaipur.

Also, in his column, C P Surendran, complained of drunkards going around bashing poets and novelists, on minor excuses such as asking a lighter from a Sikh man. To him, I will say, take heart Mr Surendran. A time may come when gentlemen in the festival will shake off their pants altogether. Then we would know that Indian literature has overtaken British writing for good, and that the empire has struck its final, deathly blow.

In future, I am sure Japipur lit fest will grow and grow. My only worry is that with the kind of tamasha going around it, it also attracts wrong kind of people. Or maybe the festivalwalls should call it the Jaipur Cultural Festival. Then you can invite the qawwals and bhajan singers and body builders and their like to celebrate the cultural contribution of Bollywood song writers and cook book queens and dietitians; this should go well alongside the readings of and dialogues with eminent writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Junot Diaz.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let's talk about 'Hush'

Recently, Dileep Cherian of Manta Ray Comics sent me a link to review 'Hush' - the debut release of Manta Ray, an independent publisher of comics & graphic novels, based in Bangalore. 'Hush' was created by two NIDians, written by Pratheek Thomas and illustrated by Rajiv Eipe (a partner at Manta Ray).

When I looked at 'Hush', I found it quite impressive in terms of graphics and storytelling. I liked the visual element of the story. There are no dialogues which adds to the suspense of the story and forces the reader to engage with the visuals and 'get' the story. There is an element of interpretation involved here. The only weakness in this work of art is the ordinariness of the story's plot. It did engage me but did not surprise me.

Dileep says that with 'Hush', Manta Ray is attempting to push the medium of graphic story telling in India, and is consciously moving away from the traditional super-heroish cult.

* Hush is a graphic story, suggested for Mature Readers (18+)
* 'Hush' has no words in it, and hence no language barriers
* Black & White, 26 cms x 17 cms, 34 pages
* Two large size, colour posters by guest artists go along with the book inside
* MRP - Rs.195
* Publisher - Manta Ray Comics
* Distributor - Westland
* Now available in the metros and also you can also Buy it

Hush was also recently featured amongst '10 Classic Alternate Graphic Novels' on the Flipkart blog. Actually it is the only Indian book on that list.

This is the WIP website which offers glimpses of 'Hush':

They also have a Facebook page, where you can go and explore a lot of behind-the scenes material.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Riddle of the Seventh Stone

We like ambition in people. In India, children at a very young age are often asked by doting relatives what they want to become when they grow up: a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a scientist, a pilot, or a business executive. Indian parents take great pride in showing off the precociousness of their offsprings when they are able to set an ambition for themselves and rattle it out with an impressive perspicacity in front of their relatives at weddings or dinner parties.

Recently, at a business lunch, a young Indian lady proudly said how her eight year old son knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. Between the lifting of forks and stirring of spoons, a contrast was drawn to the older generation of Indians who wasted almost half a lifetime in figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives and where they wanted to go (in Naipaul’s words, the clever ones went to the US and UK “to make cookies and shovel snow off the pavement in winter—and educate their children”). This attitudinal change, between the older generation and the new crop of Indians, is taken as a sign of India’s progress towards modernity.

The ambition of a person defines him. If it is quixotic, it becomes a source of entertainment for his friends and relatives. While they would cheer on Don Quixote in the pursuit of the nearly impossible ambition, they would snigger in the sleeves, waiting for the moment when Quixote puts his feet on a banana peel. When Quixote reaches within the striking distance of achieving success, their cheering would turn into a skeptical form of disapproval: ‘Is the goal worth all the trouble? Why is he even doing this?’ and so on. Once he enters the portal of success and steps into the hall of fame, the success would be conspiratorially begrudged and daggers of jealousy would come out in the open. That is more or less the trajectory of a person with an literary goal in India unless you happen to have gone to Oxford or Stanford, or at least, to Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College.

When I first came to know Monideepa Sahu through Francis Ford Coppola’ forum for writers, Zoetrope, she was a former banker looking for a future in writing. We soon became friends and exchanged emails (we still do), supporting each other in our literary journeys. Unlike me, Monideepa had gone to Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College and had studied literature. She displayed a good grasp of literature and had a sharp eye for nuanced writing. I always valued her feedback and suggestions and earned a friend in the process.

Over the years, Monideepa grew as a writer and had success with some stories published in journals outside India. More success followed with her stories getting into anthologies in India and Malaysia. When her novel was picked up by Zubaan, out of an open pitch competition at Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai, I was as genuinely excited as her. In the following months, I got to read some chapters of the novel and when the illustrations for the book were ready, she sent them to me for my feedback. When the book came out, I was sent a copy. Yet, out of her natural grace and goodness, Monideepa never asked me to review her book (I rarely review books for others). I took it upon myself to write a review of her novel voluntarily.

What I said about ambition and jealousy springing forth out of success with one’s ambition does not apply in Monideepa’s case. She deserves all the success that she has got and deserves more. Given the odds in her life, which I have been somewhat privy to, her achievement is praiseworthy. In this whole journey, from writerly frustration to success, I have never felt even a tiny tinge of jealousy or nurtured a speck of ill-will toward her. I am sure she will achieve more success with many books that she plans to write.

I don’t have much experience in reading or reviewing literature for children in English (except for the classics that I read in school, from Panchtantra to Aesope’s fables and Arabian Nights and so on). I didn’t know how to start this review (I hate false starts) so I thought a note on our literary friendship would be an apt beginning.

Also, the topic of ambition and ill-will seems pertinent in the discussion of her first novel, Riddle of the Seventh Stone. Rishabh the rat, the novel’s protagonist, magically metamorphoses into a human form and enters the realm of Indian childhood. In this new world, he has a similarly transformed spider companion Shashee, and human friends, Deepak and Leela and their grandparents. While Rishabh grapples with tough geometry lessons in school, he grows up to like the new world and solve its problems; he is also given the ambition to become a doctor. The character of an Indian child without acquiring an ambition would be like a fable without a moral lesson—a universally important element of literature for children or young adults.

The ill-will part, the menace in the story, comes from a property developer, the Shark, who, just like one of the thieves in Home Alone, has glinting titanium teeth. Monideepa sets up the conflict early on in the story. The Shark wants to takeover the shop of Deepak and Leela’s grandfather, Venkat, and turn it into a shopping mall. What follows, in terms of a plot, is a thriller-like account of how Rishabh thwarts the plans of the bad guy, and at the end of the tale, emerges as a winner. He discovers a treasure but his real prize is more than that, which comes with a moral lesson for all the characters in the novel.

Apart from its fascinating storyline and moral lessons (important achievements never come easily to anyone; We mustn’t allow sorrow and disappointment to darken our world, and so on), what drew me into the novel is Monideepa’s language. The narrator’s voice is adult-like, with a sharp eye for detail, and a playful display of a facility for describing tastes and senses (a gang of crickets playing Mozart’s symphonies, stale rotis stiffer than shoe uppers; dustbins overflowing with gourmet delights, and so on).

Monideepa evokes the city of Bangalore and its history and geography with a deceptive ease. But what I loved most in the novel is her use of metaphors and similes in the story which often comes from the point of a view of a vermin (a voice sweet as a carrot halwa, a girl’s eyes has been described as a pair of lovely burnt frying pans). She also shows interesting parallels between the human and the vermin world by using imaginative devices such as V-Mail (for Vermin Mail) and WWW (Wonderful Wide Web). What fun!

Monideepa’s first venture into the world of vermins and humans is a delightful read. If I as an adult couldn’t put down the novel, I am sure children and young adults would find it a most fascinating read.

Riddle of the Seventh Stone, by Monideepa Sahu, Delhi: Young Zubaan, 2010. The book can be ordered online from Flipkart, Indiaplaza, and Crossword within India.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

12th Zee Cine Awards 2011, Singapore (Video commentary)

12th Zee Cine Awards 2011, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore (Part 2)

The least exciting part of the Zee Cine Awards 2011 was the show itself (seats were uncomfortable, and with 5000 people, most were so far away from the stage that they had to watch the action on big television screens). With both popular and jury awards to be given away, most star egos were going to be satisfied (also why the show was too long!). Of course, I was curious about the star performances (you might get lucky!) and Akshay’s anchoring.

The show was to start at 8 p.m. but it did not start until 9 p.m. The main anchors were Akshay and Sajid, who have worked together in films such as Heyy Baby and Houseful. Other supporting anchors were Neha Dhupia and Sophia.

Akshay can anchor—he proved that. But his teaming up with Sajid exactly didn’t make the sparks fly. I don’t know where the problem was but there were a couple of weaknesses in their hosting. The jokes were lame, the gags didn’t work (especially the one with Chunky Pandey) and the ‘jumping with joy’ (promo moments) idea was as hilarious as Houseful. The biggest issue was language. They should have used more English as this was a mixed audience but I guess they were more mindful of the TV show (the function was being taped as a show, with sponsorships and so on).

About the performances, Shahrukh’s performance rocked. He called Hrithik and Suzzane on to the stage and taught them how to be a happily married couple. He truly is a gifted entertainer. Aishwarya’s dance performance was not as spectacular as it could have been and Shatrughan Sinha, while receiving the lifetime achievement award, could have kept his speech short (and avoided jeers from the audience).

The much needed comic relief came from unexpected quarters—Priyanka Chopra. She performed skits based on all those films that were nominated in the best film category. She danced like Salman (Dabang) and acted like Emran Hashmi (Once Upon a Time in Mumbai). With her fake moustache on, she came quite close to looking like Emran. I enjoyed that.

As for the awards, I don’t have much to complain. I think the best films of 2010 were My Name is Khan, Peepli Live, Udaan and Dabang, and all of them won a lot of awards. Perhaps Peepli Live should have got many awards but we know why it didn’t (The Aamir Khan effect). The show ended around 1 a.m.—three hours late than the announced time but I guess no one was complaining.

Winners of Zee Cine Awards 2011

6 categories of which only a couple have jury as well as popular vote:

Best Actor

Jury: Hritik Roshan for Guzaarish

Popular: Shah Rukh Khan for My Name is Khan

Best Actor- Female

Jury: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for Guzaarish

Popular: Vidya Balan for Ishq Kiya

Best Actor in Supporting Role

Arjun Rampal for Rajneeti

Best Actor-Female in Supporting Role

Prachi Desai for Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Best Film

Jury: Udaan

Popular: Dabangg

Best Director

Jury: Vikram Aditya Motwani for Udaan

Popular: Karan Johar for My Name is Khan

Read the previous part, Part 1, of this awards coverage here

12th Zee Cine Awards 2011, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore (Part 1)

For the Indian Diaspora, sometimes Bollywood is the only answer to their spiritual emptiness. In the persona of the film stars, like Crusoe marooned in an island, they catch the glimpse of a ghost ship and sigh for their motherland.

Bollywood frenzy

When I heard about the 12th Zee Cine Awards to be held in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands on 14 January 2011, I knew that the Indians from the island would be whipped into frenzy. I could not forget the IIFA Awards that were held here in 2004. It was such a hit that all tickets were sold out within hours of opening of the booking website.

The same happened with Zee Cine Awards. In a blink, all 5,000 tickets were snapped up and I heard people complaining that the show was sold out. The Business Times ran a story on this ticket frenzy, reporting that despite the expensiveness of the ticket (ranging from $197 to $1,000), people were willing to pay anything to get a chance to be a part of this gala evening. On mass demand, the organizers arranged for an extra 3,000 seats in an additional hall (Hall C, Sands Expo and Convention Centre) for a ticketed simulcast of the show. They were going for $40 a seat.

Just out of curiosity, I checked the availability of tickets on eBay. Some blokes were hawking the show tickets for two to five thousand dollars a piece. Whoever they were, they must be fans of Gordon Gekko.

Press briefing before the show

Zee Network and Marina Bay Sands Singapore had arranged a press briefing before the show. The briefing was to start at 4 p.m. but it didn’t kick off until about 4.30 p.m. Nearly one hundred journalists from Asia participated in it (I could hardly find anyone from the Indian press. I guess Zee wanted everything exclusive to itself for the Indian audiences).

Punit Goenka, CEO, Zee Enterprises and Michael A. Levin, President and Chief Operating Officer of Marina Bay Sands, spoke to the media for about half an hour. Welcoming Zee with their Bollywood awards show, Levin said that Marina Bay was proud to host this event, the Oscars of Indian cinema. Zee and Marina Bay Sands have been working together for a while for some of Zee’s TV programmes, but it is for the first time that Zee Cine Awards is being held in the Sands ballroom—Asia’s largest ballroom.

This is the 12th edition of the award, said Goenka. “This is the sixth time the award goes international,” said Goenka. It has gone to London, twice, and to Dubai and Mauritius before coming to Singapore.

When asked what the show will be about, he said that Zee Awards show is known for its star-studded extravagance. He reeled out names of stars such as Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, and Hrithik Roshan who were going to be a part of the show.

Giving the background of the award, he said that Zee Cine Awards is the only award of its kind that is based on jury and viewers’ choice. This year’s awards are based on five million audience votes, Goenka revealed.

Each year, Zee’s awards team prepares for the show for 12 months. “After today’s show ends, the team will start preparing for next year’s awards,” Goenka said.

Goenka emphasized that Zee Cine Awards’ specialty was its innovativeness. “Each year, we have something innovative,” he said. “This year we have superstar Akshay Kumar hosting the awards show and this is the first ever time he is doing this.”

Shobha Tsering Bhalla, editor and CEO of India Se magazine, asked why award shows like this always featured the same raft of stars such as Shahrukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Priyanka Chopra, and so on? Why not thespians like Amir Khan who command a lot of respect and fan following all over the world?

“Amir is a dear friend of mine,” Goenka said, amused by the question. “His stand on award shows is well-known. He does not attend award shows. We ask him every year and ever year his answer is the same. When he changes he mind, we will be happy to have him in our show.”

The surprise trick-ending of the press briefing was Shahrukh Khan, who trotted into the media room, sending gasps from the members of the press. Everybody trooped in around the podium area. Luckily, I was right in the front so I got a close glimpse of the star: dark shades, a blue long-sleeve T-shirt, and faded denims.

I got to ask him the first question. What was he going to perform in the show and how were his new films, Don 2 and Ra.1, coming along? King Khan was in a sporting mood so gave a long-winded answer. He said he was going to perform Noor-e Khuda and Sajda from My Name is Khan. He also said that shooting on both his new films had progressed very well and he would be back in Malaysia in February and March to shoot for Don 2. I am sure that piece of news would be honey to his fans in Malaysia!

Shahrukh answered one more question about his kids (how he would love to bring them over to Singapore to learn a few things here) and then the press briefing was declared over. The next event on the cards was the Red Carpet.

The red carpet

After the press-briefing the journalists were escorted to the red carpet hold up area—it was on the same floor as that of the Sands Ballroom. A red carpet was laid in a U-shape on the corridor’s floor; it led off from a passage where Zee TV’s red carpet anchors stood in waiting, and tapered off into another passage that probably led to the Ballroom’s stage area.

The carpet was covered by transparent plastic. It had rained in the afternoon, so perhaps the organizers were taking care to keep the carpet unsoiled. Or was a standard practice? I had no idea.

There was time yet for the stars to arrive for the red carpet so I dashed out to quench my thirst at Fuse in Tower 2. That’s where I met some unhappy looking Indians who had their eyes fixed on the lift lobby. They were standing in the ‘star-gazing area’ to catch a glimpse of the stars. Did they see anyone so far? I asked a few of them. Nope, nothing yet, they said. They were holding cameras in their hands, ready for that lucky moment.

The show was to start at 8 p.m. so when I came back to the red carpet area around 7.20 p.m. stars had started to walk the red carpet. There was a crowd of journalists flanking the red carpet; some stood behind the line of journalists over a ramp to get a clear view. I squeezed myself at the head of the line where I could see the stars entering the corridor. Zee TV anchors, a boy with long hair and a girl in sari, stopped the stars for their soundbites before letting them walk on the carpet. Where I stood, there were TV crews from Malaysia, Reuters, and MediaCorp. A foreign crew was so well-prepared that a Chinese girl with a mike, the team’s anchor, carried cheat sheets with colour photos of stars with their names and she tried to match the face of every star who walked the carpet with photos on her sheet. What a painful guess work?

Up, close and personal, I could see almost all the stars, except Priyanka Chopra, walking the red carpet that evening: Deepika Padukone, Rishi and Neetu Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha with his daughter Sonakshi, Boman Irani, Shahrukh Khan, Karan Johar, Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan and Suzanne, Arbaz Khan, Sonu Sood, Arjun Rampal and Mehar, Akshay Kumar and Sajid Khan, and so on. Barely anyone could recognize Aditya Roy Kapoor. The girl with the cheat sheet was confused on seeing him. Who is he? she asked. I recognized his face but I had forgotten his name.

The media went crazy when Shahrukh walked the red carpet. One of the lights of the Reuters crew (was it some other TV channel?) toppled over. Thankfully, it didn’t cause anyone any damage. A 938 Live reporter was walking up on the ramp, giving a live account of the stars sizzling on the red carpet.

I didn’t worry about missing out on Priyanka: I know how she looks like because I had seen her working when she was shooting for Krissh in Singapore. What I saw on the red carpet in about an hour were only a handful of stars (Bollywood is so big) but I must tell you that honestly I had never seen so many stars at such a close range before this evening. I am too old to be star-struck but it was great fun as an experience. What was most striking about them? Yes, they exuded charisma. They were all slickly dressed and they looked slimmer and handsomer than how they usually looked on the silver screen. Deepika has beautiful light eyes and Aishwarya is so heartbreakingly beautiful! I was wondering how Abhishek could fall asleep in the same bed with this legendary beauty? I hope he doesn’t turn into an insomniac.

To be continued (Read Part 2 here)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Letters to a Young Novelist

Happy New Year to all my friends! From some time, I have decided to blog less but blog well. The basic purpose of sharing interesting reading stuff is now being served by twitter (@zafaranjum) so I guess this move is justifiable. I will keep blogging; however, I will use this space more as a diary to share my own, more personal thoughts. Hope you understand and stay with me and share your thoughts with me as well.

The following is not a usual book review. I have tried to collect the main points from the book, so it is more of summary than a review. Enjoy!


In his delicious little book, Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist (1997, Ariel/Planeta; translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2002, Piacdor) a seasoned novelist (that is Mario himself) addresses an imaginary friend, a young novelist, who asks him for advice on becoming a writer.

In the first chapter, The Parable of the Tapeworm, Vargas remembers when he was fourteen or fifteen in Lima, aflame with the desire to become a writer but didn’t know what steps to take. At that time, he was dazzled by Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, Dos Passos, Camus and Sartre.

The young Mario wanted to write to these masters and seek their advice but he never had the courage. “I never dared,” he writes, “out of shyness or out of kind of defeatism—why write, if I know no one will deign to respond?—that so often thwarts the ambitions of young people in countries where literature means so little to most and survives on the margins of society as an almost underground activity.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I like the sound of literature surviving on the margins of society. Sounds so very real.

Mario cautions the young writer right at the outset. He asks why does he want to write? If it’s for success and glory, then it’s a wrong choice. He writes: “There is no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you will soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal; they are extraordinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while besieging and overwhelming those who merit them least. Which means that those who see success as their main goal will probably never realize their dreams; they are confusing literary ambition with a hunger for glory and for the financial gains that literature affords certain writers (very few of them).”

Mario says the defining characteristic of the literary vocation may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward, much superior to anything they might gain from the fruits of their labour.

Mario goes on to makes two other important points in this opening chapter: One, those who become writers choose to become writers (this is as per Sartre’s philosophy); two, the game of literature is not innocuous. Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth. It is the fruit of a deep dissatisfaction with real life, it is a source of discomfort and dissatisfaction. That’s why the Spanish Inquisition distrusted works of fiction and subjected them to strict censorship. Many governments in our contemporary world still do that

The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity, he warns. It’s an all encompassing, all excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves. He quotes Flaubert: “Writing is just another way of living.”

We often hear of genius novelists (Arundhati Roy?). Mario says that there are no novel writing prodigies: Talent or genius, at least not in novelists, does not spring to life full-fledged. Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. If you want to foster your literary genius, Mario advises you to read Flaubert’s correspondence, especially his letters to Louise Colet, and William S. Burroughs’ Junky.

On writing techniques

In the second chapter, Mario talks about the process of writing. He calls it a backward striptease. Also, he says that the novelist scavenges his own experience for raw material for stories—in a more abstract sense (Proust is the prime example).

We often talk about writers and their themes. Many writers have said this before and Mario says it here too: the novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them. Next what he says is also a well-known nugget of wisdom: a novelist has to write about what is there deep down in him and not on something that might sell (the bestseller lists are crowded with bad novelists). So, don’t shun your demons, young novelists.

The third chapter of this little book (136 pages) is on the Power of Persuasion. Mario reminds us that when a novel gives us the impression of self-sufficiency, of being freed from real life, of containing in itself everything it requires to exist, it has reached its maximum capacity for persuasion. Great works of fiction such as Moby Dick, Don Quixote and The Metamorphosis, succeed in creating this “illusion of autonomy”.

This autonomy in a novel is achieved through form and style which are matters of discussion in the following chapter. Mario says the success of a novel’s language depends on two qualities: its internal coherence (Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Ulysses) and its essentiality. Absence of essentiality, to Mario, is a style that makes a reader conscious of reading something alien and prevents us from experiencing the story along side its characters and sharing it with them. So a young novelist has to find his own coherent and essential style. To grow this kind of a rich style, they must read constantly. However, they should not try to copy the style of writers they admire by mechanical reproduction of the patterns and rhythms of their writing.

The next three chapters in the book focus on narrative techniques (points of view): the narrator and narrative space (spatial POV), time (temporal POV) and levels of reality (realistic/fantastic POV). Like different narrator-characters, time also works differently in fiction. Mario illustrates his temporal point of view through examples from Borges’ “The Secret Miracle”, Augusto Monterroso’s “The Dinosaur” (which he calls perhaps one of the world’s best shortest stories—“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”), Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”, Gunter Grass’ “Tin Drum”, Julio Cortazar’s “Hopscotch”, H G Wells’ “The Time Machine”, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ “The Celestial Plot” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

The chapter on levels of reality is one of the most interesting and insightful. In it, the novelist talks about real and fantastic worlds (examples come from Woolf, Joyce, Kafka, Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Alejo Carpenter’s The Kingdom of this World). At the end of the chapter, Mario concludes: “This is the greatest triumph of technical skill in novel writing: to achieve invisibility, the ability to endow a story color, drama, subtlety, beauty and suggestive power so effectively that no reader even notices the story exists…he feels he is not reading but rather living a fiction…”

In the chapter 'Shifts and Qualitative Leaps', Mario discusses shifts in spatial (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Joyce’s Ulysses) or temporal (D M Thomas’s The White Hotel) points of view in the narrative.

The writer explains that the term ‘qualitative leap’ has been borrowed from the Hegelian Dialectic. According to Hegel, quantitative accumulation triggers a leap in quality (like water turns into gas after reaching boiling point). In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the sudden change in the sex of the main character (from man to woman) causes the entire narrative to undergo a qualitative shift. But this is not true of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as the story’s inciting incident occurs right at the beginning of the story, positioning the story in the realm of the fantastic. These shifts in a novel can strengthen or destroy its power of persuasion. At the end of this chapter, Mario makes a very interesting point quoting the great French-Belgian critic and essayist Roger Caillois. According to Caillois, true fantastic literature isn’t created deliberately; it isn’t the effort of a writer’s conscious effort. In Caillois’s opinion, true fantastic literature requires the spontaneous revelation of incredible, prodigious, fabulous, rationally inexplicable acts, unpremeditated and possibly even unnoticed by the author. In other words, Mario says, these fictions don’t tell fantastic stories; they themselves are fantastic.

In the chapter 'Chinese Boxes', Mario talks about the story within story technique (examples would be The Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote, and Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life). What follows this is a very engaging chapter called 'The Hidden Fact', in which Mario discusses Hemingway’s technique of “leaving out of the central event of the story”. He calls it the “Hidden Fact” which the reader is supposed to uncover while reading the story. In his story “The Killers”, Hemingway does not tell the reader why the killers want to kill Swede Ole Anderson. In his The Sun Also Rises, the hidden information is the impotence of narrator Jake Barnes. The point that Mario wants to make is that a novel is just a part of a full story from which the novelist finds himself obliged to eliminate much information—that eliminated information plays a part in the story.

This beautiful book’s last chapter deals with a unique concept called Communications Vessels. Here, the novelist painstakingly explains what Communications Vessels are through the example of the episode of the agricultural fair in chapter 8 of the novel Madame Bovary. Other examples come from Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. Mario thus defines ‘communication vessels’: “Two or more episodes that occur at different times, in different places, or on different levels of reality but are linked by the narrator so that their proximity or mingling causes them to modify each other, lending each, among other qualities, a different meaning, tone or symbolic value than they might have possessed if they were narrated separately.”

Mario’s little book is a great, breezy read, written in a playful and epistolary manner, that teaches new writers techniques of novel writing. The book’s simplicity should not fool anyone—it is pregnant with rich practical wisdom from one of the masters in the field of novel-writing.

Wrapping up the book, as a kind of a P.S., Mario advises young novelists to read some important critical works—Studies and Essays on Gongora by Damaso Alonso, To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (which is Aravind Adiga’s one of favourite books), Port Royal by Sainte-Beuve, and The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. And like the sting in the tail, his last advice to the young novelist to is forget what he has learnt in the book. Just sit down and write, he says. Can there be any better advice for the young, fledgling writer?