Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Reviewer's Life

Came across this piece in Sunday's Boston Globe. Sven Birkerts will publish "Reading Life: Books for the Ages" early next year. He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and is lecturer in creative writing at Harvard. He is due to review Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, out in the US on Jan 9. Here he speaks about his reservations about the new age of blitzkrieg publicity, the exotic element in writing by authors of Indian origin, and his first impressions after "the recent thump at the front door followed by the receding grind and rattle of the morning UPS truck". Deja vu! Do all reviewers get butterflies in the tummy when the ringing of the doorbell may herald an expectant galley?

When I saw the thickness of the padded packet I knew it had to be a biography of a Civil War general or a new volume from the Library of America. But no, from the mailer I extracted an "advance reader's edition," weighing in at 900-plus pages, of "Sacred Games," by Indian novelist Vikram Chandra, a name only vaguely familiar to me, which is due out from HarperCollins in January.

..."Sacred Games" surely gave the talent in the room something to work with. For starters, there's the India factor. If Chandra's name, his obvious foreignness, might on the face of it be a liability -- "world literature" is a notorious kiss-of-death category -- that can turn around smartly if there is a larger trend or momentum. India is such a trend, no question. It all began with l'affaire and le succès Rushdie, the buzz around "The Satanic Verses" and the fatwa. Jhumpa Lahiri's 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Interpreter of Maladies" helped, as have conspicuous literary and crossover successes by writers like Rohinton Mistry (his "A Fine Balance," itself substantial, was an Oprah pick), Amit Chaudhuri, Akhil Sharma, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, and the aforementioned Vikram Seth, to name just a few. What savvy editor doesn't recall the Latin American boom in the 1970s, when talents like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Isabel Allende captured the public imagination?

...But at this point I became aware of a growing unease, a purloined letter feeling -- as if I'd all along been looking past the most obvious thing. I mean, what if Chandra has in fact written an irresistibly great book or even just a respectably good one? Why was I so keen on thinking angles? So that I could stay safe in my cynical marketplace analysis, my reflex assumption that people don't read much or ambitiously -- or that anything packaged this way could be taken seriously?

Am glad that Birkerts allowed for a certain uncertainty to creep into his judgment about the "exotic" angle in Indian fiction. There was this movie - Kamasutra made by Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair, which could be accused of selling exotica to the West. Her next movie - Monsoon Wedding was much closer to reality, showcasing a very real slice of Punjabi gaiety. Chandra's book, which I am reviewing for Philadelphia Inquirer, is seriously close to events concerning the Bombay underworld as we in India come across. So it's a mixed bag, a lot of new fiction and cinema capturing India without bothering with the snake charmers and Taj Mahal, which this country has quite moved beyond.

I'd agree on the length though; Chandra could have easily chopped 150 pages.

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