A ghost from Calcutta revived: Herbert (or Harbart) by Naburan Bhattacharya

With an opening not for overly delicate sensibilities, Harbart (or Herbert depending on the edition) takes you down into the darkened streets of Calcutta where a group of intoxicated men vomit and piss their way home, and a “rag-clad mumble-mad woman” washes herself at the neighbourhood water tap. They’ve spent the evening partying at the home office of “Conversations with the dead” with the proprietor, the title of the character of the book, who has by now, unknown to them, slit his wrist and lies bleeding to death while a blue fairy frantically presses at the window unable to alter his fate.

Recently released in a brilliant new translation by Sunandini Banerjee[1], this beloved cult classic is a spirited—and spirit-filled—story of a man who never quite manages to fit himself into a world that is in upheaval, through a time of shifting social and political uncertainties. If our hapless hero exercises a certain practical and historical indifference and finds himself caught up in a number of currents he does not understand, his creator was anything but complacent. Writer and poet Naburan Bhattacharya was a dedicated humanitarian, passionate about the lives of all members of society—a man who was, as his daughter-in-law remembers him, keen to explore “the unknown, the unearthly, the underbelly of Indian society, where he dared to immerse himself with wild abandon, unapologetically.” This inclination shines through warmly and vibrantly in this, his first novel, originally published in 1994.

From its ominous, dramatic beginning, the narrative slips back in time to fill in the gaps, and make its way forward to close the circle of Harbart’s short, unfortunate life. From the start, tragedy marks him. Orphaned before the age of two after his father is killed in an automobile accident, and his mother accidentally electrocuted while hanging laundry on a wire, Harbartt ends up deposited at his father’s family home in Calcutta where he “proceeded, through indifference and neglect, toward adulthood.” His aunt Jyathaima will be, throughout his life, the sole family member to show him kindness. His cousins, especially the greedy Dhanna-da, resent his presence, abusing him whenever the opportunity arises, while his uncle whose unrestrained fondness for whores leaves mentally incapacitated as the result of venereal disease, spends his time circulating from room to veranda with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, screaming “Peeyu kahaan, peeyu kahaan!” This Hindi version of the brain-fever bird call, meaning “Where is my love?” becomes a running gag in the book—just one small indication of the humour and character that runs through the story.

Although Harbart spends a few years in school, he finds it not to his liking and drops out, preferring to read on his own and even, for a brief time, dabble in some, less than elegant poetry. Had his father not been obsessed with movies and squandered his share of the family fortune on film projects before his untimely death, this entire tale might have been quite different. But, instead, what he and the boy’s beautiful fair-skinned mother leave their son is a handsome profile, a Hollywood-ish, Leslie Howard-ish air, and a notably shahebi name—Harbart (or Herbert).

Early on, Harbart develops an interest in the dead when he find a human skull and a few bones in a trunk in the house. He eventually takes them to cleanse and release them into the waters of the Hooghly River, but from that point on he starts to immerse himself in two tattered books on the occult that had once belonged to his grandfather. This is not, however, the beginning of his career as a communicator with the deceased. His cousin Binu, a young man with connections the Communist Party had come to the city just as political tensions were rising in the early 1970s and is killed by the police. Despite his attention to Binu as he lays dying in the hospital, the incident slips from Harbart’s memory until, many years later, he recalls his cousin’s long forgotten last words in a dream and, before long, his fortunes take an unexpected turn:

Herbert could sense it. He would have to charge-barrage now. Binu had had his time. It was Herbert’s time now. He would have to produce panic-pandemonium. Rip apart everything, torment-turmoil everything until the entire universe whirled in the dance of devastation.

All of a sudden, Harbart is in business. At the same time, a chain of events is set in motion that catches the naturally anxious proprietor unaware. It seems that there are forces intent on cashing in on his talents and others determined to shut him down.

Harbart’s business may be a sham, but it is not conducted with an entirely mercenary intention. On the one hand, he is too inept to concoct an illusion worthy of the mediums of the past, like the personalities who populate the reference books he clings to, on the other, the painful stories of those who seek his services tug at his heart. It is exactly this weakness that allows him to fall into the trap set by those intent on discrediting him. But is he really hurting anyone? He is accused of playing on the desires of the bereaved to believe ghosts exist. And yet, in truth, Harbart’s own ghostly ancestors are never far away. His deceased parents huddle close by whenever their son is in trouble, his progenitors confront him in a terrifying god-like vision, and they all will cluster around at his unforgettable cremation.

This slender novella moves with a force and energy of its own—stretched out in places, sliding sidelong in others—and packs an entirely unanticipated punch at the end. By turns funny and tragic, it sings with the spirit and energy of the Calcutta streets and neighbourhoods, which are slowly changing, where modernization—like the satellite dishes sprouting on roof tops—is leading to more isolation and less compassion. It’s a world where a lonely misfit like Harbart, clinging to illusions (like that afforded by the moth-eaten Ulster great coat he walks around in, or his infatuations with a lady doctor he happens to see in passing or a stone fairy in a store window) hardly stands a chance.

Finally, I have to add a few words about the two editions of this book. I bought and read the New Directions edition first and thoroughly enjoyed it. The language is vibrant, coarse, and playful. Calcutta as I’ve experienced it comes alive on the pages. But I was curious about the different spellings of the title character’s name. It is not unusual for a book published in North America by one publisher and in the UK and the rest of the world by another to have two different titles, or small variations in the edits, but the name is rather obvious. Harbart is the Bengali rendition of “Herbert,” the name the Seagull edition uses which, depending on how you choose to look at it, given that this is an English translation, the protagonist was given an English name and he likes to imagine that others might detect in him a whiff of “white blood,” there is a fair cause for an English spelling but it’s not a major concern for me. In this review, I decided to hold to the US edit. However, the quote above is from the Seagull version, and for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, the delightful hyphenated rhyming or alliterative verbs and nouns that litter the text in this edition have been, largely diluted, sometimes even replaced in the New Directions edit. Same with some of the vernacular. Given that the translator is the senior editor at Seagull who are themselves based in the heart of Calcutta, this noticeable difference begs the question: Was the translation deemed too lively for American audiences?

Both Seagull Books and New Directions are publishers I greatly respect and I don’t want to belabour the differences. This is an exceptional, moving and important book—not to be missed, no matter the edition!

 

[1] This new translation has been published by New Directions in North America as Harbart, and by Seagull Books in the rest of the world as Herbert.

Honouring the unwritten: The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić

“Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible.”

Central to this collection of brief odes to the fictional inspirations that once planted, failed to germinate, refused to take root and grow, or died off before even hitting the soil; is one full and essentially complete story – the magical titular “The Loss Library”. Surrounding this tale, to either side on the book shelf of South African author Ivan Vladislavić’s imagination lie a selection of meditations on the curious nature of the creative process and the many ways that an intriguing idea can lose its way on the path to realization, finding itself shelved in the place of the might-have-been, filed away in a writer’s own personal loss library. Looking back at the notes and outlines he explored during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the unsettling years of transition from apartheid to a democratic state, Vladislavić notes that his inspirations tended to arise from documentary sources – the past perhaps seeming more sound than the bloody history being made on the streets of his country at the time. Moving forward, within the scope of the “case studies” selected for this book, the pieces and fragments he gathers turn to dictionaries, reference materials and the “means to read and write – or not read and not write – books.”

2015-12-09 15.08.34But let us begin in the middle, at “The Loss Library”. With a clear nod to Borges, the master of the library of the imagination, a young man arrives at a most unusual archive, a repository of the all of the unfinished works, possible and impossible of all the writers who have ever lived. He is greeted by an attractive librarian. Fit and tanned she is the antitheses of what he expects. As she guides him into the library she first steps into slippers and advises him to do the same. They literally glide across the polished floors of the rooms and corridors as she directs his personal tour of the premises. The first room contains a single glassed in cabinet containing the books that would have been written had their would-be authors not chanced to die young:

“‘Arranged alphabetically and classified by cause of death.’ A wave of her slender hand. ‘Accidental death. Booze, of course. Disease – those old standbys, consumption and syphilis, and the new one, AIDS, a growing collection. Duels – little sign of growth there. Motor accidents. Murder. Suicide. A disproportionate number of Russians and Japanese, as you’d expect, and quite a few of your countrymen and women too.’”

As our protagonist leans in for a closer look, he can recognize no words on the spines. He tells the librarian he is looking for Bruno Schulz. Filed down with the war dead, six little volumes are found but he is not allowed to see them… after all, opening such a book could have consequences in all the others, in essence I suppose, the way fiddling with the future given access to a time machine might. In this library of potential works, one can’t risk having people “talk them into being.”

2015-12-09 15.02.54Together they encounter a room filled with books that remain unwritten because their authors lost faith in them, and he is shown a collection of the books that lost their way or were talked out of existence before they had a chance to be realized. They pass through a room containing books that were destroyed, stop at a shelf of books that comes into being by evocation of the proper author’s name (any guesses?) and, finally, enter a room of floating, ghostly, ethereal books – those that presented themselves to their would-be writers in dreams. In the end, is this excursion through the Loss Library a fantasy, the beginning of book that the young man himself will write into being, or another story that might have been, relegated to the back of a notebook, the bottom of a drawer or, in this day and age, lost somewhere on a hard drive?

Returning now to the startling opening essay, Vladislavić describes his attraction to the famous photograph of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956, and reflects upon the way that the isolated image fueled his imagination before had even read any of Walser’s work. He contemplates writing a story about the writer’s last days, about that fateful final walk, the curious absence of footsteps or bystanders around the body, the precision the photographer must have employed to capture this solemn record, and with particular fascination, the dead man’s hat lying in the snow. However, before he sits down to write, Vladislavić engages in a little research and finds another photograph, taken from a different angle. From this vantage point he can now see many footprints in the snow, two men off to the side, and realizes that even the hat has fallen differently than he imagined. The curious, romantic and uncomfortable questions – the necessary elements of the creative process – are shattered.

As he continues to rifle through the pages of his notebooks, Vladislavić explores a variety of mislaid ventures, the inspiration or ideas behind them and the reasons they fell off the rails or, perhaps, only flickered for a moment or two. “Gross”, an intended venture into the land of the OuLiPo in which he set for himself a series mathematical constraints within which he would construct a novel, proves unsuccessful. Along the way, the character he was creating to take centre stage, morphed into someone else who would, ultimately wander off to join the cast of another novel,The Restless Supermarket, but more critically, he found himself completely overwhelmed by the prospect of the challenge he had set and decided that this type of approach was best left to Perec, et al.

In a later example, he describes his fascination with an unassuming sign on the side of a building in his Johannesburg neighbourhood that simply reads “Gravity Addict” with a phone number. He begins to wonder what a gravity addict is and how that might be imagined in a story. He thinks about the post 9/11 performance artist in Don Delillo’s The Falling Man, contemplates the structural format of that novel, and eventually imagines a woman, an aspiring writer, sitting on her sofa watching endless episodes of old cartoons – the ones where characters repeatedly chase each other off the edge of cliffs – and then, when one day the innocuous meaning behind the mysterious appellation “gravity artist” is revealed to him, his interest in the story instantly dissolves and he can go no further.

Finally, in light of the recent re-release of Vladislavić’s first novel, The Folly, the story “The Acrobats” special attention. In this outline for a story we see a man in a library reading a book. At some point he closes that book and retrieves a copy of Tristram Shandy from the stacks. He seeks out a particular passage which in turn, is a lengthy quotation from Gragntua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, so he stops and wanders off to fetch that text and goes on to read from the original, or rather a translation of the original, the same quoted passage describing the wild acrobatic exploits of Gymnaste, performed on horseback, as he faces down an enemy combatant. As such, Vladislavić envisions a post-modern inversion of a book within a book within a book, the initial level being, of course, at once the book that both the man and his reader are reading. However, the idea is set aside, in part due to the complication of modern versus contemporary translations of the nested passages.

Several years later, in the writing of The Folly, Vladislavić sees his character Nieuwenhuizen, the eccentric stranger who arrives out of nowhere to take ownership of and build a house on a vacant lot, as a direct descendant of Gymnaste. As he marks out the foundation of the ephemeral house that he will ultimately construct out of imagination and thin air, Nieuwenhuizen engages in his own acrobatic measurements, leaping, somersaulting, and throwing himself around the lot. Could the earlier story now be revived, with The Folly as the third book in the line, he wonders, could he develop the idea that his “ostensibly post-modern novel stood in a pre-modern tradition”? Ah, but for the paradox that his outline for “The Acrobats” was written three to four years before The Folly, how could a story refer to a book that had yet to be written?

Yet Vladislavić was, it would seem, not quite done with his potential story. Several years later he encountered the 18th century French writer, Diderot, who was a contemporary of and acquainted with Laurence Sterne. Although the publication of Rameau’s Nephew would arise through a circuitous route, there was an indication apparently, that Diderot’s initial sketches for the eccentric, rambling character who engages the narrator of his novel could have roughly coincided with the publication of Tristram Shandy. Now he wants to fictionally trace the lineage of Nieuwenhuizen from Sterne via Rameau… except for a new paradox that arises. The Folly was written before his discovery of Rameau’s Nephew. How could his own novel be influenced by a work he had not read?

In his note at the end of this account of the stubborn death of a story idea, Vladislavić can look back and recognize that, as a young writer, he demonstrated too great a concern with precedent. Wiser now, he remarks:

“Every writer belongs to one bastard bloodline or another, and laying claim to one can be a liberating lesson in perspective. But standing on the shoulders of giants is a skill that comes from long practice. When you start out, you are more likely to get under their feet. Don’t be surprised if the giants – or their legitimate progeny – come stomping after you in the playground: ‘We walk straight so you better get out of the way!’”

And herein lies the true gift of this slender collection of artistic musings,and inspirational dead ends – the insertion throughout of the author’s updated reflections on his varied false starts. There is no writer or would-be writer who does not have an accumulated hoard of ideas, outlines and abandoned projects. If they don’t, one ought to be suspicious.

Wandering through The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is a rare privilege to spend time in the company of a thoughtful, gifted writer who truly appears to be without pretensions. This journey, contained within the covers of a finely crafted hardcover from the singular Seagull Books and accompanied by the original collages of Sunandini Banerjee, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and treasure to return to time and again. After all, there may well be, within these pages, the inspirational seeds of other stories just waiting for the right gardener to plant them and bring them to fruition.

A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

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In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.