Tuesday, March 20, 2018

From Food in Fiction to Food as Fiction

Food spices literature. This was its traditional place in writings. However, today, there are whole novels where food is more important than the protagonist. 

The importance of the theme/genre is evident from the act of categorizing that is rapidly infusing food fiction:

Some of the books have movie versions. 

Naturally, these lists often overlap in their offerings. Nevertheless, each list is from a different angle and such efforts require our appreciation. 

A movie of the book exists

Things to eat or drink, in stories, take on added charm. It really does not matter if one has not tasted the specific morsel or beverage mentioned. The reader can even relish foods which might be forbidden in their culture. 

10 Great Novels for Food Lovers
An excellent write up with 'tasty excerpts'

Food fiction, like crime and romance, lends itself with ease to movie versions 

But what can we say after scanning these lists: is food fiction a genre or a theme? I would tend to surmise that, once upon a time it was a theme - the addition of a food scene or two would certainly be an ace up a writer's sleeve, given that food is a major preoccupation for most of us. However, with time, and given the demand created by the peculiar constraints of content writing, there have emerged novels where food is the centrepiece.

An article on kitchn.com provides a nice taste of who's who and what's what in this exploration 

 .. there are also shelves of crime fiction that often incorporate food-related puns (Crime BrûléeDevil's Food Cake MurderBeef Stolen-Off) and chick-lit titles whose protagonist usually owns a bakery/cupcake shop/catering company but still has time to look gorgeous and meet cute (but difficult and elusive) men.
... There are also novels where the protagonist is a chef, novels about Chinese food, and novels where the heroine goes to Paris and eats a lot of delicious-sounding things.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Slice of Danish Noir

Rare, medium or well done, Nordic Noir is a smorgasbord of voices, styles and approaches. When we covered crime, recently, we had hesitated to include this genre as it is pretty popular. However, out of the blue, Itiuvacha was blessed with a hot tip! Guest blogger Ellen Kapusniak has deftly woven us a review of a book by a new kid on the Scandinavian block.

Well, "Onkel Danny" is neither a kid nor really new on the block. However, though he stands on the giant shoulders of such as Raymond Chandler, he remains a dark horse outside of Denmark. 

I have a soft spot for somewhat downtrodden sleuths: Ian Rankin's Rebus, Michael Connolly's Bosch and Elly Griffith's Dr. Ruth Galloway, among others. In the hunt for new characters to discover and fresh crimes to solve, I first ventured into the now highly popular Nordic Noir genre many years ago through Henning Mankell's Wallander novels and I liked what I found.

A more recent trip to the bookshop, hoping for fresh and gritty cases to crack, led me to a noir crime novel by Danish writer Dan Turèll, "Murder in the Dark" (English translation by Mark Mussari). The title of this novel is strictly no-frills and feels almost deliberately generic, which cleverly gives it the effect of immediately standing out.

In this 1981 novel, the first of his Mord-serie (murder series), we step into the shoes of Turèll's always unnamed and fully-hardened newspaper reporter, trudging persistently through an unexpectedly raw and seedy version of Copenhagen, soaking up the character's overwhelming curiosity and absolute need to follow the trail and get to the bottom of things. Along the way, our nameless reporter is helped by and rubs along with a seemingly even more world-weary police inspector. 

The story feels somewhat nebulous yet remarkably gripping, with some interesting stumbles along alleyways of answers; but what shines out most of all is the sentimentality that the City itself brings out in Turèll's writing, the aspects of its architecture, atmosphere and life he chooses to portray, grim and ugly at surface-level, are described and observed with obvious affection as he brings out the beauty of changing skies overlooking mazes of dark corners, stairs, passages, rooms and streets filled with whisky, whores, weed, music, eccentrics, telephones, money, murders, and a relentless mystery to solve.

Apparently Dan Turell was always very popular in Denmark. There is even a square in Copenhagen named after him.
Ellen Kapusniak

Image by Lisa Risager (Dan Turells Plads), via Wikimedia Commons

Revolvy.com offers fascinating trivia about Turell, such as 
Many will remember him for his black nail polish.

 On the brink of shifting the focus from crime to food, it is deliciously timely to have this intro to a new name in noir. Denmark ranks well both as tourist destination as well as on the food front. 

By Oyvind Roti, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 16, 2018

Writing Nepal - Scaling Tense and Voice

Nepal is a hot tourist destination. Be it the casinos, the temples or the mighty Everest, the land lures and traveler tales must surely be aplenty. However, unlike the case with Malaysia, we have no classic author, such as Maugham, to tell us about the place.

In my childhood, English literature managed to foist a set of desirable destinations upon me - El Dorado, Shangri-La... The first one had little hold on me as gold never grew on me. As for the second, a pile of Lobsang Rampas fed the fire and Herge's drawings took me a sherpa closer to the real thing.

In India, I realised, a bit late in life, we mostly find it easy to treat all Nepalis, even those who might just look like Nepalis to us, as 'gurkhas'. I discovered that it was not a flattering term as one might have assumed from Kipling's painting of loyalty. Nor the Tensing courage of the Everest scale. But then, alas, my people are about as prejudiced and petty as any other. And, given my age, it is highly probable that I'm speaking of a reality which no longer exists.

While tourists flock to Kathmandu, the humbler peoples - for, like, India and many other places, it is a hodgepodge of races - of Nepal trudge out of the land in search of a living. India is near and sometimes dear. Nepalis read Indian regional fiction and Indians read Nepali fiction which is Indo-centric. However, neither you nor I have much chance of hearing those voices. 

The artificial political boundaries created by colonialism have fostered much internecine discord in the region. What gets published and read widely becomes the voice of the Nepali writer who received English education and, most likely, now lives in Canada or other Timbuktu. Though, we are all citizens of free countries today, the descendants of those bandit colonisers continue the work of disempowering our voices in the guise of aid - and most literature that the outside world has about Nepal is from those voices.   

Nepal, landscape - By U.S. Department of Agriculture [Public domain]

The tourist paradise is harsh and inhospitable to many of its inhabitants. Political upheavals further enhance life's instability. Not the best of conditions for literature to flourish?

So I was pleasantly surprised to find Manjushree Thapa's Tilled Earth.

"MANJU3" by Alemaugil - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
This set of short stories from Nepal have a quality of live reporting at times - the writing seems transcribed from jottings. An interesting effect. While the book is, surely, a must-have if you want to visit Nepal, that is basically because there is little else of the sort. The mood is heavy with all the tales being slightly sad. NGO work/offices/employees form an almost constant background.

This critique holds good for the entire region - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well. Short story writers from these places tend to want to play to one gallery. The voice and the reality it portrays feel like an echo in the past tense. The faded, frayed misery reads ploddingly. And one sometimes has the impression of drowning in an Alice in Wonderland pool of tears. 

For, the truth is that the poor of these regions, around whom these stories insist on revolving, are actually cheerful, impertinent and their lives manage to dwarf circumstances. Their stories would read lusty, even bawdy but, most of all, bear entertaining and truthful evidence of the human spirit's glow when it is shorn of the tawdry gilt of middle class pretentions. Now, however, fiction continues to eclipse fact, though the credibility of NGOs is no longer so burnished as once. Recall Paul Theroux and aid workers?

I would rather prescribe the one below, both for a Manju read as well as to get a quick insight into the literature of the country but some reviews bemoan the quality of the translations.
Manjushree Thapa is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction about Nepal, and a literary translator. Her translation of the work of 49 Nepali writers was published in The Country is Yours: Contemporary Nepali Literature.

Having been a translator of sorts for donkeys years, I, perhaps naturally, appreciate the work of translators. Most often it is thanks to the profession that one can read literature from around the world. Even relatively shoddy translating sometimes opens us to a new realm.

For this post, I had initially chosen 5 BOOKS ABOUT NEPAL THAT YOU MUST READ to see what's on offer - alas, Thapa's book, mentioned there, is not on Amazon.in yet. It sounds promising: 
This book is an account of the two trips that Manjushree Thapa took to Mustang. It is a combination of history and geography culminating into a rich mosaic of interwoven stories of character that feel out of place and yet find relevance in a remote corner of a Himalayan country. The book is narrative, portraying the vast beautiful stretch of Mustang from the perspective of a perplexed newcomer. The writer uses conversations, analogies and anecdotes while also providing her reaction to the entire ordeal of living in the northern tip of the Himalayan country. The book is also part historical and provides a fresh social perspective on the culture, customs and pathos of the people of Mustang.

I cannot bring myself to talk of the second book on the list - the raving review I'm scanning convinces me to avoid the book like the plague. Apparently, it tells you what to buy in Nepal. Not works by contemporary or past literary figures of the land but antiques.  So Buddha, whose philosophy means so much to many, dwindles into a tourist souvenir. A definite do-not-buy.

In my quest for this post, I find that there is a lot written but less is translated. As for what we can find in English, here are a couple that I would like to read:

Narayan Wagle's book sounds enticing:
It tells the story of an artist, Drishya, during the height of the Nepalese Civil War. The novel is partly a love story of Drishya and the first generation American Nepali, Palpasa, who has returned to the land of her parents after 9/11. It is often called an anti-war novel, and describes the effects of the civil war on the Nepali countryside that Drishya travels to.

It tells the story of an artist, Drishya, during the height of the Nepalese Civil War. The novel is partly a love story of Drishya and the first generation American Nepali, Palpasa, who has returned to the land of her parents after 9/11. It is often called an anti-war novel, and describes the effects of the civil war on the Nepali countryside that Drishya travels to.

The nine stories of this new book continue Samrat Upadhyay's journey from his earlier works and further explore the terrain where personal lives intersect with history. These are stories of ordinary people grappling with their individual turmoil even as a society's own turmoil impinges on their everyday lives.

I would rather find books such as the ones above. However, while contemporary Nepal has been writing in English for readers more close at hand than the usual audience, such stories are rarely on Amazon. The work of locating them or articles about them also becomes laborious as Google has ensured that it is a Himalayan climb for any who dare to seek outside its own lamplight.  

All I could find, to offer readers, even on Writer Rites when the theme was Nepal, was Four Nepali Short Stories. Wishing you happy reading, then, till we meet again.

On a more hopeful note, I note that Nepali novels are being shared around in audio format - a brave new way to bring literature to the people!