RINGED BY BELIEF - Novels are not responsible for their authors

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By Mukul Kesavan mukulkesavan@hotmail.com
  • Published 18.04.14

Joe D’Cruz is a Tamil writer who sets his novels amongst fishermen, specifically the Paravars, who live and work on the coast of the Gulf of Mannar. The Paravars began to convert to Catholicism in the 16th century as a result of the missionary efforts of the Portuguese. Since 2009 the Paravars have been classified by the Tamil Nadu government as MBCs (most backward classes). D’Cruz belongs to this community and is a writer of some distinction, having won the Sahitya Akademi award for his second novel, Korkai.

D’Cruz was in the news last week for political reasons, not literary ones. Navayana, the Ambedkarite publishing house, decided not to publish the English translation of his first novel, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World) that it had commissioned, because D’ Cruz had posted a paean of praise to Narendra Modi on his Facebook page, declaring plainly that he wanted him to become India’s prime minister. Navayana’s publisher, S. Anand, and the novel’s translator, V. Geetha, were appalled by D’Cruz’s political opinions. In their statements after the controversy broke, they described Modi as ‘fascist’ and ‘evil’. Anand said that Navayana was a publishing house inspired by a politics that had no room for writers who admired Modi; similarly, Geetha, even as she acknowledged the power of the novel she had translated, made it clear that she couldn’t be associated with a writer linked with Modi.

It isn’t hard to see why Anand and Geetha were thrown by D’Cruz’s embrace of Modi. Here was a Roman Catholic writer of subaltern Tamil fictions invoking Hindutva’s Gujarati mascot as India’s saviour. Their shock, their sense of being ambushed by D’Cruz is understandable; but their decision to not to publish Ocean Ringed World is indefensible.

Is their decision a form of intellectual censorship? Anand argues that it isn’t and he is half right. The original novel has been in print for nearly a decade, so it isn’t as if Navayana’s decision will have any effect on its Tamil readership. Nor does withdrawing Geetha’s translation foreclose the possibility of translation into English; D’Cruz is free to commission another translation and contract with another publisher. On the other hand, Navayana’s decision does delay the book’s appearance in English and it effectively suppresses a careful translation done in close consultation with the author; to that extent it gets in the way of the life of the book.

The real difficulty with their decision not to publish the translation isn’t the question of censorship; it is the triangular relationship that the decision seems to impose upon the novel, its author and its readers. Before they were anything else, Anand and Geetha were readers of D’Cruz’s novel. Given that they liked it enough to make an investment in time and money to translate it, the question they have to ask themselves is this: has D’Cruz’s floridly expressed enthusiasm for Modi given them an insight into his novel that renders its narrative odious? If it does, they are within their rights to have nothing to do with the book, in the same way as readers who loathe a novel have no obligation to read it.

But if D’Cruz’s effusions haven’t changed the way they read Ocean Ringed World (and from the statements they have made, it’s clear that Anand and Geetha still admire the novel) they must publish it. In his statement on the Navayana website Anand said, “…we are glad we came to know Joe’s stand before the novel was published.” He must mean that it saved him the embarrassment of publishing a novel written by a Modi-bhakt. But what if he had come to know after the fact? What if D’Cruz had declared his political preferences after the translation arrived in the shops? Would Navayana have physically withdrawn the book and pulped it? Stacked the copies up and burnt them? Just to ask the question is to know the answer: of course not.

So what is the difference between suppressing a translation before it’s published and destroying it after it becomes available? Not much, apart from the money saved. The real damage in both cases is done when the publisher-as-reader (or translator-as-reader) decides that he will unperson a book he likes because he no longer likes its author. And he no longer likes its author because D’Cruz’s political views (which make no substantial difference to the way in which Anand reads D’Cruz’s novel) are abhorrent and he refuses the taint of association. This isn’t an argument: this is brahminical fastidiousness about pollution and contagion dressed up as a political position.

If, instead of a novel, this controversy had erupted about a political tract that Navayana was about to publish, the decision not to publish might have been justifiable. If Navayana had translated a pamphlet written by a radical proponent of affirmative action which demanded that jobs be reserved for Muslims as a religious community only to find that this hitherto committed Mandalist was now singing hymns to the RSS, you could argue that the polemicist’s political apostasy had rendered the polemic obsolete: you can’t have an author promoting an argument he doesn’t believe in anymore.

Not so with a novel; a good novel can be ‘political’ but its politics can’t be simply derived from its author’s stated political positions. If we were to begin to edit out of our lives all the novels and poems written by writers who have said and done things of which we strongly disapprove, we would be left with a pretty feeble reading list.

I wouldn’t be able to re-read Cat & Mouse because decades after I first read and loved it, I discovered that Günter Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS, that he had suppressed this fact at the same time as he denounced a whole generation of Germans for collaborating with Hitler. I would have to purge my mind of The War of the End of the World because Mario Vargas Llosa, who wrote this magnificent novel about a millenarian insurrection in late 19th century Brazil, moved to the far right of Peruvian politics, and advocated, amongst other things, the coerced assimilation of his country’s indigenous people into whatever passes for civilized modernity in Peru. I would have to sell Philip Larkin’s collected poems by weight to the raddiwallah because his collected letters showed him to be unpleasantly racist.

I don’t mean to argue that a writer’s obnoxious opinions should never alter our view of his novels or his poems, merely that we can’t reflexively punish a novel for its author’s opinions. To treat books that you love and admire like Facebook acquaintances who you can ‘unfriend’ is to commit a form of readerly suicide and publishers and translators are, in the end, just committed readers.

Joe D’Cruz, responding to Anand and Geetha, has made the point that no one should assume that a writer is ‘indentured’ to some kosher bundle of beliefs. He’s right; equally there’s no need for Anand or Geetha or any of his readers to believe that their opinion of his novels is mortgaged to his political convictions. Navayana should trust its editorial instincts and publish Ocean Ringed World.