October Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 9 years ago

You like to know the side effects of reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts? You may wonder if I am talking about a book or some medicine prescribed by a physician?

That, indeed, is the point. We are familiar with the power of books to change lives. Famous people, including writers, are customarily asked to name the book or books that may have changed their lives. Very often polls are held on this question. Lists are made. There are titles that figure more frequently in such inventories. But the idea of books having healing powers is something else.

Let me introduce to you Monsieur Perdu. He calls himself a ‘literary apothecary’. He runs a floating bookstore on a barge on the Seine. This is Paris, of course, and our bookseller mends broken hearts and souls with books. As Perdu himself explains: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offers therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments; that is how I sell books.”

This enchanting scenario is set in The Little Paris Bookshop, a novel by German author Nina George. It was the highlight of my summer reading during a long vacation in southern California. Because of my passion for books, I felt that I had discovered a treasure. In a vicarious sense, it felt like joining a book club with its unknown members spread across the world and across so many languages.

I have been an occasional reviewer of books for Newsline. But they have all been non-fiction. Wading through them would not always be a labour of love. Somehow, I have not yet dealt with a novel as a critic. One reason is that one reads novels for pleasure and it tends to be a subjective experience that is hard to express. Perhaps I am too inhibited to delve into emotional tangles that good novels lay bare in either deep anguish or breathless ecstasy — though I do envy the flourish of younger reviewers of contemporary fiction.

This aside is not meant to validate my first review of a passionate novel of love and longing. In fact, I don’t intend to review The Little Paris Bookshop or the other novel I will presently talk about. It is another interesting novel about books that I later searched out. I am taking the liberty of celebrating the two books that share a core for the love of the written word.

Now back to the side effects of a book that has a cult following, The Hitchhiker’s Guide that is. The novel lists them as: “An aversion to owning things, and a potentially chronic tendency to wear a robe all day.” But you are warned of side effects when a medicine that is necessary for your condition is prescribed. Hence, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is said to be “effective in large doses for treating pathological optimism or a sense of humour failure. Ideal for saunagoers with exhibitionist tendencies.”

This is from a short appendix that lists a number of books with the title: ‘Jean Perdu’s emergency literary pharmacy: from Adams to Von Arnim.’ As a reader, I take particular interest in such lists though they remind me of how deficient my score has been. Here are these wonderful books and I have not read them and because of so many distractions of my life as a journalist I cannot ever hope to do justice to my wish list. For literature lovers, these are like manna, new recommendations waiting to be read.

But there are occasions when I congratulate myself for having read a novel that is short-listed in, for instance, this ‘emergency literary pharmacy.’ So, we have The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. There was a sense of discovery in finding this French best-seller. Nina George describes it as: “An effective cure in large doses for if-such-and-such-happens-ism. Recommended for unacknowledged geniuses, lovers of intellectual films, and people who hate bus drivers”.

I felt a feeling of camaraderie with George because I remembered how I had felt when I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It had a specific reference to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And why is it for people who hate bus drivers? The protagonist dies at the end in a traffic accident and Anna always had an  affinity for trains.

Irrespective of the author’s selection of books — and there are a number of them in the story itself — The Little Paris Bookshop is a great pleasure to read. It is so well-written that I should be ashamed of not having known about Nina George, who has published 26 novels in German. In a proper review, one would linger on passages that touch your heart. No wonder, it has been praised as an ‘enchantment.’ I wish I had more time but this is one book I would like to re-read.

Incidentally, Nina has not just given us that ‘emergency literary pharmacy’. There are some recipes too because the cuisine of Provence figures in the story as the barge sails towards the south of France, and one lovelorn Italian chef is a main character. Jean Perdu, the bookseller, has been compiling his ‘Great Encyclopedia of Small Emotions: A Guide for Booksellers, Lovers and Other Literary Pharmacists’. Yet, he is unable to mend his own broken heart.

Storied-life-of-A.J.FikryNow, the second book I was led to on the path that was marked by the Paris bookshop. It is The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin — another novel about a bookshop. But this was published later, in 2014. It does not have the same scope as Nina George’s delicious offering. But the story is still very moving. The setting is an island on the East Coast of the United States, far away from Paris and the south of France.

We have A.J. Fikry, of Indian origin, as the bookseller here. His shop is Island Books in a Victorian cottage and the faded sign that hangs above the porch bears this adage: ‘No man is an island; every book is a world.’ Again, I am not attempting a review. What is relevant is the celebration of the reading habit. Besides, the two booksellers have a few things in common. One is that they are in a state of bereavement. But unlike Perdu, who is happy to meet people and travel, Fikry, as the novel begins, is isolating himself from all the people of the island because of the wife he has just lost. Then, of course, his life begins to change.

To give you some impression of the mood that pervades the novel, let me quote Gabrielle Zevin’s dedication: “For my parents, who furnished my formative years with books, and for the boy who gave me ‘The Stories of Vladimir Nabakov’ all those winters ago.” Incidentally, both novels are written by women and are about men nursing broken hearts and owning bookstores which makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

One wonders if it is because of that gift given to her all those winters ago that Gabrielle Zevin’s novel is focused on short stories rather than novels. Quite like the list that is appended to Nina George’s novel, we have Fikry’s introductions to his favourite short stories before every chapter including J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Breakfast,’ Roald Dahl’s ‘The Bookseller,’ and Aimee Bender’s ‘Ironhead,’ though they ostensibly have no reference to the narrative.

So, my two novels hopefully open a window on some great creative writing available in English. Since I am also very fond of Urdu literature, I think it would be an interesting exercise for some Urdu writer to connect books with specific spiritual and emotional conditions. I have always felt that Urdu poetry deserves a place of honour in the annals of world literature. Poetry gives you solace in moments of depression and grief. Try some Ghalib, or Faiz or, if you are young and in love, also Parveen Shakir. The list is endless. And  I often wonder if interesting, erudite and successful individuals in Pakistan read Urdu literature?

This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.