Tuesday, 4 October 2011

“Ithaca” by David Davidar – Book Review

The blurb to David Davidar’s latest – third – novel gives the following information: “In the early years of the 21st Century, sweeping change is taking place in the publishing industry. Ill-equipped to handle the transformation of their world, a number of publishing houses struggle to survive – one of these is Litmus, an independent firm in the UK. The onus of ensuring that the company remains viable falls upon its publisher, Zachariah Thomas, who also edits its most successful author, Massimo Seppi. Seppi’s quartet of novels, featuring angels and archangels, has sold millions of copies worldwide.

Unfortunately for Zach and for Litmus, Seppi dies unexpectedly. Without its star writer, Litmus’s chances of surviving the economic downturn are slim, and when a giant corporation intent on taking it over begins to move in for the kill, it seems impossible that Litmus will remain independent. To keep his company intact, and to give it room to regroup and chart out a strategy for the future, Zach must, among other things, try and mine the Seppi legacy for one last gem. He travels around the globe, from London to the new Litmus subsidiary in Delhi, from negotiating meetings in Toronto to the halls of the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair, from a sales extravaganza in New York City to the streets of Sydney, and more, in his quest to stave off disaster.

The blurb isn’t exactly accurate. Not really, no. The trip to Delhi, a detour while travelling (from London) to Toronto, has nothing to do with mining the Seppi legacy and the trip to Sydney is to take part in a panel discussion on the editor’s changing role in publishing, and to give a talk on the life of Massimo Seppi and the five great Angel books. To be honest, only the trip to Toronto is part of the sieving of the Seppi estate for gold nuggets. In fact, the novel, as much a travelogue as it is work of fiction, is divided into 9 chapters and the first seven are named after cities visited by Zach!

Ithaca is a novel by a publisher, about publishing, for those interested in knowing how publishers live, eat, drink, copulate, satisfy their egos and make money. Davidar is in his element in Ithaca, protagonist Zachariah Thomas’s life closely mirrors Davidar’s own story and Davidar spins a tale which is interesting and exciting and makes Ithaca a worthwhile read. In any event, it is a much better book than Davidar’s first one – the House of Blue Mangoes. (Disclosure: I haven’t read Davidar’s second novel – The Solitude of Emperors.)

Davidar’s story telling doesn’t have the sheer effortlessness of R.K. Narayan or of Jhumpa Lahiri and Ithaca is more like a work of art painstakingly put together by a talented craftsman than a work of genius, though Ithaca’s pace is not as much forced or strained as in the House of Blue Mangoes. The story is narrated by an omnipresent third person, mostly in the present tense. Narrating in the present tense is tricky business when it is done at length, since the narrator is bound to use the past time at times and has to frequently revert to the present at just the right moment. A few sentences’ delay can get the reader muddled up. Davidar however, is a master of the craft of writing and gets his tenses right to the last T.


Some of the best things about Ithaca are the various anecdotes about publishing and the various larger than life characters who patrol the streets and bylanes of the publishing world. We are told that during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the 'whores go on holiday since all the publisher folk are busy fucking each other, both literally and metaphorically'. Publishers are no different from other corporate houses when it comes to profits, balance-sheets and slogans. Litmus has a slogan – we are the test of a good book. Globish, the giant corporation which wants to acquire Litmus, has values too, in addition to a slogan. Everyone interested in books would know of the Big 6 Publishers. Davidar expands this list to add Globish and makes it the Big 7.

Time and again, Zach is heard to say what a great privilege and honour it is to be in publishing. ‘He goes to lunches and drinks and suppers with agents and publishing colleagues he has worked with for over a decade, men and women he likes and respects for the most part, all joined shoulder to shoulder in an endeavour that they have worked hard to perfect throughout their adult lives – the task of finding, valuing an selling worthwhile writing, which despite all the algorithms and business models that attempt to convert it into something that can be weighed and measured like any other product is ultimately elusive and therefore all the more precious. All its disadvantages notwithstanding, to be part of this world is a privilege and he is proud to belong to this company of men and women, who for centuries have nurtured the mother of all creative arts, story-telling, with dedication and skill.

Though Litmus is shown to be based in London’s West End, in Soho, some of the descriptions given by Davidar, gave me the feeling that it is based in the US. There is talk of firing people, without the need to follow a hundred procedures and having consultations, something which happens in the US, but not in the UK. One of Zach’s colleagues is heard demanding a perfume policy, again a concept much more common in litigious USA than in the UK.

Some of the best stories in Ithaca come out of Zach’s Delhi trip, which, by the way, is a detour while flying to Toronto! I guess this detour would have made a simple 7 hour trip a 24 hour one. Some detour it would be, but I am glad Zach did it. There are stories of Salman Rushdie’s book reading at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, after he won the Booker, stories of how Penguin India was set up by a couple of visionaries (no, the name Davidar doesn’t crop up), stories of how Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy had to be printed on paper used in Bibles, to be able to cram it all in.

At times, Davidar’s descriptions take Ithaca to the realm of pulp fiction. We are told that ‘If publishing has an evolutionary scale, after hundreds of years of natural selection, what has risen to the top is a formidable creature – the Manhattan based publisher of a large publishing company. Capable of stopping a Bengal tiger in mid-spring or charming a swallow out of its nest, this paragon is usually a woman of indeterminate age, with the ability to bed a room full of New Yorkers (unanimously regarded as the toughest and most cynical people in publishing anywhere) to her will, or to make a steeling agent see reason, or to have one of the planet’s biggest authors eating out of her hand.’ All of this makes for good reading.

For me, the best bit of the novel is when Zach goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair where publishers and literary agents meet, a place where a writer has no place, unless the writer is a VIEW – a Very Important Eminent Writer. We do meet one writer who turns up at Frankfurt, one who isn’t a VIEW and he cuts a pathetic figure. The most important section of the Frankfurt Fair is Halle 8, where the UK and US publishers congregate.

Almost as interesting as the publishing anecdotes are the ‘tourist tales’, as Zachariah Thomas trots the globe, for business and for pleasure. The novel commences with a holiday in Bhutan and we are told that only 8 pilots are qualified to land at Bhutan’s only airport, which is surrounded by mountains and overshooting the runway would result in the plane crashing into one. Do watch this YouTube video to decide for yourself how scary an experience it is to land at Paro. Zach eschews Ema Datse, but partakes of Bhutan Mist. I don’t blame Zach, if I ever go to Thimbu, I’d do the same.

Many of the restaurants where Zach goes out to wine and dine are real ones and more importantly, famous ones. Zach lunches at the Orso in Soho. When in Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Book Fair, Zach goes to an authentic German restaurant, the Wagner at Sachsenhausen, where he drinks apfelwein (apple wine) and stuffs himself with different meats.

Ithaca’s basic plot is good and Davidar takes maybe one-third of this 273 page book to execute it. As hinted in the blurb, the plot revolves around reviving Litmus’s fortunes by extracting the last Seppi stone and fighting off the attempt by Globish to acquire Litmus. Equally important to the reader is Zach’s return to his Ithaca. The quotes from Cavafy’s Ithaka given at the beginning of the novel and before each of the three parts of the book ensure that this isn’t forgotten. Where is Zach’s Ithaca? Is it London where Zach has spent most of his adult life? No. Hold your breath - It is in India! You see, it was a total surprise to me when after around 20 pages, Davidar casually mentions Zach’s undergrad days in Delhi. But where exactly is Zach from? Is he a Delhite? Many pages later, we are given another hint of Zach’s heritage – the memory of Zach’s ‘grandmother in Kanyakumari making puttu, steamed and fragrant that he would dissolve in coconut milk or meat stew.’ Later we are categorically told that Zach’s father was a manager at a coffee estate in the Shevaroy Hills of Tamil Nadu. Yercaud, a hill station in the Shevaroy Hills is Zach’s Ithaca. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses manages to get back to Ithaca. In the House of Blue Mangoes, Kannan gets back to Doraipuram in Chevathar. Does Zach go back to Yercaud? Does he take his estranged English wife Julia Spence with him or does he merely hope to do so, just as Kannan is seen hoping (to get his estranged Anglo-Indian wife Helen to Doraipuram) towards the end of the House of Blue Mangoes? Do read this extremely readable book to find out.

Davidar doesn’t seem to believe in the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’. There are numerous instances where the reader receives a brief, very brief, bio of a particular character and because Davidar keeps his telling so succinct, with a hidden surprise or two, Ithaca is none the worse for this. For example, we get to know all of a sudden that Zach’s mother is English. Later, when Zach’s wife Julia meets his parents, she gets along with his father, but not with his mother (though they are both English) and we don’t really get to know why. In all probability, Davidar doesn’t know either.

Notwithstanding Zach’s anglicised demeanour, an English mother and half his life-time spent in London, we hear that Zach still holds an Indian passport and a couple of times, the possibility of Zach returning to India is considered. Every Indian who has lived overseas knows how difficult it is to get a visa in time for a quick trip to another western destination. However, not once do we see Zach stand in a visa queue or worry about getting a visa in time for a trip, though he is a jet-setter who hops into a plane at the drop of a hat.

Davidar doesn’t always connect the dots. We are introduced to Caryn Bianci, Massimo Seppi’s translator. We are told that she is ‘a native of Montreal and formed part of the great Anglophone exodus from what was then Canada’s cultural epicenter during the political disturbances of the 1970s.’ Nowhere does the reader get an explanation as to when and how Bianci learnt Italian formally, if at all. The Italian surname is deemed to be sufficient explanation and we move on, at no cost to the story.

How did Zach end up with the name Zachariah Thomas? There is a casual reference to Zach’s father as ‘Nirmal Aiyah’. For those who don’t speak Tamil, ‘Aiyah’ is a Tamil honorific, someone on the lines of ‘Ji’ in Hindi or ‘San’ in Japanese. Was Zach’s father’s name Nirmal Thomas? Maybe or maybe not, since South Indians do not usually have a surname. In any event, the reader is left to figure this one out.

Does the world of publishing suffer from racism or prejudice (on the basis of race)? Zach certainly does not suffer from its ill-effects. In fact, Zach seems to be the poster child for globalization, the very picture of seamless integration, wherever he is. It is not only Zach who is so well-integrated into a foreign environment. When Zach holidays in Bhutan at the beginning of this story, he runs into an old friend from college, Das and his wife Sonam who have lived in Thimpu for 17 years. Again, there is no mention of any trouble in getting residence permits to stay in the hermit kingdom. Das and Sonam are so well integrated, they actually use ‘We’ when defending Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.

Will publishing houses soon become extinct? Are ebooks and digital editions the only way forward? These questions are debated endlessly by Zach and some of the many people he encounters in the course of his travels. These arguments are a bit one-sided, since the characters who predict the demise of publishing houses like Litmus are, well, not so likeable, people like Prof. Malik, while the ones who feel publishers will always be around, playing a crucial role in selecting what the public reads, are respectable veterans like ninety year old Alfred Rothstein. In fact, one comes back with the feeling that even if large publishing houses like Globish bite the dust, smaller ones like Litmus which are offer customised, bespoke services, will definitely survive. One doesn’t feel too bad about this. Globish is not the nicest place to work for, while Litmus leaves one with a lovey-dovey feeling. Globish fires its employees at the drop of a hat and its London office is in Camden, in dreary North London, while Litmus is in leafy Soho, in the West End.

Zach is shown to be a sensitive chap, one who hates firing people. Davidar goes to the extent of saying that firing people is the most difficult task Zach has to perform as a senior executive, one which he does not hand over to HR. Zach is unsure if ‘slow, compassionate strangling’ at his hands is less painful for the employee ‘than the swift bite of the guillotine’ at the hands of the HR officer, but this doesn’t make him delegate this job. Zach is also incapable of firing his latest girl friend Mandy, who is shown to be shallow and unsuitable for Zach, who so very desperately wants to get back with his wife Julia. Mandy, part-time waitress and wanna-be actress, is finally fired and she returns to hack into Zach’s email and sends nasty and vulgar mails to all his contacts. Does Zach retaliate? Of course, not!

Some of the characters who populate Ithaca are straight out of folklore. There’s Ramesh Wadhwani with whom Zach has dinner in Delhi, who knows all that’s there to know about Indian publishing and lives a life devoted to books. His US equivalent, Alfred Rothstein, Zach meets with in New York. Then there are people like Mortimer Weaver, the CEO of Globish, who have been created to be hated. There are characters like Simon Prescott, the editor of Bibliomania who are meant to be detested. I found Weaver and Prescott to be unrealistic. For example, Weaver is shown to be a cut-throat businessman, but what made him so? Apparently, he was once accused of financial impropriety by a colleague and from then on, he never trusted anyone.

Zach’s India, just like the India in the House of Blue Mangoes, is clean, tidy and mainly rural, at times tough and nasty, but never dirty. If Aaron Daniel is tortured to death by a British policeman, Zach is ragged by a bunch of nasty seniors, who force him to eat a hundred red-hot chillies and then drink soapy water. However, Zach is just as stoic as Aaron and as brave as Kannan, minus Kannan’s trademark tears. There are a few other bits in the novel which aren’t particularly realistic. We are told that when Zach was ten, ‘he was sent to boarding school. It was a tough school and he was the outsider; the student body was largely blue collar and resented his family’s wealth and his life of apparent privilege. He had to fight and fight often just to be left alone.’ True, boarding schools can be tough, but show me one Indian boarding school which has largely blue collar students and where the son of a coffee estate manager is considered to be from a wealthy family.

In this book, Davidar has some very good advice for first time novelists. Also, there are a dozen other things I could comment on. However, I shall stop here and leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.

Here are a few other reviews of Ithaca:

The Hindu is positive.

Mint's review is not so positive.

Outlook is a bit nasty.

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