Yesterday the ICA hosted a conference for the Independent Alliance of publishers, a get together to devise a creative strategy for the tricky future which faces the book trade. I’m sure that they will have come up with some imaginative ideas. Rather like Foyles who reached out to all manner of people including other booksellers, customers and publishers in a series of workshops on what to do when they move to the old Central St Martins College site, independent publishers are often adventurous and original in their approach. Some of my favourites – Faber, Granta, Atlantic, Bloomsbury and Corsair to mention but a few – are independents and I’ve been doing my bit to support them over the past few days reading Antonio Tabucchi’s Indian Nocturne published by Canongate Books and Breathless by Anne Swärd published by Maclehose Press, two more favourites.
Tabucchi, who died last year, was the author of Pereira Maintains, a slim and apparently simple novel whose powerful message echoes Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…” Indian Nocturne is altogether different. Described in the author’s note as “an insomnia” and “a journey”, it’s a beautiful dreamlike book which follows a man searching for a lost friend in India. The journey takes the unnamed narrator from Bombay to Goa recounting his encounters along the way: a prostitute with whom Xavier was having an affair tells him his friend is sick, a visit to a hospital proves to be a false trail, the previous occupant of his hotel room is desperate to complete a con trick and a badly deformed fortune teller recoils from the narrator telling him he’s not himself but “someone else”. Tabucchi’s images are striking: a dying man describes our bodies as “like suitcases; we carry ourselves around”, a cloak “carelessly thrown over the back of the chair” becomes a mad old man then we learn it’s just a dream. In the final chapter of the book we’re not sure if the narrator has found Xavier, or whether he is Xavier, or if the entire thing is a dream or an idea for a novel. Neither should we care – they joy of this book is in the journey. If you read it don’t rush it; it’s a book to savour.
Breathless is a very different kettle of fish and one which I almost passed over thanks to its dire jacket. If it hadn’t been published by Maclehose I would have assumed it to be overblown and clichéd which it most certainly isn’t. Set in Sweden, it begins with a pregnant young woman sitting on a veranda. This is a much wanted child, born into a large extended family all of whom share the same house. When Lo is six she meets thirteen-year-old Lukas helping to put out the fire which has already engulfed much of the family’s farm and is about to burn down their house. Their relationship becomes close, a little inappropriate, and reaches a crisis when Lo turns fifteen. Interwoven with their story is Lo’s narrative of her sexual adventures – often just the safe side of dangerous – and her memories of the troubled Lukas, constantly at war with his father. It’s an absorbing and intense novel. The question mark over Lo’s paternity implied in the opening chapter keeps popping up in the back of my mind as I read it. Only two thirds of the way through, but it will keep me happily occupied this evening.