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A world without angels


SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, November 19, 2011 09:56
Tags : ithaca | david davidar | book review | saibal chatterjee |

David Davidar
Fourth Estate/Harper Collins
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 9789350291047
Pages: 276
Price: Rs 499

The protagonist of David Davidar’s third novel, like the author himself, has had a singularly successful career in international publishing. But, in the opening pages, we find Zachariah Thomas running away from it all in search of the spark that seems to have gone out of his life and work.

As you read about a man and an industry in the throes of dramatic change, you wish Ithaca had a way of making a simillar journey. It could probably have done with a little more inspiration, especially because it comes from within a universe Davidar knows inside out.  

The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors, his previous novels, were far more ambitious in sweep and revealed the writer’s storytelling skills to better effect. Ithaca is a more inward-looking tale, presenting an insider’s account of the often unpredictable dynamics of the publishing industry.  

The simplicity of the narrative is both a strength and a limitation. Ithaca is an easy read all right, littered as it is with many illuminating passages about the entrails of international publishing, about the ambitious men and women who run the show, about the temperamental writers who feed it and the battery of agents, sales heads and eager-beaver publicists who make or mar the fortunes of authors and their books.

Yet, Ithaca somehow lacks the impetus you would expect in a story of loss, sorrow and self-discovery involving a man grappling with an array of personal and professional tribulations. The crises before Zach are indeed manifold.

The independent UK publishing firm he heads, Litmus, has been hit hard by the sudden death of its star-author, the Italian Massimo Seppi, bang in the midst of the global economic downturn. A quartet of Seppi novels about angels and archangels that blended myth and history had sold millions of copies worldwide and catapulted Litmus to a new league.   

To make matters worse, Zach’s wife, Julia Spence, has been gone for 18 months and the forty-something publishing honcho is stuck with Mandy, a woman he really doesn’t fancy. He nurtures hopes of getting back with his estranged wife but “Julia doesn’t seem ready to fully trust him yet and Mandy doesn’t seem ready to let go”.

Zach’s troubles resemble “hammer blows, one after the other, pounding his life into something resembling a coffin”. So, as he flies over the mighty Himalayas en route to Thimphu for a second time – on the first occasion, he had Julia by his side – his mind is filled for a brief while with rather macabre thoughts. The plane hits an air pocket and he wonders: “What better way to go than ramming into a mile-high wall of ice, stone and flying snow at several hundred miles an hour?”  

When a storm is at its worst, real heroes are meant to strike back with intent. But Zach is the sort who seems to simply flow along. For Davidar, he is akin to a present-day Odysseus, who, in Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem ‘Ithaca’ (which provides the novel its title and philosophical underpinning) is exhorted to “pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge”. But Zach’s trajectory somehow doesn’t appear to be intrinsically driven by such lofty ideals.

He doesn’t so much as steer his life’s boat as he is pushed along by circumstances. It is on his story that Ithaca hinges, but he isn’t the strongest character in the novel, which takes some of the sheen away from Davidar’s otherwise engaging narrative.

The character that provides Ithaca its spine and muscle is Gabrijela Kostic, the founder of Litmus, a woman of uncommon disposition and demeanor. Davidar is at his best when he dwells upon the details of the life and ways of this industry pro who, as an eight-year-old, fled Yugoslavia with her parents and was groomed for “a very low level of tolerance for inefficiency, lack of ambition, indecisiveness, laziness, and dolts”.

Zach is driven by Gabrijela to one desperate final throw of the dice: he flies to Toronto to look for a fifth Seppi novel about archangels that might be tucked away somewhere among the writer’s incomplete works. Litmus, facing a takeover bid by a big American publishing house, does find that lifeline in the nick of time. Seppi’s long-time collaborator, Coryn Bianchi (another female character fleshed out with great insight), reveals she does have another part of the series.

The novel comes out, but what follows doesn’t quite go according to the script. The results are disastrous for Zach. But this ending marks a new beginning for the protagonist: despite having lived nearly half his life in London, “the country of his birth has never ceased exerting its pull on him”. So to his Ithaca Zach returns. The homecoming may not be entirely convincing, but it isn’t completely unfounded either. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017