Fighting a Goliath

Lead review

publishing Travelling places for the cause of a book.This is David Davidar’s ‘first novel’; it has a debut writer’s unburdening of his world. His earlier two novels had respectively traced the fortunes of a family in spate, and a political and moral moment in our nation’s life.

Ithaca throws up Davidar’s own world. Coming as it does in the ripeness of his powers, it considers this world with a maturity and hindsight that an actual first novel couldn’t have easily provided. It pits the protagonist against a Goliath too vast, amorphous and wedded-to-profit. Individual players swimming against the current are expurgated.

The novel’s timing is interesting, coming as it does when the author (himself both mover and cog in the Great Wheel) has recently emerged from a temporary cocoon. But all ends well in real life, as the hero of several publishing miracles bounds up, relocates and rejuvenates himself. His protagonist isn’t so lucky in battle, though the reader does reach a satisfying conclusion, a circle completed in peace — especially since protagonists do live beyond the novel.

Ithaca is about a Zach Thomas who’s waiting. For things to brighten up in his publishing company, and for his wife to take him back. But this personal story rides on the back of a thundering tidal wave that’s the tale of worldwide publishing today. Each chapter in the first two parts of the book names a city, and as Zach travels from one assignment to the other, we are not only offered a close-up travelogue but also insights into the big bad world of publishing.

Litmus Publishing finds a bonanza in the bestselling Angels series by Massimo Seppi. Since Zach was the commissioning editor, his career and importance soar, and he’s soon made publisher. But then Seppi dies and there are no more straws to clutch. Litmus is floating, rudderless and dangerously, towards the happily open mouth of Globish, a hungry publishing conglomerate. Zach has to seek deliverance through another bonanza. Has Seppi left behind an unfinished work? Does he have something more for Litmus that will help keep it independent?

Zach sits in a plane that’s delicately manoeuvring to land in Thimphu, talking to his wife Julia who isn’t present. The novel opens up from this loaded beginning and keeps us engrossed with places, people and publishing nuggets. Thimphu is holiday, then it’s back to London where Litmus is headquartered, and from there to Delhi and a glitzy book launch where the writer shells out money and watches the fun as celebrities kiss the air, socialites spout hot air and the book is just an invisible core around which swirls a night of revelry. In Toronto, Seppi’s translator and agent Caryn thrills Zach with news of a final Angels book from the Seppi stable. And it’s back to business as usual.

In Part Two, there’s the Frankfurt Book Fair, highpoint of publishing, where none but the high and mighty can feel comfortable. Davidar offers the uninitiated a feel of the place, making it real through his clear narrative. Zach and his friend have a gorging session on the fringes of the fair, downing a variety of pig parts and the German cider, apfelwein, until they can barely move. He also spends happy moments with Julia, clearing the way for their reunion. It is this intertwining of place and moment that keeps the reader rooted. Then comes New York, predictably the arena where big money moves, followed by Zach in Sydney, which is when the myths explode and hit the ceiling.

Ithaca can be read as a literary thriller, with suspense and revelation dogging our footsteps until the final devastating climax. It can be read as the author’s loving tribute to his lifelong career in publishing. Those near orgasmic moments at the Frankfurt Fair, Davidar’s fond personal reminiscences in Delhi, the ruminations on what publishing has turned into — from the sheer pleasure of reading books to the unholy promotion of bestsellers; the pecuniary weighing down the literary. It can be read as the love story of Zach and Julia, his remembrance of their life together, like that embarrassing night when he drunkenly hefts potted plants and throws them from the balcony until Julia runs up to stop him. But chiefly, it’s a travelogue through the publishing world.

Davidar writes with understated humour and gentle sparkles that light up an almost deliberately bland writing style. It’s like leafing through one of those black-and-white children’s books where a brush dipped in water can magically awaken colour. The point of view narrations rendered from the perceptions of Zach, Julia and Globish’s Morty bring to mind vintage Harold Robbins and his romps through a particular industry.

And, even through these romps we somehow feel that the heart is always back home, in that old house nestled in the Shevaroy hills.

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