Hari Kunzru: by the book

In conversation

Hari Kunzru: by the book
Hari Kunzru, most recently, of White Tears, says it might be nice to give Theresa May a book that shows England from an outsider’s perspective: she “strikes me as the kind of tory who has read too much trollope and not enough of anything else.”

What books are on your nightstand now?
An anthology of Pasolini’s writings called In Danger; Journal of an Ordinary Grief by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; another anthology of recent political poetry and prose called Anguish Language: Writing and Crisis; and a proof of Margaret Jull Costa’s new translation of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which I’m particularly excited to read, as somehow I could never make headway with the older English translation and have hopes that at last this famous book will break open for me.

What’s the last great book you read?
Like a lot of people, I suspect, given the political situation, I’ve been rereading James Baldwin. I’m working through the Library of America edition of the collected essays. So I could say The Fire Next Time.

What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
I spent the first half of last year living in Berlin, as a fellow at the American Academy. It was the perfect place to read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I used to eat breakfast with the other fellows and secretly imagine we were all inmates in a sanatorium.

What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
I don’t know if it counts as particularly obscure, since it’s in print as a Penguin Classic, but I think more people should read Count Jan Potocki’s bizarre Gothic fantasy, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. The vastly wealthy Polish traveller and dilettante wrote it in the years before his suicide in 1815, but it wasn’t published until much later. Set in Spain, it tells dozens of interlocking stories, involving kabbalists, bandits, shape-shifters, cannibal gypsies, the wandering Jew and an underground Muslim society. As in, literally underground, in mountain caves, driven into secrecy by the Reconquista.

What moves you most in a work of literature?
The feeling that the writer is putting him- or herself at risk, either by excavating something uncomfortable or embarrassing, or just by scrupulously trying to tell a difficult truth.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a small collection of mystical UFO and spiritualist ephemera, such as a series of pamphlet interviews with the ghosts of famous dead people (Rembrandt, Einstein, etc.) and a record of a conversation between Jesus and ‘an Earth person’ which took place “hundreds of miles from Earth in the purple magnificence of star-studded Space” in 1959. I recently bought a lot of old nurse-romance paperbacks on eBay. I have no idea what I will do with nurse-romance paperbacks, but it seems like there might be some kind of tone or format that I could mine them for.

If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be?
Theresa May strikes me as the kind of Tory who has read too much Trollope and not enough of anything else. It might be nice to give her a book that shows England from an outsider’s perspective, perhaps Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. Or something by Victor Serge, though that would just be trolling. I think the president might benefit from a basic Civics textbook, something with large print.

What do you plan to read next?
Other than the things on my nightstand? I’m writing something set in Berlin, and working hard, if frustratingly slowly, on my German. I’m going to read the East German dissident Jürgen Fuchs’s Vernehmungsprotokolle (Interrogation Records), accounts of his conversations with his interrogators while a detainee of the Stasi in Hohenschönhausen prison. I also have the poet Monica Youn’s collection Blackacre, which might be quite a good way to take my mind off German compound words about surveillance.

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