WAITING FOR HIS ANGELS
David Davidar’s new novel dramatises the world of international publishing
When the publisher protagonist of David Davidar’s third novel Ithaca finished a breakthrough manuscript at three in the morning, “the darkness beyond the small circle of light cast by his bedside lamp seemed to pulse with tremendous unseen presences, not threatening exactly but untamed, awe-inspiring, powerful beyond imagining. When a book could do that, lift you out of yourself into a world that you had not known existed, you knew that you held in your hands the sort of treasure every publisher dreams about”. As an international publisher, Davidar certainly held many such manuscripts in his hands. Then, not content with being the manager of other people’s imagination, he put his own on paper. The House of Blue Mangoes was a panoramic family saga set on the riverbank of memory, spanning three generations and featuring an exhilarating parade of patriarchs and outcasts through the back alleys of history. In The Solitude of Emperors, a novel set in here and now, we saw a secular idealist at full play; the book was an argument against the violations of religion. Now Davidar has written his easiest book.
Zachariah Thomas, like the novelist himself till a few months ago, is a rising star in international publishing. Suddenly, his life in London is stagnant in an uncertain plateau—estranged wife, struggling company, and the absence of that history-shifting manuscript—when an author comes to his rescue, or damnation. The legend of Zach is built on the publication of the Italian writer Massimo Seppi’s Angels quartet— Angels Rising, Angel Dust, The War of Angels, and Angels Falling. They are his own Dan Brown multiplied or J.K. Rowling grown up or J.r.r.tolkien updated. Seppi’s death coincides with the company’s decline and there is now an irresistible takeover bid from an indus- try giant. He returns to posthumous Seppi for recovery but his last unpublished Angel novel, bought from the novelist’s estate for a multimillion dollar advance, after ruling the bestsellers lists for a while, becomes a publishing scandal as large sections of the novel are exposed as plagiarism. Zach sinks.
This is a book for those who want to know the making of a book—if not the unmaking of a book wiz. At times, Ithaca is a conducted tour through the world of publishing—and the mind of the publisher. So he tells first novelists: “Why on earth don’t they throw caution to the winds, give their work a great clawing distinctiveness, an irresistible force that will sweep the reader along from the very first page?” This one about Frankfurt book fair: “The well known cliché about Frankfurt—that its whores go on holiday when the book fair comes to town because all the publishing folk are busy f***ing each other, both literally and metaphorically—is based on more than just industry folklore.” Davidar even gives a deserving pat on his back as he goes poetic about the making of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: “When Vikram decided to have his masterpiece…edited, typeset, printed, bound, and published in India, everyone thought he was crazy.” Most tellingly, Ithaca is written by a novelist who has a writer to drop for every occasion: Borges for Delhi traffic; James Wood for the art of the novel; and Rushdie for testing the limits of a storyteller’s talent. You won’t miss Hemingway, Kerouac, Kundera, Lampedusa, and many such luminaries popping up mid-sentence to underline the ideas of Davidar.
Ithaca is about a subject which could not have been written with such insider’s brio by any other Indian writer. On the closing page, we see Zach, fallen but serene, waiting for an Angelic intervention. Worth waiting with him for the next page.