Stop Press

The pub­li­ca­tion by a small in­de­pen­dent press in New York of a novel satiris­ing Putin’s Rus­sia – and the out­ing of its true au­thor – throws into re­lief Hong Kong’s own frag­ile press free­doms, writes stephen mc­carty

Prestige Hong Kong - - CONTENTS -

IT MIGHT BE only half as good as it used to be – no one seems both­ered to name it twice any more – but to some of the best and bright­est in the world of pub­lish­ing, New York still does an ad­mirable im­pres­sion of dreamland.

A re­cent, un­sci­en­tific sur­vey con­ducted for Pres­tige un­der less-than-lab­o­ra­tory con­di­tions re­vealed that small presses in the city that never turns in for the night, and oth­ers far­ther afield – some rub up against the bor­ders of the state – num­ber nearly 50, and can be found from the Bronx to Wood­stock, from Buf­falo to

Staten Is­land.

Just as wide rang­ing are their mis­sion state­ments, which ad­ver­tise a fear­less out­spo­ken­ness that could be a func­tion­ing tem­plate for de­fend­ers of free speech ev­ery­where. Be they rel­a­tively un­her­alded, in­de­pen­dent presses pub­lish­ing fic­tion, po­etry, art books, mag­a­zines of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, even “hand­crafted vol­umes of pop­u­lar cul­tural in­ter­est”; or lit­er­ary or­gan­i­sa­tions that, in ad­di­tion to pub­lish­ing, stage “pan­dis­ci­plinary, multi-cul­tural ex­changes [of] ideas” for artists and their au­di­ences; or book­shops that sup­port their own “print­ing, type­set­ting and bind­ing” cottage in­dus­tries, all revel in their right to tell it like it is, call a spade a spade and say what they mean – in ef­fect, to take free­dom of speech for granted, how­ever clichéd the ref­er­ences to a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right far too of­ten not recog­nised as such.

One of the most in­trigu­ing play­ers on what might once have been con­sid­ered an ar­cane scene is In­pa­tient Press, the prov­ince of var­i­ous “sim­ple folk with ex­quis­ite tastes”, ac­cord­ing to the man who calls him­self its “ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor, book-creaser and jan­i­tor”. Mitch Anzuoni also notes, wryly or other­wise, that his big am­bi­tion for the fairly mod­est un­der­tak­ing, with its “72,000 read­ers, or there­abouts”, is “to buy out Fox News”.

Clearly, there­fore, on the side of the in­for­ma­tion an­gels, Anzuoni and In­pa­tient re­cently made a spec­tac­u­lar im­pres­sion on the lit­er­ary-scoop seis­mo­graph. In 2009, po­lit­i­cal Moscow found it­self all a-chirrup at the pub­li­ca­tion of a satir­i­cal novel that lam­pooned the rot­ten, postSoviet Union state that Rus­sia had be­come, par­tic­u­larly as the Vladimir Putin era re­ally be­gan to hit its stride. Printed ma­te­ri­als, es­pe­cially books – gen­uine or forged, it mat­ters not – are the new drugs in the novel, in which, boasts one dis­rep­utable char­ac­ter, “Ni­et­zsche, Platonov, Nabokov, Hem­ing­way, Chase, King [and] our na­tive best­sellers” are the new heroes. How ironic, in a coun­try with Rus­sia’s out­stand­ing book­burn­ing cre­den­tials.

Now, fol­low­ing Putin’s re­cent re-corona­tion as pres­i­dent – in ef­fect, tsar – the novel looks to be in no dan­ger of be­ing rel­e­gated to a quaint pe­riod piece, not least given the true iden­tity of its au­thor.

Ti­tled Okolonolya in Rus­sian and Al­most Zero in English, the book orig­i­nally cred­ited Natan Dubovit­sky as the au­thor. But the long fin­gers of pseudonymity soon

started point­ing in the di­rec­tion of a man known var­i­ously as the “pup­pet master” and the “grey car­di­nal”. This was not a man who had sim­ply tick­led a few type­writer keys in his at­tic, then cow­ered in a cor­ner wait­ing for the thought po­lice to re­set his in­tel­lect to zero. This was the man who, some said, had sent the thought po­lice on their merry way in the first place, the man who had de­signed Putin’s pu­trid, bo­gus democ­racy in all its ruth­less re­pres­sion of in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive rights. This was ar­guably the sec­ond most pow­er­ful man in Rus­sia – satiris­ing his own loath­some cre­ation.

Ladies and gen­tle­men, in­tro­duc­ing busi­ness­man and for­mer Rus­sian presidential chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, au­thor of un­likely renown, song­writer, po­etry afi­cionado, TV net­work boss, cul­tural critic – and a Car­di­nal Riche­lieu for our times fi­nally un­masked and given his due by a brave, diminu­tive Brook­lyn out­fit that “outed” him where oth­ers wouldn’t and pub­lished his book in trans­la­tion with­out hang­ing around for au­tho­ri­sa­tion.

Chalk one up for small presses and the free­dom to pub­lish and be damned – but how could it pos­si­bly have hap­pened?

“Twenty-six­teen hap­pened,” says Anzuoni, re­call­ing the hal­cyon hours of that golden elec­tion year, “what with all its dis­tor­tions of democ­racy and gen­eral per­ver­sion. Al­most

Zero – and its au­thor’s scram­bled ide­ol­ogy – was be­ing re­ferred to more and more in light of all that was go­ing on, so I ob­tained a copy out of mor­bid cu­rios­ity.

“We couldn’t be­lieve it hadn’t been trans­lated into English,” he adds, “so we con­tacted two old friends, who did the dirty work. The re­sponse has been great – the Bri­tish, es­pe­cially, loved it and Viking Press wants to pub­lish our trans­la­tion over there. We’ve also re­ceived some truly strange emails and let­ters from peo­ple claim­ing ei­ther to be Surkov or to rep­re­sent him.”

It didn’t take long for the English edi­tion of Al­most Zero to sell out and, per­haps in the spirit of “al­ways leave ’em want­ing more”, Anzuoni con­firms “it was a lim­ited edi­tion and there are no plans to re­print”. Does that say the world is grimly fas­ci­nated by Putin?

“It says we’re great at mar­ket­ing.”

Its mar­ket­ing and other com­mer­cial ca­pac­i­ties aside, In­pa­tient Press lists its homepage “Prod­ucts” as Po­etry, Il­lus­tra­tion, Fic­tion, Self-Help, Pho­tog­ra­phy,

Pornog­ra­phy and Mu­sic. And while it might not man­age to keep a lid on run­ning costs, Anzuoni says “we make enough to buy all the wine for our read­ings”.

Per­haps the point of such an un­fet­tered press in this brave new Ama­zon world full of rad­i­cal pub­lish­ing plat­forms and in­dus­try over­hauls is the fact that, as he puts it: “Ama­zon doesn’t hold read­ings where all your friends get to­gether and pour their hearts out, and you laugh and cry and do cart­wheels in the street out­side. And they never will. So we win.” But there’s more to it than that.

Com­pare New York, where, Anzuoni says, “there are prob­a­bly as many small presses as there are as­pir­ing DJs”, with Hong Kong. As Hong Kong’s de­gen­er­a­tion into just another Chi­nese city ac­cel­er­ates, pro-democ­racy pro­test­ers are jailed, elected law­mak­ers disqual­i­fied from tak­ing their seats in par­lia­ment and “one coun­try, two sys­tems” morphs into “one coun­try, one sov­er­eign sys­tem”, what price a loose af­fil­i­a­tion of coura­geous, in­de­pen­dent presses able to func­tion “with­out fear, favour or in­ter­fer­ence” in de­fence of “Hong Kong’s core val­ues and free­doms”? Such is the pol­icy of the crowd­funded Hong Kong Free Press, es­tab­lished in 2015 in re­sponse to “ris­ing con­cerns over de­clin­ing press free­dom” in a ter­ri­tory whose main­stream newspapers have, for the most part, long been ridiculed for craven self-cen­sor­ship.

When “po­lit­i­cally harm­ful” or other­wise “sen­si­tive” books are pulled from shop shelves to make room for that es­sen­tial vol­ume on ev­ery­body’s must-read list, Xi Jin­ping’s The Gov­er­nance of China; and now that the ris­ing tsar of Beijing has had his ge­nius cod­i­fied into Xi Jin­ping Thought; and when in­de­pen­dent book­sellers can be kid­napped on Hong Kong soil and be­yond, il­le­gally de­tained on the main­land and forced to stage ris­i­ble pub­lic “con­fes­sions” of wrong­do­ing that evoke the bloated spec­tre of Mao Ze­dong, what hope is there that some­one in Xi’s in­ner cir­cle might fancy him­self the next Surkov, or even the new Alexan­der Zi­noviev, and blow open the sor­did re­al­i­ties of Chi­nese dic­ta­tor­ship? Af­ter all, even au­thor­i­tar­ian Moscow can loosen the reins suf­fi­ciently to chuckle at Al­most Zero.

What hope? Not much. Not when Peppa Pig and Win­nie the Pooh are con­sid­ered ex­ceed­ingly dan­ger­ous en­e­mies of the state.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Hong Kong

© PressReader. All rights reserved.