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
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
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.