Palpasa Cafe, Narayan Wagle (2005, English translation 2008)

Palpasa Cafe
Palpasa Cafe, by Narayan Wagle. Translated from the 2005 Nepal novel of the same title by Bikash Sangruala. Kathmandu: Nepa-laya, 2012. (Purchased in Nepal).

The collective literary wisdom in Kathmandu seems to be that there is a serious dearth of willing, let alone good, Nepali-English translators. Indeed, Narayan Wagle, in his acknowledgements in the English version of Palpasa Café, writes: “This novel was translated by Bikash Sangruala. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled and enthusiastic translators in Nepal is one reason Nepali literature is not more often published in foreign languages.” I know I am not alone in interpreting this as Wagle’s dig at the quality of this particular translation.

But this time I’m not subscribing to that common disclaimer that the quality of this book could be down to the difficulties of translation. Palpasa Cafe is simply a bad novel, and it’s quite clear that even the best of translators couldn’t have rendered it good.

The novel is set some time in the early 2000s, in the midst of Nepal’s ten year long Maoist insurgency. The protagonist and narrator is an artist from Kathmandu, largely shielded throughout the war from its worst effects. He falls in love with a mysterious woman named Palpasa. A friend of the narrator’s is a Maoist sympathiser, and invites him to the hills to witness all that is happening. He thinks that his art can help bring about, and reflect, revolutionary transformation. Events are witnessed, tragedies occur, life lessons are learnt.

I don’t wish to be flippant about the topic of the novel, because it is important. Nepal suffered, it still does, and fiction is one powerful way of telling and disseminating serious issues. But Palpasa Cafe just doesn’t work. Wagle–one of Kathmandu’s most prominent journalists–tries to stretch thin characters too far, rolls out important descriptions of poverty and insurgency in the hills far too quickly and superficially, and relies too heavily on dialogue. Pages and pages and pages of dialogue. Dialogue is used to expose much of the political debate at the heart of this novel (and at the heart of Nepali society), which makes it come across as diatribe, polemic:
“‘Most of the people who’re being killed are representatives of the old power elite. True, some innocent people are getting caught in the cross fire,’ he conceded. ‘But consider how the crisis first arose. Wasn’t it the state which drew first blood? Didn’t the state first arrest, torture and kill unarmed people?'” (p. 92)
And it’s not even good, convincing dialogue. People simply don’t talk like this:
“Though you fall into the reactionary camp, I feel it’s my duty to show you the right path because you’re a creative person and I believe there’s some hope for you.” (p. 96)
I’m willing to concede that this stilted manner of speech may be the fallout of translation, but it’s the only concession I’ll make to a novel with a weak plot, cliched characters and, despite all obvious intentions to the contrary, a banal outcome.

Ironically, a passage of Palpasa Cafe reads:
“I wasted my time reading a bad Nepali novel, a recent release. It took real effort to finish it. It had nothing new in substance or style. I would’ve been better off watching a movie, going to a restaurant or visiting Nagarkot or Kakani. I prefer Kakani to Nagarkot because it’s closer to the mountains and windier; my imagination runs free in the breeze. Standing on a windy hillside, I feel far away from Kathmandu. But the badness of the novel truly upset me. Why had I wasted my money on it? I couldn’t sleep and spent the while night painting. It was morning before I finally went to sleep.” (p. 45)

Nepali-language literature must have greater depths than Palpasa Cafe, and growing its international recognition not just a matter of cultivating competent translators: it’s about choosing the right books to translate.

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Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal, ed. Frank Stewart, Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa (2001)

Another gem courtesy of the Canberra Lifeline Book Sale. This special edition of Manoa, a literary journal produced by the University of Hawai’i, is one of the few collections of contemporary (well, reasonably) Nepali writing that I have come across. It contains essays, poetry, short stories, most in translation from Nepali, and photographs. I found it a refreshing collection because, for all my familiarity with Indian literature, Nepali literature has slipped beneath the radar.

Some of the reasons for this are outlined in Manjushree Thapa’s essay, meant as an introduction to this collection (and I’ll come to that again later), called “Reaching One’s Own People, Reaching the World.” Here she traces the progression of modern Nepali literature, which has a comparatively short history, having developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As a literary scholar I found this the most interesting piece in the collection. Literature is rarely something done by an isolated, brilliant intellect disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. Thapa outlines:

“The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal’s undeveloped and disorganized economy–a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level–provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors–or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still labouriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.” (p. 68)

Humbling indeed, when one considers that next-door neighbour India is experiencing a publishing boom.

Other themes that emerge through the essays, short stories and poetry of Secret Places are the oppression of women, and the poverty of the countryside. Maya Thakuri’s short story “Trap,” translated from Nepali, is a particularly poignant and memorable story about the trafficking of women and girls for sex work, a major problem in Nepal.

The Nepali content of Secret Places is excellent, but the editing of the volume overall is simply baffling. Despite the sub-title “New Writing from Nepal,” the fact that a picture of a Nepali temple adorns the front page, and that beautiful black and white photographs of Nepal by Linda S. Connor are interspersed throughout the volume, Secret Places also contains some writing from Japan, Korea and elsewhere. Not in a separate section, but dispersed throughout the Nepali writing. Surely Special Issue means Special Issue, not partly-Special Issue? The worst aspect of this editorial decision was that Thapa’s essay mentioned above, that clearly acts as an introduction to the volume, appears on page 67. Some of the writing she introduces has already been read! Perhaps the editors weren’t anticipating anyone sitting down and reading this journal as a book, from front to back, as I did.

This layout was frustrating and annoying, but did not completely detract from the pleasure of being introduced to this varied literature from a place still under-represented on the world literary scene. It was published quite a long time ago now, in 2001, shortly after Nepal had been through a period of immense turmoil stemming from the murder of several members of its royal family. I hope this collection has not been, nor will be, a one-off.