Vol XII A City of Books, 9 Poets, Chasing a Cloud, Wild Cats and Honey

By now I ought to like Kilroy mark my attendance at Literary Festivals and Book Fairs with a proclamation: Anita Nair was here.Over the years the festivals and events have blurred into a morass of pointlessness. The essence of which is a single thought: I may write books but what am I doing here?

And yet, I continue to do them. It is an occupational hazard and amidst the notional loss of time – nightmarish sequences of introductions, media interactions, long boring dinners and trying to figure out the hot water settings in strange bathrooms – there is always a moment of truth.

Of when face to face with the reader/readers, a writer can see for herself if her book worked or was it the hype machine that had. There is no escaping this unflinching truth and any writer worth his or her salt ought to take this reality check every once ina while. Just so they don’t end up a victim of their own hype. 

So I came to Mantova to be part of the Festivaletteratura (Festival of Literature) with no expectations of any sort except to know what did my body of work signify to an Italian reader.

Perhaps the first intimation that it was going to be unique occurred when I walked through a narrow corridor connecting one piazza to the other. It was a walled walkway, dark narrow and with interesting twists and turns. Against one wall was a book shelf with a line of books. No one manned it. There wasn’t even a notice advocating dos and don’ts.

I saw a group stand around and leaf through the books. Would they borrow it and put it back? Would they take it away and never bring it back? 

In the next two days I was to use that narrow corridor several times as I walked to the Press room and back to my hotel. Each time there was a group. Once even a man who had brought his own folding chair and sat on it reading.

Everywhere I looked I saw the imprint of literature. In the most unlikely of places.

In the city centre as I ambled through, I saw books everywhere. One would expect to see books in book shops proclaiming super discounts of the writers attending the festival. But what lingered were two images:

One, outside an haute couture store, several mannequins were stationed. The mannequins wore clothes fashioned from newspaper.

Two, on a little street was an installation using books.

There were significant highlights. Getting to know Roddy Doyle and Shalom Auslander.

An event with the well known Italian actress Lella Costa – a full house, a keen appreciative audience who had forked out money to get in, long lines of readers clutching brand new waiting for my signature on their new and dog-eared copies of my books. Watching Toni Morison at the next table light a cigarette and linger over her breakfast. Waving to group of readers who would hail from across the street – Buongiorno Anita! Pausing for an ice-cream and having readers come to me. In the absence of a language to communicate in, gestures and smiles worked just as good. The cab driver who fished out a copy of a book of mine for me to sign.

But what would be the most significant of them all would be a little bit of trivia gleaned from the young man who came to pick me up from Milan airport. He was a student of translation, he said.

“I guess, it makes perfect sense that you have been roped in as a volunteer,” I said. I was merely making conversation.

“Actually almost everyone in Mantova is a volunteer,” he said.

I blinked. I liked the notion of a city that almost in its entirely paid obeisance to the written word. I liked that indeed.

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.

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