Publishing and Power

The unexpected use of “good Anglo-Saxon names” makes the characters like people “you meet in the street”, and adds to the tension and terror in Thomas Keneally’s The Tyrant’s Novel. Here a writer from an unnamed country calling himself Alan Sheriff, seeks asylum and tells how the leader of his country, ‘Great Uncle’, enlisted him in the service of his political goals.

Great Uncle said again, I want you to do me a favour, Alan. I want you to do, that is, the state a favour. I don’t pretend it won’t be demanding. The situation is this. In four months the G-7 meet, as I say, in Montreal. My plan is to release a book in New York at that time, published by a bona fide publisher, bearing my name, which displays to the world the suffering of my people, and their patriotic inventiveness in the face of sanctions. You can put it better than that, I know. I want it to be a subtle novel, with heroes and some villains. I want it to be a book an American would enjoy reading.

Everything is set up –“ Pearson Dysart in New York have the publisher primed, but they insist they need three months to get the word of this extraordinary literary coup into the market and to attend to publishing the book. And, of course, to let it leak into the market that they have signed a contract with the notorious Great Uncle, and that the manuscript of the novel is very good.

Alan conceals the fact that he has buried the only remaining copy of his recently completed manuscript (paper and computer file) with the body of his wife, who has suddenly died of a cerebral aneurism. It is eventually exhumed. In another part of the story a friend already in exile writes to tell Alan that a package that “claimed to come from the University Press” contained the head of his “former file manager from the Cultural Commission”. Earlier a friend of Alan justifies submitting his book to the censor: “How much different is it, he asked, than having a Western publisher who wants to smarten up a manuscript according to what’s fashionable?

When the book is complete, the Great Uncle proposes making Alan his “storyteller laureate”, “Shostakovich to my Stalin, Molière to my Sun King”. Books and publishing are shown as powerful forces in international affairs and writers can produce texts to order in both totalitarian and commercial contexts. When he escaped, the only thing Alan carried “which resembled a document was a folded-up dust jacket from the American edition of my book”, showing that it is Alan’s publishability that is important to all concerned. It may also be what enables the writer to escape the tyrant’s clutches.

Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel, 2004

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