Book review

Can a novel about books be too much about books (and too little of the story)?

Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters of Katpadi might have been better off as a work of non-fiction.

Of the Victorian adventurers, travellers, and eccentrics of all stripes traversing the far reaches of empire in the nineteenth century, few were as prolific as Sir Richard Francis Burton. In 1853, he was one of the first Europeans (disguised as an Afghan) to make the hajj to Mecca; he was part of an East African expedition to discover the source of the Nile, preceding Henry Morgan Stanley by over a decade; a polymath and lifelong scholar, he had produced 69 books by the time of his death in 1890, including translations of A Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra.

A master of disguise and occasional spy, Burton was said to have “gone native” during his early twenties when a stint in the army of the British East India Company led to postings in Gujarat and then Sindh from 1842 to 1853. The India years set the course for the rest of Burton’s career. Here, “Ruffian Dick”, as he was nicknamed, “discovered his gift for languages, his abilities as a translator, his love for libraries, his passion for and curiosity about other cultures, his interest in Arabic and Islam.”

So expostulates Nallathambi Whitehead, one of the characters in Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters of Katpadi, an ambitious novel claiming to be India’s first bibliomystery – that is, fiction combining the plot of a crime or detective story with a decidedly bookish setting. A fringe subgroup of hardboiled fiction (how many mysteries, after all, can be constructed around bookshops and libraries?), the bibliomystery has occasionally been rendered by big literary names in imaginative ways.

Umberto Eco interwove serial murders with the search for a rare manuscript in a Benedictine monastery; Carlos Ruiz Zafon imagined a Cemetery of Forgotten Books guarded by a sect of librarians in Barcelona; even Dan Brown’s Inferno, with a plot tenuously connected to Dante’s epic poem, dabbled with a pulp take on the genre. At its core, the bibliomystery is a self-reflexive genre that recognises the capacity of books themselves – as texts but also as tangible, enigmatic objects – to excite a reader’s curiosity.

Everything you wanted to know about antiquarian books

The eponymous book hunters in Sebastian’s novel are antiquarian book collectors chasing an apocryphal document authored by Richard Burton during his India years. Facilitating this hunt are Neela and Kayal, a couple of bookwomen running the first antiquarian and rare books dealership in India from a posh address in Chennai. While there is an overarching narrative about the search for this rare fragment of “Burtoniana”, the novel is really a paean to the art of books and the obsessions they inspire.

Sebastian’s exposition of the antiquarian book trade is detailed to the point of pedantry. The hunting of books, as it were, is incidental to lengthy discourses delivered by the two women and others on how to spot a first edition by its binding, the virtues of letterpress printing, the coming of movable type to India, the etiquette of book auctions, and so on. Neela’s shop, Biblio, with its enviable antiquarian stock is a bit of wishful fiction, but the novel is crammed with factual anecdotes about book collectors, antiquarian societies, heritage bookshops, and fabulous bibliographic discoveries.

It is not just the contents of books that matter, Sebastian insists in nearly every chapter, but the rare or beautifully made book-object with its own complicated, unique history. It is a point well appreciated by archivists and scholars, but for the reader who has picked up Katpadi drawn by the promise of a mystery with a bookish twist, the minutiae exhaust the attention and stall the narrative.

All this information, but where’s the story?

During a brief apprenticeship at an antiquarian bookstore that doubled as a stationery shop, Pradeep Sebastian discovered that “the antiquarian booktrade is the last resort of the Indian eccentric.” The proprietor of that store, who would smuggle expensive purchases from the stock into his personal collection, features in Katpadi among a number of “types” peopling this bibliophilic world. There is the self-taught fine binder, the histrionic auctioneer, the savvy small-press operator, and “hunters” of rare books from across the subcontinent, each personality providing perspective on yet another aspect of the trade.

The problem with Katpadi is this very expansiveness; it is uncertain what genre of book it wants to be. Sebastian’s encyclopedic knowledge of bibliography and antiquarianism may have better served in a memoir or work of specialist non-fiction. The Groaning Shelf: and Other Instances of Book Love (2010), a collection of short articles by the same author, is a more enjoyable read because one gets what one expects – engaging ruminations on book collecting, buying, reading, and all things bibliophilic – while Katpadi leaves you flipping through chapters impatiently for the advertised mystery.

The historical intrigue subplot is underwhelming; in the end, Burton is so inessential that he could have been substituted with any swashbuckling nineteenth-century adventurer. On the other hand, there is so much tantalising information (and gossip) about him in this book that cannot help feeling Burton himself would make an excellent subject for an adventure romance novel. If Katpadi inspires such a novel, or further contributions to the “books about books” subgenre, it will have done its bit.

The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian, Hachette India.

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