“Bengalie” of Neva

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The authors who published a book this year during the first half of March are not going to forget their misfortune. The essayists, those who have carried out investigations, signed documents, will remain present in the media, from time to time, as specialists in this or that subject. Not all novelists will have this chance. They will benefit from the reopening of bookstores when they will try to fill the chasm of the past nine weeks: their books are printed, they are already on the tables, the batteries are ready. Unless a single copy is waiting on the shelves to be returned to the publisher soon, as is the case for most French literature, virus or not. Only the headliners will be able to resist the novelties, when they come in at the end of May with the mission of replenishing the boxes.

The double penalty fell on writers whose fate was associated with the Paris Book Fair. Book Paris was due to open on March 20. Guest country: India. By dint of not translating it much, it is not a very well-known literature. For the occasion, a number of Indian novels have been released, the authors of which were expected. They did not come, the books remained in limbo. We can acquire them, of course, like the others, in digital version, and via the network of independent bookstores (it is not in hypermarkets or in press houses that we find them). They can continue to exist at least in the literary pages of newspapers, since they have not ceased to be topical.


Shumona Sinha’s new novel, the Russian Testament, is Indian and French. The author was born in 1973 in Calcutta, like Tania, her heroine. Like her, she left her country in 2001 with a scholarship. Shumona Sinha became in four books (including Let’s knock out the poor! and Stateless at L’Olivier), and now five, a French novelist. Tania is going to take the road to Moscow after her lover, a Russian diplomat, advised her to leave her home, where her father and her mother have just beaten her: by her life in their dissolved eyes, she became “An enemy facing their dignity”.

This is not the first time that Tania, an iconic figure in the way that the female gender is treated in India, has been beaten at home. Her parents, especially her mother, do not understand her: “In their modest aspirations, they wanted to prune their daughter like a bonsai.” Its history is a long struggle for independence. She frees herself by and for books, attracted above all by the world of Gorky and Chekhov. After a childhood spent between Soviet fictions (a miserable and lonely man, accompanied by his dog, eats black bread and goes in pain in catastrophe) and the reveries of the old days (beautiful aristocrats in white dresses chat at the edge of ‘a lake with French expressions in the text), one day she finds a key to access to the life she desires.

This key has a name: Lev Moïsevitch Kliatchko. He was a famous journalist who nearly died in 1920, and, saved by Maxime Gorki, was struck down by censorship and finally by tuberculosis in 1933. “He was constantly arrested by the Cheka because of his articles in which he related the mass expulsions of Ukrainian Jews who, already deprived of the right of citizenship, were victims of daily roundups, arrests and abuses . “ Then, without knowing anything about publishing, Kliatchko became friends with Kornei Tchoukovski, and founded, in 1920 in Saint Petersburg, the Raduga (“rainbow”) editions, where the best of children’s literature was expressed. for nine years, until the widow of Lenin decides that these are petty-bourgeois books, perfectly unhealthy and not very suitable for the education of small citizens. In the Russian Testament, Kornei Tchoukovski, follower of nonsense and legendary creator of the Huge Cockroach, gets confused with Kliatchko. In his Newspaper (published by Fayard editions in 1998), it celebrates in any case the extreme goodness of its publisher. Thereafter, the Raduga editions will be reborn, but without link with their founder.

Kliatchko, in Tania’s mind, is inseparable from the no less real Nani Bhowmik, a man to whom she is indebted since he has translated all Russian classics into Bengali. A long hunt in the archives will lead her, she hopes, to both. “In the meantime, the foreign language became a means of escape, an escape, a free fall into the void. First refuse her mother’s milk, then her tongue. “ Tania’s research is that of Shumona Sinha, who not only reconstructed the life of poor Kliatchko, but also found his daughter Adel, who died at the home of her granddaughter in Boston at the age of 94. In the novel, Adel is in a retirement home and remembers his childhood, the community apartment, the paternal bankruptcy and the siege of Leningrad. Her voice alternates with that of Tania, the latter having decided to write her a long letter. The old lady is tormented by “Bengalia” who raises the tombstones, but she lets herself be moved: “So far from my Neva his Ganges, yet so alike these mists that envelop our hearts, cuddle them and rock them until they fall into a deep sleep. And she continues to walk, the Bengali sleepwalker. Maybe hundreds of somnambulists are wandering at this precise moment, balancing on the virtual web hanging over Indian cities, in search of Russian books, in search of people who existed in another era, long before everything fell apart. ”


The parallel is audacious, between the young girl from Calcutta, whose parents burn the diary, and the persecuted Russian writers, but Shumona Sinha makes well feel the solidarity which is tied between the character of Tania and the world of Raduga editions, via the works sold by his father’s bookseller, to begin with. Doesn’t passion for texts always end up in a kind of intimacy with their authors? One of the subjects of Russian will is how the readers’ international is perpetuated.

What is very beautiful is the melancholy with which the novelist (she is also a poet) evokes the rice pudding of a birthday, the fragrance of the frangipani in bloom, “The scent mixed with mud and spices”, the colors of the alleys and avenues, the “Wide stony strips as a sidewalk”. It rains often, phenomenal showers: rickshaws are excellent shelters for lovers. But Tania thinks of communism before becoming interested in love. The 1980s saw her frequent sectarian militants, hostile to perestroika. Too independent, it will be quarantined by its young leaders, who accuse it of deviationism “Before letting it go in the wind like a torn kite”.

Claire Devarrieux

Shumona Sinha

The Russian Testament

Gallimard, 196 pp., € 18 (ebook: € 12.99).



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