If books could fast in order to expunge themselves of the lure of the market and any past sins, they would probably look like Fitzcarraldo Editions. The blue and white on the shelves is like posh ceramics on wood; like Greek houses built on tables. These seemingly bland editions among regular books look like an oddity in our 21st century consumer driven bookish sensibility – books with kitsch covers, photographs and blurbs leaving nothing to imagination and intellect.
Book covers have always held an allure for me. At times, I have even bought the same book in different editions because of their scintillating cover designs. Moreover, cover images/designs do sometimes convey a sense of what is to follow in a book for the readers, but no student of literature should ever be unaware about the politics behind those. How, for example, some books belonging to certain regions are straightjacketed by the publishing houses and marketed within a prejudiced agenda.
In this regard, the contribution of an independent London based publishing house named Fitzcarraldo Editions, that publishes books with nothing but the title and the name of the writer, cannot be overlooked. Personally, I love the way this publishing house is erasing the political or consumer driven nature of book printing. Try not to forget the ‘Now a Major Motion Picture’ covers where the words of the books are hijacked by the images. We find a lot of people saying, “I saw the movie, maybe, the book would be average as well.” Words as words, as magic or a headache (sometimes), are hardly appreciated these days.
The first thing that the word Fitzcarraldo brings to mind is the Werner Herzog 1982 movie of the same name – and in almost all his interviews, Jacques Testard, the founder of the publishing house, compares his publication efforts with the madness of the movie’s protagonist who wants to drag “a 320-ton steamboat over a muddy mountain in the Amazon jungle”. This metaphorical quest for Fitzcarraldo comes in the form of appreciating, giving space, and publishing the experimental and strange form of writings and writers. Take any Fitzcarraldo book in a bookshop and read the information at the back, you would barely be able to find a book that won’t astound you – be it the writing style, storyline or the subject matter.
Writers like Alejandro Zambra, Annie Ernaux, Agustin Fernandez Mallo, Maria Stepanova, Jon Fosse, Brain Dillon, Adania Shibli, Fernanda Melchor, Mathias Ernard etc, to invoke just a few, among others, who’ve won prizes, have been published by Fitzcarraldo. Writers whose prose seems poetry, where sentences brim with wit, humour, love for literature and life. The books they have published so far seem like a distinct, divergent way of appreciating not only the value of words but also life in all its diverse experiments on human beings. This, together with the fact that many books by Fitzcarraldo are nominated for prizes, are to be read as a fruitful way of appreciating and taking risks in the book market. Whether it is the experimentalism of Mathias Enard in Zone, thoughtful literary study of Brian Dillon in Essayism, Suppose a Sentence, examination of life in Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory or Annie Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness – Fitzcarraldo has explored each one of these, and many more, with a penchant for poetic-prose.
There are some who claim that this is how book printing was done in earlier times, there’s nothing new in it! But the thing which we should keep in mind is that publishing was not a commercial leviathan back then and there was little or no competition at national and international level among publishers. In that sense, the market has altered radically where even social media sites are used as ways of promoting and informing people about books and cajoling them to read.
In that sense, I would reserve my feelings for the publication house as an attempt to go back to the origins of book printing. Rather, I see it as a way of conceiving how a book should originally be printed, bound and made available to the public. Books with the sole focus on books per se and where the attention could be grabbed only by the usage of language and not some image or drawing that we tend to like or collect to satiate the bibliophile in us. Here’s one such reader wishing you all the best for your future endeavours.
Dr. Mubashir Karim is an assistant professor at a college in Jammu and Kashmir.