Having been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (in 1997 for Quarantine and last year for Harvest) twice and having won the Whitbread Book Award thrice, Jim Crace is very much the celebrity author whose presence at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival adds "star" value to the event. So it's rather startling to hear him begin the interaction by saying that he would much rather no one read his books.
It's not a sentiment that he seems to be expressing lightly, though his grey eyes twinkle with humour as he sits back on the press terrace — he's expressed similar thoughts earlier. "In Chennai, I met a group of ladies who had many polite things to say about Harvest, my latest book," Crace says. "But I can't see how my book set in a remote English village, can have any resonance with their experience."
Crace is being modest and the packed crowd at the session on "The Global Novel" indicates to an audience that follows his work closely.
But novels are not just about settings — Harvest is "as much about how the coming of new ideas and new technologies completely disrupts their way of life", which Crace feels is "universal". "I call the setting the Trojan horse which through human values makes novels carry through different cultures."
Crace is familiar with cultural multiplicity. "There are Anglo-Indians living next door; I have neighbours who are Asians, Pakistanis." He even read RK Narayan as a teenager, Crace reveals. "My father was uneducated, but he believed that things like literature and opera were not just for the rich. So he'd get all these books — Narayan, Tolstoy, Kafka — and read them out to me."
Crace says questions of race and colour have been part of his earlier books thanks to his introduction to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Those lessons have informed his fiction as well. "My first book, The Gift of Stones, was all about the divide between north and south. But it was from the point of view of a non-European. It's only at the end that you realise they are black; I don't mention it through the book because you only mention colour when there is a difference."
"In the UK, we tend to feel a certain ownership of the English language. In another generation, I think, English will cease to be ours alone. I was talking to a group of young Maltese men who wanted to be writers. None of them wanted to write in their own language — it would be professional suicide, they said. I worry about the power of the English language, about how all the other languages are under the boulder that is English."
Crace admits he does not think too much about labels. "Writing for me is a private act that becomes embarrassingly public once the book goes out into the world."