Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Elusive Writer

Inspired by the elusive Thomas Pynchon, the fictional Ben Narendran and the imaginary Benno von Archimboldi.
 Literature is rife with stories about writers and their various quirks and eccentricities. Hemmingway never talked about writing fearing he would jinx his ability, Joyce wrote with crayons and so on. Some are true which reflect the peculiar nature of genius while most are nonsense cooked up by admirers during cocktail parties. There is a particular story though, one so stark from the rest that it represents the essence of literature. That is the tale of the elusive writer. The writer we don’t know anything about. He only talks through his works, save them he is nothing. This complete shunning of fame is commendable as it prevents the writer from becoming ‘an institution’ as Sartre feared. But no one has taken the idea of anonymity to the extreme like Francis Drake.

 His first work came 20 years ago, a tame novel called ‘Mad Cows’. Mad Cows wasn’t a great success. It turned a few heads, but gave no glimpse of the impact Francis Drake will have on literature on the years to come. In retrospect, Mad Cows for him was a sparring arena where he sharpened his skills in novel writing, a whet stone where he rubbed out the rust on his craft as he prepared himself for the one book all great writers must write, the book that was to define him, the book that will be him in all ways a book can be a man. It came out 4 years later, called ‘Dead Gods’. It was no sprawling epic but a small 300 page work battling with the definitions of God and the effects of that on the life of man. Dead Gods shook up literary circles like no other, reviews heralded it as the novel of the generation (actual reviews, not the atrocities they quote behind paperbacks and dust jackets). More importantly Dead Gods grounded literature, it threw a heavy anchor over the edge of contemporary literature which was rising higher and away from things that mattered. It was as if, Francis Drake, through Dead Gods was shouting. ‘This my friends, this is what matters! Fuck the rest! Fuck the inconsequential shit. Burn them in your fireplaces on chilly winter nights, tear out their pages to wipe your shit. Because none of it matters, not even one bit!’

As Francis Drake’s stock grew, so did the mystery surrounding him. Nobody knew him, no one had a number, and no one had an address. The publisher had never seen him in person (so they say), prizes were always collected by lawyers authorized by him, prize money always ended up in numbered accounts in Geneva. Other novels came out after Dead Gods, hitting the stands in a quasi-regular frequency of one every 3-4 years. They weren’t as good as his magnum opus, but they were still a lot better than what his contemporaries were writing, and they cemented his position as a magnificent dark obelisk in the literary universe.

But his admirers (me included) were living on the edge. Who was he? How old was he? How many more years of writing can we expect from him? There were a thousand questions about him that needed answers. Once in a while he would write a newspaper column, a book review, do a cameo on a TV show as a voice without a face, giving glimpses of himself outside the bold letters on the cover of his novels. He teased us with his anonymity, like a ghost in a haunted house, making the floorboards creak, rocking the chandelier, whistling in the darkness and then going back into silence only to reappear after a nervous wait.

Then I met Francis Drake.

I was given the difficult task of writing a feature on him by my editor. Even though I wasn’t expected to catch hold of the man himself (Better journalists have tried and failed he said), I took it upon myself to track him down and do an interview. My search started with great enthusiasm, weeks wore on, clues and tips led to dead ends, I grew wary and my search looked destined to end as a fruitless embarrassment. Then I got another tip that Francis Drake (hopefully) goes every week to a small café downtown to write. I wasn’t very hopeful but still went to the café and talked to the waitress who was on duty. She confirmed that a gentleman comes there to write every week for a couple of hours. My hopes where up once more, what if… I gave her a 10$ bill and asked her to call me the next time he came. I told her specifically to call me only after he was done with his writing. The last thing I wanted to do was to irritate him by interrupting his writing schedule.

A few days later I got her call. When I got to the café he was the only person there, neatly arranging his papers and checking what he had written. I sat down opposite to him. He was a black man in his late 40s completely different from how I had imagined him. He kept on doing what he was doing ignoring me or perhaps so blissfully immersed in his own work that he failed to notice me. There was a great vastness separating us, wider than the table in between. I attempted to cross it with a question. 

‘Are you Francis Drake?’ my lack of tact surprised me. I had planned to talk to him as if all of this was serendipity and to ask the question later. But on seeing the man himself I lost all composure. I felt like a teenage girl at a Beatles concert, hell I would have even pulled his tee shirt.
 He looked up and smiled ‘Yes, yes I am’
I was completely thrown off my guard. On my way to the café I had simulated in my mind numerous possibilities our conversation could take after the question, and all of them involved me coercing him to reveal his identity. Even if he was Francis Drake, I didn’t expect him to concede it so easily. But now, like a naughty wavefunction, he had collapsed on the most unexpected possibility imaginable. I could only muster some obvious words in response.

‘I have a lot of things to ask you’

‘So many people want to ask me a lot of things’ he said.

He then slid his stack of papers into his satchel, flung it over his shoulder and got up to leave. I rose to my feet as if in a dream ‘But I was not done’ I said.

‘I know, I know, but I don’t have time. The van driver is going to be pissed’ he said

  I followed him out and he didn’t seem to mind. My aim was to find out where he lived. He then turned a street corner and there was parked a white van. He opened the back door and got inside. As I got close to van and saw what was written on it I realized that once again nothing was going as planned, ‘St Mark’s Hospital for the Mentally Deranged’ it said. But it also made me excited in a certain way. The great Francis Drake, a mad genius! What a story that would be! I could see it in my mind, Drake in his green hospital robes, sitting in his room, white tiles on the floor and on the walls, the whole room smelling like medicines and denatured alcohol, and there he was writing his great works with a felt-tip pen, not a normal pen as he stabbed a nurse with it once, gouged out her eye balls and stuck it in her ears… There he was writing, writing…

The engine of the van was trying hard to cough itself to a start. I banged on its body and shouted to stop. I reached the front and asked the driver ‘How long has he been in there?’


‘Francis Drake of course’

‘Who!?’ the driver seemed more confused. It occurred to me that the writer might not have heard about Francis Drake as he didn’t look the kind of person who would read serious literature. So I proceeded to educate him on Francis Drake.

‘The man you have inside is the greatest writer of the century. His stature in literature eclipses…’ I realized that I have no way to express the greatness of Drake without running into generalities, so I resorted to a rather crude measure to quantify his importance ‘He could win the Nobel Prize this year’

‘You don’t say!’ the driver exclaimed.

He got out of the van and opened the back door. Inside Francis Drake was staring at the ceiling, lost in thought.

‘This guy says you are some writer called Francis Drake’ the driver shouted.

He turned towards us with blank eyes, his face was expressionless. ‘Yes I write by that name. Have published a few novels’

‘Looks like you are right’, the driver said to me. He then shouted into the dim interior of the van like a lumberjack ‘This guy says you are James Joyce’

‘Yeah, I write by that name too. Mostly unreadable rubbish’ he replied

‘He says you are Salman Rushdie’ the driver shouted again, now laughing heartily.

‘Shh.. Keep it down. I pissed off some guys in Iran with my works. Now they are out to get me for it’

The driver turned to me, his eyes red and teary from laughter. ‘Anyone else you need to find? He works for politicians too.’

I could only shake my head.

‘He is a pretty harmless guy. We bring him out here once a week for some fresh air. He has never tried to run away’ he said. I couldn’t muster a single word. He patted me on the back, got into the van and drove away.

‘Thanks for bailing me out there Joe’
‘Don’t mention it Francis’
‘Say, have you read Joyce and Rushdie by any chance?’
‘Yeah, ambulance drivers in mental hospitals get a lot of free time’ 



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