Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Every independent publisher in Britain who survives for more than a decade can claim to have defied the gravity of a pitiless marketplace. This week, two such outfits have celebrated landmark birthdays with some literary razzmatazz at London theatres. Ernie Hecht's Souvenir Press, with its mind-blowingly eclectic catalogue that stretches from Latin American classics and clinical manuals to toilet books, has reached an august 55. Meanwhile, Pete Ayrton's Serpent's Tail has completed 20 years of feisty, cosmopolitan - and prize-winning - provocation and experiment. If Souvenir is the Old Curiosity Shop of London publishing, stacked to the rafters with hidden gems and eccentric curios, then Serpent's Tail feels more like the smartest stall at Camden Lock, piled high with sexy, stylish (and occasionally bizarre) global creations.

Of course, indies may behave just as roughly or crassly as the majors when it comes to sacking dedicated staff or shelling out for celebrity trash. Yet, at their best, they dare to promote writers who take risks that might deter more timid corporate giants. The reliably exciting Serpent's Tail list of international fiction currently features Turkish firebrand Perihan Magden, an outspoken columnist in Istanbul and author of the lauded novels The Messenger Boy Murders and 2 Girls.

This month, a Turkish judge issued an arrest warrant for her after she wrote an article in defence of Mehmet Tarhan, a pacifist jailed after refusing to do military service. Magden, who has been researching a book in Thailand, intends to return for the trial in early June. Her case ought to arouse as deafening a global din as did the recently-dropped charges against Orhan Pamuk - another writer whose British presence depends entirely on an independent publisher (Faber).

For the conglomerates, far-flung commercial interests can often (if invisibly) fuel a reluctance to support writers and works that might upset the powerful. Think of the shameless, and shameful, way in which HarperCollins dumped even a book as bland as Chris Patten's memoirs for fear of spoiling Rupert Murdoch's Chinese investments. So the good health of autonomous imprints has implications that go far beyond the defence of diversity in the discount-driven and star-struck British book market. Publication abroad - and, like it or not, especially in English - can throw a lifeline of attention and protection to authors who may fall foul of the authorities.

Now, publishing houses are not free-speech charities, and no one wants to read a book simply to back an abstract principle. Not every dissident damned at home and praised abroad will turn out to be a Soyinka or a Solzhenitsyn. At least indie firms sometimes have the courage and curiosity to let us judge for ourselves. This role may soon expand - above all in relation to China, where an increasingly bold literary scene threatens to collide with the pro-regime tendencies of foreign media giants eager to profit by compromise.

If indies can help to cherish the vulnerable living, they may also resurrect the dishonoured dead. Souvenir's birthday package includes reprints of novels by Knut Hamsun, the long-lived Norwegian Nobel laureate whose old age and posthumous reputation were marred by an infamous enthusiasm for the Nazis who occupied his homeland. He even gave Goebbels his Nobel medal as a token of esteem. Thanks to Souvenir, readers can now reclaim extraordinary works such as the eerie Mysteries and the epic Growth of the Soil, and decide (or so I believe) that the Hamsun who stooped to such grotesque folly still remains an unsettling master of modern fiction. Once again, cutting-edge independent publishing shows its worth by carving out space not merely for the thrill of the new, but the shock of the old.