“[Vittachi] warns that best-seller lists cannot always be trusted, particularly in Asia. “The gentleman who writes the Hong Kong bestseller list once met me at a party, and he said, ‘My company wants a discount of all your books,’ and I said, ‘I’m a writer, I can’t do that sort of thing, talk to the publisher,’ and he got in a terrible huff and the next day, all my books were off the bestseller list, but his bookshop kept ordering them in, so after about three or four weeks, we actually sold out of books.
“But that week, I met him at a party, and I said, ‘It’s a bit mean, to take us off the bestseller list,’ and he said, ‘Yes, it was mean, I’ll put you back.’ The next bestseller list, I was number 1, 2 and 3, but all the books had sold out. So that’s the fantasy of bestseller lists in Asia.”
Kind of reminds me of how a highly respected magazine in India was reputed to compile its bestseller lists: a lowly sub-editor was drafted to call bookstores and ask what was selling best that week. Depending on the sub-editor’s literary abilities, this could lead to interesting results. Like the time Arun Roy’s Goat of Small Things was declared the number one bestseller in India, and the time Akram Seth’s A Suitable Boor was doing so well, according to the bookshops. Of course, some harried editor usually caught the errors. But I still have happy memories of the time Salman Rushdie’s Morse List Sigh sneaked by the editor’s blue pencil and made it to the top of the charts.
Vittachi also explains the problems inherent in translating his Feng Shui detective series into other languages:
It’s about two characters,” Nury explains, “a Feng Shui master who is an archetype of Asian-ness and a young Australian assistant, and they are forced to work together by circumstance. So one of the protagonists is Asian, he’s very elderly, he’s very racist, he’s very sexist, he learnt English out of a textbook and he likes to eat small animals, alive if possible.
“The other character is female, young, very light on politically, and a vegetarian.”
So of course, it’s logical that the pair have some fundamental problems with communication. “Mr Wong learnt English out of the same textbook I did, and he thinks English people say things like ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ ‘it is raining cats and dogs,’ but in fact this Australian girl comes into his office and he can’t understand her at all, until he works out that the word for ‘yes’ is ‘whatever’, and the word for ‘no’ is ‘as if.’.. No English language textbook in the world, I guarantee, explains those very important words…. so how do translate that into French?”