Mahendra Singh is an author, illustrator and editor in Montreal. His other published books include a graphic novel version of The Hunting of the Snark, illustrations for D.A. Powell’s Cocktails, BSFA-award winner Adam Roberts’s 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea and Martin Olson’s NYT-best selling Adventure Time Encyclopaedia. American Candide is his first novel—read my review of it here. He was kind enough to talk with me about American Candide over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How long have you been working on American Candide? When did you get the germ for the book?
Mahendra Singh: The Iraq War and its brazen marketing campaign got me started on American Candide. Not just the war but the hopelessness of opposing it made me realize how lightly the Enlightenment sits upon modern America. The way that people insisted upon being told what to think, it was torn from 18th-century headlines. Also, the ease with which religion fit into the war’s marketing scheme, almost like it was made for that … It’s not just the USA, of course, this is human nature throughout the world but since modern America is the equivalent of the Ancien Regime in so many ways, a riposte from the Enlightenment seemed indicated.
I had always wanted to update a classic that is only a classic because it no longer stings. Voltaire’s attacks on god, the military, imperialism and money don’t make many people squirm anymore. I wanted genuine squirm … I wanted younger readers to realize that we read the classics not because of dead white guys or because everybody-says-so but because the classics show us how little human nature changes. And once you realize that things were just as weird in the 18th-century, then you are embarked on the path of genuine free-thinking. It worked for some of the Founding Fathers so it’s actually double-plus-more patriotic than being clueless-and-proud-of-it.
I started working seriously on American Candide around the time of Hurricane Katrina (which could have been a 21st-century Lisbon Earthquake if it had happened to Boston) and the book’s first draft was done in about 3 months. I wanted to match Voltaire’s MO as best as possible:
1. Same word count
2. As close to the original plot as possible
3. Easy to read with no stylistic stuff to impede the story. Voltaire knew people don’t want to be preached to, they want to laugh and then you slip them the mickey. Hence the book can be read in three sessions (toilet, subway, opium den), I really did plan that.
After the first draft, it took several years to finish because I also freelance as an illustrator. Unlike Voltaire, I don’t live off the stock market.
Biblioklept: Was there a particular translation of Candide that you worked from or favored? Or did you read it in French, perhaps?
MS: I used the Barnes & Noble reprint of the old Henry Morley translation, revised by Lauren Walsh. I am not too fussy about translations and this one is fine. But the number one reason I got this edition is that it features the excellent illustrations of Alan Odle, a sort of Bloomsbury precursor of Ralph Steadman. I don’t know much about him but his sense of the grotesque was unique. An inspired choice of illustrator for this text. The cover price of $4.95 also influenced my decision.
I’ve read Candide in French and Morley is a bit more turgid than The Master … Voltaire’s French is slightly flatter and lighter. My French is not very good, most Francophones freak out when they hear me mangling their mother tongue. They are more touchy about that than Anglophones, which probably explains why English is the global lingua franca, ha!
Even people who don’t speak a word of French freak out when I do so. Must be the moustache, like watching Saddam Hussein doing his cocktail party impression of Pepe le Pew. You WILL laugh.
Biblioklept: I first read Candide in Lowell Bair’s translation, with some awfully bawdy illustrations (by Sheilah Beckett) that left an indelible mark on me. The book zapped me. I was in the 10th grade and I didn’t know that such literature existed—that serious literature, like, the lit that the English teacher assigned could be like Marvel Comics, with folks dying in wild ways and then coming back to life. I want to come back to illustrations in Candide in a bit, but I’m curious about your first encounter with the book…
MS: After a bit of internet poking, I found some samples of your Candide illustrator, Sheilah Beckett, and was very impressed. That old-fashioned, fluid American draftsmanship, I love it. I did some more poking and found the first Candide I read, probably when I was about 12 years old, the Washington Square Press paperback with Zadig included, translator Tobias Smollett. I remember enjoying both stories as amazingly fast-paced ripping yarns. I was also a Gulliver’s Travels fan and Smollett must have made the connection even stronger.
My father was an English professor so our home was a bookworm’s paradise, he had a home and office library. I had read pretty widely in the classics by then and I remember sensing that there was something hidden behind the surface in Voltaire, not quite accessible to a kid and thus even more intriguing. The authorial perversity of punishing the hero and allowing the wicked to prosper without ever once doing something about it, it was very adult … but clearly not the standard-issue adult of 1960s-70s America.
That is the genius of Voltaire, when it comes to ideas AND execution, he is perpetual beta. The Enlightenment still inspires fear and loathing in most quarters, the drooling imbecility of contemporary politics and mass-media is proof positive of that.
Biblioklept: The drooling imbecility of contemporary politics and mass-media is what makes American Candide a possible book, a funny book, but also, I think, a somewhat sad book.
MS: I made a reader laugh and weep simultaneously, success at last! The original Candide was also black-humored but at least Voltaire’s readers could hope that their on-going Enlightenment was going to change things. We know nothing’s changed that much and American Candide wallows in that particular Slough of Despond. We are a drooling species of slack-jawed idiots and the more we try to clean up, the more we smear ourselves filthy.
The core message of the Enlightenment is thinking-for-yourself, as clearly and simply as possible. It’s very difficult, no matter how clever we think we are, it’s genuine hard work and we are a profoundly lazy and shiftless species. You will never get a majority of Homo sapiens to simultaneously think logically about anything (especially in voting booths). We only think in disorganized spurts, usually on our own and in the privacy of our own homes, just in case any other monkeys are snooping around, looking for easy egg-head prey.
The current American political mess is just mass cognition waxing and waning in a natural cycle, it’s not an American thing, it’s a human thing. The wicked revel in their cleverness while the mob cheers them on, despite the hurt it does them … that’s as old as the Peloponnesian War. At some point, things will improve, probably after considerable pain and suffering for those who least deserve it and most tried to get out of its way. A clinching argument to prove the suitability of god’s plan for us if you think god was made in the human image.
Life’s a bummer but perhaps after we struggle and suffer all our lives for mostly nothing in particular, we’ll die and be reborn as cute puppies or cuddly kittens. That’s what religion’s about, mostly … it is all a bit sad, I agree, but it could be even worse — what if all the rubbish inside people’s heads was actually true?
So let’s count our blessings and laugh, laugh, laugh!
Biblioklept: In a way, it seems like our Slough of Despond makes composing a new Candide simultaneously easy (in that the material to satirize is pretty obvious) and challenging (in that the material to satirize is pretty obvious).
MS: You bet! Boring readers to death with Michael Moore style hectoring and cheap, easy laughs is so … boring. As an author, I don’t want to be bored either, I want to have a good time, every time, with my readers. Life is short, let’s have a few laughs instead, let’s take the obvious to its comical, logical extreme, far beyond the limits of decency and safety, all the way to utter stupidity, our core human value. Lurching between incongruous voices and POVs also helps. Seguing from Candide’s view of the Third World to the Third World’s view of Candide while also mixing up linguistic registers while also describing the most horrific atrocities, it’s like those cheap Saturday morning cartoons where the same landscape whizzes past the foreground no matter what’s going on.
And that’s the final twist of the knife, the fact that such matters must be discussed in an entertainment mode, not a reportage mode, to get people’s attention. That’s what’s really bumming you out.
On reflection, it’s all rather … Teutonic. That’s why I dedicated the book to my mother and her sister. Germans like to laugh black, very black. They know what happens when you ignore the obvious for too long, the punchline is apocalyptic.
Biblioklept: American Candide is called American Candide, but Our Hero is “Freedonian,” and visits all sorts of places outside of Freedonia (like Costaguana and Funkistan), as well as within Freedonia (Hooterville, Wollyhood, Kreationland, among others). At the same time, there are references to “New England” and “Latin America,” although these are a bit more oblique/less “fixed” as settings in the narrative—they’re more like concepts. Why are these geographical transpositions important to your Candide?
MS: Making up funny names for foreigners was a tip of the ink-stained turban towards Evelyn Waugh. Also, I didn’t want AC to become an exercise in finger-pointing at the USA because any problems America has are not unique to America, they are universal human problems … ie., American exceptionalism is anything but. Bundling various countries into cultural pseudonyms — such as making Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan et al. into Funkistan — makes it easier to poke fun at shared lunacies.
I have no nationalist/ethnic axes to grind (honest!), I just want to make things hot for readers, make them wonder if they’re looking at things through American nativist glasses or non-American glasses.
One reason AC was so hard to pitch to publishers was this confusion of POV. I discovered that some of them could not tell whose leg was being pulled and when and even why. Or they thought readers could not, which is even more damning. The idea that human behavior is universal and that Joe Six-Pack thinks pretty much like an Afghani peasant seems unpalatable in certain commercial quarters.
The mental force-field of imperialism is strong juju, in fact, that is the secret of American hegemony: the global spectrum power of American culture, delivered through mass media vectors, is unique in human history. But the money to maintain this comes from the top and the guys at the top are never as clever as they think they are. They’re as dumb as the rest of us, the money’s just a fig-leaf.
On reflection, so much of this book is written from an immigrant’s viewpoint, but not a sanitized, My-Secret-Daughter, made-into-TV-movie immigrant viewpoint. To some immigrants, countries are just labels for different flavors of shared delusions.
Biblioklept: To your last point—and this is more of a sad obvious observation on my point, not a brilliant insight toward a probing question—to your last point, the current American zeitgeist is infected with an ugly streak of xenophobia and nativism right now—on the level of something I never thought I’d see in my own lifetime, to be honest. But reading American Candide—which is, in a way, rereading Candide—shows that the progress we may think we’ve made is not as stable as we think it is. American Candide isn’t a “message book” (except that it is!)—I mean, as you say, it’s a comedy—but like most great comedy, its humor relies on intense pathos, on tragedy. Can American Candide — or Candide — change someone’s mind?
MS: Books rarely change minds, they only encourage the germination of ideas already lurking in you. Art always preaches to the choir, that’s the difference between art and advertising. That’s also the difference between art and pop-culture … another topic for further novels! I just want people, especially younger people, to think a little harder about what they already know to be true.
Biblioklept: So, speaking of young people, my son, five, is sitting here with me, now, and he picked up American Candide, and he wants to ask a question: What is that thing on the front of the book? Is it a monster or what?
MS: The cover depicts Pure Appetite … like a really mean version of Cookie Monster if he had to wear a hat to go out to fancy social events where he can eat people, not just cookies.
Biblioklept: So, my son has sort of taken over now—he wants to know about some of the pictures. The first one he found (I had the page dogeared), was an illustration that takes on Blake’s Newton His first question was, What is it? So I showed him Blake’s Newton and talked a bit about Newton, but my son wants to know why your Newton is a monster.
MS: Blake’s Newton is actually Blake updating the medieval idea of God as the Geometer, god as the logic of reality. This Christian idea is itself a slap in the face of the Greek idea of man-as-geometer, the knowledge seeking animal. All the Abrahamic religions loathe paganism, it’s harder to weaponize, for one thing.
If one ascribes everything to god, then one must ascribe all that is stupid and useless to her also, not just the cool stuff like math and physics. God as idiot man-child is more accurate when one considers the world as we find it. Unless you think the world is perfect which is heretical to a Christian, I would think.
I love Blake dearly but his religious ideas are laughable. Ditto Medieval Scholasticism. But both of them wrote amazing fantasy fiction.
Biblioklept: What are some of the other reference points for your illustrations in American Candide?
MS: About half of the drawings were either from my files or re-workings of previous illustrations. Time ran short on the book, I was also doing another book for Penguin/Random House plus all the design/typesetting on American Candide; Bill Campbell, the publisher at Rosarium, very kindly let me do the whole package exactly the way I wanted.
I’ll admit that some of the illos have only a tangential relationship to their assigned chapters … some of them are just weirdo eye-candy but that kind of fits the breathless, inane tenor of the book, I hope. Some of them are a bit subtler than I would risk with a paying client … commissioning editors tend to be literal about art. Some random notes
One illustration is a parody of Elihu Vedder’s Questioner of the Sphinx … the searcher for oracles deserves a cretin’s advice. The duck-headed woman throughout the book is a shameless swipe from Alberto Savinio, the brother of Di Chirico. There’s a trend in certain illustrative circles to stick animal heads on people bodies to make deadpan comments upon something or the other. This is my deadpan comment upon their deadpan comments.
Another illustration parodies the “Am I Not a Man?” emblem of the Abolitionists … playing with Rousseau’s announcement that “everywhere man is born free, yet everywhere man is in chains.” Usually self-imposed chains, we now know, thanks to modern science.
Another is a re-hash of Manet’s Olimpia which is itself a rehash of Titian.
Really hip readers will know also recognize one illustration is a swipe on 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be … Voltaire enjoyed scantily-clad women, as did most 18th-century rappers, so … why not? It’s always about women anyway, to paraphrase Flaubert.
Not only are there numerous visual quotes in the book, but I have also sprinkled quotes from various American political luminaries in the text. The reality of public discourse is so inane these days, you don’t need to make too much of it up.
Biblioklept: I had picked up on a few of these…the Manet, the Abolitionist image…and the 2 Live Crew cover parody too (I have a very vivid memory of my mother finding my cassette of that fabled record).
You’re probably best known for your illustration work…did any publishers ask for, I don’t know, like, a graphic novel of Candide?
MS: I hope your mother had a sense of adventure and fun. No publisher ever suggested a GN … it wouldn’t work as a GN without significant changes. Laughing words are not always laughing pictures and the laughter is key. Plus it takes so much longer to draw/write a GN than a novel. Writing is faster because it’s less physical; the brain muscles involved are not quite the same but roughly congruent, it’s the eye-hand stuff that slows you down.
I have a secret fantasy that a cartoonist such as Kaz or Gary Panter does the heavy lifting of penciling a GN so I would only have to ink the faux-engraving linework … that would look very cool, very unsettling.
I do think a GN is an excellent, and probably more profitable idea if done carefully … publishers never suggested it not only because they like their GNs commercially fool-proof but because they disliked American Candide. Some of them disliked the idea of charging people $9.95 to tell them how dumb they are and some of them disliked being told how dumb they were. The punchline is that I’m as dumb as any acquiring editor but just in different directions. I’m a self-aware idiot.
Biblioklept: Chris Ware kind of did it as a mini-graphic novel on his cover.
MS: Thanks for jolting my memory, I had forgotten Ware’s stab at it. He did a top-notch job of it. I like his work but in small doses, my eyes can’t process his visually compressed style anymore plus the emotional flatness works best in small doses.
He might have wanted to do the material as a contemporary update, he would have nailed it for sure, but few editors would allow that on a book cover. Like I said earlier, Candide is allowed to remain a classic in Corporate America (and Corporate Academia) because it seems like ancient history at first glance. If Ware had drawn a deadpan comix about slaughtering American and Iraqi teenagers just to make a defense executive’s boat payment, it would have really bummed out the marketing department. Marketing and PR departments are America’s moral gatekeepers now.
Biblioklept: I like that you’ve made the linguistic distinction here of “comix.” It seems that comics has come to dominate our mainstream culture. (In the late eighties, ten-year-old version of me, wishing for a Chris Claremont-penned X-Men film, created this awful timeline. I apologize). But…comix vs comics…Marvel Comics’s films often play with the idea of critiquing the industrial-military-entertainment-complex, but ultimately they seem to uphold Our National Myth. In some ways, these comic book films have co-opted some of the critical tools of comix while dispensing with the spirit of comix.
MS: We are getting to the heart of the darkness here, the unholy marriage of money and art. Those Marvel movies are brilliant technically, like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia. The basic axioms underpinning the National Myth are ignored, just … because! It drives intellectuals nuts, that you can sell anything you like, no matter how patently nuts, by simply ignoring the facts. The corruption of the defense industry, for example, is a pop-culture perennial, but that’s an old propaganda ploy … by making bad apples, you create the illusion of a barrel of good apples.
The rift between American comics and comix is roughly speaking, the rift between making money or not making money. The rift widens and narrows periodically, according to the formulaic demands that publishers make on artists and writers. Which brings me to Bill Campbell and Rosarium Publishing; Bill’s insistence on getting minority viewpoints into print — not just comix but also novels — is bridging this gap.
The obstacles to expressing minority viewpoints, never mind just being a minority, in the media today are overwhelming. In fact, being a minority is not so much of a problem as the general public might think, it’s when you open your mouth, that’s when things get sticky.
Most minority narratives allowed into media distribution are like those Marvel movies, manufactured to maximize the majority’s sense of self-esteem and thus crack open their wallets. But it’s not because people in publishing are evil, it’s because they dare not risk too much of their employers’ money. Some publishers prefer minorities who don’t have the caste connections to game the system and thus must do more for less. Step ‘n Fetch-It can’t phone it in.
That’s another Marvel movie construct … that America would be OK if we returned to our mythical meritocracy. To paraphrase the Great Cham, sinecured hacks howl the loudest for meritocracy.
I’m probably going to be sent to diversity-awareness training after this interview … again.
Biblioklept: Calculated and cynical mass entertainment, a distracted body of citizens (tax payers!), one of the most ridiculous presidential elections in ages…a lot of the backdrop of our discussion points to a self-satirizing culture, a zeitgeist where parody seems almost impossible, or inadequate. American Candide (often obliquely) takes on some of the failures of the George W. Bush administration. How much time do we need for satire to “work”? Is our age as absurd as any other?
MS: Although I started my Candide in the Bush era, I guarantee it’s still applicable to the impending Trump or Clinton 2.0 administration or any clownshow administration for the next 50, nay, 100 years! And deep down inside, you know I’m right.
That’s the only way satire, or at least effective satire works: making the reader truly give up hope and understand that the USA in 2016 is not a freak occurrence, it’s how things usually are. That’s why I sent Candide overseas. The openly psychopathic mentality of Third World politics, for example, makes it easy to spot its more cleverly concealed counterparts in American politics and then reflect on the implications. All over the world, human beings are screwing other human beings out of laziness, greed, religion, sometimes even out of self-pity. America is not special, it’s just that late-imperial cultures prefer their citizenry a bit clueless. Defunding the educational system, encouraging public religion, deregulating the media, these have all done a splendid job of mass sedation and mass amnesia.
I’m trying to promote American Candide as the Chosen One, destined to rescue America from darkness and oppression by bringing a hilarious message of utter hopelessness to the nation’s youth. I think this generation in particular will really “grok” the dissonance and with the royalties I earn, I can afford a seat on the last flight out of the Führer Bunker.
I don’t know how to type a smiley-face but I think this is the perfect place for one.
Biblioklept: How do you read the end of Voltaire’s Candide? The famous last line seems open to multiple interpretations.
MS: That line is willing to run off with any world-view you care to entertain … we should cultivate our garden, that could have come from Ayn Rand, the Dalai Lama, Jesus … it’s amazing ad copy. The selfish Benthamite implications balance out nicely with a vaguely Christian notion that we might be doing something worthy to begin with. And there’s Voltaire’s 18th-century assumption that different people deserve their different, possibly less fruitful gardens, which is a shout-out to Plato and in a roundabout way, all the guys in jackboots and leather lurking in the shadows of dialectic materialism.
For me it’s always meant that one should leave the insides of other human being’s heads alone, which is often impractical because whenever human beings interact, they rummage around in each other’s brains, deliberately or not. Deep down in the cynical depths of American Candide’s faithless heart is the bitter realization that free-thinking is a (mostly) happy accident for all of us. But then he bounces back and starts bungee-jumping or parkouring because, hey, dude, cultivate your own garden.®
With a PBS voice-over it would make a great Monsanto-GMO TV ad and if you slap it on a coffee cup, it could empower a lot of people to drink more tasteless coffee grown by actors who look like illegal aliens to most Americans. Say it while drinking tasteless coffee and waving a gun at a dope fiend and you just coined this week’s catchphrase on a cop-reality-show.
Biblioklept: Without, like, uh, spoilers, I guess (which our contemporary culture so obsesses over)—do you think American Candide’s conclusion is a revision to Voltaire in any way?
MS: Spoilers … all of reality is a spoiler for the afterlife, I suspect. Voltaire’s approximate message of just minding your own business also makes a great, all-purpose threat when regurgitated from American Candide’s mouth. He can’t help making threats because that’s his reality: a world that is frightening and illogical, probably because the words he uses are either meaningless or opposite to their true meaning. Or perhaps words first lost their meaning, then the world dimmed for him … a subtle problem.
I’m not going to trot out Orwell here, instead I’ll whip out my King James Bible, the literary bedrock of the Anglosphere. Every sentence in the Bible is utterly meaningless because it is contradicted by another sentence and/or physically impossible. Yet millions of Americans think that this collection of words is logically and empirically true. This is where the trouble starts, by building a culture’s language upon lies and thus subverting all words for all people.
Language and religion are deeply related, but for now, let’s admit that the tribal paranoia we call religion is a major factor in Candide’s automatic perversion of all words into either threats or invitations to debauchery.
Which brings me to a word you see a lot in AC: freedom. In the USA, this word currently means the exact opposite of its traditional meaning, it means the willingness to let others tell you what to think and do. It even means the willingness to die so that someone more clever than you becomes even wealthier, in fact, it’s the secular equivalent of the word jihad in Muslim countries. Like jihad, freedom outflanks logic and makes all dissent treasonous. The common denominator in both cultures is that religion lays the groundwork for mass insanity and mass murder.
God, freedom, minding your own business … from the mouth of Candide they are feral threats … nothing means anything when everything is against me, me, me. The destruction of language is a powerful antidote to the Enlightenment.
This is not only a revision of Voltaire, it is a demonstration of how much our fellow citizens fear Voltaire’s message. The Enlightenment is a permanent revolution, Marxists can only talk about it, Voltaire did it!
Biblioklept: And art…?
MS: The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.