The odd couple. Review of Nikesh Shukla and Mario Petrucci

Written by Louisa Davison.

They were both poets, Londoners with non-British origins, whatever that means, but that was as far as the similarity seemingly went, in this enjoyable exposure to two very different writers.

Brought together by the Lit Fest to 'explore Britishness and non-British in writing' Nikesh is a poet, writer, screenwriter beloved of the Asian Network and Radio 1 Extra with a Spiderman comic collection, whilst Mario is an Italian 'metaphysical poet of international standing, an ecologist and PhD physicist.'

Nikesh read one of his latest short stories, To Mum, about a British family who've relocated to an Indian houseboat in the wake of a family death. The story deals both with grief and the culture they've gone back to, which should have provided a familiar comfort but which proves to be alien.

Mario related what others had written about Britishness, such as 'stoicism, education and wry humour'. For him, it was “heritage, upbringing, mores and patterns of behaviour,” he said. “I'm besotted by difference: in Britain I feel Italian and in Italy, British.”

Mario read from two of his anthologies, Flowers of Sulphur and i tulips. “I use English as a tool to create different states,” he explained. “English is the most productive; I try to make it as non-standard as I can. Italian can be too voluptuous, it sometimes lacks that hard edge.”

As well as those favourite subjects – love and passion – Mario “attempts to understand what can't be understood” such as the disaster of Chernobyl , or a “what if” exploration of a post-oil world in 2111 – a world of hardship and of stories.

Nikesh was asked where he felt most at home: India or London. His response was not India – neither parent had grown up there though they had tried to impress a good Indian culture on their son.

“When I visited my cousins in India in my mid-twenties,” he said, “they told me I was repressed. The Indian culture I had been brought up in was stuck in the 1940s. I felt more at home in Mombassa (Kenya) where my dad grew up.”

Common ground was found, around a discussion of the centrality of the mother in both Indian and Italian culture and of food. Nikesh is learning family recipes “because that smell of food means home” and Mario is the last in his family who “knows how to cook a traditional Bolgnaise.” He said to Nikesh: “We should have dinner, I love Indian.”

A footnote: at the signing I realised how hard it is to make a living as a poet and how important it is to buy their work if you like it.

The copy I bought of i tulips was one of Mario's personal stash: because with each anthology brought out by his publisher, despite Mario's reputation as a poet, he tries to buy a few hundred copies to increase the print run.

I loved Nikesh's dedication to me in Coconut Unlimited: “To Louisa Hello! Hope you like me. I am a sentient book.” I hope it isn't a warning. 

Also published on We Love Marlborough