In her third novel, Loot (Knopf, June), Tania James tells the story of Lucien du Leze, an alcoholic French clockmaker in service to Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in late-18th-century India, and Abbas, a 17-year-old wood carver brought to the sultan’s palace to become Lucien’s assistant. The two are given a commission: create a giant wooden automaton of a tiger (the sultan’s emblem) savaging a near-life-size European man.
Intrigued by the idea of this mechanical toy? I sure was, as was James, who took the sparse historical facts surrounding Tipu’s Tiger—a major attraction displayed today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—and crafted a clever tale around it.
The book opens with an evocative scene of Abbas in the family workshop, diligently but reluctantly performing his mundane work: “On the day he is taken from his family, Abbas is carving a peacock into a cabinet door. He drives his gouge tip through the rosewood, adjusting the pressure with his pointer finger. Grooves deepen, a beak appears. He moves on to sculpt feathers, stacked like scales. He excels at this task and has never been so bored in his life. Seated nearby on coir mats are his father and two older brothers, Junaid and Farooq.... Their father sands a finished post, stopping every so often to shoot Abbas a warning look. ‘No more of your toys,’ his father has told him in private. ‘Beds and cabinets, that’s it. The toys only bring trouble.’ ”
Tipu’s Tiger, a symbol of the sultan’s hatred of the British of the East India Company, is at the center of this expansive historical that spans 50 years and moves from India to France to London. In the novel, Abbas collaborates with du Leze, who teaches him French and takes him back to France as his apprentice. There, Abbas falls in love with Jehanne, the daughter of a French expatriate, while the British, in their ongoing conquest of India, storm the sultan’s palace and loot its treasures. The tiger is one of those stolen treasures. To establish himself as an artist in Paris and secure his reputation, Abbas sets out to retrieve the masterwork.
James tells me she came across Tipu’s Tiger in a book. “It was not the most famous or sophisticated automata, but I was captivated for reasons that are a bit mysterious to me,” she says. “Maybe because it was so charged with Tipu’s contempt for the British. But what set the story in motion was the idea of a protagonist who so desperately wanted the tiger that he was willing to pursue it across countries and years.” James adds that she sees the book as “a heist novel, as well as the coming-of-age story of an artist and artistic ambition.”
Also raised is the question currently facing museums concerning plundered art: “Who owns it?” James asks. “What if the creator wants it back? Why does he want it back? What does it mean to him and his future?—a question of authorship and identity. And the issue of nations... What belongs where? At what point does art belong to everyone?”
James notes that she was unsure about fabricating history, citing Hilary Mantel who writes historicals with researched accuracy, but then she references Ocean Vuong, whom she heard in an interview say that he was not writing as a witness but building a mythology. “I am stepping into the void and imagining other possibilities,” James says. “I wanted the book to be entertaining and intellectually interesting.”
This is the first time James has written historical fiction. “It required so much research,” she says. “Some of it about the British Empire was difficult. I wrote the story not thinking about colonialism but there it was.”
James later explains that “while the research was at times a heavy lift, this was the most fun I’ve had writing a novel. In part because I allowed myself to enter the novel as a meta-presence at times, through the narration, which was a way of reminding the reader that I’m telling them a story, and that this act involves the both of us. I enjoyed playing with my own authority—it was a kind of whimsical way of getting at serious ideas about authorship, identity, sovereignty, and of course, the relationship between creator and creation.”
And, she says, “I wanted the book to have a playfulness. I wanted to show brown people having agency; that even subjugated people can make their way. I wanted to be pushing the borders of realism, to be as bold as I can be.”
A professor of creative writing at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., James says she started thinking about the novel in 2017. “I sent Nicole Aragi, my literary agent, two chapters from two different perspectives, and she shot back that if I stopped writing she would come and handcuff me to my keyboard.”
Aragi has been James’s agent since her first book, 2009’s Atlas of Unknowns, a novel about two sisters that takes place between Kerala, India, and New York. (James’s previous works also include the 2012 story collection Aerogrammes and the 2016 novel The Tusk That Did the Damage, about the ivory trade—all published with Knopf.) “I knew of Nicole and admired the writers she represented,” James tells me. “I sent out several queries, and Nicole was the only agent who didn’t ask if I had a novel. She was in for the long haul”.
And of Loot, Aragi says,“I adore this book. The historical sprawl, the undercurrent, the idea of trying to retrieve stolen artifacts. Tania’s a writer you just follow. I’m happy to be surprised by her. I remember reading Loot in the garden last summer at Wimbledon in London with one eye on the foxes, hoping they wouldn’t get too close. I sent it on to [Knopf editor-in-chief] Jordan Pavlin with a few tweaks and she bought North American rights. The U.K. rights went to Kate Harvey at Harvill Secker.”
Pavlin has also been with James from the very beginning, when, Pavlin says, “Tania’s gifts were already fully in evidence. Her exuberant storytelling, her rich and vivid depiction of character and place, the emotional intensity and complexity, the irresistible humor... But when Tania sent me the manuscript of Loot last summer, it was instantly clear that she’d reached a whole new level of achievement and command—a historical novel that feels utterly contemporary in its themes: exile and immigration, the legacy of colonialism, the hunger to make art and to put something of enduring beauty into the world. It’s a hero’s quest and a love story set against a glorious geographical and historical canvas. This is Tania’s moment.”
Aragi, too, thinks this is Tania’s moment and sent me Loot convinced it would be my thing. “Can we test the accuracy of my prediction?” she asked.
Of course, but for my part, I asked her to tell me something particular about James.
Aragi didn’t hesitate: “On my birthday, Tania gave me a painting with me at the center, dressed in a sari as a Bollywood star, flanked by John [Freeman, Aragi’s partner], Nathan Englander, and Rabih Alameddine.”