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BooksFebruary 23, 2017

Book of the week: In which Titus Books appears to have discovered a mysterious genius

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Somewhere in Auckland there’s an Irish recluse who wrote a novel, kept it in a drawer for 12 years, and only reluctantly showed it to Brett Cross from Auckland publisher Titus Books. Butades by TP Sweeney is about to be given worldwide distribution.

I first heard about Butades through my wife, who worked with the wife of the author. It was a novel that had laid unread in the bottom drawer of the writer’s desk for 12 years. Unread! He had shown it to no one. There was another novel too, that had taken 18 years to write.

I was intrigued. This was either someone who couldn’t write or an undiscovered genius. The second was unlikely, but what if …. I asked my wife to get hold of the book, and we would read it, preferably without the author knowing. After all, if I was the first person to read it, I didn’t want to tell him it was terrible. I suggested his wife sneak it out and photocopy it and slip the original back into the dresser without the author finding out, that way we would be spared any awkward conversations. She wouldn’t do it.

And so began five years of us trying to get hold of the book. It was curiously irksome that someone would write a novel and then never let anyone read it. Then at an art opening I met the author, a sensitive talkative chap with an almost incomprehensible Belfast accent, that became more incomprehensible the more he drank. He talked about how Heidegger saved his life, and his distrust of Sartre, his fascination for the wilder shores of contemporary philosophy, and so on. And I became more certain that I had to get hold of his book.

The manuscript in a drawer for 12 years (Image: Supplied)

I read Butades in a single day. It had never occurred to me it would be a page turner. The writing was sparse and laconic, it reminded me of Paul Bowles, that psychological insight surrounded by a background sense of dread and impending doom. The minimalist precision. This was a kind of Penguin classic novel, the sort of book I should have picked up in a second hand bookshop in the mid-90s when I used to devour fiction. It was unthinkable that the author had not only never been published but never shown his work to anyone.

I knew immediately I wanted to publish it, and met with the author to tell him so. His first response was: “Well, I’m not doing any promotion, and I don’t want my name on the book.” Fine. I said. Let’s do it. But how to sell a book by an unknown unpublished writer who won’t do any promotion? So I started posting it out to writers who I thought might like it, and who would be willing to attach their name and a blurb to the book. The response was overwhelming, they thought it was exceptional. Dylan Horrocks: “A crime story that reads like a collaboration between David Lynch and James Ellroy.” Ian Wedde: “A remarkable book, layered, vivid.”

I sent copies to a couple of publishers in the UK. It seemed criminal for a book written by an Irish author with continental themes to not also be published in the UK and the USA. The first publisher got back to me within a couple of weeks—he was blown away by the book and wanted to publish it.

The manuscript in another drawer (Image: Supplied)

In October 2017 Butades will have moved, in the space of one year, from its retreat in the bottom drawer of a reclusive writer, to worldwide distribution. The next task is to edit his 18-years-in-the-writing, epic sprawl of a novel The Mangle Strangle Song.

TP Sweeney is not his real name. He doesn’t want it known. In his words, “As for myself, I would prefer to disappear, a cipher behind the novel. ‘The author is Irish, grew up amid the Troubles in Belfast, lives in Auckland, an urban recluse, very protective of personal privacy …’ So why write a book? Beckett talked of leaving a stain on the silence. It’s something like that. Leaving a trace of having passed through life, leaving a few notes that other people might care to investigate … to help probe the mystery or to abandon themselves to it for a little while, to see how it feels …”

Butades (Titus Books, $30) by TP Sweeney is available at Unity Books.


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