Named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and NPR
“A writer who is gifted not just with extraordinary talent but also with a subtle, original, and probing mind.” —Amitav Ghosh
In one of the singularly imaginative stories from Kanishk Tharoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars, despondent diplomats entertain themselves by playing table tennis in zero gravity—for after rising seas destroy Manhattan, the United Nations moves to an orbiting space hotel. In other tales, a team of anthropologists treks to a remote village to record a language’s last surviving speaker intoning her native tongue; an elephant and his driver cross the ocean to meet the whims of a Moroccan princess; and Genghis Khan’s marauding army steadily approaches an unnamed city’s walls.
With exuberant originality and startling vision, Tharoor cuts against the grain of literary convention, drawing equally from ancient history and current events. His world-spanning stories speak to contemporary challenges of environmental collapse and cultural appropriation, but also to the workings of legend and their timeless human truths. Whether refashioning the romances of Alexander the Great or confronting the plight of today’s refugees, Tharoor writes with distinctive insight and remarkable assurance. Swimmer Among the Stars announces the arrival of a vital, enchanting talent.
In "Cultural Property," one of the most intriguing and salient stories in Tharoor's debut collection, a young Indian archeologist is waiting on a cold beach on the North Sea, having secretly uncovered a centuries-old sword of Anglo-Saxon iron. Having just called smugglers to bring the sword to a museum in Patna, India, he imagines the sword labeled there as an artifact of "Primitive Britain," a thought that confirms for him that this act is far more than "revenge." It's these big themes of history, war, invasion, and exploration that Tharoor seeks to humanize. In the title story, an old, unnamed woman in an old, unnamed country is the "last speaker" of an old, unnamed language, and young academic ethnographers have arrived to record her, unintentionally raising all kinds of questions about the quest to capture what's already been lost. In "Elephant at Sea," a princess in Morocco requests an Indian elephant. But by the time one arrives, years later, the princess is studying abroad and everyone, including the elephant, is vexed by how one powerful person's whim can create a mess no one knows how to fix. In "A United Nations of Space," a future delegation of international ambassadors convenes in the cosmos to "rally the world around the memory of order." Though the tendency to keep characters unnamed and their lives painted in broad strokes blends the stories together, Tharoor's collection is imaginative and relevant.