14 - 20 November 2002
Issue No. 612
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Harry Potter clones

Chinese and Russian versions of the little British magician may soon flood global markets, reports Shohdy Naguib from Moscow


Click to view caption
The book cover of Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass; author Dmitri Yemets
The mind-boggling international success of the Harry Potter series by British author JK Rowling has, quite predictably, given rise to a number of imitators. But what is good news for those with an insatiable hunger for fantasy novels is bad news for transnational publishing houses with their appetite for megabucks. Such flagrant disrespect for copyright law has, of course, occurred before in Eurasia, home to a host of unruly pirates. But now in China and Russia, where genuine Harry Potter books, films and related paraphernalia have broken sales records, the publishing industry is facing an unprecedented challenge.

An anonymous Chinese writer produced what is being touted in the People's Republic as the fifth Potter adventure while Rowling, in the meantime, is still musing over that much-anticipated volume.

Harry Potter and the Leopard Walk up to the Dragon is selling fast in Beijing. Bearing the name and biographical blurb of JK Rowling on the cover, the novel has a plot that is quite distinct from those of the four books written by the British author. While many of the principal characters are from the original bestsellers the Chinese version is also chock-full of figures from Chinese fairy tales.

The story surrounding the Russian clone has its own particular twists. The author, Dmitri Yemets, has eschewed the anonymity of his Chinese counterpart and is cheerfully giving out interviews and autographs at Moscow's main bookshops, while confidently describing his creation as "a parody" or, alternatively, as "a sort of Russian answer" to Harry Potter. Yemets' version boasts a female heroine, "Tanya Grotter", whose adventures are told in The Magic Double Bass and The Disappearing Floor. The works have become a Russian literary sensation, with the first in the series selling about 100,000 copies and the second, which was released in October, appearing set to give a repeat performance.

Tanya Grotter is a talented 11-year-old with a knack for witchcraft. An orphan, she attends the Abracadabra school for young witches, flies a magic double bass and has other amusing similarities to the British magician whose surname is not much different from her own. The plots of the Grotter stories, according to participants in a number of online forums, are so close to those of the Potter series that to label them parodies would be generous. Their bookcovers, too, mimic those of the British series. Nevertheless, Tanya Grotter books are sold alongside the Harry Potter series -- but for half the price.

The author of Grotter's adventures and his publishers are now facing the threat of legal action from JK Rowling and Warner Brothers. Eksmo publishers received a cease and desist letter alleging violation of intellectual property rights and posting a 10 November deadline. In solidarity with their favourite author, Russians at large vowed to fight back and defend Tanya Grotter, come what may. Alexei Shekhov, a spokesperson for Eksmo publishers told Al- Ahram Weekly that his company is "eagerly awaiting such a legal move" and is confident that "there has been no infringement whatsoever of any of the Russian Federation's laws." Shekhov added that numerous projects related to the Tanya Grotter series are underway such as a programme on Radio Russia, and a feature film with an extensive marketing campaign. Moreover, two new Grotter books will hit the stands later this year: The Golden Leech and The Throne of Drevnir.

Tatyana Uspenskaya, marketing director of Rosman-Press, the publishing house that produced Potter's Russian translations, told the Weekly that an independent commission, headed by a prominent philologist, was established in order to determine whether Dmitri Yemets' fiction is a form of plagiarism. The result of the commissions findings is expected to figure in any legal action. But so far, no such action has been taken. Rosman-Press, for one, is not legally siding with the copyright holders, but is certainly giving them full moral support.

Threats of legal recourse aside, it seems that little Tanya's magic spells are quite effective. European publishers have expressed interest in translating her adventures into German, French and Portuguese, while a contract has already been signed with a Dutch publisher. Potter's Russian alter ego is very likely to appeal to European kids by virtue of a certain exotic cachet owing to her national origin. Russian kids, on the other hand, do not differentiate much between the two little apprentices although they may have a slight preference for the local rendering.

Based on general summaries, the Chinese version of Harry Potter sounds even more thrilling with its fusion of Rowling's imaginary world and traditional folklore. One can only hope that an amateur Web site will soon appear with an English translation. Literary plots have always and must continue to be open to rewriting -- through cultural and creative reinterpretation -- especially when it comes to magic.

A reader's posting on www.hogwartswire.com said it all: "Don't judge a book by its cover. It's total nonsense how they are treating this issue. I think they are afraid of losing money if Harry Potter fans prefer the Tanya Grotter books. But for me it doesn't really matter, because I read what I like."

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