Archive for the ‘Man Booker Prize’ Category

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about important subjects. But I found it so depressing that it was hard to keep reading.

The story is set in the mid 1980s, mostly in Kalimpong, near the border of India and Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. It concerns the doings of Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge, Sai, his orphaned grand daughter, and their cook – who is never named. The experience in America of Biju, the cook’s son, forms a counterpoint to the main narrative. There are also flash backs to the judge’s marriage and the time he spent in England preparing to sit for the Indian Civil Service exams.

The judge has imbibed a respect for doing things the English way. He spends his time reading English newspapers and playing chess; he doesn’t even mix with the small Anglophile community in Kalimpong. He eats meat with a knife and fork in a country where most people eat rice and dahl with their fingers. Sai is a teenager who has been brought up at first in a convent and then in the judge’s house. She also speaks English and respects English customs. She is in love with Gyan, her maths tutor, a young man from the local college. The cook does his best to look after them in the proper English way. He is immensely proud of his son. Biju entered America on a tourist visa which he has overstayed, and is now working illegally – or rather, being exploited – in a succession of poorly paid jobs in dirty restaurants. Then one day a group of young men calling themselves the Gorkha National Liberation Front steal the judge’s old hunting guns, and nothing is the same thereafter.

Desai ties the small doings of the characters – going to the market, arguing over brands of cheese, reading the National Geographic, stealing guns – into the larger themes that concern her. These include poverty, ignorance and inequality in India, the legacy of colonialism and the alienation of Anglophile Indians from their society, the growth of globalisation and consumerism, the experience of emigration, and the attractions of insurgency. In all of these, nearly everyone in the story loses out, partly through their own choices, but more because of the shaping forces of these broader themes which they have inherited.

The judge is a horrible man, who covers his insecurity – so dramatically heightened by the hostility and prejudice he encountered in England – by shouting and abuse. In England, ‘He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow’. ‘He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred, and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both’.  Sai is a pleasant enough young woman, but she is drifting and purposeless. Biju is simply overwhelmed by the ‘unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant’ – the frustrations and miseries of his existence, inflicted, often enough, by his more successful fellow countrymen. The cook is kind, but his whole being is defined by his status as a servant. What happens to them, and to most of the other characters, amounts to misery piled on misery, humiliation on humiliation. As one character says, ‘There is nobody who won’t abandon you’. There is nobody who is redeemed. As for the Gorkha National Liberation Front, they ‘were living in the movies’. If they stirred up hatred, ‘extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event’.

Desai writes all this in a delicate and whimsical style. But that only makes the frustrations and misunderstandings, the betrayals and the losses seem even worse.

I know literature is supposed to tell us truths about ourselves, and this Desai does with a vengeance. Looking back at the end of the book, I couldn’t find one single untainted moment where happiness or hope wasn’t about to be disappointed. Things just are, and must be accepted. No wonder I felt depressed by the book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. You can read an interview with Desai about herself and about writing the book here. For a different view of some of the same issues in India, see my post on The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.


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The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and I’m not sure how I missed it at the time. But I’m really glad I’ve made up for it now. Funny but sad to the point of tragic, it is a biting satire on the divisions between rich and poor in India. At least I assume it’s satire, and that the details are an overstatement to make a point; if it is an accurate description of reality, then I guess it’s not in the least funny.

The book takes the whimsical form of a letter from Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, the purpose of which is to explain, by reference to his own experience, how India fosters entrepreneurship. China, apparently, lacks entrepreneurs, whereas ‘our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewerage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs’. Written over several nights, most of the letter focuses on Balram’s life up to the point where he starts his own successful version of outsourcing (ie ‘doing things in India for Americans over the phone’); this is covered in a few very clever pages. So most of the book is about his experiences as the son of a poor village rickshaw-puller who becomes a driver for a rich master in New Delhi, and how by a single act of ‘social entrepreneurship’, he becomes an entrepreneur himself.

Balram uses two metaphors to describe the life of the poor in India. They live in ‘the Darkness’, whereas the rich live in ‘the Light’. And the poor live in ‘the Rooster Coop’, meaning not only do they live confined in terrible conditions, but they think of themselves as having no escape. ‘The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop’, Balram says. The essentials of the coop include the bonds of family and location, economic dependence on the rich, chewing paan and a deep sense of servility. Anyone who tries to buck the system is picked off and destroyed. ‘Democratic’ elections, the police and the justice system are nothing more than shams, and inequality is cemented by corruption at every level of society. Hence the picture of the rooster on the cover.

So how does Balram escape? He isn’t sure himself. ‘If you ask me to explain how one event connects to another, or how one motive strengthens or weakens the next, or how I went from thinking this about my master to thinking that – I will tell you that I myself don’t understand these things’. When he is at school, he is able to read, and so rare is this accomplishment, the school inspector dubs him a ‘white tiger’ – a creature that comes along only once in a generation. Poetry also has something to do with it: Balram hears the lines ‘You were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open!’ and realises ‘a man can make himself vanish with poetry’.  ‘The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave,’ he says. ‘To hell with the Naxals and their guns shipped from China. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India’. But it takes more decisive action for Balram to free himself. Hence the title, and picture of the white tiger accompanying that of the rooster on the cover.

You might wonder how all this poverty and misery can be funny. Here are just two out of many possible examples of Adiga’s skill with words and ideas: first, while Balram is still a driver – ‘From the amount of garbage thrown outside the walls of the house, you knew that rich people lived here’, and second, when he has become an entrepreneur – ‘You’ll see my friends when you visit Bangalore – fat, paunchy men swinging their canes, on Brigade Road, poking and harassing vendors and shaking them down for money. I’m talking of the police, of course’. However dark the story, and as Balram warns, it is dark, Adiga’s light touch and ironic view make the book thoroughly satisfying for me. His achievement is all the more remarkable, given that this is his first novel.

You can read more about Adiga here. His second novel Last Man in Tower (2011) is described as a painful tragicomedy, so I guess it’s pretty much in line with his first.

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I saw the BBC mini series (2009) based on Small Island (2004) before I read the book. But I’m happy to report that even knowing what happens, I still found the book immensely appealing. Perhaps I’ve hit on a new definition of good literature: a book that gives pleasure even if you’ve already seen the film.

Andrea Levy was born in London after her parents migrated there from Jamaica in 1948, and she draws extensively on their experience. The book moves back and forwards in time and place from before World War II to 1948 in England and Jamaica. The story starts in 1948 with Hortense arriving in London to find Gilbert renting a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh. Hortense reveres England as the mother country and Gilbert has experienced it as a volunteer in the RAF during the war. But will it live up to their expectations? Queenie is letting rooms to make ends meet. She married Bernard to escape a life of drudgery on a farm, but although he returned to England after serving in the army, he hasn’t come home. Each main character tells how they arrived at this point in their lives, and what happens next.

One of the reasons the book holds my attention is that it offers a more complete picture than the film. That concentrated on Hortense and Queenie; the book gives space to Gilbert and, to a lesser extent, Bernard as well. Each character tells their story in the first person, and each character has a distinctive voice. This means that the reader gets to see the same situation from two or even three different perspectives, and can understand the feelings and responses of each participant. Hortense’s and Gilbert’s misunderstanding of each other are part funny, part heartrending. Hortense’s coldness to Queenie is equally painful. Bernard is the least appealing of the characters, but even he has moments where redemption seems possible. Creating this web of interactions with understanding and compassion, humour and pathos, is no mean feat, and Levy has managed it very effectively.

A second reason for finding it compelling reading is the inherent interest of the subject matter. Racism is a major theme; Levy is interested in exploring what it meant to be black and British in London immediately after the war. She shows the variations of prejudice, first in Jamaica, where light skin is more socially acceptable than dark skin, then in its brutal manifestations in England during the war, where Jamaicans were included in the colour bar imposed by the US Army on its black troops and finally in the ignorant bigotry of the post war British population at large. Queenie is a wonderful exception, though even she cannot ultimately escape the general intolerance. The lesson is that the West Indian community has to rely on itself.

I also found the siren call of the mother country to her colonial subjects fascinating, especially when contrasted with the indifference and even hostility of the British to those subjects. Gilbert, for example, realises that while his education in Jamaica was British centred – he can name all the canals in England – few in England even know Jamaica exists, let alone acknowledge the right of its black inhabitants to live in England. Even though the country has been shaken up by war – all the bits that had been blown up ‘settling in different places’ – there is almost no understanding that changes in the empire will have implications for people in Britain. I wondered if the picture of herself Levy has included in the book is intended to underline the legitimacy of West Indian aspirations to European culture; it shows a smiling black girl pointing her toe, dressed in a frilly white tutu.

Small Island was the winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004.  Levy’s most recent book, The Long Song, was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

You can read more about Andrea Levy here.

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Anne Tyler is another writer who was on the Man Booker International shortlist. She is an American, but that must be about the only thing she has in common with the winner, Philip Roth. Her books deal with the personal and the domestic, rather than the broad themes of American experience – though arguably the domestic is important in the American experience, whatever critics think. Her main characters often find themselves at odds with their role in life, needing to come to terms with themselves in some new way. This is certainly true for Liam Pennywell, the protagonist of Noah’s Compass (2009),Tyler’s eighteenth book.

Liam is sixty, widowed, then divorced from his second wife, with three daughters. He has just been ‘downsized’ from his job teaching grade five students at a private school. Seeking to economise, he moves to a cheaper apartment, where on the first night, he is assaulted, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of what took place. He is distressed by his amnesia, and wants to find out what happened.

Liam is not an assertive man. If his back is agonizingly sore, he will tell the doctor he is ‘experiencing some discomfort’. Nor is he confident and successful. “But face it:” he says, “I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory. I just … don’t seem to have the hang of things somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”  He has lived, it seems, on the margins of his family’s lives. Will this experience jolt him into a new direction?  But as he tells his grandson Jonah, a compass for finding direction wouldn’t have been of any use to Noah; he wasn’t going anywhere, he was just trying to stay afloat on the flood.

A major theme in the story is memories – lost and found. ‘The trouble with discarding bad memories’, Liam thinks, ‘was that evidently the good ones went with them’. Offered the chance to confront his attacker, he wonders how important the memory, if it returned, would seem in comparison with other things he has forgotten. ‘Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood, and my youth, my first marriage and the growing up of my daughters?’ he asks himself. ‘Why, he’d had amnesia all along.’ But the story is also about contentment, and while this is  a less passionate state than happiness, Liam’s pleasure in his quiet, sparse life is one of the joys of the book, as he thinks to himself of what Socrates said about ‘the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods.’

I hope I haven’t made the book sound depressing, because it isn’t. Tylerwrites with quiet amusement about her characters and their various foibles. Some of the humour is achieved through the use of parenthesis, as in: ‘To be honest, Liam thought, the Pennywells were a rather homely family. (Himself included.)’, or ‘“You’re dismissive and sarcastic and contemptuous,”’ Louise – his daughter – says. ‘(Anger seemed to broaden her vocabulary – a trait Liam had noticed in her mother as well.)’ But everyone has their good side, even if they can appear inept or comical. There is no malice in the humour.

Tyler’s work attracts rather conflicting responses. Some admire her unassuming prose and empathy with marginal people.  ‘She chooses subtlety over grandeur; she thinks in minuscule rather than capital letters’, says one critic.  But others (perhaps including the Man Booker International judges) consider her bland and unchallenging: ‘our foremost NutraSweet novelist’, as one critic apparently called her. I don’t think memory loss is a bland topic. And I detect a bit of sexism here: if it is domestic, it can’t be important. But perhaps I’m over sensitive. And she has won a Pulitzer Prize – for Breathing Lessons, in 1989.  

You can read more about Anne Tyler here.

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Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every two years to a living writer for their overall contribution to fiction. This choice has caused considerable controversy, as one of the judges, Carmen Callil, who is an author and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, resigned from the judging panel rather than endorse the decision of the two other male judges. She is reported as saying: ‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe’, and ‘I don’t rate him as a writer at all’.

I’m not well placed to comment on her first objection, as American Pastoral, the book Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for in 1998, is the only one that I’ve read. (I did read the bit about the liver in Portnoy’s Complaint forty years ago but that doesn’t count.) And based on American Pastoral, I think he is capable of great writing. But I nevertheless know what she means about him sitting on your face.

The book is in three parts: Paradise Remembered, The Fall, and Paradise Lost. In the first part, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in a number of Roth’s books and functions as his alter ego, recalls details in the life of Seymour Levov, who lived in the same Jewish neighbourhood inNew Jerseyas he did during the Second World War. Levov, called ‘the Swede’ because unusually for a Jew, he is blond and blue-eyed, was a great athlete, and now appears to be a successful business and family man. Zuckerman meets him in 1995, and concludes that while he is genial and liberal-minded, he has no inner life at all – his life ‘just unravelling … like a fluffy ball of yarn’. But later meeting the Swede’s younger brother at a class reunion, he learns that in 1968, at the age of sixteen, Levov’s daughter, Merry, was responsible for a bomb blast in a local postal agency that killed an innocent bystander. Zuckerman concludes that the Swede must have felt himself to be somehow responsible for her actions, and the rest of the book is a reconstruction of the disintegration of the family, both before and after the bomb, from the Swede’s tormented point of view. Of course Zuckerman can’t know how the Swede actually felt – but Zuckerman – aka the author – can make him feel anything he likes.

The Swede’s experience is clearly offered as a microcosm ofAmerica’s loss of innocence through its involvement in the Vietnam War (assuming it was ever innocent). While Merry is growing up, the Swede’s life seems to typify the third generation immigrant’s achievement of the American dream; he even lives onArcady Hill Road, to underline the point. Then his daughter’s act ‘transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk’. To further underline this point, Merry has the radical Weathermen slogan on the wall of her room (a year early, as it happens) – ‘We’re against everything that’s good and decent in honkyAmerica. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare’. What can the Swede, with his liberal values, do in the face of this? I find his dilemma both confronting and compelling.

Yet, strangely, the structure of the story seems to undercut this parable. We know from the meeting of Zuckerman and Levov that he has three children from a second marriage, all of whom appear to be a source of pride and pleasure to him. This second marriage is not encompassed in the story as imagined by Zuckerman; his account ends on an unresolved and sour note in 1973. But if Levov does find happiness, what are the implications of this for the counterpastoral?

There are many passages I’d like to quote to show the power of Roth’s writing; here’s just one. ‘But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of anything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.’

So what about ‘sitting on your face’? Roth seems to me a very self indulgent writer. There are too many reflections, too many digressions, simply too many words – and despite the power of many of them, you can’t always breathe under the onslaught.

No female character is treated sympathetically, but I won’t even start on the charges against Roth of sexism.

You can read more about Roth here, and about Carmen Callil’s resignation from the judging panel here.

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We now know that Amin Maalouf did not win the Man Booker International Prize for 2011. (It went to Philip Roth – more on that later.) But seeing him on the short-list prompted a friend to recommend his books to me – to my eternal gratitude. I can’t yet speak for the rest of his work, but Balthasar’s Odyssey is delightful.

Amin Maalouf was born of Catholic parents in Lebanon, which he left during the civil war in 1979; he now lives in Paris. He writes in French; Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000) was translated by Barbara Bray in 2002.

It is the year 1665. Balthasar, whose family was originally from Genoa, lives in Gibelet, known in modern Lebanonas Jbneil, or Byblos. Then it was part of the rambling Ottoman Empire. Like his father before him, Balthasar is a dealer in books and curios. Like others, he has heard rumours that 1666 will be the Year of the Beast, with the coming of the Apocalypse and the end of the world. He has also heard of a book by an Arabic scholar that purportedly contains information that might save the person who learns of it. The Koran contains the ninety-nine names of God; this book, The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, is said to reveal the as yet unknown hundredth name, knowledge of which will ensure salvation. By strange chance, this volume comes into Balthasar’s keeping, but before he can read it, it passes into other hands. Why did he let it go? In pursuit of the book, he sets out on what becomes his odyssey.

The story is in four parts, each contained in a notebook in which Balthasar records the events of his journey and his thoughts about it. ‘I write’, he says, ‘to record events, to explain myself, or to clear my mind in the same way as one clears one’s throat, or so as not to forget, or even just because I promised myself I would.’ The word ‘picaresque’ – a hangover from a long ago English 101 course – came into my mind when reading Balthasar’s story; it is episodic, moving on not only from place to place, but from one set of characters to another. While he often gives their points of view, the story is essentially his version of events. He frequently cannot know how incidents he witnessed, or took part in, turned out; much consequently is left open ended.

The single narrator strategy can be a risky one, but in Balthasar, Maalouf has created a likeable character who has no difficulty in holding my interest. He tries to be honourable, even in the face of lies and trickery, but is drawn into deceit himself, and his good intentions seem to have a way of backfiring. He tries to be rational in face of superstition, but can’t help seeing signs and portents of doom around him. Is it really likely that God has chosen him, a not particularly devout Catholic, to be the person to whom the hundredth name will be revealed? Is it fate, or his own desires that drive him? He is full of earnest self doubt. ‘What is the good of travelling all over the world just to see what is inside me already?’ he asks himself.  ‘I record in my notebook’, he says, ‘the various decrees of fate, interspersed with my own passionate shilly-shallyings’. ‘Perhaps’, he decides, ‘the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistency.’ By the end, he has concluded that ‘Surrendering to fate is nothing to be ashamed of; it was an unequal contest, so honour is satisfied.’ But you get the feeling he will probably have changed his mind again by the next day.

One of the things I found interesting about the novel is the way it presents as a matter of course the interconnectedness of the Islamic and European worlds of the seventeenth century. The books and curios Balthasar sells are an eclectic mixture of Greek, Roman and Arabic texts and archaeology, reminding the reader that theOttoman Empireencompassed what had earlier been major Greek and Roman settlements, the remains of which can still be found inByblos. For someone brought up with a Eurocentric view of history, it is refreshing to read about a merchant of Genoese extraction living in theLevant, and comfortable – more or less – in all the European places he visits. Maalouf is no doubt raising the question of identity: where is Balthasar (and perhaps Maalouf himself?) really at home? But I was fascinated by how easily Balthasar adapts to the wider world.

There is not much information about Maalouf available in English. It’s probably best to translate his French web page found here.

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This is one of my favourite books, which is excuse enough to write about it. But if I needed another reason, it would be that Pullman is one of the writers short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, and this is his major work. Its title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whereMilton refers to the Creator’s power to fashion other worlds from the dark materials found in the abyss – ‘the womb of nature and perhaps her grave’. For this is a book about other worlds, and the nature of the abyss.

Actually it is three books – Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), brought together into one volume. (And perhaps confusingly, the first book was also published as The Golden Compass, which is moreover the title of the film of that book.) It is no doubt possible to read them separately, but they form a continuous adventure, and it is best to read them as such.

Twelve year old Lyra lives in anOxfordthat exists in a universe parallel to our own. It is recognisably the same place, but there are significant differences. Physics, for example, is known as experimental theology, and the Church holds far greater sway than in our world. People have animal (or bird or insect) companions called dǽmons, which are best described as physical expressions of their souls.  But when children start to disappear, taken, it is rumoured to the far North, the reaction is the same as in our world; parents unite to get them back. When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she vows to find him, and becomes part of the expedition. And then there is the mysterious substance ‘dust’. What has it to do with the disappearance of the children?

In the second book, Will Parry, a boy from our universe, meets Lyra when they both stray into a third universe. He is looking for his father; she is looking for someone to help her understand ‘dust’. Will becomes the possessor of a knife which can cut gateways into other worlds; others want it too. Lyra is also pursued; it seems she has some as yet unknown importance in the great war developing between the Church and secular forces. This war forms a background to the further travails of Will and Lyra in the third book, though other characters, like the scientist Mary Malone, creator of the amber spyglass, also play important roles.

But this is far more than an exciting adventure story. For one thing, there is the depth and complexity of Pullman’s imagined worlds. Just listing some of the creatures that inhabit them gives an idea of the richness of Pullman’s invention. As well as the dǽmons, there are armoured bears, angels, witches, ghosts, mulefa, Gallivespians, harpies, cliff ghasts and spectres, all fully drawn and functioning beings. There is also a wealth of imaginative detail in the technology that operates in these worlds, from the alethiometer – the truth teller, or golden compass – the subtle knife and amber spyglass to the anbaric lights and projecting lantern. Then there is ‘dust’ – elementary particles, ‘Shadows’ or ‘sraf’ – which exists in all worlds. What is it, and why is it so important?  There is a fully thought out cosmology underlying the story, and sometimes dominating it.Pullman rejects organised religion, but has a strong sense of morality and spiritual values.

And all this is found in what is characterised as a children’s book. The distinction might relate to the fact that the story is mostly carried forward by Will and Lyra, rather than simply being about them. One critic claims thatPullmanhas given us a new way of writing for children, and this may be so. But I’m not sure it’s worth making a distinction between children’s and adults’ literature inPullman’s case. Each volume separately might just qualify as ‘for children’, but taken as whole, the complexity of the vision and the imaginative power of the work defy such classification. I think adults will read the story as eagerly as children, and be no less challenged by it than by any other work of literature.

You can find out more aboutPullman, and his other writing here. His debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury over religion can be found here.

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