Archive for the ‘Man Booker International Prize 2016’ Category

A Strangeness in My Mind

April 19, 2016


The opening twelve pages of Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind reminds you just how effective a writer he can be. In it he describes the pivotal moment in the six hundred pages which follow, when his protagonist, Mevlut elopes with Rayiha, to whom he has been addressing his love letters for the last four years – only to discover she is not the sister he though she was:

“They had shown him the pretty sister at the wedding, and then given him the ugly sister instead. Mevlut realised he’d been tricked. He was ashamed and couldn’t even look at the girl whose name may well not have been Rayiha.”

This scene from 1982 is swiftly followed by another important moment twelve years later when Mevlut, who has spent much of the intervening time making a living selling boza as a street vendor (boza is an alcoholic drink which is sold under the premise it is not alcoholic and therefore acceptable for Muslims to drink), is robbed on his nightly rounds, and decides that perhaps his boza-selling days are over.

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Unfortunately such narrative urgency rarely reappears. Having teased us with two moments of genuine tension, Pamuk begins again in 1968, with the intention of telling Mevlut’s story in enormous detail before repeating the elopement (and, later, the mugging). One reason the pace of the novel slows is that he moves from an omniscient narrative to a chorus, where the voices of various characters interrupt the main narrative with comments. This gives the novel the feel of a (to be kind) documentary or a (less kind) reality show, where every action demands a cut-away to a talking head. This impression is created by the brevity of the interruptions and the manner of the comments – all as if addressed to an interviewer, and all focusing on Pamuk’s topic – Mevlut’s life. Take, for example, the voices from Chapter 3, all beginning with some reference to Mevlut:

“Mevlut wasted a year back in the village…”

“I didn’t like the way Uncle Mustafa said, ‘Mevlut doesn’t get into fights.’”

“’The blazer’s got a hole in the lining of the left pocket, but don’t get it sewn up,’ I told a bewildered Mevlut.”

“I know you go to see your uncle’s family in secret, I would tell Mevlut…”

“That’s not true: Mevlut know that the real reason why…”

For this reason, the novel becomes very reliant on how interesting the reader finds Mevlut. Unfortunately, Pamuk’s primary purpose, that the novel tell the story of an ordinary, unassuming Turk, rather conflicts with the detail in which he feels it necessary to tell that story. There is certainly something to be said for presenting Mevlut’s day-to-day, year-to-year struggle to make a living, particularly when faced with the corruption of Istanbul, but to sustain this over such a length is another matter.

Of course, many critics will tell you that Pamuk’s real subject is Istanbul and this certainly seems to be how he sees himself. Pamuk choreographs his characters so as to create a map of the city’s development over the last fifty years. When compared to other novelists associated with a particular city, however – Dickens and London is the most obvious example – Pamuk’s view of Istanbul seems cosily nostalgic. Mevlut’s career as a boza seller is the most obvious example of this: despite Pamuk’s acknowledgement that this is a difficult, poorly rewarded (and, ultimately, out-dated) job, Mevlut can only talk of it with love. Dickens is an interesting comparison because what Pamuk most seems to lack is Dickens’ range of tone – this is a novel without humour or anger, satire or pathos – his voice instead stuck in a folksy ‘story-telling’ mode.

A Strangeness in My Mind is certainly a better novel than The Museum of Innocence, but it strikes me that Pamuk’s pre-Nobel novels are much better than those he has written since winning the prize. The length of both suggest self-indulgence, a writer who can no longer edit himself or be edited. His presence on the Man Booker International Prize short list indicates that he still has his admirers – he was certainly an ever-present when it came to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – but I would have much preferred to see the work of fresher (female) voices represented.

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

April 14, 2016

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Today saw the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize Shortlist, which followed close on the heels of the Shadow Jury’s shortlist, revealed yesterday. Three novels made it onto both lists:

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)

No great surprises here. The Vegetarian has been, rightly, lauded since it appeared, and the publication of Han Kang’s second novel in the meantime, Human Acts, has enhanced her reputation. Similarly, praise for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series has gathered strength since My Brilliant Friend was ignored by the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012 and, though increasing popularity has brought detractors, The Story of the Lost Child is generally seen as a fitting conclusion to a considerable achievement. Perhaps less obvious, the inclusion of The Four Books surprises no-one who has read it – it was a novel in which drew praise from all the Shadow jurors.

The remaining novels chosen by the official jury were as follows:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life (Picador)

These were in marked contrast to the Shadow Jury’s choice, with both Agualusa and Pamuk generally regarded among the weakest on the long list. Instead we arrived at:

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

There were some regrets that Tram 83 narrowly missed out (hopes it might appear on the official list were quickly dashed) and only the rather eccentric A Cup of Rage was quickly dismissed. The one controversial entry (discounting one juror’s loathing for Mend the Living) was Death by Water, the jury divided between those with a love of Japanese literature (and Oe in particular) and those with less experience (or, as I would say, patience). As my only prediction this year was that a woman would win, I was particularly pleased.

It strikes me that the variation in choices results from a different view of both the Prize’s intention and of the purpose of literature. Though the previous Man Booker International Prize often rewarded difficulty, it now, like the IFFP, seems to have one eye on the market. Agualusa and Pamuk are known quantities, past winners, and are writers you are likely to already find in a bookshop. Seethaler is, of course, appearing in English for the first time, but even before his long listing, he was subject to a marketing campaign by Waterstones. All offer something pleasant and harmless – something ‘apolitical’. Except that it is, of course, very political, presenting exotic poverty and suffering to us as a form of literary tourism. In A Whole Life we are asked to accept that Eggers’ years of loneliness and hardship are somehow redeemed because he lives on a nice mountain; similarly, in A Strangeness in my Mind six hundred pages of scraping a living are presented as the path to happiness; and in A General Theory of Oblivion violence, torture, colonialism, and civil war all vanish into the sleeves of its magician author while he distracts us with narrative tricks. Compare that to Ladivine, a novel which is genuinely puzzling and unsettling.

The good news is that it is highly likely a novel on both shortlists will win the official prize. For the Shadow Jury, I think the decision will be a lot harder.

The Four Books

April 8, 2016

four books

Yan Lianke’s The Four Books (translated by Carlos Rojas) is set in a re-education camp in China during the Great Leap Forwards when the country was desperately attempting to improve its economic performance via industrialisation on fast forward: the result was widespread famine. Yet it does not read like a historical novel as Lianke, perhaps fearing censorship (though perhaps not – after all, George Orwell retold the Russian Revolution using a farm full of talking animals), tells the story allegorically without reference to specific dates or places, assigning his characters generic names such as the Scholar and the Musician. The story is also told, as the title suggests, through four different narratives (like four Gospels): a quasi-religious book called Heaven’s Child; the official (Criminal Records) and unofficial (Old Course) writings of the Author; and a final book, A New Myth of Sisyphus which acts as a coda.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the psychological insight it provides regarding those imprisoned in the camp, mainly intellectuals. The camp is ruled not by a cruel commandant but by the Child, who is feared due to his sudden changes in temperament (like a child) but is also portrayed as vulnerable and innocent. More than once he enforces his orders by suggesting that if the prisoners are not going to obey they should kill him:

“If you decide to flee, though, I have only one request. I will get a scythe, and if you don’t want to plow the fields and smelt steel…then you should place me under the scythe and slice me in half.”

His punishments, too, are often psychological, for example when he finds the Theologian with a painting of Mary:

“’Say, “I am a pervert”. Once is enough.’
The person didn’t say anything.
The Child turned again toward the painting as though he were about to pee on it.
The person turned pale and his lips started to tremble. He then said repeatedly, ‘I am a pervert, I am a pervert…’”

The camp is also run using a reward system whereby prisoners are awarded red blossoms; collecting enough of these will theoretically lead to release. These can be obtained for working hard, but also for reporting the misdemeanours of others – the Technician, for example, is very keen to catch adulterers:

“You know, I’ve already checked – catching a pair of adulterers will earn us at least twenty small blossoms, which can be converted into four medium-sized ones.”

Ironically, it is through Criminal Records that many of the prisoners’ secrets are revealed to the ‘higher-ups’ rather than through fellow prisoners informing.

Behind all of this lies the attempt to rapidly improve productivity in both agriculture and steel. Targets are set in the belief that belief is all that is needed:

“I know… that you think that the most you can get from a single mu of land is two hundred jin but that is not actually true. To increase production to five hundred jin all you need to do is open your mouths and report that sum, then return to the fields and produce it.”

This need to constantly increase is magnified by competition across the county. Having reported production of six hundred jin, the Child is amazed to hear other camps revealing greater and greater numbers in order to gain rewards:

“…everyone started reporting like crazy. Someone reported five thousand jin, others reported ten thousand, and one person even reported having produced fifty thousand jin per mu.”

This scene makes clear that it is the target-setting and reporting which count, rather than the production. At one point, in attempt to improve yield, the Author uses his own blood to irrigate a field of grain, a symbolic act as well as one of desperation. Steel production is beset by similar problems, but also devastates the landscape as trees are cut down as fuel for the furnaces.

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The Four Books is more than political satire, however. Despite the character names, they are not portrayed as types but as individuals. Particularly moving is the love between the Scholar and the Musician, and the lengths they are prepared to go to for each other. All the characters – including the Technician with his frequent betrayals, and even the Child, who understands little beyond the system he must implement – elicit sympathy.

The Four Books works so well because it can be read as a portrayal of a particularly grim episode in China’s history, or, more abstractly, as an allegory of human behaviour in a system of reward and punishment. It also balances its despair with moments of hope, perhaps best exemplified by its almost Beckett-like ending (before A New Myth of Sisyphus). Most surprisingly, perhaps, it is eminently readable, the type of novel where three hundred pages fly by. It fully deserves its place on the Man Booker International Prize long list, and should, if there is any justice, make it to the short list.


April 7, 2016


Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan stump) is another major novel by a woman writer on the Man Booker International Prize long list. It begins with Clarisse Riviere on her monthly visit to her mother – not as Clarisse, but as Malinka. Clarisse is a name and identity she has taken for herself which she keeps separate from her mother, as she does her husband, Richard, and her daughter, Ladivine. This decision seems based on a deep-rooted feeling rather than any reason: since childhood she has felt that “being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.” So reluctant is she to acknowledge the relationship that when asked by another pupil at school who the woman who has come to collect her is, she replies, “My servant.”

“All trace of repulsion vanished from the girl’s face, and she let out a satisfied and admiring little ‘Oh!’
And Malinka realised that disgust would have spread to this girl’s very body, she would have trembled and recoiled in a sort of horror, if Malinka had answered, ‘My mother.’”

Her mother’s identity is now also changed, and she is frequently referred to in the narrative as “the servant.”

“Nothing said she had to go on being the servant’s daughter forever, she told herself.”

Are we to assume her decision to disown her mother is partly racial? The name Malinka betrays her African origin, but Clarisse is described as “pale, smooth-skinned.” Does this explain her boss’s comment when her mother turns up at the restaurant where she waitresses after leaving school: “I hope she’s not going to make a habit of coming here. That wouldn’t be good for business.”

Clarisse, as we know from the opening pages, meets and marries Richard Riviere and they have a daughter, Ladivine – named after Clarisse’s mother, a woman she will never allow her daughter to meet, suggesting she cannot escape her past entirely. Clarisse’s two separate lives, however, makes it difficult for her to commit entirely to either, as if her two identities cancel each other out, and she finds herself becoming distanced from her new family:

“Even before silence invaded their house, a polite, cosy, placid silence, she had already closed her ears to the things Richard Riviere and Ladivine said, though she pretended to listen…”

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Only one third of the way through do we reach Ladivine’s story, on holiday with her husband, Marko, and two young children, Daniel and Annika, in a country which remains unnamed but which we might assume is the home of the original Ladivine. Once again, NDiaye moves from the present into the past in order to explain Ladivine’s journey to this point. Marko is German and Ladivine now lives in Germany as if to emphasise each generation adopting their own identity, their own language. This vacation represents a break from Marko’s parents where they normally holiday, again raising the idea of generational discord.

The holiday takes place in an uneasy, uncomfortable atmosphere, from Ladivine being mistaken more than once for a guest at a wedding, to a museum full of atrocities:

“…huge canvases very realistically depicted various massacres – here a squadron of soldiers armed with bayonets skewering wild-eyed rioters, here three men slicing intently into the belly of a living woman pathetically endeavouring with blood-soaked hands to protect the foetus contained in that belly…”

This culminates in an act of violence by Marko (a scene which literally caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up) which causes them to leave their hotel and stay with friends of Ladivine’s father, Richard. Throughout this we see Ladivine drifting from her family just as her mother and grandmother did before her.

What begins as an examination of family relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters, becomes something much more unsettling as Ladivine’s interpretation of events becomes increasingly dreamlike (or nightmarish). This begins with the idea that a dog she spots every time she leaves the hotel is waiting for her:

“Still, she was by no means sure the dog meant her well, she never approached it, never waved at it, never even met its gaze.”

Dogs are a recurrent motif in the novel, first seen when Richard’s parents bring a dog with them on a visit, and it is found lying next to Ladivine in her cot:

“Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger to the child.”

Richard disagrees and we see the first fracture ion their relationship. The dog motif is important enough to provide the novel with its conclusion, and demonstrates NDiaye’s intention to write something which reaches beyond psychological study. Clarisse’s treatment of her mother, and Ladivine’s actions on holiday are portrayed as unavoidable, just like Richard’s father’s purchase of the dog:

“It’s an order come to life… I had no choice.”

Perhaps the animal spirit of the dog is a sign to both Clarisse and Ladivine that the past cannot be disowned.

Ladivine is not an easy novel – its prose style can be stand-offish, its characters act without clear motivation, and it is no respecter of genre, playing tag with realism like a wayward child. Its very awkwardness, however, is a reflection of NDiaye’s unforgiving intensity. Women writers may be in a minority on the Man Booker International Prize long list, but it would not surprise me if that were to be reversed by the short list.

A General Theory of Oblivion

March 31, 2016

general theory of oblivion

Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion begins on the eve of Angolan independence (presumably in 1975). Ludo lives with her sister, Odete, and brother-in-law, Orlando; Odete and Ludo are Portuguese whereas Orlando is Angolan and husband and wife argue over whether they should leave for Lisbon:

“Terrorists? Never use that word in my house again… These so-called terrorists are fighting for the freedom of my country.”

Ludo is not only excluded from the discussion, but left behind when they do disappear. Alone in the apartment, she is subjected to threatening phone calls and an attempted robbery, and decides that the only solution is to brick up the doorway (that there are bricks and cement lying around to allow her to do this is only one of many coincidences that it will not benefit the reader to examine too closely). Orlando’s reluctance to leave, and then his sudden disappearance, are connected to diamonds he has acquired by less than legal means – the diamonds referred to in the phone call (“we just want the stones”), and which those behind this message later come to collect, only to be recognised as on the wrong side of the revolution and shot:

“I do feel that two white men out in the street wearing Portuguese army boots in these troubled times seems a little to bold.”

In this Agualusa conveys the damage the country’s mineral wealth has inflicted, as well as the danger of the uprising.

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Ludo, meanwhile, running out of food, takes inspiration from her dog, Phantom, when she sees him devouring a pigeon he has caught. Lacking his agility, she sets a trap, baiting it (of course) with diamonds. In this way she catches a number of pigeons until she encounters one with a message attached from one lover to another. In sympathy she lets the pigeon go, and turns her attention to her neighbour’s hens instead. The pigeon cannot outfly its destiny, however, and is caught by Montes (the man who earlier shot the Portuguese soldier, Jeremias) who is now homeless and equally in need of sustenance. He, of course, finds the diamonds inside. (And in case you thought we were done with Jeremias, he too will reoccur until the final pages).

You may be fearing that this summary reveals the novel’s plot, but at this point we are barely one fifth of the way in. Agualusa weaves his plot as a spider its web – an object of beauty from afar, but less appealing to be stuck inside where the intricate connections can seem random at times. These connections are largely at the expense of character – even Ludo, the story’s centre piece, is ‘the woman who bricked herself in’ and, though she develops a relationship with a boy later, she remains oblique. Other characters, such as Montes and Jeremias (there are more), undergo changes, but these tend to be related to adopting new identifies in response to persecution or opportunity rather than character growth. The frequent chapters can give the impression of a stone skipping across the water, only making light contact with events before moving on.

This is not to say that Agualusa cannot write – the novel is littered with wonderfully turned phrases (praise for this is, of course, also due to translator Daniel Hahn):

“The demands all ended in exclamation marks. The exclamation marks got mixed up with the machetes the protestors were holding.”

Or this, describing Montes hiding in plain sight by pretending to be mad: “his lucidity travelling like a stowaway.” But if these are diamonds, there is a danger that the reader is the pigeon, delighting in words, but oblivious to the suffering behind them. Such is Agualusa’s love of story-telling that there is little time to experience the deeper emotions of his characters, and, in a novel which deals with violence and persecution, this can appear glib. A General Theory of Oblivion is an enjoyable read but one, as its title suggests, which does not leave a strong impression.

Tram 83

March 27, 2016

tram 83

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla is the first of two African novels on the Man Booker international Prize long list – a reasonable representation given that many African writers write in English. It’s a first novel which has already received a lot of praise and comes with a laudatory introduction by fellow Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou. Tram 83 takes place in mining town where Clint Eastwood might fear to step:

“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching beyond the City-State’s borders. “See Tram 83 and die,” was the regular refrain of the tourists who blew into town from the four corners of the globe to conduct their business.”

The small mining town is the impromptu capital of a province which has been declared independent by a rebel General in account of its possession of most of the country’s mineral wealth:

“The government army and the dissident rebels fought each other day in, day out. To get things back on track the international community had sponsored nineteen sovereign national conferences which had all come to less than naught.”

The novel begins with Lucien, a would-be writer, returning to the town, met by his old friend Requiem (though, as we will discover, their friendship has a dark and complex history). Requiem earns a living moving “merchandise,” with a side-line in blackmail. He is wealthy enough to live in Vampiretown, which, in colonial times, was the European quarter. Lucien is writing a play which he hopes will be performed in Paris; he was forced to burn the first version of this at gunpoint (interestingly, the novel reminded me of Jean Genet at times, whose first novel was destroyed by the authorities forcing him to rewrite it).

He finds a willing publisher (in Tram 83, of course, a microcosm of the continent) but is up against Requiem and a hostile public – literally hostile, that is, as he discovers when he attempts a reading:

“Outside, they continued to manhandle him. Someone picked up a tire. Someone suggested he be burned alive.”

Requiem, meanwhile, acting out of a deep-seated resentment of Lucien, obtains compromising photographs of the publisher (his usual modus operandi) and blackmails him in an attempt to thwart Lucien’s plans.#

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Tram 83 is a satire on both the political and literary situation in Africa with some wonderful lines:

“Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organised banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganised, banana republic.”

Or this advice which Lucien receives from his publisher:

“Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago. My proposition is that you resubmit this same text to me but with the action taking place in Columbia.”

However, it would be a mistake to think of it as a humorous book. Much of its effect is achieved through repetition – a repetition designed to show the desperate existence of the inhabitants, in particular the women, who, though divided by age group, are united by availability:

“…the girls under sixteen called baby-chicks, the single-mamas or those aged between twenty and forty and referred to as single-mamas even when they don’t have children, and the ageless women whose fixed age begins at forty one.”

The lines with which they attempt to hook their clients (“Do you have the time?”) echo throughout the novel, frequently interrupting other conversations.

Tram 83, then, is, for all its pulsing narrative and exuberant characters, a rather bleak book which I admired rather than loved: admired, in particular, for its lack of condescension to a European readership, plunging unapologetically into the filth and stench of the bar and refusing to leave until the last drop is drunk.

Mend the Living

March 24, 2016

mend the living

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal is what you might call a concept novel, a novel where the central idea is likely to be better known than the author or title (perhaps that’s why in the US a different translator has opted for The Heart). It’s easy to imagine curious readers asking for ‘that book about the heart transplant’, and it was that same curiosity that first prompted my desire to read it even before it appeared on the Man Booker International Prize long list. Its story is, on one level, simple: a young man, Simon Limbeau, dies in a traffic accident, and his heart is taken from his body to replace the ailing organ of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejan. What makes this novel stand out, however, is not just the emotional power and originality of its concept, but the richness of its telling.

Kerangal places the heart at the centre of a chorus of characters. Not only do we encounter Simon, his mother, Marianne, and father, Sean, but we become closely acquainted with the numerous medical staff who care, first for him, and then for his heart. Each character is brought fully to life as Kerangal utilises a variety of styles, one moment utilising an authorial voice from outside the narrative, the next placing us in the character’s consciousness. When Simon is brought to the hospital, she happily addresses the reader:

“We have someone for you. A call at 10.12 a.m. Neutral, informative, the words strike. Male, six feet, 154 pounds, about twenty years old, car accident, head trauma, in a coma – we know who’s being summed up like this, we know his name: Simon Limbeau.”

Compare this to the description of his mother receiving a phone call about the accident:

“She must have screamed loudly, loudly enough in any case that the little one reappears…eyes fixed on her mother who doesn’t see her, who pants, like a dog, movements quick and face twisted, tapping furiously on her phone to call Sean who doesn’t answer – pick up, pick up, godammit! – her mother who throws clothes on in a rush…”

Gone is the certainty (“must have”), and we see echoes of modernism in the interjection of Marianne’s thoughts into the sentence. In fitting with the novel’s exploration of what we mean by life, the narrative voice exists in tension between the outer, objective and the inner, emotional. For the latter effect, Kerangal is not afraid to use long sentences (the quotation above is extracted from one containing more than 180 words). This creates a rhythm which pulses through the novel making the text itself seem alive in a novel where the irrepressible nature of life is a main theme.

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The language, too, is full of life. Here Kerangal describes Marianne driving to the hospital:

“The outside universe dilated slowly, trembled even and paled as the air trembles and pales above the desert sand, above the pavements of roads heated in the sun, it changed into a fleeting far-off scenery, it whitened, nearly to the point of erasure, while inside the car Marianne drove with one hand, the other wiping away everything that flowed down her face…”

And while this is clearly a dramatic moment, Kerangal records each moment with a similar intensity, in a novel where there are no minor characters. One of the most beautiful passages of writing is a description of Rose, the girlfriend of one of the surgeons, who only appears in a scene where he is called away:

“..she’s beautiful as day, maxillaries pulsing beneath the skin of her jaw – fury – and doesn’t even look at him as she crosses and uncrosses her long arms of an ancient beauty, low to high, in order to take of her tank top, useless now, revealing a splendid bust composed of various circles – breasts, aerolae, nipples, belly navel, top of the two globes of her buttocks…”

It seems appropriate in a novel about life that every page, every moment should seem so alive. A great deal of credit for this should go to the translator, Jessica Moore – and it’s worth recalling that the Man Booker International Prize is also for translation. Any fear that the novel might be a gimmick is dispelled by the wonder of the writing. I fully expect to see Mend the Living on the short list.

A Whole Life

March 19, 2016

a whole life

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler arrives on the Man Booker International Prize long list in a rather unusual position. Seethaler himself is largely unknown, but his novel had been a best seller in Germany (presumably it was also a best seller in his native Austria as well, but that somehow sounds less impressive) and already seems to be something of a commercial success here (I base this on Waterstones’ promotion, and the fact that someone in my book group has already suggested it as our next book). In all this, it has something in common with another German-language novel from last year, Look Who’s Back, though I think it’s fair to say Seethaler is not trying to be funny.

A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a taciturn, morose individual who lives in a small village in the mountains:

“As a child Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered. He didn’t even really talk until his first year at school.”

To be fair, Egger’s childhood is nothing to shout (or cheer) about: when his mother dies the “about four years old” Egger is sent to live with a relative who regularly beats him with a hazel rod. One particular beating leaves him with a broken thigh, and, although it is set, the injury causes him to limp thereafter. Despite his limp, Egger is strong:

“He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.”

Soon he gets a job with a company building the infrastructure needed to run cable cars across the mountains. Egger’s story is also that of the twentieth century and the cable cars represent the arrival of technology in the rural setting. Despite Egger’s employment, they are portrayed rather negatively in the novel, with the phrase “a scar through the forest” being used more than once. They are also possibly complicit in the saddest event in Egger’s life (which I won’t mention, there being such little plot in this novel it would seem a shame to reveal one of the most affecting scenes). When war breaks out, the company begin to make armaments instead; Egger, meanwhile, uses his expertise on the Eastern Front, spending eight years in a Russian prisoner of war camp as a result. When Egger returns from the prison camp, he finds a new occupation as a mountain guide: now tourism, rather than farming, provides the village’s income.

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Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s title, it begins and ends with death. It opens with Egger’s attempt to rescue a goatherd from a snowstorm in the mountains. Suddenly the goatherd runs away from him and into the storm:

“Stop, you stupid fool! No one has ever outrun Death!”

At the end, the memory returns to him:

“’Not just yet,’ he said quietly; and winter settled over the valley.”

Egger feels his own life is “without regret” and there is a temptation to think of this book as an account of a simple life from simpler times; one rooted in place, finding contentment in the ordinary. However, this seems a very superficial reading: there is little evidence, for example, that Eggers is content, though it might be true to say that he lacks the imagination to be miserable. When, in later life, he has a chance of companionship with the school teacher, Anna, he rejects it:

“He wasn’t able to overcome his inhibitions. He had lain there motionless, as if nailed to the spot…”

When he hears Anna crying, he leaves. Surely there should be something to regret about a life lived almost entirely alone?

His positive qualities as a worker also need more closely examined as they seem to largely consist of working hard for little reward and not complaining. Seethaler does not disguise his working conditions: at one point, felling pines in the forest, a work-mate loses an arm due to “bad luck”. And, of course, there’s the eight year of his life he spends imprisoned thanks to a madman’s war (though they take up only a few pages of the novel).

Perhaps, then, I underestimate Seethaler when I say he isn’t trying to be funny: Egger’s lack of regrets seems to be a very dark joke indeed, as does the fact that some readers are under the impression that the novel contains ‘wisdom’, presumably referring to such aphorisms as “It’ll sort itself out, like everything in life” and “The old die making way for the new. That’s how it is and how it’ll always be!” Even the novel’s length seems a joke at Egger’s expense.

Whether A Whole Life will make it onto the short list is difficult to say. I suspect it will be a book which warms some and leaves others cold, as befitting a novel where its unremarkable ordinariness is both its selling point and flaw.

Man Tiger

March 14, 2016

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Although Eka Kurniawan was first published in his native Indonesia in 2000, it was only in 2015 that he came to prominence in the English-speaking world with the translation of his first novel, Beauty is a Wound. This, unfortunately, is not eligible for the Man Booker International Prize, having yet to receive a UK publication (though one is scheduled for June thanks to Pushkin Press, meaning that it could well appear on next year’s long list). His UK debut came the same year, however, with his second novel, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring.

Man Tiger is a murder story where there is no mystery regarding the murderer, only the motive. What happened is reveal in the very first sentence:

“On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.”

More details of the killing quickly follow – “The kid bit through his jugular” – but, as to why, no-one can say:

“They knew Margio the teenager and old Anwar Sadat all too well. It would never have occurred to anyone that these two figures would feature in such a tragic drama, no matter how eager Margio was to kill someone, or how detestable the man named Anwar Sadat.”

Kurniawan then moves backwards into Margio’s past as we search for an explanation of his action. The second chapter focuses mainly on the death of his sister, Marian, only a few days after she is born, shortly before the murder. This, however, only raises more questions as it seems Margio’s hatred is largely directed at his father, Komar bin Syueb, whom he blames for her death:

“Margio had been cursing their old man over and again at the nightwatch post, and similar sentiments had been heard elsewhere – that if the chance arose he would kill Komar bin Syueb…. The feeling had become more intense over the days that followed, after their week-old baby sister, Marian, died.”

By Chapter 3 Margio is seven years old and we are following the family as they move to their new house, “a concrete square a few feet on each side,” and from there we travel even further back to Komar’s courtship of his wife Nuraeni. Kurianwan not only handles this complex structure with great dexterity, making the transitions seems natural, he also flits from character to character with the same ease. Chapter 2, for example, begins from Margio’s point of view, but changes to that of his sister Mameh halfway through. Each of the four family members is the focus of the narrative at one point, portraying the complex nature of the relationships which have developed over time. In this way, we learn of the deeply unsympathetic Komar’s early struggles on behalf of his family, and of the origins of his wife’s resentment. It works particularly well with Nuraeni’s sexual awakening later in the novel, when her character, previously rather over-shadowed by the others, bursts into three dimensions as she feels herself come alive again.

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Kurianwan’s forensic examination of the chain of events which lead to the murder reveals a psychological explanation for events, but it is juxtaposed with the tiger of the title, a white tiger which is passed down through the generations and coexists with the man whose body she inhabits. Margio believes his grandfather had the tiger and longs for it to be passed on to him:

“His blood was hot and he thought perhaps that Grandpa’s tiger was already inside him. What was needed was a way to bring it out… When he woke up the next morning, a white tiger lay beside him. That was how it began.”

Interestingly the two ‘versions’ of Margio’s motives coexist quite happily. The tiger can be read as a symbol of man’s propensity for violence, a belief Margio uses to disassociate himself from his own actions, or even a longing for a more primitive state in response to the encroachment of the modern world. It is reminiscent of magical realism, before that term was corrupted to include the cute and quirky – a non-rational occurrence believed by all within the world of the novel. In the novel’s final lines the two approaches come together seamlessly.

Man Tiger lacks the impact of a great novel, but it is a very good one, carefully constructed and beautifully rendered. Kurniawan is clearly a talented writer and it would not surprise me to find Beauty is a Wound listed next year. It’s a novel that would not be out of place on the short-list, but will perhaps lose out to the quality of the competition.

Man Booker International Prize 2016

March 11, 2016

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Thursday saw the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker International Prize, slightly shorter than its predecessor the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but with a strong selection of fiction from around the globe.

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) Labodalih Sembiring, Man Tiger (Verso Books)

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria) Roland Glasser, Tram 83 (Jacaranda)

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) Stefan Tobler, A Cup of Rage (Penguin Modern Classics)

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger (Peirene Press)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life (Picador)

My first reaction is that is a particularly global list, with fewer than half the books from Europe, and representation from Africa, Asia and South America. Though there are only four women writers (the same as last year, though a better proportion), they are all strong candidates, and it would not surprise me if a woman won the inaugural Man Booker, just as a woman won the final IFFP. (In Marie NDiaye’s case I say that on the strength of Three Strong Women: in keeping with Booker tradition, Ladivine has not yet been released).

I have already reviewed three of the books (The Vegetarian, White Hunger, and A Cup of Rage) and, as two of them made my best of the year list for 2015, and the third was released in January, it’s safe to say I’m pleased with their inclusion. I’ve also read The Story of the Lost Child, and, while there has been some disquiet about judging what is the fourth volume of a series as a stand-alone novel (I’m looking at you, Tony), it would seem unreasonable to exclude it on those grounds.

Of the other books, Tram 83 has received a lot of praise, as has Eka Kurniawan – though much of this has been for the ineligible Beauty is a Wound. Raduan Nassar is perhaps a surprise inclusion, not only because, as he stopped writing in 1984, many may have concluded he was dead, but because A Cup of Rage is probably not long enough to be regarded as a novella. The list also includes two Nobel Prize winners, Kenzaburō Ōe and Orhan Pamuk. I’m disappointed with the inclusion of Pamuk, IFFP winner with The White Castle and also short-listed with Snow, as his previous novel, The Museum of Innocence, was one of the dullest reads I have ever experienced, and this one is another meandering tale of his love for Istanbul. Another previous IFFP winner is José Eduardo Agualusa – I found that novel (The Book of Chameleons) rather superficial so it will be interesting to see how this compares. In both cases it’s hard not to wonder whether the fact the Man Booker has the same permanent chairman as the IFFP has some bearing on their inclusion. (The same might also be said of Yan Lianke, who was short-listed for Dream of Ding Village in 2012, but I am much more excited about reading The Four Books).

Inevitably there are some surprising omissions, particularly from Spain. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila was my book of the year last year, and Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open also made my top ten. In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina was also highly thought of, as was Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Dream. (Presumably Javier Maria’s Thus Bad Begins was eligible too). Sticking with the Spanish language, the inclusion of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World seemed a certain bet. Having said this, no long list can contain everyone’s favourites, and if this one only echoed my tastes I would have nothing left to read. It’s the voyage of discovery ahead that I’m most looking forward to.