Regular readers of my blog (if there are any) will know that since I discovered the MALP in December when I stumbled on the long list in my search for Asian literature, to somehow deepen my knowledge of Asian
cultures during my stay here in Hong Kong, I set myself the task of reading all the long list and then assessing the short list. This was before I encountered the vagaries of book sellers who obviously hedge their bets on these competitions and then cash in on the winners. For me, I need the thrill of reading a set of books in a timeframe and for a purpose and for that I need the books in good time not just in the winner’s enclosure. One bookshop in HK proudly boasted the names of the long list on their counter with the encouragement to purchase them here. Delighted I proceeded to ask where they were in the shop to discover that they only had one in stock and I had already purchased this.
But I managed with some endeavour and expense to get six of the long list via HK bookshops and via the reliable Amazon who shipped them here in good time. I prayed for those I had managed to find being on the short list and discovered to my delight four of them were with just one new book to track down. I could leave alone by search for the other three, probably sadly forever!! To get this final book I wrote to the organisers, I appealed on
Facebook, I re-ran Amazon searches and then hit upon India versions of Amazon. The book was there though the first three internet bookshops did not post out of India. Eventually I secured a somewhat expensive hard copy of the missing book and it arrived within two weeks. So well before I attended this evening’s gathering at the HK Literary Festival I had read them all, listened to critical comments both on HK radio of all the books and also read numerous reviews.
I worried that tonight might change my views more by whether I liked the authors than by the intrinsic merits of the books. Well in the end I met three authors and two translators. Understandably, if regrettably, the two Japanese authors were unable to be there. No issue there, the Japan disasters puts such prizes in their place!!
Anyway the authors did reflect their books a little. Manu Joseph was the cocky, funny, political satirist we saw in Serious Men, the only one who challenged the other authors and seemed to make his points partly a
response to some of his critics, not in the audience but in book reviews. He
was as likable as his book was and pulled no punches. Tabish Khair was
altogether more circumspect, weighing his words carefully and balancing his
comments and his remarks. Very likeable in a reflective, calm authoritative way he spoke and not unlike the style of his book. Bi Feiyu spoke in Cantonese and was translated. He defended the themes of his book robustly and showed in his comments the deeply political and cultural underpinning of Chinese lives in the late twentieth century portrayed so well in his novel.
The two translators were asked about, well you would expect this, the role of translating. The translator of the Agowa novel talked 0f the many difficulties of translation from Japanese to English and confessed to have abandoned earlier attempts to translate Oe as too difficult admiring the woman who had done so on this occasion. Despite the obvious linguistic nightmare of this task both agreed that the essence of the translation is to convey the meanings and the ideas behind the words even if there was a huge problem of equivalencies on a word by word basis. For my part I found both books well-written and so the basic task seemed to be achieved well.
They read passages from their books which worked well in four cases but I thought the Oe chosen piece did not convey the books essence as well as it might have done. But a great evening and a new experience for me to meet the authors. I forgot to take my copies of the books with me so failed to get their signatures but it helped in rounding out my view of the five books. So nervously and with obvious disclaimers about accuracy and it just being my own thoughts I move to my final thoughts.
Before anyone feels swayed by my choices and my reasoning I must first offer a couple more disclaimers. I am not a literary critic, by ‘E’ in english at A Level in 1969 suggested I choose another career and though I undertake book reviews in my field, criminology, I am no expert on literature.
Secondly, I have the unerring knack through the Man Booker Prize of choosing the book least likely to win. Indeed in October 2010 five of us conspired to only agree on one of the shortlist and that was that this was the least winnable book. Needless to say it was the winner!! So please read the following with that health warning.
How do I judge such disparate and varied set of books. I think it is important it has literary merit, that you can feel that the book ‘has legs’ and will last for some years on bookshelves. Secondly it has to be readable, well written and for me tell an intelligible story. I am not a fan of those books which you can other decipher by reference to an in-depth knowledge of post-modernist theory aka G in the last Man Booker shortlist. I like also to see authenticity in their interpretation of cultural and gender issues, albeit that is edged by my own limitations in understanding a relevancy in relation to some of the cultural themes of some of these novels.
I liked them all but for me two of the novels do not fulfil the criteria I have set myself even though I enjoyed them and certainly got something from them. I have separately reviewed each book on previous blogs here (Go t category All About Books) so I confine myself here to my reservations. The Changeling is heavy prose in any language. Clearly as a Nobel prize winner he is regarded in a very positive light but, even before I knew about its heavy autobiographical content, which when I learnt about it, showed the book to be a barely concealed autobiography in many parts, I found the intense angst and reflections on his life and those around him affected by earlier events at times a little laboured. I laboured on and got a lot from the book but in a good list of five it was my least favourite.
I struggled too with Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters. I learnt so much about
the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China, the oppressive way in which
women are treated, the aftershocks reverberating down later generations of the failures of the cultural revolution. They were all well portrayed and gave me useful knowledge. But as a novel overall it did not hang together. I enjoyed the first two stories which suggested that the whole book could be linked together but the third story seemed separate and though it was another sister the first two simply disappeared from view. The choice of three sisters, first second and the youngest was explained by Bi at tonight’s event. He justified his choice in terms of the timeline of change in China but my criticism remains of a disjointed third story but in the context of the fact that I would recommend reading it (as I would all of them) it was only my fourth favourite.
I come to Manu Joseph and Serious Men. It would not surprise me if this won. It is a wonderful novel to read, it is funny, it is incisive in identifying the absurdity of academic life and shows the ways in which Dalit and Bharhim cultures live their lives in India very poignantly. There were many memorable moments. But when I read the critics and heard the critics on radio whilst it was lauded in parts this was measured by two criticisms I myself had thought when I read it. Firstly its female characters are under developed and dismissed from the story in the latter stages. He tried to justify his approach tonight I was less than convinced and secondly it is a first novel and it shows some raw edges. But please read it its fun and quick to read.
So I am left with two Hotel Iris and The Thing about Thugs. The former is written by the only woman author to make the short list. The first thing going for it is that it is a one sitting read. It is short, flows easily off the page and is hard to put down. Is it sufficient to be seen as a good novel? I know short novels do not often make it through the Man Booker cut and indeed in 2009 the short list was better weighed than read such were the tomes selected. On its own merits it is so worth a read. It is dark and deeply disturbing. The sado masochistic centrepiece is shocking but raises many questions in your mind and it has the desired impact of making you
think deeply about the nature of relationships and the ways in which so-called ‘normal’ relationships must contribute to such outcomes, vis-a-vie the mother in this novel.
The Thing About Thugs chooses a risky device in using many voices as
competing narratives to describe what is happening. I am naturally a multi-tasker and did not find this disturbing in fact it kept me engaged and I felt it not only gave a rounded picture of what was happening it showed how opposing viewpoints can be held in good faith whilst being absurd to others. I learnt about the contested history of thuggery and saw the flowerings of primitive criminology alongside the dangerous prejudices of our ruling class aristocracy in the pieces on phrenology. It was surprising, it was gripping, it was well written and yes I am condemning it to an also ran in the MALP competition. I think this book deserves the prize.