ManBooker Prize Posts

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

….

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

To read the full interview please visit Bookwitty.

30 August 2017 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 2017 

 

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

madeleine-thien(My interview with award-winning author Madeleine Thien was published in Scroll on 29 Oct 2016. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819960/it-isnt-autobiography-but-its-a-daughters-book-in-every-way-madeleine-thien . I have c&p the interview below. )

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

The author talks about her extraordinary novel ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’.

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection, Simple Recipes, and three novels, including Dogs at the Perimeter, which was awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. It is, of course, her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The youngest daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, Thien lives in Montreal. Excerpts from an email interview with Madeline Thien, conducted before the prize-winner was announced:

Please tell me more about the title – Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
The title comes from a line of music – the Chinese translation of a Russian translation of Eugène Pottier’s original French lyrics of The Internationale – which has resonated across 20th century China. The French line, “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” (“We are nothing, let us be all”) became 不要说我们一无所有 (Do not say that we have nothing). The translation is by Qu Qiubai, a Communist Party leader, tragically executed in 1935, who is said to have sung The Internationale as he walked to his death. The anthem was also sung by the students in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, as they left Tiananmen Square while the massacre was still unfolding.

Of all the composers why did you choose Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach almost like a chorus in your novel? How does Beethoven fit into the spectrum of Soviet composers you choose to mention – Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich?
Between the composer, Sparrow, who is the conscience of the novel, and me, this was the piece of music that anchored us. It’s a set of 30 variations and canons, all derived from a very simple theme in the opening aria, found not in the melody but in the bass line; and the entire piece begins and ends with the same aria, though by the time we arrive at the end, we have journeyed across timescapes. The Goldberg Variations are just one example of Bach’s extraordinary compositions which are built from strict form and structure, and yet somehow give rise to astonishing freedom, individuality, polyphony and range. In other words, they break you open and remake you.

The musicians in Do Not Say would have had ready access to the works of the Russian composers, as well as to Russian musicians and teachers, up until the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, so they would be foundational to the life and work of Sparrow. Beethoven’s renown in China is a separate story, and a fascinating trajectory, recently told by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai in their new book, Beethoven in China.

How long as the book been a part of you? How many drafts did it take to write?
Once I began writing, it took about five years, and probably 8-10 drafts, and that is quite little for me. The first third was, in some ways, the most challenging because of the foundation that needed to be created, and the strength (physical, artistic) to set a relatively large object into motion. I think the book has been part of me since childhood.

Somehow I had an inkling this was the case. The manner in which the story has been written and details mentioned suggested you had been thinking about it a lot, probably well before the book began its life as a manuscript. Also there was a sense that the book was like a witnessing. As if it was crucial for you to share your experiences in this manner with the younger generations who are probably not as well-informed about the transformations wrought to Chinese society.

In a way, I think of it not necessarily as a book written for younger generations, but as a book written to the older one. It isn’t an autobiographical novel, but it is a daughter’s book in every way. It tries to say that the daughter has grown older, and in living her life, with all its joys, heartbreaks, betrayals, wonder, has finally come to understand something of what her parents lived.

How much research and fact-checking did it involve?
A great deal, about history and music and mathematics and language, and about simply paying attention to life and living. But very few things, perhaps nothing, ever feel to me like pure research. Thinking about the world of the novel was my life, and so reading, asking questions, travelling, wandering, listening to music, and just being in China, was my life. It was expansive and challenging and also joyful, and of course, at times, it was devastating. The middle of the book, which slows down into the summer of 1966, was very difficult for me, and I had to stop writing for a few months after those sections were written. I had to come back to myself so that I could eventually return to the characters.

The pain you describe in the story and then acknowledge having found it tough to contend with makes absolute sense. Writing those words could not have been easy. Even as a reader I had to keep pausing as it was devastating to read the descriptions.
I’m so glad to hear that you paused, Jaya. Sometimes what the writer can’t work into the text are these spaces, pauses and rests, the moments that haven’t quite run their course even though the text had reached the end of the line.

Parts of the story ring true. Did you record oral histories and testimonies for this or referred to some archival material?
No, I didn’t record interviews. I had a lot of conversations, but they ranged from hanging out with composers to unexpected encounters on the street to visiting the small memorial at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, wandering in and out of practise rooms, going overnight into the desert in Gansu province, visiting my grandfather’s village in southern China, or just returning, year after year, to Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Avenue, and trying to absorb all the details. I read widely (the unrelated books are sometimes as important as the related ones) and travelled widely, and I just took the time I needed, as slow as it sometimes seemed. Being in China was humbling, provocative, and life changing.

Did you often make trips to China while working on this manuscript?
Yes, many trips, some longer (several months) and some brief (a couple of weeks). I was fortunate in that, for six years, I was coming to Hong Kong once or twice a year to teach a week-long workshop, and so could regularly add time in China. I was also writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for one semester, which allowed me to make frequent trips to China.

Do you think this book will be sold in China?
Yes. Not in the present moment, one day in the future that we can’t yet foresee.

I recommended your book to a couple of friends currently in China and Japan and both replied, “Sounds fascinating but we are not very sure if it will be available.”
I hope a translation will be possible sooner than we think. The untranslated book (UK edition) is available in Hong Kong and Japan, but not China.

How do you feel having written it?
As if I have been given something by the book itself. It allowed me to live in ways I could never have imagined on my own.

Why is there no genealogy tree or a timeline of events in the novel? Why are the annotations not starred?
There will be a family tree in the US edition of the novel, but it was never something that came up for the Canadian and UK editions. As a work of literature, a reader comes to know the characters or, to put it another ways, comes to live in the world the characters know. As the pages turn, the circle of that world expands. The annotations are not starred because, for me, the endnotes are a part of the literary work itself. Do Not Say is a book of books, and the endnotes continue the story. They are all open doorways within the novel, because no book exists in solitude.

Interesting that the US edition will have a genealogy. How did that decision come about?
The US publisher requested one. They did a beautiful job, and the design reminds me of notes on a stave.

Is this pure literary fiction or is it a cross between memoir and historical fiction? Why did you choose a writing style that sometimes seems to lapse into a meticulous historical account rather than fiction?
This is literature, in the sense that the novel is a relatively young form, and its borders are still contested. The world exists in storytelling just as storytelling exists in the world; I wouldn’t know how to extricate one from the other. For me, and perhaps this is an artistic failing of mine, I don’t think of it as meticulously historical. We are always with the characters, in their diction and register, in their conflict between public expression (Zhuli’s arguments with herself as she tries to align her thoughts with Chairman Mao’s discourse on the dangers of art for art’s sake) and private expression – in other words, between public and private languages, and public and private selves. All I can say with any confidence is that this is not memoir, as it has almost no overlap with my own family’s history; but I do think of it as a novel of intimacy.

After sending you this question I read that you had categorically denied this is a work of historical fiction. So my apologies. But I do love your description of it as a “novel of intimacy”.
Please don’t worry at all! I’m not sure I’m super categorical about it, but have lingering questions about what we mean by a work of historical fiction, how far back is the historical, etc. I don’t feel that we would call a work partially set in 1960s New York a work of historical fiction.

Madeleine Thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing Penguin, 2016. Pb. pp. 

3 November 2016 

American writer Paul Beatty brings back slavery and segregation to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize

( My review of the Man Booker Prize 2016 winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty was published by Scroll on 26 Oct 2016, a day after the win was announced. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819961/american-writer-paul-beatty-brings-back-slavery-and-segregation-to-win-the-ps50000-man-booker-prize . I am also c&p the text below. )

‘The Sellout’ is a wicked satire on racism, and makes Beatty the first American to win the Man Booker.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store…But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

~~~

That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost while to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall. I was the “diversity” the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class.

Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout is a magnificently absorbing story told by a nameless narrator who is referred to by his girlfriend as “Bonbon”. The novel opens with him in court not for a petty crime like stealing, but for encouraging racial segregation and slavery. The narrator has been born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles.

A work of contemporary fiction that revolves around histories of family,The Sellout comes with a twist. It covers only two generations – father and son, and what happens next. Among other things, this includes the reintroduction of slavery and segregation. The father of the narrator is a single parent and a sociologist, who turns his only son into an on-going social experiment in childrearing methodologies.

For instance, the father ties his four-year-old son’s right hand behind his back so that he can grow to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. Or, he tests the “bystander effect” as it applies to the “Black community” on his eight-year-old son by beating the boy in front of a throng of bystanders who don’t stand around for too long. Sadly the father is killed in a police shoot out. The narrator is left bewildered.

You’re supposed to cry when your dad dies. Curse the system because your father has died at the hands of the police. Bemoan being lower-middle-class and coloured in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones. But I didn’t cry. I thought his death was a trick. Another one of his elaborate schemes to educate me on the plight of the black race and to inspire me to make something of myself, I half expected him to get up, brush himself off, and say, “See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t shoot niggers on sight.”

The inheritance is downright bizarre – the son, like his father, becomes a “nigger whisperer”. It is one of these men he “rescues”, Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals”, who becomes a devoted slave to the narrator. Curiously enough, just as he was his father’s little social experiment, the narrator turns his neighbourhood into a larger sociological study by promoting segregation to the extent of drawing a white boundary line around the space.

The Sellout maintains a mad pace of breathless storytelling that sometimes only works effectively if read out aloud. In an interview recorded in May 2015, Beatty, pokes fun at racial politics but insists that the novel is about a ton of other things too. ( (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4PYhbZvz_g ) He refers to his work as a metaphorical tale wherein he has been thinking about segregation and how it will be in modern times. Acknowledging it also changes one’s outlook. He adds, “I don’t try to be satirical but I think in my head and on paper and it takes a long, long time to be poetic and I have a little bit of agenda which is hard to pull off.”

The Man Booker winner says his approach involves humour and personal experience. “I am starting from myself.” With the American presidential elections due in less than a month, was the jury specially influenced by the issues raised in this novel? It is a stupendous decision by the Man Booker Prize judges in awarding the £50,000 award to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It is the first time an American has won the prize. It is a doubly sweet win for independent publishers Oneworld who have probably made publishing history for their back-to-back win at the prestigious literary award. The Man Booker Prize 2015 awarded to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was a Oneworld publication too. In the subcontinent Pan MacMillan India represents and distributes Oneworld.

As a poet, writer, and a trained psychologist, Beatty has brought his vast experience in writing and understanding human behaviour to produce a magnificently raw, hard-hitting, fantastically honest, take-your-breath-away work of dark humour. The Sellout is satire at its finest. At times it is hard to believe this is fiction and not excellent reportage.

Paul Beatty The Sellout Oneworld,London, 2016. Pb. pp. 288 Rs 399 

26 Oct 2016 

Wyl Menmuir, “The Many”

Timothy has come to resurrect Perran. He has come to destroy Perran’s house, to erase his memory. He’s come because that’s what upcountry folk do, to replace the drudgery of the city with that of the coast. He has come to
save them from themselves, or to hold up a mirror to them and they will see themselves reflected back in all their faults and backwardness. He has come to change them, to impose himself on them, to lead them or to fade into their shadows.

The Many is Wyl Menmuir’s debut novel which has been longlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2016. It is a slim novel based in a fishing village in north Cornwall. It revolves around two men — Ethan and Timothy. Ethan is a local and Timothy Buchannan is from the city. They form an unlikely pair and yet seem to spend a lot of their time together — idling, talking and fishing. They are seemingly bound by the fisherman Perran who had disappeared mysteriously some years earlier — Timothy questioning Perran’s disappearance and Ethan reticent about sharing any information about a man he was close to. In fact it is Perran’s abandoned cottage and its spoilt contents which is bought by Timothy when he visits the village much to the local villagers surprise, distaste and discomfort. There is a sense of despair hovering in the air, with the stench of death literally personified by the wasted fish caught in the polluted waters. There is desperation amongst the villagers in trying to eke out an existence by farming the sea for fresh produce which is rarely forthcoming. Whatever little money is to be made is dependant very heavily on the price set by Clem on behalf of the fishermen. The catch is inevitably sold to a mysterious group of people who stand a little away from the beach fixing a price with Clem. It is never very clear what they intend on doing with the poor catch, probably recycle it for the pharmaceutical industry but it is a paltry income welcomed by the locals since that is all they have access to.ev_wyl_menmuir

While reading The Many there are many thoughts unleashed particularly about the slowly decaying lifestyle of a fishing village, the increasing dominance of city ways and yet the inexplicable power ( and cruelty) of Nature and its complicated relationship with Man. It manifests itself in this novel in many ways particularly in the mysterious fevers that plague Timothy and his hallucinations blurring the line between reality and fiction. Yet when reading the novel it all seems so plausible that it is impossible to query it.

This is a novel that has to be read at one go but one of those rare stories that once you have reached the end you start reading it all over again. There are moments one has to pause and wonder if it is reminiscent of similar writing in the past and then realise it would be unfair to compare The Many to any other writing. Wyl Menmuir’s style is wholly original, it grips one with its exquisitely chiselled style to create a stunningly beautiful and memorable novel much like the Cornish coast is. As with most longlists that put the spotlight on new voices and new styles of writing, the Man Booker judges have been correct in highlighting the debut novel of Wyl Menmuir. Whether he makes it to the shortlist or not is immaterial for now. This is a writer worth looking out for in the future. He is a confident storyteller who is aware of what it takes to be a master craftsman.

The Many is a debut novel with an earthiness to it and yet something so slippery and mysterious, with an almost magical quality to it.

Read it.

Wyl Menmuir The Many Salt Publishing, Norfolk, 2016. Pb. pp. 148 

9 August 2016 

*Book sent by the publisher, Chris Hamilton- Emery

* Images off the Internet

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, translated by Deborah Smith

image

Deborah Smith (left), translator of the winning book, The Vegetarian, with author Han Kang at the Man Booker International Prize in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images. ( Taken from the Internet)

She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her,  the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shab-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us form the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. …She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000 –won of saltwater eel.

The Vegetarian or Chaesikjuuija by Han Kang was published in Korean in 2007. The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. She is discovered by her husband quietly and methodically removing all the meat products from their refrigerator and putting them into garbage bags. A horrifying proposition as her father points out, “It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!” Yeong-hye is reserved and rarely speaks even to her husband. She prefers to remain confined to a room in their apartment reading and reflecting. After deciding to turn vegetarian despite being more than a competent cook she inexplicably imposes the dietary restriction on her husband too. He seeks assistance from his in-laws in the hope they will be able to get some sense in to their daughter but to no avail. Slowly the mental well-being of Yeong-hye deteriorates when she begins to believe that she is photosynthesising like a plant and has to be institutionalised.

The Vegetarian sub-heading declares it to be a novel. But the published version consists of three interlinked stories told from three different points-of-view: Yeon-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. While they tell the story there are marginal overlaps of the narrative but slowly and steadily the plot does move ahead in time. It covers the time from the moment Yeon-hye decides to turn vegetarian to her institutionalisation, abandoned by her husband, returns to society to live alone albeit under the supervision of her sister and then back again in an institution. During the course of this time supposedly in the name of an art installation she agrees to her brother-in-law’s suggestion to have her body covered in paint and then filmed having sex with him only to be discovered by her sister. Despite the betrayal by her sister, In-hye, does not stop caring for Yeon-hye and regularly visits her, “despite the probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiousity” that she encounters from her fellow passengers en route to Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital, Maseok.

It was first published as three separate “novelettes” and then compiled into a “novel” as described on the copyright page of the English edition. This is how it was published in English too in 2015. An early version of the story that developed into The Vegetarian can be read on the Granta website:http://granta.com/the-fruit-of-my-woman/ .  This curiously mesmerising example of a contemporary magic realism novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize, the first after it had been combined with the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction.  Han Kang beat other powerful contenders such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Kenzaburō Ōe. From this year the prize is now awarded to a single foreign novel translated into English, the money involved—£50,000 ($72,000)—being shared equally by author and translator. Till the win Han Kang and Deborah Smith were little known in international literary circles. Interestingly enough translating this book was one of Deborah Smith’s first professional attempts and she literally struck gold. She has said many times on social media since the win that she was translating the book while learning Korean. It was pure luck that this particular book went on to achieve international acclaim. In an interview, Smith explains how, having completed a degree in English literature, she decided to become a translator. Monolingual until then, she chose Korean “pragmatically,” because she had heard there was a lively literary scene in Korea and far fewer translators than for European languages. But she also very graciously acknowledged in an article how publishing is an industry and translation is a community – “nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/deborah-smith-publishing-is-an-industry-but-translation-is-a-community-1.2688760) She herself proposed The Vegetarian to an English publisher who accepted it. It is the first novel she has translated. Yet there has been criticism regarding the quality of translation from critics such as Tim Parks who refers to them as “translation niggles”.  (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/ )

For someone so passionate about the translated literature it is apt Smith has inaugurated her independent publishing press, Tilted Axis Press, with Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha. To commemorate Women in Translation Month* ‪ (#‎WITMonth ) observed in August, Deborah Smith published the second title, a South Korean novel One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon.

*The Women in Translation month is an annual ritual started as recently as three years ago to address the gender imbalances in literature by blogger Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio.  (http://biblibio.blogspot.in/2016/08/witmonth-2016-day-1-ready-set-go.html )

Han Kang The Vegetarian: A Novel ( Translated by Deborah Smith) Portobello Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. 184 Rs 499

Robert Seethaler, “A Whole Life”

A Whole LifeYou can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. ( p.37)

Robert Seethaler’s novel A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who never grumbled about work and did it diligently through all seasons. He was “considered a cripple, but he was strong”. He was orphaned at two but sent to live with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker. At eighteen his uncle threw him out of the house and Andreas began working for Bitterman & Sons construction teams which were setting up cable cars in the mountains. Later he was conscripted during the war, became prisoner of war at a Serbian camp, Voroshilovgrad, for eight years, and returned home to discover the construction firm had gone bankrupt and he earned his living as a tourist guide. There is hardship. There is immense loneliness. There is brutal violence like flogging of the young Andreas Egger by his uncle and breaking his leg earning him the nickname in the village “Gammy Leg”. Despite being a nondescript novel at one level there are moments of pure earthy tenderness such as his proposal to Marie. Adapting the tradition of Sacred Heart Fires — huge fire pictures that were lit on summer solstice, illuminating the mountain by night. He enlisted the help of his co-workers and emblazoned on the Austrian mountainside “For you, Marie”. Unfortunately after her untimely death in an avalanche Andreas Egger remains a widower for the rest of his life.

A Whole Life is a seemingly nondescript novel but comes alive upon second reading with the tiny details embedded in it that illuminate it much like the summer solstice fires emblazoning the rugged mountainside with moments of extraordinary beauty. The deep loneliness of Andreas Egger is enhanced by the story being very masculine not because it is about a male protagonist but for a man who chooses to be a loner and hardly anyone is inquisitive about it.  ( For a woman it would be an entirely different story!) It is no wonder that the slim novella exquisitely translated by Charlotte Collins from German has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Whole Life is like old gold. It will become a modern classic.

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, London, 2015. 

( Originally published in German 2014 as Ein ganzes Leben  by Hanser Berlin, an imprint of Carl Hanser Verlag, Berlin.)

15 May 2016

 

Raduan Nassar, “A Cup of Rage” ( Transl. by Stefan Tobler)

Raduan Nassar…I could’ve found plenty of reasons to trip her up, not that I was so naif I demanded coherence, I didn’t expect that of her, I didn’t boast of that myself, only idiots and bastards proclaim that they serve a single lord, in the end we are all beasts born of one and the same dirty womb, carriers of the most vile contradictions, …” ( p.19, A Cup of Rage)

A Cup of Rage is a slim book of 47 pages and seven chapters. Each chapter consists of one long sentence. It is about a pair of lovers — a young female journalist and an older man who inhabits an isolated farm. They spend the night together and the following morning without any warning they tear into each other. It is unexpectedly barbaric and devastating given how a little while earlier they had been so lovingly tender. A Cup of Rage is an extraordinary text for its intensity and the power game between the couple. The book was first published in 1978.  Given that women’s movements and feminism were gaining significance in the 1970s the old man’s venomous verbal tirade directed at the emancipated woman/lover followed by the stinging slap he delivers gives the reader a shocking jolt. The unexpectedness of the rage could be seen at face-value as a spat between lovers or as a commentary on the changing social structures and gender equations. Even though I am not familiar with the source language — Portuguese — there is something in the tenor of the translation by Stefan Tobler that makes the story truly magnificent. Sure, there is passion evident in the opening sex scene but the incredible skill of this translation is evident in the energy being carried over to the next day’s incident. Somehow it gets incredibly transmitted in the English text. It has been a while since I read a text that was absorbing to read from the word go.

Raduan Nassar writes these long sentences making one breathless but akin to moments very similar to how we think –flitting from topic to topic, a roller coaster of emotions, going off at a tangent sometimes but somewhere keeping it altogether with a bit of philosophical reflection and analysis. The chapter-long sentence broken occasionally by punctuation moves so seemingly effortlessly. It is like a dance. Fluid. Broken by moments of intensity ( whether in conversation or action) punctuated by moments of such detached reflection bordering on meditation. There are moments when the text is better engaged with as a reader when read out aloud. Stefan Tobler writes in The Independent, “The writing has the sheer unstoppable force of a child’s temper tantrum, and only on a second read – or as an editor or translator – do you see the intricate patterns and repetitions that combine to produce this crushing emotional onslaught. He plays fast and loose with standard syntax and punctuation to convey the turmoil and onward rush of his characters. Most of his pages-spanning chapters in A Cup of Rage are a single long, evocative sentence.” It is no wonder then that as soon as the book finishes you go back to the first page to begin reading it once again. According to an email correspondence I had with Stefan Tobler  the first draft of this translation was written almost ten years ago but he returned to edit intensively a year ago. To quote him: ” It was a joy to have something both so precise and so passionate to work with.”

Raduan Nassar is a farmer now and has been for many years. He is considered a modern literary giant of Latin Ancient TillageAmerica despite having written only two novels. Ancient Tillage is his second book although it was published first. The first English translation has been done by Karen Sotelino. Literary techniques employed in both texts are very similar but in A Cup of Rage these come across as a little more sophisticated, probably a testimony to the quality of translation. It is difficult to say since chronologically A Cup of Rage was written after Ancient Tillage but published first in the 1970s.  It could be that by the time he wrote the second story the author had experimented more with writing. But there is a distinct difference in the two texts. In A Cup of Rage the interior monologue comes across as a richly textured, passionate and sensual. In Ancient Tillage it is flat and dull with a touch of bewilderment. It could be due to the ages of the protagonists too in the stories — young in Ancient Tillage and old in Cup of Rage — thereby being a remarkable comment on Raduan Nassar’s skill as a writer, the ability to be in character of a young and an old man so wonderfully.

His evolution as a writer and experiments with literature are not very well documented since Raduan Nassar sparingly gives interviews. He prefers to be a recluse albeit not in a similar fashion to J. D. Salinger.  Stefan Tobler wrote a wonderful profile of the eighty-year-old Brazilian author in The Independent to coincide with the publication of the first English translation of these texts. ( http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/raduan-nassar-became-a-brazilian-sensation-with-his-first-novel-now-published-in-english-the-world-a6877851.html )

I am not surprised A Cup of Rage has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Read the two novels for a glimpse into the earthy brilliance of Raduan Nassar’s writing.

Raduan Nassar A Cup of Rage ( Transl. Stefan Tobler) Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2015. Pb. pp.50 £5.99. First published as Um Capo de Colera in 1978. 

Raduan Nassar Ancient Tillage ( Transl. Karen Sotelino) Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2015. Pb. pp.50 £7.99. First published as Lavoura Arcaica in 1975. 

2 April 2016

Hanya Yanagihara, “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara“Contracts are not just sheets of paper promising you a job, or a house, or an inheritance: in its purest, truest, broadest sense, contracts govern every realm of law. When we choose to live in a society, we choose to live under a contract, and to abide by the rules that a contract dictates for us… .” ( p.116) 

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life is a strong contender for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015. It will be announced on Tuesday, 13 October 2015. Meanwhile it has created a more than a little storm in literary circles around the globe. Inevitably comments are being posted about how powerful it is, the incredible writing and not a single reader has been left unscathed, many dissolving into tears while reading it. Needless to say it rocks you emotionally. It has to be one of the most exhausting novels from contemporary literature and this is not a testimony to the time spent reading the 700-odd pages. It is the story itself. Four young men, friends from their days as undergraduates at a prestigious New England University, who try finding their feet as professionals as adults. The novel spans their lifetime but instead of it being a straightforward old-fashioned bildungsroman, it delves into their past particularly their formative years as children focusing primarily on Jude St.Francis. There is forward movement, it is hard-hitting, at times a painfully descriptive yet grippingly told narrative. It is a book that demands to be read at one-sitting ( read minimum three days) without getting distracted by anything else, otherwise it will be impossible to finish reading.

A Little Life is already being termed as a “queer classic” within a few months of its publication. It is a devastating look at adult male relationships primarily through the prism of love that the four men have for each other. The story is mapped from their days as students to old age. A time when most people have mellowed or come to terms with the life they live except for Jude who continues to be consistent in his personality –notably his physical self-flagellation whereas Hanya Yanagihara sees Jude as being “consistent in his hopefulness”. ( Hear the Guardian podcast.) If it were not for the immense love, tenderness and understanding his inner circle has for him, Jude would have long been dead. Somehow this inexplicably violent aspect of his personality overshadows his brilliance as a lawyer. Along the way other forms of love are also explored — the love between parents ( biological, foster and adopted) parents for their wards, the expression of love ( at times horrifically warped — between lovers, rapists, perpetrators of child sexual abuse) and how the bonds of love are forged over time? The factor of trust is also explored in many ways. Trust is an essential part of the foundation upon which love between two individuals is built, so should it be ever taken for granted or does it require constant nurturing?

Hanya Yanagihara is a journalist who has been with Conde Nast and New York Times. She spent a few years writing this novel.  Here is an interview between her editor, Gerry Howard and her, published in Slate. ( 5 March 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/03/hanya_yanagihara_author_of_a_little_life_and_her_editor_gerry_howard.html ) There have been a deluge of articles, reviews, interviews, podcasts with the author, coming to terms with A Little Life. It is no mean achievement when a writer is able to create a work of art that has a phenomenal reaction. Over and over again readers are responding to the manner in which it transformed them. The only consistent element evident in the media buzz about A Little Life  is the astonished reaction at encountering this work of literary art. The fact that it is a work of fiction, but so magnificently detailed to make it powerfully moving and yet, as Hanya has discovered, young men have approached her saying this is remarkably true to their lives. But she clarifies in the interview with Claire Armistead that she has never known a Jude or a person who could have inspired the character. It is a novel that has created a new benchmark of literary fiction. Yet I cannot help feeling it is an example of a new form of decadence in the craft of writing. It rips apart the known “limits” of literary fiction immersing the reader in a vortex of pain, suffering, love, and relationships making it a harrowing experience but strangely addictive too — akin to the fascination upon discovering a mind blowing new art form. Even the author confirms that “this book is extravagant, its highly artificial, its large in its emotions…I want to push way up against the line almost of melodrama …and so I really wanted to push every single emotion, every single sensation as far as I could and I don’t think that is a very fashionable way to write fiction any more. Not that I was concerned about that.” ( Excerpt quoted from the Guardian podcast with Claire Armistead.)

Read it.

Some links to read:

  1. The Guardian Books Podcast with Claire Armistead, 28 August 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/aug/28/novels-books-podcast-hanya-yanagihara-andrew-miller
  2. James Kidd talks to Hanya Yanagihara, 23 August 2015. http://thiswritinglife.co.uk/e/episode-27-hanya-yanagihara-a-little-life-part-1/
  3. Lucy Scholes  in Bookanista “Hanya Yanagihara among friends” http://bookanista.com/hanya-yanagihara/
  4. Jon Michaud ” The subversive brilliance of A Little Life” 28 April 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life
  5. A interview and a review in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/26/hanya-yanagihara-i-wanted-everything-turned-up-a-little-too-high-interview-a-little-life and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/18/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-review-man-booker-prize
  6. An interview in the Bookseller http://www.thebookseller.com/insight/hanya-yanagihara-interview

Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life Picador, London, UK, 2015. Pb. pp. 734. Rs. 699