Booker Prize Posts

The brave new mediocre: ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood reviewed by Anil Menon

Anil Menon wrote a fantastic review of Booker winner 2019 Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments for the Hindu. The review was published in print on Sunday, 27 October 2019 and in digital on Saturday, 26 October 2019. Here is the original url. With Anil Menon’s permission I am c&p the text below.

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A dystopian novel is where the Enlightenment goes to die. Since we’re awash in dystopian novels, perhaps it suggests that far from fearing this eventuality — the onset of a dark age — perhaps we’ve become resigned to it. As Cavafy suggests in his poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ for those weary of civilisation, barbarity may even represent “a kind of solution.”

There are two kinds of dystopias. In dystopias of the first kind — represented by Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and their numerous progeny — the prison gates are locked from the outside. This means there’s an inside and an outside; there’s a jailor and the jailed; there are secret messages and secret societies; there are betrayals and breakouts; and at the end, a door is either closed for good or left ever so slightly ajar for a sequel to squeeze through. In dystopias of the second kind — represented by Huxley’s Brave New World — the prison gates are locked from the inside. There’s no need for jailors, because the people have jailed themselves. These novels are much harder to write.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopia of the first kind, and at the end of the story, she chose to leave the door ajar. Thirty-four years later, the much-awaited sequel, The Testaments, tells the rest of the tale. For those who came in late, a brief recap might help. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that the U.S. has fragmented into a number of independent republics, and one of the largest fragments — the Republic of Gilead — is now run by a Puritan theocracy.

Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all theocracies are alike. The men are men; uninformed and uniformed, and uniformly jerks. But women in Gilead come in four basic models: the Aunts, celibate women in charge of female indoctrination; the Wives, who are just that; the Marthas, who do manual labour; and the Handmaids, who are wombs-on-rent. Then there are the whores. Of course, there are no whores in Gilead, just as there was no poverty in the Soviet Union.

This set-up offers a lot of scope for misery, and in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood used all the fine English at her disposal to depict just how ghastly a world based on the Womb and nothing but the Womb would be. This world is a dystopia not (only) because men have total power over women, but because women have been coerced, persuaded, indoctrinated, habituated into oppressing other women.

It’s clear Gilead is in deep trouble. Their science is Biblical, their society Saudi, their never-ending wars Balkan, and their economics Soviet. Dystopias of the first kind always have lousy economics. Consequently, for all the horror, the reader may relax: it’s only a matter of time. Nonetheless, it seems some readers couldn’t relax. Atwood mentions in the acknowledgements that she wrote The Testaments to answer a persistent query: “How did Gilead fall?” The urge to please readers is always inimical to great literature.

The Testaments is a plot-heavy novel and has three storylines. The first deals with the musings and machinations of Aunt Lydia, the most powerful of the four Founders of Gilead’s Aunt institution; the second with Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead; and the third with seemingly ordinary Daisy, who lives in Toronto and is being raised by two very nice and seemingly ordinary people. Daisy turns out to be not so ordinary, and her storyline is the usual Hero’s journey. Agnes serves no real purpose other than to illustrate the life of a “privileged” teen in Gilead. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia serves up info-dumps, while she waits for Daisy to turn up in Gilead and set the republic’s destruction in motion. The last dozen chapters compress everything into summaries, hasty action scenes, and neat resolutions.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, whose protagonist Offred is entirely ordinary, all the key characters in the sequel are exalted in some way. They are important on account of destiny or social role or birth or ability. It’s not just The Testaments’ plot-heavy nature or its disinterest in ordinariness that gives it a genre feel. Atwood has always had an interest in plot. But she is also interested in subtext. The Handmaid’s Tale had a plot — a threadbare one, to be sure, but there was one — and loads of subtext.

In The Testaments, however, there’s virtually no subtext. The meaning is all on the surface. What you see is what you get. Events cause other events, obstacles are external, sections end on cliffhangers, and characters remain unchanged by the plot. In Atwood’s short story ‘Happy Ending’ (now a writing workshop staple used to discourage plot-intensive stories), she remarks that plots are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” That’s not true, but here, in this novel, it is just that.

The writing is always competent — this is Atwood after all — but it could’ve been written by any competent writer. The Handmaid’s Tale requires one to pause frequently and contemplate, as when Atwood writes of a character who has just entered a room: “He was so momentary, he was so condensed.” Or “Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now.” The Testaments offers few such pleasures. At one point, in the middle of a flashback on how the Gilead Republic came to be, Aunt Lydia, bored by the all-too-predictable violence, tells us: “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment.” So too is a novel in the throes of enacting an unnecessary sequel.

This novel is entertaining enough; a film starring Meryl Streep is sure to follow. It boggles the mind however that the novel was even shortlisted for the Booker, let alone managing to win a share of the prize. Perhaps this is truly the age of the “new mediocre,” as The New York Times fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, recently said in another context. Brave new mediocre. If we have lost the ability to distinguish a mediocre literary effort from a superlative one, or worse, if we have lost the courage to even acknowledge there is a problem, then it is not corrupt institutions we should fear. It is ourselves. There is no rescuing prisoners who fancy themselves free.

30 October 2019

The Booker 2019 shortlist

The Booker Prize is to be announced on Monday, 14 October 2019. This time it consists of very well established writers and previous Booker winners like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. The other writers shortlisted include Elif Shafak, Chigozie Obioma, Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evaristo. Every single title shortlisted is unique and that is exactly the purpose of a shortlist — to highlight the variety of writing, experimentation in literary forms and the author’s ability to tell a fresh new story.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie is a modern enactment of Cervantes Don Quixote and involves a salesman of Indian origin, Ismail, who travels across America on a quest — in search of his beloved, a TV show host. It is at one level a bizarre retelling of the popular story with big dollops of magic realism also thrown in. But most importantly it is the commentary offered on the global rise of despots, notion of dual identities, migrations, what it means to be a refugee in modern times, status of women, patriarchal ways of functionining, sexual harassment etc. It is like a broad sweep of events set in three nations — USA, UK and India. At the same time it is a commentary that is very relevant to the socio-political turmoil evident globally. These are also the three countries that Rushdie has lived in and migrated to. So Quichotte in many ways is a triumphant storytelling but it is also a sharp commentary on contemporary events that are taking a horrific turn. In many ways this is a sad reminder for someone like Rushdie, a Midnight’s Child, born soon after India gained independence from the British in 1947 and wrote about it in his Booker winner and Booker of Bookers The Midnight’s Children. He has witnessed modern history for more than seven decades and to see history more or less come full circle with the rise of fascism and blatant acts of genocide, construction of concentration camps in the name of detention centres for migrants is a more than unpleasant. It requires a storyteller of his stature who has himself lived under the very real threat of death while the fatwa issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses existed, to write confidently and offer his commentary on modern times. If the garb of magic realism, a quest and relying upon many literary references that at times allow Rushdie to offer his thoughts while making Quichotte seem disjointed, well, ce’st le vie — it is a reflection of our reality and needs to be articulated. Read this extract from the novel. Also listen to this fascinating podcast on the Intelligence Squared website where Salman Rushdie spoke to BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in front of a live audience in London on 29 August 2019.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a reference to the time the brain waves continue to be sent after a person has been declared clinically dead. This is the duration during which the novel’s protagonist, a prostitute called Tequila Leila, who has been killed and whose body has been placed in a sil, reflects upon her life and her friendships. It is a stunning book for its immediate preoccupation with refugees as epitomised by the small circle of friends of the narrator. It is also a story that touches upon gender issues, patriarchy, censorship, rise of fascist despots, freedom of expression, marginalised groups, sexual freedom etc. While it is a novel that raises many issues, it is unlike Quichotte, restricted to Turkey and its immediate vicinity. In an interview to the Indian Express, Shafak said, “The novel is one of our last democratic spaces“.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is described as a one-sentence, 1000-page novel, which seems daunting to read, but it is the interior monologue of a woman. A narrator who merges her thoughts as most women do while contending with their daily mental load of managing responsibilities and offering commentaries upon the world around them. She flits between her immediate preoccupations with general reflections upon global politics, especially Trump. While reading the novel there are moments that one punches a fist in the air to say, “Yes! Ellmann got this right about women and their reflections.” Then there are other moments where one wishes that like James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript written in colour-coded crayons, Lucy Ellmann too had figured a way of colour coding her novel by making the perceptive observations of a woman being highlighted for at times the meanderings into political landscapes and beyond can be a tad tedious. Lucy Ellmann’s writing style in this novel has often been compared to James Joyce by critics for whom the author had a fantastic reply in an interview she gave to The Washington Post:

Thrilled. But again, to me the connection seems remote. Many reviews have mentioned that my father was a Joyce scholar. Actually, my sister’s one too. But . . . I’m not! My father [ Richard Ellmann] did talk a lot about Joyce when I was growing up, when my mother didn’t put her foot down. But mostly, I tuned it out. I regret that now — especially when people come to me with their Joyce questions! Still, I think it’s weird for reviewers to bring up what my father did for a living. How often is the parentage of male novelists in their 60s mentioned?

James Joyce’s colour coded manuscript of Ulysses

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a “novel” about 12 black women characters, most of them British. As an example of literary experimentation in terms of form, using blank verse as prose, to tell loosely interconnected, intergenerational, stories is fascinating. There is a rhythm that is mesmerising and lends sections of this novel to performance poetry. These are voices that suddenly make apparent the distinctions that exist amongst individuals in that “broad” spectrum of “black British women”. There are many instances in the book that make the women across generations offer their opinions about living in a patriarchal society, the position of women and the challenges it offers on a regular basis. Many of these questions are often raised and discussed even by feminists and many other ordinary women who do not necessarily wish to be labelled as feminists. The fact remains these are issues linking women across the world. Yet while the author’s heart is in the right place of creating this landscape, too much energy seems to have been invested in crafting the form rather than ensuring that the women’s conversations are at par with the magnificent form. At times, their observations sound too thin or as the Guardian review puts it aptly, “naive”. This mismatch in quality of craftsmanship and getting the tenor right of the women character’s preoccupations was not to be expected in such a talented writer. Evaristo is widely tipped to be one of the favourite of bookies and critics, like John Self in The Irish Times, in tomorrow’s announcement of the Booker Prize.

The only other writer on this year’s shortlist, apart from Rushdie, to have won the Booker Prize is Margaret Atwood with The Testaments. It is a sequel to her iconic book The Handmaid’s Tale which went through an immense revival achieving almost cult-like status in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It led to a TV adaptation where Atwood had a cameo role too. The red and white dress rapidly became a symbol of resistance in many a young woman’s mind. Atwood wrote The Testaments while the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale was rife. It is undoubtedly a smoooooooooooth read and is justifiably so the “dazzling follow-up” to The Handmaid’s Tale as affirmed by Anne Enright in her review in The Guardian. Nothing less is to be expected from Margaret Atwood, the High Priestess of modern sisterhood, as she so marvellously creates this story even with its painful moments. It is a story that can be read as a standalone or in quick succession after The Handmaid’s Tale but the skill of Atwood’s storytelling comes to the fore in this novel. It is also probably easier to read, stronger in the punches it delivers and richer for its details, given that it is very much a product of modern times where many debates regarding women, their rights and freedoms within a patriarchal social structure are being questioned. The audience is now receptive to such tales. Hence it is no surprise that bookies are tipping this to be the favourite to win tomorrow’s Booker Prize.

Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the form of Igbo storytelling. It is a kind of storytelling associated mostly with male storytellers. It merges many well known traditions of storytelling and is mostly anecdotal, relying a lot on folklore elements. It is a form that was used by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart too. Obioma has been referred to in a New York Times article as the “heir to Chinua Achebe”. Nonso, a chicken farmer, is the protagonist in An Orchestra of Minorities who travels out of Nigeria and gets involved in many adventures including becoming the victim of a scam. It can get a little convoluted as presumably this Igbo art form is mostly meant for oral performances and not meant to be read as the printed word, a form that exerts its own set of rules and demands upon the reader — most noticeably being that of making limited allowances for digressions and purple prose. This constant tussle between the two forms of storytelling — Igbo and the English literary tradition of the novel— makes for a challenging read with only flashes of brilliance. Perhaps Obioma who has been most fortunate in having both his novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize will win this prestigious literary accolade with his third novel and not succumb to being “three times bridesmaid never bride”.

Literary shortlists serve many purposes. Most noticeably of showcasing the variety of literature available in that particular year of the prize announcement. These shortlists are increasingly becoming relevant to the socio-political events that seem to influence writing and reading patterns too. Within this context, the 2019 Booker shortlist is a formidable gathering of experienced writers. Everyone, even the most seasoned of writers, likes a win and the value of this prize is £50,000. Irrespective of how the bookies are placing the writers for tomorrow’s win, it will in all likelihood be a close call between Rushdie and Shafak. If Evaristo wins, it will only be because of the jury taking into consideration hyper-local factors of being a black woman writer in UK particularly during the Brexit phase. It would be perfect if Rushdie wins this prize once more, making it a hat trick for him at the Booker. He deserves to win for his literary fiction such as The Midnight’s Children and now Quichotte have not only documented critical moments in modern history but these novels are timely and relevant for the wisdom they impart. The characters in Quichotte are migrants like Rushdie and many others, “the broken people …are the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth“. Quichotte offers much more than just looking at a narrow canvas of one topic or one region but broadens the horizons to highlight many of the issues gripping the world are not bound to a nation state but are spread like a rash globally. What is even more horrific is that Rushdie has in his lifetime of three score years and ten witnessed crimes against humanity that one thought were rid off but seem to have returned with despicable vengeance. Quichotte is a triumph of literary craftsmanship as Rushdie is writing about these moments in history that he has witnessed while maintaining a firm grip on imbibing and merging many forms of literary traditions and storytelling to formulate a new one. There are far too innumerable to list in this round up. Suffice to say that if any novel in the shortlist deserves to win, it is Quichotte.

13 October 2019

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.

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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.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

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