The Man Booker Prize, 2013

When the Man Booker Shortlist was announced, I had read six books from the Longlist and was half way through a seventh. I’d hoped to have read all thirteen, but some had fairly late publication dates, Edinburgh City Libraries didn’t have all of them in stock, and even though I reserved all the ones they did have on the day the Longlist was announced, I still ended up waiting over a month for them. Still, I think fifty percent is a fairly good proportion, especially since of the eight I’d begun, four made it onto the short list.

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Year of a Hundred books – #94 TransAtlantic

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic – Colum McCann

4/5

Another Man Booker Long-listed novel, TransAtlantic, actually reminds me a lot of The Road Between Us, mostly because it utilises the same device; a series of intertwined stories from different historical eras, all telling of different generations of the same family. The scale of Transatlantic is a lot wider, spanning four generations across three centuries, but the point of it is much the same.

When I first finished TransAtlantic, a couple of weeks ago, I liked it but didn’t think it was that particularly special. It was a nice story, and educational parts, but not ground-breaking. Lying in bed last night though, thinking about what I could put in this review, I started to realise how layered the text actually is. Like The Chosen, there are so many different ways in which you can understand the story. For example, at its absolute face value, it’s about the Duggan/Ehrlich family, but it’s also about Ireland, and it’s evolution from essentially an oppressed British colony to a functioning and stable political environment in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. But at the same time, as the title suggests, it’s as much about Ireland’s relationship with North America, predominantly the United States, but also Canada (well, the Dominion of Newfoundland anyway). It’s also about freedom, and progress, and peace.

There are three main plotlines throughout the story. The first chronologically, begins when Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist pedagogue visits Ireland in the mid-1840s. There he encounters and entirely different form of inequality than he is used to, which I think is one of the strongest parts of the book. When Douglass, who has lived his whole life being treated as sub-human because of his colour, encounters a society that embraces him with little to no thought of his ethnicity, and in fact celebrates it, it comes off as quite touching. However, when Douglass finally understands Ireland and the Irish in the context of Britain, and the inequalities within their own lives, he suffers quite a bit from this knowledge. I’m not sure that McCann communicates this suffering in perhaps the best way, but it is effective.

The next plotline follows the aviators Alcock and Brown in their attempt to become the first men to fly across the Atlantic. This is actually the first story we encounter, and I think it’s also the weakest, because nothing really happens. The flight succeeds, though with complications, the men who have been so optimistic become jaded and broken, but I don’t really see how they fit into the story aside from symbolically. Its inclusion is not a flaw, but as I say, it is the weakest of the stories..

The final thread, both chronologically and literary, is told from the point of view of Senator George Mitchell, the US mediator during the final negotiations of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Politically, this is the most interesting for me. I was nine in 1997, and while I was aware that the Good Friday Agreement happened, I didn’t know what it meant. This, therefore, is the first real insight into the actual process, rather than simply the effects, that I’ve had, and it’s fascinating. In his closing acknowledgements, McCann thanks Mitchell and his wife for their support and input into writing the book, so I think that while dramatized, the story McCann tells is fairly true to the spirit of what happened, and it’s fascinating; particularly the way that Tony Blair is portrayed. In terms of it’s relation to the overall, Mitchell’s is definitely fundamental to the overarching plot, but it also feels quite detached from the others. I don’t know how it could have been made to feel less so, but the transition from the Ireland that Alcock and Brown land in, before the civil war and partition, to the final steps of peace and skipping over the Troubles and all of the conflicts in between feels a little too vast. McCann does go back to fill in the gaps and join the plots together with a look at the perspective of one of the Ehrlich descendants, at the time it doesn’t gel.

That is in essence, the biggest flaw with the book. Despite the fact that all of the plots are interesting, it does mean that the story is a little convoluted and disparate. This is made worse because although the Duggan/Ehrlich women are predominant throughout all of the plotlines, the initial introductions are told through the perspective of some of history’s great men. They are, in essence, introduced as bit-parts that only become important later. I have issues with this,  for a number of reasons, primarily because it implies that these woman, who are just as remarkable, are only defined by these great men. It is Douglass that prompts Lily Duggan to emigrate to the US. It is Alcock that carries a letter from Lottie Ehrlich, Lily’s grand-daughter, back to Ireland, and later prompts Lottie’s return to her ancestral nation. It is George Mitchell that finally allows Lottie and her daughter-in-law closure for the hurt they suffered during the Troubles.

Really I think TransAtlantic tries to fit too much into too small a space. Based on the plotlines exhibited here, I would happily have read an entire series written by McCann with a book dedicated each to Douglass, Alcock and Brown, and Mitchell, with the Duggan/Ehrlich story either intertwined throughout these books or in it’s own separate and standalone volume.

Despite its flaws, I had hoped that TransAtlantic made it onto the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, because it does have a good story, and is well written, but I’m not entirely distraught that it didn’t make it, because I don’t think it was strong enough to win.  As an aside, I’ve been dropping my thoughts on the Longlist and Shortlist throughout all of my relevant reviews, but now that the Shortlist has been published, I’m going to do a rundown tomorrow discussing what I think about the merits of the Shortlist and those that haven’t been chosen.

So stay tuned!

Year of a Hundred books – #92 The Spinning Heart

The Spinning HeartThe Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan

4/5

Another Booker longlisted novel, The Spinning Heart has been praised for it’s portrayal of “modern”, post-Celtic tiger Ireland. The book is rather innovative , in that each chapter is narrated by a different character. Each new chapter builds upon those it follows to give us not only a strong narrative, but also to paint a compelling picture of a small community.

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Year of a Hundred books – #88 Harvest

HarvestHarvestJim Crace
5/5

Jim Crace’s Booker Longlisted Harvest is one of the most chilling novels I’ve ever read. Telling the story of the complete collapse of an entire community like a line of dominos, it’s also one of the best Historical Fiction books I’ve read.

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Year of a Hundred books – #82 The Testament of Mary

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary – Colm Toíbín

5/5

The Testament of Mary is, I suppose, quite a controversial book. Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Colm Toíbín’s novella is a character study of an aging Mary remembering the death of her son. This genre of biblical revisionism is not entirely original, as I’ll go into more detail below, but I still really enjoyed this work.
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Year of a Hundred books – #20 The Teleportation Accident

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman (Read by Dudley Hinton)

1/5

When I was talking about audiobooks a few weeks ago, I made reference to the fact that the narrator can make or break a book, and the Teleportation Accident is a prime example of this!

My local Blackwell’s recently had a table dedicated to the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and though I didn’t have any money at the time, the Teleportation Accident’s cover caught my eye, and I after flicking through the first few pages, I thought that it sounded like a good read. A couple of weeks later, I found myself in the possession of a free-download from Audible.co.uk, so decided to give it a shot.

This was a mistake. The narrator stumbled over words, had only two emotions: bored or whiny, struggled with convincing female voices, and above all, has no talent for accents whatsoever, which I think is probably the main reason I hated he book so much. Some context: The first third of the book is set in Berlin, and with one exception, features exclusively German characters speaking German. The exception is an Englishman speaking German, with the same accent. I can (grudgingly) forgive this, because logistically it’s easier than having to have use different voices for the same characters when the language changes. However, when the action moves, first to Paris and then to California, the accents Hinton use border on parody, and make it very difficult to engage with the book, to the extent that by the time I got to the end of the first “side” as it were of the audiobook, I gave up and got the book out of the library.

This didn’t help matters that much, and despite how disappointed I was with the narration, a proportion of the blame must be attributed to the text itself. There are no likeable characters in the book, least of all Egon Loeser, the “protagonist”.  Politically oblivious in Weimar Germany, Loeser is a Neo-Expressionist set designer, and possibly the best example of the rich-&-arrogant-drama-person cliche I’ve ever come across, and certainly his obsession with the perfect Adele Hitler (no relation!) and his vintage French pornography makes him the most pathetic protagonist I’ve ever read. Neither of these are compliments. I suppose, it may be that Beauman is trying to make a point, much of Loeser’s philosophy is based on the idea of equivalence, that you can tell a story using historical characters, roles, and archetypes and still have it ring true today. But I feel I may be over thinking it. With subplots ranging from Quantum research in McCarthy-era Caltech to the doomed-to-fail quest of one of Loeser’s acquaintances to become part of the Lost Generation in Paris, the only one that really interested me was that of Loeser’s idol, the (fictional) 17th century set designer Adriano Lavacini, who may or may not have unleashed Lovecraftian horror upon Paris and Louis XIV in the titular accident. No matter how compelling it was, it gets lost amid all the others, and the final resolution is more than disappointing.

I think the one thing that The Teleportation Accident has in its favour is that Beauman’s descriptive prose can be phenomenal. Just read the opening paragraph:

When you knock a bowl of sugar on to your host’s carpet, it is a parody of the avalanche that killed his mother and father, just as the duck’s beak that your new girlfriend’s lips form when she attempts a seductive pout is a quotation of the quacking noise your last girlfriend made during sex. When the telephone rings in the night because a stranger has given a wrong extension to the operator, it is a homage to the inadvertent substitution of telegrams that terminated your adulterous cousin’s marriage, just as the resonant alcove between the counterpoised struts of your new girlfriend’s clavicle is a rebuttal to the apparent beauty of your last girlfriend’s fleshier decolletage.

It’s almost breathtaking, though it doesn’t quite make up for the deficiencies in plot and characterisation, based on the strength of this, I would probably read another of his books. However, it is yet another problem with the audiobook, as by the time the descriptive metaphor has finished, you’ve forgotten what the point of it was.

It may be that I’ve missed something, either through my own negligence or because of the appalling audiobook. Certainly most other people seem to think the book is great, but I just can’t get behind it.

In Defence of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Today, it was announced that Mo Yan is the latest Nobel Laureate. As has come to be expected, a lot of people have complained about this (though actually not as many as I’d expected. Still, early days). Some of these people are complaining that it wasn’t Murakami/Kundera/Dylan that won, while others are whingeing yet again that the winner isn’t American, or that the prize is irrelevant, and has been since Jorge Luis Borges died without winning. Then there are the myriad of people who are complaining because of, or attempting to make rather weak jokes about, the fact that they’ve never heard of Mo Yan. It is these last two branches of the complaints that I want to address, one directly, the other indirectly.

Before I came home from work this evening, I had never heard of Mo Yan. I’m not ashamed to admit this, though I do feel a bit frustrated, because it underlines the fact that despite my best intentions, I’m not as well-read as I like to think.  So yes, my initial response was a somewhat apathetic, “Oh, all right then, I’ll go and add his name to my list“. After having done so, (and deducing that Edinburgh City Libraries are not going to have many copies of his books in stock for a while now), I decided I’d have a quick look to see how much one of his eBooks would cost. A search for his name on Amazon presents four of his works available to purchase in eBook form: Two versions of an analytical textbook, an Italian language translation, and an English translation of Red Sorghum, the only of his works that had been adapted into a film. Oh, and the last of these is only available to pre-order, ahead of its publication date, which is tomorrow.

Now, I realise that presence in the Kindle store is far from a good indication of popularity and quality, particularly for foreign language authors; Umberto Eco (one of only a few living author that I would wholeheartedly champion for the award) only has two books available there. Translation adds an extra layer of copyright and publishers resistant to the eBook trend, and in Mo Yan’s case, China’s own “unique” relationship with the media would perhaps go some way towards explaining this discrepancy.

So, as far as I can tell, very few English language readers have heard of Mo Yan, let alone read any of his books. Despite the complaints, no one who is in a position to comment seems to have suggested that his work doesn’t merit the award (Apart from Ai Weiwei, though this has more to do with politics than literature) This begs the question, how does this disparity occur?

I think the answer lies in the way people perceive the Nobel Prizes. There is a collective idea that because the award seeks to commend, as Alfred Nobel decreed “greatest benefit on mankind”, the awards themselves are the greatest prize a man person to achieve. This is blatantly untrue. How can they be? And if people expect the Prizes to fill this role, then there is always going to be disappointment. Yes, the awards are prestigious, in no small part due to the prize (10 Million SEK) and the longevity (111 years and counting), but equating this to supreme merit leads to sickening territorialism.

I’m not saying the Nobel Prize does not have its flaws. First and foremost it is exemplary of wider literary issues of gender imbalance, which I myself am guilty of (note, as I mentioned above, I automatically assumed that Mo Yan was a man, despite having no gendered frame of reference for the name). Fun fact: only 10% of Laureates are women, although statistically the number of female winners appears to be increasing over the last two decades. There are also issues of Politics – as the exclusion of Borges, Ezra Pound, and others demonstrate – Genre fiction, and Philosophy.

However, if you chose to discount the merits of a prize based on its flaws, then I’d argue that the somewhat disconcerting level of sponsorship in most Literary Award (for example, the Man Booker Prize, The Orange Prize for Fiction,and The Costa Book Awards, to a name a few British examples), is more worrying to me than an award that spans language, state, and culture, at the expense of rewarding the same group of authors that are celebrated by the distressingly insular Anglosphere. As I said, Mo Yan’s book is being published in eBook form in English tomorrow, and while I don’t know the context to this, I’d be willing to put money on the fact the Prize had a strong influence on that date, thus demonstrating my point that the Prize allows great literature to transcend its own cultural sphere.

Ultimately I think it’s very important for non-English, or indeed non-French, non-Spanish, or non-Swedish, books to be brought into international, and inter-linguistic attention. If the Nobel Prize, as the most famous literary award, is the only prize that is capable of doing so, I think that is where the Nobel Prize in Literature succeeds at providing the “Greatest benefit on mankind”.

Have you read anything by Mo Yan? What do you think of the Prize, this year or any other? Who would you nominate for it?