Prizes Aplenty: 2013’s Nobel and Booker Prizes discussed

I’m rather frustrated that possibly the two biggest news stories in the literary world happened at practically the same time, at a time I’m unable to get online to comment on the results. Nonetheless, I’m going to weigh-in (rather belatedly I admit) with my thoughts on the winners.

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Year of a Hundred books – #36 Beloved

BelovedBeloved, by Toni Morrison


Beloved came as a bit of a shock to me, purely because, going into the book, I had no idea what I was about to read. I had assumed that the book was a straight civil rights/slavery narrative, in the same vein as Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, rather than the ghost story that it actually is.

Of course, just because the novel has supernatural themes, that doesn’t preclude it from simultaneously having the features I expected. Slavery, or the spectre and memory of it, drives the plot and provides motivation for a majority of the characters, and this is as brutal as you’d expect a book dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” (the estimated number of people who died as a direct result of the Atlantic Slave Trade) to be.

What’s interesting however is that despite the fact slavery is portrayed as abhorrent and evil, slave-owners do not necessarily possess these characteristics. Although it is the Sethe, the main character’s, escape from the dehumanising treatment of the plantation owner, his predecessor was a much more benevolent character, allowing one of his slaves to buy his mother’s freedom, even going so far as to provide her a new home and escort her to it. Which of course doesn’t make up for the fact he had owned her as property, but in contrast to the actions of his successors, it provides a refreshingly balanced depiction.

Not that I particularly feel that slavers need rehabilitating in the media, but it does make for a more interesting read than a story which falls back on the same tired trope of automatically demonising  slavers, when (I like to think) society has moved past this being a moral point that has to be made.

Aside from this, the quality of Morrison’s writing, particularly her characterisation was astonishing. In contrast to other books I’ve read recently, the way she treats character voices is impeccable, easily conveying time and place, in a way that a lot of authors struggle with. So to, the character’s personalities, history, and even mental health are demonstrated by the chapters that are written from their points of view, and in some cases, particularly that of Denver, Sethe’s daughter, character growth.

For despite the fact that this is a supernatural/ghost story told in the form of a slavery narrative, the book doesn’t seem to really be “about” either of those things, and instead I think that underneath all that, Beloved is about people learning that they can never escape their pasts, and instead they must choose how they deal with it. And I think that it is this thread that makes it such a wonderful book.


Year of a Hundred books – #22 The Bad Girl

The Bad GirlThe Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa


If I had to choose a single adjective for The Bad Girl I think, I’d definitely go with interesting, rather than good or enjoyable. As with Loeser in the Teleportation Accident, the protagonist (Ricardo) is unable to get over his obsession and love for an elusive female, this time the titular Bad Girl.

The first time Ricardo meets the Bad Girl, she turns up in the suburb of Lima in which he lives, pretending to be from Chile, an exoticism that attracts not only Ricardo, but the whole neighbourhood. Once caught in a lie, the Bad Girl disappears, but Ricardo is destined to run into her over and over again throughout his life.

While there is nothing particularly bad about this plot, and it’s certainly well written, even in translation the prose is very enjoyable, I found it less interesting than the overview of 20th Century Peruvian history that the plot facilitates. I’ve always felt attracted to Peru, since I went there for a month in 2005, it’s what made me pick up the book in the first place, but aside from a few snippets here and there, I never knew much about the history. So reading Ricardo’s story, which tells the story of the rise and fall of Peru’s communist guerilla and the subsequent attempt and failure of democracy and slide into dictatorship, was fascinating for me, and more so than the story itself, which at times got quite annoying.

There were some very touching moments, including a part where the Bad Girl finally convinces Ricardo’s neighbours adopted and PTSD suffering elective mute son to talk, but in general I felt as though there wasn’t enough of a reason for Ricardo to put up with all the nonsense that the Bad Girl gave him. I’m happy to accept the Power of Love as a plot device (What self respecting Harry Potter/Doctor Who fan isn’t?) but there was definitely more tell than show in that side of things.

I do have another of Mario Varga Llosa’s books on my shelf waiting to be read, but I do feel as if the Bad Girl was lacking a certain something that it needed to make it a truly great book.

Year of a Hundred books – #14 Dangling Man

Dangling ManDangling Man, by Saul Bellow


Set in 1942, Dangling Man is not so much a traditional story as it is a character study of a man with no direction and too much time on his hands. Joseph, is young married man who, due to his immigrant status hindering his attempts to enlist in the US Army, has been left in a Chicagoan limbo.With nothing to do, and no one to talk to, Joseph begins to unravel. In fits of ennui, he lashes out at his friends, his relations, and his wife, and while he does feel remorse, this doesn’t stop it from happening again and again.

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Year of a Hundred books – #9 The Red Pony

The Red PonyThe Red Pony, by John Steinbeck


In some ways, I feel a bit cheated by this book, mostly because I didn’t realise that it was supposed to be a children’s book. Yes it’s short, and yes I picked it up because I remember that it was one of the books that Roald Dahl’s Matilda read, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s aimed at children. Especially since the edition I read was published by Penguin, rather than Puffin, their children’s imprint.

At the same time however, I’d say I probably enjoyed it more than the other Steinbeck books I’ve read (Of Mice and Men for school, and an attempt at The Grapes of Wrath). It’s yet another coming of age/adolescence story (I really need to find something else to read, it’s beginning to look like I have a problem!), set on a timeless ranch in California’s Salinas Valley. Rather than being one overarching narratives, it’s more like a series of short stories depicting events in the early teenage years of Jody Tiflin, as he comes to terms with the fact that life isn’t as a clean-cut as it seems when you’re a child.

Steinbeck’s description is, as ever, breathtaking, and his prose is a joy to read. The book of course, lacks a lot of the depth and commentary that his more adult works thrive on, (the only reason this is a 4, and not 5 rating) but it’s to be expected, and The Red Pony is a good, quick, example of a master writer.

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? 

Year of a Hundred books – #2 Siddhartha

I used to volunteer at the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow.  Being one of the busiest in the country, there was  quite a high turnover of classic literature (in addition to the hundreds of Dan Brown and the like). As they rely on donations, the consistency of the stock would vary quite a bit, and predictably, would tend towards the famous. For a time, there was a list of Nobel Laureates for Literature taped to the shelf, so that people sorting through the donations could keep an eye out for them. Around the same time, I found  a copy of Haldor Laxness’s Independent People, which I liked the sound of. Somewhat rashly, I decided that I would embark on a quest to read at least one work by every Laureate. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my resolve weakened fairly quickly. I hated Independent People, and as soon as it came to exam season that year, I promptly forgot my pledge.

Fast forward about three years, and when I looking over the list of book’s I’d read this year, there was quite a high proportion of Sci-fi/Fantasy titles. Which is fine, it is the genre(s) I prefer, but it gets a bit dull just reading the same style of book. So, logically, the solution to that is Nobel Laureates… Right? I’m not going to aim to exhaust the list during this year, but it’ll be there to add some variety to my reading.

SiddharthaSiddhartha, by Hermann Hesse


Siddhartha is probably better than I give it credit for, and this rating reflects quite a bit on the  quality of the version I was reading. Being an impoverished graduate, I turned to the Gutenberg Project for the text, which I think was a mistake. I’ve never had a problem with Gutenberg before, but this text was rife with typographical errors that made it quite difficult to really get into it. Coupled with a particularly verbose 1950’s translation from the German, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience to read.

That said, the actual book wasn’t bad. I’m well familiar with the Buddha legend, and (thanks to a first year course in Eastern Religion), have a passable understanding of Buddhism. I had assumed, knowing the subject matter of the book, that the Buddha was the eponymous Siddhartha. However, while the Buddha does appear, he is referred to only by his family name, Gotama. Instead Siddhartha is essentially a Bildungsroman for a young Nepali man with a sort of parallel understanding of early Buddhism. Siddhartha  rejects his heritage first to become an ascetic along with his friend Govinda, then upon meeting the Buddha and being unimpressed, has a crisis of faith and returns to the world, before eventually achieving Enlightenment as a ferryman over a river.

I did find myself wondering, because of the way Hesse refers to the Buddha and to his title character, if the book was intended to be a sort of “parallel origin legend” of Buddhism, in the same way that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was for Christianity. If this is the case, it was certainly done a lot more subtly than Pullman’s effort, although maybe that’s just because I’m less familiar with the topic at hand.

Either way, and interesting as it was, some of the philosophical discussion did get  a little repetitive. On top of this, almost all of the dialogues would take the form of “Quoth Siddhartha…”, “Quoth Govinda…”, “Quoth Siddhartha…” and so on. I don’t know if that’s an artefact of translation or if that’s how the original reads, but it got tedious after a while.

That said, as a fictional demonstration of basic Buddhist theology, Siddhartha is as good as any, and it’s worth reading for that alone. As I said above, I’d recommend to steer clear of the Gutenberg version and try for one of the newer translations.