Booker Prize 2012: Hilary Mantel

How fitting that a writer best known (now) for historical fiction made history? My piece on Mantel’s double Booker in today’s DNA (I’m happy to report that the headline is, ahem, incorrect only in the website. The newspaper carried the sensible version). There’s nothing disappointing about Bring Up The Bodies winning because it is a brilliant book. Structure, pace, language, characterisation, tension, research — it has everything. The one twinge of disappointment for me came from the Booker judges choosing to pick an already famous and bestselling author, rather than someone lesser-known. I probably wouldn’t have felt this twinge if I didn’t love Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists as much as I did. But for all my fondness for it, I can’t deny that Bring Up The Bodies is tighter and better structured than The Garden of Evening Mists. So I guess the mightier book did win. Anyway, here’s my bit on this year’s Booker.

Double Booker for her Mantel

When Sir Peter Stothard, chairman of the judges, announced Hilary Mantel was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, no one should have been surprised. Mantel has been the favourite ever since the Booker shortlist was released last month. In spite of this, it took a moment for the announcement to sink in because Mantel hadn’t just proved the bookies right; she’d made history.

After Peter Carey and JM Coetzee, Mantel is the third person to have won two Booker prizes. She is the first woman and the first Briton to win the double. She won her first Booker prize in 2009, for her twelfth book, Wolf Hall, which was the first instalment of a trilogy on the Tudor statesman, Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up The Bodies is the second part and Tuesday night’s win makes this the first sequel to win the prize. Stothard described Mantel as “the greatest English prose writer” of our times. Mantel’s reacted to the win with a quip: “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and two come along at once.”

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist was praised for the emphasis placed on craft, which was a stark contrast to last year’s selection that selected books for their “readability”. In the prelude to the announcement, Stothard said that the original idea behind the Booker was not to create bestsellers but to applaud high quality storytelling in prose. His words may have sparked a flame of hope in the hearts of the independent publishers of shortlisted novels — The Lighthouse and Swimming Home — but ultimately, the panel of judges ended up selecting the book that, in terms of sales figures, has proven to be the most readable. As of now, Bring Up The Bodies has sold 1,08,342 copies in UK, which is more than what the other 11 novels longlisted for this year’s prize have sold altogether. The success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies must be particularly satisfying for Mantel because initially, she had trouble finding publishers for Tudor-era trilogy. Usually, fiction set in that era chooses well-known characters like Henry VIII as heroes, but Mantel picked Thomas Cromwell, a shadowy historical figure.

Wolf Hall introduced readers to Cromwell and in Bring Up The Bodies, he’s the man who brings Anne Boleyn down. The last of the trilogy is titled Mirror And Light and will continue Cromwell’s story till his execution in 1540. Upon receiving the Booker Prize, Mantel said, “I assure you I have no expectations that I will be standing here again. But I regard this as an act of faith and vote of confidence.” What’s the bet that once Mirror and Light comes out, we’ll all be hoping for a hat trick?

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Booker Special – Part 2

Now for the weird ones.

Will Self’s Umbrella

Most likely to drive you insane

The politically-correct word for three of the novels in this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is “literary”, which translates in plain English to “weird”. Not that weird can’t mean wonderful. This year, the judges clearly wanted readers to remember that literature is not simply timepass, to use a bit of Bombay-speak. If the reader perseveres with a well-crafted experimental novel, they’re rewarded with a story that’s told with all the flourish of a brilliant magic trick. Because hey presto! along with a top hat worth of literary craftiness, there’s the white rabbit of a poignant story.

Curiously enough, Will Self’s critically-beloved novel Umbrella and Rihanna’s chartbusting song with the same title do have something in common. Initially, both sound like complete gibberish. “I’man ape man, I’m an ape man…Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open” makes about as much sense as “Gyeah Rihanna, good girl gone bad, take three action, no clouds in my storms, I hydroplane into fame.” But after this initial resonance, the two umbrellas diverge. While Rihanna’s lyrics end up to be nonsense, Self’s opens into a bewildering but brilliant, Modernist novel.

Whether or not Umbrella wins the Booker prize, the novel is most likely to join Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake on the shelf that houses books people own but don’t read; because owning them makes us look smart, but reading them makes us feel stupid.

The novel is 397 pages of serpentine sentences and inventive wordplay. There are few paragraph breaks and no chapters. A single sentence could contain as many as three time periods and as many perspectives. Rather than a stream of consciousness, it’s a river riddled with undercurrents.Umbrella doesn’t just demand patience; you need to be alert to the subtlest click of Self’s storytelling levers to follow the plot.

Three time frames lie unspooled in the novel. Zachary Busner is an elderly, retired psychiatrist, roaming around contemporary London and remembering his past. Starring prominently in his memories is Audrey Death, who contracted encephalitis lethargica but was misdiagnosed as a mental patient and admitted in 1922. Audrey, whose surname goes through many mutations, has a wealth of experiences locked inside her twitching body and numbed-by-drugs mind, including childhood memories and working in Woolwich Arsenal during the war. In 1971, Busner chances upon her and is struck by the idea that it might be possible to wake seemingly catatonic patients like her who were encephalitic rather than psychiatric cases. A ward full of “enkies” is given a new drug named L-DOPA and briefly, the enkies wake up.

Umbrella slithers between the memories of Zachary, Audrey and her two brothers, creating a labyrinth of a novel. It takes about 100 pages to get the hang of Self’s infuriatingly complicated style, which is an ode to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. If you’ve survived till this point, you’ll notice the meandering narrative is strangely compelling. It takes another 100 pages to get caught up in the memories of the different characters and figure out that the slippery monologues aren’t just Self trying to add a little gravitas to his profile and establish himself as cleverer than you, the reader. The Modernist emphasis on consciousness and form allows Self to expertly shuffle between the different perspectives in Umbrella.

At the end, using Busner as his mouthpiece, Self explains why he chose this particular form for Audrey’s story: “…embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames was the entire mechanical age — that just as schizophrenics’ delusions partook of modish anxieties, so the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off… of a two-step with technology.” If you have the patience to get past Self’s determination to be difficult, you’ll find in a novel that masterfully winds every raggedy end into a neat, expertly-executed knot.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home

Most likely to turn you off nudes

A blue mouse, stones with holes in them, a boy who might be a ghost, a girl who seems to have an aversion to clothes — these are a few of the spectres that surface at different moments in Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. Levy is well-known as a poet and a playwright and her different literary talents all come into play in Swimming Home.

With its loops and leaps in logic, reading the novel is like entering someone else’s — Nina’s? — dream. The poet Joe Jacobs has come to holiday in the south of France with his wife Isabel, his daughter Nina and two friends. This predictable summer holiday plot is turned on its head when one day, the holidayers find a naked woman in their swimming pool. This is Kitty Finch.

Kitty is beautiful, strange and a poet. She tightropes between chaos and clarity, and draws everyone’s attention. Nina is fascinated by her oddness. Joe, a philanderer, is attracted to her and not even the knowledge that Kitty is a fan who has stalked him, makes him wary. In the neighbouring villa is an old woman named Madeleine, who views Kitty’s strange charisma with a mixture of fear, envy and hatred. She recognises the danger that Kitty presents to the precarious, paper-thin order of everyone’s lives. But her relationship with Kitty is far from simple. The year before, it was Madeleine whose complaint led to Kitty being put in a mental asylum where they subjected her to electrotherapy. Kitty says they “burned” the stories in her head.

Swimming Home is all about dissembling and disclosures. Nina, treated like an innocent child starts menstruating, as though her body is owning up to the maturity that she’s been forced to develop because of her parents’ unconventional marriage. Cracks appear in Isabel’s facade of being the superheroic combination of working woman, mother and wife. Her husband and daughter both turn to Kitty in their time of need.

Levy is known for experimental and disturbing work, and Swimming Home shows her poetic, dramatic and novelistic skills in fine form. Her cast of characters elegantly evade neat categorisations like “good” and “bad”, or even “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. Portents — like the stones with holes in them, that can be strung to become a pendant or weigh a drowning man down — pop up, but no one seems to notice them. The past slips into the present, weighing it down with sadness. In the epilogue, an adult Nina says, “as much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through the day.” This is dream from which there’s no waking up.

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Most likely to make you take up smoking

Here’s an unexpected nugget of information: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is the most grounded of the trio of weird novels. Next to the dreamy loops of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Will Self’s 397 pages of modernism and encephalitic lethargica in Umbrella, the opium haze of Narcopoliscomes across as positively normal.

Set in Bombay, Narcopolis is a trip down memory lane, or Shuklaji Street as Thayil’s narrator knows it, where most of the novel is set. Made up of many meandering stories, Narcopolis is what one man remembers of his and the city’s past. Using the form of the novel, instead of intoxicants, Thayil recaptures the high of an opium-induced trip.

The narrator conjures to life Dimple, the eunuch; Lee, a mysterious Chinese man who adopts Dimple; Rashid, the owner of an opium den, and Rumi, an unhappily-married man who hates middle-class morality. Shuklaji Street is a gallery of oddities and weirdos — eunuchs, junkies, alcoholics, murderers, intellectuals — all of whom seem strange and surreal. It’s squalid and yet charmed, this contained, little world of narcotic yarns. To Rashid’s opium den come sharp minds that want to be dulled and lulled, lest they cut themselves.

Thayil’s addicts do many vile things in Narcopolis, but there is something vaguely quixotic about them. The sober, with their unforgiving and unadulterated wakefulness, often seem myopic and naïve in contrast. While Thayil’s characters wrestle with their addictions, decades roll along and Bombay changes. All that’s ultimately left is a narrator, his memories and his pipe.

Some of the stories in Narcopolis, like Dimple’s, are unforgettable. A few, like the interlude in China, seem misfit even though Lee is a wonderful character. Rumi — who hurtles between the acceptable and the deviant, and unravels dangerously — is perhaps the least convincing and most unpleasant of Narcopolis’s residents.

The joy of reading this novel lies in the language. The words in each sentence are selected with a poet’s precision. Thayil plucks references as cheerfully from Jorge Luis Borges as he does from Dev Anand. This is a novelist who hears RD Burman hollering out for Monica his darling and finds a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to Saint Monica, the patron saint of alcoholics. He’s as comfortable writing about horrible sex as he is with the innocent pleasure of enjoying a snack while watching the sunset at Chowpatty. Narcopolis is not without its flaws, but the storyteller doesn’t let go of the reader’s hand, no matter where the opium takes him.

Enough has been written despairing at the first sentence of Narcopolis, which goes on for a good six pages. It’s worth pointing out that it’s an expertly-constructed sentence that coils lazily like the smoke from the pipe that Thayil’s narrator smokes while telling his tale. It’s paced beautifully by precise and careful use of punctuation, which lends it a rhythm and cadence. Follow the yellow brick road of commas and you won’t lose track or feel short of breath. That first sentence is a neat indication of the nature of this novel — it’s a poetic, nostalgia trip that is wistful for a past that is invisible until seen through this smoky haze of memory.

Booker Special – Part 1

Since we’re two days away from the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Mag has two pages of books, which have the following:

  • A review of Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House by Omair Ahmed
  • Mitali Saran’s review of The Liberals by Hindol Sengupta
  • Reviews of the six novels in this year’s Booker shortlist. Each novel carries a little badge, which I’d originally thought I’d make earnest and thoughtful (like “Most lyrical use of language”), but they ended up, erm, more cheerful. Like, “Most likely to drive you insane.”

Here are the reviews of The Garden of Evening Mists (which is the book that I’m hoping will win even though Will Self’s Umbrella is more of a bookie favourite and has more technical pyrotechnics) and The Lighthouse. The last of the “normal” novels is Bring Up The Bodies, which I’d reviewed earlier.

Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

Most likely to make you go green

The six titles shortlisted by the judges’ panel of the Man Booker Prize this year can be neatly divided into two groups: the conventional and the weird. (To read about the books that fall into the second category, look to your right.) Conventional is often used as a synonym for boring, but Bring Up The BodiesThe Lighthouse, and The Garden Of Evening Mists are heartwarming examples of how well the good old fashioned novel works, using familiar devices like chapters, narrators and written with the intent of telling a story straightforwardly.

Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, is astonishingly beautiful in parts. You wouldn’t think the technicalities of building a Japanese garden would make for riveting reading, but Eng manages this feat. Aritomo, a Yoda-esque gardener with a mysterious past, has built a garden named Yugiri in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. It is the only one of its kind in the country. A young woman named Yun Ling requests him to make a garden in the memory of her sister who died in a prison camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Aritomo refuses but offers her an apprenticeship that will teach her all she needs to build a garden. The relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo is curiously engaging. Both are considered foreign by the locals — Yun Ling is of Chinese descent and Aritomo is Japanese. She’s fascinated by Aritomo, but embittered by her experiences as a prisoner, she also hates how traditionally Japanese he is.

If The Garden Of Evening Mists had no plot, Eng’s descriptions would still have you turning the pages. His language is filigreed with poetic phrases that never seem overwrought. He’s at his best describing Yugiri and is strangely less effective when his subjects are more dramatic spaces, like the camp where Yun Ling was held.

Nestled in The Garden Of Evening Mists are mysteries. Who was Aritomo? How is it that Yun Ling was the only survivor of her prison camp? Why did Aritomo choose Yun Ling as his apprentice? Ultimately, though, these aren’t the truly memorable parts of The Garden of Evening Mists. It’s compelling because of the wonder that is Aritomo’s Yugiri.

Yugiri — ironically, this was also the name given to a destroyer ship in the Imperial Japanese navy — eventually becomes a part of the local landscape. The foreign garden, traditionally considered a site of contemplation, becomes a repository of memories and also reflects how societies survive brutality to become more cosmopolitan. Painful histories are absorbed into art, perhaps because inherited memory can be disruptive if articulated plainly. Instead, the past is contained in code — in gardens, paintings, art, tattoos, novels — or forgotten. Early on in The Garden Of Evening Mists, Yun Ling comes across a statue that she is told is of the goddess of forgetting. She says that she doesn’t recall there being such a goddess. To which her companion replies, “Ah, doesn’t the fact of your not recalling prove her existence?”

Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse

Most likely to impress Sigmund Freud
Futh is an unfortunate name. It carries the aura, not of heroism, but of being mercilessly ragged through school. Boyhood trauma does indeed haunt Futh, the protagonist of Alison Moore’s debut novel, The Lighthouse. However, his problem is more Freudian. Futh is obsessed by his mother, who left him and his father when Futh was a boy. Not only does he remember the last few days with his mother with almost hallucinatory clarity, Futh as an adult marries a young woman who he’s drawn to initially because she has the same name as his mother (Angela). Not-so-subtly, he tries to turn his wife Angela into a replica of the other Angela who abandoned him as a child. No prizes for guessing this doesn’t work out so well and when The Lighthouse begins, Futh is on a ferry, alone. He is on his way to a walking holiday in Germany and at the end of it, he will return to England and enter a new, empty apartment to which Angela has sent all his belongings.

The holiday is supposed to be an opportunity for Futh to collect himself but as the holiday progresses and he walks not just into forests but also down memory lane, it becomes clear that Futh is unravelling.

Running alongside Futh’s track is the story of Ester, who manages a hotel in a little German town called Hellhaus with her husband, Bernard. Hellhaus, contrary to what it sounds like, does not have any devilish connotations. It translates to “bright house” or “light house”. Moore reminds the reader repeatedly that the incandescence of a lighthouse could be a kindly welcome or a warning, but Futh is too self-obsessed to notice the possibility of disaster. The reader, though, gets a sniff of it from the moment Ester enters the narrative. She and Bernard are a middle-aged, childless couple. Bernard is simultaneously dismissive and possessive of Ester. He notes her casual infidelities but doesn’t register that Ester does all this to provoke him. Ester and Bernard’s hotel is the first and last stop in Futh’s itinerary. While Futh loses his way and hobbles through Germany battling blisters, sunburn and other woes, Ester tries desperately to recapture her youth and Bernard.

In the strange Oedipus-inspired story, Futh is the tragic hero with his mother fixation. The father figures — Futh’s father and Bernard — are all hulking, alpha males who intimidate Futh. All the women in The Lighthouse are failed mothers and two are sexual predators. Futh’s wife suffers repeated miscarriages and refuses to mother him. Futh’s mother abandons her maternal responsibilities. Futh’s father’s lover, Gloria, seems to be interested in taking care of Futh, but there’s an underlying ripple of sexuality that is distinctly unmaternal. For Ester, motherhood negates sexuality. Uncaring of consequences, she is desperate to remain an object of desire because this is her only source of power.

As technically accomplished as The Lighthouse may be — and it is — the fact that not a single character in the novel is remotely likeable makes the novel oppressively gloomy. It also means that you don’t really care what happens to any of them, which makes The Lighthouse smartly-paced and intelligently-plotted, but not a particularly compelling read.

The Booker Shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker prize is out and it includes Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (which I loved) and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (which I wrote about here, sorta). The piece below was came out yesterday.

Thayil’s Narcopolis in Booker Shortlist

The Man Booker Prize’s love affair with debut novels by Indian authors continues.

On Tuesday, in London, the six novels shortlisted for the £50,000 prize were named and Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is one of them. Thayil, 53, is the seventh Indian author to be selected in a Booker shortlist since the prize was instituted in 1969 for the best original, full-length novel in English by an author from one of the Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland.

The other five in the shortlist this year are Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Umbrella by Will Self, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng. Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine and the chair of the Booker panel, said of the shortlist, “We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books.”

Unlike last year when the emphasis was on what the judges termed “readability” and critics interpreted as populist, this year’s selection has been praised for applauding works that are more experimental and radical. Had the criterion for this year’s Booker shortlist been stories that zip along, Narcopolis would probably not have made the cut.

Thayil’s novel, which was rejected by a number of Indian publishers before being picked up by Faber and Faber, is an intoxicating and unromantic meander through time and gloomy opium dens in a grimy, dark part of Mumbai. The critical response was divided with some accusing Thayil of self-indulgence and others praising the novel for its poetic quality.

In the past, Thayil has published and edited a number of collections of poetry. He is also a performance poet and musician. Thayil has a reputation for attracting controversy. Most recently, he was among the writers who read extracts from The Satanic Verses at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival to protest Salman Rushdie’s absence. Rushdie cancelled plans of attending the event when he received death threats.

The Booker prize, however, considers “texts not reputations”, according to Sir Peter. While it was a surprise entry into the longlist, the gambling company Ladbrokes had backed Narcopolis being included in the shortlist. In the race for the ultimate prize, however, the novel is very much the dark horse. At present, Bringing Up the Bodies and Umbrella are the frontrunners. The odds being against Narcopolis doesn’t bother Thayil. When asked how it felt to know Narcopolis had been selected for the shortlist, Thayil told DNA, “It was a strong longlist this year. I’m absolutely delighted.”

The Man Booker prize winner will be announced on October 16, in London.