Man Booker Prize: What makes the shortlisted novels special

Sunday, 14 October 2012 - 11:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize tick all the boxes. There’s variety in terms of subject, publishers, technique, themes and India has a representative in there. Here's what makes the six shortlisted novels special.

The books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize tick all the boxes. There’s variety in terms of subject, publishers, technique, themes and India has a representative in there. Deepanjana Pal tells you what makes the six shortlisted novels special.

Alison Moore
Book: The Lighthouse
Salt Publishing
Pages: 192
Price: Rs835
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.

Jeet Thayil
Book: Narcopolis
Faber and Faber
Pages: 292
Price: Rs499
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 Narcopolis comes 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.  

Deborah Levy
Book: Swimming Home
Faber and Faber
Pages: 160
Price: Rs350
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.

Will Self
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price: Rs2401
Open and shut case

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’m  an 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. 

Tan Twan Eng
The Garden Of Evening Mists
Random House India
Pages: 448 pages
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 Bodies, The 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?”

Hilary Mantel
Bring Up The Bodies
Fourth Estate
Pages: 411
Price: Rs399
Most likely to make you want to time travel

Wolf Hall ended with Henry and Anne poised for happily ever after, but as anyone even vaguely acquainted with Tudor history knows, this accord was not to last. Bring Up The Bodies begins in September 1535 and ends in the summer of 1536. More than 400 pages are spent recounting descriptions of what Cromwell sees, from his papers to the costumes donned for Christmas festivities, to his reminiscences about a drunk knight he met decades ago in a pub in Europe. His conversations, whether with the cook or an imperial ambassador, are presented in detail. This could make for dreary reading but the pace of Bring Up The Bodies never slips and not a single paragraph meanders from the central concern, which is the collapse of Henry and Anne’s marriage. Cromwell is a masterful chess player, using the people around him like pawns.

As far as Mantel is concerned, while Cromwell may be the one who effectively builds the foundations upon which Anne’s execution takes place, Anne’s beheading is Henry’s cross to carry. The king behaves petulantly, eager for a new toy now that the Anne is no longer shiny and pleasing after having given birth to a girl and suffered miscarriages. So eager that he asks Cromwell to deliver to Jane Seymour a miniature, jewelled Bible as a token of his affections, soon after Anne is taken to the Tower of London. When Jane — a delicate and tragic creature who is pushed and prodded by power brokers — unwraps her gift, she sees it has the initials H (for Henry) and A (for Anne) on the cover.

Historical fiction is a challenging genre because it demands a story from the past be told in a way that suits the sensibilities of present-day readers. It must appear authentic without seeming dated, well-researched but not dry. Bring Up The Bodies does all this. Add up Mantel’s elegant language, one of the most controversial women in British history (Anne Boleyn) and Cromwell as Mantel imagines him, and you have historical fiction that crackles from the very first page. The contest between Anne and Cromwell is not fair — his spies outnumber hers and are loyal to him while hers prey upon insecurities and perch upon her shoulder anxiously, hyper alert to shifts in power. Plus, he has the king’s backing. However, perhaps the ultimate victory is Anne’s. At one point, Cromwell thinks while talking to Anne, “If needs be, I can separate you from history.” The fact, however, is that Anne proved to be unforgettable, despite all courtly stratagems, while Cromwell needed Mantel to be brought of the obscurity of textbooks.

Cromwell’s heroic stature in Bring Up The Bodies comes not from being an able servant of the crown but from his genuine commitment to bring change to England. He finds able men from unimpressive backgrounds and attacks exploitative systems like the corrupt clergy. Knowing the history and being aware of the fate that awaits Cromwell in the last and final part of Mantel’s trilogy, it’s impossible to not feel a sense of painful disappointment as Mantel draws her portrait of this extraordinary and mysterious man whose ability to remain in the background and yet manipulate events is nothing short of a superpower.

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