The Written World with Sarla Langon


The Man Booker prize longlist for 2017 has  been announced and is this year a strong representation of literary excellence from countries across the eligibility criteria, including 4 novels from the UK, 4 from America, and 5  from the Commonwealth (Ireland, India and Pakistan), making up the famous Booker Dozen. Australia, Africa and Canada are not represented on the longlist, rather conspicuous by their absence. The standard of entries is the highest I have seen in years: happily absent are any novels that could be consigned to the ‘trivial literature’ bin.

This month we look at the eight titles that have been received in time for the BAY deadline. Among the Commonwealth selections, the two titles meeting the highest literary criteria are both from Ireland. I have already reviewed Sebastian Barry’s outstanding Days Without End in this column (BAY June 2017); the second Irish contender is Mike McCormack with his distinguished offering Solar Bones.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Canongate £8.99)

(Booker Rating *****)

No modern Irish litterateur can wriggle out from under the experimental mantle of Joyce, Becket and Flann O’Brian’s prose style. McCormack in a recent BBC interview with ‘Meet the Author’ presenter James Naughtie, preferred to describe his own phrasing as ‘a continuous rolling rhythm, a string of thoughts.’

With Solar Bones, Mike McCormack has entered the pantheon of writers carrying forward their own contribution to the development of this post-modernist literary legacy to the English-speaking world.

Solar Bones is innovative in style, bringing McCormack’s own voice to the ‘stream of consciousness’ genre; it is daring in form—the entire 260-page novel written in just one sentence; and it is outstanding in content, accordioning the story of a lifetime into one hour on All Soul’s Day, the hour between the divine marker of the noon Angelus church bells and the temporal marker of the announcement of the 1o’clock news.

McCormack’s protagonist Marcus Conway is a civil engineer in modern day Mayo, whose profession places him at the nexus of local political machinations, community pressures and national economic failure. He is threatened by councillors, thwarted by contractors and defeated by a widespread gastric epidemic caused by polluted drinking water. The narrative of the interaction between Marcus and all the players in Solar Bones, his wife, family, colleagues and countrymen, affirms that this remarkable novel is a hymn to the everyday, to engineers and engineering— a story about faith and the nobility of endurance.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury £18.99)

(Booker Rating *****)

In his youth, George Saunders, author of the Booker longlisted Lincoln In The Bardo, was a follower of Ayn Rand’s brand of ueber-capitalism, a philosophy diammetrically opposite to the more popular but now equally dated Marxism/communism of the time. Fortunately, as so many us did with leftist thinking, he eschewed the tired right-wing dialectic for the analects of Buddhism. In the title of this groundbreaking novel, the Bardo refers to the strongly-held Hindu belief in reincarnation after death, a credo developed further by the Mahayana Buddhists of Tibet. The Bardo is the period between death and being reincarnated in a new form, a sort of Dantean – or even Miltonian – limbo.

All the action in Lincoln In The Bardo takes place over one night and all the main characters are dead, except for Abraham Lincoln himself and the cemetery warden. The American President’s 11-year-old son Willie has died following an illness and Lincoln visits the grave again soon  after the funeral. Saunders’ description of the innumerable dead souls waiting to leave the Bardo is eerie and disturbing.

Followers of this column will be reminded of Booker International winner,Israeli writer David Grossman’s visceral lament for a dead son in his prose-poem Falling Out Of Time.

Grief, regret and a fearful melancholy pervade this narrative, and yet, the reader is hooked, in a state of morbid expectancy for what the denouement will reveal, riveted by the superb phrasing, the perfect prose and the lyrical quality of George Saunders’ narrative.

Lincoln In The Bardo is Saunders’ first full-length novel. It is a very strong contender for the short-list and a possible winner of the Booker 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton £16.99)

(Booker Rating ****)

Among the finest of contemporary British writers is Inverness-born Ali Smith, who has featured on major literary prize lists with every novel she has written, and has won too many of them to record here. Written in Smith’s inimitable strong and beautiful style, Autumn is the first in a seasonal quartet, and is the arresting story of a deep relationship between Elisabeth Demand  and Daniel Gluck.

In the autumn of his life, retired composer Daniel Gluck is befriended by his neighbour, little eight-year-old Elisabeth Demand, whose mother is ambivalent about using Daniel as a babysitter. Autumn describes the complex and intriguing relationship that grows over the twenty years that ensue, when Daniel is celebrating his 100th birthday in a nursing home.

Daniel has always applied himself to expanding Elisabeth’s mental horizons to extend beyond her mother’s limited intellectual capability. Socrates-like, Daniel questions statements made by Elisabeth, eliciting more refined thought responses from her as she is encouraged to think deeper through mundane statements, and  to savour art and music — indeed life—more deeply.

This robust relationship defies the years. Thanks to Daniel’s grounding in improving her aesthetic awareness, Elisabeth becomes a lecturer in the history of art. Daniel grows older and when Elisabeth hears of his deteriorating health she hurries to his bedside.

Smith’s narrative is infused with humour, tenderness and an unflinching gaze at the frailties of the human condition expressed in powerful prose, sparse and hard-hitting. Autumn is a serious contender for the Booker 2017 shortlist.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith(Penguin £8.99)

(Booker Rating****)

Much admired UK novelist Zadie Smith features on the Booker 2017 longlist with her new work Swing Time.  This is a ‘rites of passage’ novel, the utterly engaging story of a mixed race Londoner, who deals with the pressures of childhood rivalries, schoolroom traumas and competitive adulthood in a city known for its multi-racial character as much as for its casual racism. Three women dominate our unnamed protagonist’s world as she navigates the uncertainties of adolescence—her fiercely independent black mother, determined to educate her way out of her unpromising working class start in life; her ‘half-caste’ schoolfriend, the spiteful, jealous Tracey who is self -programmed to be a loser; and her pop-star employer Aimee, portrayed as an archetypal self-obsessed and narrow-minded mass celebrity. Our narrator gets a good degree which proves to be a barrier against fully accepting her rather declasse role as an assistant to a vacuous A-lister.

The action takes place from an East End London scenario of struggling denizens all determined to ‘make it.’ Our protagonist’s mother finds success in politics, while her friend Tracey’s early success as a dancer descends quickly into bitter single-motherhood and adult paranoia. Equally disappointing is our narrator’s glamorous jet-setting life with Aimee whose shallow charitable gestures in Africa bring shame and embarrassment to her more sophisticated employees

Zadie Smith instils life and verve to this story with sharply observed characterisation, a keen appraisal of the socio-economic factors that drive the contemporary scene —all using her signature  scintillating prose that keeps the action and reader interest at peak levels. Smith is true to her art and refrains from imposing any politically approved syllogisms on her narrative. Her work is clean and honest, unsullied by the need to address faddish ‘topical’ issues in a bid for critical attention.

Swing Time is a strong contender for the Booker 2017 shortlist.

Submissions From The Subcontinental Commonwealth

With all the current media brouhaha about the Partition of India in 1947, the Booker submissions from India and Pakistan ought to arouse much interest.  All three novels from the subcontinent, two from Pakistan by Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid and one from India by Arundhati Roy, have a forced topical — almost propagandist — focus on minorities. All three authors have socio-political axes to grind, resulting in a detached, near-journalistic approach to their writing, serving more to chronicle events rather than to creatively communicate the Zeitgeist driving them. What

they have failed to do is brilliantly achieved by UK writer Zadie Smith in her longlisted new novel Swing Time. Though Smith also writes on the subject of a minority group — mixed-race in this case — her book does not have the cold clinical ethos of the subcontinental writers. Zadie Smith succeeds in writing a brilliant exposition of the status quo with warmth and sincerity, and genuine, personal, hands-on experience— not as a politically correct ethnographic study carried out from a safe distance as produced by Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Ahmed and Arundhati Roy.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury £16.99)  

(Booker Rating ***)

One of the books representing the literature of the Commonwealth is Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone, set in the Muslim community of modern London.  Shamsie’s protagonist Isma Pasha and her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz are the children of Adil Pasha, a casualty of Guantanamo Bay. The teenage son Parvaiz is radicalised by his Jehadi terrorist London ‘mates,’ and sets off for Syria to fight beside casehardened ISIS soldiers. His twin sister Aneeka starts a passionate clandestine love affair with Eammon Lone, the son of the UK Home Secretary Karamat Lone (yes, he is an apostate British Muslim), manipulating Eammon emotionally to help her rescue Parvaiz.

The parallels with Sophocles’ Antigone arise when Parvaiz is shot dead in Istanbul, and Karamat Lone refuses to permit the body to be repatriated to Britain for burial. Aneeka arranges for Parvaiz’ corpse to be shipped to Pakistan for burial and keeps a public vigil as it lies in a coffin of ice in a Karachi park. Eammon, now estranged from his powerful father who is understandably outraged by his son’s naïve disloyalty to country and family, joins Aneeka in her now internationally publicised vigil by the side of her dead brother.

Home Fire is a topical novel, portraying all the notorious issues of racism, abuse and discrimination faced by a Muslim in Britain today.

As a member of a minority community myself, I do wonder why, other minorities such as the Chinese and other South Asians, the West Indians, the Africans, the Jews and my own Indian stratum, manage to thrive and prosper in the same milieu that appears to be so hostile to a selected few.

Equally interesting is the fact that like Britain, India has given asylum and a good peaceful life to  refugees, namely Jews (since 600BC) and  Zoroastrians (driven out of their homeland in Persia, Armenia and Georgia by barbaric Muslim invaders in 800AD), over millennia, and more recently to Chinese,Nepalese,and Tibetan migrants. All these immigrants have contributed hugely to the wellbeing of the Indian economy and have enriched Indian society. It is worth noting that Indian Muslims and Christians were largely indigenous Hindu converts and not immigrants at all, a factoid that all thinking people should consider carefully.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton £14.99) 

(Booker Rating ***)

The second Pakistani novel in the subcontinental Commonwealth section is Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, which bears focus once again on a contemporary issue, the migrant problem as experienced the world over today. Exit West is again, like the other Pakistani longlisted novel, consciously topical and is set in an unnamed Muslim city, identifiable as such because of the call to prayer and the violent and repressive misogynistic milieu. The protagonists, ad-man Saeed and full Hijab-wearing, trail-bike riding Nadia meet at an evening class on marketing and product branding, and embark on a love affair.

Saeed still lives at home with his elderly parents, but Nadia, very daringly lives on her own in the midst of  a war-torn city, full of refugees. Matters deteriorate as the war progresses, food and public utilities disappear, mad new laws appear, public executions are rife and the streets are unsafe for all.

But escape routes are at hand, through magical portals that appear when needed and open out in free countries, in Western and other  democracies.  Nadia and Saeed find a portal first to a refugee camp in Mykonos, then to London—which now is home to a vast number of migrants—eventually ending up in San Francisco. Mohsin Hamid, who has been reviewed in this column before, is a writer of considerable ability with a wry and humorous narrative style; his last novel How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, was witty and imaginative. His treatment of the sensitive migrant issue is sympathetic but never fails to be lively and thought -provoking as well.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton £14.99)

(Booker Rating ***)

The third subcontinental Commonwealth writer to appear on the 2017 Booker longlist is Indian national Arundhati Roy, well-known winner of the Booker prize 1997 for her intriguing and beautiful novel  God Of Small Things. Like the two Pakistani selections on the longlist, the Indian title focuses pointedly on minority issues such as are relevant to the world’s largest democracy, including the rather touristy phenomenon of the Hijras, the strange Indian hermaphrodite community beloved of foreign journalists and photographers; the conflict with Pakistan over the Kashmiri border, well known because of the  much photographed colourful change of the guard at the frontier and the current media obsession with the Partition;  helpless victims of the despicable Hindu caste system; and the racist  attacks by the Hindu majority on the Muslim minority in India.

These are all subjects of contemporary import both to India and to the world and are comprehensively covered in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In fact, the book reads more like an anthropologist’s report, like a clinical analysis of sociological issues that are already much discussed internationally, than as a contemporary literary novel. And Roy’s characters act more as mouthpieces for her ideologies than as genuine protagonists. Nonetheless The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a significant work worthy of inclusion in the Booker longlist and is very readable.


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