Before you read the book:
John Berger has won the Booker before, in 1972 with G. His infamous acceptance speech is better remembered. Though my curiousity was leading me to read G someday, that day has just been pushed back since finishing From A to X (2008, to be published in the U.S. next week). It wasn’t a bad book – in fact, there are some wonderful aspects to it – but it was enough to satisfy my desire to get to know Berger, at least for now.
Here is an example of a novel I like in theory but not in fact. It’s an epistolary novel: From A to X refers to letters sent from A’ida to her love Xavier (it is subtitled “Some letters recuperated by John Berger”). At the beginning, all we know is that Xavier is in a prison cell due to his accusation of “being a founder member of a terrorist network.” Because the book then just jumps into the letters, the reader must be willing to work pretty hard to get his or her bearings in the novel. This is not made any easier by the sometimes mind-numbing minutiae A’ida sometimes gives, delving into the quotidian. Nor is it made pleasant by A’ida’s lapses into sentimentality:
Eyes have only four or five official adjectives: brown, blue, hazel, green! The colour of your eyes is Xavier
(The absent end stop at the end of that sentence is correct according to my copy).
However, within these letters are some rather beautiful passages, particularly those when A’ida gives her version of her relationship with Xavier before he was taken to prison. Rather than display her cheesy affection, she makes a believable case for why these two would remain lovers by post.
On the back of almost every letter Xavier has written something. Most of Xavier’s passages were annoying to me. I could just see Berger saying things like this at this years Booker Prize ceremony:
IMF WB GATT WTO NAFTA FTAA – their acronyms gag language, as their actions stifle the world.
Such declamatory statements are often silly, particularly when contrasted with passages where Xavier is quoting real people, like Fanon and Chavez, .
These negative aspects of the novel aside (and if you’re not careful, they’ll destroy the book for you as they almost did for me) I found the idea of the novel to be very satisfying. As we read these letters, which may or may not be in the right order, we see A’ida and Xavier age, and with that comes many changes. At first, A’ida writes letters about their marriage, which she’d like to take place soon after he is released. Before we know it, though, A’ida’s letters are more elegiac and look forward to the mere possibility that they will see each other again before death. The passage of time is unsettling given the context, and it’s the aspect of the novel that saved it for me.
I missed it on my first read, but the first letter in the book presents this theme of the passage of time:
The word recently has altered since they took you. Tonight I don’t want to write how long ago that was. The word recently now covers all that time. Once it meant a few weeks or the day before yesterday.
All in all, while I didn’t enjoy reading the book, I enjoyed ruminating about it when not reading it. I’m sure there’s a lot in it that would reward a second reading, which makes it a likely pick for the Booker shortlist, though I’d not put it on there in most years.
After you read the book:
Ten Bookers down, two to go (I’m not going to read Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress). When I’m done, I’ll return the content to this section of my review.
Before you read the book:
I had to take a break from the Booker longlist. After reading nine of the thirteen – and really only enjoying a slim few – I wanted to read something that I wanted to read. This is in no way meant to suggest that the tipping point was Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, which in fact was one of the best on the longlist and a joy to read. If anything, it was because I finished that book and then started another longlist title and was disappointed quickly. I had to branch out!
The cover, and the fact that it is a NYRB book, made me buy The Day of the Owl (Il Giorno della Civetta, 1961; tr. from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver, 1963 (as Mafia Vendetta). I knew next to nothing else about it, though I had heard of Sciascia and that his books were a bit condemning of the way Italy ran its state in the 1940s and 1950s.
This is a book that is perhaps better approached with only a vague idea of its plot because it is short, sly, and rewarding. But, there are a few things I can say that might make it more appealing to some out there who are wondering whether to venture into this Italian classic.
The book begins with a crime. An innocuous contractor named Salvatore Colasberna is shot when attempting to board a bus. When the investigator, Captain Bellodi, arrives at the scene, no one seems to have any clue what happened. The ambitious detective cannot get anyone to tell him anything:
To the informer the law was not a rational thing born of reason, but something depending on a man, on the thoughts and the mood of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk.
Bellodi needs to crack this case to prove he is worthy of his position, but no one, not even those on his side of the law, is helping. The situation is exacerbated as one crime leads to another which leads to another. Knowing exactly what happened, Bellodi must find a way around the obstacles built to hide or deny the existence of a group we all know about these days: the mafia.
We have an idea what happened to Colasberna:
Obviously, if nine companies out of ten have accepted protection, thus forming a kind of union, the tenth which refuses is a black sheep. It can’t do much harm, of course, but its very existence is a challenge and a bad example.
We trust in Bellodi’s theory. However, knowing what has happened and even why is not the main point of this detective novel. I found this more interesting: how do you bring about justice under these circumstances?
The great thing about this book is that the compelling plot is not just some gimmick a writer came up with to entertain his readers. In fact, Sciascia’s intent with this book was to show the failure of the state to engage with the mafia. Sciascia has a way to make the reader care about Bellodi’s situation even though the crime itself is resolved early on – we don’t lack the evidence; rather we lack a legitimate way to bring the evidence to light.
It is unfair to compare this book with Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize this year, but I’m going to do it anyway (when I say “unfair,” by the way, I meant unfair to Sciascia; it’s flattering, I’m sure, to Smith). Here is a detective novel that has at its heart a man’s fight against a state with its back turned. Here, however, everything was done subtely and with good characterization. Here is a compelling read that at one-fifth the length of Child 44 covers more ground and engages the reader with the subject. And here is a book with a provoking resolution that is far from cheap. For those of you looking for a good crime novel, don’t go to the Booker longlist – here is a nice quick one that will please you much more.
After you read the book:
For any of you interested in criminal procedure, I’d like to know your thoughts on the manner of the investigation and interrogation. I found it very interesting how Bellodi deals with a system that refuses to acknowledge a problem, making its process even more frustrating for a detective who knows exactly what has happened.
Before you read the book:
Actually, before you even read my review, I’d like to give a little plug for The Book Depository, which I found out about when I followed the link in Mark Twaite’s name in my post on Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. (Mark Twaite is the Managing Editor at The Book Depository). I had the eight longlist titles available in the U.S., and didn’t know if I could really justify buying the rest from the UK and paying shipping, etc., especially when the books so far have not been that great. But The Book Depository offers free international shipping, and their prices are excellent too even with the exchange rate. In fact, some of the books were as cheap as if I waited for them to be published in hardback in the U.S. So, now, on to the review of The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), which I wouldn’t have yet if not for The Book Depository’s great service!
Linda Grant is a new author for me, though I’ve seen her name pop up now and then, usually in reference to When I Lived in Modern Times, which won the Orange Prize in 2000. I wasn’t all that anxious to read this book, truth be told. The title, for one thing, did not appeal to me; looked like a heavy-handed metaphor. But I guess I’m going to have to approach more books this way. The books on the longlist that I wasn’t anxious to read have turned out to be the most enjoyable, including this one.
The narrator is Vivien, is a twenty-five-year-old in London in the 1970s, when most of this novel takes place. She has moved back in with her parents while in a state of depression following a tragic death:
You take a misstep, you turn your head the wrong way when you cross the road, you gargle with bleach instead of mouthwash, it’s just ridiculous the doors that are slightly ajar between life and death.
Still in the slump of depression but looking for a way out, Vivien runs into her uncle, Sándor Kovacs, whom she has met only once before back in 1963, when he came to visit her father, his brother. Her father threw him out – actually refused to even receive him - and she didn’t see Sándor again until this meeting in the 1970s, though she heard about him in the news frequently enough when he went to prison a few months after showing on her doorstep.
When they meet again in the 70s, Sándor is getting old. Thinking he doesn’t recognize her, she gives him a phony name and begins to work for him, transcribing his life story as he tells it. She goes into this despising the man, just looking for a bit of informaiton about her own past. For example, all she knows about her parents is that they were Hungarian and they came to London before World War II broke out, saving them from a lot of hardship, though, honestly, you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They keep to themselves and divulge nothing about their past.
“If anyone tells you about your grandmother it’s me.”
“But you didn’t tell me.”
“So you could have asked.”
“And what would you have said?”
“Nothing! What’s she got to do with you?”
But Vivien is learning anyway. Through her sessions with her uncle, Vivien not only learns about her grandmother, she also learns about Sándor’s relationship with her father. I began to worry at about this point. Was Vivien just a vessle for Grant to write about the relationship between two Hungarian immigrants, one who got away before the war and one who did not? Happily, no. Vivien and her story remain distinct. And though her heritage is important, the novel maintains the focus on who Vivien is now (well, in the 1970s, at any rate).
Of course, from the first chapter in the book, which takes place thirty years after the book’s main events, we know that there’s more to the story. In that first chapter, Vivien runs into Eunice, her uncle’s girlfriend. Eunice somehow blames Vivien for Sándor’s death.
I have not forgotten our summer together, when I learned the only truth that matters: that suffering does not ennoble and that survivors survive because of their strength or cunning or luck, not their goodness, and certainly not their innocence.
The great thing about this book is that all of this plot doesn’t destroy the characterization. I like a good plot, but it’s always sad when an author lets the plot run over the characters, making the characters just a device to get across some clever twists and turns.
Something that never went away though was my dislike of the title. Sure, clothes are an important motif in the book, but to me it was only a motif, and not a particularly insightful one either. To me, the motif was more one to give the story some internal structure, and works much as in many other books. It was nothing new or interesting, and it didn’t feel like Grant wanted that to stand out too much because the motif was not particularly in my face in the book. In fact, without the title telling me to pay attention to clothes I think I would have to have read the book a few times before really appreciating the quantity of clothing connections. So I feel the title cheapened the book a tad, making something subtle the supposed center show. There is much more to this book than the title suggests.
So I enjoyed this book. Loved it? No. I doubt it will stick with me too long. But I appreciated it, especially in contrast most others on this blasted Booker longlist!
After you read the book:
Just a few more of these longlist titles to go, and then I’m going to start using this section the way I intended it. For now, enjoy reading the books! Please post your thoughts in the comments and mark potential spoilers!
Before you read the book:
Though it can’t be true, it felt like Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture (2008) took me longer to read than the much longer A Fraction of the Whole. There is a lot more lurking in the prose here, so that slowed me down. But the main force against my quick pace was the strange syntax in this book – it’s a bit tricky. That is not necessarily a bad thing since the passages are in the first person and the narrators do have some interesting dialectical styles. Still, I was somewhat concerned at first that the style would get in the way, but I got over it and at times it began to feel natural as I got used to the characters’ voices, and I was able to let the prose work on me, which was pleasantly haunting and hopeful, like the nice US cover.
The book begins at Roscommon, an insane asylum in County Sligo, Ireland, where Roseanne McNulty (a connection to Eneas McNulty from Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty – which I have not read) has resided for, well, who knows, maybe sixty of her maybe one hundred years. The asylum is about to be demolished, so the man in charge, Doctor Grene, who has been taking care of the residents there for the last thirty or so years of his professional career, is using the pending demolition and transfer of the patients as a reason to investigate whether the patients should be there or not. Roseanne’s is a particularly compelling case to him.
The narrative shifts back and forth between Roseanne’s ”testimony” that she is writing and Doctor Grene’s purportedly clinical observations. Roseanne is telling “the truth” about her life before she was put away. Doctor Grene is writing down his analysis of her story which he’s getting not from her but from a testimonial given by Father Gaunt, a Catholic priest who knew Roseanne as a child and was around when she was deemed insane. From Roseanne’s narrative, we have reason to dislike, if not distrust, Father Gaunt:
And such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blad, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him, as my father discovered.
Father Guant has taken full advantage of the power vested in the Catholic church during Ireland’s early twentieth-century political upheaval. Upon the death of her father, Roseanne, a Protestant, is approached by Father Gaunt:
Remember, Roseanne, grief is two years long. You will not make a good thought for a long time. Be advised by me, let me advice you in loco parentis, do you see, in place of your father let me be your father in this, as a priest ought.
The Catholic Church’s power to push its views in the political arena and private lives of the Irish is one of the points of the narrative, but much of the struggles of early twentieth-century Ireland are highlighted as Roseanne recounts her early years into her marriage with Tom McNulty, a Catholic.
As Doctor Grene reads through Father Gaunt’s version of events (though we always get them filtered through Doctor Grene’s own imperfect memory), Roseanne gives us, but not Doctor Grene, her side, and then hides the pages in her room. Perhaps not too surprisingly, there are gaps in the narratives. I definitely enjoyed Roseanne’s portion of the story; however, the part that won me over was Doctor Grene’s own demons: grief and guilt. As much as he wants to focus on Roseanne’s story, his private grief comes out in touching, even intimate ways through his sometimes dreamlike admissions. All of this culminates in an ending that I can only discuss in the comments for fear of spoiling it for other readers, and the book deserves other readers. That said, the biggest problem I had with the book was the ending.
For the most part, though, I enjoyed this book despite its flaws in narrative and in style. As far as style is concerned, at times Barry’s poetic side comes out in beautiful and painful insights:
There is a moment in the history of every beaten child when his mind parts with hopes of dignity – pushes off hope like a boat without a rower and lets it go as it will on the stream, and resigns himself to the tally stick of pain.
And here is a real winner; one of my favorite lines in recent memory:
It seemed as he moved forward, his intention changed, humanity cleared from his face, something private and darker than humanity, something before we were given our troublesome souls, stirred in his eyes.
At other times it’s still insightful and furthers the points in the narrative but comes out a bit more forced - particularly disappointing when Barry sort of points it out:
“I do remember terrible dark things, and loss, and noise, but it is like one of those terrible dark pictures that hang in churches, God knows why, because you cannot see a thing in them.”
“Mrs McNulty, that is a beautiful description of traumatic memory.”
All in all, though not a perfect book by any means, I liked The Secret Scripture. It definitely bridges the gap between the five books I haven’t really liked on the longlist (The Lost Dog, Child 44, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, The Enchantress of Florence, and The White Tiger) and the two I did like (Netherland and A Fraction of the Whole).
After you read the book:
We’re getting closer to the end of the Booker longlist, and I am anxious to write about other books and to dwell on some of their themes a bit more in depth in this section. But for now, let’s discuss potential spoilers – including my biggest problem with the book – in the comments!
Before you read the book:
I was warned off A Fraction of the Whole (2008) earlier this year by people who said it was good but who didn’t believe it was worth the book’s weight, and when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize I almost decided not to read it unless it made it to the shortlist. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was running out of longlist titles available in the U.S. and had yet to order the rest from the UK. So, thinking I might as well find out for myself, I picked it up. Here is the first line:
You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.
Amused and refreshed by just one sentence after having finished The Lost Dog, I kept going. And though the book is long, it has a style and plot so propulsive that I was able to get through it quickly, and I did think it was worth the weight.
My initial thought: Ahhh, that was refreshing! After several misses on the longlist, I finally have come away from a book feeling satisfied by each segment of the book and thankful for the judges for pointing out a treat of a book I otherwise would not have read. I’m still trying to figure out, though, if I liked the book as much as I did only in contrast to the other longlist titles I’ve read or if the book would also hold its own outside of this bubble I’m in. I think it would hold its own.
A Fraction of the Whole is a pleasantly perverse combination of American transcendentalism (transplanted in Australia) and nihilism, peppered with existentialism. The interesting interplay of these theories plus a wit for a narrator, and I never really wanted to put the book down. The plot was compelling, and Toltz manages the pacing well. I read it quickly, yet I still felt I was given the opportunity to absorb its stories and its themes which were nicely drawn upon throughout the book’s several episodes without becoming nauseating. At least, not too nauseating; sometimes the narrator’s unique perspective (which matches the style of several other characters in the book – more on that later) was a bit too much on display, but honestly for the most part I ate it up.
The book was full of darkly disturbing humor, but it was done in a way that reminded me of the Coen brothers’ Fargo - you know you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself when so much that is awful is going on, but you can’t help yourself. Thankfully, like Fargo, though the humor is bleak, the author respects the gravity of what he’s doing. Alongside the wimsy is something dead serious.
The story belongs to Martin and Jasper Dean, father and son. Jasper Dean is in a prison. We know his father, Martin, is dead, and I got suspicious about whether Jasper was the cause of death. Jasper has decided to spend his apparently ample time writing his story, but his story is not complete without going into the life of Martin Dean, who turns out to be an even more central figure in the book than Jasper.
On thing’s for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that’s beyond me. All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him.
The book is divided into seven chapters, which vary somewhat in style and perspective. As Jasper reflects on his youth, he remembers a time when his father takes him away to tell him about Jasper’s uncle, Terry Dean, one of Australia’s most famous serial murderers. The book smoothly transitions into a hundred-page-plus first person narration by Martin, recounting his youth where his brother Terry played a large role which would never be out done by anyone else in Martin’s life, even Martin.
To give an idea of the way the book progresses, in the second chapter Jasper finds out about his mother by reading one of his father’s old notebooks from the time. So we are treated to another first-person narrative through a much looser style. While reading, we (and Jasper) discover how Martin felt when Jasper was born.
A sickening idea has taken hold – this baby is me prematurely reincarnated. I loathe this kid – I loathe it because it is me. It is me. It will surpass me. It will overthrow me. It will know what I know, all my mistakes. Other people have children. Not me. I have given birth to something monstrous: to myself.
Where one person begins and another ends are one of the book’s focal points. The title derives from a quote by Emerson: “The moment we meet with anybody, each becomes a fraction.” Martin and Jasper are the central characters whose relationship is being dissected to see how they each are a fraction of a larger whole that, that each is the lesser without the other. But Toltz does a great job expanding this to their relationship with their partners, spouses, relatives, friends, community, with their nation, and with humanity in general.
The title also plays nicely with other topics: insanity, love, life in general. As I said earlier, this theme is cast on two people with an extreme, quasi-religious belief in nihilism, giving the book a potent flavor that is serious while still being, at most times, comic:
Nuclear energy is a waste of time. They should go about harnessing the power of the unconscious when it is in the act of denying Death.
Because many of the philosophies used explicitly and implicitly in the book range from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, I felt like I was reading a book about “modern man” but with the voice and setting of “postmodern man” in all of its irreverence. I would have liked it better, I think, had Toltz expanded (even more?) his scope to include some more contemporary perspectives, but this didn’t ruin the book by any means.
Though the style is amusing throughout, that turned out to be one of the problems with the book, not least because you might find it annoying (which I didn’t, most of the time). The main problem is that each of the main characters sounded the same – like they all had the same voice and thought pattern, even down to the (masterfully) comic syntax. That’s not to say that Toltz’s characters all were the same psychologically. They weren’t. But when they spoke, they all had the same style, the same way of wrapping up a unique observation with wit and a wry coda. This might have been intentional since the characters are supposed to be derivatives of each other, but the consistency, while it didn’t feel forced, did feel more like it was just the author’s style. Also, sometimes the wit was excellent but not quite fitting, further giving the impression that Toltz was speaking and not the characters.
But really, that didn’t take away my pleasure with this book. It’s packed full of life and death and some of the great philosophies of life and death distilled through the filter of two fairly mundane, lazy wits.
After you read the book:
Please let me know how you felt about this book in the comments section. Just mark potential spoilers.
Before you read the book:
I picked up The Lost Dog (2007) once before and after about twenty pages put it down thinking, is that worth rereading so that I understand it or should I just skip this one? I never picked it up again until just recently to march through the Booker longlist. I have to say, I got a whole lot more out of those first twenty pages on a second read, enough at least to make the book more compelling.
This book begins with Tom Loxley’s dog running off through the bushes with a lead still tied around its neck. It’s a Tuesday, and the rest of the sections of the book go from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday . . . until the next Thursday, and he’s looking for his dog throughout, sometimes alone and sometimes with help. If that doesn’t sound interesting in and of itself, of course, it isn’t. Here, the author sets up for herself a gigantic task of making the characters’ inner life and relationships the main part of a book with an uninteresting structure and no real plot. That’s a tall order, and I anxiously read to find out if she could do it.
Just having written the conclusion to his magnum opus, a work on Henry James, Tom is about to leave the home he rented from Nelly Zhang. But that dog runs off. As Tom begins his search, the book slips back and forth in time, sometimes going back to the mid-twentieth century in India, sometimes going back just a few years to Tom’s unhappy marriage, and sometimes not going back at all (it’s 2001 in Melboure, Australia, in the book’s present time). Each time shift is indicated with a slight break in the page, but it’s still pretty difficult to follow, so one must pay close attention – another reason de Kretser better pay off in the end!
In the first fifty or so pages, we go back to see Tom’s parents, Arthur and Iris, meet and wed. Iris has learned how to be afraid, thanks in part to her father Sebastian, who had big plans for Iris. She let him down when she married Arthur.
Four days after Iris returned from her honeymoon, her father informed her of her mistake. The enumeration of his son-in-law’s inadequacies occupied the following half an hour, and then the rest of Sebastian’s days.
Sebastian was right, though, Arthur is a phantom character in the book just as he was a nonpresence in life. Arthur is dead now, but Tom is still trying to take care of Iris while he looks for his dog. This is just one of the many relationships the book looks at. Tom also has an ex-wife, an ex-fling, a rival. He also is getting closer to Nelly Zhang, who has loads of relationships of her own: a son, Tom’s rival (and the son and the rival have an interesting relationship), and a lost husband.
This lost husband is another way, besides the lost dog, that de Kretser gives the story some structure. Like all things in the first part of the book, her husband is only remarked upon tangentially: “Tell you what, mate, you want to watch how you go. Look at what happened to the poor bloody husband, eh.” While we read about Arthur’s search for his dog, we also read about Arthur’s search for the truth about Nelly’s husband. Did he commit suicide? Did she kill him? Is he even dead?
There is a lot packed into this book: modernity, post-modernity, consumerism, post-colonialism, art and literary criticism, man and his dog, man and his mother, man and man. Despite the number of currents running through the book, I thought de Kretser did a good job managing them in a way that made me think about each individually and how they each connected in a greater whole – that is, when I wasn’t distracted by other things (but more on that in a minute).
Probably the most prevalent and, for me, most compelling theme is the flow of time and the influence of the past. Here, the present is not just the present; it is a liminal space between the past and the future, between birth and death (bringing to mind Samuel Beckett’s strangely profound 25 second play Breath, though de Kretser didn’t seem to follow Beckett all the way to a finding that life is pointless). This becomes even more compelling as de Kretser looks at the state of modern life (also with wiffs of Beckett: “She painted hospitals, those nonplaces where modern lives begin and end.”).
In The Lost Dog, history becomes a ghost that is almost more present than the present, and de Kretser has a few excellent ways of portraying this:
The past was not always past enough here. It was like living in a house acquired for its clean angles and gleaming appliances; and discovering a bricked-up door at which, faint but insistent, the sound of knocking could be heard.
Furthermore, the focus on Henry James, his ghosts, and his own fight with history, provides another nice subcurrent here, and de Kretser acknowledges her reliance on James’s work. Tom himself is fighting with history. He wants a life that is “free to be trivial,” but he is haunted by his own past and his own lack of ties to the future:
He lived in a country where he had no continuity with the dead; and, being childless, no connection with the future. Most lives describe a line that runs behind and before. His drew the airless, perfect circle of autobiography. What he missed, in the world, was affiliation.
It is this theme that provides one – only one, though, as there are several – link to the dog.
Animals do not suffer as we do. They do not live in time, they are not nostalgic for the past, they do not imagine a better future, and so they lack awareness of mortality.
And, if we weren’t getting it enough, de Kretser even becomes a bit obvious: “Goya’s ambiguous dog, poised between extinction and deliverance.” Perhaps that is why Tom seems to love the dog as much as he’s ever loved anyone in his life, even his dying mother.
Honestly, for the first one hundred pages, I didn’t like the book much at all. It was disjointed and seemed to be purposely though pointlessly obfuscated. Some of the paragraphs were clever, but cleverness cannot be a substitute real development of the broader themes. I thought, great, here comes another awful book that, because it is hard to read, sounds profound; when we finally get it, we mistake our pleasure with our own ability for pleasure with the author’s ability. But, quite to my surprise, after page 100 or so, a few passages piqued my interest and convinced me that I needed to be paying more attention. What happened? The exact opposite of what happend with Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence: The short, seemingly disconnected episodes from the first part started to come together in my head, to pleasing results. I excitedly, and with a great deal of pleasure, waded through the next 100 pages.
I’m sorry to report, though, that what happened next was not pleasant. De Kretser was already flirting with the baser elements of human existence, and it was working somewhat. I don’t know if she thought she was being edgy or what but she proceeded to present a preoccupation – no, an obsession - with excrement. There was one part that worked for me, but for the rest, no, she did not succeed. One can see what she is doing here – it’s what many writers do when they focus on excrement – but her overly frequent references to it became distracting and made me question her judgment as a writer. It’s not that it was excrement that annoyed me; I would feel similarly if she had done the same thing with flowers. But the fact that is was feces really made the author’s overuse become apparent - the book became banal and base and incredibly over the top.
I don’t want to mislead people here, though; it wasn’t just the references to excrement that did me in. The entire last third of the book was awful. De Kretser’s pithy aphorisms, which at times were brilliant, became annoyingly pretentious due to their quantity if not their quality. Her obfuscated style stopped paying off when I realized I was doing a lot of work and getting nothing good in return. Her resolutions of the story lines were ultimately predictable and unfortunately failed to follow through with the interesting themes she set up. All love I had for the novel and for the author’s ability dissipated quickly. By the end, I didn’t care any more. I wouldn’t have finished this book were it not for the Booker (sometimes so much dedication to a cause can lead you down false paths – dirty Booker . . .)
I imagine that this is a book that pays off more with subsequent reads since the disjointed narrative will make more sense. Because of that, it’s likely that the judges, who will have gone through the book twice, will put this one on the shortlist. In fact, because so far it is the book that most peeved me, it will probably win: that’s what happened last year!
Once again a longlisted title has succeeded in being completely unbalanced for me. Can we make the shortlist out of portions of books? The first 100 pages of The Enchantress of Florence, the chapters on Zia in A Case of Exploding Mangoes, the middle of The Lost Dog (and then probably only every third page)? Of course, I still vote for the whole of Netherland.
After you read the book:
If you can tell me why I should like how de Kretser played out the last third of this novel, please help me out. I honestly thought it had potential to win the Booker while I was in the middle, and I would have been happy with that, but the last part made me seriously question the judges’ judgment – again.
Before you read the book:
Though it’s only the fifth I’ve read so far, the most historical of the longlisted titles, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), also turned out to be the most entertaining. The title is less quirky and, to me, more compelling knowing the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the subject of this fiesty book. Zia was President of Pakistan from the time he took the job from Zulfikar Bhutto (whom he had executed despite pulling off a “bloodless revolution”) until his own mysterious death in 1988 in a plane crash along with eight of his Generals (some of whom were probably plotting other assassination attempts of Zia) and American Ambassador Arnold Rafel -
Third World dictators are always blowing up in strange circumstances, but if the brightest star in the U.S. diplomatic service (and that’s what will be said about Arnold Raphel at the funeral service in Arlington Cemetery) goes down with eight Pakistani generals, somebody will be expected to kick ass.
Like the assassination of JFK, this death (which may not have been anything more than an accident) has spawned many conspiracy theories. Here is something they know: not long before the plane took off a crate of mangoes was loaded. Shortly after take-off the plane started dipping and then rising – you guessed it: phugoid, an obvious sign (apparently – I’m no expert) that there is no one flying the plane. It eventually crashed. Did the mangoes do it?
The book is divided into two principle narratives: (1) a third-person narrative of General Zia’s growing paranoia (quite justified, since assassination attempts galore are coming and going everyday) and (2) a first-person narrative from Ali Shigri, a disgruntled member of the Silent Drill team, son of a dead General, and one of Zia’s would-be assassins. The book begins with Shigri addressing the reader: he was the only one who got on board the plan that day and walked away safely. Then we are sent back into the past for most of the rest of the book, going back and forth from General Zia to Shigri, until all culminates in a pleasing final chapter.
Hanif has done an excellent job evoking an interesting character in his version of General Zia, the “smiling dictator.” At first Zia self-assured - even preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, expected because of how he’s kept the Communists out of Afghanistan - lately he’s become a man “marinating in his own paranoia.” This latest onset of fear was brought on by a particular verse in the Quran, a book that has taken on a new role in Zia’s life:
After eleven years, he was feeling a creeping habit setting in. For he had started consulting the holy book as if it were not the word of God, but his daily horoscope on the back page of the Pakistan Times.
Hanif skillfully shows Zia transforming from a confident man who has the power to take the word “god” out of parlance to a man who begins to cloister himself in his room.
In the name of God, God was exiled from the land and replaced by the one and only Allah, who, General Zia convinced himself, spoke only through him. But today, eleven years later, Allah was sending him signs that all pointed to a place so dark, so final, that General Zia wished he could muster up some doubts about the Book.
The tone Hanif adopts is also entertaining in its sardonic satire. In a particularly poignant and pleasing and disturbing part, Zia discusses the pending execution of a blind woman for fornication – she was raped.
“So the woman will be required to recognise all five culprits in court?” Zia asked.
“Our law, as you know, is not set in stone; it encourages us to use our common sense. So the two men who are holding her down by her arms, maybe the woman would not be able to recognise those two and the judge can make an exception.”
“And what if she didn’t see any of the culprits? What if they were wearing masks?”
General Zia could tell the old man was suddenly angry.
“Why would a rapist wear a mask? Is he a bank robber?”
This tone is also appropriate and entertaining when Hanif employs it to look back at the activities going on in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At a Fourth of July party, the chief of the CIA goes up to a fellow named OBL:
“Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up.”
I felt differently, however, about Hanif’s evocation of the novel’s main narrator, Ali Shigri. Where some have – appropriately - compared Shigri to Yossarian from Catch-22, I felt it was almost too much imitation; take away the familiar sardonic attitude and laziness and Shigri was basically lifeless despite his backstory - he found his father hanged by his own sheets, his friend Obaid is sometimes his lover with whom he plots his assassination of Zia, he is imprisoned in the VIP cell of Lahore Prison. There was some kind of disconnect between these details and the first-person narrative for me. Where I felt General Zia came alive, especially when his chapters slowed down to give us a glimpse at his thoughts, Shigri’s chapters died – especially when slowed down. In fact, they were often tedious for me. Shigri’s plans, motives, and relationships are frequently alluded to, with bits and pieces being disclosed all the time, but without revealing it entirely until close to the end. This felt like a cheap trick since it was fairly easy to figure out what was coming and I felt the only purpose in hiding the facts was to string the reader along since all of the characters know what is going on. I found myself getting frustrated with Hanif here. Though the chapters were short, they still felt long, like a filler while we waited for Zia’s story to culminate.
In the end, though, as all of the strings came together, I was smitten by the story and its cleverness. Worth reading for the chapters on Zia alone, I also found the satirical look at the current state of the world very compelling. I honestly could have done without the Shigri narrative, even though it offers an at times amusing satirical view of the Pakistani Army.
So this book is two parts tasty and one part blah. However, the tasty parts overwhelm the blah parts which are already fading in my memory, making me like the book more and more the further I get away from reading it.
After you read the book:
So far, I still like Netherland the best (so subtle and broad yet particular and poignant), but this one is in second place for me! If you’d like to discuss the way the book is resolved, I would love to engage in a discussion in the comments – just mark any spoilers.
Before you read the book:
Salman Rushdie’s books are always a bit intimidating for me. I’m not sure why since I often enjoy them and don’t find them particularly difficult. It’s also not an effort to prolong the pleasure since I often don’t enjoy them. For whatever reason, then, The Enchantress of Florence (2008) was no exception to this intimidation trend. I didn’t read it right when it was released, though I’d picked it up several times. And though I’ve had it for a while since, I didn’t read it first on the Booker longlist. In fact, I almost deliberately held off reading it until the end. But when choosing which longlist title to read next, I picked it up and read the first few lines:
In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset – this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road – might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests.
Maybe it’s because I’d just read Child 44, but I was thirsty for some magical, stylish prose, so I decided to buck up and read the book!
Now, did the book keep up with its first page? Yes and no. For the first 120 pages (Part I) I loved it, maybe as much as anything I’ve recently read. Here we meet “the traveler” mentioned above, coming first by ship and then by land to Sikri, in Hindustan. But even more intriguing, at Sikri we meet King Akbar, Emperor of India in the late sixteenth century:
The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory . . .
Akbar, however, is a king with an identity and philosophical crisis. Having always referred to himself in the first person plural, he begins to wonder what it must feel like to refer to himself as an “I.” And this leads him to further questions:
Was there then no essential difference between the ruler and the ruled? And now his original question reasserted itself in a new and startling form: if his many-selved subjects managed to think of themselves in the singular rather than plural, could he, too, be and “I”? Could there be an “I” that was simply oneself? Were there such naked, solitary “I”s burried beneath the overcrowded “we”s of the earth?
Akbar is ashamed of his warrior past, which goes back to Ghengis Kahn. Though he has a brutal streak in him, when he kills a man he wonders if he’s just killed the man who might have been his equal, someone he could talk to, the only man he could ever love. In continuing the intrigue, Rushdie then introduces the King’s great love, Jodha. Their story, it is said by all, will go down as one of the greatest love stories in history. She is the favorite of all of the King’s wives, having excellent servants and the best room, and all of the subjects love her. It’s almost a side point that she’s just a figment of Akbar’s imagination – a great way for Rushdie to introduce one of the major themes of this book: the power of storytelling and art.
Thus, in reality, while it is true that she does not exist, it is also true to say that she is the one who lives. If she did not, then over there, behind the high window, there would be nobody waiting for her return.
And Rushdie makes her feel real, though we know it’s all just empty air. While Akbar is away, she feels herself diminish and contemplates her nonexistence. When Akbar approaches, her pulse quickens. Akbar’s other wives are jealous of her – “Whe he was gone, at least, she ought to absent herself as well; she had no business to hang around with the actually existing.” In the midst of Akbar’s identity crisis, just as he attempts to use “I” when speaking to Jodha, enters the traveler, a stranger who hails from Medici Florence. The traveler brings a fantastic tale, suitable only for a king, a tale about the enchantress of Florence, Qara Köz. Jodha starts getting jealous when Akbar is distracted by the story of the enchantress.
Honestly, up to this point, I was on board with Rushdie, thoroughly enjoying the evocation of this magical place and time with his magical realism (even thinking, perhaps with some blasphemy, that it was as magical and pleasant as some passages in One Hundred Years of Solitude). I couldn’t wait for the intriguing themes to be played with in the last parts of the book – I was trusting Rushdie to follow through! Furthermore, up to this point, I also enjoyed the playful descriptions of the type of time period we’re looking at:
. . . during which time her brother and protector Babar galloped back and forth, winning battles, losing battles, gaining territory, losing it again, being attacked by his uncles, attacking his cousins, being rounded upon by his cousins, and attacking his uncles again . . .
But soon after Part I, about a paragraph is all, the the magic stopped for me. Here, the traveler begins to tell the King his story, but this story didn’t work for me. Perhaps the magical realism doesn’t fit, in my mind, under the rule of the Medicis. Perhaps I also was half in love with Jodha and thought the Enchantress should just leave Sikri alone.
I think it’s something else though. My major gripe with Midnight’s Children (though I still voted for it to win the Best of the Bookers last month) was the frequent lapses from the main story which went into an overly detailed, though fleeting, description of some analogue to a historic event. At least in that book, though, much of this was substantiated since the whole book was about the history. Here I didn’t feel like the stories embedded in stories furthered anything, even though the book is written, in part, to show the magic of storytelling. In contrast to Part I, these stories didn’t do it for me. I could have done without that Enchantress entirely (though apparently that Rushide thought she was a pretty important part of the book). Although Rushdie continued to slather these inner stories with magical details, the details didn’t seem substantiated by the stories themselves which felt strangely lifeless after the first part where even an imaginary Queen feels real and has a soul, where an artist falls so in love with his work that he enters it by painting himself into the frame.
The final chapter seemed at first to pick up the thread, and I hoped it would resolve some of the themes and help me get a better appreciation for the previous 180 pages. To an extent, it did, but not enough for me to finish the book happily. The inner stories just pulled the book too far into the deep for me. It was sad that, despite the quirky detail, in these inner stories all we get is a very brief survey of events in episodic speed to bolster something Rushdie thought would be clever.
Not that I usually mind Rushdie’s self-conscious cleverness, even when he shoves it in your face:
In those days Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings . . .
I think he’s shown he’s got what it takes to be a remembered author, so I can take a bit of self-indulgence now and then. His style, though, showy, is still something to be reckoned with. And, after all, it’s loads better than all those authors trying to sound like Rushdie. But to me, after the first part, all this book was was self-indulgent. It was as if Rushdie had done a lot of research (which he admits to and shows in the long bibliography at the end) and just wanted to have some self-gratifying fun with what he’d learned. The story was promising, but for the last 200 pages I just wanted to get back to Sikri and forget the whole Enchantress of Florence bit.
I know that I’m not alone in my dislike of the book. Another reason I didn’t read the book right away was because most reviews I read were fairly negative if not spitefully so. One positive one I remember, though, was from the London Financial Times in April. There John Sutherland, judge of the Man Booker Prize in 1999 and Chair in 2005, said, “If The Enchantress of Florence doesn’t win this year’s Man Booker I’ll curry my proof copy and eat it.” Well, I agreed with the committee’s 1999 decision with Disgrace and I completely disagreed in 2005 with The Sea. I’m glad Sutherland’s not on it this year or it would be several years in a row that I didn’t even like the winner, let alone think there was a better book on the longlist!
After you read the book:
There are definitely some interesting things to discuss here: myth-making, culture-creation, the role of women in this older world. However, I will keep up with my efforts not to publish any potential spoilers on the main posts during Booker season because I don’t want to lead anyone to inadvertently discover something here that is so much more fun to discover in the book. But please, feel free to engage in these topics in the comments – just mark spoilers!
Before your read the book:
Moving quickly through the next Booker longlisted title, Child 44 (2008) – it’s a propulsive read - I am still pleased with my Booker experience this year, having enjoyed this and both The White Tiger and Netherland quite a bit. Of course, whether this particular title deserves its place on the longlist is in dispute, and not just because people think there are better books that were passed by. Some say that Child 44 does not offer the type of literature that Booker stands for, that, in fact, Child 44 isn’t even literature at all. Well, even if Child 44 itself is perhaps too clear and doesn’t raise many ambiguities we like to see in our Booker reads, it does raise one of the biggest questions of them all: what is literature?
As far as stories go, this one kept me in my seat speeding to know what happened next, and I don’t expect any other title on the longlist to do that in quite the same way. Beginning in the Ukraine in 1933, during one of Russia’s frequent periods of mass starvation (in fact, looking for literary ties, the beginning calls to mind the tragic circumstances under which Dostoevsky’s wife died just a few years earlier in 1918 after eating bread on a shrunken stomach – don’t worry, not all literary ties are that stretched). After the short setup where we meet two young boys hunting a cat in the dark, snowy woods, the novel skips ahead to 1953, when Stalin is at the height of his power, having established his vision of a Soviet state where all is beauty and bliss and the children can look forward to a bright future.
Of course, this bright future comes with a cost: paranoia, because to ensure this bright and secure future anything not in the party-line must be eliminated.
The book focuses on an MGB officer named Leo. The child of a fellow member of the MGB has been violently killed near the train tracks in Moscow, and Leo is sent to the family, not to investigate, not to console, but to make sure the family doesn’t raise a fuss.
The loss of a son was heartbreaking for the family and relatives. But, bluntly, it was meaningless at a national level. Careless children, unless they were careless with their tongues, were not State Security concerns.
There was no murder in the Soviet Union. It had to have been an accident. To admit that there was a murder is alleging that the State has failed in its vigilance. Worse, it means that under this enlightened system of government, these types of atrocities (so common in the depravity of the West) can still happen, which is, in essence, saying that Stalin’s Soviet system wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, which is like saying Stalin isn’t God. But since Stalin still had the power to take away all that someone had, even beyond their life, everyone was more than willing to just accept as virtuous and infallible this system. Under Communism a declining crime rate is a certainty. Regrettably, crimes can still happen in the first generation or so before every community is purged; there are plenty of “degraded folk” still tainting the Soviet society - Jews, homosexuals, the insane, Nazi’s who haven’t returned home or who have come back - but these can be and must be disposed of. In fact, murder investigations are excellent vehicles for rounding up a bunch of these unwanted elements of society and shipping them off. Still, more and more, it is better to accept that the Soviet system works, that these people have mostly been shipped out, and all remaining are good members of the Party. Leo has been a friend of the murdered boy’s father, but this allegation of murder had to be quashed for the better good.
He couldn’t allow himself to be swayed by the same feelings that were blinding Fyodor. This hysteria was putting a good family in danger. If left unchecked, the groundless chatter about murder could grow like a weed, spreading through the community, unsettling people, making them question one of the fundamental pillars of their new society:
There is no crime.
In a way the book is divided into two parts, each focusing on a particular type of fear. The first half of the book deals with paranoia brought on by the Soviet system as we watch Leo’s rise and fall. I think Smith did an excellent job here. In fact, in many ways Smith pointed out some features of the Soviet system that are alarmingly similar to some current trends, showing corrupt interrogating methods, unjust presumptions of guilt, and broad legal language meant to assist the state much more than the accused enemy of the state:
Why did that category of prisoner strike particular dread into everyone’s heart? While it was easy to comfort yourself that you would never steal or rape or murder, no one could ever be sure they weren’t guilty of anti-Soviet agitation, counterrevolutionary activity, and espionage, since no one, including Leo, could ever be sure exactly what these crimes were. In the one hundred and forty articles of the crimnial code Leo had just one article to guide him, a subsection defining the political prisoner as a person who engaged in an activity intended to:
Overthrow, subvert, or weaken the Soviet Power.
This is probably the highest ground in the book for defending it as “literature.” Smith’s sly depiction of the Soviet system is intelligent and fully-fleshed and serves as veilled criticism on some of the methods being used today, justified by “the greater good.” I’m not suggesting that Smith is saying that these trends are leading to a Soviet system of government in Western democracies, but his look at the justifications is eery.
The second half of the novel deals with a more visceral fear – there’s a serial killer of children on the lose in Stalin’s Russian. Unfortunately because of the paranoia - because Stalin himself is an even more dreaded murderer – no one really wants to get involved in the case. An easy explanation is much more preferable than the truth – besides allowing the police to ferret out more of the undesirable elements of society, the easy explanation supports the pillar of the Soviet system. Nevertheless, after a tragic turn of events, Leo becomes obsessed with finding the real killer. With the system working against him, Leo finds that he’s causing more problems than he’s solving.
He no longer felt the disappointment and melancholy that had racked him all week. He felt unhinged, part of a horrific, absurd charade, a player in a grotesque farce – the naïve dreamer, striving for justice but leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
What started out as a methodical and nicely-paced look at the Soviet system becomes a much faster-paced “thriller.” It is this second part, which at times uses techniques reminiscent of the cheapest thrillers, that makes us question the longlisting of such a book.
So is this book ”literature”? How does a “story” or “plot” become literature or come up short? Child 44 is definitely a thrilling story, well thought out and put together. The two halves of the book play well against each other which serves to develop some interesting and thought-provoking connections. What about a deeper theme? There are several elements running through Child 44, and many of them are developed nicely. How about characterization? I think the book really succeeds here. Most thrillers have stock characters. There’s no attempt to do more. But here, even the tragic cat at the beginning of the book is given enough of a story to make it seem real and loved. The characters are believable (except for some of their physical feats), and their internal struggles, though too often spelled out explicitly by Smith, feel real.
And then there’s style. Ahh, this is probably where this book has failed to get an inky stamp declaring it ”literature.” It is often blatant and overly descriptive, and sometimes a reader can feel justified in thinking Smith just doesn’t have confidence in the reader’s ability. It’s one thing for an author to show his hand, but it’s another when the author then proceeds to explain just what he’s showing. For example:
She tried to spoon-feed him but he wouldn’t open his mouth. He didn’t trust her.
Even without the context, I suspect most people didn’t need the explanation in the second sentence. However, to be honest, this type of “over-writing” is, to me, preferable to another type of “over-writing”: trying to sound literary. So many books succeed in sounding poetic through all sorts of extended and ultimately overused metaphors and wispy sentences. They get plenty of reviews remarking on their “beauty.” But too often this fake beautiful writing is a smoke screen for an otherwise empty book. So while this overwriting diminished my appreciation for Child 44, it didn’t make it less than literature.
I have other problems with Smith’s formal style. In stark contrast to the not sounding like literature, there are two ways Smith attempts to make this book look like literature. First is the conscious disregard for the standard convention for designating a quotation. In Child 44 each quotation is its own paragraph, there are no quotation marks, it is in italics, and it begins with a dash. To me, used to reading itallics as thoughts, this was distracting at first and still annoying by the end. The quotes sounded muffled even when they were meant to be shouting. In a book that didn’t seem to play with many other literary conventions, this stylistic choice a little bit out of place.
Second is the frequent interruption in a paragraph by inserting a small aphorism, as you’ve seen in the two block quotes above. Sometimes it worked, if not to make anything more profound then at least because it succeeded in not getting in the way. At other times, it brought too much attention to the pithy phrase and to the strange literary device, making both seem sophomoric, especially after dozens of them:
Later, as a refugee, she’d heard confirmation that their country’s army had instructions to destory any towns and villages which might fall into German hands. The complete annihilation of her childhood home had been a:
So in Child 44 we have an interesting creature. There are the failings: much of the time Child 44 doesn’t quite sound like literature because it is too much like a conventional thriller and leaves little for the reader’s imagination; also, the book has some attempt to look like literature by forgoing some normally strict conventions with no obvious purpose. But there are also the successes: a compelling and detailed look at the Soviet system under Stalin and the lives of some of the civilians; an interesing look at what we fear; and, ultimately, the book is a great read. So here is a hybrid, part literature and part conventional thriller. And I liked it a lot more than many other books that have found their way to the Booker longlist.
But I’m still not sure it belongs on the longlist. Unfortunately, in the thrilling ending, the focus changes. By using several convention of the thriller genre - short chapters, cliffhanger chapter breaks, even a bit of unbelievable convenience – Smith focuses on the suspense and his clever plot rather than on the characters and the Soviet system that made the book interesting in the first place. Unfortunately much of the characterization that he spent the first half of the book building loses is place to allow room for the quick thrill. The suspense could still have been there, I believe, without sacrificing the integrity of the characters. This is where the book fails in my mind. And just like many otherwise lousy books are redeemed by a brilliant, thought-provoking ending, here is one that (while the ending was thrilling) fails to deliver what I so wish it had.
That doesn’t make me wish it weren’t included on the longlist. Thus we see that, though probably not in the way the author hoped, Child 44 still leaves me with quite the pleasant feeling of ambiguity and with enough food for thought that I just wrote my longest review!
On a final note: I hope that Child 44‘s inclusion on the longlist might shift what we think of when we think “literature.” And the Booker Prize, which has open though highly literary standards, is a great place for this to happen. There are few other prizes that would longlist books like this and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. There is a quality in these books that many books that just sound like literature lack. I’d like to see more of the books on this side of the “literature” spectrum making their way to the prize lists – though I still expect more from the eventual winner.
After you read the book:
Once again, this being Booker season, I’m not going to disclose any potential spoilers on the main post. Please engage in discussions about the content of the book in the comments section. I’d love to get your thoughts, know your favorite or least favorite parts, get your opinions on the argument that this is as literary as many pieces of current “literature,” if not more so. Just be sure to mark any potential spoilers in the comment.
Before you read the book:
I love this time of year! While there are good books to read all year round, I can’t think of another time of year when more people are focused on the same batch of good (well, often good) books. The collective energy is invigorating! Plus, I always find books I never would have looked at otherwise. Here is a prime example: I would never have read Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) if it weren’t for the 2008 Man Booker longlist (we’ll see if it makes the shortlist on September 9). To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to tackle this book before it proved itself a bit more by making the shortlist – the cover looks a bit too much like the cover of those loud and, to me, unappealing books that have been all over the bookstores lately, the ones that think a clever (but often vacuous) conceit is enough to substantiate an entire novel. From the cover and the book description on my copy, I expected a self-agrandizing, pretentious first novel that really only reiterated what others have already said and said better (and that even others have already tried to imitate and have imitated poorly), confusing clever and often base logorrhea with real substance.
I admit it: I looked for reasons to be bothered by The White Tiger‘s inclusion on the 2008 Man Booker longlist:
(1) I went in expecting the first-person narrative/comic style to be too reminiscent of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children;
(2) I thought it was just another Booker book about the caste system in India;
(3) I assumed it might be all comedy and no substance, in other words, just a witty voice spewing a lot of nothingness;
(4) well, I didn’t get to number four – the book didn’t really let me find anything else and quickly erased my three previous gripes.
Within just a few pages I felt lucky to have gotten my hands on The White Tiger. Sure, sometimes the first-person, comical narrator brings back memories of Saleem Sinai, but to say The White Tiger isn’t unique and intriguing in its own right would be unfair and downright wrong: I don’t think Adiga owes a dime to Rushdie. And the Indian caste system? It’s there too, but here the caste system isn’t an overt subject – it’s part of the setting, and, therefore, Adiga’s dealings with it are much more subversive. The comedy is also all over the place, but it is original and filled with biting substance: “Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.” And it’s hardly all comic: throughout the book are passages of melancholy and pain, sometimes lacing the comedy, sometimes overwhelming it, always smoothly integrated. Here is an example of the change in tone from the first few pages when the narrator tells about his mother’s death and funeral:
My mother’s body had been wrapped from head to toe in a saffron silk cloth, which was covered in rose petals and jasmine garlands. I don’t think she had ever had such a fine thing to wear in her life. (Her death was so grand that I knew, all at once, that her life must have been miserable. My family was guilty about something.)
Okay, so now you know that my preconceptions of the book were disposed of quickly, but what is the book about? The book is composed of the narrator’s letters to “His Excellency Wen Jiabao” who hails from Beijing, “Capital of the Freedom-loving Nation of China.” Jiabao is planning to visit Bangalore the next week, so our narrator takes it upon himself to spend the next seven nights writing to him about “the truth about Bangalore” by telling Jiabao about his own emergence. This self-reflecting story the narrator tells is a mesmerizing look at India’s tiger economy.
The narrator considers himself a great Indian entrepreneur (“My country is the kind where it pays to play it both ways: the Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time”). He’s raised himself from the depths of the caste system and landed . . . well, we don’t know where he’s landed as the book begins. What we do find out in the first couple of pages, however, is that he has murdered his employer (whom he still respects and defends) and has been eluding the police in “the Light.” From underneath an ominous chandelier, he writes these letters about his past on a new silver Macintosh, showing Jiaboa what he knows about India.
Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place on the map of India near the ocean is well off. But the river brings darkness to India – the black river.
Each episode the narrator lays out in a letter is compelling and interesting and entertaining. The cast of characters is small and idiosyncratic and well developed. I don’t want to say much more than that because a lot of the fun is in discovering how the story moves on from the first few pages to the ending.
However, in a note about style: another reason I fell quickly behind this book is its simple and subtle narrative technique of having so much going on inside the character’s head that does not match what is going on outside. For example, this character speaks with such confidence in his letters to Jiabao about all matters. But when we stop to consider what he does, driving cars silently all day, fully living up to his employers’ expectations that he be a simpleton:
A sharp blow landed on my head.
I looked up and saw the Stork, with his palm still raised over my skull, glaring at me.
“Know what that was for?”
“Yes, sir,” I said – with a big smile on my face.
A minute later he hit me on the head again.
“Tell him what it was for, Father. I don’t think he knows. Fellow, you’re pressing too hard. You’re too excited. Father is getting annoyed. Slow down.”
The narrator is frequently found smiling dumbly, accepting his role and his master’s beneficence. But, obviously, there is a lot is going on below the surface. This device reminded me somewhat of the setup of The Remains of the Day: It was done well here too, but here too, I don’t think Adiga owes anything to Ishiguro.
Don’t mistake this for charm, though. This is a pretty brutal book, and not all of it is between the lines.
Other stylistict strengths, the book has nice balance and pacing. As I mentioned earlier, the comedy doesn’t overwhelm and neither does the melancholy. It is incredibly well balanced and textured. Also, the story itself moves smoothly. Though it is obvious the narrator is holding back in order to keep us reading, it never feels like an authorial ploy (which it often did even in Midnight’s Children): what the narrator is saying at the moment is interesting and important and in place. We know we’ll get to the other stuff in due time and are willing to wait while the foundation is being set up. In fact, I was enjoying the setup so much, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to the end.
So for me The White Tiger definitely deserves its spot on the longlist and, comparing it to prior shortlists, merits a spot on the shortlist too. I feel the Booker race is off to a great start this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed The White Tiger and Netherland (the only other one I’ve read so far : ) ).
After you read the book:
Since I assume many people will be reading this book over the next few months, I don’t want to tempt anyone to spoil it for him- or herself by discussing the ending here in the main post. However, I would very much like to engage in such a discussion in the comments. Please just mark the top of your comment “spoiler.”