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Why language will prove victorious, whoever wins
The Man Booker prize has been compared to every kind of sport, from horse racing to bingo. From a literary perspective, it’s more like an oriental mystery, an exotic puzzle the judges must solve to the satisfaction of a demanding public.
In 2011, chair of judges and former head of MI5, the United Kingdom’s internal counter-intelligence and security agency, Stella Rimington, confronted by the Man Booker conundrum, announced that the solution to the riddle of the year’s “best novel” lay in “readability” and chose one of the worst-ever shortlists. She was rescued from obloquy by The Sense of an Ending, which stood out like a filigree goblet in a pigsty.
This year, in an implied rebuke to that moment, chairman and Editor of the London-based Times Literary Supplement Peter Stothard has come up with another answer to Booker’s challenge. What matters, said Stothard, is “the pure power of prose - the shock of language”. Forget “readability”; excellence this year will be defined through language and imagination. It has been, as Stothard says, “an exhilarating year for fiction”.
In the end, Stothard’s hard-working panel came up with a shortlist that can fairly be said to reflect the variety of contemporary fiction from the English-speaking world (excluding America). Here, in alphabetical order, is my assessment of the six novels in contention. It’s a list that will, I predict, present Stothard and his team with a difficult decision.
Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian lawyer whose debut, The Gift of Rain, was longlisted in 2007. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon) is largely set during the Malayan Emergency and narrated by a survivor of a shadowy Japanese death camp who has become a fanatical prosecutor of Japanese war criminals. In a strange act of piety towards the past - much of this long novel concerns memory and reconciliation - Teoh Yun Ling becomes apprenticed to the former imperial gardener Nakamura Aritomo.
She begins to uncover Aritomo’s wartime story and to fall under his spell. At the climax of her story, an almost unbearably beautiful account of a ritual tattooing, Teoh Yun Ling comes to terms with past, present and future and is reconciled to her fate. Tan Twan Eng unwraps a tightly woven plot. His prose is always effective, occasionally sublime. Aritomo is a superb creation. This is a novel that reflects the staying power of the English literary tradition in a former colonial territory. In Malayan terms, it must be a milestone.
Deborah Levy is also exploring the dialectic between past and present in Swimming Home (And Other Stories), an unputdownable short novel about the price of emotional repression and the poisoned legacy of the second world war. When young Kitty Finch bursts, naked, into the lives of a famous British poet and his family holidaying in the south of France, she unleashes destructive forces from the past that threaten some fragile harmony. Levy’s brilliant portrait of a family crisis on the French Riviera is a real discovery on this list. Like Tan Twan Eng, Levy was rejected by the mainstream houses and has found her way on to the shortlist through the support of a “subscription publisher”, the impressive Stefan Tobler.
To move from Deborah Levy to Hilary Mantel is like stepping from a sunny but sinister pool house to a twisting staircase in a Tudor castle. Mantel’s narrative drive is just as compelling as Levy’s. In Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), the sequel to her Booker-winning Wolf Hall, she gets added propulsion from the shattering events leading to the trial and death of Anne Boleyn.
This tale was always a thriller and Mantel plays a strong hand superbly. Her novel is fundamentally conventional (a retelling of some famous Tudor history) yet innovative and original in execution (narrated in the historic present, using 21st-century dialogue). This second instalment in the life of Thomas Cromwell has inspired a chorus of almost universal praise. Mantel is the favourite - and the favourite rarely wins. Her book scores high for “readability”, but less well for the kind of excellence Stothard’s looking for. Essentially, this is a better version of Wolf Hall. The nation’s booksellers will heave a sigh of relief if Mantel carries it off for a second time, but that would be a remarkable outcome.
Alongside Mantel, Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse (Salt) is probably the most formally accomplished - but very short - novel on this list. Spare, bleak, suggestive and exquisite, with a shattering conclusion, this account of a middle-aged man’s German walking holiday offers both a masterclass in suspended revelations and a thrilling display of some of the year’s most haunting prose. The Lighthouse casts a low beam, but it illuminates all Stothard’s criteria brilliantly.
And so to the elephant in the room, Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury), the other heavyweight contender. Umbrella is doubly historical. First, it investigates the life and times of Audrey Death, a victim of the 1918 sleeping sickness epidemic. Second, it’s a self-consciously committed experiment in retrospective modernism, nearly 400 pages of Joycean stream of consciousness, with even its epigraph borrowed from Joyce.
Dr Zack Busner’s quest for the meaning of the past as he awakens his “post-encephalitic” patients in 2010 with a new wonder drug will severely test the patience of your average common reader, some of whom will declare it unreadable. But here’s the case for Umbrella: it’s an ebullient, seductive, virtuoso display of imaginative prose which, if you have the stamina, is truly mind-blowing. It’s not Joyce (how could it be?), but it works on its own, slightly mad, terms and is wonderfully achieved. If I was on the panel I would vote for its Falstaffian audacity and wayward charm. Who could not cherish a book that boasts both “tardive dyskinesia” and “strident palilalia”?
Finally, there’s Narcopolis (Faber) by the Indian poet Jeet Thayil, ramblings from the opium dens of old Bombay. This is the kind of novel that used to crop up on the Booker lists of the last century and feels oddly dated. On this list it must be the outsider.
My tip: Self’s Umbrella, with a side bet on Moore. I say this every year: caveat emptor. With Booker, anything goes.The Guardian