Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Man Booker Prize 2014 Longlist

Last year, it was announced that books by Americans would be allowed entry into the Man Booker Prize. Whereas some readers and fans saw this as an unwanted deviation and a loss of focus for the renowned Prize, others saw it as the correction of a long-drawn anomaly by accepting all English-speaking countries. Prior to this announcement the Man Booker only allowed entries from British, Irish and Commonwealth authors.

British authors lead this year's longlist of 13 books with five nominations. This is followed by American authors who enter the Prize for the first time with four nominations. The rest of the nominations is held by two Irish writers and one Australian writer. Below is the list:
  1. Joshua Ferris (US) – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
  2. Richard Flanagan (Australia) – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  3. Karen Joy Fowler (US) – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  4. Siri Hustvedt (US) – The Blazing World
  5. Howard Jacobson (Britain) – J
  6. Paul Kingsnorth (Britain) – The Wake
  7. David Mitchell (Britain) – The Bone Clocks
  8. Neel Mukherjee (Britain) – The Lives of Others
  9. David Nicholls (Britain) – Us
  10. Joseph O'Neill (Ireland) – The Dog
  11. Richard Powers (US) – Orfeo
  12. Ali Smith (Britain) – How to Be Both
  13. Niall Williams (Ireland) – History of the Rain
What is clear from this list is that though the Commonwealth is made up of more than fifty countries - including Zimbabwe which is politically out of the organisation, this list contains only three of such countries. The question is will the inclusion of America distort the diversity of the Man Booker Prize which has been won by such various authors as Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai? Will it lead to the exclusion of new authors? How will African writers fare in the face of this expansion? Last year's Man Booker Prize (2013) was won by the New Zealander Eleanor Cantor with The Luminaries

However, according to the Chair of Judges - AC Grayling, the books are
very ambitious books and some of them tackle big issues of the day ... There's a lot of perceptiveness and wisdom in these books, some of them are quite moving and all of them are very difficult to put down once you get into them – a feature of just how richly textured they are and what great stories they tell.

Friday, July 18, 2014

293. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The first Faulks' novel I read was Devil May Care, a story written to mark the centenary celebration of he creator of the James Bond character, Ian Fleming. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the book. Perhaps, I would have liked the movie better. This is due to the different demands I place on movies and books. I expect more intellectual discourse from books, and more action (though I hate war movies) from movies. Consequently, this book stayed on my bookshelf for almost three and half years. I was scared of opening it, until I ran-out of books to read.

This is one of those books you read and begin to wonder why you have not read it all this while, especially when it has been staring you in the face for years, begging you to pick it up and at least read the first line. According to the blurb '...Sebastian Faulks creates a work of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient.' And having read both books I should more than agree to this statement. In fact, Faulks did deliver more heavy punches in both the tragedy and the love than Hemingway and Ondaatje.

As we celebrate the centenary of the most senseless war in history, WWI, it would be helpful to refresh our minds on the uselessness and stupidity of war. In this novel, Faulks shows - with brilliant prose, superb imagery, almost holding the reader's hand through the scenes of war - that the talk of war, the affection for war, the boastfulness of war, the imagery of war in the newspapers - the imagery that is painted to whip up sentiments and encourage young men to enlist, the euphoria that accompanies war - that one army is only going to whip the backside of another (as if there will be no consequences or retaliation), is far different from from the actual effects of war. That wars do not create heroes, it creates broken men and women, broken homes and hopes. That wars leave entire countries broken, families destroyed, deepens and widens poverty. 

Faulks patiently shows the absurdity and stupidity of war. How man descended into the lowest pits of his wickedness and became an animal; how the conscience and nerves of millions of soldiers were destroyed; how civilisation is just a thin layer of reason and could be crossed at any time in that rabid search for supremacy. In this novel, Faulks paints a picture of war different from the showboating we see on the screens, the ignorance of the young and the old who clamour for war and yet are ignorant of what it actually involves until their disillusionment disintegrates in the face of the absurdities, the insanity, then shell-shock they end up in mad-houses spending their last days in silence. If a novel can end the quest and zeal and love for senselessness and for war, Birdsong can. But unfortunately, no novel can. Man is such an animal. Events of today clearly show that a world of utopia will forever remain a dream.

To expose this stupidity and tragedy of war, Faulks contrasted the effects of the war on a young Englishman - Stephen Wraysford, who, having fallen in love and eloped with the wife (Isabelle Azaire, nee Fourmentier) of a French businessman (Rene Azaire) he was living with and the woman having deserted him when she found out she was pregnant, decided to join the army and become relevant in a world that had just neglected him. The story follows the effects of the war on the friends he gathered, his soul, and his love with this woman and his sister, whom he later met during one of the few vacations given to soldiers of war. The devastation of the war would continue even after the action of war had ended and the man, marrying the sister of his love, would lead a broken life for the rest of his life.

The story is generational and narrated back and forth between the present and the past. It focusses on Elizabeth, the grand-daughter of Stephen as she tries to discover who her grand-father was by decoding some of the messages he had recorded during his time in the war. The story, intelligently, shows the changes that had occurred post-WWI, with changes in the idea of family. Also, it brings out the contrast between the lives of women pre-WWI and post-WWI through Isabelle - who wanted things done differently but was impotent to do so; who could not decide on whom he wanted to marry and who could not even stay with the man she loved even after she mustered courage to elope with him; and Elizabeth - who got exactly what she wanted: establishing businesses, choosing to live with a man without marriage, and others.

This is an important book and deserves its place on the best books lists. 
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