Saturday, 20 December 2008

Chronicles of A Dyspeptic Man: Celebrity Chefs

You are not a fan of Christmas. This Christmas, you anticipate, will be subdued what with the credit crunch. The looming recession, predicted to worsen in the New Year, will put a damper on people’s enthusiasm, and they will waste not as much money on unnecessary trinkets, unhealthy food, sweets guaranteed to rot your teeth, and alcohol guaranteed to clog your arteries, as they otherwise would. You would not be eager to spend money buying useless presents for relatives you do not like (and who probably hate you in turn) for Christmas when you are not sure you would have a job in the New year.

Of the many things that irritate you about Christmas the top spot ought to go to the festive cookery programmes. There is, for example, this implausibly voluptuous (according to some tabloids) celebrity chef, married to an implausibly wealthy (second) husband, living in an implausibly glamorous house (the décor of which is implausibly tacky), preparing morsels of implausibly bland food, tossing her hair, pouting seductively, fluttering her eyelids and smiling coquettishly at the camera, contriving to position her body in a way that she hopes would hide her fat arse, licking cream and butter off her fingers in a manner that is explicitly suggestive of oral sex, it is a wonder you do not get a hard on. Could it be because the woman is not so much voluptuous as fat, and wears her make-up that makes her look like an RTA victim? You recently watched one of her Christmas specials—just to reassure yourself that the woman still had a fat arse and was more insincere than a worm—where she spent fifteen minutes preparing chocolate bonbons which looked (and probably tasted) like dark brown turd, on which she poured droplets of viscous white chocolate sauce that looked like cum. So much for her presentation skills: a big blob of bodily fluid balanced on a mound of bodily waste. She then proceeded to suck on to a bonbon, as though it was sweet-tasting testicles, making repulsive noises, screwing her eyes shut, attempting to arrange her facial muscles in a way that she obviously thought was sexy and gave a verisimilitude of an orgasm. After a few seconds she swallowed the muck, heaved an exaggerated sigh and proclaimed to the camera (in a voice that was so husky and deep, it probably caused the glassware in the kitchen to tremble) that it was ‘deeleeecious.’

Then there is this other irritating so-and-so, the blond mushmouth with gaps in his teeth wide enough to drive a tractor through, and a fat tongue. He is probably thirty, looks like he is twenty, behaves and speaks like a fifteen year old with Down’s Syndrome, and, between him and his annoying wife (whom he refers to with a silly diminutive and who has written an unreadable book on how to cope with motherhood), the two probably have a combined IQ of a cockroach. You have watched him prancing about in his Christmas Special, talking non-stop, inanely, adding dollops of butter into everything, making horrid concoctions of poisonous vegetables, anchovies and other vile things you do not think should be legal, and carving turkey as though he is performing skull-base surgery. In the last few years he has come all over like a rash, replacing, you have to admit, some equally irritating television chefs—for example, the one with the improbable hair (which exploded upwards from his skull in hundreds of glistening spikes and which he touched from time to time in the middle of his cooking with his fingertips, not, obviously, in an effort to smooth it, but rather in the furtive, half-conscious manner an adolescent might touch his pimples, just to make sure that the horrible thing was still there), or the six feet bald bastard with a permanently plastered grin on his face and about six pounds of muscle between his ears. He, the blonde cretin, when he first started, operated from a flat in London. He had an overfriendly, over-informal style, and talked asininely, repeating a few stock-words, his vocabulary probably comprising no more than two hundred words. His recipes, like him, had no class or taste, and some of his pukka dishes were so vile, you would not serve them to a dog. He has come a long way since those humble beginning, and, perhaps, is not as daft as that, all appearances to the contrary. Somewhere underneath that pallid mug, without any obvious evidence of intelligence, is a cunning mind at work, conjuring up new ways to gain publicity and fill his coffers. He is worth several millions and lives on a sprawling estate somewhere in Suffolk (where he lovingly rears chickens and geese, which he then lovingly massacres; and chunters with men with scraggly beards who look like idiots in search of villages and are as clumsy and inarticulate as he); he has learnt a few more words such as ‘obviously’ and ‘furthermore’ (although you expect him at any time to say ‘fart’ or ‘belly-button’); but he still has no class and his food is as rotten as ever. He launched a campaign a few months ago, making a ‘stinging attack’ on the nation’s ‘booze and pies’ culture, attracting, in the process a lot of publicity and headlines. In your considered opinion, it is about time someone made a stinging attack on this talentless publicity-monger, preferably with a baseball bat. The blabbermouth with his nannying ways has become a self-appointed, self-inflicted campaigner for healthy meals and livestock welfare. He advocates nurturing the chickens, say, with a lot of love and care—‘Oh! Aren’t they cute? Oh! They are so cute!—before killing, roasting and eating them. His method of getting the nation to eat healthily is to describe his fellow compatriots as drunken laggards who do not know the difference between good and bad food, and go on anti-obesity scaremongering, making hysterical, low-level television programmes in which he pours slithery liquid on fat women allegedly to represent all the fat they are consuming. Apart from being in poor taste, it is a bit rich coming from him, seeing as his paunch rivals that of a pregnant woman in mid trimester. It could not be richer if he weighed it down with gallons of double cream he adds to his yucky puddings. However, it is almost as rich as his hypocritical hectoring on behalf of poor farmers who, he bemoans, are being fleeced by the supermarkets, although he has no qualms about trousering 1.2 million pounds a year one them pays him to endorse their products. His campaign for healthy meals in schools may have won him admirers amongst champagne socialists who view the plebs as recondite collection of semiliterate, untrustworthy, dangerous individuals, their brains addled by alcohol, fatty food and fizzy drinks, who need to be kept in check so that the rest of us can live in peace, but his ‘healthy school-dinners, high in nutritional value’ were given a resounding thumbs down by the school children: in some parts of the country the number of children opting for ‘healthy’ school dinners fell as much as 75%. They would rather have Turkey Twizzlers than the tasteless, uneatable muck he dishes out. When will this precious little sod realise that adding any which herb you happen to lay your hands on to the dish you are preparing does not make it tasty? It may well be that the nation needs to eat healthily; what the nation most certainly does not need is a prattling half-wit lecturing them about it and going on silly crusades.

Finally, there is the foul-mouthed one. He thinks he invented the F word. Anything that can be faintly connected to ‘cultivated’, ‘decent’ or ‘nice’ is an anathema to him. You do not know whether to roll on the floor with laughter or cover your eyes in embarrassment as you watch this middle aged man, with a face that has a close resemblance to a dried prune, plucking a turkey (‘I still pluck my own fucking turkey, mate’) and acting as if he is in Baghdad. Looking at him you cannot but wonder for how long, boy and a man, he has tried to be insensitive and ill-bred, to hold his own amongst glowering boys and saturnine men whose real or (more probably) imagined jeers have blighted his childhood. He revels in spats; nothing gets his adrenaline going like a squabble that gives him the opportunity of macho posturing, be they his one time mentor (whose arse he vacuum-cleaned when he needed them) or former protégée who threatened to outshine him. He likes to talk about his troubled past, his unhappy childhood, the broken home he comes from . . . yada yada yada . . . all of which, whether true or not (you do not really care), is recounted with the aim of adding to the cloudy radiance he has carefully cultivated around him over the years. He arrived on the scene around the same time as the blonde cretin, but he pursued a different strategy. Whereas the blonde cretin was all luvy duvy and made middle-aged housewives have thoughts they would not admit to, the walnut-faced interloper fostered a macho man image with a fly-on-the wall documentary—made possible by the half a million largesse he received from a father-in-law whose wealth was as filthy as his, the foul-mouthed-one’s, mouth (his perk for putting up with the anorexic daughter of the multi-mllionaire)— in which he continuously cussed and uttered profanities and bullied his staff. All of this might just have been bearable if his recipes were any good. They were not; they were as foul as his language. Since then he has opened restaurants, made countless cookery shows (in which he has found, incredible as it may seem, participants, many of them professional chefs, willing to bear his insults and offensive language on national television) and published glossy cookery books (all of which are only of use the morning after you have partaken unwise portions of extra hot vindaloo the night before and have run out of toilet paper). He probably thinks he is witty; but his idea of wit is to make lewd jokes about spotted dick and sexist, chauvinistic comments about a fellow chef who, the old boiler she might be, possesses one thing this arrogant faker will never have: class. He is a craggy-faced, overbearing twat who would not recognize subtlety (or humility) if it hit him in the face; who is just a jumped up dinner lady with grossly hyperinflated (as inflated as the silicon-enhanced breasts of his mistress) sense of self-worth (how much skill is required to boil cabbages and put meat in the oven?); who, if he managed to take his head out of his rectum and look around, would realise that shouting in a pretend macho way while stirring lamb casserole is just pathetic, and, more importantly, does not make good television—it is about as enjoyable as your tooth being pulled out without a local anaesthetic by a dentist who has had lots of onions and garlic for lunch.

Your Christmas wish is that all three of the above, who have no discernible talent or beneficial use, do us a favour and stop hogging primetime television.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Book of the Month: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

Queen Elizabeth (the second) of Great Britain, during her long rein that will soon enter its sixtieth year, has become an indelible part of the British society. Figurehead she may be—being reduced to read out prepared speeches when the parliament opens and throw garden parties for visiting dignitaries—the quietly dignified, taciturn old woman is regarded with something approaching deep affection by her ‘subjects'.

How does the queen spend her time? What are her hobbies? If she finds any leisure time from her onerous duties of opening Old People’s Homes and sitting for portraits, what does she do with it? Does she like reading books, for example? Well known for her exotic hats and the love of horses and her corgis, the queen does not have the reputation of being an avid reader. It would be fair to conclude, on the basis of published biographies, that the queen does not have an entrain for books (unless, perhaps, they are horse-related). But what if the septuagenarian queen develops a penchant for books? Alan Bennett, an institution in himself in British literature, in an entertaining and quirky novella—at more than hundred pages it is not quite a short story, but neither is it a long short story as some have oxymoronically chosen to describe it—muses on this delightful what-if. The queen is the uncommon reader (Bennett allowing himself a bit of play on words in the novella’s title).

One day, led by her corgis, the queen discovers, on one side of the palace grounds, the City of Westminster travelling library, and inside it, a not-very-pretty scullion, who is a voracious reader of photography books and homosexual authors. Incredibly, the ginger-haired, acne-ridden adolescent becomes the queen’s literary cicerone, and, beginning with a novel of Ivy Compton-Burnette—‘I made her a dame’ the queen responds apropos de rien when the librarian informs her that her choice of author is not very popular these days—the queen starts her literary odyssey that takes her through works of Henry James, Beckett, Proust, Balzac, Genet, Turgenev, Trollop, and Hardy to name just a few. The queen’s newfangled enthusiasm for reading does not go unnoticed, and, amongst the equerries, is a cause for concern. The concern is tinged with annoyance and envy when Norman, the kitchen-boy, is lifted from his lowly position and promoted as the Royal literary advisor. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, who is from New Zeeland (and a source of gentle raillery in the novella) and who takes himself and his job a little too seriously, gets concerned when the Queen begins to lag behind, indeed seems uninterested in, her duties—a ride on a supertram, a ukulele concert, a tour round a cheese factory—and the less-than-amused prime-minister’s less-than-amused special advisor contacts him to complain that that Sir Kevin’s employer had begun lending his employer books on history of Persia and expected him to read them. (When Sir Kevin feebly responds that Her Majesty likes reading, the special advisor retorts that he likes getting his dick sucked, but he does not make the prime-minister do it). Sir Kevin manages to get rid of the troublemaker Norman when the queen is on a tour of Canada: he is dispatched to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, to study English; but his absence has no impact on the queen’s new-found love. Indeed, so engrossed is she in her pursuits that she appears to her equerries forgetful and absent-minded, raising the spectre of Alzheimer’s disease. In desperation Sir Kevin turns to Sir Claude Pollington, ‘a safe pair of hands’, who has served loyally generations of Royals (beginning with the queen’s grandfather George V), and who has been working, for the past several decades on his memoirs, tentatively titled Drudgery divine (he has managed to write a couple of paragraphs). The vicenarian Sir Claude, in clutches of senility, agrees to remind the queen of her duties, and ends up giving the queen an advice that only adds to Sir Kevin’s headache: he suggests that the queen should write. As the novella progresses, the twists in the story appear to expand exponentially. Whether the finale of the novella—it can’t be revealed here given its nature—is an anticlimax or a bombshell (as Sue Macgregor on BBC Radio 4 described it) is a matter of opinion; what cannot be denied is that it catches the reader by surprise.

The Uncommon Reader is a devilishly clever novella that can be enjoyed at several levels. For the most part, it proceeds at a gentle pace, wheeled along by Bennett’s gentle, dead-pan, at times self-deprecating, yet tongue-in-cheek humour—Bennett has several gentle digs at the monarchy without ever attempting to mock or humiliate—and deceptively simple prose. At times, though, Bennett, without much warning, shifts gears and the narrative becomes a boisterous slapstick that has the readers in stitches (Sir Kevin’s meeting with Sir Claude and Sir Claude’s meeting with the queen are cases in point). Bennet’s work is always distinguished by mischievous wit, poignancy, and odd characters; and The Uncommon Reader is no exception. However, it is not just a quirky, comic tale; it is also a book about reading books (the novella contains references to many authors (both present and past) and famous literary characters; it is more than just a book about reading books—it is an ode to reading and its everlasting delights. It is a celebration of reading itself, an exploration of how reading can profoundly influence and change one’s outlook and the way one relates to the world—the queen, who, at the beginning reminds Norman, somewhat sententiously, that ‘one has a duty to find out what people are like’, says, later, to sir Kevin: ‘One reads for pleasure; it is not a public duty.’ As the queen transforms—at one point in the novella, the queen, in conversation with the vice-chancellor and the professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, remarks that reading softens a person up, while writing does the reverse—so does the reader.

The Uncommon Reader is a superb novella. Grab it on a rainy day when you are feeling glum. It will bring joy to your existence.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Are American Authors Insular?

Below is a list of the Nobel laureates in literature in the past fifteen years.

2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe

Is there anything about the list that thrusts into your attention? Here is a clue:

2008 winner—Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio— is French.

2007 winner—Doris Lessing—is of English ancestry: born in Iran, raised in what was then Rhodesia, she lives in the United Kingdom and is a British citizen.

2006 winer—Orhan Pamuk—is Turkish. He is not exactly Mr. Popular in Turkey for his views about Turkey’s treatment of Armenians around the time of the First World War.

2005 winner—Harold Pinter—is English, and lives in the UK.

2004 winner—Elfriede Jelinek—is Austrian.

2003 winner—J.M. Coetzee—is a South African of European ancestry; he now lives in Australia.

2002 winner—Imre Kertesz—is Hungarian.

2001 winner—V.S. Naipaul is of Indian ancestry; he was born in Trinidad; he came to England when he was 18 and has lived in that country all his life. He is a British citizen.

2000 winner—Gao Xingjian—was born in China, but has lived in France for many years, in exile. Like Pamuk, he has incurred the wrath of the government of his parent country because of his controversial political views.

1999 winner—Gunter Grass—is German.

1998 winner—Jose Saramago—is Portuguese.

1997 winner—Dario Fo—is Italian.

1996 winner—Wislawa Szymborska—is Polish.

1995 winner—Seamus Heaney—is Irish

1994 winner—Kenzaburo Oe—is Japanese. He lives in Japan.

Has the penny dropped? It has? Good! So you have noticed that there are rather a lot of European authors lining up the list. All except one of the Nobel winners in the past fifteen years either are Europeans or have European connection. Kenzaburo Oe, who won more than a decade ago, is the only one amongst these worthies who has no European connection. Surprised? What is not so surprising is that men outnumber women by a ratio of one to four.

Let us concentrate a bit on the preponderance of European authors among the Nobel winners in the past fifteen years, or, the relative paucity of writers from other parts of the world, if you prefer to look at it from a different angle. There are not many American authors in this list; in fact, there is none. Does it matter? Probably no more than the fact that African, Australian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and Latin American writers are also conspicuous by their absence. For the record, the last Australian author to win the Nobel was Patrick White, in 1973 (and he was a naturalised Australian, having been born and bred in England); the last Latin American was Octavio Paz, a Mexican, who won in 1990; and the last African was the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, in 1986. Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) is the last author, to date, from the Middle East to win the one million dollar (or is it euro now?), in 1988. No Russian author has been awarded the Nobel after 1970 (when Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who, as it happened, was living in exile in the USA, won it, as much for his literary talent as for his anti-Soviet stance ). The last (and to date the only) time an Indian hit the literary jackpot was almost a century ago, when the poet Rabindranath Tagore (who holds the distinction of having his poems chosen by two countries—India in 1947 and Bangla Desh in 1971—as their national anthems), enthusiastically promoted by W.B. Yeats (who won the award himself ten years later), won it; and, astonishing as it may seem, no Chinese has been deemed good enough to merit it. What about Naipaul and Xingjian, I hear you asking. While it is true that Naipaul is of Indian ancestry (which he acknowledged in his Nobel acceptance speech) and has written his celebrated (and controversial) trilogy on India, he was not born in India, neither has he lived in the land of his ancestors. Born in the Indian community in Trinidad, Naipaul has lived all his adult life in England, and been a British citizen for decades. Rudyard Kipling, the first British writer to win the Nobel, was probably more Indian than Naipaul—he was born in Bombay and lived in India for while (and no one will make the mistake of considering the Imperialist Kipling, who, like many other European Nobel Laureates, has sunk into well-deserved obscurity, Indian). Xinjiang, as we shall see later, is a persona non grata in China; he has lived in exile in France for more than twenty years, and is a French (albeit naturalized) citizen.

Indeed, if one looks at the 101-year history of the Nobel Prize in literature and its winners, only thirty-one are from outside of Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic. If anything, the Nobel has become more global in the past sixty years; in the first fifty years of the award, only five were outside of Europe and Scandinavia. Of the thirty-one non-European authors who have been awarded the Nobel, ten—almost one third— are Americans. (Of the ten, at least three were naturalised Americans including Joseph Brodsky, who, like Xingjian, had left his home country, the USSR, for political reasons.)

Last year, after Doris Lessing won the Nobel, the whole raft her novels, several of which were out of print for years, were re-circulated, reminding the buyers, in bold letters, that the author was the winner of the Nobel Prize. Therefore, presumably, winning the award, in addition to the manna attached to it, also boosts the sales of the winner’s books. However, it is not just that. Over the decades, winning the Nobel has somehow come to represent the acme of a writer’s career. Almost all the novels of V.S. Naipaul, published before his Nobel, made it a point to mention that he had won all the literary awards except the Nobel. It obviously mattered to Naipaul that the award had eluded him.

The Nobel has become controversial for a number of reasons. In 2001 V.S. Naipaul became the first British author in almost twenty years—after William Golding, who was awarded the prize in 1983—to be awarded with what many think has become a political award. Some suggested at the time that Naipaul—considered by many to be the finest British author writing in English—was presented the award not so much for his awesome literary output over the years—many are of the view that Sir Vidya should have won years ago—as for his alleged anti-Islamic views (his two travelogues—Among the Believers and its sequel, Beyond Belief -are deemed by those (who are always on the lookout for evidence that will confirm their prejudices) to be an averment of Naipaul’s anti-Muslim prejudice) which became fashionable again in the West on the backdrop of anti-Muslim sentiments sweeping through Europe and the Western world after September 11. A year before Naipaul, Gao Xingjian, a till then little-known Chinese author (but not just that; he is also a dramatist, critic and artist), who had been living in exile in France since the late 1980s (he has held French citizenship since 1998), and whose work in China apparently came to a halt after he wrote a play against the backdrop of what is referred to in the Western media as the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese were not amused and dubbed the award a political manoeuvre, which it probably was. (The Chinese, it has to be said, were somewhat ungracious, and dropped oblique hints that Xingjian was probably not a Nobel material, and would not have won it but for the political angle.) The fact that one Goran Malamquist, who has translated and produced Xingjian’s plays in Stockholm, is on the panel that makes the selection of Nobel Laureates, may also have helped Xingjian. In 2005, Orhan Pamuk, the outspoken Turkish author, incurred the wrath of the Turkish government and many Turkish nationalists by his comments about what Turkey refuses to acknowledge, officially, the Armenian genocide of the 1915 and Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish separatists. He was taken to courts for insulting Turkishness and, had he been found guilty, would have faced a jail-sentence. Overnight Pamuk became the darling of the Western and European media which became self-righteously indignant over the affair—Salman Rushdie railed against the oppression of free speech in Turkey—and, lo and behold, the very next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Coincidence? I think not. This disposition of the Nobel committees is not new, however. Nobel committees, over decades, seem to have taken a le malin plaisir in awarding the prize to rebel authors emerging from other, non-European / non-Western, societies and cultures which, or the regimes ruling over these cultures, are deemed to be at odds with the European / Western value systems. These winners—be it Bunin or Solzhenistyn or Brodsky—at the time the honour was bestowed upon them—were living in the West, in exile. (This augurs well for Kundera and Llohsa.)

It should, therefore, not be excessively surprising that the Russians and the Chinese and the Turks have found themselves in less than fulsome agreement with the Nobel committees over their choices. Now, bizarrely enough, the American literati find themselves in a state of agitation—somewhere between dudgeon and umbrage—over the decisions of the Nobel selection committee, for very different reasons. Of late, American authors, as mentioned earlier, are conspicuous by their absence in the list of Nobel winners. Now their worst suspicions are confirmed. Horace Engdahl, the top member of the award jury for the Nobel Prize for Literature, has delivered his judgment. American authors, Engdahl has declared, are too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture. ‘The US,’ Horace has discovered, ‘is too isolated; too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. This ignorance is restraining.’ So the Swedish dude (as I believe Americans like to refer to male adults of different age groups) has puked all over the smorgasboard (if you allow me to mix my metaphors) of American literature, and the NY Mag hacks are very unhappy on behalf of Philip Roth and John Updike, whose chances of winning the Nobel, in light of Engdhal’s helpful comments, seem to be about as good as the second coming of Christ (which is particularly sad for Updike, who, by dint of having produced his best work forty years ago and being old—like Pinter and Lessing—, one would have thought, qualifies for it). Long lists of contemporary great American authors few have heard of (outside of America)are produced, accompanied by the penetrating observation that theEuropean Nobel winners are virtually unknown outside of Europe. All of which, to some, may appear as avowing what Engdhal has (rightly or wrongly) accused them of. Of course, we are insular; that is what makes us great. (And, if you think that it is a bit like saying, of course, ocean is wet, you would not be the only one.)

Let’s have a look at Engdhal’s condemnation of American literature—because that is what it is; Engdhal, when he made these remarks was animadverting. He says that the US is too isolated, too insular. Not having read very many US authors I do not know what to make of what sounds like a sweeping generalisation. I would say that most authors educe their subject matter from the environs they know best; and, for most of us the environs we know best are the ones in which we live. If one tries to write about cultures we do not have a firsthand experience of, would it ring true? David Gutterson made this point, albeit indirectly, in a literary festival. When asked what he had to say to Engdhal’s charge that American authors are insular, he answered, quite unapologetically, that he put his hand up to the charge; he wrote about things he felt comfortable about. Naipaul and Lessing, the two recent British Nobel Laureates, have written about different cultures, but then they had the experience of living in and travelling through different cultures, and that is why, perhaps, their stories ring true. (It is also true that both of them have produced high quality work that has universal significance.

It is plain daft to assume that works which are local (in the sense that they are geographically specific) are ipso facto lacking in universal relevance. Take for example the works of the 2002 Nobel winner Imre Kertesz. Some of Kertesz’s greatest fictional output is closely linked to his own experience in the German (Nazi) concentration camps. Kertesz would not have been able to write Sorstalanság (translated into English as Fatelessness) if he had not survived Auschwitz. Fatelessness, a work of fiction, is an intensely personal account of an adolescent boy who goes through the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Although resolutely specific in its attentions, the Nobel jurors, very appropriately, recognized the universal themes emerging from Kertesz’s narratives, and awarded him the Nobel for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history. Therefore, it is not as though the Nobel Jurors are incapable of looking beyond the immediacy of geographical location in which the narrative is set. So, when Engdhal accuses of American writers of insularity, he is suggesting that he cannot find anything of significance in the writings of American authors that touches the wider human condition. This is nonsense. Even those, who have read only the internationally acclaimed American writers—Roth, Ford, and McCarthy to name just three whose writing clearly transcends national boundaries—, will find his assertion hard to swallow. To return to the point David Gutterson made, it is absurd to consider that a ‘provincial’ novel is somehow less elevated than a ‘universal’ novel. I have enjoyed many an American novel for their unabashed Americanness than those with universal pretensions. A great novel—Jonathan Franzen’s Correction is a case in point—always finds its way to the wider human condition via the specific. The Great Russian writers of the twentieth century—Pasternak and Sholokhov, who are widely known outside of Russia—and they both were awarded the Nobel—wrote books deeply rooted in their cultural and social milieu.

Engdhal’s other accusation is that Americans do not translate enough; one assumes that the non-English works Engdhal has in mind are European. I should doubt very much whether Engdhal is bothered whether the Americans are translating enough non-European writers. The winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the thirteenth Frenchman to get the accolade and first since 1985 (if one excludes Xingjian), is an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization, according to the Nobel Committee. While the English language readers have no reason to doubt the judgment of the Nobel Jurors—apparently Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a well known and respected literary figure in France—they are, at present not in a position to draw their independent conclusions about the merits of the Nobel Laureate, because his works have not been available in the UK, the only English-speaking country in Europe. Therefore, America is not only English speaking that does not translate enough.

It is also interesting that Engdhal picked out American literature for his criticism and proffered his wisdom as to why no American writer has won the Nobel for more than a decade, when it is not only that continent but almost all other parts of the world, except Europe, have been ignored. Americans are not the only ones subjected to Engdhal’s sweeping generalisations. He dishes out a different set of prejudice against non-Western cultures. This is what he has to say about them: ‘Europe respects the independence of literature and can serve as a safe haven. Very many authors who have their roots in other countries work in Europe, because it is only here where you can be left alone and write, without being beaten to death. It is dangerous to be an author in big parts of Asia and Africa.’ Like all irrational biases, there is a kernel of truth in this, but what Engdhal does is he takes it as a springboard and makes outrageously inaccurate value judgments about Africa and Asia. Implicit in Engdhal’s pronouncement on large parts of Africa and Asia is his view on the literary integrity of those who have chosen to live there and the quality of their work. One wonders whether Engdhal realises how offensive such utterances are. Probably he does, and does not care. Perhaps other continents are not on Engdhal’s radar, cocooned as he is—like a crab under a rock, cheerfully contented in its limited universe, feeling no desire to explore the wide sea spread in front—in his belief that ‘Europe is still the centre of the literary world.’ The conceited, overweening Eurocentric swagger of Engdhal and his uppity trumpery reveal more about his profound anti-America bias, and ignorance (or disdain, or both) of non-European literature than the insularity of American literature. It is not the US, but Engdhal, who is insular, narrow minded, parochial, and ignorant.

Should it matter what Engdhal thinks of American literature? Not unless, perhaps, you are Philip Roth, and expecting the Nobel. Roth—you can bet your mortgage on it—is not going to win the award so long as the Swede has a say on the matter. But then, may be, Roth—who, together with Joyce Carol Oates, was said to be on this year’s secret five-person short-list for the Nobel—holds the same view about the Nobel as Saul Bellow, who, when he heard the news that he had been awarded the 1976 Nobel, is said to have remarked that while he was glad to have it, he could have lived without it. Roth is a great writer, an iconic figure in literature, like Conrad, Nabokov, and Scott Fitzgerald before him (to name just a few who wrote in English who are missing from the Nobel list), whose work will outlast that of many a Nobel Laureate.

Book of the Month: Pictures of Fidelman (Bernard Malmud)

Bernard Malmud was one of America’s most important novelists and short-story writers. His metier was depiction of Jewish lives, which he described poignantly and with grand lugubriousness in novels such as The Assistant and The Fixer, which won the 1966 Pulitzer award.

Pictures of Fidelman was the first book Malmud published after the Pulitzer-winning The Fixer. In it he ventures away from his usual, inner-city Jewish element, and tries a different canvas. It is a picaresque tale of sometimes-comic escapades of Arthur Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter, who arrives in Italy to prepare a critical study of Giotto. In six chapters, which function entirely independently from each other, and which are only tenuously linked thematically, the reader learns what befalls the hapless and, at times, witless protagonist as he moves from Rome to Milan, and, following a brief hiatus in Naples, ends up in Venice: he is pursued on the streets of Rome by an exiled Israeli; he flagellantly falls in love with a woman who refuses to sleep with him, indeed humiliates him at every turn, until he paints her as Maddona; he gets blackmailed by a couple of brothel-owners into purloining Titian’s Venous of Urbino; he shacks up with a whore and even acts as her pimp while at the same time struggling to complete a long-cherished picture of himself and his mother; and finally, in Venice, he sleeps, first, with a woman he meets there, and then with her homosexual husband, while learning the art of glass-blowing—a peculiar pun on Malmud’s part, this—before returning to America, presumably a wiser—or is he, really?— man.

All but one of the six chapters, or stories, of Pictures of Fidelman were published separately over a period of ten years—Malmud felt obliged to explain why he had chosen these apparently disparate stories to publish as a single work—and perhaps because of this the novel has a somewhat contrived feel to it; the situations described in the chapters do not appear to arise naturally. However the Malmudian theme of acquiring self-knowledge and attaining, epiphanetically, a higher, noble plane through suffering is apparent here, too, albeit less convincingly and lacking the moral breadth of Malmud’s other, some might say weightier, works.

Pictures of Fidelman, in many ways, is vintage Malmud: punning and wise-cracking and soul uplifting. It is also somewhat different, not just in respect of its setting, but also in respect of Malmud’s almost mischievous bedimming—the chapter titled Pictures of the Artist, for example, is a peculiar assemblage of quotations and maunderings about art, truth, and devil among other things. The novel echoes themes of violence, confusion and, occasionally, breathtaking imagination. Malmud, like other great authors, had his special way with words, using them subversively so as to yield a unique flavour to the narrative.

Much of Malmud’s fiction, at some level, reflects his immigrant Jewish background and mingles history and fantasy, and comedy and tragedy. The juxtaposition of the grotesque and sublime gives Pictures of Fidelman, despite its flaws, a unique ambience.

Saul Bellow said of Malmud: ‘The accent of a hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malmud’s words. He is a rich original of first rank.’ How true.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Adiga Wins the 2008 Man-Booker

Well, smack, as they say, my fanny, and call me Diana (or Charlie, if you prefer). A rank outsider has won the Booker; what a surprise! Arvind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, an acidic satire (is this a tautology?) on modern India, blew Michael Portillo’s socks off, and landed the glabrous Indian with the 2008 Man Booker prize. In recent years the Booker awarding committees seem to take special (and, you can’t help wondering, malicious) pleasure in proving the bookies wrong. They have done it for the fourth successive year, awarding the prize, as it happens, to two Irish and two Indian authors. Indeed, being tipped by the bookies as a favourite must, now, be counted as a certainty that the novel—it was Sebastian Barry’s misfortune to have been backed by the bookies to win the prize this year—will not make it.

For the record, Adiga is the fourth Indian born author after Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Kiran Desai to have won the Booker. One can add to this list V.S. Naipaul, who, while he wasn’t born or lived in India, is of Indian ancestry. He (Adiga, not Naipaul), at 33, is the second youngest author to win the Booker, after Ben Okri (who won it when he was 32). He is the fourth author after Keri Hulme (1985), Arundhati Roy (1997) and DBC Pierre (2003) to win the award for his debut novel. In an interview to BBC Radio 4 Adiga laid to rest any fears that he might suffer the same fate as that of the two women, neither of whom has published another novel after their prize-winning efforts (although Roy, to be fair, has published a couple of works of non-fiction, and is rumoured to have been working, after a decade, on her second novel; Hulme, as the cliché goes, has disappeared without trace). When asked whether he was thinking about writing his next novel, Adiga replied that his next novel—he was rather coy about its subject matter, and mumbled some unconvincing clichés about writing being an intensely personal and private activity—was more or less complete. One imagines that after the Booker success he would not have much trouble in finding a publisher.

Adiga’s novel, which he has been at pains to clarify (a) is not so much angry as funny, and (b) was a ‘bestseller’ in his home-country, India, even before it was long-and-short-listed for the Booker (one hopes that the novel, which has so far sold a meagre 3000 copies in the West, will do better post-Booker), is about what he describes as the ‘other India’, comprising, he would have us believe, the majority of that country’s denizens, who have not reaped the rewards of the economic liberalization in the past decade or so. (Given the sobering statistics, announced by the World Health organization this month, outlining the extent of the problem of malnutrition facing modern India—40% of the world’s malnourished live in India, and some states in Northern and Central parts of India are apparently on par with some of the sub-Saharan African countries—there may be some truth in this claim.) This vast underclass, Adiga claims, is the real India, not the 5% of the affluent, educated, privileged class, to which, incidentally, he, a son of a doctor, belongs. Some have questioned Adiga’s credentials to write about underclass to which he does not belong, the implicit assumption being his view, therefore, is that of an outsider, not, somehow, quite echt. This is rather harsh. Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London is no less authentic because he belonged to the chattering classes. (It is not a very well known fact that in writing Down And Out in Paris and London Orwell was no more than a literary tourist. Orwell lived as a homeless and unemployed, all the time secure in the knowledge that he could return to the bosom of his wealthy family any time, which is what he did after a few weeks, having gathered, presumably, enough raw material to write a novel.) Adiga worked, for a few years, as a business journalist for the Time magazine, and, during his travels, had, allegedly, the opportunity to look at the downtrodden of India from close quarters. The White Tiger was the result of these travels, a novel, he has revealed, he wrote a few years ago, although it was published only recently. Adiga says he took upon himself to write about ‘the brutal injustice’ of the Indian society—‘India is a society of profound inequality and inequality is not just a moral vice, it also leads to instability’, he declares— since no one had done it, according to him, previously. By this, he probably means English language novels written by Indians. India is only a partial English speaking country, but it has a long literary tradition; there must be wealth of local literature waiting to be translated into English. One imagines literature was getting published in some or more of India’s several local languages—each state has its own language— for a while before some or more of the educated Indians cottoned on to the idea of writing in English, thereby attracting a wider audience, recognition (and possibly royalties) for their works; and it stretches the limits of credulity somewhat to assume that the disadvantaged and dispossessed went unrepresented in Indian literature before Adiga got his brainwave. In a recent interview Adiga drew comparisons with Flaubert, Balzac, and Dickens—nothing wrong in that; you might as well do it yourself if no one else seems to be in a rush to do it—claiming that his work, just like theirs, threw into sharp relief the injustice of the society; and he hoped that Indian society would be a better one as a result of his endeavours, just as French and British societies became better ones as a result of theirs. One has to admire the nobility of the young man’s ambition.

I have often wondered how a winner of such awards is chosen. There must have been books which were unanimous choices of all the judges. I should like to think that Schindler’s List and The Remains of the Day were two such winners. According to Paul Theroux, one of the judges on the 1979 panel, the winner that year, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, which holds the record of the shortest book to have won the Booker, was a ‘compromise winner’: the panel was apparently equally divided between those who felt V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was a masterpiece and those who were determined (Theroux amongst them) to ensure that Naipaul, who, even then, had managed to antagonize many, did not win the Booker the second time. The White Tiger, by all accounts, was not a compromise winner. There was a fierce deadlock with Adiga edging out Barry, the Bookies’ favourite, 3:2. One judge was said to be in tears when she (or he) could not win over a third person to Barry.

Finally, what about Linda Grant, my choice for the Booker? Well, she might not have trousered the £ 50,000 award, but, according to her (appropriately named) blog, The Thoughtful Dresser, on which she was agitating for months about not having a suitable dress to wear for the ceremony, she was the only one of the short-listed author who ‘walked away with a free Oasis Clarke dress.’

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Chronicles of A Dyspeptic Man: Workout

It is early in the morning and you are working out on a cross-trainer in the exercise room. The room unsuccessfully attempts to give an illusion of being twice its actual size by dint of a carpet-to-ceiling mirror attached to the wall directly in front of you. It also means that you can’t help looking at, from time to time, your own contorted face as you labour on the cross-trainer. On the sidewall is a plasma screen television showing news: a sultry brunette newsreader is discussing with a foxy blonde economic analyst the credit crunch and the crisis on the Wall Street. Both have an air of mild excitement about them as if they had, both, just then, received, or were waiting for, with eager anticipation, what they hoped to be a jolly good rogering.

The door of the exercise room opens and in walks a muscular man of above average height. He is not bad looking in a stolid, dull, vacant way. He seems overjoyed to see you and gives an ear-to-ear grin, revealing a full set of shiny white and rather larger teeth. You feel obliged to rearrange the muscles around your mouth, with an aim to position your lips in a way that could be construed as a hint of a smile.

This turns out to be a mistake. The man takes it as a cue to start conversation.

‘Are you having a good day, so far, sir?’ he asks.

It is a quarter to six in the morning. You had had a late and not very pleasant evening the previous day. You ate in a Chinese restaurant, the company not very sparkling, the waitress over-familiar, over-talkative, over-enthusiastic (and middle aged), feeling it was her duty to inform you how each and every dish you’d ordered was prepared—‘We marinate Mongolian Beef overnight’—till you’d wanted to slap her, and the adjoining table being occupied by a family with destructive toddlers who either wanted the same seat or the same apple juice or their mother’s attention at the same time. One of the toddlers was a girl who, having recently made the discovery that she could speak, was yakking non-stop (shamelessly abetted by her mother, who, instead of telling her to shut up so that others could eat in peace, was beaming at fellow diners with pride every time the girl made some inane comment, as if she had split atom), while the other toddler, a boy, not having attained, yet, the same level of linguistic competence, was throwing forks and knives in different directions with grim determination, much, you’d noticed, to the merriment of his father. One of the missiles had missed your nose by hair’s breadth and you’d felt obliged to tell the father that he ought to control the little brat more effectively, and he’d taken great pleasure in informing you that while he’d noted down your concern there was precious little he could do about it—‘Children will be children’. You had washed down the Mongolian Beef and Hakka Noodles with a bottle of Turner Road Merlot and had woken up at four thirty in the morning with a bursting bladder and your throat feeling as if someone had rubbed hot sand on it with a polish paper. Having considered your options, and voting in favour of exercising over a wank or watching porn, you’d come to the hotel’s gym, hoping that you’d not be disturbed. And then this saphead walks in.

Ignoring that you have ignored his greeting, the man walks towards the window of the third floor exercise room and, looking down at the car-park, declares, ‘Gorgeous day!’ He seems pleased with this discovery. You carry on peddling on the cross-trainer, hoping that he’d shut up or, preferably, go away.

‘You want a towel?’ You look over your shoulder and he is standing behind you, holding a small Turkish towel from the rack in the corner, provided by the management.

‘No, thanks.’

He makes his way towards the weights and looks down at them. You are looking at him in the mirror. He flexes his upper arm and gives an admiring glance to his bulging biceps. He then proceeds with the weights and is soon emitting sounds not unlike those one makes on the bog when constipated. As your ill luck would have it he pauses just when you pause to take a breather.

‘Where are you from, friend?’ he asks.

Not knowing, immediately, how to disabuse him of the misguided notion that you're his friend, you tell him.

‘Oh! My brother lives there,’ he exclaims. Every second fuckwit you meet these days seems to have a relative hiding in some hole in the city you live in. You know, with a sinking heart, what is going to follow.

‘He is in Computers,’ the man says.

‘Oh!’ you reply with tremendous incuriosity.

‘Yeh! Has been living there for almost ten years. Says he likes it there. I can’t see myself living there; I’d feel cramped.’

‘Have you been there any time?’

‘Nah! Jim—that’s my brother— invites me every time we speak, but it’s too long a distance to travel. I have never travelled to abroad. Never felt the need.’

‘There are aeroplanes, these days, you know. You can reach the other part of the globe in less than twenty four hours. Mind you, you’re not missing anything. It is an over-crowded, over-polluted, over-inflated, over-hyped place where there are only three seasons: miserable, more miserable and absolutely dreadful.’ You don’t know why you are saying this and prolonging your agony; you don’t really want to carry on with this conversation.

‘Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! You’re a funny guy. I’d love to share a few jokes with you over cocktails.’

‘Unfortunately, my schedule is rather tight.’ While the chances of your meeting this man during the rest of your stay in the hotel (three days), outside of the exercise room, are very slim, you tell yourself you are wise to take precautionary measures.

‘This is a beautiful state,’ the man ventures more information.

‘Compared to what?’


‘It was just that you said you’d never travelled out of the country. I was just curious to know what your reference point was.’

‘Yeh! Just that,’ the man replies. You suspect that the full range of human potentialities is rather limited in his case. Or, as Aldous Huxley would have put it, out of ten octaves that make up the human instrument, he can compass perhaps two.

The man walks to the water-fountain in the other corner of the room and starts drinking greedily, as if he has remembered, just then, how to do it. You return to your cross-trainer. He then walks back to the middle of the room and lies supine on the floor. He stretches his arms behind his head and lifts his hips in what you assume is some sort of stretching exercise. As his pelvis rises up, his loose black shorts fall back, partially revealing his balls and limp penis. He remains suspended in that position for a few seconds, then brings his pelvis down, his buttocks landing on the floor with a soft thud. You look the other way, quickly, before he attempts the manoeuvre again. A side-on view of the-word-you-think-is-Carajo-in Spanish is not something you wish to see first thing in the morning (or for that matter at any time of the day) on an empty stomach (or for that matter on a full stomach). The man gets up; in one quick motion readjusts the position of his penis (and scratches his balls); and returns to the weights. But not before making some more observations, this time on the national game.

‘Did you watch the World Series final last night? Cracking game.’

‘World Series final? Which game might you be talking about?’

It turns out he is talking about baseball.

‘I am afraid I don’t follow baseball. Is it possible to hold a world series for a game that is played in only one country?’

This query is met with the expected non sequitur. ‘We are crazy about baseball, here. You guys play a similar game, don’t you? Cricket? Very quaint.’

‘Yes. Very. It is played in a few countries.’

‘Do you follow it?’

‘Oh God! No! What’s the point in watching a game which goes on for days and ends without a result? And I can’t be bothered with all that jargon: you are in when you’re out, and out when you’re in’; rubbish like that.

‘Is it Football, then?’

‘Hate it. Entertainment for the lobotomised by the lobotomised.’

‘Which sport do you follow then?’

‘Let me think. Tennis. Women’s tennis to be precise. When Sharapova is playing, to be more precise. When she is bending down to receive a serve and the camera is focusing on her ass, to be even more precise.’

‘You are absolutely cracking me up.’

Well, as they say, de gustibus non est disputandum.

‘Wow! That’s, like, profound. What does it mean? Is it Latin?’

‘You are wrong there. It does sound like Latin, but it’s in fact Sanskrit.’

‘Are you sure?’ The man asks dubiously. Perhaps he is not as simple as that.

‘Absolutely. And it means: in matters of taste there is no argument. Anyway, it was nice talking to you; I have to get going, now.’

‘Well, it was great talking to you. Have a smashing day.’

You leave the exercise room thinking the rest of the day would indeed be smashing if you did have to listen to his vacuous drivel.

Later . . .

You walk into the breakfast room, which is half-empty, and, to your dismay, you see the man sitting on his own with a pile of rashers on his plate. He grins at you and you wince at the sight of those teeth; he indicates with a wave of his hand that he’d be delighted if you joined him. You really are left with no option. You go to the counter; add breakfast cereal to your bowl and pour (virtually fat free) milk on it. Then you walk slowly back to where the man is sitting, and sit on the next table. You turn to him and, in the immortal words of Sid James, say to him: ‘Do us a favour sunny Jim; go and fuck yourself.’

Book of the Month: Girl with Green Eyes (Edna Obrien)

Girl With Green Eyes is the second novel in Edna O’Brien’s celebrated Country Girls trilogy. The first, The Country Girls, appeared in 1960, and announced the arrival of a fresh, exciting voice on the British literary scene. Girl With Green Eyes, originally published as The Lonely Girl, appeared two years later, affirmed that O’Brien was a major talent.

The Girl With Green Eyes traces the lives of Cathleen (who prefers to be called Cait) and her childhood friend, Baba, both young women in their early twenties, who have moved to Dublin from the Irish countryside, and are, in their own ways, trying to get as much away as possible from their sheltered, puritanical Roman Catholic upbringing: they drink, dress up, spend evenings, whenever they can afford, in the dance halls; and, if they have not yet had had affairs in Dublin, it is not because of want of trying. The period is not clearly defined but is most probably the ‘50s. Baba, the daughter of a veterinarian, is the more adventurous of the two, and manages to cadge invitations to exhibitions and do’s. Tall, slim, and not exactly shy, Baba is not short of admirers. Cait, plump and ample-bosomed, is bashful and gauche, and follows Baba to the parties, loitering in the background, wanting to commingle with young men, but not quite having the courage to strike up conversations. However it is Cait who manages to becharm Eugene Gaillard, a filmmaker who is several years older than she, whom she meets at an exhibition. Eugene is non-Catholic and estranged from his American wife who has moved back to the States with their daughter. When an interfering busybody wises up Cait’s alcoholic father about what his daughter has been getting up to, via an anonymous poisonous letter, the father, accompanied by fellow drunkards from the village, arrives at Eugene’s house where Cait has taken to spending nights (although the relationship is not consummated). Bad girl Baba, in the meanwhile, manages to get a bun in the oven by sleeping with a married man. Cait sees Eugene as a great lover, while he sees her for what she is: an immature, insecure and confused girl-woman, who is rebelling against but is also a victim of her rigid upbringing. It is a fundamentally unbalanced romance, which is doomed to fail. When Cait leaves Eugene after one of their contretemps (which are becoming frequent), leaving behind a note that she is leaving for England together with Baba (who has—shock! horror!—had an abortion), inwardly hoping that he would come for her, she—and only she—is in for a surprise and heartache. The novel ends on an elegiac note for the lost love, but also with the hint that the young narrator has matured.

Given Edna Obrien’s rigid, Catholic upbringing—her family apparently was vehemently against anything to do with literature and O’Brien described her village community as ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted’—, the question has been posed repeatedly whether the trilogy is autobiographical. O’Brien has never answered this question directly. In an interview she replied, rather tartly, that the novels were autobiographical insofar she was born and bred in West Ireland, educated at a Convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense of outrage.

Girl with Green Eyes, together with the other two novels in the trilogy, is rightly regarded as a work of high feminism. Its bold (for the times) themes—young women, raised conventionally, rebelling against their upbringing and exploring their sexuality—coupled with the irreverence displayed towards the traditionally strict, Irish religious customs meant this seminal work was banned in her native Ireland. In some ways, The Girl with green Eyes, indeed the trilogy, is a forerunner of the motif of O’Brien’s later works: women who are victims of harsh, almost cruel, upbringing, and who get entangled with men who let them down in a variety of ways. The difference here is that the young heroine of The Girl with Green Eyes is not resentful despite the rather callous and patronizing ways in which she is treated by her lover and family respectively, perhaps because she has the optimism of youth, or because the disappointments and reversals of life haven’t yet become wearisome and bred cynicism. This innocence and naivety is also conveyed very effectively by the unselfconscious, casual, almost bawdy tone of the narration. The ambiance of the novel is affectionate (without being affected) and effusive (without, at any time, being kitschy), in stark contrast to the rather isolated and dreary existence of Cait and Baba. It is impossible not to warm up to the two leprechauns. You may even shed a tear or two when young Cait suffers the inevitable heartache.

In Writers at Work Edna O’brien wrote: "They used to ban my books, but now when I go there, people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back. Then again, Ireland has changed. There are a lot of young people who are irreligious, or less religious. Ironically, they wouldn't be interested in my early books - they would think them gauche." Nothing could be further from truth. The warm, affectionate glow of this delightful novel will continue to enchant readers for decades.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

2008 Booker Short-list

The 2008 Booker short-list was announced on 9th September. It is a short-list of six, and consists of:

Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies)

Linda Grant (The Clothes on Their Backs)

Philip Hensher (The Northern Clemency)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

Two first-time novelists—Arvind Adiga and Steve Toltz—have made it to the short-list, as did Sebastian Barry (for the second time), while the two previous winners—John Berger and Salman Rushdie—have not survived the cull.

My prediction was as follows:

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

So, four out of the five books I predicted would make it to the short-list, did, which is remarkable, even if I say so myself, seeing as I haven’t read any of the long-listed novels. Had I decided to predict six instead of five, I should have selected Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. I wouldn’t have chosen Arvind Adiga; if I had to select another first-time novelist, I should have plumped for Joseph O’Neill’s ‘This Year’s Great American Novel’. Come to think of it, I’ll probably read The Netherland: it is a cricket novel, apparently; and many moons ago I used to be interested—to the extent I am capable of being interested in any sport—in this game. As Bill Bryson once remarked, cricket is a delicious game, full of microseconds of excitement scattered over five days. If you are unfortunate enough to develop a chronic illness, and the doctor prescribes rest and prohibits any kind of excitement, you should take to cricket immediately.

I am disappointed that Enchantress of Florence is not short-listed. It will, of course, make no difference to the sell of the novel, and legion of Rushdie's fans will lap it up.

Who will win the award? I should very much like Linda Grant to win, but Amitav Ghosh or Sebastian Barry may just pip her to the post. The winners in the last three years were Irish (Banville and Enright) and Indian (Desai), and one would expect that this year the winner would be from (for want of better phrase) a different background. Philp Hensher is the only English novelist amongst the short-listed authors. (There is Linda Grant, of course; but she is Jewish, and the usual stew of English class and race prejudice means most wouldn't consider her English, and describe her as British). I can’t immediately think of any Jewish novelists except Berice Rubens (who won decades ago) who have been awarded the prize.

I am rooting for Linda Grant.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

2008 Booker Long-list

I have a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the judges of the Booker Award (or, for that matter, any literary prize). To trawl through more than hundred novels in six months, and to prepare long-lists and short-lists (which, let's face it, never satisfy all) can seem like a burden. Unless you are Philip Hensher, one of the long-listed authors this year, and himself a judge in 2001. Hensher, who perhaps is more widely known as a critic and reviewer than a novelist, famously declared a few years ago that he read an average of five books a week, and the number of novels he read in six months as a Booker judge was no more than his average frequency. But then Hensher is in that enviable position where he reads books to earn living. Wouldn't it be nice if you have the luxury of viewing your profession not as a real profession but an agreeable frame of mind, a way of going about things rather than things you exactly do?

This year’s Booker long-list, in keeping with the recent trend, has five debut novelists, four novelists from the Indian subcontinent, and a few established names including a couple of former Booker winners. The categories mentioned here are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I have not read any of the long-listed novels, although I have read some or more novels of some or more long-listed authors. There are some novels I shall probably buy—Booker or no Booker—once the paperback editions are out: some because their authors are my favourites (Rushdie and Grant); some because I have enjoyed reading their authors’ previous novels (Ghosh, Hensher); some because their authors have been on my ‘to be read’ list for years and I have not so far got round to read any of their novels and I might as well begin with the Booker-long-listed novel (Barry); and some others because I am curious to find out what the fuss is about (Hanif). Finally there are some novels on the list which I shall read only if they go on to win the Booker (Adiga, Rob-Smith, de Krester, O’Neill, Arnold and Toltz). I should come clean and admit that I had not heard any of the authors in the last category till they, rather their novels, got long-listed for the Booker. It is a known fact that the novels which win prestigious literary awards such as the Booker enjoy a sharp uplift in their sales; I should very much doubt whether the long-listed novels enjoy similar good fortune, unless their authors are well-known and have a dedicated fan-following (in which case they do not depend on being long or short-listed for the Booker).

One of the long-listed authors is John Berger—I know, I know; he is not just a novelist: he is also an artist, essayist and a critic—who caused something of an upset in 1972 when he won the Booker award with his experimental novel, G, piping some worthy opponents (Thomas Keneally and David Storey) to the post, and then probably caused more upset by announcing that he was donating half his prize money to the Black Panther movement in protest of what he alleged was Booker’s colonialist policy in the West Indies. (Someone should have pointed out to Berger that the Black Panther movement had in fact dissolved two years before.) Will the old warhorse cause upset again with A to X, ‘A Story in Letters’? I think not.

Philip Hensher, another critic and reviewer, and himself a judge in 2001, is long-listed for Northern Clemency. I have read three of his earlier novels two of which—his debut novel, Kitchen Venom, and Pleasured—I enjoyed thoroughly, especially the former which was in the tradition of vintage Evelyn Waugh. The third, The Mulberry Empire, in which Hensher, in a departure from his earlier books, tried his hand at a historical epic, was so well-crafted it was almost contrived, and, despite being packed with dramatic set-pieces, was strangely soulless. What will Northern Clemency, which, at 740 pages, is the longest of the long-listed novels, be like? On the plus side, it promises to be a chronicle of the contemporary English life, something Hensher, in my opinion, excels at. On the other hand it is disconcerting to note that Hensher, apparently, took inspiration from ‘the great nineteenth century Russian novels’ when he wrote Northern Clemency (which perhaps explains the length of the novel). Judging by the less than exhilarating results the last time Hensher attempted something ambitious and sprawling, I believe my concern is justified. When one is getting a bit long in the tooth, one does not want to be left feeling underwhelmed, especially when one has shown the perseverance to trawl through more than 700 pages. Will Hensher win the Booker? I should doubt it.

Sea of Poppies is Amitav Ghosh’s seventh novel. Of his previous novels I have read two: The Calcutta Chromosome, which, I think, was his debut novel—I thought it was disappointingly lacking in depth; the novel’s subtitle was ‘a novel of fevers, delirium and discovery’; it was, for me, more like a novel of terrifying dullness—, and the splendid Glass Palace. In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh returns to the genre he handled so well in Glass Palace—historical epic. This is one to watch. Ghosh might just hit the jackpot.

Sebastian Barry was short-listed in 2005 for A Long Long Way. He is long-listed this year for The Secret Scripture, the heroine of which is the cousin of Eneas McNulty (Barry’s eponymous debut novel), who has spent longer time in an asylum in Ireland than either she or anyone can remember. The psychiatrist under whose care she is admitted is curious about the circumstances in which she was admitted. I find the subject matter interesting—stories of mentally unhinged and those who think they can cure them have always appealed to me; make of it what you will—and I should read it. If I like it, I’ll probably get hold of Barry’s debut novel.

Linda Grant is a favourite author of mine. I have read two of her previous novels—the Orange Prize winner When I Lived in Modern Times, and Still Here—and liked them both thoroughly. I shall definitely read Clothes on their Backs which tells the story of a Hungarian Jewish family. This is another subject that interests me and I expect the novel to be as engrossing, perceptive and witty as Grant’s earlier novels. I will not be surprised if it is short-listed. It may even win, the only factor weighing against it is it has sold very well—it was reprinted twice even before it was long-listed. Sounds cynical? Cynical? Moi?

Of the by now customary slew of debut novelists making it to the long-list, Tom Rob Smith has made a history of sorts: his novel, Child 44 is a thriller; and novels in this genre do not often get long or short-listed for literary awards. Unfair? Probably; but such is life. The other day I tuned into the BBC Radio 4 and found myself bang in the middle of a heated (the epithet should be used advisedly with regard to Beeb) discussion about what comprises literature and whether thrillers (or suspense novels as Patricia Highsmith was known to describe her novels) are literature, the occasion being the publication of the latest John le Carre novel (The Most Wanted Man). le Carre, of course has not won any literary award. Tom Rob Smith participated in the debate (no one should and will grudge him his fifteen minutes of fame), and, when the presenter suggested to him that it was an outrage that le Carre has been persistently overlooked for literary awards, pointed out (very reasonably, I thought) that the main reason for that was le Carre never gives permission to submit his novels for any awards. He also felt confident, having no doubt researched the subject at great length, to disabuse the BBC presenter of the notion that his, Rob Smith’s, novel was the first thriller to be long-listed for the Booker: Brian Moore was short-listed twice, in 1987 and 1990, for The Colour of Blood, and Lies of Silence. So well done Tom Rob Smith. However, I suspect that this is as good as it is going to be for Child 44. I can’t see the panel—unless they are driven by a sense of malicious hilarity—short-listing the book which moved one reviewer to write that he could not ‘respect a committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44’. Then there are the much-hyped The Netherland, this year’s Great American Novel (contractual terms require the use of this phrase in all reviews; while I have no plans of reviewing the book and I am absolutely positive that no one is going to log on to this blog, I shouldn’t take any risks), The Case of Exploding Mangoes, a satire on the events surrounding the death of General Zia the Pakistani dictator in the 1980s, and A Fraction of the Whole, which has been compared to Tom Wolfe’s chartbusters from the 1980s (which probably means large print and lots of pages).

Finally, there is Sir Salman Rushdie, weaving familiar themes and developing elaborate conceits into a fulgurant fantasy, The Enchantress of Florence, which will enrapture his legion of fans.

So, here is the Booker long-list:

Arvind Adiga (The White Tiger)

Gaynor Arnold (Girl In A Blue Dress)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Philip Hensher (Northern Clemency)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

John Berger (From A to X)

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)

Mohammad Hanif (The Case of Exploding Mangoes)

Michelle de Krester (The Lost Dog)

Joseph O’Neill (The Netherland)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Which amongst the above will be short-listed, if the short-list is of, say, five?

Here is my guess:

Linda Grant (The Clothes On their Back)

Amitav Ghosh (The Sea of Poppies)

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence)

Sebastian Barry (The Secret Scripture)

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole)

We shall know on 9th September.

Book of the Month: The Gathering (Anne Enright)

I must admit to a certain weakness in my character: I have become rather squeamish about reading Irish novels, especially the seriocomic family sagas, lest I am deluged with Irish-childhood clichés: the drunken father who is either insanely violent (very common) or smotheringly affectionate (less common) or both (though obviously not at the same time); over-worked, perennially pregnant, brow-beaten wife; a funny and witty family friend or an uncle, who—need I say it?—is also a drunkard and whom the wife blames bitterly for leading her man astray; too many children, some of whom are uncut diamonds while others are budding psychopaths; sexual abuse which goes either unnoticed or is connived at; one or more of the children die young (because there isn’t enough money to pay the doctor’s fee); perpetually gloomy weather with incessant rain; and various characters drinking endless cups of tea at very odd times. So, when The Gathering, a novel about a large, dysfunctional Irish family that has a skeleton or two in the cupboard, won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, I was not sure whether I would find the courage (or patience) to read it. My sense of wariness was further heightened when the author, Anne Enright, issued, on Radio 4’s Today programme, the following warning: ‘When people pick up a book they may want something that will cheer them up, in that case they shouldn’t really pick up my book . . . My book is equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.’ I bought the book, of course: because it had won the Booker, and I am a great sucker for this and other literary awards (it is a well known fact that winning the Booker guarantees a huge boost to the sell of the book; I wonder how many of those who buy the book actually read it; I have known a few who keep Midnight’s Children on their book-shelves because they think it will chisel others into believing that they are intellectuals).

The Gathering , for the most part, is a ‘dear diary’ sort of novel. Veronica Hegarty, a middle-aged, middle-class housewife with her oh-so-not-perfect marriage, is reminiscing about her clan following the death of one of her (many) siblings, Liam, after he kills himself, although—and we are left in no doubt about this—he is already lost to the family, drifting along aimlessly in life, from one bed-sit to another, committing chronic suicide of a kind (before he decides to put an abrupt coda to his existence by drowning in the sea) by drinking, day and night, any which kind of alcoholic beverage he can lay his hands on. The novel travels to and fro in time as Veronica tries to make sense of why her brother, to whom she was the closest when they were young, felt the need to fill his trouser-pockets with stones and walk into the Brighten Sea. While much of Veronica’s thinking happens in the present, the novel moves effortlessly back in time (without much warning and without a change in tense, which can be a trifle confusing at times) as Veronica tries to convince herself (somewhat tortuously, you can’t help thinking) that the seeds of Liams death were sown decades earlier when their grandmother, Ada, walked into a Dublin hotel and saw Lamb Nugent. The Gathering, then, is a family story of three generations: it is the story of Ada and Charlie—Veronica’s grandparents, and the shadow of their association with Lamb Nugent; it is the story of Veronica’s over-breeding parents who bring into the world a dozen children all except one of whom survive into adulthood; and it is the story of the third generation Hegarty children—of some of them, at any rate—and their complex relations with one another and their mother.

The narrator, Veronica, is obsessed with sex and penises. A chapter in the book opens with Veronica, travelling on a train, watching a man sitting beside her lifting his pelvis slightly and settling it back down; and she ‘can sense the blood pooling in his lap; the thick oblong of his penis moving down the leg of his suit.’ Later, when the man reaches for a newspaper, it is, she decides, to hide his lap. The sunlight coming in through the window is ‘sexual’ (!). Another chapter begins with ‘I saw a man with tertiary syphilis at mass once.’ Veronica's obsession with sex is Freudian, however. She is repulsed by it; it is not a pleasurable act for her. On the night of her dead brother’s wake Veronica and her husband have sex. This is how she sees it in retrospect: ‘ He [her husband, Tom] was getting back to the basics. . .telling me that my brother might be dead, but he was very much alive. Exercising his right. . .I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips, and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.’ At another point she observes: ‘When I sleep with Tom … what he wants, what my husband has always wanted, and the thing I will not give him, is my annihilation. This is the way his desire runs. It runs close to hatred.’ It would be reasonable to conclude that the woman has enough inner demons to decorate hell. The tone of the narration (and, by extension, the ambiance of the novel) is sexual; however it is far from lilting, laced as it is with disgust and malignity.

The Gathering is novel of memories and reminiscences, and the tricks they can play with one’s mind. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown many years ago’ starts a chapter. This is the central question that the narrator is wrestling with throughout the novel: what set her brother on the path of self-destruction, the path that ended in the Brighton sea. Veronica is convinced that it wasn’t the drink and the vicissitudes of life that killed him: it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house when he was nine that killed him. And Veronica was an inadvertant witness to the act. Or was she, really? As early as the first chapter, the very first page and the very first line, infact, there are warnings: ‘I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event.’ Much later she wonders whether her memory is false. In his adolescence Liam begins to get into trouble with autorities because of his conduct problems. When he spends a night in the police cell for the first time, he returns with a dried patch of blood in his hair and a streak of red from cheek to neck. When he tells his sister that ‘they’ gave him a bit of a thump, she tells him not to be stupid. ‘I decided not to believe him if there was any “believing” to be done; he did not deserve to be believed,’ she recalls later. Now he is dead, Veronica is torturing herself over the point in time when she first betrayed her brother. The Gathering is a long lament suffused with guilt; and, as frequently happens in these situations, the guilt mutates into rage. Veronica Heggarty’s emotional response to her brother’s suicide is uniquely Catholic: she is devastated that she could not rescue Liam from the grave and mortal sin of suicide. But she is also furious with him. By killing himself, Liam has offended his family’s love for him and has selfishly and unjustly broken the ties of solidarity with his family. His behaviour is cotrary to the love of God. He has let down the family. She is unable to accept that Liam could have taken an informed decision that to end his life was better than continuing to suffer the pain of his existence. She is determined to find something, someone, whom she can blame; even if that means recovering memories that probably did not exist, and concoting elaborate stories of menage a trois involving her grandparents.

The Gathering fulfils almost all the Irish childhood clichés, yet, aided by Enright’s flawless, at times darkly humorous, prose, is sharp, tense, poweful and continually engrossing. The Gathering was given a very long 8 to 1 odds of winning the Booker by the British Bookmakers. It may have been a surprise winner, but deserving one. It is a work of complex tapistry.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Rushdie, Midnght's Children and The Booker

I might as well declare at the outset that Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite authors writing in English. I have read all of his full-length novels except the first (Grimus) and the most recent (The Enchantress of Florence). In my list of all-time favourite novels (written in Original English) there will definitely be two of Rushdie: The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children; and I will be tempted to add a third one (Moore’s Last Sigh).

Rushdie has the amazing capacity to arouse extreme passions. As John Sutherland remarked, he either rocks or he sucks. He irritates you the same way a driver gets under your skin by stealing a parking space from right under your nose, which fills you with murderous rage wholly disproportionate to the crime. And what are Rushdie's crimes? Different groups seem to hate him for different reasons. There are those, usually Muslim fundamentalists, who are convinced he is Islamophobic: he is subjected to vituperative attacks on a number of Islamic web-sites, I am told; many of the attackers, needless to say, have not actually read The Satanic Verses. Some consider him to be a shameless self-promotionist and aggrandiser. Rushdie’s cameo appearance in Bridget Jones’s Diary is often cited by them as an incontrovertible evidence that there is no turpitude he will not sink to so long as he stays in limelight. (It has to be said, though, that the man does not exactly shy away from publicity. It may even be argued that sometimes he goes actively in search of it. Take, for example, his recent claim that he now holds the record of signing maximum number of books in an hour. Driven by the need to make this fact public Rushdie wrote a letter to The Guardian, helpfully pointing out that he had broken the previously held record of the wine critic Malcolm Gluck. ‘His record is toast,’ Rushdie crowed in the letter. Gluck chose to see the humour in the situation—perhaps Salman was tongue in cheek all along—and compared it (Rushdie’s boasting) to men’s boastings about the size of their equipments (he was probably not far off the mark; I can’t see many women writers going for this type of record)). Then there are those who are pissed off with him for no reason other than he seems to have little difficulty in hooking up with young, glamorous women (although, the cockles of their hearts must have, no doubt, been warmed by the news that his third—or is it fourth? Most recent, anyway—wife, an ex-model, has left him). If some or more of you are wondering quite what any of this has got to do with Rushdie’s auctorial capabilities, let me advise you that there are those who don’t think much of him as a writer. A proportion of these have heard from a friend who happened to have overheard a conversation in a party that Rushdie is unreadable. Some have tried to read some of Rushdie’s books and struggled to go beyond the first fifty pages, which, of course, means that Rushdie is dull, tiresome, boring, and tedious. Rushdie, according to these individuals, who may or may not have achieved an elementary level of ability in reading, is over-hyped and writes tripe. He is a load of tosh, baloney and hokum. You will be excused if News of the World is not the first publication you reach for for literary fiction reviews, in which case let me inform you that one Carole Malone, a regular columnist in this British tabloid, thinks that Rushdie’s knighthood (awarded by the British Government) for the service to literature is farcical because she has yet to meet anyone, ‘me included’ (just so that there is no room for misunderstanding), who has managed to get through anything he has written. Ms Malone, it would be fair to conclude, is in the ‘Rushdie sucks’ camp. Finally, there are those who accept, grudgingly, that Rushdie used to be good, but point out, gleefully, that he is now past his sell-by-date; he is surviving on past reputation. Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury are often given as examples of Rushdie’s declining prowess as a writer. (Martin Amis is another writer of Rushdie’s generation many seem to derive great pleasure in trashing).

It is difficult to say which amongst Rushdie’s ten full-length novels is his most famous. Many would plump for The Satanic Verses, which made Rushdie a household name in the non-English speaking world after Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme religious leader when the novel was published, issued a Fatwah sentencing Rushdie publicly to death as he (Khomeini) deemed The Satanic Verses to be blaspheming Islam. (One doubts very much whether Khomeini, who couldn’t read English, had actually read the novel, but he probably did not have to; he was after all God’s mouthpiece. Also, it wasn’t immediately apparent to many at the time quite how Khomeini was going to bring about Rushdie’s death unless he was depending on the Umah (which, I have it on reliable information, is an Arebic word for 'Brotherhood of Islam'); Rushdie wasn’t an Iranian citizen, and, after the Fatwah, one would have assumed that Tehran was probably not on the top of his list of holiday destinations.) The Satanic Verses is probably Rushdie’s commercially most successful book, although Rushdie, who had to go into hiding after the Fatwah for several years—the British government spent millions of pounds on his security—, would probably have settled for less copies of the novel selling if it meant he could live as a free man. It might be argued that The Satanic Verses made Rushdie not so much famous as infamous. It was Midnight’s Children—a hypermanic, clamorous tale, full of wit and slapstick, tracing the story of India’s independence and the first thirty post-independent years, through the memories of its drip-nosed, telepathic protagonist— that propelled him, overnight, to the cutting edge of the literary world, and won for him many a laurel.

Midnight’s Children was Salman Rushdie’s second novel. His first was Grimus which had sold barely nine hundred copies and had to be remaindered. Midnight’s Children changed all that. It made Rushdie into a celebrity. Years later he recalled: ‘Before [Midnight’s Children] my career as a writer was completely obscure. Overnight it wasn’t. I gained confidence.’ Still later he put it differently (and provocatively): ‘I walked into literary London as a stranger and ran off with a cheque, which feels OK.’ Rushdie began writing the novel in 1976. He felt a ‘sense of exhilaration’ as the voice of Saleem Sanai, the garrulous, witty narrator of what was to become Midnight’s Children ‘came over’ him. It was with this novel Rushdie, by his own admission, really became a writer ‘after a decade of false starts’. It took him three years to complete the novel and, to Rushdie’s delight, the two top names in the publishing word on either side of the Atlantic—Jonathan Cape in London and Alfred Knoff in New York—accepted the book. The publication got delayed for all sorts of reasons, and, when Rushdie requested to see some alternatives to the livid salmon-pink dust jacket of the book—he was, understandably concerned about the salmon / salman joke that would plague him for years—he was told that he could not as that would delay the publication of the book even further (one guesses the publishers have, since, become more receptive to Rushdie’s concerns).

Upon its publication, Midnight’s Children won the 1981 Booker prize, awarded to writers from Britain, Ireland, South Africa and the Commonwealth countries, ahead of some worthy competitors: Muriel Spark (Loitering with Intent), Doris Lessing (The Sirian Experiment), Ian McEwan (The Comfort of Strangers), and Molly Keane (The Good Behaviour), the last one making a literary comeback after decades of silence. In 1993, it was awarded the ‘Booker of Booker’ to celebrate twenty-five years of the literary prize the British fondly believe to be the most prestigious literary award in the world. And this year, in 2008, it won ‘The Best of the Booker’ award, a special prize awarded in commemoration of the forty years of the Booker Prize, now known as the ‘Man Booker Prize'.

The process of selection was different on the two occasions. In 1993 the winner was chosen by a committee of three, chaired by the late Malcolm Bradbury. Bradbury was also the chair of the committee that awarded the Booker to Midnight’s Children in 1981, although in his personal capacity he had voted against it at the time, so make of that what you will. The runner up, the committee had announced, was William Golding’s Rites of Passage, the 1980 Booker winner. In 2008, a shortlist of six was chosen by the novelist Victoria Glendinning, the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, and the professor of English (at University College London) John Mullan. The nominees were Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee), Siege of Krishnapur (J.G. Farrell), The Conversationist (Nadine Gordimer), Ghost Road (Pat Barker), Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey), and Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie). (The process of choosing the short-list of six was painful and disturbing, according to Glendinning; at least one book, personally significant to each one of the panel members, had to be axed, as the other two were not in sympathy. A particularly difficult category, apparently, was writers whom all the panel members admired unreservedly and who had won the Booker, ‘but for the wrong book’. The two novelists who came under this category were V.S. Naipaul (who won the 1971 Booker for In A Free State) and Margaret Atwood (who won the award in 2000 for The Blind Assassin)).

The winner of 'The Best of Booker' was chosen by public vote. Midnight’s Children won hands down with almost 40% voting for it. Disgrace was in second place.

In 1993, when he won the ‘Booker of Booker’, Rushdie was still living under the shadow of Khomeini's Fatwah. He was in hiding and was provided with tight security by the British government (at tax payers’ expense, of course). He attended the ceremony surrounded by bodyguards and police patrolling the streets with walki-talkies. Fifteen years down the line, circumstances were more felicitous, and the Fatwah had become a distant memory, although Rushdie could not receive the award in person as he was touring America, promoting his latest novel (which, it has been announced, is long-listed for the 2008 Booker. Should he win it—he probably won’t—he will become the third writer—after Coetzee and Carey—to win the award twice).

Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was to recall after many yeas, was an attempt by him, born and bred in Bombay (now Mumbai) to reclaim his Indian origins and heritage. He was particularly pleased that the book was very well received in the country of his birth (as much as English language books can be received; India is only a partially English speaking country, and it’s a lesser known fact in the West that authors writing in local languages, many of whom have never been translated into English, outsell the English-language books by a huge margin). The book was so widely pirated in India that he began receiving anonymous greeting cards and Thank You cards from the pirates. (It must have been painful for Rushdie when, six years later, India became the first (and probably the only) democratic and secular country to ban The Satanic Verses.)

A couple of years ago I attended a literary evening in which Rushdie was the main speaker (he was promoting Shalimar the Clown). In the ‘Question and Answers’ session, there were, inevitably, questions on Midnight’s Children. An Asian man commented that he had enjoyed the book thoroughly and found it to be hilarious in parts, however, at the end of it, he was left wondering what was the point of it all. There was a mild titter in the audience and Rushdie obviously felt the need to put the cheeky bloke in his place. He replied by saying that the very same question was asked by ‘a very pretty woman in a saree’ many years ago, in New Delhi. He then went on to caricature the Indian accent, replete with wild gesticulations (much to the merriment of the audience). Finally, he answered the question in a couple of sentences: he wrote the novel because he wanted to show that individual memories—of people who have lived through a particular epoch— can be at variance with the official version of history.

In a literary blog hosted by a broadsheet, there was a lively discussion after Midnight’s Children won the ‘Best of Bookers’. There were quite a few postings which stated that Midnight’s Children was not a worthy winner and compared it unfavourably to the novels of Marquez (which was strange seeing as Marquez, being a Latin American, non-English, writer, had never been short-listed for the Booker). Some others made the discovery that Midnight’s Children owed a lot to Grass’s Tin Drum. While the Tin Drum influence—and it is true that few seem to have noticed it—is probably there, in my view, Midnight’s Children is not at all derivative, and the influence—inspiration is the word I would prefer—detracts not a jot from its endlessly inventive resplendence. Let’s all hail Rushdie!