Wednesday 15 October 2008

Booker Sensation

Good Lord, that post yesterday was my 250th on Nigeness - how they build up...
Anyway, today startling news reaches me - a book set in India has won the Booker Prize! What are the chances? Actually, by my calculations, they're about 1 in 6 - and this one, judge Michael Portillo assures us, 'knocked his socks off', which must be some kind of commendation.
Why does India keep winning? I think the answer's quite simple: as a vast country, with a huge population and equally huge social divisions, in which the modern world collides endlessly with the ancient and traditional, and urban living with rural ways - a country in permanent upheaval and on on the cusp of a dangerous new modernity - it clearly resembles the dense fictional world of Dickens and Balzac, and thereby provides the most satisfying template for the big, broad, ambitious novel. The worn out, introverted mother country no longer offers any such exciting possibilities and is unlikely to come up with anything to knock anyone's socks off.
The best Indian novel I've read is one that never won the Booker (I think it was shortlisted?) - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. And his Family Matters, though less ambitious in scope, is every bit as good.


  1. Interesting ideas because if true it could mean that a wave of stellar writing will emerge from similar melting-pots of vast size in, say, Brazil and China. Or, I wonder, is there something in Chinese culture, with its stress on the communal rather than the individual, which may inhibit any such thing. A Fine Balance is yet another one that passed me by. I must add it to the list.

  2. Lots of great novels by Chinese Americans, Mark. Personally, I'm a huge fan of Amy Tan, and an admirer of an up-and-coming short story writer, Yiyun Li.

    What I think both the Indian writers and these Chinese-American writers have going for them is a fresh approach to metaphor. I worked for years with a professor who hailed from India and his language always sounded so inventive: He was basically translating metaphors and similes from Hindi into English, so they sounded brand new.

    Once you add in themes of cultural dislocation, or rural communities being forced into the modern age, or oppression of particular classes or people, you get Booker-worthy material.

    My favorite of the Indian writers, however, is Amitav Ghosh. His "The Hungry Tide" is a brilliant look at the Sundarbans, its geography, people, tigers, and dolphins. Of the Asian world, India is the only place I'm really hankering to see and explore.

  3. Oh go there, Susan, the sooner the better. I've been about five times. In some respects it's like getting into a warm bath (in which, it has to be said, there are already about a dozen people).

  4. Um, can you loan me a few thou, Mark? Otherwise, I don't think I'm going anywhere for awhile. Our recent trip to the Caribbean was the last hurrah for the foreseeable future, and that mainly because lodging & airfare was paid for long in advance, then week's activities & fine food enhanced by my winning lots of dough at a blackjack table on the second night (and not going back to lose it, the key to beating the house).

    For now, however, I am home and poor. So thank God for novels -- I can get there vicariously!