Ahoy there, me literary mateys!
Pontius has returned on a most exciting day for the entire crew of the dread ship Pontius. Join me now as we navigate the murky waters of the world’s most important literary award.
It may come as a surprise to you to discover that not only can Pontius Pirate read, but that I am also a fan of modern literature. You may be further astonished to learn that, after plundering the world of all its most exquisite booty, I have but one goal in life: To have read the Man Booker Prize winning novel before the award is announced.
You may consider this a foolish and perfectly achievable goal given that the voting committee announce a shortlist of six books every year several weeks before the winner is declared. Nevertheless, in order to maintain an air of fairness, I have sportingly only read three of the six books on this year’s shortlist. To wit:
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Booker loves India. Leaving aside Salman Rushdie’s worthy Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children, there have been three more India-based yawnfests that have lifted the prize. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was dull, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritence of Loss was atomically dull and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger was both dreadful and supernaturally dull.
Narcopolis could be the book to break the boring trend. Thayil is an established poet and this is his first novel. Set in a Bombay opium den, the narrative drifts over the page like the gentle, intoxicating smoke of a well-tamped pipe. As each character barely comes into focus, we learn a little of their history just as we learn that the fruit of the poppy does not judge its users.
It’s unlikely that Thayil will take home the prize first time out, but this is a seductive and finely crafted piece of work that deserves to be read.
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Booker loves short books. In the past it has awarded the main prize to sub-200 page trifles such as Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and last year’s winner The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes. In each of those instances there was a sense of an Oscars-style award for the author’s body of work rather than the singling out of each book as the best novel of the year.
Swimming Home is Deborah Levy’s first book in seven years and she had to hunt around to find someone to publish it. It purports to be a novel of the mind where not everything needs to be interpreted literally and it reads like a novel far longer than its 160 pages. The novel did not enchant me as I felt it served up a melodramatic melange of unfulfilled adults, teen girls and their menses and survivor guilt in the alien setting of a holiday villa… with pool. Rather than writing about captivating characters suffering from depression, Levy has written about depression itself and her characters are merely manifestations of varying degrees of mood disorder.
I would be surprised if this book won the prize. It’s just not welcoming enough.
Umbrella by Will Self
Booker loves established authors who deliver great work late into their careers, cf. Kingsley Amis, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Howard Jacobson. Will Self has never been nominated before, but he has established his credentials as the bad boy of Brit Lit over the past 20 years. Having kicked his predilection for heroin, this nomination is an acknowledgement of his survival and his enormous talent.
Prior to this I had only read some of Self’s short stories and a brace of novellas. I thought I had the measure of him as a superb wordsmith and a keen wit. His writing was clever, his tone amused and dry. Umbrella is a departure in every way. This is a dense work with no chapter breaks and barely a break between paragraphs. The narrative darts backward and forward in time without warning. It’s a literary conceit that disorientates the reader and gives the whole novel a dreaminess that is wonderfully apposite.
Umbrella is not an instantly accessible novel and yet I found myself bound up in its tales of lost time (temps perdu?) and the injustices of war. This is an excitingly mature novel from a writer I thought I had correctly pigeon-holed. I’m not sure Self can win the prize this year, but if this book manages to garner some real attention from readers, it can only be a good thing.
There are three other books on the shortlist including Hilary Mantel’s follow up to the 2009 winner Wolf Hall, which I kinda loved. I’m guessing one of them will win it.
Stay tuned for updates.