Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2008

Here’s the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2008. Quite predictably, Superstar Rushdie is there. Kureishi, Carey and Lessing were not as lucky. There are some first-time novelists (5), but also ‘old glories’ (Amitav Ghosh, John Berger). Despite the fact that the judges claim to have reached a good geographical balance, there are no Caribbean or African writers on the list. Of course, this should represent the best of this year’s Commonwealth fiction in English, regardless of the country of origin. I wonder if the geographical spread is actually a factor in their decision making or if the judges simply choose the best works of fiction.

Since we’re talking of the Booker Prize, all novels are worth reading. Judging from the synopsis, De Kretser’s and Hanif’s novels are the ones I really look forward to read. My wanna read choices are in violet, as usual.

  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (India): Indian stories are always appealing these days;
  • Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (UK)
  • The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Ireland)
  • From A to X by John Berger (UK): it hasn’t been published yet, but it looks tempting;
  • The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (Australia / Sri Lanka): already on ‘The Guardian’’s reading list, the buzz of the year;
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (India)
  • The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant (UK): London Jewish family in the 1970s, interesting;
  • A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif (Pakistan): quirkily interesting;
  • The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (UK)
  • Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Ireland): 9/11 novel set in the USA;
  • The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (India / UK): I swear I’m not gonna read this before Midnight’s Children, plus I’m beginning to be a bit fed up with Mr Rushdie. He’s everywhere!
  • Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (UK)
  • A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Australia)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Raise Awareness #1: DARFUR

This is the first of a few posts on an issue that really matters to me: AWARENESS.

"Silence helps the killer, never his victims" - Elie Wiesel, Survivor of the Nazi Holocaust

"The humanitarian crisis in Darfur and eastern Chad is one of the largest in the world. Since violence between the government and rebels in Darfur started in 2003 two million people have fled their homes. Many will have seen family killed, abducted or sexually assaulted and their villages burned. Ongoing violence continues to cause people to flee. Many survivors are now living in crowded camps, or on the edges of towns, in Darfur and neighbouring Chad. Some of the camps are the size of small cities. People live in constant fear of further violence. Most arrive with nothing. More people arrive each day, in search of shelter, food, water and safety. [...] More than 2 million people – nearly 1 in 3 of Darfur’s population – have been forced to leave their homes and take sanctuary in one of the many camps. People continue to be attacked and forced to flee their homes – at least another 150,000 have arrived in camps in the first half of 2007. Despite managing to stabilise threats of epidemics in the camps and significantly improve living conditions, these achievements are under threat as aid agencies are facing unprecedented difficulties in reaching those in need. [...] The conflict has become increasingly complex over the last year. The rebel movement has splintered into too many factions to count and the region has become increasingly lawless. While militias continue to attach civilians and villages and military groups continue to clash, there is also increasing fighting along tribal lines and between rival communities.Some 375,000 people have sought shelter from armed conflict."

"If you think you're too small to make a difference, you haven't been in bed with a mosquito," - Anita Roddick, environmental and social activist
Listen to the song 'Living Darfur' by Mattafix (there are also version with intros by Desmond Tutu and Matt Damon) on youtube, it's a wonderful song! Read a summary of the book Not on Our Watch by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast and participate in a 'give away contest' hosted by Natasha here.
Please, show me that you also care about Darfur!

Monday, July 28, 2008

“Io Non Ho Paura” (I’m Not Scared) by Niccolò Ammaniti

Year of publication: 2001
Genre: thriller novel, adventure novel
Setting and time: Southern Italy, 1978
Themes: childhood, friendship, social and economical divide, kidnapping

About the author: Niccolò Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. In 1999 he wrote the novel Ti Prendo e Ti Porto Via while he was on holiday in Scotland. Notoriety came nonetheless with the novel Io Non Ho Paura, which was then made into a film directed by Gabriele Salvatores. He was the youngest author to be awarded the prestigious Viareggio Prize. Come Dio Comanda (2006), his third work, was awarded the Premio Strega, the most important literary prize in Italy.

Plot: Nine-year-old Michele lives in a rural village in the south of Italy. It is a very hot summer and Michele and his friends decide to explore the countryside on their bikes. While playing in an abandoned house, Michele discovers a boy of his own age hidden in a hole in the ground. He soon discovers that everybody in the village is involved in the kidnapping of the son of a wealthy man from the north of Italy.

Some thoughts: Although I had already seen the movie, I decided to read this book, mostly because it is a quick read (and I have been reminding myself to read more Italian authors for ages). Even though I already knew how the story ends, I really enjoyed the book. I loved the sense of an Italian childhood in the book: the explorations, the countryside and the scorching sun were all elements of my own childhood. It is remarkable that Michele and his friends all speak like real children and not with the fake adult language that other writers put in their mouths (no subjunctive in their dialogues, which would make some people cringe!). Because the narrator is a ten-year-old boy, there are no detailed insights on the economical and social divide between the north and the south of Italy or on the kidnapping of people in the 1970s. I came to see this as a way of not overcharging with grief the story of Michele and Filippo. For Michele ‘the North’ is simply a mirage, as unreal as death or paradise, and as far as Africa.
Ammaniti is without a doubt one of the most talented living writers in Italy!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

To be translated or not to be translated

It is time for the Booker Prize longlist in a few days. In the meantime, here’s a link to the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, the equivalent of the Booker Prize for Asian literature. I must admit that I don’t know anyone on that list.

The Man Asian Literary Prize aims to bring new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community and to facilitate publishing and translation of Asian literature in and into English. The novels submitted are yet to be published in English. Among the authors longlisted for the prize (21) there are Indians by the dozen, only three Chinese and four Filipinos (!). Lately there has been a lot of talking of how to bring Chinese literature to world attention, for example if awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to a Chinese author would do the trick.

I wonder, though, if the problem is really the peculiarity of Asian literature or rather the lack of an industry of translations into English. I stumbled across an article from El Pais on the subject of translations from Spanish in the USA. No less that 15% of the population of the USA is hispanohablante, so you would expect books translated from Spanish every day and a reasonable market for literature in Spanish. In reality, from 2000 to 2006 only 13 Spanish writers of fiction have been translated into English. Latin Americans were not lucky, either: only 12 Cubans, 5 Argentinians and only 8 Mexicans have reached the bookshelves of Uncle Sam. I can hardly believe these numbers! The author only hopes that the sudden success of Junot Díaz (who writes in English, anyway) and Roberto Bolaño will boost translations in the country. If this is the situation for Spanish translations in the States, I can imagine how little room there must be for authors who write in Chinese, Italian or Finnish. I wonder if the situation is similar in the UK and I would like to compare statistcs with Italy, although I already know that the situation here is way better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

Year of publication: 2001
Genre: novel, fantastic novel
Setting and Time: Pacific Ocean and India, 1977-78
Themes: religion, survival, life, imagination vs. reality

Man Booker Prize, 2001

About the author: Yann Martel was born in Spain but he moved to different locations throughout his childhood because his parents worked for the Canadian foreign services. He lived in places such as: Alaska, Spain, France, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ontario. As an adult Yann Martel studied philosophy at Trent University. He had written two other books before winning the Booker Prize with Life of Pi.

Plot: After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old Indian boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra, a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. How will Pi survive on the lifeboat with a tiger for companion?

Some thoughts: You can’t possibly say that this story is not original or well-written. Martel manages to write a brilliant story that is set for the most part on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, with only two characters, Pi Patel and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. There are no dialogues for at least half of the book and I was beginning to be fed up with the tiger. The end, however, is completely unexpected. I won’t spoil you if you haven’t read the book, but that’s the real key to the whole meaning of the story. It comes out that the whole book is not about animals and it’s not really about how to survive a shipwreck, either. The ending gave me a sense of satisfaction that I wasn’t hoping in any way, even though I can’t really say that it was an uplifiting ending for the story.
The most interesting part, in my opinion, is at the beginning of the book, when Pi can’t decide if he wants to be a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu, so he professes all three religions. Martel spent much time studying theology, learning that for Hindus it’s not forbidden to believe in God or Allah in addition to Krishna, Kali and all the other Hindu divinities. However, isn’t it strange that Martel, a Canadian national, choose an Indian boy as the protagonist of his story? Is this part of his fascination with India and a result of his travels around the world? Or maybe part of a new ‘post-postcolonial’ literary tradition that particularly appreciates Indian topics and writers (the omnipresent Rushdie, Lahiri, Desai, Roy etc.)?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Check out 'The Guardian'’s Summer Reading List

Here's the link to the article, if you want to read it yourself. I already have a Summer Reading List (more or less), so this might become a part of my autumn reads. To be noted that, as far as I can see, all these books were written in English. Is The Guardian biased against non-Anglophone authors? Or do Anglophone readers tend to read only fiction written in their own language? However, there are some books that I plan to read here (in violet):

  • De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage (Lebanon / Canada): ‘a searing account of life in war-torn Beirut, brutal and poetic by turns’;
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Ireland): Booker Prize winner;
  • When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson (UK);
  • According to Ruth by Jane Feaver (UK);
  • The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg (Zimbabwe / South Africa): a journey into childhood's foreign country - and the dying days of Rhodesia. Postcolonial stuff: must be mine.
  • Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel by Gordon Burn (UK);
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan / UK): shortlisted for the Booker Prize, wanna read.
  • The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (India /UK): I’m not gonna read this before Midnight’s Children, even though it is set in Italy;
  • The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore by Lorrie Moore (USA);
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (India /USA): I’ll probably read this, hoping it will be a second Namesake;
  • The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (Australia / Sri Lanka): tipped for the Booker;
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (USA / Dominican Republic): already in my TBR list;
  • The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah (UK);
  • End Games by Michael Dibdin (UK);
  • Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor (UK);
  • Revelation by CJ Sansom (UK);
  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker (UK);
  • Ascent by Jed Mercurio (UK);

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Cosmofobia" by Lucía Etxebarría

Year of publication: 2007
Genre: novel
Setting and Time: Madrid, present time (with flashbacks)
Themes: multiculturalism, love, friendship, entertainment business,

Plot: The story is set in the neighbourhood of Lavapiés, in Madrid, where many people from extremely different backgrounds live together, not without frictions. From Moroccan immigrants to former rock stars and fashion models, Etxebarria intertwines dozens of stories about love, friendship and family relationships.

Some thoughts: This is the proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The cover of the Italian version of the novel shows the faces of people of all ethnicities and ages. From the description on the back cover, I thought this would be an amazing read: a multicultural neighbourhood in Madrid can’t be so different from a multicultural neighbourhood in Italy, I thought. Since I’ve been working with immigrants until quite recently, I thought it was a great idea to read this novel, at least to find something I’m familiar with.
At the beginning, the book is exactly as you expect it to be: Moroccan men living with Spanish women and Spanish men living with African women, all trying to find their place in Spanish society. The story of Antón, who works as a volunteer in a community centre, reminds me of my volunteer job here in Italy, so I was happy that the protagonist of the novel was Antón. Only, the protagonist of the novel is not Antón. The novel soon reveals to be an endless series of stories about people who have forlorn love stories. At the beginning the focus is on the relationships between immigrants and Spanish people, but towards the end of the book, Etxebarria forgets what the novel should be about and starts writing about former rock stars, fashion models and famous actors, telling us of the world of the rich and famous. As if we didn’t get enough of that from the television. This novel is in most parts banal and naïve; it almost feels like chick lit with the ambition to be cool (because writing of multiculturalism, à la Zadie Smith, is very cool).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

Year of publication: 1997
Genre: novel
Setting and time: Kerala, southwestern India, 1969 and present time
Themes: family life, postcolonial India, caste taboos, communism

Man Booker Prize, 1997

About the author: Arundhati Roy (1961 - ) was born in India to a Syrian Christian mother and a Bengali Hindu father. She spent her childhood in Ayemenem, Kerala, and then studied architecture in Delhi. The God of Small Things (1997) is her first and only novel. Since then, she has been writing about political issues, winning awards for her commitment in social campaigns and advocacy of non-violence.

Plot: It is a story about the childhood experiences of a pair of twins, Rahel and Estha, who become victims of circumstance. The book is a description of how the small things in life build up, translate into people's behavior and affect their lives. The inseparable twins live in Ayemenem, Kerala, with their divorced mother Ammu, their grandmother Mammachi, their uncle Chacko and grand-aunt Baby Kochamma. The story moves back and forth over time as it builds up a picture of the incidents that decimated the household.

Some thoughts: Finally a good book I enjoyed from the beginning to the end! I know, I know… I’m starting to be more and more picky.
Roy’s style has been called ‘lush’, ‘colourful’ and ‘exotic’, but it’s not annoyingly exotic: the characters are not extraordinarily beautiful or mysterious, and the setting not particularly lush. This is exactly what makes the book so beautiful.
This novel appeals to the Western reader because it is not about an ordinary Indian family, but about a family of outsiders. The Mols are a wealthy, anglophile, Syrian Christian family living in Kerala, Southern India. By the way, outsiders in Indian literature seem to appeal to critics and readers alike (novels by Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie often feature outsiders). The only Indian writers the western readers know write in English, so they are most likely outsiders in their country. I liked the fact that this novel is not about the Indian diaspora, like many other recent Indian novels written in English. The God of Small Things is in fact set in India, with Indian characters. As far as I know, the problem of the Indian caste system is usually not addressed in the novels by Lahiri, Desai or even Rushdie, but it is one of the main themes in Roy’s book.
The novel begins as a mystery story: why did Estha stop talking? What happened to Sophie Mol? Why did Ammu die alone in a hotel room? This keeps it alive until the end, when you get to know what happened to this family.
Roy’s use of English is peculiar, almost a new language, with Asian Indian influences and nice puns. The adults - especially uncle Chacko who has lived in England - constantly correct the children and yet only Rahel and Estha can play with the English language (‘she told her to stoppit, so she stoppited’, loved it!).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Midnight’s Children" wins Best of the Booker

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was named winner of the Best of the Booker Prize. Not exactly a surprise...

The book won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Booker of Bookers in 1993. So... I feel compelled to pick it up again!

Friday, July 4, 2008

"Disgrace" by JM Coetzee

Year of publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Setting and time: Contemporary South Africa
Themes: sexual harassment, rape, post-Apartheid South Africa, race relations

Man Booker Prize, 1999

About the author: John Maxwell Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa. His family descends from early Dutch settlers dating to the 17th century. He belongs to a generation of South African writers who raised their voices against apartheid. Although reared in an Afrikaans-speaking family in Cape Town, he attended an English-speaking school and while English became his primary language, he remained fluent in Afrikaans, a language with its origins in Dutch settlers. He has sometimes defended Afrikaners against the stereotype that they are uniformly racist. He was the first author to receive the Booker Prize twice, in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace. In 2002 he relocated to Australia and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) The book tells the story of a Cape Town professor's dismissal from his job after his affair with a young student becomes known. He withdraws to his daughter’s small farm, but she is raped by three black strangers. Horrified, David wants to call the police, but Lucy asks him to tell no one of the rape and her subsequent pregnancy.

Some thoughts: Somebody said that this is supposed to be the best novel written in English in the last 25 years, but I was somehow disappointed. The first 25 pages of the book are very dull: a middle-age professor, David Lurie, complaining about his poor sex life and academic interests. Boring, boring, boring. After that, it gets a little bit better: Lurie joins his daughter at a farm in the Eastern Cape. I liked the novel only when it was set in Lucy’s farm and I so wanted to skip all the other parts, especially when Coetzee rambles on about some ill dogs that have to be put down.
Violence enters the novel by the hands of three black men who rape Lucy and so the problems of post-apartheid South Africa are introduced. Nonetheless, I feel that something was missing: Coetzee doesn’t explain the social reasons for the violence perpetrated by black people on white South Africans and doesn’t even try to explain why white South Africans are so guilty as to meekly accept it. He merely speaks of ‘vengeance’ and 'guilt for the past'. The novel sends a negative message about South Africa: when David asks his daughter if she will love the ‘rape child’ that she is bearing she says: ‘The child? No. How could I? But I will. Love will grow — one can trust Mother Nature for that. I am determined to be a good mother, David. A good mother and a good person. You should try to be a good person too’. Coetzee is very pessimist about the future of his country and many South Africans think such a celebrated author shouldn’t speak like that of his own country. I believe that he was right to be realist and declare that South Africa is no ‘rainbow country’(even though I don’t like depressing novels). Is this why Coetzee left South Africa and became an Australian citizen? Too much violence and uneasiness with a situation he cannot control?
In South Africa, the African National Congress accused Coetzee of representing as brutally as he could the white man’s perspective of the post-Apartheid black man and of implying that in the new regime whites would ‘lose their cards, their weapons, their property, their rights, their dignity’, while ‘the white women will have to sleep with the barbaric black men’ (have a look at this article to know more). As a matter of fact, black men in Coetzee novel are all greedy and evil. I so missed Gordimer while I was reading this book!