Boyd Tonkin: This Man Booker shortlist digs deep into the soil of global change
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 13 September 2013
Like the Hello Kitty lunchbox and its enigmatic contents washed up on a Canadian island shore in Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, this year's Man Booker shortlist delivers stories to decode about transitions and transformations in a world of flux. You might, at one level, wax sociological about the judges' choice, and spot that migrant journeys - that catch-all master-plot of high-end global fiction - loom large: for the books, and for their authors. With two of the shortlist fairly firmly settled in the US now – Jhumpa Lahiri and NoViolet Bulawayo – you have to ask how long the formal exclusion of American contenders from this prize can endure.
Yet I would not expect any jury steered by the discerning Robert Macfarlane (this year's chair) to follow any literary trend in meek lockstep. Look closer, and the outlines of another kind of narrative soon begin to show. Yes, the trans-oceanic promise or threat of displacement and deracination impels several of these novels, from the Gold Rush incomers of Eleanor Catton's 19th-century New Zealand (The Luminaries) to Lahiri's aspirant Bengalis in the US (The Lowland) and Bulawayo's own set of Stateside fugitives from a harrowed Zimbabwe (We Need New Names).
But behind these headline trajectories of mobility and reinvention lies, I suspect, a notably Macfarlane-esque agenda. It has to do with the ever-changing relationship between places and peoples, nature and culture, and the forces that can make the road into exile the end as well as start of any story. After all, the buried geological might of the planet itself fuels at least two of these plots: a mineral deposit for Catton; a tsunami for Ozeki. Which brings us (barring Colm Tóibin's immaculately phrased The Testament of Mary, the only true outlier on this list) to the bookies' favourite: Harvest, Jim Crace's twelfth novel and, so he insists, his last.
Whether or not you agree with this year's selection, don't endorse the thoughtless cliché that labels it a choice between far-flung literary exotica (the Japanese-Canadian; the Bengali-American; the Zimbabwean in California) and Crace's rooted, muddy, dirt-under-the fingernails Englishness. For, in his timeless yet precise novel of enclosure, expulsion and the loss of a communal Eden, Crace also has a sort of migrants' tale to tell. After nascent agribusiness cheats his villagers and wrecks traditional togetherness in favour of "Profit, Progress, Enterprise", they load their carts and - in hope or despair - trudge towards what will be a more urban life.
That, over centuries, England witnessed a massive drift from country to town within national borders - the historical bedrock of Crace's fable - did nothing to make the process any less traumatic. In the shelves of books devoted to border-crossing lives, I often look in vain for any recognition that most city dwellers share much of this family history, even if their peasant forebears never had to slip over an officially policed frontier. (One exception is Doug Saunders's highly-reccomended Arrival City.)
The idea of the land and its guardians - who controls and who exploits it; who has the right to live and prosper where - threads like a glittering seam through much of this year's shortlist. Lahiri's intellectual guerrillas, after all, owed their popular base to a peasants' revolt against rapacious landlords in Bengal. The significance of land disputes in Zimbabwe's modern history needs no elaboration. Maybe I'm reading far too much into Macfarlane's stewardship. Still, the migration narrative that now governs the production and reception of so much "literary fiction" can often beg as many questions as it answers. For the wanderers, refugees and fortune-seekers in some of these - and many other - books, the tremors that drive movement rise from deep within the earth.
Bags of life left in the shop – if Amazon allows?
Not many causes apart from poorly kids could unite Lily Cole and Sebastian Faulks; Robson Green and Kathy Lette; Katie Price and Neil Gaiman. All count among the supporters of the "Books are my Bag" campaign in favour of another sort of ailing patient: the physical bookshop. This celebration of actual (as opposed to virtual) shelves and spines starts today. But does the big bookshop love-in stand in need of a militant wing behind all the smiley celebs: "Since Books are my Bag, let's smother Amazon"?
Brush up with the tasteful Fox
Any bookshop-boosting push needs good examples beyond the obvious chains. Slightly Foxed - first a bibliophiliac quarterly and small boutique publisher, and since 2009 also the genial entity behind the eponymous independent store in South Kensington - is one such. Like any clever hand-selling bookseller, the Foxed publishing arm has the knack of re-introducing - in quietly handsome editions - the sort of titles that readers, once they know them, not only enjoy but come to love. True to form, their latest duo consists of two incomparable memoirs: in hardback, Christabel Bielenberg's account of her life as a dissident German lawyer's wife under the Third Reich, The Past is Myself; and in paperback, VS Pritchett's matchless record of his poor, peripatetic but somehow magical London childhood before and during the First World War, A Cab at the Door.
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