Michael Ondaatje still looks bemused the morning after publishing's equivalent of the Oscars: for only the second time the judges announced the Booker Prize would be shared. Today Ondaatje leaps up the steps of Bloomsbury publishing house to be smothered in kisses by the sales force. 'Hamilton's man (the other winner, Barry Unsworth) seemed nice,' they say. 'But you were so great on TV - and it's a twelve and a half thousand print run so far this morning.'
Ondaatje is a big man in a lumberjack shirt; his grey eyes glint blue every time you ask a question he doesn't like - such as, how does it feel to share the Booker? 'Everybody wants to know whether I was upset that it was joint. I thought, why would I be upset; so you share the money, so what? For me the great honour was to be short-listed - after that it turns into this strange, medieval race; choosing one of six books, that's a little artificial.'
Ondaatje let his emotions show when he went up to receive his prize. Too superstitious to prepare any kind of speech, he clutched good luck charms - a pebble from his daughter, the spile his character Hana plays with in the novel, The English Patient - throughout the ceremony. Unsworth was dry, his speech composed; Ondaatje's voice shook.
His emotions show in his work, too. First came the poetry, which displays all the personal history he would rather not talk about in interviews: his divorce, his two children who he cared for after the separation. Then came Billy the Kid which started as a poem, but turned into prose, and now he hardly writes any poetry, having realised, he said, that prose would require his full attention. 'For poetry you have to stay close to emotions - I try to keep some of that in my prose . . . but poetic novels, of course, have connotations like rabies - something everybody shies away from.'
The English Patient is an emotional work - the story of four shell-shocked war survivors in an isolated villa, salving their wounds before being racked again by Hiroshima. But the background - the desert explorations, the bomb- disposal techniques - is another Ondaatje hallmark: erudite liftings from other worlds, other experiences. 'Reading Neruda to a class, reading his lovely old curiosity about all things, I am told this is the first time in months I seem happy,' wrote Ondaatje in a poem. And while the sentiment in his books makes some critics of his blench, part of the joy of reading Ondaatje's novels is the way he can make the Boys' Own stuff so vivid.
He says he has no plans now (except to read Unsworth's book). He won a prize once before in Canada when he was 27 and it paralysed him. He got out of that by writing Coming Through Slaughter - about a man terrified of fame who ends up in an asylum. As for what he'll do with the pounds 10,000, he says he'll 'live on it, probably'. He reaches into his jacket pocket to pull out the cheque, to look at it in broad daylight, before remembering he was wearing a tuxedo last night and that's where he's left the money.
It doesn't sound like a novelist's name. You can imagine Barry Unsworth being a bumptious union leader, or a plucky scrum-half in a northern Rugby League side ('Unsworth - he's through . . . what a score]'), but not, somehow, the author of 10 novels. Make that prize-winning author, now. There are no visible signs of hangover the morning after his triumph, though he did sink a few, post-gig, at the Groucho - 'It seemed like a good idea at the time,' he says, wonderingly.
The Booker bingo is over for another year, and for once the judges seem to have got it right, or at least half-right. Had he prepared himself to win? 'Only to the extent that I had a few stumbling phrases I would utter if I did. I certainly wasn't counting on it . . . but I wasn't totally surprised, either.' He is sanguine, too, about splitting the money with Ondaatje. 'No, I don't mind. Seems like a nice guy. We didn't really have time to chat . . .'
Sacred Hunger is a tubby historical epic and, at more than 600 pages, not really the sort of book one is inclined to pick up. Yet the ingredients it juggles - two warring cousins, elemental conflict on the high seas with a mad-eyed captain, the degraded practices of slavery - combine to make the sort of novel one finds difficult to put down. The germ of the book Unsworth traces to his time as writer in residence at the University of Liverpool, whose port was at the centre of the Atlantic slave trade during the 18th century.
'I went from Cambridge to Liverpool in the mid-Eighties,' he recalls, 'and I was considerably shocked. The urban dereliction and decay I found there struck me very forcibly. It perhaps chimed in with some residual guilt I have always had about not addressing serious contemporary themes.'
There are contemporary resonances aplenty, however, in the novel's argument with the business of profit and greed - the 'sacred hunger' that allegedly keeps the world turning. 'Yes, that was an emotional element in the book,' he says. 'For me, the Eighties was an appalling period in British political life. We saw not only the condoning, but the enthronement of greed. The slave trade seemed a perfect metaphor for what was going on - the profit motive, pure and simple. So there were strong parallels in my mind the whole time I was writing.'
That polemical note can be heard amid the creaking of timbers and the cracking of whips as the slave-ship steers ever further towards moral oblivion; what keeps the reader in thrall, though, is Unsworth's skill in loosing off a rattling good yarn, something the domestic novel appears to have lost the knack for. 'Without wishing to knock anybody,' he says, 'I think there are so many novels today that you can admire but not warm to. Intelligence and accomplishment and complexity are all there, but in the end . . . one doesn't like them.'
Nearing 60, with a lifetime's writing under his belt, Unsworth is unlikely to be seduced by the prize-winning glitz, though he admits to enjoying the hotel suite - approximately the size of a tennis court - his publishers have considerately put at his disposal. 'I don't think winning the prize confirms anything - it's tremendous and jolly good luck, of course, but it doesn't say anything about you. My book would still be here if I hadn't won, it would still be as good - or as bad.'
From Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
MATTED hair obscured the face but he saw blood on it, still glistening fresh, and as he leaned closer he made out the puncture marks of small teeth: one side of the man's face had been bitten at by rats while he lay helpless there. But it was not this that held Erasmus, rather a kind of puzzlement: why, at the first sound of steps, had he fallen so silent and still?
Erasmus leaned closer and looked into the man's eyes. They were wide open, staring up at him or at the night beyond him and the awaited end the night contained. And Erasmus knew himself in that moment for an intruder, knew this creature wanted him gone, was with the last energy of his life holding himself still against being touched, being moved. That recoil against the wall had been an attempt at concealment. He has crawled into this runnel as if dying were a sin he did not want to be caught at.
The stench of long neglect rose from his rags, a nauseous reek of old cold dirt and grease and excrement and fever. Erasmus felt his gorge rise. He turned away and went back to his horse, unaware yet, as he rode on, as he found his way eventually into wider, better-lit streets of shops and taverns and people that he too had been violated in some narrow place where he had crawled. There are no stronger fetters than those we forge for ourselves. Because he had ridden away, because he might have been mistaken, Erasmus told no one of this encounter. It was never disinfected or treated in any way. The memory festered and in the course of time rotted its container and leaked into his father's death and into the smell of the ship's timbers.
Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99
From The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
SHE walks out into the sunlight and the courtyard. At noon the taps deliver water into the villa's fountain and for 20 minutes it bursts forth. She removes her shoes, climbs into the dry bowl of the fountain and waits.
At this hour the smell of hay grass is everywhere. Bluebottles stumble in the air and bang into humans as if slamming into a wall, then retreat unconcerned. She notices where water spiders have nested beneath the upper bowl of the fountain, her face in the shade of its overhang. She likes to sit in this cradle of stone, the smell of cool and dark hidden air emerging from the still empty spout near her, like air from a basement opened for the first time in late spring so the heat outside hangs in contrast. She brushes her arms and toes free of dust, of the crimp of shoes, and stretches.
Too many men in the house. Her mouth leans against the bare arm of her shoulder. She smells her skin, the familiarity of it. One's own taste and flavour. She remembers when she had first grown aware of it, somewhere in her teens - it seemed a place rather than a time - kissing her forearm to practise kissing, smelling her wrist or bending down to her thigh. Breathing into her own cupped hands so breath would bounce back towards her nose. She rubs her bare white feet now against the brindle colour of the fountain. The sapper has told her about statues he came across during the fighting, how he had slept beside one who was a grieving angel, half male, half female, that he had found beautiful. He had lain back, looking at the body, and for the first time during the war felt a peace.
She sniffs the stone, the cool moth smell of it.
Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99
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