The shortlist for the 1997 Booker Prize will be announced tomorrow. Its winner will almost certainly join the ranks of Britain's most read and favoured books, A S Byatt's Possession, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, and the "Booker of Bookers", Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. But if the avowed aim of the award is the discovery and promotion of the finest fiction of the Commonwealth, it is just as much about theatre.
Behind the scenes at the Booker, now in its 28th year, another narrative, of tiffs and huffs, of rows and walkouts, is played out annually - during the six months of judges' deliberations and, spectacularly, on the big night itself when the literati, high on good food, fine wine and delicious argument, come each year to verbal blows.
The patient stagehand throughout all this, the Booker's all- seeing but non-intervening director, has been Martyn Goff, a graceful man with the voice of a Forties radio announcer who has lived a life steeped in fiction. The man with the utilitarian title, Prize Administrator, lives and breathes books as the chairman of the London antiquarian bookshop Sotheran's, as the president of numerous literary societies, and as a novelist with 19 books of his own to his name.
It is Martyn Goff who, as one literary editor put it, "knows where all the Booker bodies are buried".
THE BOOKER Prize was born in 1969, the offspring of an unlikely coupling between the publishing industry and Booker, the multinational food production and processing company which today has annual sales of pounds 4.5bn.
Legend has it that the prize was dreamed up by the James Bond author Ian Fleming as he played golf with the Booker chairman, but the truth is more prosaic. In the mid-Sixties, Booker began a division buying up literary copyrights, to take advantage of a tax loophole which has since been closed.
With early signings including Fleming, Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley, the business proved lucrative and Booker considered furthering its literary credentials by establishing bursaries or scholarships. Meanwhile, Tom Maschler, chairman of the Jonathan Cape publishing house, had been looking for a sponsor for a major fiction prize, taking as his model a French award, the Prix Goncourt. He sold the idea to Booker in seconds.
In the autumn of 1969 the first Booker Prize, of pounds 5,000, was awarded to P H Newby for Something to Answer For, with other shortlisted authors including Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, and Stephen Spender and Frank Kermode among the judges.
Martyn Goff, then the President of the Book Trust, an independent charity, was approached to oversee the judging. "I thought it was a good idea," he says, "but I never thought I'd still be here in 1997, let alone still administrating the prize. And I never thought it would go on to become one of the most important prizes in the world, with winners almost guaranteed to become millionaires because of sales and anyone on the shortlist guaranteed to sell an extra 5,000 to 15,000 copies. In those days we thought it would be exciting to get a story into one of the national newspapers - nowadays, even the shortlist makes front-page news."
Today, there is a parallel Russian Booker Prize, complete with its own bitter controversies, and the prize money for the Commonwealth Booker has been increased to pounds 20,000 - although Goff says he has "half-seriously" recommended that the prize follow the example of the Goncourt, which rewards its winners with 50 Francs (pounds 5). "After all, if the award can make you a millionaire, an extra pounds 19,995 is a drop in the ocean," he says.
Roddy Doyle sold more than 300,000 copies of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha after his win and sales of A S Byatt's Possession increased ninefold. Even Keri Hulme's novel The Bone People, widely considered to be so impenetrable as to be a Booker panel's biggest error of judgement, sold 33,000 copies in the three months after it won. Hulme's publishers had printed just 800 in the first run.
The prize was modestly successful in its early years, with winners and shortlisted authors seeing an upsurge in sales. But it was 1980 before the Booker really came of age: the year that William Golding's Rites of Passage and Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers came head to head. Golding won, but the real story of the prize that year was the depth of feeling aroused in the debate surrounding the literary merits of both authors. It mattered which side of the fence you were on that year, Golding's or Burgess's, in the way that it might matter what football team you supported or how you felt about the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
It mattered to Burgess too, who refused to come to the prize-giving dinner unless he had won - largely, says Goff, because he hated wearing dinner jackets. The obliging administrator saw to it that Burgess - who had flown over from his home in Monaco - was installed in the Savoy, close to where the award dinner was being held at the Guildhall, and promised to telephone the author in enough time for him to make an appearance if the news was good. Goff ended up the bearer of bad tidings. "Anthony took it well enough," he says. "He just didn't want to come to the dinner."
Goff is a mine of this sort of anecdotal information. On the subject of the infamous literary "rows", he is better still. He accepts that these tiffs are part theatre, a finely acted gift to the Booker PR machine, but stresses they are also the product of the deeply held convictions of the judges. He and his committee select a panel each year using a formula designed to provide a healthy mix of reviewers and novelists, academics and booksellers, men and women.
The most fiercely debated Booker judgement he witnessed was in 1989, the year Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize with The Remains of the Day (one of several Booker winners, along with Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, to break box-office records when subsequently transferred to the silver screen). The issue that year was not who was on the shortlist, but who wasn't. David Lodge, the chair of judges, was desperate to shortlist Martin Amis for London Fields. The novelist Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, were determined Amis would have no place on the list.
"It was an incredible row," says Goff. "Maggie and Helen felt that Amis treated women appallingly in the book. That is not to say they thought books which treated women badly couldn't be good, they simply felt that the author should make it clear he didn't favour or bless that sort of treatment. Really, there was only two of them and they should have been outnumbered as the other three were in agreement, but such was the sheer force of their argument and passion that they won. David [Lodge] has told me he regrets it to this day, he feels he failed somehow by not saying, `It's two against three, Martin's on the list'."
Front-of-house rows the same year were even more heated, with sneery Amis supporters finding fault with the Japanese-born winner's failure to grasp the English tradition of gentlemen passing port clockwise round a table rather than having it handed round by the butler. Amis, it was felt, would never have made such an error.
Still, some Booker judges never even make it to judgement day. In 1991 Nicholas Moseley abandoned the jury, complaining bitterly that the other judges were not interested in "novels of ideas". His fellow panelists retorted that he liked books "filled with cliches". Meanwhile, Malcolm Muggeridge, the author and commentator, found it impossible to get to the end of the 100 or so books on the list, sheepishly confessing to Goff that the "sex bits" were upsetting him. "How could you make me read all those disgusting books?" he complained.
The late Richard Cobb, a former Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, at least made it through to the end of the judging. However, he then ruined the dinner for some guests by declaring, heretically, in his speech that he had never managed to get "more than a few pages" into Proust and implying that no one else in the room had either.
Then there was 1994, the "Kelman year", the Booker row of Booker rows. James Kelman, who had boycotted the prize in 1989 because he had "better things to do than swan around with the literati", had already dismayed some critics with his "relentless use of obscene language" (Daily Telegraph) in How Late It Was, How Late. In the days before the runaway success of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Kelman's use of the Glaswegian dialect was deemed in itself a provocative act of incomprehensible Scottish separatism.
Kelman won, but later on that evening, at the prize-giving dinner, Dr Julia Neuberger, a rabbi and one of the judges, broke the panel's traditional silence by using her own vernacular to publicly declare the book "crap".
Even without controversial Kelman, 1994 would have been a memorable year for Booker squabbles. One of the judges, James Wood, a Guardian journalist who had branded the previous year's panel "middle-brow", managed to upset publishers early on by writing glowing newspaper reviews of books he was judging, giving the literary community an early lead on which contenders he personally favoured. Then he forgot to tell the rest of the panel that one of the novelists being considered for the shortlist, Claire Messud, was, in fact, his wife. Wood's fellow judge, Professor John Bayley, formerly the Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, joined the fray by declaring that modern fiction was "an ordeal" and called for more novels to provide "an escape from life" - novels a bit like those written by his wife, Iris Murdoch, who, as Wood unkindly pointed out, had failed to make the shortlist the previous year.
Of course, bad language did not begin in the Kelman year. In 1983, when Salman Rushdie's novel Shame lost out to J M Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K, Rushdie railed that the judges had made "a shitty choice". And in 1992, Victoria Glendinning, later responsible for the comment that "old codgers" like Bayley should be banned from judging the Booker, had branded a fellow judge a "condescending bastard".
"Ah, 1994..." sighs Goff, in the manner of a headmaster discussing an unruly pupil. "That was an, um, interesting year."
This year then, the Booker judges, chaired by Gillian Beer, Professor of English at Cambridge, have an interesting task ahead of them in the run up to the Booker dinner on 14 October. The real challenge is to surpass 1994, not just in awarding the prize to an innovative novelist but by providing as a backdrop the row to end all rows. On the other hand, they could equally send a shockwave through the literary world by simply discussing the books on the shortlist and picking the best one by amicable consensus.
But Martyn Goff has a sinister glint in his eye. "I don't expect a quiet year," he says.
! The winner of the Booker Prize is announced on 14 October. The ceremony will be screened live on Channel 4.
PRIZE-FIGHTING: BOOKER QUOTES
`A shitty choice.'
Salman Rushdie's verdict on `Life and Times of Michael K' by J M Coetzee, which beat his novel `Shame' to the 1983 prize
`Winning the Booker has had nil impact on my career, and your reputation sinks rapidly after winning the prize.'
Anita Brookner, winner in 1984
`I've got better things to do than swan around with the literati.'
James Kelman, declining to attend the 1989 Booker dinner
`I've won it and judged it and it's a lottery.'
A S Byatt, winner in 1990
`It will be a long time before the Booker recovers from this deep wound.'
`Guardian' journalist James Wood, reacting to the 1993 shortlist
`May God and literature forgive you.'
Note from Vikram Seth's agent Giles Gordon to Lord Gowrie, after he failed to shortlist `A Suitable Boy'
Which books should be on the Booker shortlist? Here, we publish the opening lines from an unofficial`IoS' selection, chosen by Rosie Boycott, and give you the chance to buy them all at a discount .
Peter Carey was born in 1943 in Australia and now lives in New York. He is the author of six previous novels, including Illywhacker (shortlisted for the 1985 Booker Prize) and Oscar and Lucinda (winner of the 1988 Booker, and now being made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes).
IT WAS a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London. It was, to be precise, six of the clock on the fifteenth of April in the year of 1837 that those hooded eyes looked out the window of the Dover coach and beheld, in the bright aura of gas light, a golden bull and an overgrown mouth opening to devour him - the sign of his inn, the Golden Ox.
The Rocket (as his coach was aptly named) rattled in through the archway to the inn's yard and the passengers, who had hitherto found the stranger so taciturn, now noted the silver-capped cane - which had begun to tap the floor at Westminster Bridge - commence a veritable tattoo.
He was a tall man in his forties, so big in the chest and broad in the shoulder that his fellows on the bench seat had felt the strain of his presence, but what his occupation was, or what he planned to do in London, they had not the least idea. One privately imagined him a book-maker, another a gentleman farmer and a third, seeing the excellent quality of his waistcoat, imagined him an upper servant wearing his master's cast- off clothing.
His face did not deny the possibility of any of these occupations; indeed he would have been a singular example of any one of them. His brows pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process. His nose was large, hawkish, and high-bridged. His eyes were dark, inquiring, and yet there was a bruised, even belligerent quality which had kept his fellow passengers at their distance all through that long journey up from Dover.
No sooner had they heard the coachman's Whoa-up than he had the door open and was out into the night without having said a single word.
The first of the passengers to alight after him saw the stranger take the porter, a famously insolent individual, firmly by the shoulder blade. He held him there for a good moment, and it was obvious from the look which appeared on that sandy-haired individual's face, that he held him very hard indeed.
"Now pay attention to me, Sir Reverence."
The porter was roughly escorted to the side of the coach.
"You comprennay-voo?" The stranger pointed with his cane to a large trunk on the roof. "The blue item. If it would not inconvenience your Lordship."
The porter made it clear that it would not inconvenience him in the least. Then some money changed hands and the man with the red waistcoat set off into the night, his cane tapping on the cobblestones, and straight up into the Haymarket, his chin up and the orbs of his eyes everywhere reflecting an unearthly flare and glare.
This light had shone all the way from the Elephant and Castle: gas light, blazing and streaming like great torches; sausages illuminated, fish and ice gleaming, chemist shops aglow like caves with their variegated vases illuminated from within. The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.
The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognized it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: "Gin at Threepence - Generous Wines - Hot Spiced". This one here - it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.
Two children were now tugging around his sleeves but he seemed so little aware of their presence that he walked out into the street without once looking down at them.
All around him was uproar, din, the deafening rush, the smell of horse shit, soot, that old yellow smell of London Town.
`Come on, Guv, come with me.'
`Come on, Sir.'
! `Jack Maggs' (Faber & Faber, pounds 15.99) is out on 22 September. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 13.99 (including p&p); call the credit-card order line on 01279 417134, citing this offer.
Jim Crace is the author of Continent, The Gift of Stones, Arcadia and Signals of Distress. He has won the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E M Forster Award, the Guardian Fiction Award and the GAP International Prize. He lives in Birmingham.
MIRI'S husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black - scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil's eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil's kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.
Miri was as dutiful as she could be. She sat cross-legged inside their tent with Musa's neck resting on the pillow of her swollen ankles, his head pushed up against the new distension of her stomach, and tried to lure the fever out with incense and songs. He received the treatment that she - five months pregnant, and in some discomfort - deserved for herself. She wiped her husband's forehead with a dampened cloth. She rubbed his eyelids and his lips with honey water. She kept the flies away. She sang her litanies all night. But the fever was deaf. Or, perhaps, its hearing was so sharp that it had eavesdropped on Miri's deepest prayers and knew that Musa's death would not be unbearable. His death would rescue her.
In the morning Musa was as numb and dry as leather, but - cussed to the last - was gripping thinly on to life. His family and the other, older men from the caravan came in to kiss his forehead and mumble their regrets that they had not treated him with greater patience while he was healthy. When they had smelled and tasted the sourness of his skin and seen the ashy blackness of his mouth, they shook their heads and dabbed their eyes and calculated the extra profits they would make from selling Musa's merchandise on the sly. Musa was paying a heavy price, his uncles said, for sleeping on his back without a cloth across his face. An idiotic way to die. A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs. Devils were like anybody else; they had to find what warmth they could or perish in the desert cold. Now Musa had provided lodging for the devil's fever. He wouldn't last more than a day or two - if he did, then it would be a miracle. And not a welcome one.
It was Miri's duty to Musa, everybody said, to let the caravan go on through Jericho towards the markets of the north without her. It couldn't travel with fever in its cargo. It couldn't wait while Musa died. Nor could it spare the forty days of mourning which would follow. That would be madness. Musa himself wouldn't expect such waste. He had been a merchant too, and would agree, if only he were conscious, God forbid, that business should not wait for funerals. Or pregnancies. Fortunes would be lost if merchants could not hurry on. Besides, the camels wouldn't last. They needed grazing and watering, and there was no standing water in this wilderness and hardly any hope of rain. No, it was a crippling sadness for them too, make no mistake, the uncles said, but Miri had to stay behind, continue with her singing till the end, and bury Musa on her own.
She'd have to put up stones to mark her husband's passing and tend his grave until the caravan returned for her. She would be safe and comfortable if she took care. There was sufficient water in skins for a week or so, and then she could locate a cistern of some kind; there were also figs and olives and some grain, some salted meat and other food, plus the tent, the family possessions, small amounts of different wools, a knife, some perfume and a little gold. She'd have company as well. They'd leave six goats for her, plus a halting donkey which was too slow and useless for the caravan. Two donkeys then. Both lame, she said, nodding at her husband.
Nobody laughed at Miri's indiscretions. It did not seem appropriate to laugh when there was fever in the tent, though leaving Musa behind, half dead, was a satisfying prospect for everyone. With luck, they said, Musa would only have to endure his suffering for a day or two more. And then? And then, when Miri had done her duty to her husband, they suggested, there would be habitations in the valley where she could, perhaps, seek refuge. She might find a buyer for the gold; take care, they warned, for gold can bring bad luck as well. Or she might employ the goats to buy herself a place to stay for her confinement - until the caravan had a chance to come for her and any child, if it survived.
! `Quarantine' (Viking, pounds 16.99) is out now. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 14.99 (including p&p); send a cheque/postal order (payable to Penguin Books Ltd) to: `Independent on Sunday' Offer, Penguin Direct, Bath Rd, Harmondsworth, Middx UB7 ODA. Offer closes 19 September; subject to availability.
Arundhati Roy was trained as an architect. She has worked as a production designer and written the screenplays for two films. She lives in New Delhi. One of this year's biggest sellers, The God of Small Things is her first book.
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
MAY IN Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
But by early June the south-west monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn mossgreen. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.
It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, ploughing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway.
The house itself looked empty. The doors and windows were locked. The front verandah bare. Unfurnished. But the skyblue Plymouth with chrome tailfins was still parked outside, and inside, Baby Kochamma was still alive.
She was Rahel's baby grand aunt, her grandfather's younger sister. Her name was really Navomi, Navomi Ipe, but everybody called her Baby. She became Baby Kochamma when she was old enough to be an aunt. Rahel hadn't come to see her, though. Neither niece nor baby grand aunt laboured under any illusions on that account. Rahel had come to see her brother, Estha. They were two-egg twins. "Dizygotic" doctors called them. Born from separate but simultaneously fertilized eggs. Estha - Esthappen - was the older by eighteen minutes.
They never did look much like each other, Estha and Rahel, and even when they were thin-armed children, flat-chested, worm- ridden and Elvis Presley-puffed, there was none of the usual "Who is who?" and "Which is which?" from oversmiling relatives or the Syrian Orthodox Bishops who frequently visited the Ayemenem house for donations.
The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place.
In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was For Ever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream.
She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
She remembers, for instance (though she hadn't been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches - Estha's sandwiches, that Estha ate - on the Madras Mail to Madras.
And these are only the small things.
ANYWAY, now she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them, because separately, the two of them are no longer what They were or ever thought They'd be.
Their lives have a size and a shape now. Estha has his and Rahel hers.
Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died. Thirty-one.
But a viable die-able age.
! `The God of Small Things' (Flamingo, pounds 15.99) is out now. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 13.99 (including p&p); call the credit-card order line on 0181 307 4052, quoting the reference Dept 814H.
Ian McEwan is the author of two collections of short stories, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and six previous novels, The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, A Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs and The Daydreamer.
THE BEGINNING is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle - a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man's shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running towards it. The transformation was absolute: I don't recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child's cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.
I see us from three hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we had watched earlier, soaring, circling and dipping in the tumult of currents: five men running silently towards the centre of a hundred-acre field. I approached from the south-east, with the wind at my back. About two hundred yards to my left two men ran side by side. They were farm labourers who had been repairing the fence along the field's southern edge where it skirts the road. The same distance beyond them was the motorist, John Logan, whose car was banked on the grass verge with its door, or doors, wide open. Knowing what I know now, it's odd to evoke the figure of Jed Parry directly ahead of me, emerging from a line of beeches on the far side of the field a quarter of a mile away, running into the wind. To the buzzard Parry and I were tiny forms, our white shirts brilliant against the green, rushing towards each other like lovers, innocent of the grief this entanglement would bring. The encounter that would unhinge us was minutes away, its enormity disguised from us not only by the barrier of time but by the colossus in the centre of the field that drew us in with the power of a terrible ratio that set fabulous magnitude against the puny human distress at its base.
What was Clarissa doing? She said she walked quickly towards the centre of the field. I don't know how she resisted the urge to run. By the time it happened - the event I am about to describe, the fall - she had almost caught us up and was well placed as an observer, unencumbered by participation, by the ropes and the shouting, and by our fatal lack of co-operation. What I describe is shaped by what Clarissa saw too, by what we told each other in the time of obsessive re-examination that followed: the aftermath, an appropriate term for what happened in a field waiting for its early summer mowing. The aftermath, the second crop, the growth promoted by that first cut in May.
I'm holding back, delaying the information. I'm lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible; the convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard's perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace. I linger on our dispositions, the relative distances and the compass point - because as far as these occurrences were concerned, this was the last time I understood anything clearly at all.
What were we running towards? I don't think any of us would ever know fully. But superficially the answer was, a balloon. Not the nominal space that encloses a cartoon character's speech or thought, or, by analogy, the kind that's driven by mere hot air. It was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and all our thoughts.
We were running towards a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.
! `Enduring Love' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99) is out now. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 13.99 (including p&p); call the TBS credit-card line on 01621 819596, citing this offer.
Anne Michaels, who lives in Toronto, is the author of two collections of poetry, The Weight of Oranges, which won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas, and Miner's Pond, which won the Canadian Authors Association Award. Fugitive Pieces is her first novel.
TIME is a blind guide.
Bog-boy, I surfaced into the miry streets of the drowned city. For over a thousand years, only fish wandered Biskupin's wooden sidewalks. Houses, built to face the sun, were flooded by the silty gloom of the Gasawka River. Gardens grew luxurious in subaqueous silence; lilies, rushes, stinkweed.
No one is born just once. If you're lucky, you'll emerge again in someone's arms; or unlucky, wake when the long tail of terror brushes the inside of your skull.
I squirmed from the marshy ground like Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, like the boy they uprooted in the middle of Franz Josef Street while they were repairing the road, six hundred cockleshell beads around his neck, a helmet of mud. Dripping with the prune- coloured juices of the peat-sweating bog. Afterbirth of earth.
I saw a man kneeling in the acid-steeped ground. He was digging. My sudden appearance unnerved him. For a moment he thought I was one of Biskupin's lost souls, or perhaps the boy in the story, who digs a hole so deep he emerges on the other side of the world.
BISKUPIN had been carefully excavated for almost a decade. Archaeologists gently continued to remove Stone and Iron Age relics from soft brown pockets of peat. The pure oak causeway that once connected Biskupin to the mainland had been reconstructed, as well as the ingenious nail-less wooden houses, ramparts, and the high-towered city gates. Wooden streets, crowded twenty- five centuries before with traders and craftsmen, were being raised from the swampy lake bottom. When the soldiers arrived they examined the perfectly preserved clay bowls; they held the glass beads, the bronze and amber bracelets, before smashing them on the floor. With delighted strides, they roamed the magnificent timber city, once home to a hundred families. Then the soldiers buried Biskupin in sand.
MY SISTER had long outgrown the hiding place. Bella was fifteen and even I admitted she was beautiful, with heavy brows and magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back. "A work of art," our mother said, brushing it for her while Bella sat in a chair. I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard, cramming my head sideways between choking plaster and beams, eyelashes scraping.
Since those minutes inside the wall, I've imagined that the dead lose every sense except hearing.
The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father's mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth.
BLACKNESS filled me, spread from the back of my head into my eyes as if my brain had been punctured. Spread from stomach to legs. I gulped and gulped, swallowing it whole. The wall filled with smoke. I struggled out and stared while the air caught fire.
I wanted to go to my parents, to touch them. But I couldn't, unless I stepped on their blood.
The soul leaves the body instantly, as if it can hardly wait to be free: my mother's face was not her own. My father was twisted with falling. Two shapes in the flesh-heap, his hands.
I RAN and fell, ran and fell. Then the river: so cold it felt sharp.
The river was the same blackness that was inside me; only the thin membrane of my skin kept me floating.
From the other bank, I watched darkness turn to purple-orange light above the town; the colour of flesh transforming to spirit. They flew up. The dead passed above me, weird haloes and arcs smothering the stars. The trees bent under their weight. I'd never been alone in the night forest, the wild bare branches were frozen snakes. The ground tilted and I didn't hold on. I strained to join them, to rise with them, to peel from the ground like paper ungluing at its edges.
! `Fugitive Pieces' (Bloomsbury, pounds 10) is out now. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 8 (including p&p); call the sales department on 0171 494 2111 citing this offer.
BERNARD MAC LAVERTY
Bernard Mac Laverty is the author of the acclaimed novels Lamb and Cal as well as several collections of short-stories, including Walking the Dog. A native of Northern Ireland, he now lives in Glasgow.
SHE WENT down the front steps and walked along the street to the main road. At this hour of the morning there was little or no traffic. If there was a car, then it sounded just like that - a car going past in the wet - there was no other city noise. It was still dark and the street lights were reflected on the road surface. She tucked her hair back and put her collar up as far as it would go. The raincoat was creased as if it had just been unpacked. She made her way to the bus station on foot carrying a small hold-all.
She was early at the airport stance and walked up and down the concrete pavement. It was lined and felt, through the soles of her shoes, like hard sand close to the water's edge. It was a way of not thinking - to concentrate on her surroundings. Somewhere a man was whistling - at least she assumed it was a man. Women rarely whistled.
In the bus she chose a place towards the back and put her knees up against the seat in front of her. The bus was empty and warm. She watched the chrome seat rails vibrate in unison as the engine idled. If she stared at things, then it helped block out stuff. Like Anna. She did not dare think about that. Two people got on. She noticed that her fists were clenched and she consciously relaxed them, turned her hands palm upwards on her lap to see if it would make a difference.
On the motorway they drove towards the January dawn, a sky of yellow light and dark cloud. Then as the bus careered through the rain and spray thrown up by the growing traffic, at seventy miles an hour, she began to cry. It came over her and she just let it happen. She tried to make as little noise as possible but the others on the bus heard her and looked round. It helped her to stop when she saw her distorted face reflected in the window. She had done it before - used the bathroom mirror in the same way. You just looked so awful, you stopped.
In the airport she bought her tickets with the money Peter and Liz had lent her. She sat in the middle of the concourse trying to think of nothing, trying not to listen to the airport chimes, the flight announcements. People walked around her but she did not look up. She continued to stare at her feet. She was wearing brown court shoes and denim jeans. Somehow talcum powder had got on to her left shoe and dulled the leather. She wondered how it had survived the rain.
At one side of the lounge men were building a staircase, hammering incessantly. Somebody was sawing wood by hand - better than the scream of a power-saw. She thought the sound nostalgic - like the hee-haw of a donkey. Somewhere a baby was crying. It was very young - a week, maybe two. The exhalation of each cry seemed infinitely long. She did not dare to think of babies.
She needed the toilet. Beside the sign for LADIES and GENTS was one for a BABY CHANGING ROOM. If only it was as easy as that. "Don't particularly like this baby, would you mind changing it?" Afterwards, washing her hands, she looked in the mirror and saw her eyes puffy with crying.
An airport was the place for such things. People meeting and people parting. Tears of one sort or another. Some things were too painful. Offspring and what they did to you.
Everybody said she took after her father. The urge to cry came over her again but this time, facing herself in the mirror, she controlled it. She wondered what it would be like to face the mirror in a moment of joy. But this seemed such an impossibility. She took one of her red and grey capsules and washed it down, gulp-swallowing water sipped from the arc of a drinking fountain.
Outside the toilets school parties from France and Germany stood in stiff groups photographing themselves. They talked loudly without removing their Walkmans. Their headsets sizzled and tished. Two policemen went past in shirtsleeves - one hugging a machine-gun close to his chest.
Her flight was called and she went through Security and then through Special Security for those people travelling to Northern Ireland. The body search the uniformed woman gave her was close to being offensive. Breasts and buttocks flicked by her touch. A Special Branch policeman looked at her ticket.
"The reason for your trip?"
"I'm going home."
"Business or pleasure?"
He looked at her, his fingers playing with the ticket. "For what reason?"
! `Grace Notes' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99) is out now. Copies are available to `IoS' readers for the special price of pounds 12.99 (including p&p); call the TBS credit-card line on 01621 819596, citing this offer. 1969 P H Newby Something to Answer For 1970 Bernice Rubens The Elected Member 1971 VS Naipaul In a Free State 1972 John Berger G 1973 J G Farrell The Siege of Krishnapur 1974 Nadine Gordimer The Conservationist Stanley Middleton Holiday 1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Heat and Dust 1976 David Storey Saville 1977 Paul Scott Staying On 1978 Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea 1979 Penelope Fitzgerald Offshore 1980 William Golding Rites of Passage 1981 Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children 1982 Thomas Keneally Schindler's Ark 1983 J M Coetzee Life and Times of Michael K 1984 Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac 1985 Keri Hulme The Bone People 1986 Kingsley Amis The Old Devils 1987 Penelope Lively Moon Tiger 1988 Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda 1989 Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day 1990 A S Byatt Possession 1991 Ben Okri The Famished Road 1992 Michael Ondaatje The English Patient Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger 1993 Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha 1994 James Kelman How Late It Was, How Late 1995 Pat Barker The Ghost Road 1996 Graham Swift Last OrdersReuse content