A slap in the face for the small-minded world of Anglo-American literature

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The Independent Online

So our parochial fears were unfounded. Informed opinion has foretold that any international extension of the Man Booker Prize would merely ensure that the Americans always won and the British never did. Instead, some guy hardly anyone has heard of has won it, from a country that no one ever even visits.

So our parochial fears were unfounded. Informed opinion has foretold that any international extension of the Man Booker Prize would merely ensure that the Americans always won and the British never did. Instead, some guy hardly anyone has heard of has won it, from a country that no one ever even visits.

It's true enough that this cavil was aimed only at the proposition that qualification for the prize we all cherish so deeply should be extended only to all books written in English. But still the news that the inaugural international accolade has been won by Ismail Kadare, an Albanian, has emphasised just how petty and self-absorbed Anglo-American culture really is.

It's not even as if the English-speaking writers were under-represented on the shortlist. It included Philip Roth, John Updike, Muriel Spark, Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood. All these writers are voraciously read by literature junkies because they tell us so much about those people we all think we know so well: ourselves.

One great thing about the international Booker this year is that it will serve bookish consumers well by giving us a whole new backlist to demolish. Another is that it will give us a whole new sensibility to absorb. My hunch is that judges were as entranced by this aspect of their encounter with Kadare as they were by the sheer quality of his prose. Whatever the reason, they've done their job in establishing the intellectual credentials of the award.

Now the only worry is that the Anglo-American grunt wrestlers who are needed to hype up the prize and engage the hysteria of the media will lose interest in it because it's not about them and their pals any more. Oh dear. Better hope for a mighty American for the top slot next year ... maybe one with a touch of the demagogue ... sexy back story, photogenic, no stranger to controversy. Or maybe just Bret Easton Ellis on the long-list.

Having just read the new Bret Easton Ellis, I can confirm that he's unlikely to win prizes for his literature, let alone the Booker. Lunar Park's narrator is a fictional character known as Bret Easton Ellis, who is being stalked by a serial killer called Patrick Bateman (a chap familiar to readers of American Psycho). "Every word of the book you hold in your hand is absolutely true," says the cover.

So is this non-fiction? No, once again it simply indicates that the reader isn't sure when the cultural commentary stops and the satirical fantasy begins. Legions of fans - like me - find this stuff a perfect reflection of the modern condition. But for the defenders of literature's traditional forms, it renders the work non-fiction, not because it's non-fiction, but in just the same way that international law renders a refugee a non-person. The final paradox is that Ellis would be the first to confirm that this is indeed the status of the man the world knows. And that that's the way he likes it.

After years of research, all scientists can come up with is 'maybe'

What is it with science? Why is it always so inexact? For generations Europeans have placed their faith in its impartiality and its logic, so much so that that our established religions are now ridiculed for their non-adherence to the belief that the universe is governed by physical rules.

Yet the assertions of most areas of scientific research are portrayed as debatable as religious faith itself. Increasingly, this is causing a loss of faith in the idea that the physical world, and the interventions that man-made science makes in it, can be trusted, with a consequent rejection of good sense, decent practice and even the ability to admit that some wisdom is universal rather than partial.

Dangers and discoveries are announced so many times and under so many guises that they might as well be Labour spending plans. Yesterday we were regaled with the news that pesticides damage male fertility. Hello! Haven't we been perfectly aware of this for at least a decade?

Then there was the rather more ancient news that living next to power cables causes a rise in incidences of cancer. But I distinctly remember sitting watching a television documentary that appeared to confirm this during the Eighties. I'm amazed that this discussion is still going on. Wouldn't it have been logical to have decided back then to try to nail this down?

Apparently not. There's presumably not much cash in ascertaining that electricity can cause cancer. So tiny studies are still limping along coming up with inconclusive data. Even this latest study, funded by the childhood cancer research group at the University of Oxford, is described even by its leader Gerald Draper as "incomplete". One of the ways in which the whole field is "incomplete" is in the way that science has been unable to find an interplay between power line and flesh that shows exactly why children living within 200 metres of the cables have a 70 per cent increased risk of leukaemia.

A co-author of the latest report, John Swanson, who is also an adviser to National Grid Transco, explains: "The findings strongly suggest something is happening but leave open what that something is. I tend to the view that it is some characteristic of the populations that the power lines pass through." Which sounds a bit like Calvinism, only more vague. Carry on as normal, folks, because there's nothing you can do if you're not one of the chosen ones.

Sound of the suburbs

To say that the first series of Desperate Housewives had "ended" would not be altogether true. This week the show reached its climax, with two episodes in one night screened for the convenience of those housewives desperate to get the ironing done while mildly distracted. (Burn calories while you're watching TV! This is how French housewives stay slim!) But far from providing resolution, the final episode was merely a trailer for the next series, providing all the narrative satisfaction that such speculative marketing exercises usually do. I mean, like, none.

Still, that's the strange fascination of the show. It's not the exploration of the darkness of suburbia that it advertises itself as being. Instead, it is more of a non-exploration of the lack of fulfilment that a life dominated by domestic competition with the neighbours entails.

The focus of public interest in Desperate Housewives seemed to have been their clothing, their weight and their anti-ageing regimes. The actresses themselves are rumoured to be as covertly jealous and competitive as the characters they play. The irony is that it is allowing their personal worlds to shrink so small that makes many of the sort of housewives portrayed in the series so desperate in the first place.

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