I had been trying to purchase a copy of the inaugural Booker Winner for a number of years, with not a lot of success. First editions, mint condition etc. were available for hugely inflated prices and it wasn’t until Faber and Faber recently re-released it in paperback that I was able to obtain a copy.
Let’s flashback to 1969 – a cursory glance at the internet will show you it was a time when man first walked on the moon, massive public rallies against the Vietnam War were being held, 300,000 people turn up to witness Woodstock etc etc. A period where the USA was dominating world headlines. So what about the British “Empire”? They managed to set up this quaint Literature prize for “any full-length novel, written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland or Zimbabwe” with only living authors, who have written their novel in English being eligible. I must admit, since that time, they’ve done a wonderful job of promoting the Prize, creating controversy, pushing for headlines, attracting grand statements like “The prize has established itself as a British institution rather like Derby Day”.
Was 1969 a time when the British were attempting to assert their fading influence? Voila, let me pull a rabbit out of my hat, let’s create a literary institution!
How ironic that then that the first ever Booker Prize winner is a novel that through pathos, black comedy and farce questions the relevance of the Commonwealth. This ridiculous concept of “self”, of being “British”, of still maintaining an influence in world affairs is questioned throughout P.H. Newby’s hard to source and until recent times a forgotten novel.
In 1969 the immediacy of the 1956 Suez Canal conflict would still have been understood by a vast majority of the British public. Whilst the enjoyment of this tale does not require you to research the events of the crisis, assistance, in 2011, to understand a few more of the idiosyncrasies of the story is probably recommended.
In 1951 the British had 80,000 troops stationed along the Suez Canal, making it the largest military base in the world. According to historylearningsite.co.uk “to many in Britain the Suez Canal was a sign of Britain’s overseas power – to many Egyptians it was an emblem of an empire that harkened back to former times that many believed should have gone when World War Two ended.” What a magnificent setting for a novel that was eligible for a Commonwealth Writers Prize!
Onto “For Something to Answer For” itself, in a nut-shell, the narrative presented is about Townrow, a defrauding employee of a Trustee Company who is asked to go to Port Said by a widow, “Mrs K”, to help her deal with the recent death of her husband and Townrow’s friend Elie. On his journey Townrow comes across an enraged Jew who blames the British Government for not warning them of the dangers of the Nazi death trains,
At no time did the BBC warn us about those trains. It is useless to deny it. Why was there no warning? We Jews did not know. We were told the men went to Germany to work in factories and on the land. Why did the British not say, ‘Stay away from those trains. Do not go on those trains. They are death trains. They will take you to extermination camps’?
this event becomes a recurring theme. Early on Townrow is mysteriously hit on the head and the whole novel becomes a haze of events. Is Townrow dreaming, are the events occurring, is he British or Irish, has he imagined a funeral for his friend at sea, did he meet his friend in the Arab part of town, did his love interest really disappear at the Greek Sailing Club, the themes are endless and recur with different results throughout.
You couldn’t answer for anything outside your own personal experience. And if you remembered your own experiences wrongly you didn’t count at all. You weren’t human.
Throughout the Booker Prize history a large number of winners and shortlisted novels have dealt with the theme of displacement, Naipaul, Rushdie, Zadie Smith, even this year’s “Pigeon English”, and the 1969 winner “Something to Answer For” also has the theme (somewhat in reverse with a Commonwealth subject being out of place in Egypt).
Scarcely knowing what he was doing or where he was walking he must have been looking straight into the sun because he was so dazzled enormous patches of black shadow seemed to hang across the brilliant morning. They were so black there might have been annihilation behind what they covered. The city hung in strips and patches. That was how he saw his own life.
At one stage reference is made to Victor Hugo’s “Toilers of the Sea” – a tale of displacement, sailors, unrequited love, desolation and ultimately shattered dreams. Is P.H. Newby throwing out bait here? Will the tale of Townrow end with a similar fate? No spoiler alerts here, so you’ll have to read “Something to Answer For” to see if there is a shared theme.
In summary this novel presented me with a number of challenges and to be honest it was a struggle to understand the dream like hazy state, the recurring themes with different twists each time, the relevance of characters and their fates. All up this was not one of my favourite reads from the Booker winners, and to be honest, sitting here in 2011, it is probably not even the one I would have chosen from the 1969 list to win the prize.
Enjoyable but no stand out – and, given this year’s “controversy”, one that would never have made the 2011 shortlist of “readable” works.