The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have been announced, the Awards are held annually with the winners for each category being announced on 16 May 2022 as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
With numerous categories I’ll head straight into the shortlists.
The Christina Stead Prize ($40,000) for Fiction.
Tony Birch for ‘Dark as Last Night’ Merlinda Bobis for ‘The Kindness of Birds’ Katherine Brabon for ‘The Shut Ins’ John Hughes for ‘The Dogs’ John Kinsella for ‘Pushing Back’ Claire Thomas for ‘The Performance’
The UTS Glenda Adams Award ($5,000) for New Writing (writer has not previously had a published book length work)
Ella Baxter for ‘The New Animal’ Kavita Bedford for ‘Friends & Dark Shapes’ Stuart Everly-Wilson for ‘Low Expectations’ Angela O’Keefe for ‘Night Blue’ Monica Raszewski for ‘The Archaeology of a Dream City’ Chloe Wilson for ‘Hold Your Fire’
The Douglas Stewart Prize ($40,000) for Non-Fiction
Bernadette Brennan for ‘Leaping Into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears’ Veronica Gorrie for ‘Black and Blue: a memoir of racism and resilience’ Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’ Kate Holden for ‘The Winter Road: A story of Legacy, Land and a Killing at Croppa Creek’ Brendan James Murray for ‘The School: The ups and downs of one year in the classroom’ Mark Willacy for ‘Rogue Forces’
The Kenneth Slessor Prize ($30,000) for Poetry
Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’ Evelyn Araluen for ‘Drop Bear’ Eileen Chong for ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’ Dan Disney for ‘accelerations & inertias’ John Kinsella for ‘Supervivid Depastoralism’ Bella Li for ‘Theory of Colours’
The Patricia Wrightson Prize ($30,000) for Children’s Literature
Philip Bunting for ‘Me, Microbes and I’ Peter Carnavas for ‘My Brother Ben’ Christopher Cheng & Stephen Michael King for ‘Bear and Rat’ Karen Foxlee for ‘Dragon Skin’ Morris Gleitzman for ‘Always’ Kirli Saunders for ‘Bindi’
The Ethel Turner Prize ($30,000) for Young People’s Literature
Kathryn Barker for ‘Waking Romeo’ Felicity Castagna for ‘Girls in Boys’ Cars’ Leanne Hall for ‘The Gaps’ Pip Harry for ‘Are you there, Buddah?’ Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’ Rhiannon Wilde for ‘Henry Hamlet’s Heart’
The Nick Enright Prize ($30,000) for Playwriting
Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’ James Elazzi for ‘Queen Fatima’ Elias Jamieson Brown for ‘Green Park’ Finegan Kruckemeyer for ‘Hibernation’ Kirsty Marillier for ‘Orange Thrower’ Ian Michael, Chris Isaacs for ‘York’
The Betty Roland Prize ($30,000) for Scriptwriting
Shaun Grant for ‘Nitram’ Alec Morgantiriki Onus for ‘Ablaze’ Kelsey Munro for ‘Bump Episode 10 ‘Matrescence’ Season 1’ Leah Purcell for ‘The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson’
The Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000)
Randa Abdel-Fattah for ‘Coming of Age in the War on Terror’ Safdar Ahmed for ‘Still Alive’ Eunice Andrada for ‘Take Care’ Kodie Bedford for ‘Cursed!’ Amani Haydar for ‘The Mother Wound’ Rebecca Lim for ‘Tiger Daughter’
The NSW Premier’s Translation Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award
The award will next be offered in 2023.
The Indigenous Writers’ Prize ($30,000) – a biennial award
Larissa Behrendt for ‘After Story’ Lisa Fuller for ‘Ghost Bird’ Anita Heiss for ‘Bila Yarrudhangglangdhuray; River of Dreams’ Terri Janke for ‘True Tracks’ Gary Lonesborough for ‘The Boy From the Mish’ Alf Taylor for ‘God, the Devil and Me’
There are also awards for “People’s Choice” (Only taken from the Fiction Award list), “Book of the Year” and a “Special Award”.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (“EBRD”) Literature Prize was created in 2017 and is awarded to the year’s “best work of literary fiction”, translated into English, from the Bank’s countries of operations, and published by a UK publisher.
There is a €20,000 prize which is split equally between the author and translator. The two runners-up and their translators receive a prize of €4,000 each.
2018 – ‘Istanbul, Istanbul’ by the Turkish author Burhan Sönmez and his translator Ümit Hussein.
2019 – ‘The Devils’ Dance’ by Hamid Ismailov and translated from Uzbek by Donald Rayfield (with John Farndon)
2020 – ‘Devilspel’ by Grigory Kanovich and translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen
2021 – ‘The King of Warsaw’ by writer Szczepan Twardoch and translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye
The judges for the 2022 Prize are Toby Lichtig (Chair), the Fiction and Politics Editor of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), Alex Clark, critic, journalist and broadcaster, Boris Dralyuk, literary translator, poet and the Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dr Kathryn Murphy, literary critic and scholar who reviews Czech literature for the TLS.
The shortlisted titles for 2022, in alphabetical order by author, were announced yesterday (summaries are taken from publisher’s websites):
‘Doctor Bianco and Other Stories’ by Maciek Bielawski, translated by Scotia Gilroy (Terra Librorum Ltd). Language: Polish. Country: Poland.
A postman who develops close friendships with everyone on his postal route, an old man who stops buying the coal he needs to heat his flat so he can afford Christmas presents for his granddaughters, a senile old Holocaust survivor who’s suspicious of almost all her neighbours, two young sisters who are fed up with their baby brother, and an old woman squabbling with her tailor while a suit is being sewn for her to wear at her own funeral these are just some of the intriguing characters we meet in Doctor Bianco and Other Stories. Written in terse, spare, unaffected prose devoid of sentimentality, the nineteen stories in this collection gradually reveal the portraits of various people inhabiting one particular apartment building in an unspecified town. The gritty, harsh realities faced by Bielawski’s protagonists are at times darkly funny and other times gut-wrenchingly sad. Bielawski sets up a magnifying glass on a small corner of Polish life and allows us to glimpse fascinating, surreal scenes from a tangle of human lives whose heartbreak, despair and various anxieties might feel surprisingly familiar to readers from any walk of life.
‘Birds of Verhovina’ by Adam Bodor, translated by Peter Sherwood (Jantar Publishing Ltd). Language: Hungarian. Country: Hungary.
Home to nine hot springs, Verhovina used to be rich in natural beauty, yet it has become a wasteland, with only a few dozen inhabitants left. Trains to Verhovina are scarce; the timetable was cancelled. One day, even the birds disappeared from the region!
The reader arrives in Ádám Bodor’s world, the periphery of civilisation, at the break of dawn. Adam, the foster son of Brigadier Anatol Korkodus is waiting at the dilapidated station for a boy who is arriving from a reform school. Soon afterwards, Korkodus is arrested, for unfathomable reasons. Yet this decaying and sinister world is not devoid of a certain joie de vivre: people eat gourmet dishes, point out their interlocutor’s hidden motives with incredibly dark humour and enjoy the region’s stunning natural beauty.
‘The Book of Katerina’ by Auguste Corteau, translated by Claire Papamichail (Parthian Books). Language: Greek. Country: Greece.
My name is Katerina, and I died by a route dark and lonely, for there was too much in me I could bear no longer.
In this acclaimed Greek novel, Auguste Corteau imagines his own mother’s inner life, observing with wit and earthy humour the saga of her extended family’s ups and downs in the city of Thessaloniki over three generations.
From the poverty of the early years through to affluence and aspirations of grandeur, Katerina drags her husband and son into the chaos of her life: sicknesses are hidden, siblings fight for love and attention while feckless husbands and unwanted children are riven through the family story.
‘Red Crosses’ by Sasha Filipenko, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner (Europa Editions UK). Language: Russian. Country: Belarus.
Sasha Filipenko traces the arc of Russian history from Stalin’s terror to the present day, in a novel full of heart and humanity.
One struggles not to forget, while the other would like nothing better. Tatiana Alexeyevna is an old woman, over ninety, rich in lived experience, and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Every day, she loses a few more of her irreplaceable memories. Alexander is a young man whose life has been brutally torn in two.
Tatiana tells her young neighbor her life story, a story that encompasses the entire Russian 20th century with all its horrors and hard-won humanity.
Little by little, the old woman and the young man forge an unlikely friendship and make a pact against forgetting.
‘City of Torment’ by Daniela Hodrova, translated by Veronique Firkusny and Elena Sokol (Jantar Publishing Ltd). Language: Czech. Country: Czech Republic.
An intoxicating, personal journey through 1,000 years of European culture where history’s losers bite back.
City of Torment is, on one level, a family and generational novel, conveyed through the complex voice of a first-person female narrator whose subjectivity becomes elaborately intertwined with the main protagonist, Eliška Beránková (Lamb). Eliška/Daniela is searching above all for her dead father, but also for her dead mother and ultimately for herself. At the same time, on a more abstract level, Hodrová introduces a feminine structural dimension to a theme especially prevalent in 20th-century prose – the novel as a self-conscious genre, openly exploring the relationship of the author to her text. Hodrová’s trilogy represents a distinct contemporary Czech voice in women’s experimental writing, a genre first introduced to anglophone readers by Virginia Woolf.
‘Manaschi’ by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Donald Rayfield (Tilted Axis Press). Language: Uzbek. Country: Uzbekistan.
A radio presenter interprets one of his dreams as an initiation by the world of spirits into the role of a Manaschi, a Kyrgyz bard and shaman who recites and performs the epic poem, Manas, and is revered as someone connected with supernatural forces. Travelling to his native mountainous village, populated by Tajiks and Kyrgyz, and unravelling his personal and national history, our hero Bekesh instead witnesses a full re-enactment of the epic’s wrath.
‘Boat Number Five’ by Monika Kompaníková, translated by Janet Livingstone (Seagull Books). Language: Slovak. Country: Slovak Republic.
Emotionally neglected by her immature, promiscuous mother and made to care for her cantankerous dying grandmother, twelve-year-old Jarka is left to fend for herself in the social vacuum of a post-communist concrete apartment-block jungle in Bratislava, Slovakia. She spends her days roaming the streets and daydreaming in the only place she feels safe: a small garden inherited from her grandfather. One day, on her way to the garden, she stops at a suburban railway station and impulsively abducts twin babies. Jarka teeters on the edge of disaster, and while struggling to care for the babies, she discovers herself. With a vivid and unapologetic eye, Monika Kompaníková captures the universal quest for genuine human relationships amid the emptiness and ache of post-communist Europe.
‘Karolina, or the Torn Curtain’ by Maryla Szymiczkowa (Jacek Dehnel/ Piotr Tarczynski), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Oneworld Publications). Language: Polish. Country: Poland.
The biggest event in the Catholic calendar is a disaster in Zofia Turbotyńska’s household. Her maid Karolina has handed in her notice and worse, gone missing. When Karolina’s body is discovered, violated and stabbed, Zofia knows she has to investigate.
Following a trail that leads her from the poorest districts of Galicia to the highest echelons of society, Zofia uncovers a web of gang crimes, sex-trafficking and corruption that will force her to question everything she knows.
Set against the backdrop of the women’s cause, Karolina, or the Torn Curtain refuses to turn a blind eye to the injustices and inequalities of its era – and ours.
‘Just the Plague’ by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon (Granta). Language: Russian. Country: Russian Federation
A gripping novel based on real events in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s, written in the late 1970s and rediscovered by the author during lockdown.
‘The Orphanage’ by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Issac Stackhouse Wheeler (Yale University Press). Language: Ukrainian. Country: Ukraine.
If every war needs its master chronicler, Ukraine has Serhiy Zhadan, one of Europe’s most promising novelists. Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms, The Orphanage is a searing novel that excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home.
Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.
NOTE – This looks more like the longlist than the shortlist, however I am following the official website’s language. For more information on the Prize visit the official website here.
The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016. Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.
The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.
Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).
“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.
On 10 February 2022, the shortlist for the 2022 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the Rathbones Folio Prize website.
A Black British woman is preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family estate, set deep in the English countryside. At the same time, she is considering the carefully assembled pieces of herself.
Damon Galgut, The Promise
This novel charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The family is gathering for Ma’s funeral; the younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for – not least the failed promise to the family’s black maid.
Selima Hill, Men Who Feed Pigeons
This collection brings together seven contrasting but complementary poem sequences all relating to men and different kinds of women’s relationships with men.
Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale
In this illuminating exploration of the intersection between life, art and the sea, Philip Hoare sets out to discover why Albert Dürer’s art endures. In encounters with medieval alchemists, modernist poets, eccentric emperors, queer soul rebels and ambassadorial whales these explorations provoke awkward questions: what is natural or unnatural? Is art a fatal contract? Or does it in fact have the power to save us?
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These
In 1985, in an Irish town, Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, faces his busiest season. As he does the rounds, he encounters the complicit silences of a people controlled by the Church.
Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms
Bridget is in her early forties. She sees her mother, Helen (Hen), once a year, an arrangement that suits them both. But what is this relationship that feels to Bridget mostly performative? Is Bridget cruel to Hen, or is she merely rational? Is it possible for these two women to find peace with one another without acknowledging the truth of it, without reckoning with the past?
Sunjeev Sahota, China Room
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. This is a heart-stopping story of love, family, survival and betrayal from a prize-winning author.
Colm Toibin, The Magician
The Magician is at once the intimate portrait of a writer and, at the same time, the story of a turbulent century. It tells the story of Thomas Mann, who would find himself on the wrong side of history in WW1; would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity.
The 2022 judges are Tessa Hadley (Chair), writer of short stories and novels, Rachel Long poet and founder of the Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour and William Atkins, non-fiction writer. Tessa Hadley saying at the shortlist announcement; “We’re so excited by our shortlist for the Rathbones Folio Prize this year. Our eight books were chosen from a fairly dazzling longlist of twenty; so many good books, prose fiction and poetry and non-fiction – so difficult to weigh one against another. There were just a few books that had seized us from the first page and hadn’t let us down until the last, and then seemed even richer and larger on a second reading.”
The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced on 23 March 2022.
Carmen Maria Machado won the 2021 prize for her memoir of domestic abuse in a female relationship ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) becoming the second female to win the award after Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli won the award in 2020 for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate).
The Booker prize arguably Britain’s preeminent literary prize, well it was until at least 2013 when they changed the rules, removing the eligibility restrictions for writers of the Commonwealth, Ireland and South Africa and allowing any writer in English to win the award. When the Booker changed the rules other awards sprung up, for example the Folio Prize, the idea for the prize came into being when a group of British intellectuals “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking – they saw it leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction.”
Whilst the Folio Prize arrived with much fanfare, after two years it was put on hold, a year later it was revived with halved prizemoney and amended rules to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry, prizemoney was increased again (to 75% of the 2014 sum) in 2019.
Also, in 2013 the Goldsmiths Prize was established, to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Entry is limited to citizens and residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to novels published by presses based in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Whilst prizemoney (£10,000) is only a fraction of the prizes on offer for the Booker (£50,000) and the Rathbones Folio (£30,000) Prizes, it is an award where the riches of challenging or pertinent literature is on show.
The 2021 Goldsmiths Prize winner was ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner, a novel that opens with our protagonist, Sterling, being assailed by bullfighters, the matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.” This is a work that looks at people on the fringes, an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ was rightfully awarded the prize. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in one of the referenced paintings says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.
Reclamation is a theme that, to varying degrees, runs through three other titles that made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
Compulsive picking or scratching of the skin is known as excoriation disorder and this is generally considered a mental disorder and can be associated with anxiety, depression or uncontrolled urges. Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’ is set over the course of a single day and follows a young woman living with the fallout of being sexually assaulted. Our protagonist is attempting to reclaim their life prior to being raped. When her anxiety is dialled up to TEN she scratches, just a little scratch.
The novel is written as though you are examining all of the thoughts inside of the protagonist’s head, it includes the monotony of simple tasks such as going to the toilet, drinking water, cycling, texting, reading emails, alongside making small talk with work colleagues and her partner, with the lurking monster of rape interrupting every so often. This is a visual as well as a rhythmic and scattered novel, almost akin to blank verse the page is peppered with blank spaces as her mind slows down or sped up and the page becomes cluttered, or split into columns to signify concurrent thoughts or interruptions.
This is an extremely effective approach, the overlapping of thoughts and the sense of being overwhelmed punching though the day to day mundane. In a recent interview Rebecca Watson says “With ‘little scratch’, the rhythm propels you on. You’re encouraged to read it fast, skipping across and down the page. The challenge is to inhabit the head of another person, and in present tense, you don’t have time to stop and start, to pause over a thought that has already been replaced by another.” It is a book that lends itself to reading in a single sitting or over the course of a single day. Innovative, fresh and extremely effective at relaying the trauma of sexual assault, I was captured from the opening page. A revelation.
Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel ‘Checkout 19’ also includes rape trauma:
‘Hello,’ I will say, in my voice more or less, and it will be Dale’s voice I hear back and Dale will say without preamble at all, ‘When you came back from Brighton last year I raped you didn’t I?’ And then there will be a pause and I’ll cagily move some letters around on the floor near the front door with the toes on my left foot and then I will look up at a dark cobweb in the coving and I’ll hear my voice say to Dale, ‘If you’re asking me did you have sex with me when I didn’t want you to then yes the answer’s yes Dale,’ and Dale will curse, Dale will say ‘fuck, fuck,’ and I’ll her him saying things about how I’d already been treated so abysmally and how angry that had made him and how he couldn’t bear it the way I’d been treated so badly by the most disgusting arrogant men and yet it turned out that he was worse, worse than all of them put together, and he’ll sound very emotional and I won’t feel emotional at all, I’ll feel embarrassed, and I’ll say ‘Perhaps I bring out the worst in men’ and I’ll be joking actually but then it will be a notion that occurs to me frequently and persuasively for the next fifteen years or so and Dale will tell me how awful he feels, how awful it’s been, and I’ll say, I’ll say to poor Dale, ‘Look Dale don’t dwell on it, I don’t, I hardly ever think of it – I think it’s OK,’ and he won’t say anything and I’ve wondered since if somewhere in him he hated me for saying that because if he had behaved worse than those men he had castigated and tried to keep me away from, if he had done the worst possible thing yet still hadn’t managed to get under my skin, what did that mean, what on earth did that mean exactly. I hadn’t so much absolved him as obliterated him. I should have cried perhaps. I ought to have cried really.
The content, style, approach opposite to Rebecca Watson’s. Long winding sentences, auto-fiction but possibly simply fiction that switches tenses, that is speculative (the phone call and discussion above could well be imagined as it is a response to a phone ringing that nobody else in the shared house had answered). ‘Checkout 19’ is a detailed examination of a reader and writer’s life, memories of the books read, one at a time, the events that happened whilst reading those books, memories of clothes picked up in Op shops, along with books, the writing of stories, and rewriting (do the original writings exist?), the novel is a blur inside somebody else’s head. If I was to attempt a definition of the main narrative, it is a writer revisiting her memories to make sense of her identity. However she’s an unreliable narrator, the narratives become sub narratives which become the narrative which loops off into a different sub narrative. Similar to ‘little scratch’ in that we are inside an unnamed protagonist’s head, this work is more complex, cluttered. A collection of memories that may be linked, if only because they happened to one person.
Deeply indebted to a raft of classic novels, where Claire-Louise Bennett may deftly refer or deeply imagine, for example our protagonist reads E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room With A View’, travels to Italy and stands on the banks of the River Arno, other references are fleeting:
I had not yet read but have done since the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz and though I had red many novels by Milan Kundera I had not yet read his gallant essays in Testaments Betrayed which I read with a great deal of pleasure some years later and which might have put me on to Gombrowicz, as well as Calvino perhaps, and definitely Fernando Pessoa. I had not read any Hofmannsthal or Handke, or Goethe, or Robert Walser. I had read Death in Venice. One of the first serious works I read was The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and I got that from the library and it was a very big book and I read it during that week or so when my bedroom was being painted and I slept in the spare room on a sofa bed. I really liked sleeping on the sofa bed even though I found it more difficult to get up in the morning when I slept in it, probably because of it being so low down, and I preferred that room to my own, even though ti was much smaller. I’ve always preferred to go to sleep in a small room.
And off goes the sub narrative about room size! A novel where our protagonist is searching for her identity, where there are no conclusions, just statements and linkages, a looping innovative work, one that kept me entranced throughout.
A third work from the shortlist that also explores identity is the short novella ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown. Here we have another unnamed narrator, a black female mid tier employee at a large financial services company.
She often sat in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room and stared at the door. She’d sit for an entire lunch break, sometimes, waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.
He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild, her skin (exotic), he blouse (barely containing those breasts).
Over the phone, he instructed her to do little things. This humiliated her more than the bigger things that eventually followed, Still, she held her stapler up high as directed. Drank her entire glass of water in one go. Spat out her chewing gum into her hand.
A similar scenario to Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’, here the boss also sexually harasses “He was getting up from his chair, walking towards her, brushing against her though the office was large and he had plenty of space.” And here we are, again, inside the protagonist’s head, this character having the added burden of systemic racism.
New York Sunday night, London Saturday morning. You fly the round trip regularly for work. But the attendant stops you. At Heathrow, Sunday afternoon, the attendant lunges into your path before you can reach the business desk. Places a firm hand against your upper arm. The attendant’s fingers – who knows what else they’ve touched? – now press into the soft, grey wool of your coat. You look down at this hand on your body; at the flecks of dirt beneath its fingernails, the pale hairs sprouting from its clammy skin. And then its owner, the attendant, points and speaks loudly, as though you don’t understand, says: Regular check-in is over there. The attendant won’t acknowledge your ticket, no, just waves you over to the long queue. It winds back and forth, penned in between ropes, all the way to the regular check-in-desk. The attendant says: Yes, there’s your line, over there.
Our protagonist here has received a promotion, has recently seen a specialist about cancer and is heading to the country estate of her (white colonial) boyfriend’s family for a weekend of celebration for his parent’s wedding anniversary. Although prosperous, an owner of a small property and recently promoted she comes to a realisation that she is complicit in the ongoing capitalist façade. As the preparations for her weekend away move closer, the flashbacks, questioning and urge for understanding becomes more pressing.
But to carry on, now that I have a choice, is to choose complicity.
Containing biting parallels between black and white, privilege and working class this is an urgent work that confronts the racist divide head on;
Per bell hooks; We must engage decolonization as a critical practice if we are to have meaningful chances of survival . . . yes, yes! But I don’t know how. How do we examine the legacy of colonization when the basic facts of its construction are disputed in the minds of its beneficiaries? Even that which wasn’t burnt in the 60’s – by British officials during the government-sanctioned frenzy of mass document destruction. Operation Legacy, to spare the Queen embarrassment. The more insidious act, though less sensational, proved to have the greatest impact: a deliberate exclusion and obfuscation within the country’s national curriculum. Through this, more than records were destroyed. The erasure itself was erased.
Another important novel, amongst at least four from the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
The Booker may be still awarding prizes to stories of “diminished families and troubled lands” the Goldsmiths is reflecting current thinking addressing “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Note – I reviewed these in the order I read them, there is no preference for any book, they are each wonderful examples of what fiction can do.
Warning: This review contains descriptions of bullfighting which may upset some readers.
Traditional bullfighting is understandably on the wane, with the blood sport highlighting animal cruelty as well as its ties to nationalistic behaviours. A bull fight is choreographed into three distinct phases, initially a matador observes the reaction of the bull by the waving of a banderilleros’ “capote” (cloak), two picadors, mounted on heavily padded and blindfolded horses then repeatedly drive a “vara” (lance) into the muscles of the bull’s neck, the second phase sees the matador planting barbed sticks “banderillas” (little flags) into the bull’s shoulders, this weakens the neck and shoulder muscles, finally the matador enters the ring alone, provokes the bull finally manouvering it so it can thrust the “estocada” (sword) between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart, resulting in the bull’s death.
A barbaric, tortuous process. It does not matter if the bull survives the process, it will still be taken out the back and be slaughtered.
As far as bullfighting goes, a draw isn’t a thing apparently. A bullfight isn’t a contest, it’s a ritualized tragedy. The outcome is never in question: the bull always dies. If, rarely, a matador fails to place the killing thrust, the bull is led out and killed in the back. So no, no draw.
Isabel Waidner is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing/Performance at Queen Mary University of London their profile reading in part:
I am a writer based in London, with a specialism in interdisciplinary and innovative forms of creative writing at the intersection with queer and trans theory.
Isabel Waidner has been twice shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for their two novels, ‘Gaudy Bauble’ and ‘We are Made of Diamond Stuff’ (both published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) and their latest novel, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ (Peninsula Press) has recently made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
‘Sterling Karat Gold’ is narrated in the first person by Sterling, who appears in the streets of Camden Town “in a white football shirt wrapped my waist like a skirt. Red velvet bullfighter jacket on, and black montera, traditional bullfighter hat. Yellow football socks, black leather loafers.” As the references at the end of the book advise this is based on Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter-footballer fusion outfit, from Central Saint Martins (2016)
Sterling then becomes involved in an attack, a bullfight, where they are assailed by picadors and matadors, having lances pierced into their neck, banderilleros are run into their shoulders (with the colours of the St George Cross), once exhausted the matador has raised the sword above their head when a person in “trackie bottoms and a jumper” distracts the matador by showing Sterling a red card.
Chief bully on horseback, playing at being a picador like everyone else. Picador is one of a pair of horsemen in a traditional bullfight who jabs the bull with a lance, and it is also a British publishing house.
This is a vivid and wonderful allegorical opening. The plight of humans on the fringes, constantly jabbed, assailed, bullied with no recourse, knowing that “the outcome is never in question”. The matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Our novel then follows the life predicaments of Sterling, their friend Chachki, the mysterious saviour in the “trackie bottoms and a jumper” Rodney and a cast of persecutors, through time travel, spaceship rides, performance pieces, and life histories. Using cultural icons (all referenced at the end of the novel) such as the album cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’
and the artwork ‘The End of the Trail’ by Robert H. Colescott (1976) this is multi layered work delving deeply into ingrained “class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”
Chapter 4, “My father’s lover was never the stepdad I wanted him to be”, looks at the footballer Justin Fashanu, the first football player in England’s topflight to come out, his career then falling apart before he took his own life in 1988, aged 37.
This is an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, this is one that stands out, head and shoulders above the pack. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in Colescott’s painting says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.
In the character’s time travelling adventures they visit Iraq, where the subject of dissent comes up:
Western regimes topple dissenters much close to home, too, despite cultivating the idea that they don’t.
Throughout you need to be alert to the subtle, and not so subtle, references to the people on the margins who are constantly under attack. Sterling can’t even get a job in a gay sauna as a cleaner, the lowest job possible, the reason? “Man boobs”.
Using images for such extremes as Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter outfit and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, or books such as Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ your reading is peppered with historical artefacts, all creating a vivid chaotic picture. There’s even an interesting stream of artworks and frescoes that have the appearance of spacecraft, I look these up on the web and suddenly I’m going down a rabbit hole of extraterrestrial images in early religious art!
Using the idea of a traditional and nationalistic practice, the bullfight, as a central theme, allows for numerous parallels, metaphors and allegories to be made. Late in the novel there’s the sentence, “They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.” Read that sentence again….
They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.
Sound like any of those right-wing media pundit’s, or politicians?
As Isabel Waidner says:
this is why they stage executions as bullfights in the first place.
A very important novel, entertaining, bat shit crazy at times, but always with its feet firmly placed on the ground, a novel of dissent, activism and a plea for the slow torture to stop.
My copy of this novel was reveived as part of the monthly books from small independent publishers sent as part of my Republic of Consciousness Prize subscription. If you want to join in the fun and receive independent books visit their “Book of the Month” page.
The Goldsmiths Prize was established in 2013 to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. The winning writer receives a £10,000 prize.
Previous winners were:
2013 – Eimear McBride for ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’ 2014 – Ali Smith for ‘How to be Both’ 2015 – Kevin Barry for ‘Beathebone’ 2016 – Mike McCormack for ‘Solar Bones’ 2017 – Nicola Barker for ‘H(A)PPY’ 2018 – Robin Robertson for ‘The Long Take’ 2019 – Lucy Ellmann for ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ 2020 – M. John Harrison for ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’
The shortlist for the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize has just been announced, drawn from entries of novels published between 1 November 2020 and 31 October 2021. Here are the six books in contention:
‘Checkout 19’ by Claire-Louise Bennett ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown ‘A Shock’ by Keith Ridgway ‘This One Sky Day’ by Leone Ross ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner ‘little scratch’ by Rebecca Watson
The judges for this year’s prize are Nell Stevens (Chair), Fred D’Aguiar, Kamila Shamsie & Johanna Thomas-Corr and the winner will be announced on 10 November 2021.
Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…
Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, aged 56, however Paul Griffiths’ speculates that Beethoven lives into the 1830’s taking up a commission, made by the Boston Handel & Haydn Society, to compose a Biblical Oratorio based on the Book of Job. Not only does Paul Griiffiths’ speculative work imagine that Beethoven lives longer, and he continues to compose more, the novel imagines the composer travelling to the US to fulfil these obligations. Due to his profound deafness he tees up with a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, a young girl named Thankful, who teaches him how to use sign language and who acts as his interpreter.
This is the basic premise of Paul Griffiths’ novel; however it is not only in the speculative tale that the riches prevail here. Griffiths is a former music critic of ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘The New York Times’ and, author of ‘Let Me Tell You’ a first-person narration using only the 481-word vocabulary that Shakespeare gives to Ophelia in Hamlet. He also contributed to the 2019 collection ‘The Penguin Book of Oulipo’, the literary constraints applied in this book are rich and varied, it is through the Oulipean constraints and musical knowledge where Griffiths’ book excels.
The novel opens with a past tense chapter, Beethoven is aboard a vessel travelling to the USA, we then move to research of possible vessels, “one sailing for Boston in 1833 from continental Europe, and from a port that would have been accessible at the time from Vienna without quite some difficulty.” Griffith lands on the brig Florida and using the “Familysearch website” comes up with a list of fellow passengers.
Throughout the novel there are signs of meticulous research, I assume it is all correct as I am not going to check it, Beethoven moving to a country estate owned by the Quincy’s to continue his work allows for rich research of the homestead, the extended family and more and when this research is mixed with playful constraints the book becomes an entertaining and unexpected read.
As advised in the ‘Notes’, “Words attributed to Beethoven, throughout; are taken as complete clauses – and, in most cases, complete sentences – from his (translated) letters”. We have chapters, longer than usual, that are a single sentence (Chapter 38) and we even have the readers interrupting the author;
Sorry, but we have to stop you there. You keep teasing us with this “great work” while offering as little information about it as you can get away with. Like these characters who are presumably from the Handel and Haydn Society, perhaps Richardson, Chickering and some other, we are being left in the dark. We know, yes, that this is an oratorio his is supposed to be writing, the “great composer,” as you archly call him, or “distinguished visitor,” or whatever else to avoid giving him his name, which of course we all know, which you had to divulge here and there, for the purposes of your story. Yes, what exactly are the purposes of your story? Do you want to tell us that? Or is that not part of your plan? If there is a plan.
There are chapters where the oratorio’s text is presented on the left-hand page and the action in the crowd appears on the right-hand page. There are letters and cryptic relations, a widow muse? Monologues revealing the detailed research (for example, a walk where the composer, although tone deaf, is addressed about the history and the surrounds)
You fill this book with information. As if to taunt us, you tell us all things of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet – oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the “great composer” to Boston. Remember that one? And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details. You even admit as much: on the Internet. So what?
There are cameo appearances by numerous well-known literary greats, Longfellow appears and there is speculation that Beethoven’s possible composition of an Indian operetta, a cross over and potential inspiration for ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Herman Melville makes an appearance as a young boy interviewing the maestro;
Q.: (if I had employed my better judgement, it may very well be that I would not have broached this topic, but I include the question here for the sake of the composer’s response, which startled me by its force, as by its unexpected metaphor.) How did you react to the controversial article adverting to your music that appeared recently in one of the German musical periodicals?
A.: I have not read the article. I no longer receive the paper, which is a shabby proceeding. If the editor does not rectify the statement, I shall cause him and his consumptive chief to be harpooned in the northern waters among the whales!
Could Beethoven have sown the seeds for the creation of ‘Moby Dick’ AND ‘The Song of Hiawatha’? Wonderful, controversial (impossible) speculation.
There are a few chapters where I felt a peripheral character was created simply so a line from Beethoven’s letters could be used, for example a discussion takes place over the family breakfast table where Daniel Gregory reveals he is unable to sing the solo in the oratorio and has passed the part to Lowell Junior. Beethoven says; “I was indeed, not a little surprised when I found the boy in a distant room practicing all alone, and neither disturbing not being disturbed by others.” However, there are counterpoints to this, The Composer’s address to the Chorus before the first concert, the interview by Herman Melville are but two examples of using pre-existing material to create a new tale.
Add to all the playfulness the fact that Griffiths has created part of Beethoven’s imagined oratorio and you know you are reading a very skilled writer, one who seems to be having a great time playing with his readers, leading us one way, then the next, throwing in other characters of the era, you never know what the next chapter will throw up.
The book closes with a future tense chapter, the Composer, the members of the Boston Handel & Haydn Society and Thankful are on the dock.
Opening with past tense, closing with future tense, although a linear narrative, gives this an off-kilter unreal, speculative world feel. A very enjoyable and playful read.
Perhaps the only touch of genius which I possess is that my things are not always in very good order…
David Hebblethwaite has a very interesting approach to this novel, the element of communication, you can read his take here .
The book itself is a stunning production by Henningham Family Press (“a microbrewery for books”), litho printed in lilac-grey. French-fold red Takeo Tant cover, debossed with a gloss black and gold design (thanks Paul Fulcher). The paper using recycled coffee cup technology!! I received my copy of this book through my subscription to the Republic of Consciousness Prize, where a monthly subscription to the Prize is rewarded with a book from a small independent press (fewer than five staff) each month. More information on this subscription offer can be found here.
I’m a little late with my official Shadow Jury duties, and our announcement of the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
You’ve probably seen our list via other members of the Shadow Jury, but not to be remiss in my duties I’ll follow suit and announce our six titles vying for the main gong.
Extensive reading has been undertaken by the following bloggers:
Chairman Stu at Winston’s Dad
Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List
Grant Rintoul at 1st reading
David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book World
Clare at A Little Blog Of Books
With thirteen titles, many running to 300 pages plus, it was an arduous task to read then all, confer, debate, agree, debate some more, disagree, debate some more, repeat. Finally we have a list of six impressive translated titles. I did list my top six titles when the official shortlist was announced, and astute followers will notice that five of my favourite six have made the Shadow Jury’s shortlist, I’ve got to be happy with that!!!
Here are the six books we believe were the strongest of the thirteen longlisted for the award:
“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell
“The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett
“Fish Have No Feet” by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton
“Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire
“Judas” by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange
“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell
The other bloggers have eloquently explained our rationale and the list itself, I don’t have a whole lot more to add to their thoughts. Stay tuned for us to announce the winner before the official judges get around to announcing theirs (with four in common there’s a pretty good chance we will agree!! Good grief!!)
Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.
Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;
“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)
Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.
A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.
I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)
Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.
You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)
This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.
We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)
Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);
It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)
The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.
This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.
Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)
Today I am looking at the latest translated work from Israeli writer Amos Oz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, a writer who is habitually highlighted when the Nobel Prize in Literature is discussed, award winner galore and an advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For myself “Judas” is one of the more learned works on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, whilst narratively a simple tale, this is a book full of theological, political and character contemplations.
Our novel contains four main characters, Shmuel Ash, Atalia, Gershom Wald and Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel. Our protagonist is Shmuel Ash;
Shmuel was a stocky, bearded young man of around twenty-five, she, emotional, socialist, asthmatic, liable to veer from wild enthusiasm to disappointment and back again, His shoulders were broad, his neck was short and thick, and his fingers too were thick and short, as if they each lacked a knuckle. From every pore of Shmuel Ash’s face and neck curled wiry hairs like steel wool: this beard continued upwards till it merged with the tousled hair of his head and downwards to the curling thicket of his chest. From a distance he always seemed, summer and winter alike, to be agitated and pouring with sweat. But, close up, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that instead of a sour smell of sweat his skin somehow exuded a delicate odour of talcum powder. He would be instantly intoxicated by new ideas, provided they were wittily dressed up and involved in some paradox. But he also tended to tire quickly, possibly on account of and enlarged heart and his asthma. (p2)
Shmuel’s father is involved in an unsuccessful business deal, is declared bankrupt and can no longer support his son through University, Shmuel decides to cease his studies and seeks employment as a companion to an old man on the outskirts of the city;
An old fig tree and an arbour of vines shaded the courtyard. So dense and intertwined were their branches that even now, their leaves shed, only a handful of capering gold coins managed to filter through the canopy and flicker on the flagstones. It seemed not so much a stone courtyard as a secret pool, its surface ruffled by myriad rippling wavelets. (p13)
Shmuel is employed to provide conversation each evening with Gershom Wald
Beyond this ring of warm light, between two metal trolleys laden with books, files, folders and notebooks, an elderly man sat talking on the telephone. A plaid was draped round his shoulders like a prayer shawl. He was an ugly man, broad, corked and hunchbacked. His nose was as sharp as the beak of a thirsty bird, and the curve of his chin suggested a sickle. His fine, almost feminine, grey hair cascaded down the back of his head and covered the nape of his neck. His eyes were deep-set beneath thick craggy white eyebrows that looked like woolly frost. His bushy Einstein moustache was a mound of snow. Without interrupting his telephone call, he eyed his visitor with a penetrating, quizzical glance. His sharp chin was inclined towards his left shoulder. His left eye was screwed up while the right one was open wide, round, blue and unnaturally large. The man’s face wore a sly, amused expression as if he were winking or making a sarcastic denunciation: he seemed instantly to have understood the young man before him, as if reading his mind and understanding what he was after. A moment later he switched off the searchlight beam of his gaze, acknowledged the visitor’s presence with a nod of the head and looked away, continuing his telephonic debate all the while: (p16)
Shmuel’s “employer” is Gershom’s daughter in law, Atalia a mysterious widow, alluring to Shmeul but completely indifferent to his approaches.
The final player is Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel, removed from the machinations of the official parties for his political views on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…a Judas;
‘Are you trying to tell me that your father seriously believed that we had so much as a shadow of a chance to survive here by peaceful means? That it was possible to convince the Arabs to agree to share the land? That it is possible to obtain a homeland by means of fine words? And do you believe that too? At that time the entire progressive world supported the creation of a state for the Jewish people. Even the Communist Bloc supplied us with arms.’ (p166)
However, it is not through the simple plot here that the riches of this work are harvested, it is through the nightly discussions between Shmuel and Gershom, the writings and research of Shmuel as part of his abandoned thesis ‘The Jewish Views of Jesus’, and the debates about Judas, and his parallel Shealtiel where the heart of the novel lies.
And yet, had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity. (p73)
A work that immediately brought to mind Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, through the development of the central character of Shmuel, for me another wonderfully rich character on the world literary stage.
Alone in his attic on a winter’s night, with strong, steady rain falling on the sloping roof close to his head and gurgling in the gutters, the cypresses bowed by the westerly wind, a night bird uttering a single harsh screech, Schmuel sat bent over his papers, taking an occasional swig from the open bottle of cheap vodka that stood before him on the desk, and wrote in his notebook: (p172)
It is through the discussions and theological musings where the depth in this work is apparent, throughout there are explanations of Judas’ role in the biblical tales, the mythology surrounding the thirty pieces of silver, the crucifixion of Jesus, the final words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” and Judas’ subsequent suicide. In this novel these explanations come via the hand of Shmuel, but they are presented in simple enough terms for non-Christians, or Jews, to understand the parallels that are contained with other events within the novel.
Through Shmuel’s employment there is plenty of discourse and opportunity to allow for details about the 1948 War of Independence and the lead up and subsequent events, with numerous threads explored, no definitive view is portrayed.
This is a novel that addresses centuries old theological issues, alongside current political concerns about the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as confronting the question of being a traitor vs an idealistic true believer. A complex and thought provoking work, one I rate highly in my 2017 Man Booker International Prize rankings.
Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I would hope so, although the simple narrative may detract some readers/judges, but this is not a novel to simply keep you entertained, it is a thought provoking, complex work. Amos Oz’s history of awards certainly plays in his favour, and his shortlisting for the Prize in 2007 (when the award was given for a body of work, not a single book) could be both a positive and a negative (he lost out to Chinua Achebe from Nigeria).
Highly ranked by myself I think this is one of the under ranked dark horses for the main gong…