Wednesday, August 22, 2007

five asian novelists on booker longlist

Indra Sinha may be the world’s only novelist whose website invites his readers to submit, via You Tube, their performances of songs featured in his latest novel. The novel is “Animal’s People”, which last week won the distinction of being included on the long list of 13 novels for Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, worth £50,000 Sterling.

Sinha [pictured below in 1999, with Holly], who is originally from Mumbai, went to school in India and England, and read English at Cambridge University. He worked as an advertising copywriter before leaving to become a “proper” writer, and now lives in the South of France. In 1999 his first book “Cybergypsies” appeared, followed in 2002 by “The Death of Mr Love”.

The songs referred to in “Animal’s People” are mainly from Indian films, plus Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”. Sinha is still seeking performances of the songs ‘Kaun aayaa mere man ke dvaare’ and ‘Main nashe mein hoon’. He prefers those contributing songs to record their own versions because recordings of film songs posted on You Tube often cease to be available, presumably after copyright complaints from distributors.

“Animal’s People” is set among the victims of a chemical leak catastrophe, modeled on the December 1984 Bhopal disaster. It is set in a fictional town called Khaufpur, afflicted by a gas leak one night from an American-owned chemical plant. The book’s nineteen-year-old central character Animal walks on all fours as a result of the events of That Night. A young female American doctor, Elli Barber, comes to the town to open a clinic for those affected by the gas, and Animal becomes involved in a web of intrigues, scams and plots.

Sinha dedicates “Animal’s People” to the Bhopal survivor and activist Sunil Kumar. Kumar travelled the world to try to mobilize support against the 1989 settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government. In July last year he hanged himself at the age of 34.

Sinha says the novel owes much to Kumar and the stories he told him about his life. Kumar was 12 when gas seeped from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and killed all but two members of his large family. He became wholly responsible for looking after his younger brother and sister. Kumar suffered severe mental problems, which Sinha attributes to the effects of the gas.

The Bhopal disaster continues to blight lives. In addition to the 20,000 who have died so far, more than 120,000 continue to suffer ill effects. In 1994 Sinha advertised in the London-based Guardian newspaper for funds to set up a free clinic for Bhopal survivors. The Sambhavna clinic opened two years later, and has so far helped around 20,000 people.

The Man Booker is open to novels written in English from the Commonwealth nations, plus Ireland. The shortlist of five books will be announced on September 13, and the winner at a dinner on October 16.

Remarkably, this year’s longlist includes five novels by writers of Asian origin, including “Animal’s People”. Among them is “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Pakistani Mohsin Hamid. It tells of Changez, a Pakistani man living a Westernized life style in Manhattan who becomes radicalized after 9/11.

“Gifted” is the debut novel of Nikita Lalwani [pictured], who was born in Rajasthan, India and brought up in Cardiff, Wales. The novel is about a gifted girl, Rumi Vasi, whose controlling immigrant father wants her to become the youngest student ever to go to Oxford University. But friendship and love start to become more important to Rumi than equations.

Tan Twan Eng, author of debut novel “The Gift of Rain”, was born in Penang, Malaysia. He studied law at London University and worked as a lawyer in Malaysia before going to live in South Africa. The novel is set in Second World War Malaya. The central character, Philip, is half Chinese and half British. He finds a feeling of belonging in his friendship with a Japanese diplomat, but his loyalties become desperately strained.

The Second World War is also the backdrop to “The Welsh Girl”, the first novel by Peter Ho Davies, who is of Welsh and Malay-Chinese descent. In the novel a German-Jewish refugee is sent to Wales to interrogate Rudolf Hess. The Welsh girl of the title is the 17-year-old daughter of a shepherd; the other main character is a German prisoner of war.

This year’s Booker judges have produced a longlist full of fresh talent, including a substantial proportion of names that are as yet little known. Four of the books are by debut novelists. The chairman of the judges is Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The other judges are poet Wendy Cope, journalist and author Giles Foden, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr and actor and writer Imogen Stubbs. The judges considered 110 novels. “Slightly to my surprise, only 39 of the athors are women, while 38 are from outside the United Kingdom,” Davies writes in his Booker blog. “Even more surprisingly, 14 of the entries are either wholly or substantially set during the Second World War.”

There has been a predictable outcry over the omission from the longlist of some of the biggest names in fiction. Among the novels to be left out are Doris Lessing’s “The Cleft”, and novels by former Booker winners Graham Swift, Thomas Keneally, Michael Ondaatje and JM Coetzee (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and two-times Booker winner).

The bookies William Hill’s favorite to win the prize is British novelist Ian McEwan, winner of the 1998 Booker for “Amsterdam”. Four of his other novels have also been shortlisted for the Booker. His longlisted novel, “Chesil Beach”, has odds to win of 3/1.

Chesil Beach is a famous beach in Dorset, south-west England. A virginal honeymoon couple, Edward and Florence, are staying in a hotel there in 1962. As they sit down in their room for dinner, both suffer anxieties about their wedding night.

William Hill’s next favorites to win are Nicola Barkman’s “Darkmans”, Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, Catherine O’Flynn’s “What was Lost” and A N Wilson’s “Winnie & Wolf”. The longest odds are 20/1 for “Mister Pip” by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, despite this novel having won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. What is more, in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, it won both the Montana Medal for Fiction and the Reader’s Choice Award.

“Mister Pip” is set during Papua New Guinea’s blockade of its lush tropical island province of Bougainville in the 1990s. The one white man remaining, Mr Watts, reads to the children Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations”. Young Matilda becomes obsessed with Pip, the narrator of “Great Expectations,” and her story is interwoven with the violence around her.

Nicola Barker’s novel “Darkmans” runs to 838 pages. It is set in Ashford. Kent and has themes of love and jealousy. Edward Docx , the former literary editor of the Daily Express, is longlisted for his second novel “Self Help”. Set in St Petersburg, Paris, London and New York, it is the story of a half-English, half-Russian family filled with secrets. Another dysfunctional family is at the heart of Irish novelist Anne Enright’s fourth novel “The Gathering”.

British writer Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel “What Was Lost”, set partly in 1984, concerns a bright schoolgirl, Kate, who goes missing while hanging around a Birmingham shopping centre following the instructions in her father’s book “How to be a Detective”. Twenty years later, a security guard and a female friend try to find out what became of her.

“Consolation”, by the American-born Canadian writer Michael Redhill, moves between Toronto’s past and present. A professor kills himself in the waters of Lake Ontario. The efforts of his widow to prove he did not falsify historical research is interwoven with a story from the 1850s.

The British biographer, journalist and novelist A N Wilson’s novel “Winnie & Wolf” explores the close friendship in 1925-49 between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner, the English wife of composer Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried. Hitler and Winnie had a kinship, expressed through a mutual love of opera.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette August 13

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