Sunday, August 25, 2019

a news service

1991


 

Someone recommended that I have a look at the first chapter of Malcolm Bradbury’s Doctor Criminale. Just as promised, it’s a pretty funny parody of the Booker award ceremony, and a real slap at blue-rinse female novelists. Published in 1992, it’s hard not to think Bradbury is pointing at the 1990 ceremony, the year A. S. Byatt won and Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald were short-listed. Bradbury makes it very clear that the press and readers really don’t care about the short-listed books. It’s all about winning.

 

I didn’t read beyond the book’s first chapter but it’s obvious the book was going to be another literary-theory academic-conference novel. Why is that such a big tradition in UK novels? Or am I just missing it in Canadian and American novels? Can you name some? I asked my Booker readers and they came up with a few:

 

Robertson Davies—The Rebel Angels

Carol Shields—Swann

David Arnason’s—King Jerry

Lynn Coady—Mean Boy

Earle Birney—Down the Long Table

 

Not a long list.

 

 

Speaking of my Booker readers, I got complaints about my 1990 report. Imagine! Complaints. Honestly, what a tough group. What annoyed my gentle readers was my soft touch with Possession. I didn’t think I was that kind, but here’s another stab…

 

Possession is one of the most self-indulgent novels I’ve read during this exercise, and at 20+ years into the Bookers I have quite a few under my belt. It’s showy in the worst way. I don’t believe the novel would have been published in any other country than the academia-obsessed UK. Offered to a Canadian or USAmerican publisher a good editor would have insisted on a major rewrite. Possession is a glaring example of a writer’s and publisher’s abuse of a big name in favour of quality literature.

 

***

 

The following is from my 1985 report:

 

In a recent chat with Patrick Crean, Publisher and Editor Thomas Allen Publishers, we talked about the current messy state of publishing in Canada. Patrick says that Canada is one of the most difficult book markets in the world. The country is large, the population by comparison is small and there is just no economy of scale. Patrick believes that:

  • There are too many books being published. He was recently on the CC jury for publisher book grants and suggests we could afford to lose half the existing book publishers without any huge loss to the industry. Karl Sielger at Talonbooks agrees.
  • There’s too much emphasis on growing talent and not enough effort made to connect books to readers! The monies poured into grants to emerging writers and publishers who publish them are creating mediocrity. We have more talent than we know what to do with and not enough people wanting to read the books.
  • The sales and marketing departments in the big houses want to cherry pick,* which results in lists with no personality. Patrick says he has never seen a time in publishing with so much risk aversion. He believes the corporate nature that has taken over is destroying book publishing.

 

Rolf Maurer of New Star Press sent the following response:

Patrick claims that Canada is one of the most “difficult” book markets in the world. I don’t know what he means by this: that it’s one of the most competitive?

 

Canada is, in fact, one of the most desirable places on earth to publish. It’s one of the richest countries in the world. A very high percentage of the population has a post-secondary education. We have, relatively speaking, a lot of leisure time, and per capita we buy, and maybe read, a lot of books. What’s not to like about that? Everybody in New York, London, and Paris knows this, which is the only reason we are blessed with their presence.

 

Canada’s population is small in relation to the US, to Russia, to China, to India, to Indonesia; but it’s not particularly small compared to the other 150+ nations on the planet. And did I mention that it’s a relatively wealthy 34 million people we have here?

 

Canada is large if you count the entire landmass. But it’s a moderate-sized country, if you think of it as being 3,000 miles wide and 200 miles high. And within that belt it’s not particularly sparsely populated either.

 

Much is made of the supposed difficulty of distribution in Canada, as if it really is a problem that it takes 4 to 6 days for a parcel to get from Vancouver to Toronto—or, maybe it’s the other way round, Toronto to Vancouver—that’s the problem? About a week, either way. The size of the country doesn’t seem to be a problem for Amazon.

 

Patrick, and Karl, and seemingly just about every other member of the book trade seem to think “there are too many books”. Never mind the fact that there have *always* been too many books. Let’s re-pose this question a couple of different ways. (a) Compared to what? (b) If we’re publishing the wrong number of books, what’s the right number?

 

In 2004, the Literary Press Group attempted to raise some consciousness around this issue (an attempt that seems to have been abandoned). At the time, Stats Can kept comparative statistics about book publishing activity around the globe, and from them we were able to find out how many books are published in a given country for every 100,000 people in the population. Out of 62 countries where data about this was available — and, for this reason, the sample was skewed towards wealthier western countries — Canada ranked 19th. This was ALL titles, regardless of nationality of author: the Raincoast editions of Harry Potter counted, for the purpose of this survey, as Canadian-published books. Canada was tied for 58th in the world in terms of the percentage of books defined as literary out of the total number published. (Presumably, the “too many books” is primarily about literary publishing: poetry, fiction, short stories, that sort of thing.)

 

The study publishing in 2004 relied on 1994-96 stats, which has to be kept in mind. Whatever the situation is now, there’s certainly no evidence that in the mid-1990s Canada was anything like awash in books, not compared to the rest of the world, anyway. There is no reason to believe that the increase in book publication in Canada since 1994-96 has outstripped that in the rest of the world.

 

If there *is* a problem, what’s more likely the cause: the Penguin / HarperCollins  / Random House-Doubleday / et al., and their ten- twenty-fold increase in title output over the last generation, or the smaller domestic houses, which might have doubled their output? Funny, but when Patrick and Karl or whoever goes on about the “too many publishers” problem, why do I get the feeling that it’s presses like New Star, publishing exactly the same number of books as we did in 1990, that are the superfluous presses?

 

Let’s dwell for a moment on this question of “too many books”. Patrick thinks there are too many books, and Karl seems to agree. Maybe you do too. Likely, in fact. It sometimes seems that way to me. Let’s say that we all agree there are too many books: 6 billion people on the planet all agreeing on the same thing. Trouble is, there is no agreement on which are the superfluous books. Chicken Soup For The Timid Publisher’s Soul? i bleev iv ritn ths n bfor, by bill bissett? The thing is that when you aggregate all those individual too-many-books notions into something approximating a global market snapshot, you get the opposite result: the market says there are not enough books.

 

Everybody in the book trade knows this, or ought to. Average sales per title have been in steady decline for decades. That’s why most publishers increase their title output every year: otherwise, their sales would go down. Do you think these companies are run by idiots? I don’t. In fact, if I had the capital, I would be increasing New Star’s title output by two-, or five-, or tenfold too. Because that’s what the market is in fact demanding: more books, not fewer of them.

 

Not sure why Patrick would complain about government money to develop new literary talent. Somebody has to. It’s a well-known fact that the branch plants, and the quasi-branch plants, the Thos. Allens which rely on the sale of Chicken Soup For the Soul series to keep the lights on, almost never develop new talent and are the ones cherry-picking from the presses that take the trouble to do so. Patrick is a good one to talk — Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut, for instance, began life as a New Star title. Atwood and Ondaatje were initially published by Anansi, not by a foreign branch plant. Liz Hay was originally published by Mosaic and Thistledown, not by Random House-M&S. David Bergen, same thing: Turnstone. Etc., etc., etc., etc. There are a few exceptions, but that’s what they are.

 

And isn’t it the publisher’s job to promote the writer anyway? If a publisher like Thos. Allen isn’t spending enough to persuade people to read Virtual Clearcut, why is that the Canada Council’s fault?

 

In his third point, Patrick is talking about his own employer, and their ilk. I presume he realizes this. There is nothing risk-averse about anything I do, or that my colleagues in the LPG do.

 

With Rolf’s permission I sent his rebuttal out to a few Booker report readers and received the following from Gordon Lockheed:

While I generally agree with the points Mr. Crean makes about the state of Canadian publishing, I have some disagreement with Rolf Maurer’s rebuttal, which at several points seems at odds with the specifics of bookselling in 2010, and at one or two other junctures, little more than wishful thinking. For both publishers, there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room that they’re not willing to talk about directly. It is Chapters/Indigo, which currently holds roughly 70 percent of the Canadian retail book trade. Its trade practices, which include charging publishers for prominently displaying their books, large initial book orders coupled with equally large and quick returns, capricious and often messy book return procedures, have bankrupted at least one major Canadian publisher, and has made life miserable for nearly all the others for almost a decade now. Its sheer size has decimated the independent bookselling sector in Canada, and has changed the way that books are sold in this country, the kinds of books that get published, and even the way that books are valued by the reading public. No country in the world has this degree of market concentration in bookselling and while it has made the proprietor of Chapters/Indigo, Heather Reisman, famous and even more wealthy, it’s hard to find any other positives.

But neither Crean or Maurer can talk about the 800-pound gorilla, and neither can any other publisher without risking a blacklist by the notoriously vindictive Reisman and/or the three or four risk-averse marketing graduates who now control, in a de facto sense, not just what books get presented to readers in Canada, but also what Canadian publishers bring into the book market: if they can’t get Reisman’s buyers to carry their titles, their books aren’t going to get to readers. This situation has given an ostensible advantage to the country’s larger publishers, simply because they can afford the large print runs a single buyer demands, and they can afford the unconscionable fees Chapters/Indigo charges for prominently displaying a book.

The virtual monopoly that Chapters/Indigo enjoys has enabled it to secure a number of competitive advantages that regularly endanger the large publishers, and have created a bizarre kind of merchandising monoculture that has sharply curtailed their publishing options. One advantage Chapters/Indigo has is a discount level that exceeds the one given to independent booksellers, and that has reduced the profit margins of all publishers. But a much more telling advantage for Chapters/Indigo was negotiated during the liquidity crisis that ensued during Indigo’s takeover of Chapters earlier in the decade, which allowed it 110 days to pay for books instead of 30 days. Under these terms, Chapters/Indigo was permitted to return books before it was obliged to pay the publishers for them, resulting in a situation in which virtually all the books in Chapters/Indigo being there on consignment, and paid for only after they’re sold. Chapters/Indigo manipulated this advantage mercilessly, frequently returning books that haven’t sold within the first 60-90 days, and often more swiftly than that. That particular advantage has lapsed, but its spirit remains.

To be sure, Canada is a lovely country, but it is country in which its indigenous literary culture lives under permanent threat. We are, along with Australia, a small player in the world’s largest and most dominant language group, and we are working in an increasingly deregulated international market system where the larger players constantly attempt to destroy the smaller players by dumping in their market below cost. Maurer would be better to see cultural publishing within the WalMart model, in which the U.S. is Walmart. That tilted playing field is why a cultural exemption was negotiated in the Canada/U.S and North American Free Trade Agreements, and it is why various subsidies have been granted Canadian book publishers and writers for the last 40 years. If those subsidies weren’t in place, we would have no book publishing industry in Canada, and he knows this. We would have a few book distributors wholesaling books written by American and British authors, and the few Canadians who escaped the local wasteland.

I’m not sure why Maurer ignores the reality of Canada’s geographical distances, and its culturally dispersed populations. He must be fully aware that the cost of shipping has quadrupled in the last 20 years, and that a package of books sent from Vancouver costs notably more if is going to Newfoundland or Toronto from Vancouver than if it’s being shipped up to the Chapters Store in, say, Kamloops. The postal subsidy Canadian publishers once enjoyed has been removed, and it now costs nearly the equivalent of the cost of the book to ship it across the country. This is particularly damaging to smaller publishers, since the per-unit cost of shipping small quantities is vastly more expensive than it is to ship 50 or 500.

Maurer’s argument that Canada is “not particularly awash in books” and that it is middle-of-the-pack in relative terms with respect to the number of book titles published per capita is similarly specious. That he counts, somewhat vaguely, Canada’s position as somewhere in the “low 20s” of 31 countries surveyed when it comes to books authored (or was it published?) by Canadian nationals ignores the statistical nuances that need to be established before we start high-fiving one another. We don’t know what the per capita gap is between the top ten and the bottom ten we’re in, for one, and we have no idea what kinds of books we’re talking about (Harlequin Books is a Canadian publisher) or whether we’re talking about large percentages of our current sales having been written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Similarly, his argument that we’ve overproduced for years is specious in that it ignores the fact that the Canadian book market was much more complex and profitable 15-20 years ago than it is now, before Chapters/Indigo and its marketing graduates gained a near-monopoly and a built-in censoring apparatus. And, anyway, if someone has been, say, shooting themselves in the foot monthly for 30 years, it doesn’t follow that continuing to do it is a good idea, even if the shooter has become desensitized to the pain.

When Maurer acknowledges that “average sales per title have been in steady decline for decades,” and suggest that this is “why most publishers increase their title output every year: otherwise, their sales would go down” he’s ignoring the fact that there are now actually fewer titles in print than in 1975 in the English language. This is because of tax law changes, which tax publishers on their backlist, and that, along with Chapters/Indigo’s merchandising strategy of holding progressively fewer titles in backlist has book publishers manufacturing books the same way Maple Leaf foods manufactures those stale-dating cello-packs of pressed ham: More books, smaller print runs, shorter in-print duration. For the larger publishers, the prize culture that is the primary means of merchandising books has made publishing formally unorthodox books virtually suicidal. If Maurer can find a way to put a positive spin on any of this, good luck. His plan of going with the flow and producing more titles in smaller volumes falls apart when it arrives at the 70 percent of titles being bought by the buyers at Chapters Indigo. The chain has sharply reduced the number of titles they carry in the last decade, and most small press titles these days are simply being turned away.  Maybe these extra titles he’s talking about are going to be cunning disguised as candles or CDs of children’s inspiration music, because that’ll be his best shot at getting them into Chapters/Indigo.

Finally, Maurer’s argument that Thomas Allen & Sons, Crean and the other large publishers are cherry picking their talent from small publishers like New Star isn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as he makes it out to be. Crean and Thomas Allen in particular have an unusually good record of publishing writers off the street, despite the risk. And when Maurer cites Brian Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut as his example of how large publishers steal books from smaller ones, he’s putting his foot in one he created himself. Fawcett informs me that indeed the book started out as a project for Terry Glavin’s Transmontanus imprint, which New Star publishes, and was meant to be an environmental expose on the 53,000 hectare Bowron Clearcut in Northern B.C.. But when the book began to morph into something well beyond Transmontanus’s 100 or so page limit, Rolf admitted that he couldn’t handle it, and Fawcett took the book to Crean, who did have the resources to develop it fully—and then lost a pile of money on it because it was too unconventional. It’s also worth noting that Fawcett continues to publish with both New Star and Thomas Allen, and that he has done this for 20 years.  This sort of situation is far more common than Maurer cares to admit.     

You can begin to see how complicated the world of Canadian publishing has become.

***

Jury: Jeremy Treglown—“Much of Jeremy Treglown’s work has been linked by a biographically-based concern with the relations between social history and literary high culture, especially in the twentieth century, including the practicalities of authorship and the nature of the ‘literary establishment’” In the 1980s he was editor of Times Literary Supplement. Penelope Fitzgerald, novelist. Jonathan Keates, biographer, novelist and critic. Nicholas Mosley, novelist and whiner, see below. Ann Schlee, author of that whimpy book short-listed in 1981.

 

Martin Amis—Time’s Arrow VPL

The bookjacket blurb says, “Tod T. Friendly, now living in a peaceful American suburb, is a doctor who once worked in the medical section at Auschwitz. Narrating Dr. Friendly’s story is one of the strangest and most original creations of modern literature: a doppelganger imprisoned within Dr. Friendly, sharing his every sensory impression, a separate consciousness that is literally living the doctor’s life moment by inverted moment, backward from death to birth.”

The backward aspect upsets conventions and expectations:

The women at the crisis centers and the refuges are all hiding from their redeemers. The crisis center is not called a crisis center for nothing. If you want a crisis, just check in. The welts, the abrasions and the black eyes get starker, more livid, until it is time for the women to return, in an ecstasy of distress, to the men who will suddenly heal them.

Or:

Never watching where they are going, the people move through something prearranged, armed with lies. They’re always looking forward to going places they’ve just come back from, or regretting doing things they haven’t yet done. They say hello when they mean goodbye.

Think about the implications for eating and defecating. Or the Holocaust. The doctors at Auschwitz bring people back to life, connect them with family, provide clothing. The Nazis find them homes. And so on.

Category: Smart Novel. Well-written and probably fun to write because of the backwardness. It forces the reader to work since the first-person narrator doppelganger is completely reliable but also totally unaware of world events since they haven’t happened yet. So, the reader is forced to think, for sure. But in the end, it seems rather facile.

Martin Amis—Reading Turgenev VPL

Guest report from George Stanley:

Mary Louise Quarry, née Dallon, is discovered in the first chapter of William Trevor’s short novel Reading Turgenev at breakfast in some kind of institution. She is ‘not yet fifty-seven.’

 

In chapter two, she is twenty-one, a farmer’s daughter in rural Ireland. She marries Elmer Quarry, a small businessman who owns a ‘drapery’ in a village sixty miles from Wexford. Elmer is thirty-five, living with his two older unmarried sisters. The year is 1955, and the drapery business, which Elmer’s father and grandfather ran before him, is in decline. All these people are Protestants.

 

Protestantism in Ireland, apart from Ulster, has been in decline since the late nineteenth century. Like W. B. Yeats’ ‘romantic Ireland,’ it’s nearly ‘dead and gone.’ The old ascendancy has been supplanted: ‘All over the county wealth had passed into the hands of a new Catholic middle class, changing the nature of provincial life as it did so.’

 

But neither commercial nor confessional decline much affects the composure of the Quarry household: ‘Why should the status quo in the house above the shop, and in the shop itself, be disturbed? Quarry’s would sustain the three of them during their lifetime, withering, then dying, with the Protestants of the neighbourhood.’ But Elmer disrupts this idyll by marrying — he wants a son.

 

Mary Louise’s reason for marrying Elmer? To get away from the farm. ‘I wanted to be in the town.’

 

The novel’s crisis arrives early. It’s a matter of what doesn’t happen rather than what does. Mary Louise’s girlish figure never swells with pregnancy. ‘[W]omen would glance down her body, the movement of their eyes briefly halting when it reached her stomach, then swiftly retracted. She knew what was in their minds.’

 

Back at the farm, Mary Louise’s parents ‘wondered more often why they were not yet grandparents.’ And the reader wonders too. The reader, I think, suspects (correctly, as it happens) impotence on Elmer’s part, particularly since Mary Louise confides in her young cousin Robert that her husband had passed out drunk on his wedding night, and that the marriage was ‘unconsummated.’ But the townspeople tend to blame Mary Louise’s ‘seemingly barren state.’

 

This cousin, Robert, is the catalyst of the novel, a delicate invalid whom Mary Louise went to school with but has not seen since childhood (somewhat implausible, since he only lives a few miles away). Cycling one day about the countryside, Mary Louise comes unexpectedly upon the gate to her Aunt Emmeline’s house, is invited in, and meets Robert again. Or rather, she is spiritually and emotionally reunited with him, since it turns out (each admits) they were in love at age ten, and are of course still in love. They meet for romantic rendezvous in a nearby abandoned graveyard (Protestant of course) and Robert reads to Mary Louise from the novels of Ivan Turgenev. ‘She believed she had never listened to a voice as beautiful. Delight caressed each word he uttered, gentleness or vigour matched phrase and sentence. If all he’d read was a timetable she would have been entranced.’

 

But Robert does not have long to live, and indeed Trevor kills him off so abruptly that the reader wonders if he has read the sentence right: ‘He put his arm around his cousin’s waist [he is dreaming] and as they walked on the strand they talked about his father. In that moment Robert died.’

 

After Robert’s death Mary Louise mainly lives in a fantasy world. She dips into the Russian novels ‘opening the books at random.’ All that is real to her is the memory of Robert and his beautiful voice. She becomes increasingly distracted, neglectful of household duties, and unavailable, particularly to Elmer’s sisters, who now blame her too for her husband’s immoderate drinking. So off they go to visit Mary Louise’s parents, and everyone agrees (the parents more unwillingly than the sisters) that if would be better if Mary Louise were sent to ‘an asylum for women who were mentally distressed.’

 

But now we learn (flash forward) that in 1991, the institution where Mary Louise is to be confined will close, and those residents who still have family living will be returned ‘to the community.’ ‘The community’s where you came from,’ one resident explains. At this point the novel looks fearfully in two directions: towards the asylum, and to what will happen when Mary Louise is let out. I think I’ll stop recounting the plot at this point.

 

Mary Louise’s marriage may not have been consummated, but William Trevor is a consummate storyteller. The reader hardly notices he is an ‘omniscient narrator,’ so unobtrusively does he move from mind to mind. As from Mary Louise to Robert, at the graveyard:

 

‘”He has begun to drink,’ she said. “And I deceive him after only two years by coming here on Sundays.”

 

“But I’m your cousin, Mary Louise. Doesn’t he know you come here?”

 

“Nobody knows.” He imagined her in the house, the spinster sisters resenting her presence, hating her even . . .’

 

Trevor creates characters whose sensibilities are made up of recollections, expectations, and especially, dreams:

 

“Toward dawn, Mrs. Dallon slept. She dreamed, but afterwards remembered nothing, aware only vaguely that Mary Louise, as a baby and a child and a bride, had passed from her waking consciousness into a muddle of fantasy.’

 

The narrative is marked by precise Chekhovian detail. Elmer’s sister Rose and Mary Louise’s mother are observing Mary Louise ride away on her bicycle: ‘She still held the edge of a curtain between her fingers, and Mrs. Dallon approached the window to see for herself.’

 

A thoroughly absorbing tale, the realism of the human situation conveying a sense of sociological accuracy as well. Mary Louise reflects on leaving the institution: ‘You pick and choose among the dead, the living are thrust upon you’ . I don’t see her as being “mentally ill,” just a person who made different choices of what to think about.

 

In many regards I agree with George’s read of the novel, though I didn’t like it as much as George. In part it’s probably the project and not enough variety in my reading (Back in the good old days, before the Booker project, I would have 4 or 5 books on the go at any one time. A history. A biography. Novel. Short story collection. Etc.) I found much of the book to be Stage Irish; the town and its inhabitants are claustrophobic, and I didn’t see much “choice” available to Many Louise or any of the other women. What interested me was how Trevor managed to create a tale that is both horrifying and sentimental. “People think the worst of you.”

Rohinton Mistry—Such a Long Journey VPL

I don’t understand the fuss about this novel. It won the 1991 GG in Canada, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award as well as being short-listed for the Booker. To me it seems a pretty straight-forward narrative Victorian-type novel. Political information is provided in lengthy and sometimes trudging paragraphs, a device often poorly used in historical novels. When Leon Rooke was on Canada Reads as a panelist while many of the other jurors said they looked for a good story that was accessible Leon said he looked for “technical wizardry.” There’s none of that in this novel. As if modernism never happened.

“His words were cold fingers tracing shivering lines down Gustad’s spine.”

“His style is precise, deceptively simple. It’s writing in which the author doesn’t seem to want to call attention to the writing itself,” says editor Ellen Seligman. “The writing is there to serve the story and the characters, so it always reflects those two things.” Yes, Mistry is interested in story and characters not in language. But I don’t think it’s deceptively simple in the way, for example, of Al Purdy’s poetry. This prose really is simple. Any complexity is in the plot and characters, and I wasn’t terribly persuaded in those areas, either.

The Plot? It’s 1971. Prime Minister Indira Ghandi controls a corrupt government with an iron fist. Gustad Noble is a bank clerk who finds himself caught up in a political scandal while he watches his family and neighbourhood fall apart. Gustad is a Parsi and the novel dabbles in explaining the Caste system along with politics, different religious beliefs, hangover from colonial rule and the usual things to be expected. And I guess that is the heart of my problem. It’s all so expected, the complexities don’t go much beneath the skin and there is a heavy-handedness to the symbolism. Partly it might be the nostalgia that we so often see in writers in exile.

But I did learn a new word—Indo-nostalgia.

Roddy Doyle—The Van UBC. The novel is available at VPL in a collection with 2 other Doyle novels. But there were 3 other requests in front of me, each able to keep the book for 3 weeks which would really throw off my reading schedule so I got it from UBC. But that’s a first, a waiting list for a Booker short-listed book.

This is the final novel in the Barrytown trilogy, set in Dublin. Jimmy Sr. and Bimbo, both on the dole, buy a chip wagon. And that’s about it. We see some strain of the unemployed. Doyle makes much of the camaraderie among men, who only want to share a few pints and tell stories. But this is mostly stage-Irishmen. A nice little story, told in a straight-ahead fashion, working hard to capture the authentic speech of Barrytown. For the most part the characters are oblivious to the rest of the world, though there is an occasional toss-off line; “Saddam Hussein was still acting the prick over Iraq.” Funny if not profound.

Timothy Mo—The Redundancy of Courage UBC

If you believe in the common creative writing adage to “show, don’t tell” then this novel scores badly. Adolph Ng, the first-person narrator, tells us about the politics of a nation in crisis, the fictional Danu, which we are to understand is East Timor. The bad and obvious title sets the tone for the novel. Mostly it’s like reading a history book; this happened, then this happened. The first-person narrative makes the point of view limited and, for me, monotonous. This may be a brilliant novel, as many claim, but it didn’t work for me. I read 120 pages, scanned a bit or the rest, then packed it in.

“During that first week we kept our heads down. In the first forty-eight hours you hardly dared breathe. There was a curfew. Redundant regulation! No one wanted to be about after sundown. But no one! The Danuese scampered indoors, like Transylvanians in a Dracula movie. At 8 p.m., midnight, and 4 a.m. malai patrols would move through the town, kicking store doors (long since looted) and smashing with their rifle-butts any windows through which the merest chick of light might show. Food fuel, and news were in short supply. Of work—unpaid—there was no scarcity. All the fires, except the one at the oil tanks, had gone out, but rubble and splinters infested the roads and town, worse than the time of the IP coup. On the third day there was an explosion in the park near the Marconi Centre. Idiots that we were, we all came rushing out, having learned nothing from experience. Curiosity was stronger than fear. The malais came rushing, too. It was an unexploded shell which one of the labourers had hit with a pick. Fortunately, no soldiers were killed, only two Danuese. They’d have put a few of us against the wall, otherwise.”

Ben Okri—The Famished Road UBC WINNER

Category: African magic realism, kind of. Our narrator, Azaro, is a spirit child who keeps being born to the same mother but quickly returns to the spirit world, to keep away from the pain and suffering of this world. But he has decided to stay on earth after this birth, for the sake of his mother. The novel is also a complex metaphor of Africa, specifically Nigeria, on the cusp of independence.

I was captured by the first 50 pages or so, the complex multi-layering of mysticism, black magic, Christianity, goddesses, superstitions, myths, as Azaro is pulled back and forth from world to world, as the spirit world seeks to have him return and honour his oath to them. “Life is full of riddles that only the dead can answer” but the book provides none of those, merely insisting instead that there is always more than the eye can see. Everywhere is menace. Like the Rushdie novel, I wasn’t familiar with the myths and stories and the novel didn’t enlighten me—though unlike Rushdie, Okri doesn’t seem intent on blasphemy.

The novel captures the bustle of poverty, the hand-to-mouth existence, bad food, disease, bad water and no sanitation, with the occasional celebration for which you pay and pay, for long after. After 50 pages or so, after Azaro’s celebration of his return to life, my interest lagged. The writing just isn’t very interesting. And the numerous split infinities were irritating.

Again, like Rushdie, repetition of the same characters in the same situations is part of Okri’s method. By page 100 I knew the next 400 pages would be more of the same. It really is more about atmosphere than plot, or even character. “Mesmerized by the cobalt shadows, the paradoxical ultramarine air, and the silver glances of the dead, I listened to the hard images of joy.”

One thing that did interest me is the large context that Okri creates for the present situation of Nigeria. He does not take the familiar post-colonial approach—translation, bad white guys. Rather, he points to larger and deeper patterns:

All around us voices were raised in laughter and in pain. We passed a patch of bushes behind which resonated the singing and the dancing of the new church. They sang with a frightening vigour, with terrifying hope, great need, great sorrow. They made me feel that any minute the world would end. The signing from the church made me afraid of life. We passed them and could hear them long afterwards. Further on, behind a grove of trees, the earth throbbed with more chanting, dancing, singing. But this was different. The chanting was deeper, the dancing more virile, making the earth itself acknowledge the beating on its doors, and the singing was full of secrets and dread-making voices. They sounded like the celebration of an old pain, an ancient suffering that has refused to leave, an old affliction renewed at night. They were the worshippers at the shrine of suffering and we listened to their cries for the secrets of transforming anguish into power. We could hear the incantations, the money-creating howls, the invoked names of destiny-altering deities, gods of vengeance, gods of wealth, womb-opening gods. They too made me afraid of life. They too had come from the hunger, the wretchedness, of our condition…

I could feel the intense gaze of an ancient mother who had been turned into wood. She knew who I was. Her eyes were pitiless in their scrutiny. She knew my destiny in advance. She sat in her cobwebbed niche, a mighty stature in mahogany, powerful with the aroma of fertility. Her large breasts exuded a shameless libidinous potency. A saffron-coloured cloth had been worn round her gentle pregnancy. Behind her dark glasses, she seemed to regard everything with equal serenity. She gave off an air of contradictory dreams. I was mesmerized by the musk of her half-divinity.

It could have been done in 250 rather than 500 pages.

It’s strange to me that Okri is hailed as “one of Africa’s greatest writers”. He wasn’t born in Africa, and was educated and spent most of his life in England. But that’s about PR, I guess.

1991 Nicholas Mosley from The Guardian

I was asked to be a judge probably because I had just won the Whitbread the previous year. This had itself been a surprise, because it seemed I was out of favour with the literary establishment, having been labelled a “novelist of ideas” while what was in favour was “style”. And style seemed most easily to be exhibited in stories that were outlandish, or grim, or quaint. I looked forward to judging the Booker because I thought I might give a boost to “ideas”. There were five judges, and we had to choose six books out of 100 for the shortlist. I thought – well, surely, with this set-up I’ll be able to squeeze in one choice of mine. But, in the event, I got none of my choices on to the list, because of the inflexibility of the voting system and of the other four judges, who were devotees of “style”. So I resigned, partly in a huff, but also because I thought that by so doing I might still be able to strike a blow for “ideas”, as I might be asked to explain myself in the press – which I did.

The winner chosen by the remaining judges was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road – a beautifully written (yes) story of a boy in a west African village who goes to and fro between his family and the local witchdoctor. My choice would have been Allan Massie’s The Sins of the Father, which confronted the issue of what was possible or impossible if the child of a notorious ex-Nazi and the child of a Jewish victim fell in love after the second world war. What could be forgiven, and by whom, and what could not. But these are controversial questions, and thus conventionally to be avoided.

 

Martyn Goff, long-time administrator of the National Book Trust and The Booker says, “Over the years one of the things I’ve learnt to understand is that the chemistry of the personalities of the judges is more important than anyone believes. People don’t understand when I say to them how could they have chosen this or that because x actually couldn’t stand y and it was y who wanted such and such a book. They don’t realize that as the judging goes on they develop interpersonal relations which can just as well be interpersonal dislike—Nicholas Mosley and Jeremy Treglown for instance in 1991 couldn’t stand each other and this led to Nicholas walking out.”

 

Am I correct that the administrator of the Booker is publicly declaring the decision is based more on the personalities of the jurors than the quality of the books?

 

6549 w. October 25, 2011

Jean Baird

Jean Baird

Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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