By Jean Baird | November 9, 2011


Frank Davey sends yet another reading of Mistry’s Such a Long Journey:

What’s most interesting to me about Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey is the alternate view of world history that it constructs. That may have also interested a Booker jury – one would hope. In this it resembles M.S. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack, although without quite the same narrative emphasis on chronology and family descent. Like Vassanji’s expatriate South Indian Ismaili Moslem community in East Africa, Mistry’s Parsi community in Bombay is one defined by religion and ethnicity but not by nationalism. Unlike the Ismailis, however, the Parsis can recall a lost national identity: in the Zoroastrian Persian empire of Xerxes and Darius, and in its smaller medieval successors. Gustad Noble, the point-of-view character of the novel, has named his sons Darius and Sohrab, the second after the legendary warrior-son of Firdousi’s medieval Persian epic, the Shah-nama. The Shah-nama is also cited in the first of the novel’s three epigraphs, which begins


He assembled the aged priests and put questions to them concerning the kings who had once possessed the world. ‘How did they,’ he inquired, ‘hold the world in the beginning, and why is it that it has been left to us in such a sorry state?’ 


This question about history gestures to two questions which haunt the bank clerk Gustad Noble: how have the Persians or Parsis so declined from the romantic times of Xerxes and Darius, or of Sohrab and Rustum, and how has his own family declined from the prosperity of his grandfather’s and father’s generations. In the opening chapter Mistry shows Gustad sitting at his long-dead grandfather’s large black desk, a desk that he has dishonestly inherited, and recalling the grandfather’s shop.


Gustad remembered the sign on the shop. Clearly, as though it is a photograph before my eyes: Noble & Sons, Makers of Fine Furniture, and I also remember the first time I saw the sign – too young to read the words but not to recognize the pictures that danced around the words…. like the furniture in my childhood home.


Later in this chapter he undertakes a semi-disastrous project to buy a live chicken and kill, dress, and cook it just like his family had been able to do, with the help of many servants, during his childhood.


            Throughout, the novel focuses on Gustad’s longing for affiliation: with his Zoroastrian/Parsi past history, with the wealth and status of his grandfather’s generation, even with belonging to a larger possible family of Mother India, personified for him in the early parts of the novel by Indira Gandhi. While death, government treachery, municipal corruption, and family betrayals make it impossible for anyone in the novel to keep or recover most material things — goldfish die, businesses go bankrupt, the municipality at the end of the novel destroys the wall that protects the apartment complex in which Gustad and his fellow tenants  live –  memory persists, and eventually comes to act as a substitute for Gustad for what has been lost. He may not be able to hand on his grandfather’s furniture business and carpentry skills to his son Darius – only the grandfather’s hammer remains – but he can pass on the memory of the grandfather. His friend Major Billimoria cannot be saved from betrayal by a corrupt Indira Gandhi, but the story of his betrayal can be passed on through Gustad and remembered.


            At a cultural level Such a Long Journey acts to insert both Parsi memory and a period of twentieth-century Indian history into Canadian literary textuality – implying that there are other journeys than those recounted in Western literature from Homer to Lancelot Andrewes and T.S. Eliot, from whose poem “The Journey of the Magi,” and its quotation from Andrewes, the title is taken. Contrary to the suggestion of Eliot’s arguably Eurocentric poem, and Andrewes’ arguably Eurocentric sermon, both of which put Western words into the mouth of a middle-east speaker, Christianity has not caused  “bitter agony” and “death” of all pre-Christian mid-Eastern religions and cultures. However, I doubt that such an insertion was Mistry’s aim. The novel’s implied audience seems more likely to have been an Indian one, or a Booker one, than a Canadian one. The epigraphs seemed aimed mainly at British readers, and the Parsi narrative at Indian ones. Parsis are invisible in Canada but in India have been attacked and killed, as a somehow over-privileged minority, during inter-ethnic rioting.


Frank’s point about alternative views of history is useful, because during the 1980s and 90s it seemed to be a focus for the Bookers, whether or not the novels involved merited international recognition for quality of writing. It’s a category: alternative view of history. For 1991 the novels by both Okri and Mo would also fit the category.


When I first began this project I included my choice of winner for the year. I’ve noticed I’ve stopped that practice. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, but on reflection I realize that making the judgment has ceased to interesting me. Is this book better than that book? So I was particularly interested in the following piece:

Montreal’s Miguel Syjuco disappointed to be shut out of Canadian book prizes

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 14:33 Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Montreal writer Miguel Syjuco admits he got the career boost of a lifetime when he won the Man Asian Literary Prize for the manuscript that would become his debut novel “Ilustrado.”

But that early acclaim may have set expectations so high for his resulting book ”a sprawling historical analysis of the Philippines and an indictment of its pampered elite” that satisfying the critics was impossible, he suggests.

Syjuco, 33, says he’s disappointed to be shut out of Canada’s three major book prizes, and posits a variety of reasons for the snub, ranging from “Ilustrado” (Penguin) being too political, not Canadian enough, or just plain inadequate.

“There are so many theories that anyone could come up with,” Syjuco says from Vancouver, where he is attending the Vancouver International Writers Festival this weekend.

“Essentially, the judges have their own tastes and opinions and it does become something of a lottery. The novelist Julian Barnes called the (Man) Booker Prize, for example, ‘posh bingo.’ And in a way, it is. I got very lucky with the Man Asian Literary Prize and I’m happy with that. Prizes are important, I think, to writers because they push your work to more readers and that’s ultimately what we want….. (But) it is a little disappointing.”

Syjuco exploded into the spotlight in 2008 when he claimed the $10,000 prize for his ambitious manuscript, marking an auspicious start to a fledgling career that had until then been marked by rejection letters.

But his name was notably absent among the Canadian writers who appeared on the recent nomination lists for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Syjuco is among the finalists for a Quebec Writers’ Federation Awards, to be handed out Nov. 23.

The soft-spoken writer, who was a copy editor at the Montreal Gazette when he submitted “Ilustrado” to the Man Asian Literary Prize, says the intense publicity that followed the win made him nervous about his prospects as a published author.

“The book hadn’t come out yet and I thought, ‘Well, I’m worried about all of this hype. It can’t be good for it.’ I would rather the book came out and people decided for themselves rather than the book comes out two years after I won a prize so everybody’s thinking, ‘This is fantastic, it must be a masterpiece,’ and then they see it as a flawed, baggy first novel by somebody who’s trying to reach beyond his own capacities and grow as a writer,” says Syjuco.

“I’m still new to the Canadian writing scene. I’m still something of an outsider and I think my book is different from some stuff out there and maybe it just takes a little bit longer for people to enjoy it, if ever they do.

“Or maybe the book just isn’t good enough. I have good days, I have bad days.”

Syjuco’s first novel is a complex and ambitious work.

Ostensibly, it’s about the death of a Filipino literary hero and the student who investigates his mysterious demise. Woven throughout are snippets of the hero’s novels, essays and newspaper articles, leading the reader across centuries, continents, and generations that defined the island nation.

Reviews have ranged from glowing celebrations of the book’s unique blend of genres as a way to piece together a fragmented life and country, to derisive for a difficult, complex structure that some felt was overwrought.

“I’ve learned that I have to be happy with creating discussion and debate and that I shouldn’t be trying to write a book that appeals to the consensus,” says Syjuco, who moved to Canada at age one, returned to the Philippines at age 11 and settled in Montreal three years ago.

“It took me awhile. At first I was disappointed that the book wasn’t flying off the shelves in the U.S. or Canada or elsewhere. It’s doing OK, it’s doing fine, but it’s not one of those bestselling books and that’s really because there are those people who love it and there are those people who hate it or don’t get it or give up on it. And that’s great. because it creates discussion and it’s a great book for book clubs, I’m told, it’s good for lively conversation.”

He’s particularly disappointed that major newspapers in the Phillipines largely ignored the book, noting that “less than a handful” of articles appeared upon its release.

“It was a big deal when I won the prize,” he notes.

“So it’s not about the book; it’s about winning. It’s about succeeding and that’s really quite troubling. But maybe it’s just that people read the book and didn’t like it or maybe they found it too confronting, I don’t know.”


Syjuco says two things here that resonate with me, after so much time reading nothing but Bookers. I agree with him—the long list doesn’t matter, the short list doesn’t matter, only winning matters, though that isn’t the way it should be. Writers should not write for consensus. Now keep that in mind when you read the following.

Kim Goldberg was on the jury for the 2010 GG for poetry. There was a lot of discussion on her facebook page about the 5 short-listed writers. Kim decided the long list would be of interest to other poets and poetry readers so she made the following post:

I’ve been thinking about sharing this list ever since our earlier Facebook discussion of the shortlist of five finalists (http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150303943260301). And I have been feeling kind of cowardly for not sharing it. Nobody ever said we couldn’t release this list. And I don’t see how its release does anything but give some much-deserved recognition to some additional poets and their publishers. I would hope in future years that the Canada Council itself would release the GG long lists in mid-September, prior to the release of the finalists (shortlists) in mid-October and the winners in mid-November.


 171 poetry books published between September 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010 were submitted by their publishers for this year’s English-language Poetry GG. The three jurors were: Kimmy Beach (Red Deer, Alberta), Norm Sibum (Montreal) and me – Kim Goldberg (Nanaimo, BC).


 We each read all 171 books in private, with no communication with each other. Then ten days before we were to meet in Ottawa for our one-day adjudication process to determine the five finalists and winner, we were each asked to submit a list of up to ten titles that were our top contenders. Our three separate lists were compiled into one cumulative list (which I am calling the unofficial ‘long list’). And that cumulative list was emailed back to each of us so we could study those books more closely before we left for Ottawa. The books on that cumulative list were the only books we discussed when we met for our day-long adjudication session in Ottawa.


 Here is our cumulative list (the ‘long list’) of 22 books, alphabetical by title. The five finalists are marked with an asterisk.


 * &: A Serial Poem by Daryl Hine (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)

 A Good Time Had by All by Meaghan Strimas (Exile Editions)

 After Jack by Garry Thomas Morse (Talonbooks)

 Attenuations of Force by Lori Cayer (Frontenac House)

 Back Off, Assassin! by Jim Smith (Mansfield Press)

 * Boxing the Compass by Richard Greene (Signal Editions/Véhicule Press)

 * Circus by Michael Harris (Signal Editions/Véhicule Press)

 Decompositions by Ken Belford (Talonbooks)

 * Deepwater Vee by Melanie Siebert (McClelland & Stewart)

 * Exploding into Night by Sandy Pool (Guernica Editions)

 Huge Blue by Patrick M. Pilarski (Leaf Press)

 Ivan’s Birches by Barry Dempster (Pedlar Press)

 Lookout by John Steffler (McClelland & Stewart)

 Maple Leaf Rag by Kaie Kellough (Arbeiter Ring Publishing)

 My Darling Nellie Grey by George Bowering (Talonbooks)

 Neighbour Procedure by Rachel Zolf (Coach House Books)

 Ossuaries by Dionne Brand (McClelland & Stewart)

 Tattoo Land by Kathleen McCracken (Exile Editions)

 The Irrationalist by Suzanne Buffam (House of Anansi Press)

 The Reinvention of the Human Hand (Paul Vermeersch (McClelland & Stewart)

 The Semiconducting Dictionary: Our Strindberg by Natalee Caple (ECW Press)

 Wait Until Late Afternoon by David Bateman and Hiromi Goto (Frontenac House)


You will notice that the long list has some really good titles with a great range of poetics, while the short list is, well, pretty one dimensional. Kim says not all 3 jurors submitted lists with 10 books, that some lists were shorter. So the long list of 22 in itself confirms there wasn’t much consensus on this jury.

The posting prompted more discussion, including this from Shane Neilson, and good for him:

Better to have my own two feet in my mouth than the CC’s thumb. Or, teat. Your post reads like CC propaganda. Kumbaya etc. There’s no acrimony here! And by the way, the Schier fiasco can’t happen again! Not that we take responsibility for that in the first place!


It seems like you’re too nice… Stuart and Zach pulled you away from your initial post and you’ve agreed with them, in the Canadian way. If there really was an argument in the judging process, if there were strenuous disagreements, if there was an honest way to get to the best book, then I’d be glad for the CC to let us hear about it, not a nicey nice we all got along, aren’t we civilized, patty cake post. All the high fives you’re getting here attest to me that the whole CC process is rank, and no one wants to give offense, lest retribution come.


But since you mentioned it, a points system is stupid too. People should be allowed to not be mathematical about poetry. They should be allowed to persuade. Duel. Argue. Get mad. Feel a conversion. A points system is like phoning it in.


I can’t help but feel that the best books this year weren’t on the list (gasp! I risk offending the judges! The CC! The nominees!) because the consensus process necessarily excluded them, and in pathetic fashion, you seem to agree. How valid a process is that? Isn’t that my point?


Now for my favourite part of the story. Someone phoned the Canada Council to complain that Goldberg had posted the long list. The CC got in touch with her and asked her to remove the information from her facebook page, which she did. The CC also informed her that in future GG jurors would have to sign a confidentiality clause saying they will not disclose the long list. Just what we need—more rules and restrictions.


1992 Booker Jury: Victoria Glendinning, novelist and whining 2009 Giller juror. John Coldstream, at the time the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph. Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and Tutor and Senior Fellow in English Literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford—also does BBC work and reviews extensively. Dr. Harriet Harvey Wood, then literature director of the British Council. Mark Lawson, journalist, broadcaster and writer.


Christopher Hope—Serenity House UBC


Max Montfalon is declining, his enormous house is too much so he makes a deal with his daughter and her ambitious politician husband—if they buy a new house with an apartment for him they get all his money. After 7 months the daughter is about to crack up dealing with her cranky and incontinent dad, so Max gets shipped off to Serenity House. The Lear overtones in the beginning are quickly taken over by black comedy, murder mystery, and anti-American themes—particularly the US media’s obsession with (glorification of?) death and killing.


The novel has a cast of eccentric characters, my favourite is Max’s granddaughter, a devotee of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or at least until she takes up a new fad. Max had been a doctor, then made a fortune through corporate takeovers. Cledwyn Fox is doing his best to administer a home for the aged in an increasingly competitive market:


More and more people born. And living longer. Present population increase was about two per cent a year. At this rate the living space available to each of us by late in the next millennium was reduced to a few yards. Fifty billion by 2100 and a century later, 500 billion. Project the figures into the third millennium and the space available to each human being had shrunk to one square inch! Even if you could shoot them into space, you would have to expel around 10,000 an hour, for ever, to make much difference.,,A certain individual freedom was fine, but in the end, only large-scale intervention would deal with the problems.


The novel is deeply disturbing in its presentation of the industry and ugly commerce of aging and death. It’s both brutal and funny—a doctor who supports euthanasia pens a book titled The Joy of Passing. The novel is stinging, and no one gets off the hook. It puts euthanasia of British elders beside the holocaust, and Disney World. The last chapter of the novel absolutely clobbered me. When I finish this Booker project, I’ll search out other books by Hope.


Michele Roberts—Daughters of the House UBC


Loosely based on the real life of martyr St. Therese, the novel begins with Leonie waiting for the return of her cousin to the family house—Therese has spent the last 20 years as a nun. To fill the time waiting for her cousin Leonie is preparing an inventory of the house and those items become the titles for the very short chapters of the book—The Bed, The Biscuit Tin, The Cellar Key, etc.


The novel (maybe) begins with a short, heavy-handed, gothicesque dream, though it took me many readings to make any sense of it. It’s obviously written to make the reader think of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher or Hawthorn’s The House of the Seven Gables. Lots of doom, gloom and foreshadowing and a house that becomes a character, in essence.


Quickly (and the whole book is quick—if you added up all the white space it might not make the page count to qualify as a novel) the narrative (maybe) tells the story of the girls’ early years and the “miracle” that altered both their lives.


I’m reminded of Possession since this novel is clearly written to explore literary theories and specifically feminist themes. The few male characters in the novel are incidental. The concern is female relationships, mother and daughter, servant and mistress, and all other manner of womanhood, female martyrdom, virginity, sexuality, nurturing and secrecy. A brief online search does indicate that feminist critics are all over this one, and as far as I’m concerned, that can have it.


At its best the novel is examining the line (if there really is one) between fact and fiction, the act of storytelling, or stealing stories and making them your own. Leonie is the one who goes to the secret glade and has a vision of the Virgin. Therese makes modifications to the story, takes it as her own and convinces the clergy that she has experienced a miracle.


The writing is highly poetic in places, and mystical. It’s the sort of stuff you’d expect from a student in a conservative creative writing program (like the one at UBC) who thinks she is being edgy. It’s a poorly written YA novel, an imprecise fairy tale, about the passage into adulthood (both girls begin menstruating). Too much fussy description and way too many metaphors.


Did saints ever bat their eyelids and look sleepily self-satisfied as cats? Therese, lowering her lashes like a lacy brown veil and trying to smile too obviously, did not look modest. It was the same look she’d directed at the men all through lunch and they’d loved it. Leonie thought men were stupid to be so easily taken in. Look flutteringly at them, pout with all your maidenly charm, above all don’t say a word, and they were yours. She vowed that never would she resort to such cheap tricks. She would die rather than roll her eyes and wriggle and blush.


Patrick McCabe—The Butcher Boy VPL


The 1992 Picador edition has a scary portrait on the cover. The novel is as menacing as this cover image suggests.






Francie Brady is the first-person narrator, a young boy living in a small community where his broken-down mother and alcoholic father are known as the Pigs. Representing the upper class of the community is the Nugent family, and their son Philip, perpetually in his school blazer.


It’s chilling, right from the start, “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.” Some disturbing events take place during the narrative of the novel. At one point Francie is sent to a home for “bad” boys, which is run by bad priests (Francie works out payment for services with chocolates). But it isn’t so much the plot that is disturbing; it’s the increasing mental disturbance of Francie. He shifts from misguided to demented, and takes the reader on that ride. The reader is in Francie’s head, though you wouldn’t want Francie in your home. Or chumming with your children.


Francie is scary, but his innocence underlines the cruelty of the town. He runs away from home, his mother commits suicide and Francie is blamed. The community shuns him because of his family and class situation. He is emotionally abused by the authority figures who should be helping him.


Not far into the story Francie can’t always tell the difference between a real situation, one on television, and one in his head. It’s hard to like Francie but it’s impossible not to feel compassion for his situation, without condoning his actions. In Francie’s situation, he is cornered into anarchy.


Category: Scream of consciousness. We’ve seen this one before, repeatedly. Except this book goes way past eccentric. The line between the real and the imagined cracks, as Francie spins out of control. As so often with Irish novels, at heart is the class disparity and the usual Irish clichés, such as drunkenness. There is a larger sense of doom from the world’s situation with occasional mention of the Cuban crisis and predictions of the end of the world.


Mary had the same face as ma used to have sitting staring into the ashes it was funny that face it slowly grew over the other one until one day you looked and the person you knew was gone. And instead there was a half-ghost sitting there who had only one thing to say: All the beautiful things of this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end.


A movie has been made. And here’s an interesting site PSYCHOANALYTIC MEDIA CRITICISM BY HARVEY ROY GREENBERG, MD


“Harvey Roy Greenberg, M.D., a graduate of Columbia College, and Cornell University Medical College, is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, New York, where he teaches adolescent psychiatry and medical humanities. He practices adult and adolescent psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychopharmacology in Manhattan. Dr. Greenberg writes frequently on the psychoanalytic study of cinema, media, and popular culture.”


Here is his review of the movie:




Ian McEwan—Black Dogs VPL


Back cover blurb: “A terrifyingly beautiful political allegory in the form of a sublimely readable novel.” Ottawa Citizen


I wonder when people are writing book reviews if they are thinking, “quote me, quote me.”


This book is a fable disguised as a memoir about the nature of good and evil, the inherent evil in all of us and the possible redemption of love. June and Bernard are idealist, sexually they are highly compatible but are at odds about politics. June suffers a violent encounter with some Nazi dogs, left behind after the retreat, and makes the decision to assume a life of introspection and isolation. Bernard continues with the communist cause. They stay married and have children, but live apart. Or as Bernard accuses, she trades one utopia for another. Years later, with June dying in an old age home, their son-in-law tries to sort it out.


The writing is first-rate, and atmospherically the novel is a huge achievement. But the fable content makes the story/morale too obvious.


Michael Ondaatje—The English Patient GB library copy—WINNER, shared


Is there anyone in the Anglophone world who doesn’t have a story about this novel? Heck, it even became a special episode on Seinfeld, about how to bore someone. And I must admit that the first time I tried to read it, not long after it was published, I got to page 100 or so and packed it in. But it’s a Booker winner and under the rules I’ve established I had to finish it. And I did, and really liked parts of it.


When the novel captured me, it was by the quality of the writing. Specific scenes are wonderful, such as Kip’s relationship to his English mentor or the exploration of the Sistine Chapel by flare light. Ondaatje creates scenes and atmospheres that are luscious, sometimes ethereal. And it’s that quality that sometimes seems inappropriate, as others have charged, the aestheticization of war and suffering. Ondaatje often writers, in prose and poetry, about violence and endless academic papers have be written about this theme, or as some charge, obsession. Christian Bok notes, “Ondaatje in effect receives critical acclaim for his ability to stylize violence, to endow it with aesthetic integrity through both technical precision and emotional detachment.” In part, that’s what irritated me on my first reading and made me abandon the book.


One night George and I were having a drink with Mike Matthews, and we chatted about the novel. Mike said he thought Ondaatje is a brilliant scene writer but can’t tell a story. George said he has had conversations with Ondaatje who claims he writes scenes and pins them to a board, then when he is finished the scenes, stands back and decides in which order they should be placed. In other words, not a story in the usual sense but a collage. Then Mike M had an “ahay” moment, “Ondaatje is a painter trying to get out of a writer’s body.”


Hana is laying a fire, the shelled chapel—all lit suddenly, without shadow. Kip will walk with no qualms under the trees in his patch of garden during such storms, the dangers of being killed by lightning pathetically minimal compared with the danger of his daily life. The naïve Catholic images from those hillside shrines that he has seen are with him in the half-darkness, as he counts the seconds between lightning and thunder. Perhaps this villa is a similar tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war.


Ondaatje writes spots in time. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a better book, I think, but this novel followed by the movie made Ondaatje a superstar.


Barry Unsworth—Sacred Hunger SHARED WINNER


Category: Overwrought Historical Novel


Prologue, page 2:

The mulatto invented himself—it was why he was tolerated in the bars. Some aura of my own invention lies about him too. The kneading of memory makes the dough of fiction, which, as we know, can go on yeasting for ever; and I have had to rely on memory, since the newspaper itself has been long defunct and its files have been destroyed or dimply mouldered away.


Page 2, people. Egad. Dough of fiction, indeed.


William Kemp is a merchant who has seen a decline in his business so he invests in the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship that sails for Africa under the leadership of Captain Thurso. The ship’s doctor is Matthew Paris, nephew of Kemp, recently released from prison for publishing pamphlets that disagree with the church. The other major character is Kemp’s son, the highly ambitious Erasmus. When the fortunes of Thurso collapse (and he offs himself) the son is left to bear the shame, and the great grudge he has against his cousin Paris.


Unsworth’s method is to use lots of description. The descriptive details for atmosphere are clumsily intruded on the narrative:


Light played over the long, beast-footed sideboard, flickered on the heavy brass clasps that held its doors, on glasses and decanter, on the triple-headed silver candlesticks that had belonged to his mother’s mother. These, and the gilded mahogany clock above the fireplace and the ebony book-ends carved as ravens holding the big Bible with its purple silk marker, were thing she had grown up with, as was his father’s voice, which had never to his recollection sounded the faintest note of doubt or misgiving.


That’s from page 14. I feel like I’m stuck inside a C18th House and Gardens Magazine.


One storyline follows the adventures and misadventures of the ship as it travels to Africa and collects slaves, then departs for the new world. The other is the path of Erasmus, his failed courtship of the rich girl after his father’s death, his loveless marriage to a wealthy heiress and his rise in both economic and social stature. The novel hits the themes you’d expect; historical ideas about race (at one point Erasmus in involved in rehearsal for a production of “The Enchanted Island” which allows for discussion about Caliban who has “no soul”), trading in heathens and ministering to them, marital customs, the destructive element of foreign trade, redemption, greed, malice, corruption, and so on. It’s historical in a big way, trying to hit all the appropriate themes.


The ships come and trade on the edges. You may think only the edges are fouled with this trade but it is not so. The flood of cheap manufactures, for which the people have no need, destroys their industries. They become dependent on this trade and the demand for goods can only be met by enslaving their fellows. To do this they need muskets in ever increasing quantities — which we supply. And so we spread death everywhere. But that sacred hunger we spoke of justifies all. The trade is lawful, they say, and that is enough.


Things on the ship go terribly wrong; slaves die and/or are thrown overboard, disease afflicts almost everyone and living conditions become intolerable. In the second section we find out after the event that mutiny has occurred, the captain dies and the few who remain hide the ship up a river in Florida and begin a utopian society, whites and blacks living in a community, even sharing the women (since there aren’t enough to go around).


Delblanc had seen more clearly than anyone that only concerted action could save them, not only from surrounding dangers but from one another. Perhaps there was already present to his mind the marvellous opportunity the mutiny presented to test theories, vindicate man’s natural goodness in this dream of a community living without constraint of government or corruption of money. A ship blown off course, a scuffle of sick and desperate men, the blood of a madman clumsily and almost casually spilt, he had seen in these a truth of politics, a revolution, the founding of a new order.


Does the new order work? Of course not; trade develops into commerce, which creates power, and the ability to enslave the lesser blessed. And just as the community is about to self-destruct on its own, Erasmus shows up to put them all back in shackles and recoup on his father’s investment.


The big ideas, observations and philosophies come from the strange narrative voice—none are truly embodied in the characters. For a morality play—and essentially that’s what this is with the bad slave traders, etc—it’s a shortcoming to use stick characters. The only character who holds any promise or hope is the mulatto child of Paris and one of the black women, but this son ends up a drunk in New Orleans, babbling about his birth in Eden. The two really interesting characters are Erasmus’s first love and his mother, but both women just disappear.


On the despicable scale Erasmus Kemp scores a 9. The novel also fits the Alternative View of History category.


From The Guardian 1992 Victoria Glendinning

My fellow judges were John Coldstream, literary editor of the Telegraph, Harriet Harvey-Wood, literary director of the British Council, Valentine Cunningham and Mark Lawson. We became intimate in the way of people thrown together in a scary but non-fatal railway accident. John dreamt one night that he was Spartacus, with the Roman legions advancing on him in the form of piles of new titles. It was a vintage year for rent-a-sneer in the media. Prominent journalists whinged chauvinistically about “far-flung authors”, deaf to the explosion of energy from Commonwealth novelists, which has been the most significant feature of the Booker’s 40 years. The prize was “essentially trivial”, pontificated AN Wilson in contemptuous mode in the Evening Standard; and, enraged, I wrote to the Guardian letters page to contest Richard Gott’s clichés about the decline of the novel and what he called the “tokenism” of the inclusion of Michèle Roberts on the shortlist.

Every book on our shortlist had one passionate supporter and one furious antagonist. When at the final meeting we locked horns over the frontrunners, it was suggested that we should reach our decision by taking into account second choices – proportional representation. This procedure gave Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) equal points. I turned to Martyn Goff, sitting behind me discreetly – or as discreetly as anyone can who is wearing a gold satin tie – and asked if we could share the prize between the two. He conceded there was no rule against it. So that’s what we did.

Before the meeting, I was so unnerved that I left my bag with all my notes in it at the bank. When stressed I become sharp-tongued, and at one point told a fellow judge that he was a condescending bastard. My notes on our sessions are, at this distance in time, enigmatic. What in the world, for example, was Val Cunningham on about when he said: “I am very interested in Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits and their role in literature”?

English: “The judges that year failed even to choose an outright winner, dividing the prize between Barry Unsworth and Michael Ondaatje; the evening seemed flat, anti-climactic, given over to timidity, compromise, and decorum. But soon after the two winners made their speeches, Ian McEwan, a shortlisted also-ran for the second time, took his publishing entourage and left Guildhall. Geraldine seized eagerly on this gesture. “Is it possible?” she wrote. “Yes! He’s walking out! Before the closing speech and the toast to Poor Salman, Who Can’t Be With Us!…What a relief. The Booker Prize for 1992 will have its scandal after all.”




  • 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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