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Archive for July, 2010

The Longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize has been announced.  It’s a wide-ranging and interesting ‘Booker Dozen’, ie: 13 novels. 

Peter Carey gets his expected nod for Parrot and Olivier in America, as does Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap.  There are no first-time novelists.  Interestingly, Ian McEwan’s Solar misses out. 

As ever, the prize is determined by the group of judges assembled each year.  This year’s prize is chaired by Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, and features some highly qualified judges to assist him.  I think we should see a very exciting shortlist and winner if the longlist is anything to go by.  What price another Carey win?    

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)

Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy C (Random House – Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (Hodder & Stoughton – Sceptre)

Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House – Jonathan Cape)

I usually don’t get excited by longlists, but this one looks very strong.  I’m particularly interested in the wonderfully packaged Skippy Dies by Paul Murray -widely said to be hilarious.  Also, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has had quite good reviews.  But the overwelhming early favourite is The Long Song
by Andrea Levy.  What are your thoughts on the list? 

The D!

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The Road to Redemption’s opening tells you much about the style of book to come:

Most people live on dry land, in houses.  But my father and I live on a barge.  Nothing surprising about that, since we are boat people; the terra firma does not belong to us. 

The writing is simple, almost non-descript, yet it is lifted by the wonderful, lyrical final clause: ‘the terra firma is not for us’.  This was noted by Colm Toibin at the Sydney Writer’s Festival who was speaking of the book and the Man Asian Prize that it won in 2009 in a lively panel discussion entitled ‘Judges & Winners’.  This is no surprise, for he was one of the judges that year.  (It was great to see Colm asking Su Tong to sign his copy of the book, just like any avid fan.)

On the following page, the son, Ku Dongliang, tells us of his concern about the deteriorating health of his father:

I’ve noticed spots on the backs of his hands and along his spine; a few are brown or dark red, but most glisten like silver, and it’s these that are beginning to worry me.  I can’t help thinking that my father will soon grow scales on his body.  He has lived an extraordinary life, and I’m afraid he’s on the verge of turning into a fish.

What a wonderful opening!  Very poetic, very intriguing, a great ‘hook’ so-to-speak.  But this deep lyricism is not sustained.  Instead, we get more of the first line’s characteristics: simplicity in narrative voice lifted by rare moments of lyricism. 

The story is narrated by the 15-year old adolescent Dongliang, who is by western standards very cloistered, and the narrative voice reflects this.  It is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su himself grew up.  Dongliang and his father have spent the last few years working on barge no. 7 of the Sunnyside Fleet.  When his parents separated, Dongliang had to choose which life he wanted – that of the river or the shore.  The boat people are treated with great suspicion by the shore people and the Party members.  Dongliang doesn’t help himself in this however – he is quite an impulsive character, struggling with adolescence and the shame of being his father’s son.  His father had got into trouble by bedding many of the women on both shore and ship and in an effort to correct his own failings brought shame to himself and Dongliang by mutilating his genitals.  (Darkness is apparently one of Su Tong’s trademarks.) 

Dongliang’s life is changed when Huixian, an orphan girl is pushed to live with the boat people by the Party authorities.  She is spoilt rotten by the family on one of the other barges who bring her up.  As they grow older, Dongliang becomes quite obsessed with Huixian, particularly when she scores a role impersonating Li Tiemei – the heroine of the revolutionary opera Red Lantern.  She becomes a minor celebrity in the district, but her lack of real talent and effort to learn sees her progress stunted.  Without the support of party members, her future dreams vanish, and she instead becomes a barber.  She is now a shore person, and there is a constant struggle for Dongliang to come to terms with the divide of the river and the shore.  It’s a lovely, poetic divide, and a great narrative theme, but unfortunately it becomes a little lost… Why? 

I wanted to love this book and was captivating by its poetic opening.  But then I found myself wading through the next four hundred pages wondering what happened to the writing.  Gone was the poetry; in its place were repetitive images that grated, long-winded scenes, and underwhelming writing.  For instance, Dongliang is given the nickname Kongpi – which is a combination of Kong, meaning ‘empty’, and Pi, meaning ‘arse’.  Empty arse.  This is funny to some degree, but it’s so overused it’s mind-numbing.  

For a lot of the book, the writing is obviously less polished than the opening.  This is somewhat hidden because of the narrative ‘voice’ of the book, but not completely.  Furthermore, the poeticism of the writing comes and goes too.  What is the reason?  Well, I came across Su Tong’s book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010).  I went to two sessions where Su Tong spoke.  The first was the panel discussion on literary awards noted above; the second was a discussion between just himself and Linda Jaivin.  One of the points that came out of that session was the English translation.  Linda read the Chinese version and the English translation back-to-back and was appalled over the quality of the translation.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version. 

The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, as the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session. 

For me, this issue was summed up in the title of the book.  The book’s original Chinese title can be translated as: River, Shore – a perfect reflection of the divide that conflicts Dongliang.  Now, The Boat to Redemption is no doubt a ‘powerful’ title, but it feels to me as though someone was trying to give it a title similar to the similarly powerful Raise the Red Lantern – the name given to the movie based on his book Wives and Concubines.  I’ve no doubt that translating stories, particularly across vast cultural divides, involves a fair degree of massaging by publishers to ensure good sales.  But something quite tangible has been lost in the title, let alone what has been lost in via translating an unfinished manuscript.  

I’m somewhat troubled by the thought that people won’t read the book because of these issues.  That would be sad, because it could have been (and no doubt is in Chinese) a wonderful story set within a very interesting period of Chinese history.  I had relatively high expectations even with the knowledge that it would be somewhat flawed.  I can’t help but feel I would have loved reading River, Shore in all its poetic, lyrical splendour.  After all, shouldn’t we read the story as the author intended it?  Somehow I doubt we’ll get the privilege.  

The Boat to Redemption receives the lowest rating I’ve yet handed out.  Regular readers will know I err toward generosity in my markings, so this low score really highlights my frustration with this novel.  It should have been better, and, most frustratingly, it probably is!  What a shame.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 2.5/5

The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong

Black Swan

ISBN: 9780552774543

475 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, aka: personal library.

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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall

Penguin

ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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