February – Lisa Moore

In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland.  All 84 men aboard died. February is a fictional narrative set twenty-five years after this real-life disaster.

In February, Moore explores the protracted grief of Helen O’Mara; “one of those left behind” by the catastrophe. The problem I have with this is that Helen wasn’t “left behind” at all – because she isn’t real: unlike, I imagine, many, many tens of women whose husbands did drown in 1982, any one of whose story would doubtless have made more moving, interesting and poignant reading that this problematically fictionalised account.

The problem with February, then, is entirely conceptual.  With such a heart-breaking, community-shattering disaster as its basis, why does Lisa Moore feel the need to fictionalise the grief with made-up characters and events?  It’s almost as if Moore wanted to write about the Ocean Ranger, but didn’t have the balls to write a straight-up novelisation of the actual disaster, and so made up her own story and set it 25 years later.  Why the need for this fake chronicle set so long after the fact?  Moore’s narrative is just dull, dull, dull compared to its real-world inspiration.  The sinking of the Ocean Ranger is the story I want to read about: that’s where my interest would lie: not in this bizarre, pseudo-realistic aftermath set in the present day.  Even a book of interviews with the surviving widows would have made a more fitting tribute.

It’s an age-old argument: at what point does ‘inspiration’ verge on exploitation?  Moore is happy enough to use the “convenient” truth of the actual disaster upon which to ground her novel, but while the sinking of the ship is taken de facto, the real aftermath and individual pain of the event is ignored in favour of Moore’s fictional heroine and her fictional grief.

Is this a form of authorial cowardice: is it easier to fictionalise the present than to engage with it?  Or maybe the real-life stories of the Ocean Ranger widows just weren’t interesting enough, neat enough or…dare I say it…tragic enough to make an entire book?  If pain actual is too morbid, is pain fictional less uncomfortable?  This is supposedly a novel about real grief and loss: but it’s not – it’s a novel of literary, eloquent and articulate grief: the artifice of which wrenches any impression of realism away from the reader and reinforces the book’s identity as fictional dalliance as the characters constantly self-analyse.

The truth is a rabid dog constantly attacking February: but instead of wrestling it to the ground and tackling it head-on, Lisa Moore tries to shoo it away, hoping that it’ll eventually limp off.  Usually I would find such a tension between fact and invention fascinating; but, in this case, it made me incredibly uncomfortable.  Especially at the book’s dénouement, that is so full of promise, hope, happiness and life as to bathetically undermine the emotional premise and tone of the entire novel.

But maybe I’m taking all this too seriously, maybe the fact that this novel is based on true events isn’t meant to matter – but if that’s the case, then why do the book’s editors take such pains to constantly remind you of the novel’s historical inception?  From the blurb inside and on the back of the book, to the meticulous obsessing over precise dates and times within the narrative: the book screams at the reader: “This Rig Really Sank!”.  As hard as I tried: I just couldn’t ignore the truth behind the fiction.

And I did try; because sentence by sentence, word by word, February is beautifully written and constructed with intricacy and care.  The non-linear narrative skips and warps through the twenty-five year aftermath with masterful poise: doubling-back on itself, and back again, yet somehow always progressing the story forwards.  Moore’s physical description of place and weather (often tonally sympathetic to her characters’ moods) is enjoyable and powerfully evocative of the winter cold, or the waveforms of a disturbed ocean, a firework display viewed from a distance or, for that matter, anything Moore puts her mind to.  Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with the writing itself.

I suppose that the best way to read February would be to imagine the entire scenario as a fiction.  In fact, I wish it were.  But there’s an unspoken spectre that haunts this narrative, one I just couldn’t ignore.  There’s an uncared for truth and reality that, unmentioned, reinforces an unsettling sense of artifice on the novel.  One day, probably soon, Lisa Moore is going to publish something incredible; this just isn’t it. She’s a very powerful, eloquent writer, and I look forward to reading something by her that isn’t problematized by a fiction/reality tension.

Tomcat

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The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore

I’ve lost something.  I’m not sure what it is, so beginning the process of looking for it is proving to be somewhat problematic.  I suspect it’s my enthusiasm, though other likely candidates include my nerve, confidence, fervour and gusto.  Whatever it is, its loss has resulted in a recent brevity of blog posts, for which I apologise – aortically, if not wholeheartedly. 

Now that the Booker prize is done and dusted, the thought of sitting down to hack-out articles about the remaining un-reviewed longlisters fills me with dread.  Well, perhaps ‘dread’ is the wrong word; but the anticipated boredom of it all is proving to be an insurmountable obstacle to my output.  The lavishly decorated tables around which the hopeful (and the hopeless) nominees sat three weeks ago have long since been cleared, the confetti swept away (if confetti there was), and I imagine that the gong itself is already gathering dust on Howard Jacobson’s much-adorned mantelpiece. And now, so far away from the buzz and bet-making of the build up, I just can’t bring myself to review the out-standing nominees. 

I should have seen this coming.  Post-facto reviews of books that were nominated for (but didn’t win) literary awards can so easily be accused of pointlessness.  They’ve missed the boat.  Their ship has sailed.  And, disposing of further nautical clichés: nobody cares.  After all, we know that The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore didn’t win the Booker prize, so why should I invest my increasingly precious time and energy in writing about it?  Well, for two reasons: firstly, I’m a fervent completionist, and the thought of leaving the remaining Booker nominees un-reviewed is starting to irritate me, causing an itching in my mind: like a literary eczema.  Secondly: I don’t want to give the impression that, just because a book didn’t win an award, it’s not valuable or worthy of time and consideration.

The problem is: I’m desperate to leave this ‘Booker prize challenge’ behind me, and move on to something new.  At the same time, I don’t want to just ‘phone in’ the remaining book reviews, especially as my recent efforts have been so long and loquacious.

After explaining my predicament to a friend, they suggested that I should stop being so airy-fairy (or was it arty-farty?) and take a more ‘scientific’ approach to review writing, in order to systematically churn-out the remaining reviews.  The idea seemed to imply that 1) science is antithesis to art and, by association, 2) that my blog posts are in some way artistic.  Clearly both implications are utterly preposterous.  However, I thought there was merit in the idea that I change my approach; a change being as good as a rest… at least proverbially.

But don’t panic; I’m not going to use this review to espouse some abstract New Critical formalism – an approach so often (and wrongly, I think) described as literature done scientifically.  I’ve decided, instead, to take my friend’s advice entirely literally. So while I’m sure that this isn’t exactly what my friend had in mind, what follows is my “scientific” review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore.  Enjoy.  Or not.

 

Apparatus

396 grams of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

3 x 500ml Orange Lucozade

1 x bic biro

1 x old notebook

1 x green armchair

1 x pack of post-it strips (multicoloured)

3 x quiet afternoons – concentrated.

 

Process

An experiment was carried out to measure the effectiveness of The Betrayal on a reader. 

I read The Betrayal over the course of three days in late September; the kind of crisp and slightly cold days when you can almost feel the knees of summer finally starting to buckle and bend to the restless shunt of the coming autumn.  Which was appropriate, as much of the novel takes place during this kind of weather. 

The Process of reading required a muster of both patience and dedication – fuelled by a constant supply of Lucozade (this particular formula was a dilution of 16mg of caffeine per 100ml).  Notes were taken using a bic biro (blue), and significant moments during the process were marked with post-it strips applied directly to the subject.  Moments of severe frustration were noted by my throwing the subject against the floor – this did not damage the apparatus in any significant way; it being of such low quality to begin with. 

The reading, ingestion of Lucozade, taking of notes and physical abuse of the subject were repeated until all 396 grams of The Betrayal had been examined.

Prediction

The Betrayal is set in post-war Soviet Russia, specifically: Leningrad, 1952.  Andrei is a young doctor forging a life with his wife, Anna, and her much younger brother Kolya, whom they are raising since the death of Anna’s parents during the siege of Leningrad.  The ‘blurb’ informs us that Volkov – a member of the “secret police”- sends his terminally ill son to Andrei for treatment. 

I predict that Volkov’s son will die very early in the novel.  Volkov, seemingly a judgemental, conservative and quick-to-anger secret-police type, will probably blame Andrei for the death of his son, and (being an unreasonable secret-police type) have him arrested/his family spied upon/ his wife taken from him – or some such unjust course of autocratic yet state-sanctioned action which exposes the corruption rampant at the core of the “secret police”.

As a work of historical fiction, I also predict much period detail demonstrable of intricate research and a dedication to narrative realism.

My unrivalled powers of foresight also lead me to expect that, at some point, somebody will be betrayed.

Observations

Not as predicted.  The Betrayal betrays itself — the lazy process of its own creation is exposed by an almost alarming lack of historical detail.  I have nothing but the most meagre, popular-history understanding of Soviet Russia, yet I could probably write a more historically informative and complex novel than Helen Dunmore has.  The only hints to period or place are irritatingly simplistic catch-alls, such as the nebulous phrase ‘Soviet Russia’ or the anachronistic ‘secret police’.  Whether these “police” are the Cheka, the MVD or the ‘People’s Commissariat’ (or any of the other myriad state enforcers working under police jurisdiction at the time) is never divulged to the reader.  We just have to settle for the ill-defined moniker “secret police”.  This is simplification to a detrimental extent.  Other than being (constantly) told that we are in “Soviet Russia”, there is very little information here: almost nothing about the organisations, politicians and bureaucracy that the novel is supposedly about is supplied in any detail.

Further to this simplicity of context is a simplicity of narrative style.  Dunmore constantly underestimates the intelligence of her readership by spelling out, in patronising detail, the most clear-cut and obvious of procedures and events.  At best the reader will find this irritating, at worst – grossly offensive:

 “You’re lucky you only got ten years; the rest of us got quarters and even halves!”

A half was fifty years, a quarter was twenty five.

Thank God you explained that to me, Helen.  Further to this condescending narrative approach is a smugness of tone that undermines even the novel’s most heartfelt and emotional moments.  For example: early in the novel a desperate mother visits the hospital to spend a final few hours with her dying child.  The bare facts of this encounter are heartbreaking, and need no elaborate or embellished description to move the reader.  Yet Dunmore manages to bathetically subsume the emotional tone of the entire scene with this ugly, unnecessary observation:

 “I felt it go through me” she said “here” And she touched the place where most people seem to think their heart is.

It’s an astonishing act of linguistic tapinosis (language that debases a moment of beauty): a rhetorical technique usually reserved for comedic farce or satire.

Narrative style aside, the plot of the novel enfolded entirely as predicted.  Volkov’s son (under the care of protagonist Andrei) does die – Volkov blames Andrei for the death, and a long process of unjust incrimination, spying, false accusations and confession under duress ensues.

Put simply; The Betrayal is a novelisation of the ‘Doctors Plot’ of 1952; during which many physicians were spied upon, arrested, imprisoned and even executed for no more valid reasons than the suspicions, fear and whimsy of the authoritarian state.  The problem is that Helen Dunmore examines the Plot through clichéd characters and predictable story telling.  Andrei is Doctor Zhivago in all but name: “I wish I were a poet” he states at one point, as if Dunmore is self-consciously trying to ensure some distinction between her own persecuted physician, and Pasternak’s.  Volkov, as mentioned, is an archetype in print: the too-powerful secret police official whose personal failings and insecurities are manifested in acts of arbitrary murder and persecution of the innocent.  I saw the major plot-twist of this novel coming right from page one: and that it takes so long to get there only added to my irritation.

All of these observations, however, are made with caution.  After all, this is a scientific review, and maybe in observing The Betrayal, I changed it.

Results

Not good.  The Betrayal is the worst kind of historical fiction: predictable, derivative, lacking in detail and patronising.  All of this is made even more upsetting by the fact that Helen Dunmore is usually such a wonderful, moving writer.  It’s almost painful to type, but maybe this book is beyond her.  I’m also amazed that the Booker judges saw fit to nominate the book to their longlist; it just doesn’t compare to the other pieces of historical fiction that were listed.

At this point in a scientific report, I would usually comment on how I would improve the experiment in future attempts.  This time, however, such comments are entirely unnecessary.  I won’t be reading The Betrayal again. 

Tomcat

Tomcat’s Bookerthon: a conclusion.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.  Several weeks ago I threw the gauntlet of literary fiction at my own feet, and set myself a challenge; of reading, and of writing.  Attempting to report on the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist was a noble undertaking, but one which, regrettably, fell beyond my powers of endurance.  However, my failure wasn’t total. I did manage to read all thirteen nominated novels; it’s merely in the writing of reviews that I’ve been unsuccessful.

Circumstance hasn’t allowed me the time I need to sit down and write about all of the books I’ve read, and for that I apologise.  But these blog posts don’t write themselves.  Unbelievably, it takes many hours of blood, sweat, tears and toil to churn out such poor-quality pieces of clunk and cliché.  Soaring to the giddy heights of reviewerly mediocrity doesn’t come easy to me; yet I press on, and I will review all of the out-standing Booker nominees in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, I’d like to use this article to make some final comments on the Booker prize, as well as to commit some sickening and vainglorious acts of self-praise, as I congratulate myself on having read twelve pieces of serious literary fiction, and The Slap, in just eight weeks.  Haven’t I done well?

My Bookerthon journey has transported me literarily (not literally) to: Canada, Australia, Eighteenth-Century Japan, Russia, Greece, India, Holland, France, Ireland, Egypt, Africa, Nineteenth-Century Jamaica, and that favourite staple of the English metropolitan literati: South London.  I’ve never felt more well-travelled, or well-read.  A book-by-book tour of the longlist’s settings would show you half the world; I may even suggest a Booker Prize Cruise to P&O.  Next year, if I find myself richer and more eccentric, I could read every nominated novel while journeying through the country of its setting.  Though now I’ve stated this as my pre-facto modus operandi, the Booker judges will inevitably put-paid to the idea by nominating twelve books set in North Korea, Tibet, Iran and Atlantis.

But does breadth of time and place equate to breadth of style and theme?  The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is: no.  The Booker prize enjoys a prestigious reputation as the pantheon of modern English literary writing.  When Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer dominate the bestsellers, we can always rely on the Booker judges to point us in the direction of quality, depth of emotion and profundity of thought.  At least, that’s what they’d like us to believe.  Ostensibly the prize represents the best literary fiction of the past twelve months; but if reading the entire longlist has taught me anything, it’s that the Booker committee’s definition of ‘literary’ is shockingly narrow.

Admittedly, I don’t pander to any stringent classification of ‘literariness’ whatsoever.  I like Simon Schama more for the lyricism of his prose than the content of his history.  Conversely, I find much of Dickens to be border-line unreadable.  ‘Literary’, to me, has always been an elastic and ambivalent critical term, a bit messy and hard to define.  However, the Booker judges are untroubled by such mitigating quandaries, and seem to have pinned down this ever elusive moniker with alarming precision.  If this year’s longlist is representative of the ouvre, then “literary fiction” is much narrower in scope than I ever imagined.

For the judges of the Booker prize seem to consider “literary fiction” to be a very specific brand of uber-realistic, psychologically sober, historically-informed utilitarianism: social fiction; Big Fiction.  Nothing about the longlist is non-linear, speculative, genre-defying or experimental.  What do the Booker nominated novels all have in common?  They all carry with them the cumbersome weight of plausibility.

Maybe I over-egged that a bit, so don’t get me wrong – narrative realism isn’t a bad thing, far from it; but it’s not the only stylistic idiosyncrasy that’s conducive to good writing. The judges don’t so much play it fast and loose with their choices as they do slow and tight.  None of this year’s nominees would be out-of-place as adaptations on the BBC’s autumn line-up.  With the possible exception of C, all are staid and familiar.  Accomplished, but unthreatening.  The 2010 Booker prize longlist felt like a place I’ve visited many times before.

In a previous post, I bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Alastair Reynolds, Philip Pullman, China Mieville and Ian Banks from nomination; I even began to question the value of my own taste.  But having read the entire longlist for myself, the truth is now clear to me.  These books were excluded not because they’re bad fiction, but because they’re the wrong type of fiction.  The title of “Man Booker Prize for Fiction” is really a daring deceit; a misnomer of nomenclature.  The Booker Prize espouses such a narrow definition of ‘literary fiction’ that it has, in a way, spawned its own genre of writing.  It’s somewhat worrying that the adjective ‘Bookeresque’ could be used to define the narrative style of the entire longlist; so homogenised are the nominees.  China Mieville may compose the most sublime and insightful piece of writing ever produced, but if it’s a work of his transgressive experimentalism, then he’ll never be nominated.

 So maybe it’s time that the Booker Prize FOR FICTION either re-defines its terms, or re-titles its…err…title.  Let’s be frank: the Booker is a genre prize, in much the same capacity as the Arthur C. Clarke or the CWA awards.  My laboured point, condensed, is this: the Booker Prize doesn’t represent the best of English language fiction, but the best of a certain type of English language fiction.  And this, I think, is a shame.  Alastair Reynolds’ books contain all the colours of human emotion; he just has space ships too.  If only the judges would give a nod-of-the-head to a work of crime, or horror, or sci-fi (or any of the portmanteau works of transgressive fiction currently doing the rounds), then I’m sure people’s eyes would be opened to the real breadth of brilliant, brilliant writing that’s out there.  The Booker judges could be responsible for banishing this new myth that literary fiction is a specific kind of realistic, safe writing.  Many of the Booker nominees are brilliant, but they’re all of a type.  I’m taking issue with the spread of the longlist, rather than any of its individual titles  And thus the Booker, despite how it’s marketed, isn’t a prize for all of fiction, but for a comfortable brand of predictable MOR narrative.

It wouldn’t take an implausible paradigm shift for the Booker to incorporate the weirder and more speculative aspects of literary writing; and in doing so it would  truly earn the right to bear the title ‘prize for fiction’.  All fiction.  As things stand, the Booker institution is perpetuating a false notion that weird, unrealistic or experimental writing isn’t literary or valuable.  The Booker Prize is a bully by neglect.

Sorry about that rant, something more melodramatic than British took hold of me.  But I hope that my point stands.  Of course, none of this means that the books which have been shortlisted are inadequate or poor; they’re just not the complete picture of current English literary writing.

Anyway; enough of what could have been, and on to what is.

Of the thirteen novels originally nominated, six were chosen to form this year’s shortlist:

C – Tom McCarthy

The Long Song – Andrea Levy

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

Room – Emma Donoghue

Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I’ve already taken issue with the quality of several of these books, and I’m wary of repeating myself, so please peruse my previous posts if you’re at all interested in mythoughts.   Suffice and sufficient to say; I think that C by Tom McCarthy should win this year’s gong.  It’s a masterwork; its themes of transmission and loss are explored with a fearless devotion to intricacy, and a refusal to simplify or condense.  Parts of the novel manage to conduct a wonderfully violent attack upon the precepts of organised language.  In it the lexicon of technology is converged with that of grief in an unusual yet moving way.  It’s never contrived, and through constant yet subtle literary references, C manages to make extraordinary points about the interconnectedness of language, literature, life and loss.  It kicks-ass and you should read it.

 And so I am glad that I decided to embark upon this ill-fated but interesting reading project.  It’s been a learning experience.  Without it, I probably wouldn’t have come across such brilliant books as C, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or Room.

Yet despite discovering these novels, I won’t ever be undertaking such a reading project again.  Unless it’s for money.  The more I read, the less I enjoyed myself; and as the weeks progressed, this challenge began to feel more like a test of my readerly stamina than a quest to discover new, great literature.  I did enjoy several of the books on the longlist; but many others I disliked, even hated.  I forced myself to spend many long hours ploughing through books that would otherwise never have interested me.  And I regret having to fritter away my time on such literary abortions as The Slap or Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal.  Yet being the conscientious tyke that I am, I was determined to finish every book, no matter how tedious the reading experience.  See? I suffer for my art.  Or, rather, for certain writers’ lack thereof.

 Another point that stuck me, like a crowbar to the back of the head, was the utter futility of comparing so many books.  Examining such contrasting novels as Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy of manners and Emma Donoghue’s thriller of childhood incarceration, then attempting to resolve which one is ‘best’, seems a somewhat facile undertaking.  I’m aware that it’s the only way that one can judge a prize such as the Booker; but I don’t envy the judges their task.

So here’s another of the lessons this experience has taught me: many books are incomparable, and arguing ( for example) that Trespass is a better murder story than The Long Song is a slave narrative just strikes me as…stupid.  In the free country of the Redroom, at least, it’s not how things are done.

 —

Ultimately, the deeper I dug, the more frustrated I became.  Firstly, with the limited scope of the books that were selected for the longlist (the usual spread of historical fiction, family dramas and books by Peter Carey); secondly, and by association, with the amount of my favourite fiction of the year that wasn’t nominated; and thirdly, with the complete banality of comparing so many different books, in order to discern an individual winner.  I know the Booker prize is a force for good; if nothing else, it draws attention to niche writing that would otherwise never find its way into the bestsellers chart.  And I am glad that I didn’t detect any vein of misguided political correctness running through the judges’ choices; as is so often rumoured to be the case.

But mostly, I just couldn’t wait for the process to be over, so I could once again walk in the free gardens of literary choice, where my taste isn’t dictated to me, and where I can read whatever I choose, whenever I choose it.   If the judges ever decide to shake things up by nominating fewer works of historical fiction and family saga in favour more left-field and experimental novels, then give me a call.  But as things stand, my final realisation is this: I couldn’t give a crap about the Booker prize.

Tomcat

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

Before I launch this rickety rowboat of review into the vast oceans of David Mitchell’s newest novel, I’d first like to call-in at the ever bustling port of public opinion.  Why didn’t The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet make it to this year’s Booker Prize shortlist?  Surely the judges don’t believe that it fails to contain the “rich variety of styles and themes” that is the prize’s ostensible qualifying mandate?  When the judges are asked (and asked they have been) why this novel was over-looked, their answers ring more of defensive self-preservation than reasoned literary criticism.  For the fans of David Mitchell are sharp-tongued and ferocious loyalists, who seem to view any slant against him as a slant against themselves, against good-taste and even (such is their voracious love for his books), against reason itself.  The internet is abuzz with venomous diatribes lambasting the Booker judges; David Mitchell’s non-nomination has produced more media interest and column inches than all the shortlisted novels combined.  If protests, petitions and picket lines were the stuff of literary complaint, the offices of the Man Group would be surrounded by an erudite mob of Mitchellites, baying for blood.  Alas, the dissent of the literati is currently expressed in polite letters to the editor, mild-mannered blog posts and quiet coffee-shop concord.  Maybe it’s time for readers to react.  Maybe it’s time for book lovers to get militant.

 

But let’s not lose perspective.  Much of the angry out-pouring surrounding his fifth failure to win the Booker Prize appears to stem from a consensus that, somehow, David Mitchell is ‘due’.  After all, Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten and Numer9dream didn’t win, so The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has to, right?  That Number9dream lost out to The True History of the Kelly Gang may be one of the most heinous oversights of modern literature; but 2001 was a duff year – Atonement didn’t win anything either.  If the Booker Prize was an award of accumulative quality, then David Mitchell would be the most deserving writer never to have won.  But the hard-boiled fact of that matter is this: you don’t win the Booker for a body of work, but for one novel; distinct and separate; in isolation from all previous efforts.   There’s a kind of Gamblers’ Fallacy that blinds the fans of David Mitchell, as if the more he loses out on the prize, the more likely and deserving he is to win it next time.  As brilliantly expressive a work of fiction as Number9dream is, its achievements bare no relation to this year’s prize.  It’d be wrong of the Booker judges to give the award to a less-deserving novel, by way of apology for a previous oversight.

So, with this in mind, we must be deaf to the silent cacophony of internet dissent.  We must block out all of the misguided reasoning which argues that, because Cloud Atlas didn’t win the Booker prize, then The Thousand Autumns… should.   Let’s examine the book for its own merits and forget, for now, the many crimes of neglect perpetrated against David Mitchell’s previous novels.

———

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a bit like Jesus; immaculately conceived, but sloppily executed.  It’s historical fiction of the densest oeuvre; apparently Mitchell spent six months in residency at the NIAS in Holland, merely to conduct ‘preliminary research’.  Every sentence pours with historical detail, linguistic notes and precise dates; it’s impressive, but sometimes there’s more detail here than is necessary or enlightening; like a long-soaked sponge that has absorbed too much, and is now leaking all over your shoes.

 

The book is set in 1799, when Japan had sealed itself off from the entire world under the so-called ‘Sakoku’ policy, which prevented any Japanese from leaving the country, and any outsiders from entering.  Sealed off, that is, except for the small artificial island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki.  At this time Dejima was controlled by the Dutch who, under the remit of their East India Company (a deliberately created Eighteenth Century trading monopoly), enjoyed exclusive rights to commerce with the Japanese. 

At Dejima arrives Jacob de Zoet; a young Dutch clerk on a five-year posting, during which he hopes to make his fortune and then return to Holland, having elevated himself enough to win the hand of his beloved and placate the suspicions of her father.  But, of course, Mitchell’s hero can’t have anything so simply; for Dejima proves to be a hot-bed of economic corruption, and from the moment de Zoet arrives, he is embattled in a long, drawn-out arm wrestle against the immoral vices of temptation, who are desperate to crumple his ethical and religious integrity with offers of easy money, easy women and easy power.

But de Zoet’s torments aren’t exclusively professional.  He meets and falls for a young Japanese scholar called Orito Aibagawa, whose face is half-disfigured (that is, if a face can be said to be ‘half’ disfigured) with burn scars.  Jacob de Zoet, in his charming innocence, views her with an arresting combination of squeamishness and lust; Orito hides her scars out of propriety and shame, but de Zoet considers this covering-up to be tantalising; he stares at her covered face with an almost sexual indecency, as if Orito’s head-scarf contains not the disfigurements of past atrocities, but her actual sexual organs.  Orito’s burns, for de Zoet, are symbols of her sexuality: hidden from view and delicate, something lewd yet off limits; how can he not view it as indecent; how, even, can he not view it as sexual?

Yet despite these moments of appealing depth and originality, too much of this central relationship is overly familiar and, dare I say it, predictable.  The young, idealistic man in a strange land who falls for the exotic yet forbidden foreign beauty is such a cliché of romantic fiction that I was surprised to find it in a book by David Mitchell.  Thankfully, the resolution of this relationship isn’t nearly as trite as its conception.

But a derivative characterology is one of the novel’s most striking shortcomings.  We have Uzaemon Ogawa; the warrior-academic with an acute sense of ‘honour’, and love rival to de Zoet.  Then there’s English naval officer Captain Penhaligon; a well-spoken yet ballsy old sea-dog in the mould of Jack Aubrey.  And not forgetting Enomoto; a powerful political leader who’s secretly a religious nut-job.  All characters serve their purpose adequately, but these three in particular seem, to me, to be plucked straight from the pages of ‘the beginner’s guide to historical fiction – unambitious edition’.

 However, the novel’s supporting cast held my interest and my thoughts for far longer than its central protagonists.  I was particularly taken by Dr Marinus; a sarcastic and somewhat cantankerous Dutch physician who is nonetheless highly liberal, wise and devoted.  I also liked Shiroyama; a Japanese magistrate whose loyalties are torn between political traditionalism and more Western modes of Capitalist thought.  If the nuanced and idiosyncratic presentation of these minor characters could have been extended to the book’s top-of-list dramatis personae, the novel would, I feel, be significantly more accomplished.

There’s also a monkey called William who runs around Dejima carrying a severed human leg.

Humour, as well, has its place in Mitchell’s sprawling epic; but it’s of an understated and subtle kind.  The occasional witticism or wry observation proves that Mitchell doesn’t treat history with any misguided reverential respect.  Many of the novel’s jokes play off a political sub-text, subtly implanted for the historically aware modern reader.  The humour is not unlike that found in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example:

“[…]why is the scarecrow [called] Robespierre?”

“Because his head falls off when the wind changes.”

 

It’s David Mitchell’s treatment of history that is The Thousand Autumns… most accomplished and impressive characteristic.  If I’ve not made it explicit already, allow me to do so now: this is a very complicated novel.   There are hundreds of speaking parts, tens of nationalities present, and the political, emotional and economic machinations of the plot are fearlessly intricate. 

 For history isn’t a neatly-cut puzzle of well-fitting sources that, once slotted tidily into place, creates a visionary and lush landscape of the past.  History is bad mannered.  It interrupts when you’re speaking and stamps on your half-finished jigsaw of interpretation with glee.  Every page of The Thousand Autumns… introduces new conflicts, new complexities and wrenches your heart in previously unforeseen directions.  Unlike most historical fiction, The Thousand Autumns… doesn’t take you by the hand and lead you gently through the green remembered gardens of a rose-tinted idyll.  Instead it pushes you head-first into the fray of a newly-forging world, and expects you to find your own way out, or fight your own way out.  I finished the book confused and dizzy, but invigorated.  With every chapter my allegiances changed, and at the end I didn’t know whether I sided with the Dutch, the Japanese or the English.  Mitchell’s characters may be a tad predictable and derivative, but his research, ambition and tireless devotion to representing the complexities of history are insurmountable. 

I mentioned earlier that, although The Thousand Autumns… is brilliant in conception, it’s somewhat messy in execution.  Maybe this is overstating the point; but the language of the novel is, unfortunately, a multi-sided die, somewhat weighted in favour of the awkward rather than the magnificent.  There are some particularly rousing and impressive linguistic feats (often found in dialogue); such as this delightfully over-the-top delivery by captain Penhaligon, which does a good job of encapsulating the war rhetoric of the period:

“Show this pox-blasted pagan port what ruin a British dog of War can inflict upon an enemy when its righteous ire is roused.”

But many of the book’s metaphors, by comparison, are clumsy and misconceived:

Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats.

 

Jacob’s fear is the size of a new internal organ, between his heart and his liver.

 —-

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an accomplished if imperfect epic.  Parts of the novel are masterful, and it’s a testament to Mitchell’s dedication and constructional skill that long scenes in which ten Dutch diplomats speak through six Japanese interpreters to rooms full of foreign dignitaries are never over-complicated or difficult to read. 

Before I finish, I have decided that I do want to add my voice to those of the myriad protesters who are rightfully astounded that The Thousand Autumns… wasn’t shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize.  I don’t think it’s an obvious and clear-cut deserving winner (my vote still lies with ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy), but it’s more than worthy of a place on the shortlist, and I’d even place it within the best 3 of this year’s nominees.  I have taken time to describe some of its shortcomings; but I hope it’s clear that these are minor and forgivable in the face of the novel’s grander achievement; that of revealing what is possible in the medium of historical fiction.  Maybe David Mitchell will never win the Booker; it wouldn’t be the first time that genre-defining art hasn’t been recognised by a major institution, but maybe this just doesn’t matter.  After all, Radiohead haven’t won the Mercury Music Prize – and it’s not done them any harm. 

Tomcat

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

Update: 12 October 2010.  Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ has won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

 

There are two points that I want to get across in this review, and pressed for time and lacking in talent, I’ve decided to forgo subtlety:  1) The Finkler Question is very funny, 2) The Finkler Question is very Jewish.  Like Woody Allen, as literature.

Blurb:

Julian Treslove is a middle-aged former BBC radio producer now working as a celebrity look-a-like.  His face is so “vague” that he can pass himself off as anyone from Brad Pitt to Billy Crystal or Colin Firth without soliciting any hint of doubt or scepticism from his clients.  Ironically (yet somewhat fittingly) Julian is suffering from an identity crisis.

His only friends are Libor Sevick; a ninety-year-old Czech Jew, and Sam Finkler; a Jewish philosopher and television personality in the mould of Simon Schama – only more acerbic.  Both these men are recent widowers, and their loss somewhat steals the thunder of Julian’s identity crisis.  He is jealous of their Jewishness, he is jealous of their closeness; he is even jealous of their grief.

 So, either in an act of misguided empathy or selfish personal posturing (it’s up to the reader to choose which), Julian ‘decides’ that he, too, is Jewish; it’s just taken him half of his life to realise it.  This revelation comes when Julian is mugged in what may or may not be an anti-Semitic attack.  But with a string of failed relationships and disappointing children floating in his wake, Julian doesn’t really know who or what he is – so he may as well be Jewish.  All of his friends are Jewish, and the religion seems (to Julian) to possess a closeness and sense of belonging that he’s never been able to find for himself:

“All Jews are at furthest remove one another’s great-great-great cousins.  We don’t do six degrees of separation.  We do three.”

In order to reconcile his newfound Jewishness with his predominantly secular upbringing, Julian turns to his friend Sam Finkler for inspiration.  Julian imprints on Finkler, and views him as the archetypal Jew; most of the narrative even substitutes the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Finkler’, thus the book’s title becomes a rather strange play on the concept of ‘The Jewish Question’, as every action Sam makes is over-analysed by Julian, in a futile effort to capture and define what it is to be Jewish. 

But Julian is a simple soul, and manages either to over-simplify or over-complicate everything.  Large portions of the novel are hilariously pithy and wry, as Julian wrestles with the ‘Jewish’ aspects of everyday life; what is Jewish food, what is Jewish family, what is Jewish love, what is Jewish sex? – Julian goes as far as to have an affair with Finkler’s wife to answer this last question.  Nothing is sacred, everything is tongue-in-cheek:

“I wanted to play the violin”

“That doesn’t make you Jewish.  Wagner listened to operas and wanted to play the violin.  Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin.  When Mussolini visited Hitler in the Alps they played the Bach double violin concerto together. ‘And now let’s kill some Jews,’ Hitler said when they’d finished.”

 

But don’t be fooled; The Finkler Question is not really just a comic ‘beginners guide to Judaism’ told through the eyes of the Gentile convert. 

I offer you a warning: there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s wearing a Yarmulke.

Behind the novel’s humorous take on modern Jewish life is an incredibly dense and loaded examination of modern Jewish politics.  Much of the narrative is given over to long discussions of such zeitgeisty issues as Jewish anti-Zionism, Palestinian aggression and whether or not apologists for Israel are, in their own way, anti-Semitic.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that such political posturing dominates the narrative to a detrimental extent.  Politics has its place in fiction, of course it does; but parts of The Finkler Question don’t even feel like a novel; it’s as if Jacobson used the framework of ‘a novel’ as an excuse to air his political ideas and cultural mapping.  Everything I’ve mentioned thus far – the comedic take on Jewish life, the examination of male friendship and the quest for personal identity – all of it plays second fiddle to the novel’s political agenda.  Jacobson is constantly slapping the reader in the face with the smorgasbord of anti-Zionism.  Somewhere in The Finkler Question are two very good books; a modern-day comedy of manners, and an essay on apologists for Israel; but the two just don’t gel well together, something in their union has gone terribly wrong.

It’s frustrating because, aside from all this dumping of political ideology, The Finkler Question is very well written, very funny and can be very moving.

The novel is most successful when comedy converges with pathos.  The protagonists’ personal successes and defeats are much, much more interesting than their political opinions.  Libor’s love and grief for his dead wife is heart-breaking, and the short scenes featuring this character are among the novel’s best, as he dedicates his life to her memory.  He even takes up the piano, in order to recreate the music they loved together. 

But this accomplished and moving portrayal of loss is never leaden or over-played.  It’s beautifully counter-pointed by some characters of inspired comic creation; such as Alvin Poliakov, a Jewish internet blogger who dedicates his life to attempts at re-constructing his missing foreskin, and who broadcasts his efforts (and inevitable failures) over the internet for all see.  It’s a brilliantly bathetic narrative contrast to Julian’s obsession with later-life circumcision.

 

In a way, The Finkler Question is a victim of its own success; that it manages to make a comedy out of such a loaded subject as grief is just sublime, so much so that Jacobson’s politics and ethics seem uninteresting by comparison; they just get in the way of the book’s emotional heart, where things are most interesting. 

I’ve not been so torn by a book in a long time.  The Finkler Question is almost, almost perfect – if it could be re-edited to cut-out the heavy-handed politics and moral debate (or maybe just to tone it down), it’d be a significantly better novel.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it did manage to sweep in from left-field and win this year’s Booker.  But, thus far (I still have several nominees to go), it’s not my over-all favourite.

Jacobson’s political theory is interesting, but misplaced; I’m sure it’d make a fascinating book of essays.  The political barrage doesn’t ruin the novel, but it does damage it.  As such The Finkler Question comes highly recommended, but with a caveat – be wary of the book’s political agenda.  I’m sure that certain readers will indulge in the moralising and political affectation; but for me, this novel’s supplementary, subtle themes of grief, friendship and identity are much, much more interesting.

Tomcat