Category Archives: SMALP2011

Announcement: Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011

Here it is, kids – the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The announcement of who we’ve picked as the winner of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize.

In true, reality television style, I’m going to draw out the tension by mentioning a few things first.

Thanks to everyone else on the jury who, like me, has spent the last few months, reading the books on the longlist, and then the shortlist, and then the (surprisingly short) deliberations and conversations we had about who should win. I won’t get into boring details, but let’s just say many things surprised me when it came time to decide. In a good way, I hasten to add. So, thank you, Mark, Stu, Sue, Fay, and above all, our intrepid leader, Lisa.

Thanks also to the real Man Asian Literary Prize team – David Parker, the head of the Prize, thinks we’re important enough to mention in a press conference, and even came to this site and chatted with me about the Prize.

If you’re looking for any of the reviews we’ve written over the last few months in relation to the this year’s list of books, you can find them here. I also wrote a piece about the Prize itself here.



And so, without further ado, here it is. The winner of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 is:

Please Look After Mother, by Kyung-sook Shin.

When it came to judging, this was the novel that most of us enjoyed the most, and as such, there was a surprisingly quick consensus. It is a book I read before I knew I was going to be taking on this project, and even then, it stuck in my mind. It is a novel that deals with themes and concepts that have certainly been explored before – urban drift, the fracture of family in the modern era – but it does so with such honest thought, and in a surprising way, that it remains an affective book. If you get a chance, please go out and find it.

I have no idea which of the shortlisted novels will win the real prize later this week, but I wait with baited breath to find out.

See you all next year, yes?


Rebirth (2010) – Jahnavi BARUA

This is my last review for the Man Asian Literary Prize Shadow Jury – I know I said I’d review The Colonel, but I gave up halfway through, and have no desire to power my way through the rest of it, particularly since I now don’t have to. But yes, Rebirth. This has been comically difficult to source, since it’s not published outside of India, and Penguin India were less than forthcoming about helping us out. But here it is!

Kaberi is pregnant. Over nine months, she tells us of her life before and during this experience. She tells of her childhood friend Joya, always so headstrong and enthusiastic. She tells of her family, still living in the country, far away from her new life in Bangalore. She tells of her new friends, willing to help her out, but so caught up in their own affairs they often don’t notice when she doesn’t ask. And she tells of her husband, the father of her child, the man she was forced to marry. The man who hits her.

The role of women in the land of fiction has lately become something of a hotly contested debate in Australia, for those playing overseas. And I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this suggestion of “women’s fiction” – that there are some books written for women, as though men have no interest in books about women, and what it means to be a woman.

Which is, you know, complete bullshit. It makes about as much sense as saying women don’t read novels written by men, because they don’t want to read about what men think. But the stigma remains. We celebrate so many male authors for their insight into what it means to be a man, what masculinity means, and how one fits into or is forced outside of these ideals. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – all of these authors have been (rightly) celebrated for their portrayal of masculinity in the twentieth century. But there does seem to be something of a dearth of female writers that are celebrated for their exploration of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be “feminine.” And that is why Rebirth interested me in so many ways, and why I enjoyed reading it.

This is a “woman’s book,” in the sense that it deals with something no man can ever understand, no matter how much we try – being pregnant. Carrying a child within you for nine months, and how that affects your own values, morality and world view – this is something I am never going to experience, even if I really want to. So from that perspective, yes, this is an important and revelatory novel. I’m pleased, too, that there’s a sense of universality here – though there are touches of Indian culture, particularly the arranged marriage situation, having children is not an exclusively Indian past-time. Neither is domestic violence, and bad marriages.

On the downside, I don’t think Barua gives it the kind of punch I personally look for in my reading. Perhaps because I tend to find passive protagonists frustrating in their inability to escape the shackles that bind them, so too I found Kaberi something of a wet blanket. This is (mostly) made up by the end, as she finds a way to live without her husband. I was particularly pleased that Barua didn’t take the easy route, and have disbelieving parents and friends on the domestic violence front. It was a pleasant change to see Kaberi’s friends and family believe her, and take steps to help her.

Ironically, perhaps, considering her violent marriage, there is a sense of calmness and serenity in Kaberi’s world view. Her language is never strong, never sharp, rarely angry. It would be easy to say this is a feminine way of writing, but I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Rebirth is a deeply introspective novel – it is a perfect example of how to best use the first person voice. Just as Kaberi herself is cool, calm and collected, so too are her thoughts, and therefore, language. There is, of course, another layer to this interior monologue in the truest sense of the word – she is narrating not to us, but to the unborn child within her. Perhaps this, too, connects to the language choice – one is not likely to yell or scream at a newborn.

Rebirth is not perfect by any means. The supporting cast is almost uniformly more interesting than the narrator, and it feels too short and slight to have any kind of major impact. But it’s a solid debut, and marks Barua out as an author who is willing to tackle issues that are not fully explored in what might be described as mainstream literature.

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The Sly Company of People Who Care (2011) – Rahul BHATTACHARYA

Woo! The penultimate book on the Man Asian Prize shortlist. I don’t know when my copy of Rebirth will arrive, so normal programming will resume soon. Though I should still really get around to writing about The Colonel, because if I don’t, my OCD won’t approve of my not having done the entire longlist. Sly Company interests me for a number of reasons – the main one being the fact that this is the only book on the shortlist (and longlist) not set within Asia. It’s nice to see Asian literature looking outside its own borders.

A young Indian man packs up his life as a cricket journalist in India, and moves to Guyana, hoping to find something more in his life. As he slowly acclimatises to the both the weather and the markedly different Caribbean way of life, he discovers that this equatorial paradise is more dangerous and disturbing than he originally envisioned.

So, the first 50 pages of this did nothing for me. I was sitting there thinking it was going to be a long slog. And I couldn’t tell you what it was about this section that put me off so. Perhaps it was simply that the language and style employed by Bhattacharya is a unique reading experience, and takes some getting used to. Suffice it to say, he does things to the English language I didn’t think possible, and he manages to catch the patois of Guyana in a surprisingly non-patronising way. It takes skill to do something like that.

One learns an awful lot about Guyana in this novel, and a lot of it is presented as slabs of history. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the second section, where Bhattacharya launches into his own history of the place, which is fine, and informative, but maybe could have been more evenly spaced throughout the rest of the piece, instead of ending up as some kind of infodump. But these asides are fascinating, and it is clear he has done his homework on this place. Of particular interest to me was the slow realisation of the difference between the two groups of ethnic Indians – those born and raised in India, like our narrator, and the diaspora in Guyana, who have moulded Indian culture to their own experience. If anything, I had hoped he would push this angle a little further.

There is a sense of unease throughout the novel, and as the narrator moves from place to place, dealing with circumstances he no doubt never imagined finding himself involved in, one cannot help but feel the rawness and – I hesitate to say “danger” – of living in a developing country. There is a particularly brutal sequence in which the narrator joins a local man looking for gold in the rainforest for several days, and when a deal goes horribly wrong, we are witness to a shocking scene of revenge. This is pretty much par for the course here – to say this novel is plot heavy would be a vast overstatement. We are instead treated to glimpses of people’s lives, apparently based on the author’s own experiences living in Guyana, similar to our unnamed narrator.

I have only a few bones to pick. The first is that the narrator is a bit of a nothing character in and of himself – he remains something of a passive observer, an outsider in this society, and I never really warmed to him as a person. Written in the first person, this is both problematic, and understandable. He is free to simply recount his observations to us, the reader, in order for us to make up our own minds about the events that take place. And have no fear, almost all of them are morally ambiguous enough to leave you wondering if anyone is doing the right thing, or if everyone is simply going along with the flow, happy to not upset the careful equilibrium of a country brimming with racial tension.

The ending degenerates somewhat, and I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” near the closing pages. The last section is a definite move from the previous, but in some ways, this is the strength of the novel. Rather than telling one tale, Bhattacharya gives us something of a survey of Guyana, giving us a taste of many of the different ways of life that are contained within, and sometimes without, the borders of this tiny nation.

This is assuredly a strong, assured debut novel. I am particularly keen on the idea of an author from a culture with which we usually associate postcolonial literature in which it is the oppressed dealing with the diaspora of said culture, and dealing with an even less developed country. And while this does feature, it is the evocation of a place, and of the sense of immediacy, that Bhattacharya creates in this novel that makes me understand why The Sly Company of People Who Care is on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 shortlist. Check it out.

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The Wandering Falcon (2011) – Jamil AHMAD

This late in the Man Asian Literary Prize timeline, I guess those following the books are at least vaguely aware of the story behind each one. The Wandering Falcon interested me for a number of reasons – first, Ahmad wrote this more than thirty years ago, but has only just had it published, at the ripe age of 79. Secondly, it’s won a number of other prizes, including the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India. Finally, it deals with the border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the tribes that live there. I have a fairly vested interest in border studies, so I was interested to see how Ahmed pulled this off.

In a time before terrorism, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, live various tribes of people, outside the mainstream. Their lives are dependent on good weather in the mountain landscape, on the goodwill of their neighbouring tribes, and of the governments in the cities below not trying to force them into a life they do not want to lead. Their lives are hard, and in this insight into a world rarely glimpsed, Ahmad provides snippets of these lives, spanning several decades.

Obviously we need to talk a little about the structure of the novel first. Ahmad has written what is essentially a collection of linked short stories – the one, mysterious common element is the boy (and later, man) Tor Baz, or the eponymous wandering falcon. I’m still not quite sure just how old he is supposed to be by the end, but there are several decades of history covered in these nine tales. In several – including the excellent opening chapter/story – Tor Baz features quite heavily. In others, he barely rates a mention – in fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t appear in one of them, though I can’t remember exactly which one that is.

Each story deals with a different aspect of tribal life in the vast wilderness between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, as one may expect, there are several universal themes that make this collection of tales more cohesive than a simple short story collection. Arguably the overarching theme is the harsh and unforgiving nature of life away from big cities, in a land that is, quite frankly, close to uninhabitable. It is a testament to the human spirit that people have managed to eck out an existence here, and though Ahmad pulls no punches in highlighting the brutal and sometimes fatal lifestyle that is simply the norm for these people.

I’m glad, too, he wrote the last chapter, “Sale Completed”,  and in many ways leaving it until the end, as the final message, was clever. For a long time, I was wondering if he was going to talk in detail about the role women play in traditional bedouin tribes like the ones outlined in The Wandering Falcon, and was worried he was just going to skip it. But when he turns his hand to writing about the brutal treatment of women in the name of “tradition,” he brings up a whole new set of questions that leave you wondering after you’ve finished the novel. Because, let’s face it, a culture that views women as nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged for money and sexual favours is one that needs to be examined closely.

In some ways, this constant onslaught of the worst of what it means to be human left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The cold, almost clinical style in which Ahmad writes leaves no room for any kind of hope, and ultimately, the whole thing left me cold. The fact that this has been sitting in his desk for thirty years, and the fact that he was unsure whether to publish it as fiction or non-fiction leaves me wondering whether it would have been better off to publish it as a kind of travelogue – maybe his style would have worked better there.

Reading The Wandering Falcon left me informed, but not inspired. This was a part of the world about which I knew almost nothing, so to see a different kind of existence portrayed so diligently was nice. But as a piece of fiction, as a work that should let me into people’s lives and make me feel something – I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me.

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Shortlist: Man Asian Literary Prize 2011

So the official panel have cheated, and put 7 books on the shortlist for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. They are:

The Wandering Falcon – Jamil AHMAD
Rebirth – Jahnavi BARUA
The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul BHATTACHARYA
River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH
Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook
Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke
The Lake – YOSHIMOTO Banana

Click on the links above to go to my reviews for these titles. I’ve read both The Wandering Falcon and The Sly Company of People Who Care, and these reviews will be up as next week and the week after’s reviews. Rebirth is very difficult to acquire, and Penguin India are proving particularly elusive in trying to source a reading copy. However, Lisa is on it, and hopefully one will appear soon.

I picked the latter four on the shortlist in my own dream shortlist, so I’m quite pleased to see the actual judges and I think in similar ways. I’m very sad to see that The Valley of Masks didn’t make it, though I’m not entirely surprised. Please, if you can get a copy, read it. It truly is wonderful.

Reviews for the entire longlist from us at the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Jury can be found here.

It’s going to be a tough decision to pick just one novel from these seven strong contenders. Let the battle begin.

River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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The Man Asian Literary Prize: Why?

I’ve almost finished reading the longlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2011, as part of the SMALP project some of us are running. It’s been an interesting reading list, to say the least, and the more I read, the more questions I have.

The Man Asian Literary Award is awarded each year to “the best novel by an Asian writer, either written in English or translated into English,” and is loosely based upon the Man Booker Prize, which is awarded to the best novel published in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) in the previous year. This is enough of a beast in itself – the modern English literary tradition now encompasses a wide variety of countries, and I think we can probably all agree that Nigeria and New Zealand have little in common outside of their shared modern linguistic heritage. But for the purposes of awarding a literary prize, that’s enough.

“Asia” as a concept is, at best, a simply geographic term used to describe an ever changing collection of nation-states that happen to be in the same part of the world. At worst, and no doubt Edward Said would agree with me here, it is the ultimate signifier of the Other for the Western tradition – a land of mysterious women, of inscrutable men, and of bizarre rituals. There is, of course, no one thing that defines what it means to be “Asian” – indeed, depending on who you ask, the very image of “Asia” will be completely different. British people, for example, tend to refer to people from the subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. – as Asian, while those of us in Australia conjure up a far more Chinese and Japanese image.

How, then, can one judge the best “Asian” novel of the past year? Most countries in the Asian region speak unique languages. If we’re taking Asia to include the Middle East, there’s certainly no shared cultural history in the region; there is no way to easily reconcile the traditions of, say Iran and Japan, or South Korea and Bangladesh. Depending on whether or not you include Turkey as a part of Europe (there’s a good question, why aren’t Turks eligible for this Prize?), you can look broadly at the history of Europe in parallel with the history of the Church, and understand the shared traditions of the entire landmass. That is, of course, slightly reductionist, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s go with it.What criteria can possibly be used to try and select 12 – let alone one – great novel from a part of the world which can barely even be defined?

Do we look to stories of what it means to be Asian, stories of the “Asian” experience? Murakami may be the most well-known name on this year’s list, but as Rebecca Suter argues, he is hardly the most representative figure of the Japanese literary tradition, let alone the Asian literary tradition. Here is a man who lives in one of the most developed countries in the world, a country that bares the full brunt of the connected, globalised world in which we live. Murakami translates a lot of English literature into Japanese, and he freely admits that his own influences tend towards the great American writers as opposed to people like Yukio Mishima. Does his experience make him more or less “Asian”? Should we be looking instead to, say, Anam’s The Good Muslim, which deals with a fully internalised national struggle for both identity and power, free from outside influences? Is the latter a more “Asian” novel by virtue of the fact that there are fewer connections to the Western world?

Does this mean, then, that novels such as Tarun J Tejpal’s The Valley of Masks should be discounted, because its tendency towards imagined dystopian religious cults? Certainly Tejpal’s world-view and cultural background has been informed by his being raised in India, but his tale is far more universal, and cuts to the core of what it means to have unquestioning faith. Hardly a uniquely “Asian” concept, is it?

Or should we simply look to authors who, by virtue of simply being born in a particular place, have had “Asian” citizenship bestowed upon them, have become eligible for this award? Tahmima Anam was born in Shaka, but now lives in London. Does that make her less “Asian” than the others on the list? In today’s globalised world, citizenship is such an arbitrary identifier anyway, should it also be used to judge eligibility for a literary award? Had Kazuo Ishiguro written a novel this year, why should he not be considered, simply because he now holds British citizenship? Do his experiences as a Japanese-Englishman count for something less? Why not someone like Nam Le, whose stories about being Vietnamese in Australia cut right to the heart of what it means to be “Asian” in the 21st century? Heck, if we’re going to go the whole way, why not have a novel like The Slap in for consideration, which also deals with Asian identity in a multicultural socety? Kavita Bhanot talks about why these kinds of stories – the stories of the diaspora – are important in this rather fascinating article here.

Then, of course, we have my favourite “genre” of writing – stories that show us how different cultures and societies get along with one another in a small space. Chang-rae Lee, a judge on this year’s panel, also seems interested in situations like this (clearly, he is an intelligent man) – he says he is “fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation or some kind of cultural dissonance” (this comes from Fay’s post here, and the original quote is from here.) We have to look no further than Amitav Ghosh’s beautifully drawn window into the ports of Canton and Hong Kong in the 1830s in his novel River of Smoke, for an Asia in which one can hear a multiplicity of voices from an endless number of cultures and races. Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, set in Guyana – not even close to Asia – explores the Indian diaspora in a multicultural context. In many ways, I’m disappointed there aren’t more diaspora novels on the list, but the current citizenship restrictions on entry mean it is unlikely this will change any time soon.

There is, on top of all of these confusing identity questions, the fact that, for this Prize, you don’t even have to have written your novel at the same time as everyone else, removing another levelling factor. Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, The Lake, was first published in 2005, a full four years before Murakami’s 1Q84 – though they share some similar themes. Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village was also first published in 2005. In the grand scheme of things, six years is not a long time, but it’s enough. These novels aren’t even reacting to the same world around them.

I hope this does not sound like a diatribe against the Prize – that is not at all my intention. I certainly do not envy the actual judges of the Prize, because it is clear this a complicated and demanding process. But there are important questions at stake here, which have ramifications not just for the small, slightly inbred world of literature, but for the wider community. As we head into the “Asian century,” whatever the hell that might mean, the way this region of the world is perceived by the rest of us is of paramount importance. I certainly cannot provide answers to any of the questions I’ve put forth here. If five years of study for a Bachelor of Asian Studies has taught me nothing else (thanks, ANU), it is that there are no answers to big questions like this. The only question I can answer is the one I asked in the title of this post: why?

My answer is this: why not? Any award that encourages people to pick up something they never have before, something that might be a little bit different to what they might be used to, something that encourages and stimulates their mind – any award that can make me write a 1500 word essay during my summer holidays can only be a good thing. And it’s not just good for readers – hopefully it will encourage other “Asian” writers, hopefully, to explore all of these questions I’ve touched upon here in their own writings, and provide a larger base from which entrants to this prize can be chosen.

And it would seem, from the evidence, that this is slowly happening. While none of the longlisted authors are from particularly obscure, remote countries, countries such as Iran, India, and Bangladesh still face real world problems, stemming arguably from a lack of literacy, and other education. Bangladesh’s literacy rate is only 55.9%; India, 74.0%; Pakistan, 58.2%. Miguel Syjuco’s win of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize prompted something of a resurgence in the Filipino publishing industry -prompting an upswing in publishers and writers being encouraged to do what they love.

I think a lot of people tend to discount the literary world, and indeed, the publishing industry, as something only for rich people, an indulgence afforded to those who don’t want to deal with the real world. But there are real world implications in reading. Encouraging people to read – kids, in particular – can only be a good thing. David Parker, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Man Asian Literary Prize talks about what he believes to be the aims of the prize here – you should check it out; it’s a really interesting interview.

If this prize generates as much interest around literacy, fiction, and literature as other prizes do, and it does so with an Asian focus – you’ve got your answer to the question I asked at the beginning. Why?

Oh, and in case anyone’s interested, here’s my ideal shortlist. I suspect it’s not even close to what will be released tonight, but there you go.

River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH
The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY
Please Look After Mother – SHIN Kyung-sook
The Valley of Masks – Tarun J. TEJPAL
Dream of Ding Village – YAN Lianke
The Lake – YOSHIMOTO Banana

The Valley of Masks (2011) – Tarun J TEJPAL

After a brief break, I’m back on track with the Shadow Man Asian Prize project. After some initial trouble in sourcing this novel, I ended up with two copies on my doorstep last week. More than any other novel on the longlist, The Valley of Masks has fascinated me – a high-concept dystopian novel not especially concerning itself with Indian identity. Truly, this is the black sheep of the list.

Our narrator – a man with many names – is living in hiding in an unnamed Indian city. He fears for his life – the terrifying Wafaders are coming for him. His previous life – born into a cult hiding in a valley in the Himalayan mountains – is catching up with him, and his last act is to tell his tale. This is the story of a child born into love, a boy educated with religious fervour, a young man taught to kill, and an old man who must make a terrible choice.

This is the third book on the longlist to deal with cults, but while Murakami and Yoshimoto did so indirectly, Tejpal gives us the whole kit and kaboodle. In sheer terms of world-building, he has given us an entirely alien society – in an attempt to ensure a lack of selfish, personal attachment, children are raised by a group of women – they never know who their true parents are. They are given one of six names as a child, but in order to become an adult, they must give it up and receive a collection of letters and numbers. In the ultimate sacrifice of personhood and individuality, each member of the society wears the same mask, perfectly moulded to one’s face.

Just as the framing device is our narrator explaining to us his way of life, we get snippets and suggestions about the history of the cult. At the core of every religion, of every system of belief, are myths and legends from history that shape values and world views, and there is no difference here. Its figurehead – Aum, or the first sound in the universe – is he chosen one, and his uprising against the heathens, and his ability to bring clarity and salvation to people is exulted in these tales. His two sidekicks, Ali and Alaiya, also feature heavily. Stories and rumours, too, of people who did not do the right thing, people who broke the rules, are taught to our narrator, who laps them up in his fervour. Attempting to unravel these stories is half the fun – Karna himself admits that his own story has holes in it, because it’s easier for him to tell it this way.

The path of our main character, however, is that of the Wafader – a group of elite warriors, trained to protect the valley from outsiders, from non-believers, and ultimately, from the menace within. These cult symbols are taught to be living killing machines, and their education in the ways of death are exquisitely detailed by Tejpal. Their use of wooden needles to make their victims bleed slowly, but not to death, is covered extensively. There is a definite physicality and masculinity that pervades this novel, and there is only one scene in which this is more apparent than in these training sequences.

As with all good religious orders, the Aum supporting nutjobs here are not what we would describe as enlightened when it comes to the rights of women. They tend to fall into two main categories: the ever present Madonna/whore dichotomy. Madonna in the sense that many of them are given over to raising children in a commune environment, no one ever knowing who is biologically whose; and whore, in the sense that many nubile young girls are sent off to what are essentially brothels (the Serai of Fleeting Happiness, and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, for those playing at home) to service the young, and old, men of the community. Rather than reject sexuality as base and degrading, Aum recognises that this is necessary, and so allows men to simply have their way with women in these rooms. Charming.

There is a definite gear shift in the last third of the novel, as things in paradise begin to take a turn for the worse. It’s not until it’s too late that you realise just how truly brainwashed everyone here is. It’s perhaps a long bow to pull, but there are echoes of North Korea here – a personality cult taken to extreme levels, with people willing to do anything for their Gentle Father. I hesitate to use the word brainwashed, but in both situations, the ability of those in charge to manipulate their followers into thinking they are doing the right thing is terrifying.

I’m not going to spoil it for you – it would rather ruin the entire thing – but Tejpal pushes his already disturbing tale into almost horrific territory. Actually – and I’m worried this is going to make me sound like a monster – I thought he was going to push the envolope even further, and was slightly disappointed he didn’t. After a litany of events and decisions that would leave any sane and rational person quivering at the knees, Karna is sent . And at the final hurdle, he fails. Of course he fails – and perhaps this is Tejpal’s point. There is a line in all of us where some kind of inherent morality or sensibility takes over from any kind of religious indoctrination, even if said indoctrination has the weight of 45 years behind it.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I’m going to leave it there, because I rather think I’m beginning to ramble. I loved The Valley of Masks. Purely as a world-building exercise, Tejpal proves himself a master – his cult is perfectly formed, and while perhaps pushes the boundaries of believability, it does it in a recognisable setting, making you forget your questions. But his insights into belief, into faith, and the boundaries of those things that make us who we are, probe deep into an uncomfortable question we must constantly ask ourselves.

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1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don’t like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. But the amount of hype surrounding 1Q84 was massive – both in Japan and overseas – and so I felt obliged to give it a go. And then it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, so I couldn’t back out of it. And in case you don’t want to read the whole review (this is slightly longer than I write for most things I review here), this was pretty much my first thought after finishing this 900 page beast: there’s too many hours of my life I’m never going to get back.

I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.

This is helped, no doubt, by the two translators of 1Q84 – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated Murakami’s work before. Before we get to the issue of having two translators for one novel (I think it’s a terrible idea), there’s the fact that there seems to be a concerted effort by these translators to make Murakami more palatable to Western tastes – a simple comparison of passages in the Japanese original, and then the English translation, highlight missing words – sometimes sentences – chopped up phrases, and generally weird stuff going on. I’ve always been taught to keep as close to the original text s possible, preserving sentences and words, even if they sound a little funny, but clearly Rubin and Gabriel think differently. If I were a better person, I would have read this in Japanese, but you probably wouldn’t have the translation for a few more months…

This is all, of course, only tangentially related to this novel, but these are the questions I was thinking about as I read 1Q84. And you should all, too. As a widely publicised “magnus opus,” it has become something of a lightning rod for people’s views of Murakami’s work – everything you expect from a “Murakami novel” is here, so if you’re expecting something different, be prepared to be disappointed.

Tengo Kawana has been given an unusual request by his editor – to rework a novella from a young girl called Fuka-Eri, and enter it into the new writers’ prize. He does, but in doing so, is pulled into a world he never knew existed. Meanwhile, Aomame works as an assassin, killing men who perpetrate domestic violence. But when she walks onto a highway exit from a taxi, she too is drawn into a strange world where not quite everything is as she remembers.

Murakami’s characters have fantastical adventures to escape their everyday, humdrum lives. This is, of course, the message he has been sending us right from the beginning – that modern Japanese society is so deeply unfulfilling, so boring, people turn to the magical to fill their days. Tengo is no different to this – his own frustrations as a writer allow him to be more open to the strange request that draws him into the parallel world of 1Q84, a parallel version of the 1984 in which this novel is set.

The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.

Which brings me around to Aomame, a character that should be far more engaging than she actually is. I love the idea of a broken woman going on a rampage and carefully assassinating men who beat their wives. There’s an entire novel in that sentence alone. But once Aomame is drawn into the mysterious world of Sakigake (先駆け, or frontrunners, in Japanese) the cult which forms the main focus of the mystery at the centre of 1Q84, she seems to lose that drive, and instead become all consumed with finding Tengo, a boy she went to school with and had a strange, but significant ten second encounter with twenty years ago.

It seems desperately unfair that a big fat horrible man should be allowed to die in a manner of his choosing. In the real world, any middle aged man who has “ambiguous congress” with underage girls is rightly punished, particularly when he says he did it because of some supernatural being. But in Murakami’s world, because these beings are real, it seems somehow more justified. This man is simply doing his job. Which is an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. And for a novel that brings questions of domestic violence, and of poorly treated women, to the fore, I feel like Murakami should be making a better point. There’s also the awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (which did make it onto the shortlist of this year’s bad sex award). For me, it’s not uncomfortable because it’s badly written, but because Murakami goes out of his way to describe Fuka-Eri as child-like in appearance, and indeed manner, so it reads like Tengo is sleeping with a child. I don’t think I need to explain any further why I found that uncomfortable.

Then, of course, we get to the third section, which feels like an unnecessary addition in so many ways. Written about a year after the first two sections, it introduces a third point of view character, Ushikawa, who in many ways, is completely unnecessary. In other ways, though, he’s quite useful, because he actually has some plot to be getting on with, and his chapters allow you to understand why it is that Tengo and Aomame are being (very poorly) chased by Sakigake.

There are some positives, though. I love the old woman for whom Aomame works – there’s something really cool in the idea of an old woman crusading against domestic violence from the comfort of her upper-class house, getting other people to do her dirty work for her. And some of Murakami’s post-modern tricks work out quite well – there’s a big discussion about Chekov’s gun when Aomame is given a pistol by Tamaru, and the idea that, now it’s been introduced into the story, it must be used. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s quite cool. Bonus points, too, for making Tamaru a gay zainichi from Sakhalin, filling all of the minority tick boxes. Minus points, though, for making him poorly written, spouting weird dialogue that is comically unnatural and far too self-aware. Saying that he is gay, so naturally he loves interior design, for example.

1Q84 is messy and unwieldy. It’s far too long for its own good, partially because things repeat themselves again and again – perhaps a better editor was needed. But its ideas and politics are messy, too, and while there are some great concepts buried within these 900 pages, Murakami ultimately prefers to obfuscate them with unnecessary post-modern trickery that was old thirty years ago when he repeated it in his earlier novels. I wonder if the title “magnum opus” is being used because it’s so freaking long? Of course, it has everything one expects to find in a Murakami novel, but that’s about it. 1Q84 doesn’t bring anything new or fresh to the table, particularly in the Haruki Murakami canon.

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The Folded Earth (2011) – Anuradha ROY

I imagine being Anuradha Roy would be a frustrating experience. No doubt people constantly think she is Arundhati Roy, and while positive comparisons may be flattering, the ineviable “I’m the other Roy” would be soul crushing. Of course, with The Folded Earth, Anuradha has beaten Arundhati for number of novels published, so that’s nice. But is this novel good enough for Anuradha to become the famous Roy? Certainly the judges of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize think so.

An horrific event sends Maya from her life in the city to the foothills of the Himalaya, to a town called Ranikhet. Slowly, she builds a life amongst the other people already living there – from Diwan Sahib, an eccentric old academic with whom she helps organise papers; Miss Wilson, the principal of the Catholic school at which she works, and Charu, a young girl who lives in the neighbouring cottage. But life in the mountains is never as peaceful as Maya had once hoped, and a new arrival will force her to confront her past.

First things first – Roy has an excellent command of language, and her descriptions and evocations of a part of the world where few people live and where the natural world reigns supreme are gorgeous. More than anything else, this contributes to a sense of space that I felt keenly. Rainikhet, too, is brought to life with verve, and the clash of ramshakle tradition with people from new money with new ideas is highlighted in the geography of the town, complete with a little map in the front flap so you can easily follow the action.

The people that populate Ranikhet, though, are what make it what it is. This is a town full of eccentrics – starting with the old man himself, Diwan Shaib. As the stereotypical old man, he manages to yell at a lot of people, though it is clear he has a soft spot for Maya. When his nephew, Veer, comes back into town, it is clear Diwan is looking for a relation to lean on. The (and I use this term very loosely) mystery at the centre of the novel is whether Veer is simply using the old man to get at his supposed fortune, or whether he truly wants to get closer. There is also an awkward romance with Maya, and there is (again, a loose term) a twist at the end of the tale which reveals both Veer’s true intentions, as well as the discovery of a link to Maya she didn’t know existed.

I wanted to love Maya as a character, honest. Those opening pages, with her dealing with Michael’s death, and the complete rejection by her parents simply because he was Christian (an important reminder that, a lot of the time, racism goes both ways), highlight just how much potential Roy has as a writer. In many ways, you could take those opening few chapters, turn them into a short story, and have a solid, good story. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the novel fails to live up to this high standard. The plot becomes fractured, and while the majority is written in the first person, from Maya’s perspective, there are occasional jaunts into omniscient third, where we follow Charu. These are unnecessary and, in the end, jarring. There aren’t enough of these third person chapters to warrant a two narrator novel, and they stick out like a sore thumb.

Questions of love, and of female identity, are somewhere in here. Maya and Charu both fall in love with men that have the unfortunate honour of being intensely disliked by their lady friend’s parents simply because of their standing in society. For Michael, this is a question of religion, and for Charu, it is a question of employment. Apart from Maya, and one female cop, the female characters in The Folded Earth are constantly put down, highlighting the “traditional” role that women seem to play in this culture. It is up to people like Miss Wilson to educate the young women of the town, but the unfortunate political climate pits Christians against Hindus, and her work is less than admired by the external politicans blowing in.

As I said earlier, the strength of this novel is the writing itself. Anuradha Roy clearly loves language, and I love reading her language. But her characters and plot are messy, and fractured. The Folded Earth suffers from trying to be a widescreen novel in a 4:3 ratio. The vast cast of characters are never given enough room to breathe on their own, and as such the message of the book is lost. I’m not usually one to advocate longer novels, but if this were twice the size, it might be better. Alternatively, had Roy separated out her narrative strands and given them their own section, each one may have been stronger. Nevertheless, I’m curious to see what she does next.

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