Tag Archives: Man Booker International Prize

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip ROTH

I managed to pick this up cheap the other day, and after all the fuss about Roth winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year,  I was curious to know just what kind of author he was. I’ve heard a lot about him from a lot of people, and most of it has been pretty positive. I also didn’t want to commit to starting the Zuckerman series, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. So this seemed like a good starting point.

Alex Portnoy has a problem – his mother. The woman just won’t leave him alone, despite his having passed thirty, and having a rather swanky public service job crusading for human rights. As he tells his therapist about his life, and just how terrible his mother is, he detours and twists to explain just why he can’t seem to have a proper, fulfilling relationship with any woman, and why, maybe, he just doesn’t really care. Or does he?

Portnoy’s Complaint was written more than forty years ago, but I was constantly surprised at just how modern and alive it felt. Turn Portnoy into any of the other minority groups that are now living the American dream thanks to their enterprising parents, and you’ll probably end up with a similar tension and anger that permeates this novel. Portnoy is a very, very angry young man – there’s no doubt about that. He blames his overbearing, smothering mother for the problems he now has with women; he seems to hate white Americans because of their white privilege, while at the same time wanting desperately to be a part of the cool group; he hates being Jewish, because he doesn’t even believe in God. Replace any of these with, say, Muslim immigrants, or Asian immigrants, or African immigrants, and you can see how much of an influence authors like Roth have had on immigrant literature in America.

At the same time, though, there is something deeply, inherently Jewish about Roth’s writing. Alex’s mother issues – which are really family issues more than anything else – stem from this weird relationship he has with his parents and what they represent. They are first generation Jewish immigrants, complete with English studded with Yiddish. (Seriously, there’s a lot of Yiddish in this novel, though I understood about 90% of it, so it doesn’t make anything unreadable.) Despite him being in his early thirties, his parents are still on his back for not having settled down with a nice (Jewish) girl and having some grandchildren. They – his mother in particular – see it as an affront to all they have done for Alex that he doesn’t even have to common decency to provide them with grandchildren.

Of course, whether this is an accurate portrayal of his parents is the ultimate question. Told as a bizarre stream of consciousness to his therapist, there is no reason to trust Alex as a narrator. For all we know, he could be exaggerating everything – his parents may even be lovely people. But I think we can all identify with Alex, even just a little – we all of us have had moments in our lives when, even though we’ve grown up and moved out of the parental house, our parents still get on our nerves for the littlest of things.

Stylistically, too, Roth is masterful. Alex’s voice is carefully balanced between the literary and the conversational, the intelligent and the crude. I love a good bit of (appropriate) swearing in a novel, and Roth does not disappoint. If you are in any way offended by descriptions of masturbation, intense threesomes, or even raunchy descriptions of lady bits, you would be well advised to not read Portnoy’s Complaint. For those of us who do enjoy all of these things, though, there’s a lot to love here. I know some people are mortally offended by swearing, and think it vulgar and unintelligent, but a well timed expletive can be just as devastating and effective as anything else. On a similar note, I’ve never seen the word c**t in print quite so many times as I have in this novel.

I hesitate to compare Roth to a 21st century sitcom character, but if anyone’s seen The Big Bang Theory, there’s an excellent analogy to be made. Alex Portnoy is the precursor to Howard Wolowitz, and all of those slightly messed up, sexually frustrated, mother-issue-laden young Jewish men that are now so popular in, well, pop culture. Portnoy’s Complaint carries its age well – there’s a verve and energy throughout Roth’s writing that makes him fun to read. I’m eager to find more.

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The General of the Dead Army (1963) – Ismail KADARE

And so my slight obsession with Albanian literature continues. Well, I say Albanian – I really mean Ismail Kadare. I don’t know what it is about him that I keep coming back to, but his writing combined with the really pretty Vintage Classics covers of some of his novels just makes me go back for more.

An Italian general has been sent on a mission. He must go to Albania and collect the bones of all the fallen soldiers from the Second World War. Tagging along with him is a military priest and a local expert. Over the two years that it takes them to complete this mammoth task, all sorts of memories of the past begin to surface that many people have tried to forget for the last twenty years. Memories of Italian mistreatment of the Albanian population, and diaries of the deceased Italian soldiers provide a fascinating insight into what life is like in an occupied country – from both sides.

I love the central concept that this novel weaves itself around. I love the idea of someone going back to collect the bones of the dead (hence the title of the novel) and being forced to relive events that he is desperately trying to forget. I love that he is going to a country that was occupied by his own army not twenty years ago. I think this is a really clever way of writing a war novel, and I think what Kadare does best is to not blame either side for what went on. Or, at least, I didn’t read any blame. What makes this novel even better is that it is told from the Italian point of view.

Kadare could have quite easily have taken the Albanian side, and given us an Italian general who is narky and insensitive, but instead, he has given us a character who feels old, tired, frustrated with what he is doing and the way he is going about it. His attempts to befriend the Albanians, who are still (quite rightly) bitter about the war, are lovely to see from his side, and the stonewalling he gets from the other side is frustratingly predictable. But in a good way – this smaller token of reconciliation is no doubt meant to represent relations between the two countries, and to see Albania being portrayed as the people unwilling to move on is more interesting than the predictable inevitability of making Italy the bad guys. Albania itself is not characterised as a particularly nice place. Most of the descriptions of the landscape paint it as bleak and uninviting – especially since the novel focuses much of its time on the general doing his job in the winter, in mountains and backwaters that inspire dreariness and grayness.

For me, the best parts of the novel were the flashbacks to the war itself – the highlight of this being a diary of a deserter who lives out his life on an Albanian farm. There’s something so beautiful and elegiac about the whole thing, you just want to read it forever. And that, I think, is where the novel’s main weakness is. I would have much rather seen Kadare focus more on the flashbacks and diaries than the present day, mainly because I think his writing is much better in these sections. He brings some kind of balance and thought into what he is writing here, and it makes for some really unique war reading. Not that he condones what is going on – these diaries are far more personal than the political machinations of what was going on around them. Much like the general in the present day, Kadare chooses to focus on the personal rather than the national. There are some other really nice touches – the story of the whorehouse in the small Albanian village is perfectly pitched, as is the old woman at the wedding at the end. The German general, another man here to collect the bones of his dead, is another nice character, though it would have been nice to see him a bit more in the novel – he becomes vitally important at the end, though he is not set up as being so in the main body.

There is a reason Ismail Kadare was able to break out of the shudder-inducing genre of “world literature” and become a respected author in his own right, and this novel encapsulates it. His ability to paint characters who are placed in situations that are universal, and does not have to rely on making Albania, or its history, the backbone of every novel he writes, so that people read it to feel intelligent and well-read. Hopefully, people read this book because it is a very good novel, not just because “that guy’s from Albania”.

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Things Fall Apart (1958) – Chinua ACHEBE

Having read Achebe’s essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last year, I felt that the time was right for me to explore some of his earlier fiction works. And what better place to start than with his first, and definitely most famous, novel, Things Fall Apart.

Okonkwo is a young man in the village of Umuofia, somewhere in Western Africa. He lives with his three wives and their children in relative harmony, and he is considered a strong man in the village – partly because of his wrestling prowess. As he moves up the village hierarcy. however, something happens that will see the eventual fall of Okonkwo’s name in the village, as everything he thought he knew about life and the world around him is changed forever.

So much contemporary post-colonial literature that deals with interactions between native tribes and the invading conquerors seems to be so angry – there is clearly still a lot of feeling about these issues. And quite right, too. Yet Achebe manages to make his novel about Africa, without resorting to an angry diatribe about the negative impact of the colonising powers on his lands that so many authors feel the need to spurt forth these days. Which is a shame, because this can often lessen the impact of the inevitable finale – something that Achebe manages to keep intact. When the colonisers finally arrive at this village, at the same time that Okonkwo is returning from his exile, their actions are initially met with laughter and mild annoyance – once the big stuff begins to happen, though, everything goes downhill. And Achebe doesn’t seem to place the blame squarely at the feet of the colonisers – he sees it as a combination of the colonisiers, and the gradual weakening of the men of the tribe, which Okonkwo himself tries to stamp out.

Gender roles within this village, and the role of masculinity, are central to this novel. The women of the tribe are expected to marry for money and dowries, and when they do, they are expected to look after the children and their husbands. Those women who do not follow these rules are severely punished. Mind you, there’s some pretty terible punishments for other things out of their control, such as giving birth to twins.  Again and again, everything that is going wrong is blamed on the women. Im contrast, the men of the village are expected to be strong, tough, and warrior-like. Okonkwo particularly is worried that his son is not tough enough, and goes out of his way to try and toughen up his son, for fear of him becoming ‘womanly’. There seems to be this fear of weakness, a fear that, by not being strong, you will shrivel up and die. Which, I suppose, is what would happen. There doesn’t seem to be any room for much variation, for individuality, for very much. And yet, these people are content and happy with their lives. They have good company (restricted to one’s own gender), swift justice (there’s an excellent court scene that renews your hope in gender equality – just), access to food and water (for the most part) and, no doubt, an excellent view from the back porch.

Achebe has achieved fame because of his nationality and culture. As has Things Fall Apart. As with so many authors who come from outside the mainstream, it would be easy for him to ride on this, and simply write a story with some local flavour. Fortuantely, he has not done this in Things Fall Apart. While culture is a vital part of the novel, it is not the focus. Instead, we get a very understated, very relaxed look at gender roles, how this affects interaction with other people, and interaction with the world around us. Oh, and the last sentence is one of the greatest ever.

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The Palace of Dreams (1981) – Ismail KADARE

A new year, a new list of books to read. What better way to start with another novel from an author I discovered only last year, and instantly loved. That’s right, it’s everyone’s favourite Albanian author – Ismail Kadare. And, this is a pretty Vintage Classic. A killer combination for my wallet.

Mark-Alem belongs to one of the most influential families in the Ottoman Empire – the Quprilis. When he is offered a job at the Empire’s most imporant organisation, the Tabir Sarrail – the Palace of Dreams – he is initially confused as to what he is doing there. Once his job begins, however, strange things begin to happen that he feels can’t just be put down to coincidence. Of course, once his powerful uncles begin to talk of revolution and change, the penny bgeins to drop. And by the end, everything will change.

I do wonder if I would have got more out of this book if I were Albanian. Certainly there’s something that is uniquely Albanian about this novel – it was banned when it was first published in 1981 in Albania. There’s a lot of stuff going on about the Albanian roots of the Quprili family being hidden because of their position in the Ottoman Empire – and I just don’t have a cultural reference for any of that kind of stuff. As such, I’m probably inclined to notice it, and then move swiftly on to what I think is the main point of the novel.

Mark-Alem is a pawn. Simple as that. Right from the beginning, he has no idea why he has been recruited to the Palace of Dreams, or why he might “suit” the people who run it. He’s so insanely thick that when his powerful uncle, the Vizier of a country province, is talking about revolution and change, and the history of misfortune in their family, he doesn’t make the connection until much, much later. As such, he’s a bit of a wimpy main character. Sure, he’s there just to present this world, and the politics that control and change his surroundings, but it would have been nice perhaps to see a little life injected into him. This is perhaps most evident in his final status – while his role as pawn has been carried out to completion, I’m not totally sure he ever knew that where he ended up is not some coincidence, but rather, as part of the political dealings of the Quprili family.

What fascinated me most about this world created by Kadare was the Palace of Dreams itself. It is a truly disturbing thought that there’s a government department out there designed exclusively to monitor the dreams of their population. For that is what the Tabir Sarrail does – with an outpost in every village, town and city, you must report your dreams to these people, so they can be sent to the head office, and determined if they will have an effect on the Empire, because it is believed that dreams are messages from God. An interesting, and frankly horrifying thought, considering dreams themselves can metaphorically be linked to ideas of freedom, of hope and desire, of revolution. People who dream ‘Master-Dreams’, that is, dreams that might affect the State, are tortured, and eventually killed, in the hope of further understanding any possible threat to the stability of the Empire. As such, the question of who controls the Tabir Sarrail becomes of vital importance, and eventually becomes the most important question of the novel – do the dreams control the Empire, or are the dreams fabrications – does the Empire control the dreams?

I don’t think that this is perhaps as tight or pointed novel as it perhaps could be. There are certainly some important points that are raised throughout – and the dream police idea is truly terrifying – but somehow, it seems to be a bit less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps Mark-Alem is the problem. Maybe I just need some time to let it all sink in – already, it remains in my head as a disturbing possibility.

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The Siege (1970) – Ismail KADARE

Now that I’m on holidays, I’m slowly working through the pile of books that I have accumulated throughout the year. This was last on the pile, and as such, first off it. I love book pile logic. And while people scream at me that holidays are times for reading trashy novels, I’ll read pretty much anything in the holidays – as long as I don’t have to write about it afterwards. Clearly, this is not working out.

The fifteenth century is drawing to a close, and the never ending war between the East and the West is continuing. The Turkish Army has come to invade Albania, but the mighty Christian stronghold is refusing to bow down to the Islamic world. The Siege takes place over several months, and darts between members of the Turkish and Albanian camps. These two viewpoints combined, the brutal truth of warfare is revealed, as everyone begins to feel the effects of a siege that should never have happened.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but The Siege turned out to be much better than what I thought it was going to be. Far from being a dry, boring recount of some obscure part of Albanian history, Kadare has created an excellent story that deals with a whole load of themes in not a great deal of time. But, this book is the perfect length – it doesn’t drag, and while the first 80 or so pages are very pacy (and could almost be a stand-alone short story), the rest of the book slows down to deal with some pretty interesting ideas about religion and warfare. What really struck me, though, was how relevant this book is. Even though it was written in the 70s (it’s just been translated into English), and it’s about an historical event from the fifteenth century, everything it says is totally and completely true about today. And I know that history is relevant, blah blah, but after this, I think it is even more. After 600 years, the West and Islam are still fighting, and the arguments are still the same. I particularly enjoyed the speech in the middle of the book, where the Quartermaster is trying to explain to the chronicler why they are really there, and how they will win this siege, but still need to remain vigilant to wipe out the Albanian religion and their language.

Kadare made this siege up – though (apparently) it is clearly based on an actual event in Albanian history. What I like about this novel is that, while Kadare is obviously Albanian, the vast majority of the novel is told through the Turkish point of view. The main characters are all high ranking officials in the Turkish army, and it is through their eyes that we see the siege. Each one is out for himself, and for them to come together to work as a group is a small miracle. There is a great deal of political dealings and back-stabbings that go on. I love it. The vast cast of characters could quite easily get out of hand, but Kadare handles them with such skill, they are a joy to read, and each time a character returns to the page, they are instantly brought to life again. Of particular interest to me was the Chronicler, who is on this campaign to write a history – and since its the 15th century, it is in epic poem form. So he spends all his time trying to describe what is going on around him in the most flowery language possible. He’s a genuinely nice guy, who is there not for the war, but because he wants to watch. And since he hasn’t before, his eyes are pulled right open.

The Siege is probably unlike anything I’ve read before. Certainly, it’s the least recent historical fiction I’ve ever read. But, it truly remains relevant in today’s crazy, mixed-up world, and hopefully can find a wider audience. Go and find it.

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