By Asif Farrukhi
On May 22, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2013 will be announced. What makes this award of special significance for us this time is that one of our own, Intizar Husain, is among the nominees. Husain is the first Urdu-language writer to be nominated for what has become one of the leading literary awards, rivalled only by the Nobel. Previous winners of this biennial award, which considers a writer’s entire body of work, include Chinua Achebe, Ismail Kadare, Philip Roth and Alice Munro.
The organisers of the prize recognised that there was “nothing familiar or expected” about the list this time and said that “anyone who could have guessed even five of the 10 novelists who have just been revealed as the finalists deserves a mass cap-doffing from the wider reading public.” A bag of surprises or a collection of wonders, the finalists for the 2013 prize comprise U.R. Ananthamurthy from India, Aharon Appelfeld from Israel, Lydia Davis and Marilynne Robinson from the US, Vladimir Sorokin from Russia, Yan Lianke from China, Josip Novakovich from Canada, Marie NDiaye from France, Peter Stamm from Switzerland, and of course, Husain. So what exactly does he have in common with this diverse, international group?
The spokesperson of the Booker Foundation said that this year the judging panel’s choices show a taste for modernism rather than conventional narrative: “The judges were interested in novelists who push the form,” she said. It was also noted that many of the novelists are fascinated by cultural migrants. Political and social migrations have been Husain’s stock in trade from the very beginning but I couldn’t help recall how some critics remarked on the publication of Basti that it was not really a novel, missing out on how Husain was literally pushing the form to accommodate his experience.
I began to read through whatever I could find of the other finalists. At one time, I realised that Josip Novakovich was the same author whose stories I carried with me while doing relief work after the 2005 earthquake, as if the mood of the stories matched the grim and shattered landscape I saw around. The broken lives of men and women caught in the civil war in Yugoslavia inform the powerful and moving stories in Infidelities, chronicles of a woman looking for her rapist in every man she meets, a boy taking on the sickening stance of a soldier, the grim memory of a father’s death, tortures in the past and uncertainty in the present. English is an acquired language for Novakovich, yet his short fiction is some of the most amazing work I have seen in this form and I long to lay my hands on his one and only novel to date.
“Ideally, prose isn’t written — it simply happens,” wrote Vladimir Sorokin describing how he came upon the method for the composition of his fascinating novel Day of the Oprichnik. The future turns out to be the past, cruel and despotic, as a recurrent Ivan the Terrible and his dreaded police define a dystopic Russia in the days to come, marred by an authoritative absolutism which rings true for other dictatorships in the world.
A young boy wandering through Europe after he lost his family, his community and a whole way of life in the Holocaust, Aharon Appelfeld leant Hebrew and began to write in the newly acquired language. I first read about him in Philip Roth’s Shop Talk. Roth prefaces the conversation with pithy comments, calling him “a displaced writer of displaced fiction who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own,” and pointing out the “uncanny prose realisation of the displaced mentality.” He goes on to remark: “As unique as the subject is a voice that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.” The long story I read, entitled ‘No Stranger Can Understand This,’ seemed to be tinged with melancholic sadness.
The novels of Marilynne Robinson proved to be an easy search as I picked up copies of Gilead and Housekeeping in the used bookstores I frequent. The recipient of major awards in the US, I found her to possess a steady moral vision matched by great sensitivity of language. Cool and enigmatic Lydia Davis turned out to be a real discovery for me as I literally devoured her Collected Stories in which the longest story is a few pages and the shortest barely a line, yet compact and rich, poetic in the way only fiction can be. Even in the first reading, I was tempted to translate her, rather reclaim her for my language and context as she displays an affinity for not so much parables but the hikayat in the Arab-Persian tradition, secular versions of the Jataka tales devoid of the Buddha’s saving grace, hence more stark and bleak. Davis is also known as a remarkable translator and her recent version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary has received rave reviews. I long to read her version alongside Askari’s celebrated Urdu translation, comparing the two and moving from one language to the other to acquire a deeper understanding.
A remarkable discovery for me was Marie NDiaye, a French writer with African roots. Her novel Three Strong Women was one of the last books to come my way, but what held me spellbound was her short fiction. Her translator Jordan Stump responded to my request by sending me a soft copy of her collection of short fiction, All My Friends, due to appear this month. NDiaye moves between the European and African roots of her experience with remarkable ease. In the few pages of a story like ‘Revelation’, she succeeds in compressing the poignant anguish of a mother whose child cannot be managed at home while in her novel she explores lives and relationships on a larger scale.
Two stories and an essay were enough to convince me that Yan Lianke was a formidable presence, a writer of great force and critical relevance. I am glad that I have the experience of reading all of his major novels to look forward to. A single short story in the New Yorker was all that I read of Peter Stamm, a sensuous tale of a young couple that come across an older man in the bus, a man whose presence is unsettling and who could be the author of the story. In an interview appearing with the story, Stamm termed this as his favourite story in the collection We’re Flying, saying that it was always his goal to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives and that short stories were important to him as a writer. “I like reduction, concentration, clarity,” he concluded.
Ananthamurthy’s fascinating novel Samskara I read many years ago and later on was privileged to see, at the author’s invitation in Berlin, the Kannada film with Girish Karnad in the lead. Intizar Husain is clearly in the company of great fiction writers, some of the greatest of our day and age, and while reading them, I hankered to go back to his fiction and read it with a renewed sense of discovery. The discovery of these amazing writers will remain with me for a long time and I will be as ready as the next person to be surprised by the name of the winner.
The writer wrote the introduction to Intizar Husain’s Basti for the edition published by the New York Review of Books and has edited a special issue of the literary journal Duniyazad to mark the Man Booker International Prize 2013 finalists.