Erpenbeck speaks to any person who’s left a job, a home, or a relationship. She drills down on the way the jarring of time disorients and disenfranchises the individual. Her corrective for het retired teacher seems to embrace the extreme, to plunge into a life situation that that by its very nature exaggerates the emotions of dislocation.
Dipping into the first pages of this novel, I think of my paternal grandmother bent over the type cases that lined the wall where a sofa might have been in the living-room-turned-newspaper-office of her home. She had the whole alphabet to select from as she formed the news of the day in the backward composing stick. Tokarczuk is the author picking and choosing among cosmic fragments of narrative, the cold type arranging itself in an infinite number of patterns in the composing mind of the reader.
Somehow David Bloom, that engaging NBC reporter in the early years of this century, fired my interest in news coverage. The night US forces moved toward Bagdad, I was glued to David’s reports from the Bloom Mobile. I was aware of his cramped conditions and the heat of desert travel. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, he brought war into our living rooms in startling reality. And like his countless fans, I was devastated to learn weeks later of his death, the blood clot from his legs that moved to his lungs.
Somehow that death was the correlative in my mind of the destruction of a rich artistic and cultural heritage of the ancient world as I watched war creep into Baghdad. I remember thinking of my trip to China not long after it was opened to tourists and my sense that political upheaval had ripped a great artistic heritage out of that country. To the extent that culture is maintained by artifacts, it seemed to have lost its past.
So when the Booker International shortlist was announced, I was caught by Saadawi’s title. I couldn’t help wondering how this middle eastern writer had reached back to Mary Shelley and on back to German myth to deal with that thin line between life and death. There was no decision about which of the shortlisted books I would read first.
Shortlist — 12/04/18
Prize Awarded — 22/05/18
Reading the Booker International shortlist is to face a challenge of rhetorical styles. No two books are rhetorically similar. Perhaps their only rhetorical link is that each has been translated into English, each has morphed into a common language. Hebrew, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Danish–the nuances of difference have been somewhat flattened in accessibility.
While the stylistic differences are extreme, there is, however, a thematic similarity that ties the books together. In each novel a central intelligence has told his or her story of struggle to make sense of individual experience–childhood alienation, cultural contradistinction, adult dissonance. Each has probed his or her own experience in something of an obsession to find a pattern, to bring some sort of personal unity to the self facing a world of overwhelming disunity. Together, they argue that each person must work out his/her own survival in some private place of the mind that processes events they are powerless to control.
A post two weeks ago on the Booker official page news noted that the bookies seemed uncertain of the odds in Booker betting. Schweblin was ahead but barely. On her heels was Grossman, Jacobsen, Enard, and Oz with Nors in last place. Those odds hold true today. If they are any indication of this week’s prize announcement, they place a premium on the shorter read and the more experimental forms. Both Schweblin and Grossman are highly innovative in the ways their stories are realized. Form dictates function. Both play off the interaction of a central narrator with a subordinate narrator who shares the angst and provides a seer’s mentality to the action. Enard and Jacobsen in opposing ways introduce readers to highly individualistic experience. The pleasure comes in the collage of details–the minimalist and the encyclopedic. In contrast, Oz and Nors seem highly traditional in working out the journey motif to personal realization.
If I ranked the books by my own reader preferences, I would start with Jacobsen and move to Nors. Toss up Oz and Grossman, and marginalize Schweblin and Enard.
If I speculate on the committee’s choice, I’ll guess that the winner will be Grossman or Enard, possibly Jacobsen or Schweblin. We’ll see Wednesday.
Sonja, the protagonist in Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors, struggles to find ways to communicate with a family with whom she has an ambiguous relationship. By and large, she is happiest when she remembers a nest she made for herself in the rye, her own private retreat. Her discomfort with family life overshadows her life as a single adult causing her to remain something of a child and to long always to return to that childhood escape.
Her prolonged struggle to learn to drive may be the best metaphor for her delayed maturity. It certainly speaks well for her that she would attempt that learning as an adult and suggests that she knows that trying new things is important, but the laborious and ineffectual lessons threading through the novel betray her own flexibility. There is a certain narcissistic hyperbole that surrounds the simplest social encounters for this protagonist. She fails to grow or change throughout the novel, retreating always to the symbolic rye.
The daughter Ingrid in Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen is a startling contrast to Sonja as daughters go. The reader meets Ingrid as a child and watches her as she matures. While she is one of two central intelligences that coexist for much of the novel, she is the link that holds this multi-generational novel together. It is striking to see how much responsibility she assumes for her own family and the two children left in her care. The novel is a tribute to the virtue of hard work and the indomitable spirit that is honed by spartan living. What is really striking, moreover, is the simplicity of emotion in this Norwegian novel. Ingrid is peculiarly freed to experience life on her own terms without wagging the baggage of family neuroses. The novel suggests that there is something to be said by the romance of isolated island living. This novel is a breath of fresh air in its primitive relief from the troubled psyches of the other five novels shortlisted for the international prize.