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.
Translation enables English-speaking readers to read each of the Booker International shortlist novels, but only one of these actually treats translation, albeit obliquely. Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors is told from the point of view of a translator of a Swedish mystery writer. Nors who writes essays in English and fiction in Danish is an accomplished multi-linguist. In fact, a reader of her essays or a listener to her BBC commentary might wonder why she needs someone else to translate her fiction into English, or what her judgment might be of the work of Misha Hoefstra who translated her shortlisted novel.
Further, the reader might wonder what Nor is up to in making her protagonist Sonja a translator by trade. Certainly, there is no commentary in the novel that would clarify this choice. Sonja frequently mentions her vocation but she never discloses the actual process. The reader never sees the translator at work. So, what can the reader infer? Is this tidbit of information window dressing? Is it simply a nod to the author’s undergraduate studies, her saturation in Swedish literature? Or is it a useful way to construct character? It does define Sonja in a number of ways. Sonja handles life in the same way a translator handles text. She prefers the distanced involvement of working with what others create. She prefers to reflect rather than participate.
Take Sonja’s regular massages, for example. One who avoids human touch in its emotional forms, Sonja yields her body to the professional’s teasing of the knots in her shoulder, the tightness in her body. After all, the work of a translator curries stiff shoulders, tenseness in the neck muscles. And while Ellen works on her body, Sonja deconstructs the professional’s quirky notions of the supernatural. It’s when Ellen invites her to a group hike/meditation that Sonja really stiffens. Everything in her experience resists the merging of worlds. It’s as though the Swedish page pulls her into its text, makes her a character in the novel she is translating. Sonja lacks the direct response of no, fumbles for the right words to translate the passage to her own intent. She starts the hike, but the call of nature gives her reason to turn back. Then, the dictates of a storm cause her to take a train back to Copenhagen. Ever the translator, she follows the lines of another plot, carefully merging her own point of view into the larger twists and turns of a novel she believes she is interpreting.
Distancia de Rescate is the Spanish title for Argentinian Samanta Scweblin’s novel, a current nominee for the Booker International Prize. I don’t know why Megan McDowell thought Fever Dream would be better as the title for her English translation of this novel or why she prefers rescue distance when she uses the repetitive phrase distance of rescue throughout the novel. These are translator decisions, and we have grown to accept them as part of the convention of translating. It’s fitting, I think, that the Booker International Prize is divided between author and translator, a tacit acknowledgment that translation makes a novel accessible, and that it is an art form in and of itself. It does leave an indelible stamp on the novel in ways the English reader cannot know. Things are lost in translation. That’s one of the limitations that non-linguists simply accept.
Certainly, Scweblin’s novel feels like a fever dream. From beginning to end, the reader fights to punch through the fog of fever, to separate the threads of reality from the illusions of dream. Because the reader is firmly grounded in reality beyond the page, she is freed to weigh the clues, to give herself to the understanding of alien experience. The magical realism of the novel provides its own artistic pleasure just as a good mystery rewards the reader with the would-be skills of detection.
Rescue distance is a concept from reality that sums up the invisible bond a mother always wants with her child. She always wants to be close enough to protect a child from harm. At the same time the term figures the ambiguity of distance, that wavering line that resists control. Try as she might, the protagonist is as powerless to protect the daughter within her own reach. The irony is the danger within reach.
While there is the perceived danger of chemically induced eco-imbalance in the novel, the desire to protect the child is the major focus. The varying manifestations of imbalance function metaphorically to embody danger. The death of ducks, dogs, horses, and the disfiguration of children is not nearly as damaging as the dehumanizing rupture of the soul, the fissure that renders everyone less than what he or she can be.
That the entire novel is told in an eerie conversation between two unlikely patients at the point of death is the device that gives this adventure of the mind its hold on the reader’s sensibilities. The newly afflicted adult is led by the prescient child whose understanding has been magnified in dissolution
The fascination of reading the Booker International shortlist is the experience of entertaining alternate ideas, dissimilar cultures. That Amos Oz names his book in Hebrew The Gospel of Judas rather than the simple Judas of the English translation speaks on several levels. Oz would have us believe that his decision came out of his understanding of the ordinary nature of the name of Judas, a name wrenched from meaning by the same overuse of John Smith on the English-speaking tongue.
Toward the end of the novel, an intertextual chapter documents a theory of Judas that has evolved from Shmuel’s study. In this portrayal, Judas is alone in his understanding and love for Jesus. He urges Jesus to go to the Jerusalem that the man resists, and he orchestrates motive and function of the crucifixion despite the lack of interest on the part of religious and political authorities. Judas is so certain of the divinity of Jesus that he believes that the occasion of the crucifixion will be the occasion of a grand political coup. He wholeheartedly believes that another miracle is in the offing, that Jesus will heal his own cross wounds, break the timbers as though they were little more than kindling for an evening fire. Betrayal came not in the denial of Judas but in the denial of political promise. Judas hanged himself in grief that he murdered the man he loved. Reality betrayed Judas.
This prescient chapter, while it seemed to disrupt the narrative flow, nevertheless provided
context for the reader to understand the coalescing of the major threads of the novel: loss of a former lover, family reversal of fortunes and subsequent loss off student tuition, isolation with an old man whose writing has no readers, the ghost of a leader of the unrealized two state theory of political settlement, the patronization of the 40-ish matron Atalia. Life has betrayed Shmuel. His only hope is to pack his kit bag and flee the house of shadows with its seductive death masks. He alone can take the rope from around his neck.
Reading David Grossman’s novel did not require a locational leap. The venue for standup comedy easily seemed more universal than regional. Even the content of the jokes seemed highly universal. Vocabulary was largely devoid of localized references, and ethnic considerations were mostly neutralized. Even the military camp that becomes the focus as Grossman shifts his narrative to the interior memories of Dovaleh could have been a summer camp for adolescents anywhere in the world. The reader is aware that the place names of the novel ground the novel in Israel, but the novel remains a novel of the ego-centric mind, a novel that veers strangely toward bildungsroman as it develops.
The Amos Oz novel, Judas, a classic bildungsroman, on the other hand, is highly regional. Oz asks his reader for an intellectual response rather than an emotional response. He builds a novel that is read best out of a consciousness of Isreali history. He asks his reader to struggle with the birth of the nation as the backdrop for his protagonist’s self understanding.
When the student Shmuel Ash drops out of university, he takes a job as companion to the elderly Gershom Wald. Walt is father-in-law to widowed Atalia Abravanel, the daughter of the late Shealtiel Abravanel who opposed David Ben-Gurion favoring the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. This is heady stuff for the reader uninitiated to the tensions of mid-twentieth century Israel.
The reader can follow the struggles of a young man to find himself after being rejected by his lover and having lost his purpose as a budding academic even if that reader knows little of the history and culture of Israel. Shmuel seems like the classic contemporary millennial who has difficulty sustaining himself apart from parental patronage. His characterization is engaging, and the carefully layered plot of the novel is compelling in and of itself. Still Shmuel is a young man of ideas, and full understanding of his struggles rides on tapping into the depth of those ideas. Oz has said of the novel that he is surprised that readers have appreciated the novel, realizing that a novel of ideas is out of fashion. Oz underestimates his own skill as storyteller, a raconteur who can pull a reader past his own limitations of facts and understanding.
Perhaps it is the honest self-acceptance of Shmuel that compels the reader. He sees himself realistically without the self-pitying indulgence of Grossman’s middle-aged Dovaleh. He neither blames his parents nor the girl who betrayed him. He knows he is struggling for his own soul., but he is content with the crumbs from the kitchen, the leftovers from Wald’s nightly porridge. He’s the suffering servant who accepts that he must knit together the threads of denial if he is to regain purpose and move on.
The reader empathizes with the young man, relives his own struggle for meaning, but he also finds himself introduced to a foreign culture, alternate ways of defining self. He experiences life in the context of politics, religion, and culture from which he has had little access from reading his own national literature. And that’s one of the values to following the Booker International.
David Grossman’s novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, uses standup comedy as a rhetorical technique, but at the same time it poses interesting questions about the interplay of man and vocation. How does a man’s personality and experience shape the way he works out his vocation? On the flip side, how does the practice of vocation shape the nature of the man?
As Dovaleh reveals the boy that he was, the reader sees his path to standup. Walking on his hands honed the performer in him and caused him to see life from his own unique slant. The reader ponders his attacks on his audience and sees a darker side emerge. The control of the microphone gives Dovaleh a platform to vent all those pent-up emotions for the crimes of childhood he endured. From the bullied boy, the man-bully emerges in a wholly acceptable venue. Victimization morphs into a style of humor, a mode of artistry.
While the fit between man and vocation seems obvious to the reader, the way that the comic was shaped by his vocational choice is more difficult to discern. Did he, in fact, become more sardonic as the years passed or more deeply paranoic as he reveled in his own life suffering? When life is turned into comedy, does the purveyor of the narrative buy into his own product? Does the probing of the wound increase the infection?
Like choosing to walk upright or on one’s hands, everything has a flip side, a counter opposite. It is the play between these opposites that David Grossman explores in A Horse Walks into a Bar. The genesis of humor is embedded in the polarity of the unexpected opposite. The punchline of the joke in the novel’s title is never rendered in the novel, but the reader knows the joke rides on its unexpected premise. By the same token, the page-turning response of the reader is a direct result of the rhetorical technique of the novel, the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious.
The comic and the tragic are worked out in a single set of the comedian, a single performance in time. Grossman has said that the nucleus of his tale–a young boy not knowing which parent’s funeral he is about to attend–had rattled around in his head for years while he sought the vehicle for its artistic realization. The choice of a comic’s voice could have rendered the dismissal of slapstick or the sentimentality of the confessional, but the genius of the writing, carefully modulated between farce and pathos, realized the poignancy of tragic depth. The reader watches the performance of an artist unravel with the same morbid fascination that causes us to pick at a scab.
Time spins backward as shtick morphs into confessional memoir, sub-levels of consciousness exposed. The artistry of the narrative rides on much more than the single dramatic elements of performance and audience. That these are realized through the lens of one member of the audience adds depth and consequence. The judge, a long-ago friend of the comedian, views the performance from both present and past, objectivity and subjectivity. He is the arm of justice twisted into its moral ambiguity as he struggles to accommodate a moment of adolescent betrayal. As focal intelligence, he represents a polar opposite to another intent listener, the dwarfed medium befriended in a web of childhood persecution. She plays agape to his legality. Both are the shadows teased into the comic Dovelah’s matriarchal/patriarchal light on the road to Jerusalem. They are players in the final resurrection.