In David Lean’s film, A Passage to India, at one point when the case against Dr Aziz is taking an unpleasant turn, Art Malik, as the young lawyer defending Aziz, throws up his hands in despair and walks out, shouting: “Is this British justice?” While that was not exactly how some of us felt, the awarding of the Man Booker Prize late Tuesday night to Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger may have felt that way to some purists, who were rooting for more literary novels. Who knows if this year’s winner will be remembered in five years from now.
That is hardly the novel’s fault; each of the six novels on the shortlist was competent and engaging: or, as Philip Hensher put it on Monday night at the South Bank Centre, where the six authors read from their books and were polite to one another, he looked forward to reading five very good novels after the ceremonies.
And yet, this year is an odd one: Not only did the long list miss some excellent novels—Nadeem Aslam’s haunting saga set in Afghanistan, The Wasted Vigil, or Hanif Kureishi’s thoughtful meditation on post-7 July London, Something to Tell You—the shortlist surprisingly also dropped three splendid novels—Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and Mohammed Haneef’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes.
But by discussing the choices—who is in, who is out—you succumb to Booker’s enduring charm, where the hype and drama surrounding the prize take over from any more substantive discussion about literature itself. It has been the great conceit of the prize that it attracts so much gossip, and its shortlists get dissected and argued over even though it is not the richest prize in the world, and even as it attracts more controversy by keeping American writers out.
Booker has been an exceptional marketing success over the past 40 years—get on the shortlist and watch the sales grow, is one way to look at it. But there is a great deal of seriousness; the prize can certainly claim credit for launching many writers to international fame: V.S. Naipaul (Booker 1971, Nobel 2001), Nadine Gordimer (1974 and 1991), William Golding (1980 and 1983), and J.M. Coetzee (Booker twice, in 1983 and 1999, and Nobel in 2003) went on to win the Nobel Prize after winning the Booker Prize first. Only two authors who would otherwise qualify for the Booker (being novelists from the Commonwealth writing in English) have won the Nobel without winning the Booker first—Wole Soyinka and Doris Lessing—and Lessing had been shortlisted thrice.
And with likely future Nobel laureates such as Michael Ondaatje (Booker in 1992), Ian McEwan (1998), and Salman Rushdie (1981, and then, in 1993 and 2008, Midnight’s Children won the prize for being the best Booker winner ever), that trend will continue.
Indeed, there have been forgettable novels from among Booker winners, but then the Nobel, too, shares that proclivity. Does anyone care for Jaroslav Seifert (1984) or Elfriede Jelinek (2004)? And like the Nobel judges, Booker panels too have their quirky preferences. (A Nobel judge said last week that he didn’t believe Americans could write fiction—this, during the year Philip Roth published another great novel, Indignation). Booker judges’ preferences are of a different sort: They are suckers for sprawling sagas with a close relationship with history, extra points if it is set on different continents, and with multiple characters, from the marginal strands.
Bear that in mind, as we look at this shortlist: Sebastian Barry took us deep into the heart of an Irish woman grappling with madness; Linda Grant took us inside a wardrobe; Steve Toltz turned out a lively intergenerational novel about Australia; Philip Hensher focused on Sheffield; Amitav Ghosh put together an impressive cast of characters on a former slave ship taking indentured labourers to an uncertain future; and Aravind Adiga wrote about modern India.
And that’s why the more interesting contest was earlier this year when, to mark the 40th anniversary of the prize, the organizers decided to award the Booker of Bookers to the book that has emerged as the seminal novel of the past 40 years. Three judges shortlisted six novels, which were selected based on a public poll. It was an impressive line-up, including Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). Rushdie deservedly won; as the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie put it while championing the novel at a public reading in July, Midnight’s Children was important not only for the story it told and the way it told the story, but also because it inspired a generation of writers to believe they, too, could do it. That’s what makes a literary lion.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org