Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week January 1-7

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 8 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we now have only a few days to the shortlist announcement on January 10. This week’s reviews are:

  • Tahmima Anam’s The good Muslim (Bangladesh) by Fay of Read, Ramble. She says “it is beautifully structured, the story well told, the characters alive” and believes it will be one of the short-listed novels. We’ll soon know!
  • Tahmina Anam’s The good Muslim (Bangladesh) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. He concurs with Fay and our other reviewers that it is a strong contender for the shortlist. He calls it “a brave and important book”.
  • Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth (India) by Stu of winstonsdad. Stu makes a great point about its universality, which makes me keen to read it … but this book has been one of the two most difficult of the longlist to track down.
  • Rahul Bhattachariya’s The sly company of people who care (India) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She says that “this is a remarkably clever book; I’m not surprised that it won the Hindu Literary Prize.”
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran) by Fay of Read, Ramble. She found it an intense read, “a powerful book. Overpowering”. I feel this is one I should read.
  • Tarun Tejpal’s The valley of masks (India) by Matt of A Novel Approach. He loved it but called it “the black sheep of the list”. Now that’s got me intrigued!
  • Banana Yoshimoto’s The lake (Japan) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. He’s not greatly enamoured saying it “drowns in introspection and self-doubt” but he says he’d read another Yoshimoto (so it’s clearly not all bad!)

Other Shadow Man Asian news

  • The shortlist will be announced next week, on January 10th … watch our spaces!
  • I have made it easier for you to find all our reviews now by creating a page listing the books in alphabetical order by author, with links to our team members’ reviews. Click on the Man Asian Literary Prize page tab or our Shadow Man Asian Logo in my sidebar to access the list.
  • If you missed it, I posted my third review this week:  Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon. I do hope that one of two of those I’ve read make the shortlist!

Jamil Ahmad, The wandering falcon (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Map of Pakistan

Pakistan, with borders (Courtesy: Omer Wazir via Flickr using CC-BY-SA 2.0))

I’m not sure how to describe Jamil Ahmad’s Man Asian Literary Prize novel, The wandering falcon. Is it a disjointed novel, a picaresque, or a collection of connected short stories? It doesn’t matter greatly – it is what it is – but at least by raising the question I’ve given you a sense of how it feels to read this book.

There’s much to fascinate here, not least of which is that this is a debut novel by an author who was born in 1933. Another late bloomer (though he apparently wrote the stories back in the 1970s). Ahmad worked in the Pakistani Civil Service and spent many years in the region he writes about. The book is set in the decades before the rise of the Taliban and presents – explores – life in the multi-tribal region on the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Fascinating stuff for a reader whose knowledge of this area is general.

There are nine chapters/stories, each having a unique title like “The sins of the mother”, “A point of honour”, “A kidnapping” and each telling a story from the life of a tribe/clan in the region. What unifies these is the character, Tor Baz, who is the wandering falcon of the title. He is born in the first chapter to a couple on the run for disobeying tribal laws of marriage. This chapter, “The sins of the mother”, sets a rather brutal tone for the novel, a tone that carries through into many of the succeeding stories (or events). This is a region where people live by tribal loyalties (and, of course, rules) and where the imposition of borders cuts across tribal life, particularly for those tribes that are nomadic. In the third story, “The death of camels”, the nomadic Pawindahs want, indeed need, to cross borders as they always have, but are told they need travel documents. Their leader says to the government official:

‘… We are Pawindahs and belong to all countries or to none. [ …] What will happen to our herds? … Our animals have to move if they are to live. To stop would mean death for them. Our way of life harms nobody. Why do you wish for us to change?’

Why indeed?

As you will have guessed from my opening sentence, this is not a strongly plot driven book. Ah, now this is where form becomes an issue. We don’t expect a collection of short stories (connected or otherwise) to have a strong plot and so this, probably, is what it is. But there is a linear chronology running through the book. It’s tracked through our falcon Tor Baz who pops up, for one reason or another, in different tribes, from his birth in the first chapter to the end when he’s a man. We see him in various roles, including informer and guide, but we never really get to know him – and for some reason this doesn’t seem to matter. It simply adds to the feel of the book, which is simultaneously fabular and grounded in reality.

The voice is third person, with the startling exception of one story that is told first person by an outsider, a part Afridi returning to his father’s birthplace. If I have a criticism of the book it’s that occasionally the voice becomes a little didactic, a little inclined to tell us some facts rather than show us, but this isn’t often and it’s not heavy-handed enough to spoil the read.

What makes this book stand out is the writing. It beautifully (if one can use such a word for the world it depicts) evokes the landscape we’ve become familiar with through television news and movies. Here is the novel’s second paragraph, describing a military post:

Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against each other, and no water other than a trickle among some salt-encrusted boulders which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility. (“The sins of the mother”)

Hmm … “lonely”, “frightening”, “crazily” and “hostility. With words like this on the first page, you know you are not in for something light and cheery. The interesting thing though is that the book does not read as a diatribe or even as a plea. It’s more a description of people who accept their lives, despite the harshness and difficulty, lives where, for example,

If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat, comfortable lives in the plains. To both sides, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. (“A kidnapping”)

The book chronicles this life – its unforgiving landscape and sometimes brutal justice – and the changes that are starting to threaten centuries old traditions:

The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die. In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual. The new way of life triumphed over the old. (“The death of camels”)

This is a mesmeric book. We feel the author’s affection for the people, their traditions and the land, and we go with his acceptance of lives whose bases are so different to ours. It’s a book born of the earth but its spirit won’t be pinned down. An eye-opener, in more ways than one – and a worthy contender for the prize.

Note: For other Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize reviews, see Lisa of ANZLitLovers, Mark of Eleutherophobia, and Stu of Winstonsdad.

Jamil Ahmad
The wandering falcon
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011
ISBN: 9780241145425

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 26-31

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 7 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with less than two weeks now to the shortlist announcement. This week’s reviews are:

  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble who thinks it has some interesting things to say about women’s lives in contemporary India but feels that it’s not fully successful as a novel
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke (India) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. Mark liked it, with some reservations. He feels it’s a little overambitious, trying to do too much, but nonetheless calls it an “epic, intense, richly rewarding novel”.
  • Haruki Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it much, echoing many of the bloggers’ reviews I’ve read, including Matt who has also reviewed it for our project.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (Korea) by Mark of Eleutherophobia who liked it, calling it “a quaintly crafted story”.

And, of course, if you missed it, I posted my second review for the project this week: Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake. My next one will be Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon.

Banana Yoshimoto, The lake (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

When I saw that Banana Yoshimoto‘s novel The lake was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize I knew that it would be a high priority for me to read, because I like Japanese literature and I have read and enjoyed Yoshimoto (her novel Kitchen) before.

The first thing that struck me, however, as I started reading the book was a case of reading synchronicity. Roy’s The folded earth, the first book I reviewed for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project, is about a young woman grieving the death of her husband. In The lake, the protagonist, Chihiro, also a young woman, has just lost her mother. And, in further synchronicity, both women meet men who impact their lives. This is not unusual, of course, but the thing is that in both books there is a sense of mystery surrounding these men. However, this is where the similarity ends: the mystery in The lake has nothing to do with the death of Chihiro’s mother. Rather, it relates to something the man has experienced, something that has clearly damaged him.

So, what is the plot? It is basically a romance. The first line of the novel is:

The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom*.

Chihiro, our first person narrator, then flashes back to tell us about her background, her somewhat unusual life with her bar-owner mother and businessman father who never married due to his family’s objections. Chihiro is around 30, but this is, really, a coming-of-age novel because she doesn’t yet feel grown-up:

I’m still a child. I still need my parents, and yet, I suddenly feel I’m walking alone.

Into this solo life comes a young medical student, a “puzzling young man”, Nakajima, who lives in the apartment opposite hers. They first communicate non-verbally across the dividing space. Gradually Chihiro feels she is falling in love with Nakajima, but she is not sure, partly because he’s odd, uneasy, something he admits to but can’t (yet) explain. However, it is through learning to accept Nakajima, to not push him but simply to care for him, that Chihiro starts to grow up. At first she wants to have fun – “I didn’t want to deal with weighty matters” – but she comes to realise that she needs him, and senses that he is “the one”. All this develops before we know what happened to Nakajima. Plotting the story through Chihiro’s description of their developing relationship puts the focus less on what happened in the past – though we certainly want to know – and more on how two young “kind of weird” people might move together to a good future.

Now, here’s the rub. Do I let on what happened to Nakajima? The blurb inside the jacket hints at what it is, so perhaps it’s ok to. However, I think I won’t. All I’ll say is that the lake – to which Nakajima takes Chirihiro half way through the novel – and the brother and sister (Mino and Chii) living there are important to the resolution. Chii is bedridden and mute but she can foretell the future and she does this through Mino. This adds a supernatural element to the story, which works well enough for me though I’m not sure what it specifically adds to the novel (except perhaps a sense of “otherness” to the atmosphere?)

The more important question to ask is why has this novel been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize? Is it more than a nicely written coming-of-age love story? Well, the mystery and its impact on Nakajima, Mino and Chii is a significant one, but that, from the way the story is told and how the plot is resolved, doesn’t seem to be the main point. It is clearly about grief, trauma and recovery, but I think this might be overlaid with the struggle in Japanese society, particularly for the current young generation, to not follow the norm blindly. Nakajima and Chihiro did not have “normal” upbringings. This means that, whether they like it or not, they symbolise nonconformity – and must, consequently, make active decisions about where to next. Freedom is not, I understand, a high value in Japanese society … but it is an issue that comes up regularly in the book. Chihiro’s parents aren’t, through family expectations, free to marry. The mystery surrounding Nakajima relates to a loss of freedom. In her work as a muralist, Chihiro’s only demand is the freedom to paint what she wants and, when that is threatened by a sponsor wanting her to incorporate an enormous logo into her mural, she intelligently but resolutely conducts a campaign to encourage him to change his mind.

Late in the novel, when talking about his experience, Nakajima says:

When you’re in a state of homogeneity, you’ve lost yourself.

Beyond loss and childhood trauma, then, it is the ongoing things like homogeneity, lack of freedom, the push to be normal that challenge Yoshimoto’s characters. But this is a quiet, lyrical book rather than a feisty one. It recognises that life involves “dull repetition of the same old thing” peppered by those “little leaps of your heart to put a splash of colour in the world”. Have I fully understood this novel? I’m not sure that I have … but I did enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues Yoshimoto seems to be exploring.

Matt of A Novel Approach and Lisa of ANZLitLovers, on our Man Asian team, have also reviewed it and are worth reading for their different takes.

Banana Yoshimoto
The lake
(trans. by Michael Emmerich)
Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011 (orig. Japanese ed. 2005)
ISBN: 9781933633770

* An American translation. We would say “mum”!

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 18-24

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Happy Holidays everyone who is celebrating this weekend … May you receive many books and the time to read them!

I have taken a quick break from my festivities to bring you Week 6 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project. It has been quiet on the reviewing front this week, for obvious reasons. And yet, I have bumper crop of reviews for you because of the addition of a new member to our team, Mark of Eleutherophobia. Welcome Mark. We discovered that Mark had read and reviewed several of the books on the longlist so it seemed sensible – if not downright useful! – to ask him to join us. And so, here are this week’s reviews – all Mark’s:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon (Pakistan). This book has been loved by all our reviewers so far, and Mark is no exception. A pre-Taliban story that sounds like a must for all of us.
  • Rahul Bhattachariya’s The sly company of people who care (India). A debut novel that follows an India cricket journalist to Guyana, and Mark calls it “bewitching”.
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran). Mark describes this as an important book that represents “a despairing and as yet unheard plea to the Iranian people”.
  • Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China). Although it’s a gruelling tale, says Mark, with perhaps some contrivance, he also thinks it is “a remarkable and unforgettable book”. Hard to go past that eh?
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India). Mark liked this more than the rest of us to date, though we did all enjoy much about it, particularly the writing. Mark calls it “a beautiful book that will not leave you until long after the final page”.
I had hoped to bring you my review of Banana Yoshimoto’s The lake, but that will have to wait until next week … Meanwhile, on with the festivities!

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 11-17

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 5 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with quite a bumper crop of reviews this week  …

  • Haruki Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Matt of A Novel Approach. Matt, a student of Japanese literature, has mixed feelings. He calls it unwieldy, though he also admits that he’s not a Murakami fan.
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble. Fay, like Matt and me, admired the writing but had reservations about the whole.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (or Mom, depending on your version) (Korea) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it as much as Stu and Matt did from our team. I guess that’s one that she won’t have to worry about choosing from!
  • Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She’s not overly impressed by it, stating that this “tale of adolescent introspection dressed up as a surreal mystery looks very slight indeed”. I liked Kitchen, the first (and only) Yoshimoto book I’ve read, but that was a long time ago now. I look forward to seeing what I think about The lake which will be my next read for the project.

And, of course, if you missed it, I did finally manage my first review for the project this week: Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth.

Anuradha Roy, The folded earth (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Anuradha Chenoy (Jawahar Lal Nehru University,...

At last I’m posting my first review for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize longlist reviewing project. The book is The folded earth  by Indian writer Anuradha Roy.  Like many others, my first reaction when I saw this book listed was to wonder whether Anuradha was another name for Arundhati Roy – but it isn’t. She is, however, used to readers confusing her – and now that we have cleared that up, I will get on with my review.

The folded earth is Roy’s second novel. It’s a contemporary story about a young Hindu woman, Maya, who marries a Christian man, Michael, thereby angering both her parents and his. Consequently, when Michael dies, mountaineering, after only 6 years of marriage, she has no family to turn to for support. Grief-striken her solution is to move to Ranikhet, the nearest town in the Himalayan foothills to where he died. The novel chronicles her life in that town – the work she does, the friends she makes. It’s a fairly simple plot, though there are some complications: there’s the mysterious Veer who comes and goes and with whom she develops an uneasy relationship, and there’s the backdrop of conflict as the impending elections bring into focus Christian-Hindu tensions. There are also some references to real people – to the romantically involved Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, and to the legendary big-cat hunter Jim Corbett.

The main appeal of the book for me was the evocation of village life through its colourful characters. They include Ama, the  stereotypical but nonetheless believable wise village woman; Charu, her lovelorn but resourceful granddaughter; Mr Chauhan, the officious Administrator; Diwan Sihab, the eccentric would-be biographer of Corbett and generous landlord to Maya; Puran, the simple cowherd; Miss Wilson, the austere principal of the Catholic school at which Maya works. And of course, Maya, herself, who is the first person narrator of the novel. These characters come alive and we care about them, even Mr Chauhan who, with his attempts to beautify Ranikhet (“In foreign countries I have heard people have to pick up even their dog’s … waste from roads”), provides light comic relief. He is not totally benign though, as he is also behind one of the book’s cruellest moments when his henchmen torture Puran.

I also enjoyed the writing. Roy’s descriptions of the foothills and seasonal changes bring the landscape alive:

… I stood looking at the mountains, which had risen out of the monsoon sky. Clouds were piled high at their base so that they floated in mid-air, detached from everything earthly. Something in the quality of the light made the peaks appear translucent, as if the molten silver sky were visible through them.

Her descriptions of people and their relationships are often spot-on, such as this of a new relationship:

We were too new and fragile, too skinless to be exposed to daylight just yet.

Roy explores some of the changes confronting the region, particularly in relation to religious difference, education, and the role of women. Should women be educated, and if so how much? (Ama, for example, would like to see Charu educated so that “she won’t let a man get away with treating her badly” but not so much that it will stop her getting a husband.) How do hardworking villagers comprehend the seasonal influx of wealthy travellers? Here is Ama again:

Travelling is all very well […] But it’s for people with money to burn and nothing better to do but eat, drink and idle. Why go walking up and down hills for pleasure? We do that everyday for work.

Social conflict and change are real issues in this neck of the woods!

And yet, despite these positives, the book doesn’t quite hang together, mainly, I think, because it doesn’t know what it is. Is it about coming to terms with grief, an ideas novel about political tensions in contemporary India, a mystery about Michael’s death, a hymn to the Himalayan region (in the face of encroaching urbanisation), or all of the above? I suspect Roy intended all of these but the book is a little too disjointed, a little too unfocused to quite pull it off. The politics seem important but are mostly a sideline to the personal stories. For the political ideas to have impact they needed to collide in some major way with the characters rather than form a backdrop as they do here. There is a mystery about Michael’s death but Roy doesn’t build or sustain the tension well, and when the true story comes out it’s neither surprising nor particularly powerful. There are references to the destruction of the natural world, to humans making “anthills out of the mountains”, to “the distant past of the forests when the shadow of a barasingha’s horns flitted through the denser woods”, but the ideas are not fully integrated into the story.

I’m not sorry to have read it, however. It’s not a ground-breaking book and it doesn’t fully cohere, but there is a lot to enjoy – the writing, the exotic (to me) setting, and the characters, for a start. I don’t imagine this will be my top-ranked book in the longlist but neither would I discourage people from reading it.

From the team: Matt (A Novel Approach) had similar reactions to mine, and Fay (Read, Ramble) also had reservations.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Anuradha Roy
The folded earth
London: MacLehose Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780857050441

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 4-10

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 4 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with …

  • Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon (Pakistan) by Stu of Winston’s Dad. He, like Lisa who has already reviewed it, liked it for what he felt to be its authentic portrayal of the tribespeople of an area that now encompasses parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
  • Tahmina Anam’s The good Muslim (Bangladeshi) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She liked it a lot. Her description of the way it explores the domestic (personal) and the bigger picture (political) – and the fact that it’s a Bangladeshi novel – have tempted me!
  • Rahul Bhattacharya’s The sly company of people who care (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble who calls it “a captivating first novel”. It’s about a cricket journalist who goes to Guyana for a year … that in itself intrigues me!
  • Anuradha Roy’s The folded earth (India) by Matt of A Novel Approach. He’s impressed, with reservations.
  • Tarun J Tejpal’s The valley of masks (India) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She says “It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is an outstanding book.”

I hope you are finding this an easy way to keep up with the team reviews … and that what I’m doing here is not redundant. The last thing I want to do is post for posting’s sake. (And, I know you won’t believe a word I say, but my first Man Asian review will appear next week!)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week November 27 to December 3

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 3 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project brings you …

  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran) from Lisa of ANZLItLovers. This sounds quite different in style and structure, but worth reading, particularly since it’s from a country whose literature is little known to me.
  • Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from Matt of A Novel Approach, and Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (China) from Fay of Read, Ramble. Matt and Fay have inspired me with their reviews to put this on my high priority list.

Ad hoc Man Asian News

kimbofo of Reading Matters advised us earlier this week that Wandering falcon won  the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2011. Does that suggest it might be a high contender for the shortlist?

PS: My promised review didn’t eventuate this week as I’ve been in Sydney for the weekend. But I’ve nearly finished my first book, so my review is not long coming!

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week November 20-26

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 2 of our Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project (whew!) ….

Matt of A Novel Approach is off and running with:

Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake (from Japan), which is high in my priority list as I’ve read Yoshimoto before and I’m particularly interested in Japanese literature.

And Fay of Read, Ramble with

Tarun J Tejpal‘s The valley of masks (from India), about which she has some reservations. Will others of us feel the same?

I hope, all being well, to post my first one next week, but don’t hold your breath. Life has a habit of getting in the way!