Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week January 15-21

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Logo by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 10 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 project and, as I reported last week, we are still reading and reviewing. We are, however, slowing down now as most of our team have finished, or nearly finished, their reviewing. This week:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon (Pakistan) by Matt of A Novel Approach. He thought it was an interesting description of time and place, but as a whole it left him cold. I was so tempted to buy the Granta Pakistan issue the other day but the TBR pile is so-o-o high.

And, if you missed it, I posted my review of Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom earlier this week.

Other Asian Literature News

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 has just been announced and the winner is Chinaman by Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilake. The novel is about a retired, alcoholic cricket writer. According to the article in the Times of India, Karunatilake was awarded the prize for “exploring cricket as a metaphor to uncover a lost life”. Ah, cricket … perhaps that means The sly company of people, which is also about a cricket writer, will win our prize! Just joking!

Note: The DSC prize is for novels exploring South Asian themes. The writer can be of any ethnicity or nationality.

Quick links to Man Asian Literary Prize posts

  • Click Badge in sidebar for all longlist views to date
  • Click Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 tag in the Tag Cloud for all my posts on tawkward.

Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Shortlist announced

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

… And my preferred two books – those by Ahmad and Yoshimoto – of the three I’ve read are in the final seven books. Woo hoo … but I have a lot to read to catch up to the rest of the team.

The shortlisted books are:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s Wandering falcon
  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth
  • Rahul Bhattacharya’s The sly company of people who care
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom
  • Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village
  • Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake

You can find our  Shadow team’s reviews by clicking the team logo in the blog sidebar or by clicking on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 page.

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 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 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 of November 13-19

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Courtesy: Matt Todd, A Novel Approach

Lisa of ANZLitLovers has hit the ground running with two reviews this week – and she says that already she is going to find it hard to choose between the two. That augurs well (or badly, depending on your point of view!) for our judging, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, here are links to Lisa’s reviews:

Have you read either of these books?