TIME TO STAGE A BREXIT FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE?

Wed­nes­day’s an­nounce­ment of the Man Booker Prize short­list, where three of the six au­thors are Amer­i­can, sent shock­waves to Lon­don’s lit­er­ary world. There are even sug­ges­tions of stag­ing a lit­er­ary Brexit for Bri­tain’s most pres­ti­gious prize

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Culture & Arts - KAYA GENÇ - IS­TAN­BUL

THIS YEAR’S Man Booker Prize short­list is as shock­ing as the elec­tion of Don­ald J. Trump to the high­est of­fice in the U.S.

Crit­ics, jour­nal­ists and book­ies didn’t see it com­ing. Col­son White­head’s “The Un­der­ground Rail­road” and Jon McGre­gor’s “Reser­voir 13” were their two fa­vorites. Paul Auster was con­sid­ered a no-hoper. Two young de­but nov­el­ists, Emily Frid­lund and Fiona Mo­z­ley, could al­ways be short­listed in the fu­ture, but not in this year of lit­er­ary heavy­weights. Lad­brokes odds for Se­bas­tian Barry’s “Days With­out End” was a stag­ger­ing 6/1.

Wed­nes­day morn­ing’s an­nounce­ment of the short­list sent shock­waves to the lit­er­ary world. White­head’s elim­i­na­tion was the big­gest sur­prise. Auster’s pres­ence was the sec­ond. When it was pub­lished ear­lier this year, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish crit­ics alike had panned “4 3 2 1,” the tale of one Archibald Isaac Fer­gu­son told in four al­ter­nate ver­sions. Both Frid­lund and Mo­z­ley are both on the short­list: sur­pris­ing not only for their young age, but also for the fact that of the six short­listed au­thors, half of them (Saun­ders, also, had not pub­lished a novel be­fore) are first time nov­el­ists.

At the press con­fer­ence at the of­fices of Man Group, the spon­sor of the prize, 2017 Chair of Judges Baroness Young did of­fer some ex­pla­na­tion.

“With six unique and in­trepid books that col­lec­tively push against the bor­ders of con­ven­tion, this year’s short­list both ac­knowl- edges es­tab­lished au­thors and in­tro­duces new voices to the lit­er­ary stage,” she said. “Play­ful, sin­cere, un­set­tling, fierce: Here is a group of nov­els grown from tra­di­tion but also rad­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary. The emo­tional, cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual range of these books is re­mark­able, and the ways in which they chal­lenge our think­ing is a tes­ta­ment to the power of lit­er­a­ture.”

So, which book on the Man Booker short­list meets that cri­te­ria “grown from tra­di­tion but also rad­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary” best? Ali Smith’s “Au­tumn,” the first part of a sea­sonal quar­tet, is the strong­est con­tender for “rad­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary.” Smith’s book is a post-Brexit novel, one that tries to cap­ture au­tumn 2016 in Lon­don. The book’s pro­tag­o­nist, Elizabeth, is 32 and spends a great deal of her time with Daniel, who is a cen­tury old. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is the op­ti­mistic open­ing sen­tence of “Au­tumn.” It con­tin­ues: “Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, al­ways have, al­ways will, it’s in their na­ture.”

This is the fourth time Smith has been short­listed for the prize. “Ho­tel World” (2001) was the first, with “The Ac­ci­den­tal” in 2005, and “How to Be Both” in 2014, Smith proved equally suc­cess­ful. The year 2017 can be when she fi­nally wins the Man Booker. Among other things, her book re­vis­its the legacy of Pauline Boty, a founder of the Bri­tish Pop art move­ment, whose work the novel’s art his­to­rian pro­tag­o­nist ex­plores in the course of “Au­tumn.”

An equally strong con­tender is Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West.” In 2007, Hamid had been short­listed for the Man Booker with his “The Re­luc­tant Fun­da­men­tal­ist,” which was later made into a film. In that novel, Hamid looked at the rise of anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment in Pak­istan, and in­ter­ro­gated the re­sults of po­lit­i­cal med­dling in the af­fairs of Asian na­tions. The nar­ra­tor of that novel ad­dressed his lis­ten­ers di­rectly; this di­rect­ness was among the rea­sons of the book’s suc­cess.

In “Exit West,” Hamid takes a dif­fer­ent path. He looks at the refugee cri­sis. His char­ac­ters, Na­dia and Saeed strug­gle to reach safety in an era of civil war and catas­tro­phe. This is how they meet, in the open­ing sen­tence of the novel: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a class­room and did not speak to her. For many days.”

That city is left un­named. It can be in Libya, Pak­istan, Afghanistan or Syria. As mil­i­tants be­gin to de­stroy it, the state im­poses cur­fews and Na­dia and Saeed de­cide to es­cape their pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. They learn about the ex­is­tence of spe­cial trans­porta­tion doors placed in the dark cor­ners of bed­rooms; one step to the other side brings you to the Greek is­land of Mykonos.

An­other door opens to Lon­don’s Kens­ing­ton bor­ough. But as the cou­ple flees the cri­sis, the cri­sis fol­lows them. Lon­don, in Hamid’s book, has be­come a dark place: Its un­der­ground is de­serted, there are foxes wan­der­ing on its streets, and the cou­ple hears ru­mors about an­other part of the town where wealthy Lon­don­ers carry on with their glam­orous lives.

There are cu­ri­ous sto­ries con­cern­ing the short­list. Fiona Mo­z­ley, the 29-year-old au­thor of “El­met,” has ap­par­ently com­posed the open­ing of her book on a smart­phone dur­ing a train jour­ney from York to Lon­don. Auster, who turned 70 this year, is the most se­nior au­thor, and his book, at 866 pages, is the long­est novel in the short­list.

There will be lit­tle com­plaint about gen­der this year; equal­ity has been es­tab­lished with three male and three fe­male au­thors. But not ev­ery­one will cel­e­brate if Ge­orge Saun­ders wins the Man Booker with his “Lin­coln in the Bardo.” The Fo­lio Prize win­ner is ac­knowl­edged as the great­est short story writer of his gen­er­a­tion; his de­but novel is the fa­vorite of the book­ies at the mo­ment. But can we re­ally trust them?

An­other Amer­i­can, Paul Beatty, has won the prize with “The Sell­out” last year. Since the prize opened to all English lan­guage writ­ers who pub­lish their books in the U.K., peo­ple have been com­plain­ing of Amer­i­cans over­tak­ing the Man Booker. There will be more com­plaints. The Wash­ing­ton Post last week won­dered whether it wouldn’t be wise for Bri­tons to stage a lit­er­ary Brexit, so that their prize again cel­e­brates writ­ers from the U.K. and the Com­mon­wealth.

But or­ga­niz­ers want the Man Booker to be the lead­ing lit­er­ary prize for “qual­ity fic­tion” not in Bri­tain, but for the English lan­guage. Such is the price to pay for am­bi­tion. Bri­tish au­thors may end up los­ing this year, but the award that has been made more dif­fi­cult for them to reach re­mains a quintessen­tially Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion.

Photo shows the nom­i­nees for the Man Booker Prize, whose win­ner will be an­nounced on Oct. 17.

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