Impac springs no surprises

 

The shortlist of eight books for this year’s Impac Dublin Literary Award, which is announced today, is an intelligent gathering of proven works

ANOTHER year, another International Impac Dublin Literary Award. The shortlist announced this morning is an intelligent gathering of proven works including acclaimed short story writer Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and two 2007 Booker contenders, Mohsin Hamid and Indra Sinha. Also present is the consistently interesting US writer David Leavitt, as well as his countryman Travis Holland, whose poised debut The Archivist’s Story is a remarkable achievement. No British writers made the final eight; there are no Irish representatives, no Canadians and no women. The European flag is carried by the stylishly playful French response to Donald Bartheleme, Jean Echenoz, and Norwegian Roy Jacobsen, with one of my 2007 books of the year, The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles.

The 8th, but far from final, berth is occupied by Michael Thomas’s debut Man Gone Down, which is yet to be published in Europe but has been enthusiastically received in the US where it featured in the New York Times top 10 books of the year. So far, so good; almost so what? This year’s list has no surprises. For once the exclusions won’t really make the headlines, although Denis Johnson’s National Book Award-winning post-Vietnam political epic Tree of Smoke which is as difficult to read as it is to forget, would have seemed a likely contender. Exasperation not cynicism might well leave some observers asking exactly how many more prizes will Hamid’s powerful polemic The Reluctant Fundamentalist be shortlisted for?

Anyhow, the four US novels certainly reflect the cultural diversity of contemporary American writing with Thomas, an African-American writing about a black man in meltdown who is married to a white woman, while Díaz draws on his Dominican Republic heritage in his comi-tragic family saga. Yet this year’s list does not quite deliver on what has to date been the abiding strength of Impac, the highlighting of outstanding fiction in translation, those novels from China and Japan and Poland we might not have otherwise discovered. If there is an explanation it could be that English has conclusively emerged as the dominant language of international fiction. Potentially, any one of six of these writers, excluding Echenoz or Jacobsen, will receive €100,000 – a huge prize for one book.

Another obvious observation should be made: book reviews and most emphatically of all, book clubs, themselves influenced by book reviews and word-of-mouth, are influencing library readers. Whereas previously library borrowers invariably looked to classic works of literature, trends are increasingly pointing to the fiction of the moment – or at least, the books published within two or three years as opposed to 50 or 100. While today’s shortlist has been agreed by a panel of judges with a professional interest in literature, the long-listed titles from which this selection was drawn were submitted by library readers from all over the world. Are people reading more fiction? It would seem so. Is it because people have more leisure time? Possibly, particularly as that experience known as the working life has become been increasingly limited due to job losses and the ongoing recession. Whatever the sociological explanation, the library, too often the unsung hero of self-education, remains a vital element in international culture.

Since its inception in 1995 the International Impac Dublin Literary Award has always been intent on recognition; the long list of submissions is loudly promoted, as is the shortlist, as are the eventual winners. That first year came packaged in a determination to be seen as an international prize worthy of a city with an international literary reputation. Defiance shaped that determination; Gay Mitchell launched the prize with all the gutsy bravado of issuing a challenge in the boxing ring to all comers. The prize wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Booker Prize and the then Whitbread, now known as the Costa. In monetary terms it is larger than both, but it has yet to achieve the bizarrely mythic status of Booker.

The inaugural Impac winner in 1996, Lebanese-Australian David Malouf, was already a major international literary figure and his winning novel Remembering Babylon, which had been Booker shortlisted in 1993, had been widely read. Fast forward to 2003 and Orhan Pamuk’s Impac- winning My Name is Red. The Turkish writer who was well established internationally and a lead name on the Faber list, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2006. It should be said he was honoured because of his body of work and his political opposition to the Turkish government, not because he had won the Impac prize.

IT TOOK THE Americans a long time to win, and the first US victor was National Book Award finalist Edward P Jones in 2005 with The Known World. It was an important, impressionistic book about slavery in the US South, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There was also a long wait for the first home win, a wait that appeared destined to end in 2003 with John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun, yet it was Pamuk’s rich tapestry which won. Colm Tóibín triumphed ahead of Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers in 2006 with The Master, based on the life of Henry James. No one could ever accuse Impac of being parochial. The great Canadian short story writer Alistair MacLeod won in 2001 with his first novel, No Great Mischief, while two of the finest – and most politically important – novels of recent years, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums (1998) and 1987 Prix Goncourt winner Moroccan-born Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light came to even wider international recognition through winning the 2004 Impac prize.

Over the years many fine books have reached the shortlist; each year there is only one winner. Impac has a problem because in the time it takes to work through its democratic and international selection process most of the books are already established – I was almost worried to realise I had read more than 100 of the long-listed titles and was almost disappointed when noting that I had already read six of the eight shortlisted books. Is there any way of speeding up the procedure to ensure that the submissions might be more recent? It could well be argued with the best will in the world none of these eight books really needs additional exposure – they are already assured of readers.

This is an Impac weakness and where it loses out to the Booker. Unless the Impac judges can draw on new foreign fiction, which has been kept on slow burn while waiting for translation (which makes the British Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize so compelling), they will be faced with books that have been current for more than two to three years – and therefore not new and invariably facing the threat of people saying, “But I’ve already read that, that was shortlisted for such and such and didn’t win”, and so on. Familiar is good, unfortunately it’s not all that exciting in our soundbite age.

Few could complain if Norway’s Roy Jacobsen won with The Burnt -Out Town of Miracles. In 2007 Impac was won by Jacobsen’s countryman, Per Petterson, with Out Stealing Horses, probably the most beautiful winner to date. Jacobsen is one of Norway’s most revered writers. This is a brilliant, historically-based novel that goes beyond history and is blessed by its decidedly odd narrator Timo, who refuses to leave his town while his neighbours burn their houses and flee. Set during the Russian-Finnish war in the vicious winter of 1939, when the Finns, having refused to cede ports to the Russians, initially out-skied their powerful enemy before succumbing to them. It is an original, slightly offbeat performance and one of my favourite books of recent years. It is unlikely to win. Nor is Ravel, the latest instalment of mercurial wit from former Prix Goncourt winner Jean Echenoz, author of Cherokee, Lac, Nous Trois, Les Grandes Blondes and I’m Off. Ravel is based on the final years of the composer and is funny and clever but not a prize contender.

There is no doubting that debut US novelist Travis Holland is a contender with The Archivist’s Story. Here is a writing making rich use of history in the telling of a taut personal tale about a man who has lost his wife to a horrible accident, is losing his widowed mother to mental illness and is set to lose his life because of an ideal intensified through heavy personal guilt. Set in Moscow in 1939, the narrative achieves a convincing sense of time and place and terror. The writing sets it apart; it is a novel which will be remembered. As will the shortlist’s other historical novel, The Indian Clerk by the gifted Californian, David Leavitt. Based on the life of the British mathematician GH Hardy, it is a vivid, large hearted and major work that stands tall in a shortlist which includes four books all drawing on important themes.

Leavitt who was born in 1961 and has been a published writer since he was 20, has a long list of good books to his name including Family Dancing, The Lost Language of Cranes, Equal Affections, A Place I’ve Never Been, Arkansas, and The Page Turner. Another of his novels, While England Sleeps, was to prove a test of his artistic integrity as Leavitt had to face charges of plagiarism from Stephen Spender, who accused him of drawing on his life. Not only is The Indian Clerk a fine novel, it is a courageous one as Leavitt has again looked to history in the telling of a story. It is a graceful, thoughtful work, driven by brilliantly evoked real life characters as well as the sheer mystery and beauty of maths.

SO MUCH HAS already been written about Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that it merely seems a case of here we go again. Yet this novel did, almost, justify the buzz that surrounded it as it was following Drown (1996), a superb debut short fiction collection. Featuring a hero who quickly appears to be an attractive variation of Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces (which also won the Pulitzer Prize) there is a wealth of comic one-liners to enjoy such as the sexually unsuccessful Oscar’s comment to his sister: “Another few years of this and I’ll bet you somebody tries to name a church after me.” It is a stylish, vividly exuberant book about doomed love and dangerous sex and for all the gags it ends in a great deal of sorrow.

Man Gone Down offers yet another dimension to US life. It is a personal book told in a deliberate first person voice that brings the reader directly into the mind of a man in crisis. “I don’t know why I’m running: I’ve got nothing.” It is a writer’s book, an odyssey. Although it also conveys a sense of a country in turmoil, the narrator’s four-day nightmare is personal, perhaps too intensely so at a time when so many novels reflect wider concerns.

Certainly Mohsin Hamid has tackled the new plague, international terrorism, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. So many have by now read this graceful, if stylised narrative it seems superfluous to comment on it. Still, for all its power and rhetorical grace it is difficult to overlook the debt Hamid owes to Albert Camus and his classic La Chute (1956). The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though marred somewhat by the utterly unconvincing love story which is introduced, remains, and will remain, a book of witness.

As is Indra Sinha’s brave and furious Animal’s People, which draws on the horrific legacy of the Bhopal disaster. Again, this is novel with a wide readership and for all its humanity and the plain speaking voice of a candid and damaged narrator, it all too often allows its artistry to give way to polemical intent. History and political themes dictate this balanced shortlist which may well be conceding that English has become the international literary language of a world hovering on the edge.