A winner that deserves to be known to world
'This is a reader's book; it engages' was the view when Edward P Jones received the Impac literary award in Dublin yesterday. Eileen Battersby agrees.
Impac has got it right, again, by alerting the world to another outstanding novel, and some fine supporting runners-up. This year's International Impac Dublin Literary Award has been won for the first time in its 10-year history by a US writer. Edward P Jones's first novel, The Known World, a triumphant multi-layered blending of the biblical with the vernacular, atmospherically set in a 19th-century Virginia where slaves are seen merely as property, was yesterday announced as winner of the €100,000 prize.
Although it was an exciting shortlist, offering a diverse selection of good work - including major novels such as two recent Booker contenders, South African Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor and veteran Australian Shirley Hazzard's National Book Award-winning The Great Fire - for those present in City Hall who had read all 10 books, the winner came as no surprise. The Known World always looked the obvious choice. An entire world has been evoked by pursuing an historical footnote.
Jones has shaped his narrative with the voice of a storyteller, part seer, part witness. It is a novel graced with the music of speech and the substance of memory. Nominated by readers from four US libraries, it breathes through richly lyric prose that pulsates with life and emotion. As Dublin City Librarian Deirdre Ellis-King remarked within minutes of the announcement: "This is a reader's book; it engages."
Beautiful, beguiling and often brutal, it is also an extremely important book drawing on history as suffered by a silent, forgotten victimhood. Just as last year's winning novel, This Blinding Absence of Light, by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, towered above its fellow contenders in terms of artistry and also the weight of its message - alerting the world to a real-life human rights abuse scandal - The Known World dominated this year's shortlist from its publication on March 7th.
Ben Jelloun's and Jones's novels are concerned - as was Herta Müller's The Land of Green Plums (1998), set in Ceaucescu's Romania - with truth. All three novels reflect the power of fiction as an indomitable truth- teller.
Having won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World had also been shortlisted for the National Book Award in the US, as had been Jones's first book, a short story collection, Lost in the City (1992). The novel - which he said yesterday "was on my mind for about 10 years; I did no research for it, although I'd meant to, so in the end I had to invent my own county [Manchester, Virginia]" - was well-received in the US by a range of publications, from the New York Times to entertainment guides.
"I didn't want to use any 'neon' language, I just wanted to report. I had story after story, like the Bible. And I felt that, like in the Bible, I was aiming for a simplicity of language," Jones said.
Jones is 54 and quiet by nature, a native of Washington DC and a product of its public-school system. His arrival at City Hall yesterday was not quite a leisurely affair. He had missed his original flight from the US and had become separated from his luggage. Having thanked the city, the judges, the Lord Mayor and all else concerned, he said: "My suit is crumpled, my shirt is crumpled, but my heart is soaring."
Jones was aware of being the first US winner, the only other North American Impac win having been secured by a Canadian, Alistair MacLeod, for No Great Mischief in 2001.
In its tone and haunting theme, that of slavery's vicious legacy, The Known World has echoes of Toni Morrison's incantatory classic, Beloved. Just as Morrison availed of the surreal in her powerful tale of a mother reduced to killing her own child in order to protect it, Jones looks to the strange for answers as to how a people endures. Myth plays a vital role in helping the slaves understand, and accept, the hell that passes for their daily existence in a society where they must accept that they are property and where, in time, they may even have to face buying their own child or a parent.
Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who is also a skilled boot- maker, becomes a slave-owner through his mentor, the complex William Robbins, a plantation owner with a black mistress. Early in the novel, Henry is having difficulties with Moses, the first slave he buys. The dispute becomes a brawl. Unfortunately, Robbins happens by on his fine horse and witnesses the debacle.
Robbins dispenses some advice:
". . . the law will protect you as master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts here . . . all the way to the death of that property . . . But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave."
Morrison's narrative is inspired by a particular event, while Jones's is anecdotal. His novel flourishes upon a grid of cross- reference, detail and grotesque asides. Its allure rests in the culmination of many lives lived, fashioned by shifts of memory as well as the facts of history. There is another difference between the two books: urgency and rage sustain Beloved, while The Known World avoids that quality of righteousness and instead looks to the bewilderment created by contradiction and compromise. Slavery remains one of the worst chapters in US history, and slave traders and plantation owners brought humanity into disrepute. However, there is a further level of shame. Freed blacks were known to perpetrate against their own people the very crime that had been committed against them, a small number of them dealing in black slaves, just as some educated blacks exploited their education when dealing with their own.
Because Jones sustains his storyteller's voice, even when describing outrages, the narrative never degenerates into polemic. Dignity, respect and basic decency, as well as family loyalties, are all explored. There is also humour.
The Known World is a novel that succeeds as art and as entertainment. It is moral without being moralistic, and imagined while also deferring to history. It is far superior to many former winners of the Booker Prize.
Readers and writers will automatically, and correctly, challenge the right of any literary prize to make judgments about literature. Contentious though prizes are, a shortlisting, never mind a win, sells books. However exciting or infuriating any prize is, there is really only one judge - the test of time.
To date, with a 36-year history behind it, the Booker Prize has produced two magnificent winners, Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), both by the South African master, JM Coetzee, and many distinguished shortlist nominees, including JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun (1984). It continues to exclude mainland Europe and the US, and so remains half-heartedly international.
Meanwhile, the Orange Prize, open only to women writers, appears, with the recent award of this year's prize to Lionel Shriver's pornographically cynical We Need To Talk About Kevin, intent on consolidating a particular type of agenda-based criteria.
The International Impac Dublin Literary Award, established in 1994 by Dublin City Council and championed by the then lord mayor, Gay Mitchell, was born amid a lot of ballyhoo about its massive purse, the largest for any single work of fiction, and the legacy of one James Joyce.
Cynics had doubts. But the inaugural prize in 1995 went to a good winner, Australian David Malouf's Remembering Babylon.
Since then, there have been other triumphant choices, including Müller, MacLeod, Orhan Pamuk's virtuoso free-for-all, My Name is Red, and, of course, This Blinding Absence of Light. Aside from those winners, a number of remarkable novels from around the world have been introduced to the reading public. Far from being dismissed as yet another publicity stunt, the publication of the annual Impac longlist should be celebrated for offering a useful insight into the western world's reading patterns. People are reading The Good Doctor, The Great Fire and The Known World.
Among the also-rans of this year's shortlist - and let us pause to lament the failure of Günter Grass's longlisted Crabwalk to make the final 10 - were South African Diane Awerbuck's lively debut, Gardening at Night, and German Christoph Hein's lugubriously amusing Willenbrock. They may not have won, but the reading public has.
Just as we thank publishers such as Harvill and Granta for championing foreign- language fiction, the reading public should bow to the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for maturing into a valuable forum at a relatively young age and for being truly international, highlighting fiction from across Europe, China, Africa, Japan, Australia, the US and Canada.
There has yet to be an Irish winner. But the first US win has happened, with a magically humane novel that does honour to story, to history and life.
As part of the Dublin Writers Festival, Edward P Jones will read from The Known World, along with Antoni Libera and Sue Miller, at Project, Temple Bar, on Sat at 1pm. Jones is interviewed by Eileen Battersby in Weekend Review on Saturday