Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Man Booker International Prize

The nominees for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize are Peter Carey (Australia), Evan S. Connell (USA), Mahasweta Devi (India), E. L. Doctorow (USA), James Kelman (UK), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Arnost Lustig (Czechoslovakia), Alice Munro (Canada), V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad/India), Joyce Carol Oates (USA), Antonio Tabucchi (Italy), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Kenya), Dubravka Ugrešić (Croatia) and Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia).

I really like this list: it remedied a lot of the structural issues that plague the international prize circuit: for instance, the dominance of novels over short stories (Munro, the premier short story writer of our time, is on the list) as well as the dominance of the Anglophone (not only are Tabucchi, Vargas Llosa, and Ugrešić on, but Devi, Ngugi, and Ulitskaya are writers from Anglophone countries who have written partially or entirely in languages other than English. (Ulitskaya seems to live most of the time in the US). In addition, Connell, Ulitskaya, Devi, and Lustig have all been underrated by the mainstream Anglophone press (though most have received respectful notices) and Devi has the additional non-commercial appeal of being principally championed in the US by a well-known postmodern theorist (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

I tend to think none of the non-American Anglophone writers (Carey, Munro, Naipaul, Kelman) will win because they are already eligible for the regular Booker Prize, and with the exception of Munro have won at least once. (besides, Chinua Achebe won last time). Munro may, though, transcend this limitation as her practice in the short-story format has never been Booker-friendly. Given that this prize was ostensibly set up to honor Philip Roth, it is funny not to see Roth on the list: Oates, Doctorow, and Connell are all eminently deserving (it is especially nice to see the much-underrated Connell given a nod) and they might want to commend America for having the grace ot elect a Democratic president, but I still would bet against any of these winning. Ugrešić is known as much as a social commentator than as a novelist, and, though I may be underrating her work, does not seem of the same stature as the rest. This leaves Ngugi, Devi, Tabucchi, Lustig, Vargas Llosa. I can see any of these getting it, and all would deserve it. Vargas Llosa’s eligibility may have been helped by his having, as my colleague Juan De Castro has observed, distanced himself from the rightist associations he has often cultivated, for instance making positive remarks about President Obama and critiquing religious fundamentalism. I have an interest here—I am currently working on Vargas Llosa—but it would be a great tribute to a writer always at the center of both political and literary currents who has produced buoyantly, abundantly, and with continually high quality.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Calgary drama

One of the highlights of my visit to Calgary last week was seeing the highly laureled Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Palace of The End. This play was put on in New York last year and won a prominent award, and has also been prominently staged in Toronto, but, as so often, I had missed it until steered ot it by the need to find something to do in Calgary on a Saturday night. The play consists of three monologues by individuals relating to the Iraq War and its backstory—Lynndie England; David Kelly, and a woman based on a real-life individual who se family was an early victim of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. What struck me, aside from the intense, mesmerizing, yet necessarily disturbing performances, is how simultaneously passionate and nonjudgmental the playwright’s implied view of her subjects is. England’s affectlessness and narcissistic sadism, Kelly’s tormented, guilty indecisiveness (brilliantly acted by Stephen Hair, a well-known Calgary performer who was really superb), and the Iraqi woman’s bewildered rage at the cruelty of those who vie for power are highly articulated in discursive terms yet are given from within; subjectivity does not detract from adequacy to the material. For this reason, I think this play will well outlast its immediate circumstances, and may well be a principal lens through which we look back at Iraq and its reverberations thirty years from now. I particularly appreciated the way England was looked down on not because she was uneducated and from an often dismissed part of the country, but because she participated in unconscionably cruel acts. The journalist Tara McKelvey, who interviewed England, gave a talk at my university recently, and made a similar point; that cruelty can come from people in all walks and from all stations of life, and, as Thompson shows, in this context, from both Iraqis and Americans.