Ian McEwan || Machines Like Me

Spoiler Alert!

I cannot recall this ever happening before, Machines Like Me lost to a series, or rather the android in said series. McEwan introduces us to Adam, a near-human robot, and forces us to ponder on the impact near-human robots can have on society. He cannot help the fact that Data, the fabulous android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, showed us that impact many years ago. Everything that could have made Adam brilliant, endearing and incredibly annoying had already been shown by Data.

Machines Like Me furthermore suffers from a lack of focus. McEwan wants too much. Somewhere around World War Two history takes a different path. Brilliant scientist Alan Turing does not commit suicide but proudly announces his love for his male lover to the world. As a result he sets out on a course of discoveries leading to a society in which self-driving cars have become normal. The development of robots the next step. When the novel starts Great Britain has just lost the Falklands War, providing an opportunity for a new Labour leader to take control of the country. Nice, this other path of history, it distracts however. I was wondering at a certain point what story McEwan had set out to write.

The novel is written entirely from the point of view of Charlie, Adam’s owner. The tricky thing in this case being the fact that Charlie kind of seems unfinished. He looks at things, ponders a lot, has himself carried away, it just does not make him a convincing personality. From a certain point of view a brilliant choice: the undeveloped man set against the near-human robot developing day by day. Charlie becomes the ideal example of man having a robot earn his living, not having to work himself, just enjoying life. Unfortunately McEwan does not leave it at the dilemma of the impact of artificial intelligence on our life, he adds girl-friend Miranda and her quest for revenge. Another moral dilemma.

Miranda turns out to have had her revenge on her best friend’s rapost. A young Pakistani who commits suicide after having been raped. Thema three has been introduced: how do you deal with such a situation, what impact does it have on your life? Add to this a child that has been literally left on Charlie and Miranda’s doorstep and the lack of focus becomes evident. The rape story line in itself could have led to a beautiful novel. In Machines Like Me it has to compete with the robot story line and some world history taking place.

Moving on to Adam. As I said at the start of my blog, Data already showed us the humanity of an android, and the small matter of his perfection being absolutely annoying. Data was given the chance to develop during the many episodes of The Next Generation, Adam’s development takes place in only a few pages. To make matter even more complex McEwan has added a bonus. The Adams and Eves that have been produced do not seem to be able to cope with the absurdness of reality, their factual brain cannot handle non-logical reality. More and more of them commit suicide, in their own way. Charlie and the reader are therefore constantly on the lookout for signs showing Adam is about to do the same.

Conclusion: Machines Like Me could have been a brilliant novel if McEwan had chosen focus. The impact of robots, of artificial intelligence of mankind, the moral dilemmas of Miranda, those topics by itself could have been written down in beautiful novels of their own. Machines Like Me unfortunately suffers from abundance.

Machines

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David Vann || Halibut on the Moon

Spoiler Alert

In Halibut on the Moon we are taken along in the final days of suicidal Jim. He has travelled from Alaska to California to visit a shrink, whilst being taken care of by his loving family. At first I wondered why the novel had been applauded. Then tone and sphere changed, Vann started showing his enormous talent as a writer.

Though structurally there is no divide in the novel I did feel that the novel was divided into two parts. In the first part of the novel Vann appears to merely give an account of the conversations between Jim and his family. Maybe he succeeds too well: the family does not really share a lot. It is also clear that it is hard to talk to a man who is determined to kill himself and who no longer is in control of his thoughts. Even when his young children are around Jim says whatever comes into his mind. I cringed whilst thinking about the effect on them.

Then there is a turning point. Less conversations, more reflections, more descriptions of nature, Vann lets loose. The man turns out to be an exceptional writer. He produces beautifully framed sentences that are a delight to read, he poses thoughts that make you think. The turning point? The scene in which he describes the sensation of freedom a halibut must have felt on the moon: no gravity, being able to fly without being hindered by weight. This passage only would suffice to have you read Halibut on the Moon. Jim’s father’s revelation that he is not happy, has never been happy and will just sit out his days is a turning point on a different scale. Don’t fuss about suicide, just accept the cards you’ve been dealt, don’t mope around not being happy. His view on life versus suicide smarting even more than his son’s.

It is of course even wriest that Jim is David Vann’s father. A fact that is clear from the start. I did not check whether the man really killed himself until after I finished reading Halibut, I wanted to remain hopeful that he overcame his depression. No such luck. In the final sentence Vann has Jim pull the trigger. Whilst being on the phone with his ex, having convinced his family that he is recovering. I’d rather not think on the impact Jim’s suicide must have had on his brother Gary, his ex Rhoda or his children. Vann having written on suicide several times must be a hint.

To conclude: a splendid novel on a sad, depressing topic. I’d say do not let the topic keep you from reading Halibut. You might want to wait until spring though. I am not sure whether dark winter is the most appropriate time to read this beautiful novel.

Halibut

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Deborah Levy || The Man Who Saw Everything

Longlist
Booker Prize Longlist 2019

Spoiler alert!

Saul Adler is hit by a car. From that moment on Levy plays with certainties. Saul apparently continues his life, merely suffering from an injured hip. Levy however continually hints that things are not what they appear to be. Then he is hit again, at the same spot. Or is this the only accident?

Levy uses a trick to have us doubt truth. And whether things occur als linearly as the reader might think. The accident occurring a second time makes the reader view the previous pages in a different light.

Not a lot happens in The man. Saul is hit by a car, his girlfriend ends their relationship, he leaves for East-Berlin as planned. In 1988, a few weeks before the wall falls. He falls in love with his guide / translator Walter and brings him and his younger sister in trouble by underestimating the power of the Stasi and the urgent desire to flee the country. Back in England he continues his life. Only when the accident occurs a second time in June 2016 Levy starts revealing what actually happened between 1988 en 2016. Saul is dying, he is confused, muddled. He mixes up people, times and events.

The important people in Saul’s life are at his hospital bed. His view on them turns out to be personal and not exactly correct. His father is not the tyrant Saul has made him out to be, his brother is actually quite all right, Saul might have blown up being the outsider in the family. Jennifer appears to have had the right reasons to end the relationship. Sauls’s humanity, his difficulty in relating to people come to the light. He turns out to be rather selfish, focussed on his own interests. His beautiful appearance does not correspond to his interior. He is just a man.

I preferred the second part of the novel to the first one. Based on the second part I now know Saul could predict events during his stay in Berlin whilst thinking back on it dying. Reading the first part without this knowledge a slight touch of magical realism is hinted at, which to me feels too much as a writers trick. I for one was glad Levy decided to trust on her talent to write and reveal the truth step by step.

Nice detail: Jennifer, a photographer, replicates the Abbey Road cover with Saul in the white John Lennon suit. The picture is meant for Walter’s sister, a great Beatles fan. Saul is hit on the zebra crossing of the cover. Another hint for the reader?

I kept my distance while reading the first part. For one because of the slight touch of magical realisme but also for the main characters remaining clichés. In the second part of the novel I felt myself being drawn into it. Levy manages to tide over what you see is what you get and the truth behind it. At that moment I could also acknowledge her talent for writing. She no longer needed tricks to convince me, her writing and her beautiful descriptions of people and events sufficed.

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Trent Dalton || Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton has won lots of prizes in his home country Australia with this first novel. In Europe Boy Swallows Universe seems to be rather unknown, which is slightly strange. The novel combines a good story with harsh reality and a growing feel good tone. The joy of writing furthermore is evident: Trent Dalton obviously had a ball writing this novel.

Dalton is a journalist. Somewhere in the novel main character Eli Bell tries to land a job as a crime reporter. He is rejected: he writes to flowery. I suspect Trent has used all the exuberant and flowery style elements he is forbidden as a journalist in Boy Swallows Universe. This could have gone terribly wrong. Fortunately Trent proves to be an excellent writer who knows when to control his own tendencies to elaborate. He writes long sentences with sentences within sentences within sentences that run flawlessly from start to end. They provide the novel with an element of speed and urgency. Being interchanged with sentences that consist only of one or two words works.

Eli Bell is the child of two parents that are, to put it mildly, not doing too well. Mother lives with her new lover who introduces her to drugs first and a job selling drugs later. Father is not present in his sons’ life, he turns out to be heavily traumatized, suffering from alcohol addiction. The only people that influence Eli in a positive way are older brother August and ex-con Slim. The last has been asked to babysit the two brothers. Fortunately Slim is no longer an active criminal, he manages to nudge the boys, and especially Eli, into the right direction.

Both boys have a problem. August has decided to stop talking. He can talk, he just refuses. He also appears to be able to predict things. Writing words or sentences into the sky he says things that turn out to be relevant later in life. The first time he speaks in years, the phrase ‘your end is a dead blue wren’ turns out to be the solution to a problem some 200 pages later on. Eli is filled with good intentions and is determined to become a crime reporter. He does have a tendency however to not act ethically. If selling drugs can help him buy a house for his mother, he will sell drugs. His view on what is right or wrong has been influenced not entirely correctly by the ones supposed to teach him well.

The first part of the novel shows a harsh reality. August and Eli are your typical nice children destined live their lives in a drugs-infested environment, not by own choice. A violent episode changes their lives dramatically: mother goes to jail, the boys are to live with their father. This could have been the moment for Trent to continue with the theme of the harsh reality of children growing up in dire circumstances. He decides otherwise however. From the moment August and Eli move in with their father things start to improve. The world of (drug) crime remains in an element in their lives, Brisbane in the eighties of the previous century being a Walhalla for criminal drug gangs. August and Eli however manage to stay away from the criminal world.

In the final 200 pages of Boy Swallows Universe life changes for the better. Eli manages to get a job as a correspondent at the local newspaper, I’ll not tell how, it is far too amusing. He finally gets to gaze at the reporter he has adored from afar for ages from across the office. At the end of the novel the violent episode returns, having Trent build tension in a frenzy. For a short time we are led to believe Eli will drift towards crime again, for all the right reasons. Boy Swallows Universe also containing lots of feel good I am delighted to announce things will turn out pretty well for Eli, August and their parents. If it had not been for the fact that pillars of society turned out to be either a criminal or to have turned a blind eye to criminal activities, Boy Swallows Universe might have become rather gooey. Once more fortunately Trent Dalton manages to control the combination of harsh reality and feel good.

Boy

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Ocean Vuong || On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth is a long letter from main character Little Dog to his mother. In this letter he tries to explain how he, a Vietnamese, experiences life in the States. In a mere 242 pages he addresses trauma, being uprooted, drug abuse and sexual preferences. Detail: Little Dog’s mother does not know how to read, she’ll probably never read the letter. Little Dog is merely writing it for himself.

Little Dog has ended up in the States with his grandmother Lan aka Lily, his mother Rose and his aunt Mai. American Granddad Paul is present, at a distance. The letter makes it clear Vietnam and its atrocities are never far away. Memories, often in the shape of nightmares, remain. Fireworks or a single gunshot cause panic. Vuong jumps from the States to Vietnam back to the States in a different period of time on one single page. As a reader you have to remain alert in order know who is being discussed in what time and where. As a result what is being described makes an impression. Not only Vietnam during the war but also settling down in the States remain on the reader’s mind. Though Little Dog and his family live in peace in the States, their lives in their new country are far from easy.

Little Dog combines the history of his grandmother and mother with the history of their home country and with his own, personal life. Whilst working on a farm during the summer he meets the love of his life, Trevor. He is the grandson of the farmer, the boys meet and click. A true friendship the result. A friendship characterized by adolescent pranks that too often cross the line, more and more caused by the use of drugs. Little Dog wants more than mere friendship, Trevor can never accept he might love a man. His use of drugs turns into addiction. He is uprooted in his own, personal way.

On Earth is not just the first novel by a Vietnamese on the war in his country. It is also about trying to find a new life in another country, the difficulties fugitives encounter on trying to understand and live in this country. On Earth also stands out through form and structure. The most obvious one of course it being a letter. The novel has been divided into three parts, being subdivided into chapters. In those chapters Vuong jumps from different time to different place and different person. Halfway through something else happens. Vuong changes from long paragraphs lasting several pages to short ones, of only a few lines. As a result the tone of the letter changes: it becomes agitated.

On Earth starts off almost aloof. Vuong uses a lot of imagery that is intended in a philosophical way which his poor mother will not get. And neither did I. Trevor does not only cause a change in Little Dog’s life, he also changes the tone of the letter. It becomes more personal, no more grand gestures. Chaos kind of takes over. Grieve, sorrow and drugs abuse have the aloof story change into a raw, personal account. Where I sometimes did wonder why Vuong felt the need to overwhelm me with smart philosophical choices of words he had me from that moment on.

Vuong’s enormous talent as a writer becomes most appararent when the novel becomes raw and personal. He still constructs beautiful sentences using the perfect word for the moment, by changing the long paragraphs into short ones they stress the pain Little Dog is experiencing. Grieve, sorrow and drugs make On Earth becomes edgy, almost hallucinating. One reason also being the fact that Little Dog has grown and has started to look at things differently. It is not just his grandma and mother suffering from trauma, he is a victim as well

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, one of the most beautiful book titles ever, starts aloof and ends personal, raw. Little Dog changes from a clever little boy into a tormented young man. Sorrow and drugs play havoc with his emotions. I can understand this novel being applauded. I suspect it will not be everyone’s piece of cake, demanding alertness from the first page on. This alertness however is rewarded with a beautifully written novel on the pain of war and being uprooted.

On Earth

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Elizabeth Day || The Party

The Party is doing fine. The critics applaud it, it sells well. I understand why. Day has constructed her novel well and builds up the tension expertly. Only at the end do you know why The Party starts at the police station.

Main character Martin Gilmour is interviewed at that police station about an incident at the party of best friend Ben. Martin and his wife were present, of course. Still, from the start you get the feeling all is not well. As Lucy asks upon entering their cheap hotel room: ‘did Ben really not have a spare bedroom for us in his enormous mansion?’. The answer to that question is slowly revealed. Day separates her novel in four time zones: the ‘now’ at the police station, the night before at the party, Martin’s and Ben’s youth and an undefined zone in which Lucy reveals her point of view on the friendship between the two men and her own marriage to Martin. The four zones change places effectively, together they build up to the revelation of what happened at the party.

One piece of the puzzle is what constitutes Martin’s friendship to Ben, why Serena calls him Little Shadow all the time. Martin does not understand why his mother could not cope with him and decided to send him to boarding school, he does not get that the balance in his friendship with Ben is not right. That balance constitutes a weak spot in the novel I am afraid. It becomes clear that something changes the balance around their 18th birthday, it does not explain why Martin gets invited for holidays at Ben’s place before that time. Ben is just not the person to invite a lonely mate.

Martin and Lucy turn out to live a comfortable life thanks to Ben and his family. Because of Ben Martin gets to meet people who can further his writing career, he joins high society life through Ben’s parties. He gets to know the people that matter. Big difference being he does not have a clue how to work those contacts. He is being tolerated by Ben, he does not understand theirs is not a friendship. Lucy does understand, she just cannot get Martin to accept reality. Her time zone reveals Martin to be a truly pathetic man. It also makes clear that she profits from the situation. It does have its advantage not to have to work in a pitiful job.

Martin is not a nice person, it is also clear he is a victim of his own personality. He does not get people, he does not understand that he is the own who does not understand interaction between people. He offers proof of his friendship, the reader understands he is a remnant of the past that is (still) being tolerated by Ben. Ben on the other hand is deeply ambitious. Martin increasingly stands in his way to a certain career. The reader does not need to take long to see Ben as the nasty selfish man who only has his own advantage in view. He owns life, he has, through birth and education, the right to certain privileges, he knows the people who can help him get them. Being a complete charmer he woes them and in this way becomes a highly influential man. He also knows when to dump others without a second thought. Look at Boris Johnson and his cronies and behold (a slightly more handsome) Ben.

Day exposes Ben and his ever so lovely wife Serena. Her sympathy is with Martin and Lucy, who are to tell the story. We only know what Ben and Serena might think through Martin and Lucy. Since their views differ we get a kind of balanced view on them. Between the idolising and the dislike there might be a true picture. Still, it would have interesting to hear from Ben as well. Day makes it too easy to look upon him as the bad guy. A further slight criticism one might say.

Day paints a disappointing view of the powers that be. To be seen and heard is what counts, your own profit the gain. It is a shallow disappointing view however. We get to know Ben and his crowd as the ones that have all the contacts, the ones who know how to play the game. There isn’t any depth to it however. A tragic event in Ben’s family is remarked upon, we never get to know in what way it influenced Ben and his sister. Why did she chose a totally different path? We never get to know.

Day has written a fine novel. It holds your attention right from the start and is written well. She convincingly paints a world in which favours and birth right are important. The Party is not brilliant however, Day should have gone deeper in order to achieve that. She has chosen to illuminate one point of view, which she does quite well. The novel could have become more interesting if she had added Ben’s point of view. If you do not care about this extra layer, you’ll enjoy reading The Party without a doubt.

Party

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John Lanchester || The Wall

Longlist

The Booker Longlist 2019

The Wall describes a dystopia. The Wall has been built to save Great Britain from the ever increasing sea levels. And from the increasing amount of others trying to enter the country. With violence if necessary .

Main character Kavanagh is one of the young persons drafted to defend the country on The Wall. We meet him on his first day of his tour of duty. He tells us the story, we only ever find out his perspective. His perspective is that of the average bloke: we need to defend our country and The Wall with our lives against sea and the Others. His desire to become part of the elite is the one thing he does not have in common with his fellow soldiers. He just does not have a clue how to achieve his goal.

Only a few chapters into The Wall the Others turn out to be fugitives. People who have had to leave their homes due to the rising water level, desperate to find a new place to call home. England however will never be their home: all the Others attempting to enter the country are either shot or turned into ‘ helps’, a nicer word for slaves. Soldiers who let Others through are sent to sea in a rickety boot themselves.

Kavanagh’s captain turns out to be a former Other. It did not take me long to figure out he belongs to the underground movement trying to help Others enter the country. It’ll not come as a surprise his part of the Wall is to be attacked. The attack fails, though many Others still manage to enter the country. Kavanagh and his girlfriend as a result are sent away. I’ll not reveal what happens next.

I loved the way Lanchester described the harsh circumstances whilst on watch on the wall. You can almost feel the cold, the glumness, the threats oozing through the darkness. I have two issues with The Wall however. One of them being the fact that the novel is predictable. Too little surprise in what was about to happen, in who would be the good or the bad guys. His main characters furthermore are clichés that do not develop at all. Kavanagh being sent away does not make him think of the way the Others are treated, that England’s attitude towards them is too harsh, too cruel. He regrets the law which has him evicted, he does not come to realise his country’s policy is inhumane.

The Wall is a dystopian highly symbolic novel. Of course Kavanagh symbolises the average person never giving worldwide problems a second thought. Of course the captain is the hero doing his best to help as many people as possible. The symbolism is just too obvious. Of course I felt repugnance when I read that Others were being used as slaves, that failing soldiers were sentenced to death by sending them onto the sea. Of course I felt for Kavanagh and his girlfriend. I could not get past the predictability of it all. And maybe I am the most predictable by wanting to read about someone who does change when life hits him with the facts.

I am slightly surprised this novel made it onto the Booker Longlist. It appears to be, not for the first time, a matter of message being more important than literary quality. I find the message of the utmost importance, I would have liked it if Lanchester had managed to add some more literary quality. And I doubt I’ll be the only immediately thinking of the Game of Thrones wall whilst reading.

Wall

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Salman Rushdie || Quichotte

Shortlst
Booker Prize Shortlist 2019

When the Booker judges announced their nominees for 2019 this Rushdie’ novel had not even been published. That happened around the time the shortlist was announced. The fact judges break their own rules, raises expectations. The novel has to be excellent in order to justify breaking the rules. Does Quichotte live up to expectations? Partially. Rushdie’s previous excellent novels maybe being part of the reason. The man has to live up to his own reputation. One thing I can acknowledge right from the start: he is still capable of writing the most beautiful prosa. He has not lost his ability to enchant through language.

Quichotte is a story in a story in a story. The base of course being the famous Cervantes’ novel: Don Quijote and Sancho Panchez fighting monsters and defending a fair lady. In this case Quijote is Ismail Smile, of Indian origin living in the USA. After a severe stroke he appears to have recovered, unfortunately he is no longer capable of distinguishing fiction from reality. The reality of day-time television has become his life. It’ll not surprise that his Dulcinea is a talk-show queen, Miss Salma R (a renowned actress from an acting dynasty in her home country India). Smile decides to call himself Quichotte and starts the search for his Salma. The letters he sends her reminding her of his love mostly attend her to the presence of a possibly dangerous stalker.

After several chapters Quichotte is revealed to be the main character of crime-writer Sam DuChamp aka Brother. Sam is trying to give his career a new twist by adapting the Quijote. He introduces elements of his own life into the novel he is writing, the parallels grow to be more and more obvious: a problematic relationship with a son and sister, no luck in love, careers that do not really stand out. People in Brother’s life find their way one way or the other into his novel. Even when tragic things happens he wonders whether to put them in his novel.

The original Quijote fought against monsters, windmills in in his case. In the case of Brother and Quichotte they are fighting the monsters that are changing society. Racism for one. Both Brother and Quichotte are faced with racist remarks and violent actions, woven into the novel in a subtle way. The racism is prominent without being dominant.

Monster two is the influence of television and social media on daily life. Of course Quichotte mingles televised fiction and reality in a twisted way, by exaggerating Rushdie points out that the truth broadcasted on tv and social media has become the truth for many people. Without having to specifically mention it Rushdie shows the growing influence of a president and the networks that admire him on the fabrication of news.

Monster three is the use of drugs, of medicine that is abused in order to give kicks. Salma R. turns out to be a superuser of drugs and patented medicine in order to deal with her bipolarity, Quichotto’s previous employer Smile a super-provider. Illegally of course. A fourth monster is the fear of the unknown: the end of the world as we know it, having to adapt to other groups of people, to other opinions. And the literal end of our world, the arrival of the first aliens. This monster has been highly influenced by SiFi. The end of Quichotte would fit in nicely into an amusing second-rate SiFI-movie.

Rushdie kept me intrigued up to and around page 300. I liked all the references to the world of series and film, I was on the lookout for the next parallel. Around page 300 I felt Rushdie losing his grip on his own storylines. The parallels started to feel forced. Brother’s novel at that same point became more and more surrealistic. No longer just Quichotte fighting monsters, the entire world is about to be destroyed. Quichotte apparently rescuing his Salma R. is too much of a writer’s trick. The beautiful way Rushdie describes Sancho slowly fading away since Quichotte has stopped thinking about him away had me moved and convinced. You only exist because other people think of you, write about you, have you in their minds.

Conclusion: a good novel especially for those who love puzzles. At the end everything comes together nicely. I could not shake the feeling that the process of putting together the pieces of the puzzle was thwarted somewhere around page 300. A good novel, not an excellent one.

Quixote

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And the winner is …?

Shortlst

 

Tonight the Booker jury will reveal the winner. For the first time in many years I did not manage to read all the novels. Quijotte and Ducks, Newburyport remain half-finished. Why? Some novels had a lot of pages, several of them were pretty complicated and two of them were available at a very late moment. A pity.

Apparently Margaret Atwood is the favourite with her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: The Testaments. Will I be pleased if she turns out to be the winner? I am not sure. I enjoyed reading The Testaments, it did not thrill me however. On the contrary. Halfway through I felt the judges had succumbed to the pressure of a hype. Does this mean I do not appreciate The Testaments? No, I definitely did. Furthermore I really hold Atwood high as a writer. It just means that there are other novels, both on the long and the short list I feel to be more worthy of the prize. For their own merits, not for being the sequel to an enormously popular television series. Let us be clear about this, a lot of fans of The Handmaid’s Tale still have no clue as to the original author. They are fans of the series, not of the novel. If Atwood wins I’ll see it as a just reward for a lifetime of superb writing.

Once more I am glad I am not a judge. I personally find Shafak and Evaristo the least of a pretty awesome bunch. This year’s list was strong, lots of potential. I would equally love Ellman, Obioma and Rushdie to win the prize. They have wowed me with their language, their structure supporting the story, their subtle way of commenting on the state of affairs in the world. Their novels are literary highlights. We’ll find out shortly which author will be thrilled to pieces tonight.

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Chigozie Obioma || An Orchestra of Minorities

Shortlst
Booker Prize Longlist 2019

Obioma has a sure chance of being pronounced the winner of the Booker Prize for his impressive An Orchestra of Minorities. In it he shows the clash between tradition and modern life. The plea of a ‘chi’ who defends his host, a man, and the difficult love life of this man are the core of the novel.

An Orchestra of Minorities has two main characters: chicken farmer Nonso and his chi. Nonso’s life takes a turn for the worst when he prevents one Ndali to commit suicide. The two fall in love and dream of a life together, reality interferes. Ndali’s family, very wealthy and of high esteem in Nigerian society, does not accept Nonso as the future son-in-law. They look upon him as a loser who just about finished secondary school. They do not care he had good reasons not to go to university, they do not care the two love each other deeply, they thwart the lovers. Nonso’s solution to the problem makes matters worse.

The tragic love story is told by Nonso’s chi. In the Igbo-world man is believed to consist of three parts: the body (human), the guardian angel (chi) and the mind (the avatar, spirit). The chi is expected to keep the host out of problems from the moment of conception on. At the start of the novel we are told that Nonso’s chi has not been able to prevent his host from committing a crime. He relates Nonso’s story to the gods in order to plead for mercy. The crime is not revealed until the very end.

The chi’s language is extremely colourful. He uses metaphors, is generous with adverbs and is a language genius. Sometimes his choice of words and complicated sentences is slightly overwhelming, on the other hand, it is a beautiful contrast to the harsh reality of Nonso’s daily life. His farm provides him with sufficient means to lead an acceptable life, his social life is almost non-existent. Ndali appears to be a gift from heaven. He is prepared to change his life for her sake. She on the other hand is more than willing to accept him as he is, small farm and all. She cannot prevent him from leaving Nigeria for Cyprus in search of an education.

Let future readers find out for themselves how Nonso ended up in Cyprus of all places. Over there reality hits hard. Cyprus is not heaven on earth, it is a tough society in which Europeans and Africans clash. Neither of them being at their best. Neither is Nonso. He literally droops and succumbs to drink when things are not as he expected; those who want to help him need to push him all the time. The fact that we are presented with Nonso through his chi’s eyes, pleading for his mercy, might influence the way we get to know Nonso. We’ll never know.

Obioma, through Nonso and his chi, through Ndali’s family, shows the lack of balance between tradition and modern society. Ndali’s father owns his status to his position as a traditional king. His wealth his come to him in more modern ways. Nonso is a traditional small farmer, the moment he gives modern life a shot things go wrong. He is not equipped to succeed in modern society. The believe in chi’s is still powerfully present, though clashing more and more with the modern life style of clocks, appointments and earning lots of money

Obioma has written a complex novel about a country wanting to join other succesful countries, being hindered by tradition and abuse of power. He shows us that not everyone is equipped for the fast life. By having the traditional chi tell the story in his colourful language the contrast is made even bigger. It makes one realise the Nigerians might be casting away a beautiful tradition for something that is as yet uncertain. At the same time one feels the hope that one day tradition and modern life do find each other. Nonso, unfortunately, will not profit from it.

Orchestra.jpg

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