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Booker Prize: page against the machine!

The Golden Man Booker, a celebration of 50 years of the Booker Prize, saw writer and teacher Toby Brothers entranced by winners old and new

26 July, 2018 — By Toby Brothers

Toby Brothers

FOR two hours, I was entranced: literary greats introduced their choice of the best of the Bookers—with the shortlisted books brought to life by actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fiona Shaw, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Meera Syal.

And this celebration of narrative form reaches beyond literature nerds to remind us all why we need art. In this strange moment when national leadership seems bent towards its most narrow and xenophobic interests, when political leaders act and speak without a sense of integrity nor service to a wider community, books remind us of our common humanity – and that the struggles are not new.

The ceremony had advocates for each of the Booker’s five decades. Watching Lemn Sissay playfully express his passion for the weave of time, memory and the nature of evidence in Moon Tiger and then hearing the graceful and generous words of Penelope Lively herself almost ended the event for me: I leaned towards the exit, wanting to grab her book and shut myself away with it.

But resisting that urge paid off: the other presenters, the readings (hearing Ejiofor, Shaw and Streatfeild create a chorus from Lincoln In The Bardo continues to echo in my mind) and the nuggets offered (the difference between window pane prose and stained glass prose as a descriptor for VS Naipaul’s writing) gave such mind-fodder. George Saunders, author of Lincoln In The Bardo, delivered a video speech that I would give blood to access (sorry, we are in violent days). He was unable to attend due to a teaching commitment (respect) – but put some careful words together to offer virtually. I noted: “In this time in history, reading offers us the opportunity to create communities of readers: fragile webs of connection in the world of compassion, language and ideas to push against all that divides us…”

The crown went to Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient, and the judge who advocated for it is Kamila Shamsie.

She said: “The English Patient is that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it, always yielding a new surprise or delight.

“It moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate – one moment you’re in looking at the vast sweep of the desert and the next moment watching a nurse place a piece of plum in a patient’s mouth.

“That movement is mirrored in the way your thoughts, while reading it, move between large themes – war, loyalty, love – to tiny shifts in the relationships between characters.

“It’s intricately structured, beautifully written, with great humanity written into every page. Ondaatje’s imagination acknowledges no borders as it moves between Cairo, Italy, India, England, Canada – and between deserts and villas and bomb craters.

“And through all this, he makes you fall in love with his characters, live their joys and their sorrows. Few novels really deserve the praise: transformative. This one does.”

I have led studies on this work – exploring its post-colonial perspective (might we read the burnt body of the English patient as the symbolic shell of the colonial structure?), the use of the body as a site of resistance and record, the relation between the self and history in the twilight of war – but what concentrates my mind is Ondaatje’s diamond-sharp prose.

The language reflects the time of the book: in this community of broken people on the edge of the war, sheer beauty is in small spaces in this ruined villa – in the compassion and care each shows the others. Identity, national-ism, prejudice are met and broken against the wounds of love each carries.

Witness this passage, pages 3-4 of The English Patient.

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a cloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.

She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.

What? She asks, coming out of her concentration.

He turns his dark face with its grey eyes towards her. She pushes her hands into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

Savour this – and find other readers to open it up. See you in the pages…

Toby Brothers is the founder and director of the London Literary Salon. For new studies coming in the autumn visit litsalon.co.uk


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