April 9, 2012 by markstani
To date, I’ve completed twelve-and-a-third of the fifteen books longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and it’s fair to say they have, for a large part, presented a bleak and gruelling read.
Two have considered the Holocaust (and a third, Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, the evils of anti-Semitism); two more have presented very different chronicles of the AIDS epidemic; love, loss, injustice and general brutality have marked out others.
It’s quite a contrast to 2011’s South America-dominated Prize, which proved emphatically that literary contenders could still be sexy: think the carnivalesque heat of Santiago Roncagliolo’s worthy winner, ‘Red April’; Shuichi Yoshida’s riveting paen to post-modern Japan, ‘Villain’; even Michal Witkowski’s riotous ‘Lovetown’.
Sexiness, of course, is not to be confused with sex, but since I’ve cunningly strayed onto the subject, it should be noted that for this year’s contenders, celibacy would have been an all-round better option.
There’s plenty of sex in ‘Parallel Stories’, but then, at one thousand, one hundred and thirty-three pages, there’s plenty of just about everything, and the sex is for a large part squelchy and sexless. There’s irresponsible, kamikaze sex in Hate: A Romance, which is in no way as good as it sounds. There’s underage sex in Blooms Of Darkness, and awful, brutal, repulsive sex in both The Emperor Of Lies and Seven Houses In France. There’s sad, hopeless sex in Dream Of Ding Village, and no hope of sex in either ‘The Prague Cemetery’, whose narrator is repulsed by the idea; in Alice, where everyone seems to die before they get the chance; or in From The Mouth Of The Whale, whose main character is hampered by being marooned alone on an Icelandic rock (although there is, as is pointed out in the comments below, a bizarre scene where a giant has sex with his own shadow).
Furthermore – and thanks to Gary at The Parrish Lantern for pointing this out! – there is Bad Sex Award Sex in Haruki Marukami’s ‘1Q84’, for this, er, part in particular:
A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought. Both appeared to be turned outward, trying to listen closely to something – something like a distant bell.
Far be it from me to suggest that good, healthy, rampant, sexy sex is a pre-requisite of a Prize-winning novel. I am neither advocating nor expecting a heap of Black Lace titles to crop up on this year’s Booker longlist (though it would be worth it purely for the looks on the purists’ faces). It’s just, in my view, one example of why I believe this year’s IFFP longlist has, for all its undoubted literary might, and for its bravery in tackling important and harrowing issues, lacked a little of its usual libido.