January 6, 2013 by markstani
The fifteen longlisted titles for this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize have taken the reader on a memorable ride from the wild north-west of Pakistan through Mumbai opium dens and Saudi goat farms. They have stretched beyond continental boundaries to reach the rolling Italian countryside, the East End of London and Mexico’s remote Yucatan peninsula.
All told, I’d say it’s been a fairly impressive year, and having read thirteen (plus two halves) of the listed titles, I can honestly say there was only one whose merits completely passed me by. As I hoped, I discovered a number of new authors whose next work I await with interest.
My thoughts below are not meant as any kind of definitive judgement. As part of the ‘Shadow’ Prize jury, I’ll be liaising with my fellow jurors to determine a winner from the titles that make the official shortlist. Who knows where our collective opinion will lead us? For what it’s worth, here’s my idea of the ideal shortlist:
NORTHERN GIRLS: In Qian Xiaohong, author Sheng Keyi has created a captivating central character whom it is impossible not to root for on every inch of her journey from remote Hunan province to the slutty Chinese city of Shenzen.
THINNER THAN SKIN: An epic in every sense of the word, Uzma Aslam Khan weaves a bewitching tale of revenge and forgiveness set in the ruggedly beautiful but terror-stricken lands of north-west Pakistan.
NARCOPOLIS: It seems a long time since Jeet Thayil’s story about Mumbai opium dens was first flagged up as a potential Prize contender. But there’s good reason why it’s one of the favourites. It’s an audacious and compellingly addictive novel.
ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS: This is a remarkable feat for a first novel. Nayomi Munaweera blends the beauty of Sri Lankan life with the horrors of its civil war to quite brilliant effect. Definitely a name to watch out for for.
RU: At just 153 pages, Kim Thuy’s ‘Ru’ is a slip of a book but it certainly packs a punch. A series of vignettes revolving around a family’s emigration from Vietnam to Canada, it unfurls into something quite riveting.
BETWEEN CLAY AND DUST: Musharraf Ali Farooqi crafts an affecting tale of an old Pakistani wrestler struggling to come to terms with societal changes which increasingly render his achievements a relic of a bygone age.
Of the remaining titles, I wouldn’t begrudge a shortlist place for Roma Tearne’s highly readable The Road To Urbino, Benyamin’s memorable Goat Days, Elif Shafak’s ingeniously structured Honour or Hiromi Kawakami’s subtle and understated THE BRIEFCASE (which I will review in conjunction with a number of other bloggers at the end of the month).
Two titles have so far eluded me: I’m halfway through Tie Ning’s THE BATHING WOMEN, which is evolving into something reasonably promising after a rocky start, and Tan Twan Eng’s much-feted THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS, which I have to admit, left me pretty cold and prompted a temporary abandonment before the halfway stage.
Of the remaining titles, there was plenty to admire in Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, but I felt it dragged in places, and I’m not entirely sure what it would say about the current state of Asian literature if the Prize went to a thirty-year-old book by a Nobel prize winner. Although I found the story fascinating, I was generally disappointed by Young-ha Kim’s story of Korean emigrants to Mexico, Black Flower, which I found rather cold and clinical, and the least said about Anjali Joseph’s Another Country, the better.