“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

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Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” (Dorothy Parker)

Apparently you can have too much of a good thing.  This is not something I’ve experienced myself, but as it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged, I’ll go with it.  So even if you are an inveterate bibliophile there can be times when humungous, bicep-busting books can be off-putting, particularly if like me, you’re a non-Kindle using commuter.  You don’t want to be lugging The Count of Monte Cristo onto the train (or so my osteopath insists).  This week I thought I’d look at books that are small and perfectly formed: 1 novella and 1 short story collection that are little gems.

Firstly, Fair Play by Tove Jansson (1989 my edition trans. Thomas Teal 2007, 127 pages). Jansson is most famous for creating those weird hippo/mouse hybrid creatures the Moomins:

Recently I kept reading about how good her writing for adults is, so when I saw Fair Play in a bookshop I decided it was A Sign.  A Sign for me to spend money, which admittedly is what every bookshop says to me.  But Fair Play was worth every penny.  It is a beautifully observed, delicate portrait of two artistic women sharing a life together.  Jonna is a visual artist, Mari a writer:

“They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to.  There are empty spaces that must be respected  – those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.”

This is what Fair Play captures so well, the unspoken subtleties that exist in a long-term relationship, with the person you know better than anyone.  With a restrained lightness of touch, Jansson presents moments in time between the two women,  detailing events that seem simultaneously fleeting yet loaded with meaning.

“They hadn’t noticed the fog moving off….suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia.  Jonna started the motor.  They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

The novel has no ostensible plot, and there is no sense of time – each chapter could occur chronologically, or could be moving back and forth across the trajectory of their long relationship.  It doesn’t matter.  You finish the novel with the feeling of being allowed glimpses into two unique, intertwined lives, while understanding how we all essentially remain unknown.

“It’s gone so quiet,” Jonna said. “What did you think? Wasn’t that a good storm?”

“Very good,” Mari said. “The best we’ve had.”

Jansson’s writing is stark, yet beautiful. I will definitely be seeking out more by this writer.

Secondly, The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim (2009, Comma Press, trans. Jonathan Wright, 90 pages). The cover of this collection includes a quote from The Guardian, proclaiming Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Like Fair Play, this was the first time I’d read this author, and it seems like such an oversight as he has so much to say that is important.  Blasim is a deeply political writer, by which I mean not that he is polemical, but that he is engaged with how literature works within a wider society:

“Because literature in this country is literature that goes through phases. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic.  They are lamenting readers that don’t exist. They claim the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the broad sense of the word.  There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.” (‘The Market of Stories’)

Blasim’s stories detail lives caught up in war: illegal immigrants, hostage experiences, propaganda- makers, asylum-seekers.  He is acutely aware of how stories are manipulated in this media-saturated world, and how there can be many truths held within the one story:

“This story took place in darkness and if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre. A major part of the story would make a good experimental radio piece.” (‘The Truck to Berlin’)

The short stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are all the more powerful for their brevity: there is a sense that in such unstable times, words are a luxury, and every one must count.  Certainly Blasim’s words count; his stories are powerful, extraordinary, bleakly funny on occasion, and deeply moving.

Back to frivolity: to end, a reminder that smaller is sometimes better (although frankly, when it comes to cookies, I’m still not entirely convinced…)