Book Review

“A Strangeness in My Mind”: The 2016 Man Booker International Prize Finalists

Orhan Pamuk introduces his novel, A Strangeness in My Mind,[1] with these lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude:

I had melancholy thoughts . . .
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.

The passage could stand as an epigraph to all six of the finalists for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Each of these books brings you into the consciousness of a character profoundly alienated from the world that he or she inhabits. In the process, each makes the form of the novel in itself strange, creating a disorientation in the reader that conveys that of the characters.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian,[2] translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, won the Man Booker International Prize last May. It is a disturbing, brilliant, and compelling novel. Originally written as three separate novellas, the book centers on a Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, who suddenly stops eating meat because of violent and bloody dreams. The first section of the novel is narrated by her husband, who had married her because she was “completely unremarkable in every way,” a woman of “passive personality” with no “particular drawbacks.” The first section of the novel represents his growing fury—and ultimately violence—as he realizes his impotence to control her in her act of refusal. In one sense, this is a story of sexual politics, as Yeong-hye withdraws from her social identity as wife, but Han Kang’s fiction takes you even further to the limits of the human as Yeong-hye seeks to withdraw from embodiment itself, an act that precipitates violence in those around her as they try to force her to eat.

The second section of the novel turns to a different form of bodily control—Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s erotic obsession with her. A painter and video artist struggling to find inspiration, he persuades Yeong-hye to let him paint her naked body, covering it with botanical forms, and then film it. Ultimately this artistic project becomes a pornographic video, for which he similarly paints his own body and films them having sex. Much as Yeong-hye’s passive renunciation has fueled her husband’s rage, it fuels the artist’s erotic and imaginative passion as he seeks to absorb her, have her melt into his veins.

The third section of the novel takes the point of view of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, a hard-working, self-sacrificing, well organized mother and career woman. Yeong-hye, at this point in a mental hospital, yearns to become a tree by giving up animal functions. In her efforts to care for her sister, In-hye begins to approach the place her sister inhabits: “She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross.” The final pages of the novel take In-hye to that boundary where she realizes the power that lies in the freedom to treat your own body in whatever you way you please. A powerful, disturbing novel, The Vegetarian portrays a radical self-estrangement and the violence that it precipitates in those who cannot accept it.

José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion,[3] translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, also takes as its subject a radical act of self-constriction. Set in the aftermath of the Angolan revolution, the book centers on Ludo, a traumatized and agoraphobic woman who had come to Angola from Portugal with her sister and brother-in-law. When the couple disappear in the early days of the revolution, going out to a party and never returning, Ludo literally walls herself in their apart­ment, growing food on her terrace, capturing and killing pigeons for meat. She grows old and blind there, not emerging for 28 years. But she writes—in notebooks, and later, when she has run out of paper, on the walls of her apartment, covering them with her reflections and observations. She is radically alienated: “I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river.” Yet even in her isolation, she gives a splintered sense of the chaotic political events unfolding in the streets below.

The book is composed of thirty-six short chapters, many with poetic and evocative titles: “Our Sky Is Your Floor,” “On the Slippages of Reason,” “The Collector of Disappearances.” Some chapters are no more than a poem, from Ludo’s writing:

I carve out verses
as prayers
words are legions
of demons

I cut adverbs

I spare my wrists

Others are much longer narratives. The book does not restrict itself to Ludo’s point of view but ranges among a set of almost Dickensian characters—a Portuguese mercenary who survives his own execution to reinvent himself, an escaped prisoner who hides in plain sight as a deranged beggar, later to become a businessman and landlord, a child who breaks through the wall of Ludo’s apartment and helps her survive. Several animals play important roles—Ludo’s dog named Phantom and a monkey she watches from her window that she names Che Guevara. All these characters intersect in wild and improbable ways. The novel is at once spare and densely populated.

In its mysterious resonance, the title of Agualusa’s novel provides a key to its vision. All of its characters in various ways seek to forget and obscure, living with shards of memory like a kaleidoscope of shattered glass. But in that very process, they create new identities, new narratives. The book knits its extravagantly extended narrative together by some extraordinary coincidences—a love note and diamonds that both sur­vive through a slaughtered pigeon’s gut. That indeed is the doubleness that Agualusa holds before us; his general theory of oblivion contains remarkable resurrections and connections, even at the novel’s historical moment of brutal social dislocation and transformation.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life,[4] translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, also takes as its subject an isolated consciousness. Andreas Egger lives his whole life in an Austrian mountain valley. Deposited at the age of four on his uncle’s farm after his mother had died, he grows up the victim of his uncle’s brutal beatings, one of which leaves him lame from a shattered thigh. Nonetheless, he develops immense physical strength; leaving his uncle, he makes his living as a manual laborer, helping build the supports for the cable cars that would transform the Austrian Alps, “a small but not unimportant cog in a gigantic machine called Progress.” The emotionally defining event of his life is his love for a local innkeeper’s servant named Marie. A man of few words, Egger writes her name in carefully placed explosives on the surrounding mountains to ask her to marry him, but their brief mar­riage ends when she is killed in an avalanche that destroys their home.

This short summary of the situation of the novel belies its character, for it is about the solitary consciousness—dreamlike memories of fragmentary moments that persist vividly through time, people appearing and disappearing in a ghostly way, almost like figures glimpsed from a train, and the enduring power of the mountain landscape that anchors Egger’s consciousness. The book is a short one—only 150 pages—but it does indeed seem to encompass a whole life, in part because of the persistence over decades of images and memories, in part because of the enduring nature of Egger’s solitude. The language of the book is beautiful; Egger’s hands lying in his lap, “heavy and dark as bog soil,” torches coming toward him in the darkness of the night, “wavering like ghosts.” He throws a chunk of ice at some school children taunting him about his lameness: “For a moment, at the highest point of its trajectory, it would look as if it would just hang there, a small celestial body flashing in the sun. Then it plunged down and disappeared soundlessly in the shadow of the snowbound fir trees.”

The novel begins with Egger’s carrying a dying goatherd, Horned Hannes, to the village on his back. They talk about death. Improbably, Hannes runs away, into a blizzard. Right before he leaves, he tells Egger, “I say death brings forth nothing at all! Death is the Cold Lady.” The Cold Lady haunts this novel—from Horned Hannes, to Nana, the farmer’s mother who is kind to Egger, to Marie, to fellow workers who die stringing cable from the mountains, to Egger’s own death. “Death belonged to life like mould to bread.” This is a book that has a Romantic sense of the sublime; terror is never far from its wonder. It is a beautiful and moving novel that deserves to be loved and treasured.

Yan Lianke’s The Four Books,[5] translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas, is also about radical constriction. Banned in mainland China, it concerns the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), Mao’s tragically mistaken effort to transform traditional Chinese agrarian society into a socialist collective that resulted in widespread famine and tens of millions of deaths. The novel takes place in a re-education compound for intellectuals in a plains region south of the Yellow River, identified as the 99th district. The characters in Lianke’s novel are identified only by profession—the Theologian, the Scholar, the Musician, the Author. The compound is led by a young boy, called the Child, a deeply ambiguous figure. A seemingly naïve agent of the State who evokes reverence and obedience in the residents of the camp, he secretes the banned books they give him to burn, reading them in the relative luxury of his tent while the people outside shiver and starve. He creates an infantile system of rewards and punishments—a red star system—in which he also seems to believe, yearning to earn enough credit for the higher-ups to invite him to Beijing.

The novel has a complex narrative structure. As its title indicates, it consists of four books (an allusion both to the four Gospels and the four books of Confucianism), excerpts from which are interleaved with one another: an anonymous manuscript called “Heaven’s Child,” which tells the story of the compound in a parabolic way, drawing from the language of the Bible and Chinese mythology; “Criminal Records,” a chronicle that the Author has compiled of his fellow inmates’ misdeeds at the request of the Child in return for a promise of early release; “Old Course,” secret notes for “an utterly sincere” book that the Author plans to write after his release about his experience (the title alludes to the old course of the Yellow River that once ran through the compound); and “A New Myth of Sisyphus,” the Scholar’s parable about human pain and suffering that ends the novel. The very structure of it (which Yan said it took him twenty years to plan) embodies the distortions involved in state propaganda and censorship. The most disturbing of the four books of Yan’s novel is “Heaven’s Child,” for it portrays the blind and terrible cruelty of the Great Leap Forward in religious language that at once represents and mocks the government’s ideological belief: “The higher-ups also said, This is good. Let them labor; that way they can be commended and reformed. Let them labor day and night, so that they may thereby be reformed and remade.”

Yan’s novel is a fierce book; its narrative mode allows you to understand the evil and tragedy in a world that compels its citizens to believe things that are not—impossible targets for increases in crop yield, illusory understandings of the steel than can be smelted from sand. Because we know the historical narrative, we read with a harrowing sense of the consequences of each of the successive blundering policy directives—cutting down all the trees for fuel, smelting all agricultural tools. At one point in the narrative, the Author, desperately eager to improve his crop yield in a field devoid of soil nutrients, begins to water his plants with his blood, determined to produce an ear of wheat as big as an ear of corn—a powerful image of state-motivated self-mutilation. The book inevitably devolves to canni­balism. But in this savage parable, the power of the word ultimately prevails. The doubleness of language, the multiplicity of story expose the duplicity and censorship in the state’s narrative. The Four Books is a powerful and important novel. Like A General Theory of Oblivion, it probes the issue of social amnesia and finds in the human drive to tell stories its antidote.

Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap, takes as its subject Istanbul over a period of four decades—1969 to 2012. The story is told from many points of view, but its main character is Mevlut Karataş, a street seller of boza, a mildly alcoholic Turkish drink. Even in his labor as a street food vendor, Mevlut is a flâneur; he feels himself most alive, most himself, when wandering Istanbul’s streets and alleys at night selling boza. In the forty years of the novel, his becomes an increasingly anachronistic profession as high-rise apartments and wide boulevards come to dominate Istanbul’s cityscape.

Even though the novel chronicles many events, it is fundamentally a book of spatial form, constructing a phenomenology of the city through the consciousness of its characters. The way in which the novel moves from perspective to perspective, beginning each section with the name in bold whose point of view it takes, oddly mutes a sense of dramatic interaction, as if all its characters inhabited a strangeness in their minds. Although the plot contains dramatic events—quarrels, assaults, births, deaths—A Strangeness in My Mind is fundamentally a novel of dailiness, of the way in which the self and its surroundings compose the texture of our experience. Perhaps this passage about Mevlut expresses it best: “He sensed, now, that the streets on which he sold boza in the night and the universe in his mind were one and the same.”

Politics are a continuing ostinato in the book—political conflict between the left and the right, the movement of poor villagers like Mevlut and his father from Anatolia to the city, squatting to build simple homes on Istanbul’s more distant hills, the scramble for land entitle­ment as Istanbul grows larger and larger, crime and corruption. Although these give the characters’ lives their texture, domestic passions give them meaning. The center of the plot (if so spatial a novel can be said to have a center) is almost a bed trick; Mevlut falls in love with his cousin’s wife’s sister, whom he glimpses at their wedding. With the help of a more educated friend and a book of romantic phrases, he writes her long love letters while in the military. His cousin’s brother arranges an elopement for Mevlut but substitutes the older, less attractive sister for the one Mevlut thought he was writing. The book portrays the tangled lives of these cousins and sisters, so much so that at the end of the book is a character index. In Middlemarch, George Eliot writes, “I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.” Eliot’s sentence could reflect Pamuk’s aesthetic design.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child,[6] translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is the only one of the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize that has been widely reviewed in the United States and broadly marketed. The fourth book in her Neapolitan tetralogy, it concludes the story of the friendship between two women who grew up together in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Elena and Lila, whose lives take very different courses as adults. Unlike the other novels in this review, Ferrante’s tetralogy is a grand realistic project, which reviewers have compared to Balzac, to Tolstoy, to Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It follows the lives of a closely connected set of Neapolitan families from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Naples over a span of about six decades, from the post-World War II period to the present day. (Each novel contains an index of characters in front, with all their relationships described.) The center of the novels is the relationship between Elena and Lila, who meet in first grade and quickly become best friends. The first volume in the tetralogy is called My Brilliant Friend; since Elena is the narrator and fictional author of the books, the title seems to refer to Lila but indeed describes them both in their relationship to each other. Both women of extraordinary intelligence and imagination with a drive to escape the confines of their traditional world and the ways in which it defines women’s lives take different paths. Elena, always a dutiful student, goes to university, escapes Naples, becomes a writer and feminist; Lila, more brilliant and temperamental, leaves school, marries an abusive husband, creates a number of local businesses by using the entrée her male friends and relatives afford, but never realizes her creative gifts. The title of the third volume of the tetralogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, identifies this dynamic; the novels ask us to contemplate what leaving and staying mean for the two heroines, whether Elena can ever really leave, and how crippling Lila’s staying becomes. The two women seem almost halves of a single self, alternate lives in a complexly gender-stratified world. The friends love each other, and they are intensely jealous of one another, Elena creating her fiction out of the life she has abandoned but cannot leave.

All four of the volumes of the tetralogy are deeply satisfying, but the last is perhaps the best in bringing together all the strands of the complex world Ferrante creates. My Brilliant Friend begins with a prologue that motivates the telling of the story; Lila disappears, and Elena seeks to bring her back by telling their story. The Story of the Lost Child brings us to that disappearance and the rupture in the friendship it represents. There is indeed a terrible loss of a child at the heart of the novel, but the lost child refers to much else—the lost dolls that Elena and Lila believe the local Mafia chief has stolen from them as children, the biological children from whom they feel estranged, and, most intensely, the childhood selves from which they’ve both departed. The tetralogy vividly depicts the texture of women’s lives: the dailiness of taking care—of children, houses, men—the physicality of menstruation, sex, and pregnancy, the drive of aspiration and inspiration, the weight and web of social constraints. Earlier I quoted Eliot’s Middlemarch; in some sense, Ferrante is redoing Eliot’s project. Eliot begins her novel by comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Theresa: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Lila, in some sense, is a modern day Theresa who fails to find an epic life, just as Elena, in some sense, is Mary Ann Evans; not the least brilliant of these novels’ many achievement is Ferrante’s exploration of the writer’s implication in her fictional project.

This is the first year that the Man Booker International Prize has been given not to a writer in recognition of his or her entire career but to an individual novel. The benefit of such a change is the attention it brings to extraordinary novels not familiar to many English-speaking readers.

[1] A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND, by Orhan Pamuk, trans. by Ekin Oklap. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95; $16.95.

[2] THE VEGETARIAN, by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith. Hogarth. $21.00; $15.00.

[3] A GENERAL THEORY OF OBLIVION, by José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. by Daniel Hahn. Archipelago Books. $16.00p.

[4] A WHOLE LIFE, by Robert Seethaler, trans. by Charlotte Collins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.00.

[5] THE FOUR BOOKS, by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas. Grove Press. $27.00; $16.00p.

[6] THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD, by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions. $18.00p.