Books to Get You Thinking

The Man Booker Prize has long been recognized as a symbol of excellence in English literature. Instituted more than four decades ago, the prize has brought “recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction”. Over the years the jury has consisted of not just acclaimed authors, literary critics, poets and academicians but also of journalists, broadcasters and politicians. In 2016, for the first time, we saw the idea behind the Booker Prize extend beyond English writing to encompass international writing. The Man Booker International Prize was to be awarded to the finest work of global fiction translated into English and published in the United Kingdom. This year, 155 outstanding novels were nominated in the Long list. Six books were shortlisted and, on May 16, the winner was announced by a panel of five judges, including:  Boyd Tonkin, writer, journalist and critic from the Independent; David Bellos, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University; and Ruth Padel, prize-winning British poet and author.

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Han Kang, an author from South Korea, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, a haunting novel that is both melancholy and dark while, at the same time, spellbinding and thought-provoking. Translated into English by Deborah Smith, the book holds universal appeal. It is set against the mosaic of contemporary life in South Korea, its embedded social constraints, and society’s expectations. The story moves in many dimensions; the inner world and outer world intersect frequently, past and present collide, and the mechanics of what drives human emotional responses are explored at a very personal level. The main voice in the novel is that of Yeong-hye, a quiet, dutiful wife living an uneventful life with her husband in Seoul till one day, tormented by violent dreams, she decides to turn vegetarian. The first part of the book, narrated by her husband Mr. Cheong, deals with both his and the family’s reaction to Yeong-hye’s sudden decision to stop eating any meat. Her husband, a simple unambitious man who married her for her “completely unremarkable” and subservient nature, suddenly finds his hitherto uncomplicated life upturned as Yeong-hye becomes increasingly defiant, estranges herself from all desires and bonds with the family, and breaks away from the customs and social mores  around her. The second part revolves around Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her. In the last part of the book, we encounter Yeong-hye’s sister, who helplessly watches her family disintegrate and her sister slowly waste away in a psychiatric ward. The narrative of the book is riveting; at a deeper level it explores internal unrest, passion, detachment, and despair.  It asks disturbing questions about the precise meaning of any relationship and whether we can ever truly understand people- even those closest to us.

Story of the Lost Child
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
This is the fourth and final book from the Neapolitan quartet authored by acclaimed Italian novelist, Elena Ferrante, translated into English by Ann Goldstein. It was one of the six outstanding novels shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The quartet is a brilliant portrait of a complex friendship, a chronicle of the lives and fortunes of two women, Elena and Lila, over the decades. At another level, the books, set against the backdrop of post-World War II Naples, also tell the story of a city and a nation that is changing and transforming. In the very first volume of the quartet, it is the early 1950s. Elena and Lila are just eight, growing up in a poor, crime infested neighborhood. Elena gets a chance to pursue an education and becomes a flourishing writer. She moves to Florence, leaving the poverty of Naples behind her. Lila, pulled out of school by her father, stays. Independent minded and charismatic, she grows up and marries one of the richest men in town. She becomes a successful entrepreneur but it draws her closer to the encompassing violence and corruption of the neighborhood. The volumes trace the ups and downs of life that Elena and Lila must face as time marches on and they each follow their own separate destinies. Yet there are strong underlying bonds that fray but never break. The Story of the Lost Child brings the saga to a brilliant conclusion as Elena returns to Naples.

Strangeness in My Mind
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk
This expansive, beautifully-penned novel by Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk was nominated in the Short List for the Man Booker International Prize. The book, translated by Ekin Oklap, resounds with the sights and sounds of the streets and alleys of Istanbul, its colorful history and culture, the social and political events spanning the last half century, and the city’s lost glory. The book is a story about Mevlut Karatas, a boy from a village who moves to the city of Istanbul, and his dreams and longings as he struggles to earn a living as a street food vendor selling rice and peas by day and boza, a traditional fermented Turkish drink, at night. It is also the story of Mevlut’s extended family, many of whom also move to the outskirts of the city. While they gradually seem to settle down and prosper in their new life, luck unfortunately does not favor Mevlut. Through a twist of fate, he elopes with the older sister of the girl whom he had loved. He drifts through unsuccessful attempts at schooling and various jobs, all the while yearning for the unknown, for something beyond his reach, “a strangeness in (his) mind.” Pamuk skillfully uses the voices of the many characters of the book to focus on the contradictions and conflicts that arise from the increasing flow of people to the city, and between traditional beliefs and the emerging modern culture and values.

-Nita Mathur

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