Last week, Aravind Adiga won the Booker Prize for his first novel, The White Tiger, a ‘tale of two Indias’ that gives a damning assessment of the life offered by the author’s homeland to many of its inhabitants.
Adiga was born in Madras, raised in Australia, and had an education divided between Columbia University and our own dreaming spires. Yet having seen a good deal of the world, he has come back to his native India, both in life and in literature.
There seems to be something in the complexity and richness of the subcontinent’s culture that means Indian novelists are frequently predisposed not only to write novels set in India, but to write about India itself, and what it means to be Indian.
For some commentators, this has become cliché; lazy comparisons with Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie get trotted out with alarming regularity and the word ‘postcolonial’ hangs like a millstone around Indian writers’ necks.
Despite this faintly distasteful desire in the media to see all works emanating from this vibrant and diverse literary culture as cut from the same cloth, Indian writers were well represented on this year’s shortlist.
Amitav Ghosh was nominated alongside Adiga but most notably, Salman Rushdie was not. Does this mean that Rushdie, the godfather of the modern Indian-English novel has had his day, that the king has grown fat on his throne and is now to be usurped by the vigour of fresh blood?
In a word, no. Rushdie didn’t make the shortlist because the judges made a mistake.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of the books that were shortlisted, but the judges were simply in error when they decided that Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence was not one of the six best novels on the longlist.
In its scope and imagination it is far superior to Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency. In sheer quality of writing it outstrips Ghosh’s The Sea of Poppies. The Enchantress of Florence is not Rushdie’s best work, but it is comfortably better than some of the books that made the shortlist.
Rushdie can be, and too often is, a sloppy, self-indulgent writer. At his worst he creates impenetrable textual gloop that repels the reader with its obtuseness.
But Rushdie’s richness is also his greatest strength.
This literary conductor has so many instruments at his disposal that he can struggle to keep the whole ensemble in tune, but when he succeeds – as he does with The Enchantress – the results are peerless. Rushdie’s gifts give rise to grand, sweeping, complex books, and that’s why he’s been punished by this year’s Booker panel.
He didn’t write a bad book, he wrote what was deemed the wrong kind of book. Announcing the shortlist, Michael Portillo hailed six ‘fine page-turning stories.’ That phrase seems faint praise for a sextet of books that supposedly represent the very best in contemporary fiction.
Whilst some of the finest works of literature in existence are certainly those that are ‘both ambitious and approachable,’ in light of Rushdie’s failure to make the shortlist Portillo’s comment suggests a book that could be read quickly is more praiseworthy than one that demands to be read carefully, deeply and at length.
Snobbery must be guarded against; a judging panel favouring only dense and difficult books would be just as limiting as this year’s committee. Where should we draw the line though? This year, the ‘intensely’ readable novel is voted in, rendering it worthy of a kind of positive discrimination, while a more difficult but potentially more rewarding novel has been left out.
There should be a difference between the remit of the Booker Prize and that of Richard and Judy’s Book Club. The six shortlisted novels this year ranged from fairly good to excellent, some despite, some because of their page-turning style.
I would never want to suggest that a particular type of book is unworthy of the shortlist. This year’s judges, however, have done just that.