Outguess the Booker International jury 2023

The Booker International Prize longlist was announced today the 14th of March, the shortlist will be announced on 18th of April and the winner the 23rd of May , that’s 13 books in 70 days or a book every 5 days! Enough to say I’m going to have to make some choices.

Can I out guess the official jury and maybe only read 6 books beginning with the longlist.

Of course I can.

So here I go:

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov: well it’s available on audible, can listen in the car.

Jimmy Hendrix live in Lviv

Standing Heavy (I’ll cheat and read it in French)

Ninth Building

A System so Magnificent

If I manage these 5 I’ll make a clever choice after the shortlist is announced for the sixth.

Will I be able to influence the jury with my persuasive posts?

I’ll leave you to guess.

Tristan Saule ‘Héroïne’

It’s a heartbreaking tracking shot, and Laura is the camera filming the scene as she lives it, stunned by the composition, by the light, by the senseless emotion it provokes in her, the anger, the despair in her throat, the shame, the fear and the pity in the eyes of Marion, frozen on her doorstep. A small boy holding her hand.***

For my fourth book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon I am reading Tristan Saule’s ‘Héroïne’. Set in the first months of the lockdowns, in reading it, I realised that there is now an adequate distance in time for my mind to ask if this actually happened rather than shrinking from it. The story takes place in a run down high rise housing estate there are the petty criminals peddling drugs, each zone of the estate, here the Heights, with its chain of command. But this is thrown into disarray by the lockdowns because after the first months no more drugs are available. Until a consignment of heroin could become available:

Lounès and Tonio get out of the car. Tonio locks the doors and the BMW says good night. An ambulance slowly crosses the neighbourhood, lighting up the square in a blue reflection. — what’s wrong? Asks Tonio noticing that Lounès doesn’t go straight in but is standing there on the pavement waiting. The ambulance slows to drive over a speed bump. Blue lights shine silently on the cars, the windows, the balconies, the walls and the two night owls. The ambulance turns left heading for the hospital, disappears. —Salim says there’s a bastard looking to sell heroin in the “Hights”. You’ve heard anything, you? In daylight Tonio’s blushing cheeks would have given him away. —No, he answers. Nothing special.***

There are the ordinary people living in these high rise estates, Joëlle who normally lives from cleaning jobs, paid cash in hand, but her clients are locked down and all are at home, there is Thierry, who can’t afford to buy nappies for his baby and there is Zacharie who pedals to deliver food but has no fixed income and only lives on commission. They are contacted to distribute the heroin:

Listen, says Zacharie. All day me, I deliver food. I pick it up in kitchens, and I swear, you wouldn’t leave a flee ridden rat in them. That’s my fault? Fuck, I’m a delivery man. If there are blokes that want to buy that stuff, that’s their problem. This, this is the same thing. — come on, heroin, it’s not kebabs is it interrupts Joëlle. My sister in law, she liked to get stoned on heroin and she died. My brother in law, he eats kebabs and he’s just fat.***

And then there is Laura, an auxiliary nurse at the local hospital with her life about to come crumbling around her, her girlfriend of two years no longer answers to her calls since the start of lockdown and she discovers the truth about Marion as illustrated in the opening quote. We then live an extenuating night in the COVID intensive care unit with Laura.

It only takes a small grain of sand for all of these worlds to come into collision, as the gypsy who is receiving the heroin falls ill and is rushed to hospital after telling his drinking friends a hidden secret about himself. Then under the effects of morphine he mistakes Laura for a girl he met in the war in Bosnia, Lejla:

All the while talking, Laura comes closer and pulls the sheet up over the gypsy’s chest. He puts his hand on hers. This time the movement is smoother. Laura doesn’t pull away. —The dope, he says. You have to go and find the dope, Leijla. I’ve hidden it but they’ll find it in the end. You have to get it.

This really was rather an excellent story with a twist at the end. A real competitor for the prize!

First Published in French by Parallèle Noir in 2022.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

C’est un travelling poignant, et Laura est la caméra qui filme la scène en même temps qu’elle la vit, abasourdie par la composition, par la lumière, par l’émotion insensée qu’elle provoque en elle, la rage et le désespoir dans sa gorge, la honte, la peur et la pitié dans les yeux de Marion, figée sur le seuil de sa maison. Un petit garçon lui tient la main.

Lounès et Tonio sortent de la voiture. Tonio verrouille les portes et la bm dit bonne nuit. Une ambulance traverse le quartier à faible allure, illumine la place carrée de reflets bleutés. — Qu’est-ce qu’y a? demande Tonio en constatant que Lounès ne rentre pas directement chez lui et qu’il attend planté là, sur le trottoir. L’ambulance ralentit pour passer un dos d’âne. Les éclairs bleus frappent en silence les voitures, les fenêtres, les balcons, les murs et les visages de deux noctambules. L’ambulance tourne à gauche, prend la route de l’hôpital, disparaît. — Salim, il dit qu’il y a un bâtard qui cherche à fourguer de l’héroïne dans les Hauts. T’as entendu parler de ça, toi? En plein jour, le rouge qui teinte les joues de Tonio l’aurait trahi. — Non, répond-il. Rien de spécial.

Écoute, dit Zacharie. Toute la journée, moi je livre de la bouffe. Je vais la chercher dans des cuisines, je te jure, tu mettrais pas un rat pouilleux là-dedans. C’est de ma faute? Putain, moi je suis le livreur. S’il y a des mecs pour acheter ça, c’est leur problème. Là, c’est la même chose. — Enfin, l’héroïne, c’est pas des kebabs quand même, intervient Joëlle. Ma belle-sœur, elle s’est défoncée à l’héroïne, elle est morte. Mon beau-frère, il bouffe des kebabs, il est juste obèse.

Tout en parlant, Laura s’approche et remonte le drap sur la poitrine du Manouche. Il pose sa main sur la sienne. Cette fois, le geste est moins brusque. Laura ne se dégage pas. — La came, dit-il. Il faut que t’ailles chercher la came, Lejla. Je l’ai planquée mais ils finiront par la trouver. Il faut que tu la récupères.

Stanislas Petrosky ‘L’affaire de l’île Barbe’

I maybe have another, professor… Lacassagne and Gustini turned to look inquisitively at me. — Well go ahead, speak young man. Don’t keep us hanging on for no reason! —This….as I spoke, I rolled up my sleeve. —But why didn’t I think of that before! It’s a totally valid hypothesis…this woman could have tattoos on her legs which would have allowed us to identify her.

Next, my third book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon. This is meant to be the first book in a series named after a street gang in Lyons, the Apaches, whose main protagonist, Ange-Clément Huin, an ex-member of this gang, assists the medical examiner, Alexandre Lacassagne in the early 1880’s.

This first case begins with an unknown woman’s corpse, with the legs sectioned and missing, being found in a sack, floating on the river Rhône. At the time the morgue was on a docked river boat, not close to the houses due amongst other reasons to the smell, and the law for viewing dead corpses:

It had frozen on the night of the 10th to the 11th of January 1881. The slight wind that deadens your ear tips was particularly disagreeable. Already a long queue was beginning to form on the river bank. Outside of the floating morgue which was anchored to the Hôtel-Dieu Quai, opposite the Soufflot Dôme, by large chains, the public was getting impatient. I had never been able to understand all of these onlookers who turned up to queue at the break of dawn to see corpses! They were thus able to quench their unhealthy thirst for curiosity thanks to the law that states that “any unidentified body brought to the morgue will remain exposed to the public for as long as its state of conservation will allow”.

Ange-Clément uses his knowledge of the criminal world at the time to help Lacassagne to better understand criminal motives and the underworld in general, such as his description here of his arm:

I thought back to a street fight I’d been part of….I was faced with several ruffians and had no more ammunition for my pistol. I had the same handgun as all of the Apaches. Which was a bit like that strange knife that the Swiss army had just bought for its soldiers. You could eat with it, take your rifle apart, and it had a blade, a tin opener, a flat head screwdriver and a punch. And so my weapon was at once a revolver, a dagger and a knuckle duster.

The idea for this series is interesting, the language giving a feeling of the 1880’s and the interaction of the characters seems good, but the crime itself and its resolution, or in this case non resolution felt like a book only half finished and left me slightly frustrated in spite of the many many pages of reference texts about the characters and period at the end of the book. Unfinished is the feeling that remains with me at the end.

First Published in French by AFITT editions in 2022.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Moi, j’en aurais peut-être bien une autre, professeur… Lacassagne et Gustini se tournèrent vers moi avec des yeux pleins d’interrogation. — Eh bien allez-y, parlez, mon garçon. Ne nous faites point donc languir plus que de raison ! — Ça… En parlant, je retroussai ma manche afin de laisser apparaître mon avant-bras. — Mais comment n’y ai-je pas pensé plus tôt ! C’est une hypothèse tout à fait possible… Cette femme pouvait être tatouée sur les jambes, ce qui aurait permis de l’identifier.

Il avait gelé dans la nuit du 10 au 11 janvier 1881. Le petit vent qui vous engourdissait la pointe des oreilles n’était pas ce qu’il y avait de plus agréable. Déjà, une longue file commençait à naître sur la rive. Le public s’impatientait devant la morgue flottante amarrée par de grosses chaînes sur le quai de l’Hôtel-Dieu, en face du grand Dôme de Soufflot. Jamais je n’avais pu comprendre tous ces badauds qui venaient aux aurores faire la queue pour pouvoir voir du macchabée ! Ils profitaient, pour assouvir leur curiosité malsaine, du règlement qui disait que « le cadavre de toute personne inconnue apporté à la morgue restera exposé aux regards du public tant que son état de conservation le permettra ».

Je repensais à une bagarre de rue à laquelle j’avais été mêlé… Plusieurs bougres me faisaient face, et je n’avais plus de munitions dans mon revolver. Je disposais de la même arme de poing que tous les Apaches. Qui était un peu comme ce drôle de couteau que l’armée suisse venait d’acheter pour ses soldats. On pouvait manger avec, démonter le fusil d’ordonnance, et il disposait d’une lame, d’un ouvre-boîte, d’un tournevis plat et un poinçon. Eh bien mon arme faisait office de revolver, de surin et de coup-de-poing américain.

Benoît Séverac ‘Le tableau du peintre juif’

The Yellow Vests killed me. The sentence could make you laugh. My generation – I’m fifty two years old – remember the Omar Raddad affair , where he was never clearly shown to be guilty. In my case it couldn’t be clearer: I was dead already by the second weekend of the Yellow Vest demonstrations at it was them, the roundabout rebels, that were guilty. I had a transport company. Small. Three lorries, including the one I drove, and three employees including the secretary.

Into my second book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon. This is the second book by Severac read for this prize after “Tuer le fils” read in 2021 and from the same publisher. The main protagonist of this story is Stéphane Milhas, a person that has been full of energy in his life, setting up more than one business, such as at the beginning of the story a haulage company that goes under due to outside forces. in this instance the yellow vests as illustarted in the opening quote. This is a blueprint for Milhas, outside forces acting on him, and him fighting against these forces.

Milhas’s aunt and uncle are cleaning up their lives having decided to enter an old persons home and leave him a painting from his grandfather, a member of the resistance, painted by a Jew that his father had helped escape during the war, he decides to get his grandfather recognised as Righteous Among the nations, a task to get him out of his slump as his wife, Irène had said:

She’s right, I wallowed in my classification as a victim through all these months of being unemployed. And to be quite frank about it, I didn’t set out to get the recognition of Righteous Among the Nations for my grandparents, but for myself. I realise that. I can see that clearly now.

The first section of the book follows Milhas in his quest and eventually to Tel Aviv to have his painting verified before the announcement. However this is where things go seriously wrong, there seems to be an error in the timelines as his grandfather had helped Eli Trudel and his wife to escape from France after their confirmed death in the camps, he is initially arrested, his painting is confiscated and his grandfather’s name soiled.

Since I haven’t stopped asking why I had been arrested. “What’s happening? What have I done?” They didn’t utter a word. Until an officer appeared accompanied by an interpreter to tell me that my painting had been seized. Stolen Art. Spoliation from Jews. The Shoah, the camps, denunciations….I’ve just tumbled into the wrong side of History. Well at the very least, my grandfather. But it was as if it was me. My family, my name….ruined; We are officially bastards.

Then begins a Tour de France and of Spain as he seeks to unravel the story and clear his grandfather’s name. I must admit that I lost a little interest as he went from location to location with descriptions of the places etc; not a winner for me.

First Published in French by La manufacture de livres in 2022.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Depuis, je n’ai cessé de demander les raisons de mon arrestation. « Que se passe-t-il ? Qu’ai-je fait ? » Ils ont observé un mutisme total. Jusqu’à ce qu’un officier se présente accompagné d’un interprète et me signifie la saisie de mon tableau. Art volé. Spoliateur de Juifs. La Shoah, les camps, les dénonciations… Je viens de basculer du mauvais côté de l’Histoire. Tout au moins, mon grand-père. Mais c’est comme si c’était moi. Ma famille, mon nom… salis ; nous sommes officiellement des salauds.

Les Gilets jaunes m’ont tuer. » La phrase pourrait prêter à sourire. Ceux de ma génération – j’ai cinquante-deux ans – se souviennent de l’affaire Omar Raddad dont la culpabilité n’a jamais été clairement établie. Dans mon cas, c’est on ne peut plus transparent : je suis mort dès le deuxième week-end de manifestations des Gilets jaunes, et ce sont bien eux, les révoltés des ronds-points, les coupables. J’avais une entreprise de transport. Petite. Trois camions, dont celui que je conduisais, et trois employés en comptant la secrétaire.

Elle a raison, je me suis complu dans ma situation de victime pendant tous ces mois de chômage. Et pour être tout à fait franc, je ne me suis pas lancé dans cette reconnaissance du statut de Justes parmi les Nations pour mes grands-parents, mais pour moi. J’en suis conscient. Je suis plus lucide maintenant.

Stéphane Milhas, Irène, Eli Trudel

Roxanne Bouchard ‘Nous sommes le sel de La mer’

Gaspésie is a land for the poor whose only wealth is the sea, then the sea dies. It’s a jumble of memories, a country which shuts its gob, and so doesn’t upset anyone, a land of misery with only the open sea as comfort. And so we hung on like men with nothing. Like fisherman that need to be consoled.***

“We Were the Salt of the Sea” , by Roxane Bouchard was my first book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon this year. This a book about a remote fishing village in Quebec, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river. A land of fishermen before the sea fish, the cod and the Mackerel became rare, emprisoning the older villagers as the community ages and the younger generations tries to make the switch to tourism, as illustrated in the opening quote.
I will admit that the writing, trying to convey the local vernacular nearly lost me, the writing can only do half of the work and I don’t really have a reference in my mind for the musicality of this particular way of speaking allowing me to do my half of the work, I was further confused by the Hiiii before every sentence spoken by Cyrille, thinking it was his way of speaking ( but before every sentence), only learning at the end that he had trouble breathing. But with Vital always saying “saint-ciboire-de-câlisse?” With every sentence and Renaud beginning every sentence with “j’m’en vas vous dire rien qu’une affaire,” I confess I found this off putting.

But I persevered through the first thirty pages, and what chance, this is a marvellous book!
Set mostly in the modern day but with a couple of flashbacks to the seventies. As the book begins back then, a woman is giving birth alone on a yacht, a sailor on another ship in the dock hears screaming and comes aboard, helping to finish the birth.
Forward to the present day as a drowned dead body is caught early one morning:

“Hiiii…Hi youngster! So you came in the end! — Well yeah! — Well we’re not going straight away. — what do you mean? What’s up? — It’s Vital. Hiiii… You who likes that, fishing stories, well you’re gonna get one! — I don’t follow. — Seems he caught a someone drowned in his net…. Hiiii…. S’what he said on his VHF radio.”***

We soon learn that the dead body is Marie Garant, a woman in her sixties who’s home is here but spends her life sailing around the world and only coming back every few years for a short stay. Why was the detective from the City, Montréal, chosen to investigate in this village where everyone knows everyone and the coroner decides from the start that this must be an accident, she must have hit her head on the boom and fallen overboard. Who is the young woman Catherine Day that turned up around the time of the “accident” and is asking questions? Nearly all of the protagonists are of a similar age to Marie Garant. And why does she always go back to sea, as Cyrille tells Catherine:

Exoticism is a trap, doc, temporary entertainment for amateur photographers that make a scrapbook of their lives.***

The facts, or the memories of this story: another sea death when every fishing family has lost someone at sea, this is not an unusual event, are slowly, almost reluctantly distilled over 300 pages as Roxanne Bouchard slows the story down to the speed of the sea.
This is a clear possible winner.

First Published in French by vlb éditeur in 2022.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

«La Gaspésie, c’est une terre de pauvres qui a juste la mer pour richesse, pis la mer se meurt. C’est un agrégat de souvenirs, un pays qui ferme sa gueule pis qui écœure personne, une contrée de misère que la beauté du large console. Pis on s’y accroche comme des hommes de rien. Comme des pêcheurs qui ont besoin d’être consolés.»

«Hiiii… Salut la p’tite! T’es venue, finalement! — Ben oui! — Mais on partira pas tout de suite. — Comment ça? Qu’est-ce qui se passe? — C’est Vital. Hiiii… Toi qui aimes ça, les histoires de pêche, tu vas en avoir toute une! — Je comprends pas. — Ça a l’air qu’y’a ramassé un noyé dans son filet… Hiiii… Y l’a dit dans sa radio marine.»

L’exotisme, c’est un leurre, doc, un divertissement temporaire pour les amateurs de photos qui font du scrapbooking avec leur vie.

Claire Keegan ‘Small Things like These‘

‘Your day was long,’ Furlong said. ‘What matter,’ she said. ‘That much is done. I don’t know why I put the cake on the long finger. There wasn’t another woman I met there this evening who hadn’t hers made.’ ‘If you don’t slow down, you’ll meet yourself coming back, Eileen.’ ‘No more than yourself.’ ‘At least I’ve Sundays off.’ ‘You have them off but do you take them, is the question.’

This book shortlisted for the Booker 2022, was a slow description of life, family and place, a precise description of a period in time, capturing the community and leading us to see the pressure of the church on everyday life, how the Laundries could have existed. Keegan gives us a little hope by putting a decent man, Furlong, at the centre of the story.
How nice to find here the idioms and way of speech that I assosciate with Ireland, illustrated in the opening quote.

Furlong, who runs a fuel stuffs delivery business, coal, peat, wood and has developed ‘good Protestant habits; was given to rising early and had no taste for drink’ had reached the stage in life where he started to wonder what life was about, when he will soon be tested:

Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

Delivering early one very cold morning to the convent on the outskirts of town he goes unannounced to the coal house whose bolt was difficult to undo due to the frost and finds a young woman locked in from the outside for more than just the night, lead on the cold floor with her excrement around her. He takes her in to the convent where the mother superior gives him tea as the young woman is cleaned up and fed, she must have got locked in for a prank he’s told.
When Furlong goes back to town he is aware of the pressure to conform, to let things be. People would not understand him if he did anything. Mrs Kehoe the shop keeper warns him that they’re all a one the nuns and priests and to be careful, that the only good education available to his own children is with the teaching nuns.

The air was sharper now, without his coat, and he felt his self-preservation and courage battling against each other and thought, once more, of taking the girl to the priest’s house – but several times, already, his mind had gone on ahead, and met him there, and had concluded that the priests already knew. Sure hadn’t Mrs Kehoe as much as told him so? They’re all the one.

A straightforward forward story that captures the moment in time, 1985 just before the religious scandals of the nineties.

First published in English by Faber and Faber in 2021.

Quai du Polar 2023 and we’re off

It’s that time of year again, Quai du Polar is back and for the “Prix des Lecteurs”, on the 12th of January, the following 6 books are in the running for 2023.

  • Nous étions le sel de la mer de Roxanne Bouchard – Éditions de L’Aube
  • Le Blues des phalènes de Valentine Imhof – Éditions du Rouergue
  • L’affaire de l’île BarbeSurin d’Apache 1 de Stanislas Petrosky – AFITT Éditions
  • Pas de littérature ! de Sébastien Rutés – Éditions Gallimard
  • Héroïne de Tristan Saule – Le Quartanier Éditeur
  • Le Tableau du peintre juif de Benoît Séverac – Éditions La Manufacture de livres

The short list contains 6 books, but my time is too precious to waste, so I won’t be reading the Rutés, 2 years ago I did try to read the last of his to be selected for this short list, but it was unreadable (I very rarely give up). I’m not sure how the short list is drawn up but Gallimard can do better!

If you decide to read these books before the event to outguess the jury, let me know!

Anne Tyler “French Braid”

How did anyone really know what was really going in their kids lives. He had long ago accepted that his experience of fatherhood was not what he used to envision, the girls and he got along thank heaven but girls were more a mother’s business and so he couldn’t take much credit for that. David on the other hand, for some reason he and David had never seemed quite in step with each other.

French Braid begins with an everyday story of girl invited to meet boy’s family. Nothing out of the ordinary here, just life made up of many small details, As Serena and James head back to Baltimore by train Serena glances across the station and sees a man that makes her think of her cousin Nicolas, but how could she not recognise him?

She happened to notice a young man in a suit who had paused to let the cart roll past him. “Oh,” she said. James looked up from his phone. “Hmm?” “I think that might be my cousin,” she said in an undertone. “Where?” “That guy in the suit.” “You think it’s your cousin?” “I’m not really sure.” They studied the man. He seemed older than they were, but not by much. (It might just have been the suit.) ….. “It might be my cousin Nicholas,” Serena said. “Maybe he just resembles Nicholas,” James said. “Seems to me if it was really him, you could say for certain.” “Well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” Serena said. “He’s my mom’s brother David’s son; they live up here in Philly.”

Anne Tyler then takes us back in time through two generations of Serena’s family, to her grandparents and their young children and we observe their lives in much the same way as we had seen Serena’s first meeting with James’s parents, through the small details and we learn to see the impact of seemingly small events on people’s lives, for instance on Serena’s grandfather Robin’s reflection late in his life, illustrated by the opening quote.

Hidden in the various interactions is a day when Nicolas’s father, David, was a young boy which could be seen as one of many moments leading to his father’s reflections later in life, here is a quote as Mercy, Serena’s grand mother wanted time for herself and Robin takes responsibility for his son, but maybe in the sixties fathers didn’t understand so easily the complexities of their sons as Robin has a sink or swim view of learning to swim:

She was no stranger to water, but after a few yards or so she stopped swimming and stood up. “Come on out” Robin called to her but she said “I don’t want to get my hair wet” she had the kind of hair that took forever to dry, thick, wavy with ringlets spilling from a chignon piled high on top of her head. She said “I was thinking, I might go and fetch my sketch pad and take a little walk in the woods, can you keep an eye on David?” “Sure thing” Robin said, I’ll teach him how to swim”.

My first experience of Anne Tyler’s writing didn’t disappoint, slow moving family drama with points of denial, like many families.

First published in English by Knopf in 2022

Percival Everett ‘The Trees’

Delroy jumped a little when Brady appeared behind him. “Good Lord Almighty!” Brady said. “Goddamn! Is that Junior Junior?”
“I think so,” Delroy said. “Any idea who the nigger is?”
“None.”
“What a mess,” Brady said. “Lord, Lordy, Lord, Lord, Jesus. Looky at that. His balls ain’t on him!”

“I see that.” “I think they’re in the nigger’s hand,” Brady said. “You’re right.” Delroy leaned in for a closer look.

“Don’t touch nothing. Don’t touch a gawddamn thing. We got ourselves some kind of crime here. Lordy.”

The book shortlisted for the Booker this year, didn’t pull be in by the title and I didn’t recognise Percival Everett, but what a book! How to start describing it?

The book begins in Money Mississippi, with two gruesome murders in short succession, both related. First there’s Junior Junior found dead by two local policemen Brady and Delroy as described in the opening quote. The “person of colour“, hope I got that right, found in the same room as Junior Junior is clearly well and truly dead, with his head smashed in, both bodies are taken to the local morgue. Soon after the coloured persons body is found to be missing, no longer in the morgue drawer.

Then the book takes on a surreal form when the same corpse is found next to Junior Junior’s brother in law, Wheat’s dead body with Wheat’s “nuts” in his hand. As each of the family and the policemen’s characters are drawn, we find ourselves in a caricature of poor white people in small town Mississippi (or I hope it’s a caricature). From Wheat’s wife, Charlene, known even to her young kids by her CB handle, Hot Mama Yeller to the mortician Rev doctor Fondle addressing a KKK meeting:

We got ourselves a situation white brothers, I’m afraid what we’re looking at is a real nigger uprising two of our own brothers lay dead and the killing nigger is on the goddamn loose.

Then the second layer of the book sets in as 2 MBI agents (yes , Mississippi bureau of investigation), both black are sent to investigate, and are not exactly welcome and the FBI sends a female black agent and together are able to realise that the locals still think it’s the 1930’s.

We are clearly in “Strange Fruit” country where a very old lady has kept a record of the more than 7000 negroes Lynched in the south with less than 1% of the people involved being questioned and much less being convicted, this is proposed by any definition as being a genocide, where the only way to remember them is to keep saying their names.

Then the killings get out of hand as more and more white people are killed. Even Trump has a cameo appearance.

An excellent idea to mix a murder mystery, farce and difficult to swallow facts.

First published in English by Influx Press in 2022

Shehan Karunatilaka ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’

When did you last see him?
Weeks ago at a press gathering, said he was quitting the war zone, I thought fair enough.
Johnny should have played poker, he could lie with his eyes, his nose and his teeth
What do you know about Center?
Heard the name, think it’s some aid organisation, which could mean a number of things.
So you know them?
Not really, CNTR could be raising funds for political groups or procuring weapons for militant ones, could be genuinely helping the innocents, hard to know who’s what these days, does your papa Stanley know you’re going around playing detective Columbo?………
Do you know what’s in those five envelopes?
I don’t need to, I can guess there’s two wars going on which means a lot of ugly things get photographed.

This book was originally chosen because it was on the Booker long list, but the after much prevarication by the time I came around to reading it, it had already won the prize!
This book then, really, and in every way, will lead you into a new world, or should that be worlds.
The book begins with Maali waking up with another one of his hangovers, but he and we soon discover that he is in fact dead and is in an in between world for seven moons, or days. The narrator is then the spirit of Maali Almeida.

Maali doesn’t remember how he died, and we slowly learn about him as at first we understand that he was a war photographer and fixer in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s and that he has some potentially explosive photographs hidden in five envelopes under his bed.

Maali was a gambler, living swathes of his life in casinos where with an ability to calculate odds he more or less survives from night to night, he uses the casino to meet people for his missions but also the two loves of his life, Jaki, who he explains gambling odds to and then moves in with and through her D.D or Dilan her cousin who Maali tries to lead out of the proverbial closet. Dilan’s father Sydney is an important minister in the Sri Lankan government. Maali is missing so Dilan goes looking for him, initially to Johnny from the British Embassy from the opening quote.

We learn of the wars in Sri Lanka, of the Tigers, but also the JVP who want to overthrow the state, of the Indian peacekeeping force of the UN and the US, each with their own role to play as illustrated by the following discussion between Sydney and Dilan

We are talking about letting foreign devils meddle in our affairs.
Didn’t your excellency the president invite the Indian army in, are they angels?
I voted against that Dylan, you know this. Don’t bite your nails man how old are you?
The UN forensic team had been invited by Rajahpaksa to train our local authorities on identifying bodies against the records of the missing, meanwhile the CIA were rumoured to be training our torturers.

The choice of dead bodies and atrocities to photograph are legion, only access remains a problem, as the book moves forward we learn that Maali has been carrying out a balancing act, working for the army but also for the international press, through Johnny but also through CNTR from the opening quote and that there are any number of groups that may have wanted to kill him.

In the in between Maali meets many people he has photographed but also the Mahakali, a powerful spirit made from thousands or spirits which it seems to have absorbed (a visit to Wikipedia would be useful here).
Maali’s spirit meets the torturers and the « palace » they operate from and is lead to think about dehumanising the people that are tortured and killed:

When the mahakali comes to a stop you leap off of its back and watch it melt into shadows cast by this ugly building at the base is the face of a pole cat it gives you the same disgusted look that all dead animals give you
« What are you looking at ugly? »
I get it, animals have souls, you dream, you do things for pleasure, you feel happy and sad, you understand pain and grief and love and family and friendship, humans don’t acknowledge this because it makes it easier to carve up the ones we find tasty, which isn’t you but that’s neither here nor there. I am profoundly sorry. The pole cat looks surprised or hungry or annoyed or you don’t know it’s a pole cat.
Screw your apology it says before vanishing into the mahakali’s flesh.
There are good reasons humans can’t converse with animals except after death because animals wouldn’t stop complaining and that would make them harder to slaughter. The same may be said for dissidents and insurgents and separatists and photographers of wars. The less they are heard the easier they are forgotten.

So who did kill Maali, and will he decide to be reborn?
I would say the Booker jury got this one right.

First published in English by Sort of Books in 2022