The 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature
The pedestal belongs to Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich who was recently awarded the prize. The awards committee cited her literary output as a monument to suffering and courage in our time.
Alexievich writes in Russian and hopefully, soon, translations of her novels will be igniting our shelves. Some of her novels are forbidden in Russia and Belarus due to the author’s occasional position as an ‘unremembered’ person in those countries. This is due to what the Poles call her literature faktu style — her factual approach that aims to recover real experience from myths or political spin.
Arguably, her most celebrated novel is War’s Unwomanly Face, a work about the experiences of female Soviet soldiers in World War Two. It sold over two million copies in Russia when it was published in 1985 in the midst of perestroika.
All of Alexievich’s novels use several voices to tease through the spin and the one I’ve recently digested that caused a bout of being unremembered was The Zinky Boys, which explores the ordinary Russian experience during the country’s abortive incursion into Afghanistan. The book’s title refers to the zinc coffins in which over 50,000 young men were transported back to their Russian homelands.
Alexievich was a journalist in Minsk during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and her 2005 published novel Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster has often been referred to by critics when reviewing her Nobel fame.
Geraldine Brooks started off as an Australian investigative journalist in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. After marrying an American and adopting US citizenship, she put her prowess with words to work writing award winning historical novels. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable story March, which followed the fictional travails of the father of the girls in Louisa Alcott’s Little Women when he served as a doctor in the American Civil War.
After converting to Judaism, she decided to turn to the Old Testament. Her latest novel, The Secret Chord, tells the story of the reign of King David through the eyes of David’s favoured philosopher friend, the prophet Natan.
Brooks does not avoid gruesome or salacious details in this immersive novel and even those who know the story of David inside out will be held in a tight grip. Like Alexeivich, she believes in the power of good fiction. As she said in a recent lecture series, “I know it has power because the jailers and the despots are so afraid of it.”
A short-lister in this year’s Man Booker Prize was A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.
Tyler has spent most of her prize winning literary output tolerantly describing ordinary family lives in the city of Baltimore, families who often spend large amounts of time over family dinners.
Like Alexievich, but in microcosmic scale, she investigates the myths that abound in and bind families together, sometimes for the worse. A Spool of Blue Thread is a warming though complex read that will please all of her fans.
Anarchy and Dystopia
Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, could be considered the monarch of the satirical dystopian genre and in her recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, she looks at an America after a disastrous financial crash. The streets are alive with vicious gangs and Atwood concentrates her story on a hapless couple, Charmaine and Stan, who attempt to escape the rape, murder and mayhem by volunteering to spend the rest of their lives in a new suburban utopia, the gated community of Consilience.
The catch is that the citizens of Consilience agree to spend alternating months in a spick and span, though boring, urban environment and in cramped and seething male and female industrial prisons. It is also a corporation that aims to make huge profits using slave labour (including sex slavery) and one that kills off any citizens that facial imagery technology assesses as dangerous to the corporate good. They are killed and their organs harvested for sale.
Atwood, as in most of her novels, is concerned with the emotions we associate with the heart and through Charmaine she investigates questions such as love and free will in monogamous relationships. In a modern world where sexual fantasies can be viewed at will via porn sites, Atwood uses Stan to questions these dependencies.
In Atwood’s satirical future scenario the human heart is something that corporations cynically make money out of. Fans of Atwood dystopia will recognize the headless poultry that populated Oryx and Crake.
Truong is an avid reader and runs Bookworm (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi) and Bookworm Weekend (6 Lane 1/28, Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi). For more information on go to bookwormhanoi.com