The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 26 March 2023

– XIV –

Even though it was the thought that counts, the pain still hurts all the same.  

Saturday 18 March 2023

The International Booker Prize 2023, Longlist

Hello Gentle Reader,

The International Booker Prize has recently announced their longlist for 2023. Thirteen titles from across the geographical and linguistic world, providing an invigorating global perspective, expanding readers horizons. Since its inception in its current format (post-2015), the International Booker Prize has made a conscious effort to promote translated literature within the English language, awarding some marvelous writers. Previous winners include:

Han Kang – 2016 – “The Vegetarian,”
David Grossman – 2017 – “A Horse Walks into a Bar,”
Olga Tokarczuk – 2018 – “Flights,”
Jokha Alharthi – 2019 – “Celestial Bodies,”
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – 2020 – “The Discomfort of Evening,”
David Diop – 2021 – “At Night All Blood is Black,”
Geetanjali Shree – 2022 – “Tomb of Sand,”

The inaugural award in 2016 was a catalyst in how the International Booker Prize would be a catalyst for the award. By awarding Han Kang’s English debut “The Vegetarian,” the International Booker Prize was able to capitalize on a poignant and potent novel, but also affirm itself as both a outstanding literary award with enough relevancy to set trends. After her International Booker Prize win, Han Kang’s entry into the English language was affirmed, ensuring she is recognized as one of the most important contemporary (South) Korean writes currently writing. Kang’s novels are written with the effortless lyricism and grace and air of a ballet dancer, while providing the most subtle examination of her characters psychological state, as well as the daily violence encompassing human existence.

In 2018, the International Booker Prize judges named the marvelous and inventive Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk the winner with her magnificent constellation novel: “Flights.” Once again the International Booker Prize proved that it could keep itself relevant when reviewing and awarding great international literature. “Flights,” is considered Olga Tokarczuk’s breakout novel in the English language, despite having two published previous (“Primeval and Other Time,” and “House of Day, House of Night,” – both masterful novels in their own right) “Flights,” finally confirmed Olga Tokarczuk’s status as being one of the most innovative writers of Europe. Tokarczuk would receive the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature retroactively the following year.   

Last years winner, Geetanjali Shree is the first Hindi language writer to receive the prize with her novel “The Tomb of Sand,” which was rumoured from its initial nomination to be the front runner and favoured novel to receive the prize. “Tomb of Sand,” was beloved by the judges for its humour and humanistic vision, a slow burn novel, “Tomb of Sand,” affirms the International Booker Prize’s ability to curate and promote international and translated literature into the English language.

This year’s longlist for the International Booker Prize is as follows [in no particular order]:

Maryse Condé– Guadeloupe [French language] – “The Gospel According to the New World,”
Andrey Kurkov – Ukraine – “Jimi Hendrix Live in Liviv,”
Eva Baltasar – Spain [Catalan language] – “Boulder,”
Cheon Myeong-Kwan – (South) Korea – “Whale,”
GauZ – Côte d'Ivoire [French language] – “Standing Heavy,”
Georgi Gospodinov – Bulgaria – “Time Shelter,”
Vigdis Hjorth – Norway – “Is Mother Dead,”
Clemens Meyer – Germany – “While We Were Dreaming,”
Laurent Mauvignier – France – “The Birthday Party,”
Perumal Murugan – India [Tamil language] – “Pyre,”
Guadalupe Nettle – Mexico – “Still Born,”
Amanda Svensson – Sweden – “A Systems So Magnificent It is Blinding,”
Zou Jingzhi – China – “Ninth Building,”

Of the 13 books listed, 11 languages are represented which includes: Bulgarian, Tamil, Catalan, Spanish, French, Korean, Swedish, German, Ukrainian, Norwegian, and Singaporean. French is the most represented book on this year’s longlist. Maryse Condé is the oldest writer on the longlist at 86 years old. The Guadeloupean writer is a giant of postcolonial literature and is revered as the Grand Dame of Caribbean literature. Condé finds herself nominated with the novel: “The Gospel According to the New World,” is a bildungsroman set in modern-day Martinique, it follows the life of a child who is rumoured to be the messiah. What follows is a epic quest of this rumoured child seeking to discover their origins and mission in the world. Maryse Condé proves herself to be a remarkable epicist in spirit and scope, tackling with colour and flare the complexities of Caribbean life and history, but also the universal human condition, seeking meaning, order, and purpose with an increasingly chaotic and meaningless world. In a direction away from the epic and complex, comes the intensity and sensuality of Eva Baltasar’s novel “Boulder,” depicting the sensuous physical and emotional pleasures of intimacy between two women working on a merchant ship. The novels page count just reaches over a hundred pages, which is why “Boulder,” is praised both for its intensity and an exemplary piece of concision. In a manner similar to the great and legendary Maryse Condé, the Ivorian writer GauZ grapples with the French colonial history in his novel “Standing Heavy,” which recounts the journey and stories of Ivorian immigrants attempting to etch out a new life in France. The novel is praised for both grappling with colonial past of the wester African nation, while satirizing contemporary French society.

The Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth has drafted a novel of icy acuity and complexity that is both challenging, subversive, and difficult company to keep. The narrator is described as one of the most impossible, ugly, and unlovable characters, becoming in full scope and antihero, through her jaded perspectives, narcissism, and malicious motivations; these very same traits make her palpable even relatable. Compared to the exacting psychological analysis of Marguerite Duras and her exploration of intimate and personal relationships, Vigdis Hjorth has written a dark examination of family dynamics and the complex even violent power struggles between mother and daughters in her novel “Is Mother Dead.”  Clemens Meyer in turn tackles a sense of despondency and pathos with his novel “While We Were Dreaming.” Recounting a country on the brink of both unification and change, “While We Were Dreaming,” captures the pivotal moments of a group of friends as they live during a memorable moment in history, but also fall prey to the all the disappointments of life and growing up, when all the certainties of the world evaporate and future is no longer as straightforward. Clemens Meyer has written a novel that encapsulates the anxieties, anger, and lived experience of East Germany as the Berlin Wall fell, and the once divided Germanies reunified. A novel with credibility and palpability, providing a boot on the ground fresh perspective to a historical moment which has been eagerly propagated as an essential win to democracy and freedom, “While We Were Dreaming,” provides a more nuisance layer to those memories regarding such a historical moment.

Cheon Myeon-kwan’s novel “Whale,” is described as a riot, a multigenerational novel set in a remote village in (South) Korea, this otherwise carnivalesque novel brims with surprises, entertainment and enjoyment, a truly epic and adventurous romp, which entertain readers as three exceptional and surreal women traverse the Korean landscape. “Whale,” is an ode and requiem to self-transformation and the power of restlessness. While Georgi Gospodinov’s dystopian novel regarding memory and the past proves to be both thought provoking and humorous, tackling subjects regarding nationality, identity, and ageing, as well as both the horrors of loss of memory, its rejuvenating capabilities in addition to its destructive attributes. In “The Birthday Party,” by French writer Laurent Mauvignier is a novel that has been described encapsulating two very primal emotions of the human experience: empathy and dread. Amongst the mundane, even celebratory joys of simple life, external malevolent forces take intrude and disrupt. Make no mistake, “The Birthday Party,” is a novel riddled with tension, agony, and an unapologetic contributor to horror. A surveyor of the most disturbed thoughts and actions people can muster, the very dysfunction of existence in itself, and the delusions we tell each other to muster through. “The Birthday Party,” is described as a novel of marvelous thrilling intensity, I would not be surprised to find it on the shortlist.

As in years past, this years International Booker Prize longlist proves itself to be a diverse medley of languages, perspectives, cultures, and narratives. The judges are put in an unenviable situation of creating the shortlist, but it will surely be a refinement of what is currently on offer in the longlist.

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Friday 17 March 2023

Dubravka Ugrešić, Dies at 73

Hello Gentle Reader,

In another shocking event, the Dutch-Croatian writer, Dubravka Ugrešić has died at the age of 73, ten days before her 74 birthday. In a manner similar to the death of the Spanish master, Javier Marias, the world is shocked and confounded by the surprising news of Dubravka Ugrešić, who like Marias was a internationally renowned writer and often considered a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dubravka Ugrešić was born in a town in the former Yugoslavia (now Croatia), in a ethnically diverse family, her mother being a Bulgarian. She would go on to study at the University of Zagreb, majoring in comparative literature, where she would pursue parallel careers as both literary scholar and writer. As the Soviet Union disbanded and the Iron Curtain collapsed during the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the thread bare fragile adhesive that held the former Yugoslavia together also came undone. In 1993, Dubravka Ugrešić left what was then Croatia for political reasons. She remained an ardent opponent to the rising nationalism of the Balkan nation and its neighbours as they tore themselves apart and marched towards war, slaughter, and eventual genocide. Becoming one of the worlds newly minted exiled and borderless writers who resolutely opposed nationalism as it replaced the Soviet eras brand of socialism. IN her remaining life in exile, Dubravka Ugrešić taught at numerous European and American universities, including Harvard, UCLA, and Columbia University. As a writer, Dubravka Ugrešić was a consummate postmodernist, capable of soldering both high cultural allusions and references with the pastiche of low pop culture references and mass consumerist allusions, which crafted a renewed and reinvented form of the novel, encompassing the high components of postmodern literature, with its pastiche techniques, fragmentation, and sense of humour, creating a sophisticated chimeric literary production. Yet, her novels increasingly gained more gravitas with both political and sociological concerns. “The Ministry of Pain,” tangos with the violent divisions of the former Yugoslavia, and the despondency of exile, the realities and difficulties of making a life away from home. Beyond fiction, Dubravka Ugrešić was an accomplish and prolific essayist, once again employing her postmodernist perspective to both disarm readers while engaging in a political dialogue and dissertation. “Have A Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream,” is made up short essays in a dictionary-like format that recount the everyday existence in America, but through the lens of someone whose homeland is being destroyed. Each of her essay collections proved that Ugrešić was a remarkably versatile writer, one who could engage both with the palpability of political discourse, the anchoring realities of the mundane, and the curious treaties on literary subjects. In 2016, Dubravka Ugrešić won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

With the death of Dubravka Ugrešić, the world has lost a resounding literary and moral figure, one who was able to provide both insight and criticism into nationalism, while also exploring politics through a literary lenses without becoming polemic in nature. Her literary accomplishments were postmodern gems, a hybrid unity reflecting and refracting the human experience, both in terms of high poetic perspectives and the vertigo of mass consumerist culture.

Rest in Peace, Dubravka Ugrešić.

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Monday 13 March 2023

Ōe Kenzaburō, Dies Aged 88

Hello Gentle Reader

One of the greatest Japanese writers of the Postwar years, Ōe Kenzaburō was a complex and intensely uncompromising writer. His novels were both deeply personal as they were difficult and dense. Working in the shadow of the great Kawabata Yasunari and the nationalist Mishima Yukio, Ōe Kenzaburō wrote about Japan’s failures and defeat after the Second World War, which allowed Ōe explore the main components of his literary themes, such as militarism, nuclear disarmament, shame, betrayal, trauma, and the loss of innocence. Ōe Kenzaburō recalled as a child in elementary school being taught that the Japanese emperor was a living god, an illusion that was quickly shattered when all of Japan heard the emperors voice over the radio and his concession of defeat and admittance in surrender. This lasting sense of betrayal and shame stuck with Ōe throughout his life and is a noticeable literary influence. Another major literary influence was the birth of his son Hikari, whose birth and cognitive challenges became some of Ōe’s most impactful novels: “A Personal Matter,” “A Quite Life,” “Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!”. Yet his social-political works: “A Silent Cry,” (remarked as his masterpiece), “Prize Stock,” “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids,” “Death by Water,” where particularly regarded as masterful critiques of postwar Japanese society, and its subsequent transformation through the coming decades. Ōe Kenzaburō’s prose was heavily influenced by global and western writers, which includes William Faulkner (who Ōe is frequently compared to), W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist philosophers and writers. Being unabashed or ashamed of taking influence from external geographical, linguistic, and cultural spheres certainly branded Ōe as an outsider within the Japanese literary community, but he carved out a space that was singularly his own, while crafting a complex and often difficult literary oeuvre, which are celebrated masterful works of post-war Japanese literature, both as reckonings and as criticism, having once called Japan, morally speaking, a third-world country, whereby Ōe Kenzaburō revolted against the niceties and celebrations of other writers: Mishima Yukio, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō. In addition to his literary works, Ōe Kenzaburō was an active activist and pacifist, protesting nuclear energy being used in Japan, nuclear weapons, as well as a revitalization of nationalistic tendencies and a strengthening military.

Throughout his life, Ōe Kenzaburō was an accomplished and extraordinary writer, but also an uncompromising and devoted writer to moral causes and concerns. Truly an amazing writer and public individual, but also one of the most important and accomplished Nobel Laureates in the later half of the 20th Century. 

Rest in Peace Ōe Kenzaburō.

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

For Further Reading:

BBC: Nobel Prize Winning Author Kenzaburo Oe dies

The Guardian: Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel prize-winning Japanese writer, dies aged 88

The New York Times: Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Laureate and Critic of Postwar Japan, Dies at 88


Thursday 2 March 2023

Such Fine Boys

Hello Gentle Reader,

The literary career of Patrick Modiano begins with a bleak satire of the nationally held Gaullist legend of France’s resilience and resistance against the Nazi invasion and subsequent Occupation. Modiano exposed the rampant anti-Semitism that predated these events, tarnishing the readily held belief promoted by General de Gaulle that the French citizenry were allies of the Jews—and though it must be conceded that some certainly were—the collaboration of the regular French citizens, as Modiano so eloquently puts it, the explicit collaboration of the French authorities during the Occupation cannot be so easily dismissed as traitors or coerced collaborators, but were in fact regular French patriots, who engaged in the long standing tradition of acceptable anti-Semitism before the war and the Occupation. The gilded Gaullist legend and image was therefore cast into rusted ruin. Modiano’s days as satirist came to an end however, when his literary preoccupations moved towards his now famous grisaille portraits of Paris and his noir exploration of the inarticulate and dubious discourse of memory. Through each of his novels, Modiano has curated a truly ambient state that is both familiar to readers and citizens of Paris, while being continually unrecognizable or existing within the negative space within the recesses of the past. Modiano’s Paris is one of exhaustion. Wounded and weary, it’s a city of ghosts, intrigues, and secrets left to languish and be forgotten. Its citizens are always existing within a state of incognito. Lost within their own selfish lives, they seek to forge new identities and destinies for themselves. Their worlds existing on the perilous stages of superficiality, teetering on the edge of the abandonment and ruin. The exclusive boarding school: Valvert School for Boys, depicted within Modiano’s novel “Such Fine Boys,” is an anomaly within Modiano’s literary landscape. Valvert exists like a ship moored off of the coast, inaccessible and insular in its own existence, both fixture of a small community, while being separated from it. Valvert is merely the hostel and dumping ground of the young men of neglectful well-to-do parents or relative, who consumed and absorbed within their affairs, leave the education and rearing of their sons to others. A niche role that Valvert happily accommodates. The schools is run by the athletic ‘Pedro,’ Jeanschmidt, who takes instilling structure and education within his students seriously. There are rules, there are expectations, and there are privileges. Jeanschmidt is both commander and comrade to his student body, while being the nucleus of Valvert, both founder and foundation. The singular consistency within the institution. Under his charge is a roguish student body, who perhaps lacking in instilled familiar bonds, create their own fraternal bonds amongst each other. Intwining each other with the shared sense of despondency, while being susceptible to waves and bouts of melancholy. Always existing on the margins of the well to do, all the while being completely displaced and disposed.

“Such Fine Boys,” is a unique novel by Patrick Modiano, rather then being narrated and propelled by a singular questioning and questing individual, its an ensemble of voices calling out within the echoes of each other, resonating within the ley lines and undercurrents, the very faint threads of fate and circumstance, which both connects and intertwines their lives within each other. As Valvert as the catalyst and beacon of their shared lives, these voices depict the roguish gallery of characters who walked its halls, sat through one of its films, engaged in casual delinquency, and often participated in unsanctioned nightly excursions. Then there are those others, who found themselves expelled, unable to meet the requirements laid out by Jeanschmidt (so affectionally called Pedro) they are ceremoniously stripped of their standing with the school in a mock military fashion and removed from the school’s grounds, where they rejoin both the liberated and excommunicated. From there they spiral out into the world. Existing in an ephemeral state both lacking substance and depth. Its this predisposition for superficiality, which leaves them in a state of hollowness. Their existential dread fails to be communicated with properly or grappled with. From good time to good time, they exist within a purgatory of their own demise, still incapable of having meaningful life or relationships beyond appeasement or cuddling their insecurities. Members of the Valvert faculty, such as one aimless and washed-up chemistry professor, are equally lost after the school closes. Now cast out into the world he finds himself in the company of young men, which is never confirmed only insinuated, to have a certain intimate relationship with them. Despite cozying up with the youthful, he is still lost as he wades into the void of anonymity and oblivion. A chance encounter with a former student, now minor actor in a theatre troupe, allows this otherwise displaced chemistry professor to rise above the squander of he presents, and reminisce about those former days, those otherwise better days.

Each chapter provides further voice and distinction to the novel, building on the legacy and incubation of Valvert in providing a sense of place and belonging to the hapless boys who found shelter beneath its roof. Perhaps stereotypically, like all boarding schools, Valvert took a keen interest in both the development of academic aptitude (if not understanding), as well as fostering and instilling a sense of sportsmanship in its pupils, while employing running or other cardiac activities as discipline measures, all of which in turn fosters a sense of athleticism. The physical education teacher, M Kovnovitzine (affectionally called Kovo) was regarded warmly by the students, though Kovo had a particular liking for an odd boy by the name of Bob McFowles, whose country and lineage was American by birth, but found himself stranded in Valvert as a son of equally aloof parents. McFowles, (like the others) is a tragic figure in his own right, but an accomplished sportsman, and the point of pride of Kovo. He is reintroduced as an adult in the beauty of Versailles, where he and his new wife Anne-Marie have taken up honeymooning. Their honeymoon was overseen by a hot and sunny August, which the honeymooners took full advantage of. They sunbathed on the lawn of the Trianon, where McFowles embraced his youth further, wearing what is described as a leopard print bathing suit, which the narrator digresses to reflect on this style’s popularity in relation to Tarzan during their time in Valvert. Perhaps due to the heat, or sun exposure, McFowles grows increasingly longing for the sea, going so far as to have a break down over its absence in Versailles. In line with all tragedy, McFowles, young and full of life, dies in the vanity of youth. McFowles is that special Modiano character, one who has a thirst for life, a reminder and martyr of youthful abandonment and carefree displacement. McFowles finds himself immortalized in his small leopard print swimsuit, sunbathing on the lawn of Trianon, a portrait of summer and youthful splendor.

One of the best chapters from this novel is also one of its longest. In fashion and inline with much of Modiano’s bibliography, this chapter recounts the life from the periphery and the distance. Like a spectator at the zoo or aquarium, an alumni of Valvert recounts his time as tutor of a kindred spirit, a neglected child by the name of Little Jewel, who is a starring child actress in a film that is repeatedly screened on campus. This Little Jewel is one and the same from the same titular novel. To quote J.M.G le Clezio from his introduction of “Such Fine Boys,”:

“The passages of Such Fine Boys in which Modiano describes the tender bond between the youthful narrator and Little Jewel, who has been abandoned and abused by her overambitious mother, are among the loveliest pages written in the French language in the second half of the twentieth century.” 

This chapter of “Such Fine Boys,” is best described as a guided tour into what kind of world and lives Patrick Modiano’s characters inhabit. Each of them presents an almost noncommittal almost nomadic existence. There’s the bleak casual disregard of Francis Jansen, who no longer exists within a lived reality, but instead resigned himself to the afterimage of life, the negative imprint left behind. The haunted and despondent Ingrid Rigaud, whose suicide in Milan, is both casual tragedy and the catalyst for the Modiano narrator Jean, who is not only content with the thought of disappearing himself, but fascinated by sanitizing all traces of himself from memory. Then there are more abstract characters, such as Little Jewel’s mother, whose identity shifts within the soft yellow light, with a flash she’s the Countess; in the backroom she’s Sonia; to another she’s Odette. Through each name she changes both airs, personality, but also function. The life of the Countess (or Sonia O'Dauyé or Odette) was an illusion, riddled with glamour and glitter, it existed in the most hollowed halls of someone else’s charity, and even than its generosity comes at the expense of other favours. The description of the Countess and Little Jewel’s apartment strikes the note at just how despondent and immaterial their lives are. The apartment is scantly furnished. There is little evidence to give way for habitation or life within it. It’s a flop flat. Faded squares were pictures and painting hang are distinguishable in the low yellowed light. Rooms are vacant. What little furniture there is, is only piled together for the sake of one person or a couple of people. All of which comes in complete contrast to the projected image of the Countess, the otherwise high-class socialite, is merely the faded glitter of times gone by, whose whole visage is supported by an intricate scaffolding of appearances. Yet the good times always come to an end, free lunches in turn get invoiced, and the scaffolding too falls away.

The novel is filled with many other voices. Legends and alumni of Valvert School for Boys. The otherwise lost and forgotten or inconvenient sons of the wealthy. They become in their adult years tragic and displaced figures. Some die in blaze and glory; others move on with their unexciting and uneventful lives; there are those who become vagrants, so abandoned by their neglectful parents; while others fail to grow up entirely, living in a state of gentrified infantilism; then there are those, who seek to shed their skin, their identity, their pasts, and start over, living that life they themselves were so cheated, even if it means the contemplation of homicide. “Such Fine Boys,” is a marvelous novel, truly one of Modiano’s more unique and best works, encompassing a collective narrative and ensemble to provide a unique portrait of those roguish and amorphous beings that are the hallmarks of Modiano’s fiction. “Such Fine Boys,” is a euphoric and harmonic orchestrated novel, a lament of lost youth and childhood, while shifting cadence to a dirge of the unknown.  A compelling departure in form, while maintaining all the quintessential elements of Modiano’s style and themes.  

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary