Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading Asia: The Man Asian Literary Prize Finalists

The finalists in the $30,000 Man Asian Literary Prize have been selected and according to the chair of the board of directors of the MALP, David Parker, they "have chosen five very different novels, each in its own way brilliant and captivating, representing the achievements of three major Asian cultures: China, India and Japan."

The finalists:

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu, Howard Goldblatt, and Sylvia Li-chun Lin 
In a small village in China, the Wang family has produced seven sisters in its quest to have a boy; three of the sisters emerge as the lead characters in this remarkable novel. From the small-town treachery of the village to the slogans of the Cultural Revolution to the harried pace of city life, Bi Feiyu follows the women as they strive to change the course of their destinies and battle against an “infinite ocean of people” in a China that does not truly belong to them. Yumi will use her dignity, Yuxiu her powers of seduction, and Yuyang her ambition—all in an effort to take control of their world, their bodies, and their lives.

Like Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Three Sisters transports us to and immerses us in a culture we think we know but will understand much more fully by the time we reach the end. Bi’s Moon Opera was praised by the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other publications. In one review Lisa See said: “I hope this is the first of many of Bi’s works to come to us.” Three Sisters fulfills that wish, with its irreplaceable portrait of contemporary Chinese life and indelible story of three tragic and sometimes triumphant heroines.

Serious Men: A Novel by Manu Joseph
A poignant, bitingly funny Indian satire and love story set in a scientific institute and in Mumbai’s humid tenements. Ayyan Mani will not be constrained by Indian traditions. Despite working at the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai as the lowly personal assistant to a brilliant but insufferable astronomer, he dreams of more for himself and his family.

Ever wily and ambitious, Ayyan weaves two plots: the first to cheer up his weary, soap-opera-addicted wife by creating outrageous fictions around their ten-year-old son; the other to sabotage the married director by using his boss’s seeming romance with the institute’s first female—and very attractive—researcher. Meanwhile, as the institute’s Brahmins wage a vicious war over theories about alien life, Ayyan sees his deceptions intertwining and setting in motion a series of extraordinary events he cannot stop. Unfailingly funny and irreverent, Serious Men is at once a hilarious portrayal of runaway egos and ambitions and a moving portrait of love and its strange workings.

The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Amir Ali leaves his village in Bihar to travel to London with an English captain, William Meadows, to whom he narrates the story of his life – the story of a murderous thug. While Meadows tries to analyse the strange cult of the Indian Thug, a group of Englishmen sets out to prove the inherent difference between cultures and people by examining their skulls – with bizarre consequences.Set in Victorian London, this story of different voices from different places draws intricate lines of connection from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, between England and India, across individual and cultural differences. Known for his refusal to fit his work into established 'diasporic', subalternist or post-colonialist narrative traditions, in The Thing About Thugs, Khair finally engages with these traditions by subtly and ironically deploying echoes from Victorian literature, ranging from Charles Dickens to P.M. Taylor's Confessions of a Thug and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe and Deborah Boehm

Japan’s greatest living novelist has brought the autobiographical novel and the roman à clef to the highest artistic distinction by merging them. His and his family and friends’ thoughts and doings are nearly always the stuff of his novels. This book opens with Kogito, a distinguished novelist, listening to audiocassettes just sent him by his oldest friend, Goro, a filmmaker. After his pal says he’s going to head over to the Other Side now, there is a loud thud on the tape. Goro’s voice returns, saying he won’t stop communicating with Kogito. Then Kogito’s wife interrupts to tell him that Goro has committed suicide by jumping off a roof. (Oe and Juzo Itami, whose Tampopo was an international hit, were longtime friends, and the latter’s 1997 death was identical to Goro’s.)

Communication does continue, first as Kogito vocally responds to the tapes, then in memory while the novelist undertakes a guest lectureship in Berlin, where he meets Goro’s chaste, last young lover. The ghostly colloquy gradually focuses on an incident the friends shared as late teenagers in the sticks where Kogito grew up. As in previous novels and with comparable mastery, Oe deeply ponders love, sex, art, friendship, family, and death in a rich, psychologically acute rhapsody of narration anchored in personal calamities. This one ends with a willfully upbeat line by Oe’s fellow Nobelian, Wole Soyinka. --Ray Olson
Hotel Iris: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa

A tale of twisted love, from the author of The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor

In a crumbling seaside hotel on the coast of Japan, quiet seventeen-year-old Mari works the front desk as her mother tends to the off-season customers.  When one night they are forced to expel a middle-aged man and a prostitute from their room, Mari finds herself drawn to the man's voice, in what will become the first gesture of a single long seduction.  In spite of her provincial surroundings, and her cool but controlling mother, Mari is a sophisticated observer of human desire, and she sees in this man something she has long been looking for.

The man is a proud if threadbare translator living on an island off the coast.  A widower, there are whispers around town that he may have murdered his wife.  Mari begins to visit him on his island, and he soon initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure, a place in which she finds herself more at ease even than the translator.  As Mari's mother begins to close in on the affair, Mari's sense of what is suitable and what is desirable are recklessly engaged.
Hotel Iris is a stirring novel about the sometimes violent ways in which we express intimacy and about the untranslatable essence of love.

Have you read any of these? Have a favorite one? Who are your favorite Asian literary authors?

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