One more for the list…

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Richard Flanagan Man Booker prizeSo we now know who the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014 is. This year’s judges awarded the prize and £50,000 prize money to Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Based on the experiences of Australian POW’s building the Burma Railway for the Japanese in the Second World War, Flanagan wrote about this particular event  because his own father had been one of the POW’s who built the Burma ‘Death Railway’.

Flanagan has faced some stiff competition to win this year. For the first time, the prize can be awarded to any author writing originally in English and published in the UK, which has meant that two American authors have been in the running. Also, Howard Jacobson, who won in 2010 with The Finkler Question, was in contention with his dystopia novel, J. The bookies favourite was Neel Mukherjee with The Lives of Others.

The shortlist was made up of genres which push all the Man Booker buttons. For example, Mukherjee’s novel follows in tradition of the Indian novel, which has include past winners Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Flanagan himself follows Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark) and Peter Carey (True History of the Kelly Gang) as Australian authors who tap into historical events to create powerful works of literature.

I am looking forward to reading this years’ winner, particularly as I am already a fan of fiction which use historical context (I don’t use the term ‘historical fiction’ because it’s just too general and inaccurate, but hey, that’s just me), and judging from the reactions it has already received, I’m in for a powerful and gripping read.

Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark, Booker Prize 1982

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Scindler's ArkMy latest read in the Man Booker Prize winners list wasn’t a typical winner back in 1982. It caused somewhat of a controversy on its subject matter, although the controversy wasn’t about its frank and brutal depiction of the Holocaust, but rather because the events of the book were real historical events. Critics and judges alike asked themselves, was this historical fiction or a factual historical book?

It is certainly true that Thomas Keneally’s story isn’t a traditional narrative. It does read more like factual history. You know from the beginning what happens; a German-speaking Czechoslovakian businessman named Oskar Schindler managed to save around 1,000 – 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.

In my opinion however, it does feature the best of both formats.  As a history book, it is well researched and possesses a strong attention to detail, such as explaining the hierarchical structure of the SS, the complex history of Central Europe and its Jewish population, and the system of occupation which the Nazis enforced on the conquered territories of Europe.

It also reads like a novel in that it has two central characters which tower over the story and drive it along. The fact that these characters were real people makes them the narrative even more engrossing. On the one hand, you have the hero of the story, Oskar Schindler. He comes across as a bit of wheeler-dealer, ducking and diving with the Nazi authorities, the SS and the Army. At first he seems content with exploiting the opportunities presented by the German occupation of Poland by setting up his own armaments company in Krakow, Poland. It is only when he meets Amon Goeth, the local SS group commander that is view of the war changes.

Goeth is a monster, no simple way about it. He is sadistic in his random killing of Jewish prisoners in his camp; he beats his servants; and uses sexual violence to against female prisoners. Goeth is the servant of death whose task is to rid Krakow of its Jewish population. He chooses not to see the Jews as human beings; therefore he is not bound by a code of humanity to treat them as human beings. He simply does with them as he pleases, or as the Nazi government orders him to. When Schindler sees the void of humanity in Goeth and his SS men, Schindler does the most human thing in such an unimaginable situation. He says enough is enough.

The pace of the story also feels like a novel. Towards the end, you just want the war to be over so Schindler and his workers can make it through the war. You already know that they survive, but Keneally wants you to will them on.

As a novel, it deserved to win the Booker Prize back in 1982. It is one of the most harrowing, shocking and inspiring stories I have ever read. Although it did leave me with one question in my mind after I read the last page; how close was Keneally’s imagining of Oskar Schindler to the real Schindler? Was he, as Keneally would have him, the lovable rogue with a heart of gold, or was there more to Schindler’s actions than meets the eye?  All I know is that Keneally’s account of Schindler’s story is a harrowing tale of hope in the darkest period in the history of the world.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, 1992 Man Booker Prize

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Now as mentioned in my previous post, I have seen the film version of The English Patient, and that film seemed to be a romantic epic of forbidden love in the pre-WW2 North African desert and in Italy during final months of the war. The novel from which it is taken seems to be more of a mystery which slowly unfolds on the reader.

Unlike the film, the central character of the novel isn’t the patient, it is the Canadian nurse Hana who takes it on herself to care for her mysterious patient, who was found horribly burnt after a plane-crash in the North African desert. The only item found on him was a copy of The Histories by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Contained in the book is the real story of who the English patient is and how he came to his grizzly fate.

Now I have to admit that the novel really dragged in the parts, particularly Hana’s story, where she is looking after her patient in an abandoned Italian villa. The more interesting parts of her story arrive with her father’s friend, the thief, cad and possible spy David Caravaggio, who has some personal connection with her patient. There is also love interest in the form of  Indian soldier/sapper Kip, who stays with them to get deactivate unexploded bombs and mines in the area. However, I found this romance to be a bit of a distraction.

Ondaatje writes in an interesting ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach which works well sometimes, particularly when describing the day-to-day activities of the characters. In other parts, particularly in important scenes involving Hana, Caravaggio, Kip and other minor characters, the narrative style can get distracting and it becomes hard to follow what is going on.

The parts where the story really gripped me was the story of the English patient himself and his past. It’s the mystery at the heart of the novel which propels the story along and wants you to keep reading until the end. I was similarly engrossed by the imagery of the novel. Ondaatje beautifully describes the vastness and serenity of the desert, the hustle and bustle of pre-war Cairo and the contrasting of beauty and decay in the Italian countryside which has been fought over by the Allies and the Germans

However, I think had I read the book first and seen the film second, I would have understood the novel and appreciated it more. I really liked the patient’s story because it had been the focus of the film. In contrast, Hana is the main focus in the novel, and maybe this is why I found her parts distracting.

So if I had to make a recommendation, it would be this. If you haven’t seen the film version, READ THE BOOK FIRST.

Continuing with the themes of the Second World War and film adaptions starring Ralph Fiennes, my next Man Booker Prize novel will be Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, which of course inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1993 cinematic masterpiece Schindler’s List.