Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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Dorthe Nors – Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Sonja, a literary translator for Swedish crime novels, is over forty, so she decides that it is finally time to get her driving license. In Copenhagen’s streets she is not only fighting with the driving school’s car and the other cars, cyclists and pedestrians around her, but also with her instructor Jytte who just does not let her change gears and yells at her all the time. When Sonja complains with the driving school’s boss Folke, she is not sure if with another instructor, she will be able to learn how to move smoothly in the traffic. However, it is not only the failure in driving that worries the translator. She struggles with her current piece of work and especially with her family relationships. Her sister as well as her parents still live in the countryside where she grew up and with whom she hardly has any contact.

Dorthe Nors novel which is nominated for the 2017 International Man Booker Prize is an interesting piece of art. First of all, I found the central topic quite innovative, I cannot recollect ever having read a novel in which learning to drive a car is the focus of the plot. Yet, this is only on the surface the central aspect, Sonja’s driving lessons are much more marked by the complicated relationships and conversations by the characters. Her first instructor, Jytte, is an outstanding person. She is not only outgoing and loud in every aspect, but also not very sensitive with her students. The encounter with a very reflective and intellectual woman who, additionally, is also a bit older and full of insecurity, can only lead to conflict which the two women avoid openly. The second instructor, Folke, is much more receptive to Sonja’s emotional needs than he seems at first.

On the other hand, we have the complicated communication between the sisters which is mainly avoided or unsuccessful. Kate does not want to talk to Sonja, her husband repeatedly has to deny her being at home in order not to be confronted with the sister and old conflicts which have never been solved. Dorthe Nors has found an interesting picture to illustrate their relationship: “If Sonja and Kate were apples, you’d say that they’d fallen on two different sides of the three” (pos. 852). They come from the same tree, but then they lose sight of each other.

Sonja is symbolic for the modern inhabitant of a major city. She has many people around herself, her life is full of different things she can do in town, but underlying it all is a loneliness which sometimes surfaces and makes them aware of the poor quality of the many encounters they have:

“In Copenhagen you could have something else, and her first years were a success. She learned the city’s movements, its dialog, its form. But bit by bit it stopped making sense.” (pos. 1526)

Yet, life in the countryside is also not portrayed as the perfect solution. Much more the question is raised what is important in life and should it be more than just the fulfilment of basic needs.

Even though there is a certain melancholy which marks the novel, there are also funny situations and hilarious dialogues full of absurdity. Life is not only black and white, and sometimes you struggle with it, but as soon as you have found your place and have decided on what is important for you, you can find you balance and go on.

Regarding the nomination for the International Man Booker prize, I found others nominees I have read much more demanding, e.g. Mathias Enard’s “Compass” (review in German) or David Grossman’s “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” (review in German). However, for such a renowned prize, Dorthe Nors’ novel is wonderful to read on different levels.

And the winner is…The Man Booker Prize 2016

Waiting has an end, the jury announced today the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner:

Paul Beatty – The Sellout

Shortlisted were the following books:

  • Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)
  • Deborah Levy (UK) Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) His Bloody Project (Contraband)
  • Ottessa Moshfegh (US) Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

I read Paul Beatty’s novel last month and was only party convinced of it. Find my review below:

sellout

A man is in Washington, waiting for his trial before the Supreme Court. He has never done anything wrong so why is there a case of the United States of America vs. himself? The narrator has to go back to his childhood days when he, the son of a black psychologist, was his father’s prime study object. His isolated upbringing always against the background of racial hated has left its marks and when is father is shot and he is faced with the police’s lack of interest, he understands that he has to do something for Dickens, his hometown which has vanished from the maps, and for his father’s memoir. A fight for equality and to find out who is really is and who he wants to be starts.

Paul Beatty’s novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and it is obvious why it has been nominated. At the end of two terms of a black president, the country has to raise the question if anything has changed in the last eight years. Considering the last months’ riots and street fights in many cities between the police and the black community, the answer might be “no” – or even: things are worse today. Thus, Beatty has chosen his topic well, it could not fit more to the current debate. But apart from its societal relevance, what does the novel have to offer?

First of all, the irony is just captivating. The best example for me is the search for a sister city when Juárez, Chernobyl and Kinshasa refuse to be linked to Dickens due to diverse reasons. You have to laugh until the laughter gets stuck to your throat because you understand what has been said about this black town in this scene. Its situation close to the LA metropolis is worse than the most violent city in Norther America, worse than the most polluted and dead place in Europe and worse than the poorest town in Africa. Is there anything to top this? Yes, of course there is – and that’s what makes this novel so outstanding. The narrator invents an upside-down version of segregation and has the white pupils expulsed from the local schools. This reminds you of something in history? Yes, but now things are different. Or not so different at all. The absurdity sharpens the observer’s view on the current state this small town is in.

At times, Beatty has his narrator reflect on what he is doing and what is happening and he comes to very sharp conclusions on why things are the way they are and why people just cannot act differently.  This sounds quite serious, that’s what it is at the end of the day, but Beatty found a unique style ignoring all taboos to bring across his message.

 

Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen

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Ottessa Moshfegh – Eileen

Eileen looks back at the life she once had, the life in X-Ville, where she grew up with her father, a former policeman and alcohol addict, her older sister who was everything she was not and her mother who died much too early. Due to the mother’s illness, Eileen had to give up college and return home to care for her, she found a job in a juvenile detention centre which she hated. There is no such thing as a private life for Eileen, stalking one of the prison guards, some shoplifting from time to time, drinking a bit too much with her father. This is definitely not the life Eileen had imagined, but how can she flee from it? She spends her days daydreaming of different possibilities of escape. When Rebecca Saint John arrives at the prison, Eileen is intrigued by the women’s demeanour. She immediately admires her and even kind of falls in love with her – not foreboding what is behind the nice looks and outer appearance of this woman.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel combines psychological aspects with a crime story in a very unexpected way. For the largest part, we follow Eileen and her rather pitiful life. How the parents treat her, especially her father who seems to take her rather as a servant and not as his daughter, her sister with whom she does not relate at all. And her concept of herself: she perceives herself as invisible, ugly even, nobody could ever be interested in her, nobody seems to take notice of her presence. Her thoughts about escape, escape from the village, escape from life, her fantasies about killing her father who is responsible for her deplorable situation arise from her borderline state of mind. Thus, it is not surprising how she reacts when she finds herself suddenly in a critical and threatening situation with a gun in her hand.

From a psychological point of view, the nomination for the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist can easily be understood. The novel offers deep insight in the character’s mind and opens a completely new world to the reader. The atmosphere created, the lonely far away village, deep in snow, also wonderfully blends with the inner state of the protagonist. Nevertheless, I would have preferred some more action a bit earlier. The sudden crime situation came a bit too late to my taste.

J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus

Review, Novel, Man Booker Prize Longlist
Simón, Inés and Davíd had to flee and now come to Estrella where they hide among fruit pickers. Quickly it becomes obvious that Davíd is not an ordinary child, he asks a lot of questions and at the same time his view of the world cannot really be understood. When he is enrolled in the Academy of Dance – public schools are no option for obvious reasons – he feels comfortable and at home. The school’s strange philosophy seems to give him everything he needs and dancing becomes a new passion for him. For Simón and Inés this is difficult to understand and with the child’s gradual alienation they also find it more and more difficult to agree with each other.
J.M. Coetzee’s novel was nominated on the 2016 longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Normally, this is an indicator for me to read and book and I was never disappointed. However, this time the novel really had me despaired. First of all, I could hardly orientate in the novel. Where are we? And when? At least approximately. As I figured out in the meantime, there is another novel by Coetzee called “Childhood of Jesus” which might give some explanation to that. Second, most of the book is about the academy’s philosophy – and this was completely lost to me. Even more than to the protagonist Simón who also does not understand the least of what the teachers try to explain. Thirdly, which is closely linked to my first point, the family relationships were all but clear to me, this might be due to the fact that there is a first book in the series that I was not aware of.
Leaving aside the unease while reading, what does this text qualify for the Man Booker Prize nomination? It raises some questions which are definitely worth asking: who am I? What defines me? Which role do the family and the surrounding play in constructing me? Additionally, we have complex inner and out of family relationships which develop, intensify and loosen in the course of the story. The way especially Simón and Davíd not only interact but also react and define themselves through the other are quite interesting to observe.

All in all, I guess a lot of the story was lost to me. Unfortunately, there was too much I was wondering about to really enjoy it.