Man alive - Asia rising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


It isn't often that Hong Kong can boast of contributing to the global literary stage, but the Man Asian Literary Prize looks set to do it. The prize has gained so much recognition since 2010 that Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's appearance on the longlist in October allegedly prompted that country's government to recognise his book, The Colonel, which it had previously banned.

Last year's impressive shortlist was the result of an overhaul of the prize, which was launched in Hong Kong in 2007 to commend Asian fiction written in or translated into English during the previous calendar year. Originally, the Man Asian accepted only unpublished manuscripts, but it now requires the submission of novels already published in English.

This year's shortlist is the strongest yet. So strong, said BBC special correspondent and chair of the judging panel Razia Iqbal, that she and her colleagues broke with tradition and chose seven finalists rather than the usual five.

The other two judges are Pulitzer Prize nominee Lee Chang-rae and Vikas Swarup, who wrote the novel, Q&A, which was adapted as Slumdog Millionaire.

Iqbal based her selection of what she described as 'incredibly well-written, interesting books' on whether she felt compelled to keep turning the page, and was 'a little bit transformed' by the experience. She said the Man Asian reveals 'the cumulative impact of what a novel can do'.

The prize has been called the Asian sister of the prestigious Man Booker Prize (which represents Britain and the Commonwealth) and, while this seemed far-fetched five years ago, the reality now seems within reach. At the announcement of the shortlist in January, which was done via video link between London and Hong Kong, Iqbal said every one of the novels merited a place on the Booker Prize longlist or shortlist.

Ninety books from a potential 35 Asian countries were reduced to a longlist of 12 last year. The shortlisted authors are competing for a prize of US$30,000 with US$5,000 for the translator, if any. The winner will be announced on Thursday. Here are the finalists:

Yan Lianke (China)

Dream of Ding Village
Grove Atlantic
Translated by Cindy Carter

Dream of Ding Village is an important story, but not an enjoyable one. Yan Lianke's novel is based on the real blood-selling scandal which spread HIV through eastern China in the 1990s, fuelling an Aids epidemic which continues to affect the mainland today.

It is a fictional account of one village in Henan province and a family struggling to come to terms with its role in the reckless scheme. Rural communities were particularly targeted as poor farmers were persuaded to sell their blood for cash and the glory of new China.

That the mainland's staggering economic ascent has cost its people too much is not a new critique, and Yan handles it with the grim passion of a prophet. The story, narrated by a dead child, is at times so ghoulish that it feels absurd. The translation is capable, if too inclined to repetition and cliche. As a provocation the book is powerful, but it is difficult to keep turning the page.

Rahul Bhattacharya (India)

The Sly Company of People Who Care
Pan Macmillan/Pan Macmillan India/Picador

This vivid novel is set in Guyana, where a young journalist has arrived from Mumbai to find meaning in a dead life. A year lived at the northern tip of South America - 'this blessed patch of world' - will affect him incrementally and absolutely.

'Vulgarity is the lens to life' in Guyana and Bhattacharya writes with a kind of rock-star beauty. The plot is elusive: the book is more travelogue than novel, and there are passages so gorgeous, wicked or profound they stop you. What is extraordinary about the story is the place, and the way Bhattacharya loves Guyana and sees in it a forgotten part of India's colonial legacy. Its history is soulful and sad and the title, when its possible meaning is revealed, is stunning.

Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)

The Lake
Melville House
Translated by Michael Emmerich

The Lake is a delicate and unusual love story from a writer in full command of her form. The translation is seamless and the novel can be read in an afternoon. It is narrated by Chihiro, a muralist whose mother has recently died. She begins a relationship with the haunted Nakajima, who first appears in a window across the street. There is a pale mystery that threads through the book, which is mingled with Chihiro's matter-of-fact approach to a distorted history, which isn't matter of fact at all.

But Nakajima's past is never as disturbing as it should be, even when the source of his trauma is revealed. Yoshimoto's triumph is to persuade us to see him as Chihiro does, without clutter or judgment.

Jahnavi Barua (India)

Penguin India/ Penguin Books

This is the kind of simple, small story that we don't see enough. It follows Kaberi, a woman living in Bangalore, as she navigates a series of tragedies: an unfaithful husband from an arranged marriage, the loss of her best friend, a late, risky pregnancy, the death of her father. She handles them in a way that is neither weak nor overtly strong, but realistically nuanced. Barua has provided Kaberi with a number of foils in a cast of female characters who are more archetypal. Together, they form a clear-minded meditation on womanhood in modern India.

The unborn child is the quiet heart of this novel. Kaberi narrates as though speaking to her 'little one' and, thus, Barua captures instinctively the bond between mother and baby.

There are no sweeping statements in Rebirth, and any social critique seems incidental. It is an original and elegant first novel.

Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan)

The Wandering Falcon
Penguin India/ Hamish Hamilton

Jamil Ahmad was a civil servant for most of his life, working in the region where the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet. In the early 1970s, he wrote a collection of stories about the people and tribes he encountered there. Forty years later, they have been published as The Wandering Falcon. The author is 78.

The episodes, which reveal a nomadic and honour-bound way of life, are gathered loosely together by the orphaned boy Tor Baz, who appears throughout. Set not during wartime, but in the decades before the rise of the Taliban, Ahmad's fascinating debut offers a wise and compassionate insight into a place that much of the world knows only by headlines.

Shin Kyung-sook (South Korea)

Please Look After Mom
Alfred A. Knopf Translated by Kim Chi-young

If you've ever seen a missing-persons notice in a train station and wondered how you'd cope if they were your family, here is a book that captures the hope, regret and heartache beautifully.

Mom disappears from a Seoul subway station after her husband gets on a train without her. The narrative opens in her eldest daughter's voice, one week later. The story unfolds through other perspectives as the family begins to grasp the enormity of their loss.

Shin writes with control about a subject that could have been marred by sentimentality, and stops just short of it at the end. A million-plus-copy best-seller in South Korea, the novel appeals to a relationship that is elemental, no matter what its surface aspects are. It is a tragic thanksgiving to motherhood.

Amitav Ghosh (India)

River of Smoke
John Murray/Penguin India/Hamish Hamilton

The second instalment of a majestic trilogy, River of Smoke unfolds in 19th-century Canton on the eve of the first opium war. In the foreign trading enclave known as the Thirteen Factories, Ghosh brings together a carnival of characters which range from a fallen raja, Neel, to William Jardine.

The book's central figure is a Parsi merchant, Bahram Modi, who becomes the only Asian member of the Chamber of Commerce committee which will eventually ignite the war. India and China are linked, as the two poles of the British East India Company's opium trade.

The novel goes some way towards explaining how these mighty countries were made to yield to the British empire's ambitions but raises darker questions. 'And what was it all for?' asks Bahram towards the end. 'Was it just for this? So that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?'