The Man Asian Literary Prize has grown in stature since it began in 2007, with some classing it as the "Asian Booker". But last October, the award's sponsor, The Man Group, announced that the 2012 prize - to be presented in Hong Kong on Thursday - would be the last it funded, which makes for an interesting impasse.
On the one hand, the sophisticated novels that have been shortlisted for the 2012 prize bear testament to how far the Man Asian has come. Two were also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and one of those, Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. One of the authors is also a Nobel laureate.
On the other hand, the prize faces an uncertain future, but organisers are confident they will find a new sponsor and an announcement could be made to that effect at the black-tie dinner to announce this year's winner on Thursday. Still, having either one new sponsor or a collection of them could affect how the prize continues.
The 2012 prize saw a record 108 entries, whittled down to a longlist in December, and then a shortlist of five a month later. The books need to be published in English, which also highlights the importance of translators in these works. The winning author receives US$30,000; if the book has been translated, the translator will receive US$5,000.
There are major publishing houses involved, but organisers of the Man Asian Literary Prize are pleased to see small publishers among the big players. British journalist and literary critic Maya Jaggi chairs the panel of judges and, along with Vietnamese-American novelist Monique Truong and Indian novelist Vikram Chandra, will choose the winner from the following five shortlisted novels.
Hiromi Kawakami (Japan)
(translated by Allison Markin Powell)
This is an unlikely romance, set in Japan, about a woman, Tsukiko, approaching middle age and a man 30 years her senior. Sensei is a former high school teacher, who taught Tsukiko and has since followed her life. He's an old-fashioned, conventional and kind gentleman, while she's a bit spoilt. They meet in a Tokyo bar and Sensei institutes various "dates" including a visit to a market and mushroom picking in the mountains. One of the most charming elements of the story is that he is a connoisseur of the small things in life. He has a strange sense of affection for old stuff, whereas she is incurious and doesn't seem to notice the world around her. Food seems to come into everything and the characters are often eating. While she falls in love with him, he is at the end of his life.
Some of the best writing describing this relationship comes when Sensei takes her to an island to visit the shrine of his wife, who left him before she died. Kawakami creates a foggy borderland, a dreamlike sequence where Sensei is standing on his head and his former wife barks like a dog. It's a nowhere place, a place of waiting and surrealism.
Kawakami is an excellent observer. Her characters are sketched quite lightly and the dialogue is spare, but these are convincing depictions for a story full of pathos.
Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
The Garden of Evening Mists
This is the second novel by Malaysian Tan Twan Eng, who trained as a lawyer and now lives in Cape Town. His first book, The Gift of Rain, focused on the traumas of a young Anglo-Chinese boy during the Japanese occupation. The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is also linked to the aftermath of the Japanese military atrocities in the second world war, but this time it is set at the time of the Emergency in then-Malaya. Tan doesn't spare the reader, and some of the scenes including people being hacked to death are vivid.
The main character is a newly retired former Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh, a public prosecutor who has investigated Japanese war crimes. Once a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp, she wears a glove on the hand where her fingers were cut off. Her memory is beginning to fade through dementia and she heads to the Cameron Highlands where she meets an enigmatic Japanese gardener. All is not as it seems as she begins a relationship with him.
She was the sole survivor of a concentration camp, and she is also forced to look into her soul amid guilt about her role in the camp and her sister's death.
The plot is complex, but the star of the piece is the evocativeness created by Tan when he describes the landscape and garden. Between the horror of the camp and the atrocities of the guerillas, he recreates the tranquility and beauty of that area and time.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Pakistan)
Between Clay and Dust
Aleph Book Company
Musharraf Ali Farooqi, born in Hyderabad, Pakistan, not only writes fiction but is also a translator of Urdu classics and has written children's books. In Between Clay and Dust, Farooqi creates a moving and lyrical story set in a crumbling and abandoned inner city, where Ustad Ramzi, once a revered and lauded wrestling master, and the courtesan Gohar Jan (who used to have many royal figures and men besotted with her and her singing) are in their twilight years.
It's a time when life has moved on, where the "winds of Partition" have wrought havoc, but Ustad Ramzi adheres to the traditions and moral codes that he has lived his life by - and these have consequences.
This is a moving human story of an inability to face change, of living through family disgrace and finally guilt, remorse and redemption. Farooqi thanks those who helped him learn about the world of the pahalwan or wrestler clan, and he crafts fight scenes in which skilled adversaries try to win bouts in the clay. We also follow the life of Ustad Ramzi's younger brother, who's always striving for the wrestling accolades of his brother.
Farooqi's dialogue consists mostly of very short sentences, the rest told in reported speech. His people are very real - you can practically smell the wrestlers' sweat mixed with clay.
Jeet Thayil (India)
Faber and Faber
Indian poet Jeet Thayil, educated in Hong Kong, had already published several books of poetry before his debut novel, Narcopolis. The book, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in January, when Thayil was also pitted against fellow Booker and Man Asian Literary Prize author Tan Twan Eng.
The novel finds its protagonists in opium dens and the squalor of Mumbai's red-light district. Thayil's depictions have an authenticity derived from his own years lost to alcohol and drugs. It starts with pages of dreamlike prose but this hallucinatory tale soon takes on aspects of a violent nightmare.
This is the Mumbai of the 1970s, at Rashid's opium house in Shuklaji Street, a red-light district full of seediness, sex, pimps, prostitutes, pushers and addicts during its transition into a modern city, and as opium gets overtaken by heroin.
Thayil's prose is energetic and engages the reader. One critic describes it as a mixture of " Trainspotting and Keats". There's perhaps only one character the reader really cares about - a prostitute called Dimple who was castrated at the age of eight. There's violence, swearing, the invisible people living in poverty, and all the human detritus associated with a life of addiction trying to cope with change in a modernising metropolis.
Orhan Pamuk (Turkey); winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for literature
(translated from Turkish by Robert Finn)
Alfred A. Knopf
The rules of the Man Asian Literary Prize stipulate that all books published within that 12 months in English written by an Asian author are eligible for entry, which this year has thrown up a quirky result,. One of the entries by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is a novel he wrote nearly 30 years ago but has only been recently translated by Robert Finn, perhaps as interest has grown in the earlier works of this author. It was his second novel, ahead of his Nobel literary turn in 2006.
Silent House is set a month before a military coup in Turkey in 1980 in a coastal village in Istanbul, and political tension permeates throughout. There are five narrators, all characters in the novel.
The novel begins with a depressed grandmother, Fatma, the matriarch of the family, who lives alone, but we learn of her unhappy marriage to an idealistic doctor. Life has left her bitter as her three grandchildren come to visit. She is looked after by Recep, a dwarf and the illegitimate son of her late husband.
Two of the three adult grandchildren coming for their summer visit have idealistic political views, either ardently pro Russia or America. When those ideals clash with the Islamic beliefs of Recep's nephew, Hasan, death follows. It's a bleak book, but skilfully written.
The shortlisted writers will be appearing at a public reading at the University of Hong Kong from 7.30pm on Wed. For more information, visit manasianliteraryprize.org