Democracy like God can work in mysterious ways
I’m not the betting sort, not your dog track or racing sheet punter with street creds. But that doesn’t mean that I, trudging through these over-sunny London days, do not cast a keen eye at how the geniuses at Ladbrokes, William Hill, etc., are stacking the odds on any given Monday. Especially if it happens to be on chewy tidbits—football and tennis being the saveurs du mais, national elections or as a friend said “natural selections”—Brexit, Trump, et al—that lot, where we have had our collective clocks cleaned; or, literary prizes: anyone for Paul Simon, now that the Swedish Academy is more interested in lyrics than literature?
Oddly enough, no numbers were posted, as far as I know, for who would win the 50th anniversary special sweepstakes for the Golden Booker, which was a six-week long campaign to find the most cherished Booker winner to date. When I queried about it from the betting powers that be, the answer was simple: there were no judges involved in picking the winner from the shortlisted five. Five winners from five decades, chosen by five judges, toted up the shortlist. It had then been left to the great unwashed, the greater commonwealth of readers in the republic of letters, to vote for their favorite from the shortlisted five. It seems this process had the whiz-kids at all betting agencies stumped on how to work out the odds, especially given the fact that there was no way to verify email accounts.
Democracy, I hear your joyous scream, but as we all know from recent times, Democracy like God can work in mysterious ways.
Personally speaking, if you wanna know, had bets been on offer I’d have gone forThe English Patient—yes, of course, it’s jolly easy with the benefit of hindsight. But lend me your ears for a sec, dear Dhakaites: it is a stupendous novel, later turned into a cracking film by Anthony Minghella (a doozy nine Oscars to boot), but therein lies the irony. A lot of people would have voted in favor of it because of the movie—a version that swung away from the core message of the book.
Minghella was a screenmeister, no argument there, but his movie strays far, almost a galaxy so far, that it goes completely off balance. Toomuch, too radical a shift, even with all the artistic license, from the original fiercely anti-colonial novel to a sob story about a love affair between two colonialists! Note that I’m taking nothing away from the prize-winner.
In 1969, when the circus came to town, the Man Booker was a relatively unknown prize;it was a time when a singing postman would notify the winners. It was ramshackle, too—they forgot to give a prize in its second year. It only took forty years to posthumously award the 1970 accolade to JG Farrell for Troubles. Skip the light fandango over the shortlists in the early years and you get a sense—tweedy writers in hats who were mostly male residents of the leafy, white—and at one point, literary— suburbs of Hampstead.
So, it could have easily morphed into one of those initiatives kicking off with all the right intentions only to lose steam in later years. In hindsight, we see that it was not only pioneering but also a tad rad. It is perhaps easy to forget that. It is also easy to forget the shortlisted names, and even the winners, from the early years of the prize. The Golden Booker brought them all back for us, andwell, perhaps, for the first time to a lot of us.
Apropos, this move by Man Booker to open voting up to the public is commendable. Let me count the ways: Numerouno, it challenged the status quo, dispelling the myth of a literary cabal. Second, it added to something the British public is au fait with—voting for their favorite stars, something that began in the 1990s with Big Brother (nothing to do with 1984), spawning the later peaks of Western civilizations such as the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, et al. The aim was to engage the masses, keep the prizenon-insomniac to the millennials, busy Instagramming away. Essentially, how do you get this lotinto serious literature? One has to wonder if these things ultimately work.
For book lovers, the Golden Booker was a festive shindig, as bookshops across the country joined in. Some had beautifully curated displays dedicated to the shortlist; the suggestion was to start with the Golden Five and the keenest among us could then go on to take the Booker 50 challenge, i.e., to read every single winner from the past 50 years. Veddy veddy ambitious, since no one I know has read all 50, but you gotta start somewhere. Some of the brothers at the Golden Booker function seemed righteous about doing it, but me—I am not holding my breath. But then why blame us, the average punters, when poet Hollie McNish, one of the judges for the shortlist, admitted she had never heard of any of the winning authors from her section (2011-18), let alone read them. She had only read poetry and non-fiction until she was appointed a judge. She did assure us that she wouldbe reading fiction henceforth—“it is not a self-indulgent waste of time”—as she had previously thought. Right, we all can heave a sigh of relief.
Earlier in June, my friend and colleague Lawrence Osborne invited me to have lunch with Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzoriat her beautiful villa in Sant’Ellero, which is smack in the middle of Italy. At 92, she is zesty, showing no signs of slowing down. Moving to espressos and skipping the desserts, she suggested we take a dip in her beautiful piscina to beat the Tuscan heat. The conversation freewheeled across cities: Firenze to Dhaka, from Palazzo Strozzi to Bangla Academy, and from Neapolitan cuisine to Florentine shirts; she told us she gave away all three hundred bespoke shirtsher husband Gregor von Rezzori owned when he died.She is prepared to give away a lot it seems, but not her wonderful Santa Maddalena Foundation.
The foundation isa retreat for the Who’s Who of writers: Carlos Fuentes, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bruce Chatwin, Zadie Smith, and so on. She’s proud of her achievements with Festival degli Scrittori, Florence’s first and only literary festival, which takes place every yearin June over three days. The cornerstone of the festival is the Gregor von Rezzori Award for the best work of foreign fiction translated into Italian. George Saunders won it last month for Lincoln in the Bardo. “How do we make the prize grow, and make it to be more inclusive?” the Baronessa asked at one point. I shared some ideas. She listened intently without nodding until I had finished my thoughts; democratic voting wasn’t, I have to confess, high on the list.
We need numbers from the bookies!
Ahsan Akbar is a Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]