"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Spark of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Part Two: 'L'étincelle'

A couple of months ago I wrote here about Par le feu, the short fictional account by the French-Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun of the death of the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.  At more or less the same time Ben Jelloun wrote another, non-fictional, analysis of the arab revolts called L'étincelle: révoltes dans les pays arabes (Gallimard).  L'étincelle means 'the spark'.  There is no sign as yet of either being published in English but they would make in combination a very important book.

Ben Jelloun's brief but powerful overview of recent events, written in March and published in May (and not without its critics, as an example of which see a rather personal attack from a partisan website that fails completely to address the substance of his argument) is nothing if not topical.  Those of us with rather queasy recollections of the fashionable novelists wheeled out to give their twopennyworth in The Guardian after 9/11 tend to approach The Great Writer on the Topics of the Day with some caution but Ben Jelloun has some good reasons to speak out for he was born in Fez in French Morocco, and knows the culture of the Arab world from within.  Written with his usual limpid economy, it describes, witheringly, the despotic cruelty of the dictators – les vieux turbans – of the Arab world and celebrates the spirit of resistance.

He begins by confronting the alleged 'silence of the Arab intellectuals'.  Far from being silent, he points out, writers and journalists in the Arab world have repeatedly spoken out and paid the price in imprisonment, torture and death, not the usual result of the engagements of the public intellectual in Western Europe or the USA.  Using his novelistic gifts, Ben Jelloun presents little vignettes of the two dictators who were dismissed – Ben Ali in Tunisia and Moubarak in Egypt – giving us a picture of their fury at their people for having rejected them and this is followed by a brief tour of what happened this spring in the leading countries where revolts broke out.  It is a horrifying story of brutal repression, personal enrichment at the expense of poor and humiliated people, and the turning of a blind eye by the outside world for fear of losing contracts and because the savagery of the dictators was seen to be useful in keeping the radical islamists at bay.

Ben Jelloun is scathing of the islamists, who watched the popular demands for freedom, justice and equality with dismay.  The author of Islam Explained brands their rhetoric "bland, anachronistic and stupid" [lénifiant, anachronique et stupide] and celebrates instead the radical political demands of the people who revolted, demands which derive clearly from classic human rights and democratic principles.  Unlike our recent apolitical shopping riots, the Arab revolts knew what they wanted and the early acts of self-immolation happened always outside buildings symbolising political or state power, the message clear enough: that the governments had let down their people.  A constant theme of this short book is that of humiliation (it figures largely in the earlier story of Bouazazi) but Ben Jelloun ends on a note of optimism in calling the current fury of the people "creative and alive" [vive et créatrice] and in particular young people, some of whom have lived abroad and had their eyes opened to political possibilities, have seen how other young people live and how vital liberty is to life.  "As in a dream, they have suddenly realised that they too have the chance to live a better life, to finish with dictatorships, to recover a little dignity." [Comme dans un rêve, ils ont entrevu soudain qu'ils avaient eux aussi la possibilité de vivre mieux, d'en finir avec les dictatures, de retrouver un peu de dignité.]  The tools they have used have been communication, the exchange of ideas and plans, and the most notable thing about the new generation is that it is fearless and this is something new that the dictators – represented by Ben Jelloun as desperate cornered animals who know only how to snarl and spit – cannot cope with.  They suddenly see that the revolt is non-negotiable and will not stop.  "It is that which is new and historic."

I only hope that the optimism is justified.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Prize Obsession

I can recall reading somewhere that there are so many literary prizes it is difficult to avoid winning one.  Let me reassure you, it is perfectly easy.  Having published fifteen books I have yet to win a prize – though I was on a shortlist of six for the 2003 Marsh Biography Prize and took my charity shop tuxedo out of mothballs for the dinner where Brenda Maddox deservedly pipped us all to the post.  Naturally everyone would like to win because there is usually some cash, sometimes a lot of it, and it does wonders for sales but one doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how, as with most other aspects of the English literary world, the usual rules of engagement apply. These can be summed up briefly: make sure you know the right people. In the case of major poetry prizes: really make sure you know the right people.

In a literary culture where reviewing is becoming ever more inadequate prizes start to become significant as a device for ranking books so it's no surprise that publishers get so excited about them.  Independent-minded readers don't need them because they award their own prizes in their head.

Which brings me to the Man Booker which never quite seems to get it right in contrast to the much more reliable (in my view) Goncourt in France which has (a) no musical chair-changing celebrity judges (b) a cash award of 10 euros and (b) a very good track record.  I was interested to see Boyd Tonkin in The Independent on Friday proposing something which sounded rather like the Goncourt.  Over to you Boyd:

Not the Man Booker Prize?

I refuse to criticise the Man Booker long-list. I've done that job; it's tough. You can't begin to satisfy the clamour of competing voices in your head, let alone in the world outside (established stars vs newcomers; large vs small firms; British novelists vs the rest, and so on). Yet as I began to tally my cherished casualties this year (Michael Ondaatje, Graham Swift, Ali Smith, Justin Cartwright, Andrew Miller, Francesca Kay... ), as well as other critics', a subversive idea took shape. Perhaps we need a new prize. As well as, not instead of. Only for UK authors or else permanent British residents. The same jury of genuine authorities (writers, teachers, critics) every year. No submissions from publishers; just selections by the judges. No thought of striking a balance between ages, genders, genres, publishers. Above all, an uncompromising, single-minded commitment to excellence in the art of fiction. Howls of complaint against "elitism" would pierce the air. Publishers would hate it. And novelists would kill to win.

[The Independent, 5 August 2011 by Boyd Tonkin]

A Postcript

It has been pointed out to me that the Goncourt is not necessarily such a good model and that is had its fair share of weird choices and has attracted accusations of being controlled by a cabal of publishers etc etc.  All I can say is that its last three choices which I have read have been more satisfying to me than the Booker choices.