BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Herta who?

Razia Iqbal | 15:07 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

herta.jpgIf you have not heard of Herta Mueller, the winner of this year's Nobel prize for literature, then you might feel that the Committee have done it again - pulling an obscure writer out of their large, literary hats. But Pete Ayrton, her UK publisher at Serpent's Tail, argues that that is precisely their role: To bring to our attention the work of neglected writers who are underappreciated in the Anglo Saxon world.

It is certainly true that there is always less interest in the Nobel Prize for Literature in this country unless a British or American writer wins the prize. So, here is the case for "obscurity" being a good thing. When the announcement was made live on air, I was unable to comment because, apart from her novel, The Land of Green Plums, which won the IMPAC prize in 1998, I couldn't say very much about her. In fact, I couldn't even remember the name of that novel!

I have since read extracts of said book and I will now buy it and read it properly. Mueller writes about a group of young students whose experiences under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu are graphically observed.

Interestingly, the book was not written in Romanian, but in German. Mueller comes from a family who were a part of the German-speaking minority in Romania, and her sensibility is informed by that perspective. She now lives in Berlin, where her novels are published to great critical acclaim. A bit like Franz Kafka writing in German in Prague, Mueller saw in her mother tongue a direct and poignant expression of alienation. It could be argued that the work loses some of its significance when read in translation.

All of this, though, forces the reader to confront the complex tapestry of Eastern European history in the late 20th Century. And although the author left Romania in the 1980s, she remains interested in the issues of oppression and exile, which makes her a universal writer.

In fact, she sees it as her duty to write about those things, and she wrote the Land of Green Plums in memory of Romanian friends who were killed under Ceausescu.

James Joyce never won the Nobel Prize, nor did Vladimir Nabokov, but they were giants in their lifetimes. I am glad Herta Mueller has won, because from today, she will be known to a much wider readership than she ever thought possible.

All aboard the Booker express

Razia Iqbal | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009


So it's September, which means this year's Booker train is chugging along towards its destination, where it arrives in early October with the declaration that one author is the "best".

Today's stop was the announcement of the six shortlisted books. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has immediately been cast as the odds-on favourite by two major bookies, both of whom were represented at the press conference. This in itself is interesting and part of the whole marketing machine behind the Man Booker prize. More of that in a moment...

First though, the shortlist (there's a rough guide to the six nominees on this page). Chairman of the judges, James Naughtie, declared it the strongest line-up for the last couple of decades - a bold claim indeed.

Are these things only subjective? Would a different panel have come up with a completely different shortlist?

One of the judges, Lucasta Miller, told me that something happens when you read 132 books one after the other. You learn how to tell what works and what doesn't, the levels of virtuosity at work, and so forth. I'm sure there is truth in that, but I read a lot of fiction, too, and I would have included both William Trevor's Love and Summer, as well as Colm Toibin's Brooklyn, over Sarah Waters' book. Hers is a page turner, but I found little in it that was profound.

That's just my view, but it is equally legitimate to the one the judges took. Except their opinions will change the fortunes of the writers. The bookies, too, play their part. As does the media.

Is there any value in book prizes, then, beyond the razzle dazzle of long lists, shortlists, shop displays, special offers, radio interviews and the eventual prize-giving? How many of previous winners will last the test of time?

So many books are published each year that it could be argued that such prizes act as a guide for readers bewildered by the choices out there. But, as someone who loved the Trevor and the Toibin, I would want everyone who cares about stories which leave you ever-so-slightly altered to read them.

The prize industry is an elaborate game, and as with any game, it can be a lot of fun.

Summer break

Razia Iqbal | 18:29 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

I am off on an extended break; back beginning of September. Enjoy whatever summer sojourn you have!

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