The statue of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) at the University of Cape Town. Students have been calling for the statue’s removal and it has now been boarded up
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The list of Man Booker International Prize finalists, as announced by Dame Marina Warner on Tuesday March 24 at the University of Cape Town, was met with shouts, hoots and uproarious cheering. The noise, however, was all coming from the student plaza next door, where South Africa and New Zealand were slugging out their Cricket World Cup semi-final on a big screen. When the Kiwis trium­phed in the dying overs, it stopped abruptly and we were all able to attend more closely to the business at hand.

The announcement surely deserved some kind of celebration, though. The list, which ranges from Argentina (César Aira) to Lebanon (Hoda Barakat), from Guadeloupe (Maryse Condé) to Hungary (László Krasznahorkai), sketches the most multilingual, multilateral literary geography in the decade-long history of the prize, awarded biennially to a living author for a significant body of fiction. To its credit, the Man Booker International also carries a subsidiary award for translation, one that is particularly necessary this year when only two of the 10 nominees (the Bengali Indian Amitav Ghosh and the American Fanny Howe) work in English.

The remaining four writers are from Africa: Ibrahim al-Koni, Mia Couto, Marlene van Niekerk and Alain Mabanckou. But working in different languages in the north, east, south and west of the continent (Libyan Arabic, Mozambiquan Portuguese, South African Afrikaans, Congolese French), they suggest how literature often troubles the geographical shorthands by which we seek to understand it. The encounter between boosterish public relations and sceptical cultural criticism always sets up this slightly unusual vibration, and questions from the audience duly turned on whether “the global novel” or “world literature” are helpful or desirable categories.

The latter seems too bland, too slippery and unsatisfying a category: too likely to lend itself to the kind of canon formation that flattens out cultural specificity. Writers such as Tim Parks and Pankaj Mishra have questioned the creeping dullness of a certain strain of World Lit — the built-in translatability and “tandoori chickenisation” of a globalised novel in which, according to its critics, increased geographical spread is accompanied by thinner readerly engagement, or less tangled socio-historic entanglement.

The Man Booker International exists in relation to its older sibling the Man Booker, a prize that was for a long time associated with postcolonial subjects, styles and situations. From Rushdie to Roy, Okri to Ondaatje, Gordimer to Coetzee, the winning books have often been “after-texts of empire”, as one speaker put it: dialogues conducted with literary London from the peripheries of a world-system of publishing and cultural validation. In this sense, the original Booker was once a space, not unlike the cricket pitch, where writers could outplay the mother country at its own game.

But today, cricket is perhaps not as enticing a metaphor as it was when CLR James wrote Beyond a Boundary, or even when Joseph O’Neill wrote Netherland. We need, judge Wen-chin Ouyang suggested, a different idea altogether: rather than the empire writing back to the imperial centre, a rewriting of the rules to imagine a world of multiple centres. And something similar was being demanded outside the windows of the seminar room, which were now beginning to shake a little, like the walls of Jericho. For if there were cricket fans on one side, on the other were the protesters of Rhodes Must Fall.

Like just about everything else on campus for the last two weeks, the Man Booker events had the distinct feel of being a sideshow. A student movement calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes — a seated bronze figure looking across the Cape Flats, dreaming his imperial dreams right at the heart of the campus — has made international headlines, expanding into a wave of marches, rallies, teach-ins, performance art and occupations of administrative buildings.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement demands that the liberal South African university addresses and dismantles its heart of whiteness: those symbolic codes and curricula that have for generations worked to normalise racial and class privilege. The result is a radical energy crackling through campus spaces usually occupied by trucked-in corporate promotions. Almost overnight, that current of protest — lucid and questioning — began to flow, like a switch being flipped, even as the actual power has repeatedly gone down. What the government euphemistically terms “load shedding” (rolling electricity blackouts to ease a stressed national grid) makes using elevators on campus perilous, but also causes people to leave their laptops and gather outside, chatting offline.

How does all this relate to the shortlist for an international literary prize that was being announced in the midst of it all? Let me try to explain via a little-known fact about the now boarded-up statue before it gets carted off (two decades too late). The inscription is by Rudyard Kipling — an after-text of empire embedded right within the architectural fulcrum of the university. But: there is a line missing. The stanza on the plinth was hard to read (since it has been defaced and power-hosed so many times) but it goes as follows:

I dream my dream, by rock and heath and pine

Of Empire to the northward. Ay, one land

From Lion’s Head to Line!

This makes it sound as if the words are being spoken by Rhodes, the literary patron who installed not only a writer such as Kipling on these mountain slopes, but also English songbirds, Roman lion cages, Egyptian sculpture, Mediterranean stone pines, oak avenues, deer parks and llama paddocks. A high imperial pick-and-mix, in other words, which has made the land on which the university is built into a strange, carefully constructed cultural artefact.

But in fact the lines come from an 1893 poem by Kipling called “The Song of the Cities”, a tub-thumping, whistle-stop tour of the British Empire. “Capetown” gets a single stanza, along with Bombay, Calcutta, Auckland, Brisbane, Hong Kong, Singapore and all the other colonial beachheads. The omitted (first) line is “Hail! Snatched and bartered oft from hand to hand”. So it is addressed to the port city itself, and points to a history of mercantile squabbling over the Cape of Good Hope between Portuguese, Dutch, British and French maritime powers.

I think often about this unremarked absence at the heart of the institution: how an act of memorialising is also always an act of effacing; how gritty commercial interests are airbrushed out of this colonial dreamscape. But more to the literary point: “The Song of the Cities” shows the moment at which the young Kipling, one of the first truly world-famous writers, goes for the global — and fails. To read this high imperial doggerel is to see how his strenuous attempt at being worldly makes him parochial in the extreme, trapping him in a mould that he would never really escape. In allying himself with Rhodes’s global dreaming, in trying to transplant an aesthetic evolved in northern India to an entirely different part of the world, Kipling damaged himself terribly as a writer.

To relocate this to the contemporary moment: the novelist and Man Booker judge Nadeem Aslam remarked that the panel had read many books that were full of the outward markers of globalisation — airports, hotels, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, etc — and yet remained limited in their imaginative reach, or their powers of rendering other existences. Whereas a novel set entirely in an unremarkable town, he went on, might reveal a truly worldly imagination at work, even though it stayed put.

It is this kind of geographical stubbornness and cultural embeddedness that distinguishes the 2015 list. It reads almost as a riposte to the critiques of what Parks called the “dull new global novel”, stripped of “culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity”. These are not writers who are looking over their shoulders. Rather than strenuous mobility, we have instead a constellation of novels that show the world flowing through small places.

Even while vast in its historical reach, the work of Amitav Ghosh — perhaps the most obviously “global” writer and probably the front-runner — is focused through fine optics. Within a book such as In an Antique Land (1992), it is precisely the constriction of village life in Egypt — and the small sliver of archival documents that the narrator is confined to — that allows him to adumbrate such a long and expansive history of trade and exchange across the Indian Ocean world. In a very different kind of prose, Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (1985) refracts the fall of Communism through the micro-politics of a Hungarian village. Mia Couto, a biologist by training, seems to gesture towards something similar when making links between writing and the organisms he has studied in Mozambique: as if these oeuvres are placed within their habitats, biding their time like sea anemones, waiting for the world to come to them.

The same is true for the fierce and bristling work of Marlene van Niekerk, the writer I know best. Her virtuosic Triomf, the tale of an Afrikaans family who are racially “pure” to the point of inbreeding (and who barely leave the house), set about trashing glib rainbow-nation multiculturalism as early as 1994. The book is a filthy, almost feral ambuscade of language, a sinking down into the most brilliantly untranslatable Afrikaans profanity. It harnesses that downward plunge of language that can, as Walter Benjamin remarked, power a creative work in the way that Niagara Falls generates hydroelectricity.

All quite the opposite, then, of the “born-translated” novel that seeks to insinuate itself into a global marketplace of pre-agreed units. In fact, poet Leon de Kock found the challenge of rendering Triomf in English so intense that he eventually produced two versions: a South African edition in which much of the untranslatable could be left untranslated; but also an international variant in which bizarre new cognates for Afrikaans insults had to be dreamt up. Similarly, Alain Mabanckou (sometimes compared to Rabelais, sometimes to Beckett) speaks of his medium, French, as a “river to be diverted”.

This (to use an incorrigibly academic word) foregrounding of medium rather than message shows up too in the “graphomania” of César Aira, who publishes up to four short novels a year: an improvisational, performative oeuvre that, instead of revising its mistakes and missteps, prefers to write itself out of the difficulties it may have got itself into.

From the thick textures of Maryse Condé’s historical novels to the experimental prose poems of Fanny Howe, this is a refreshingly difficult, demanding array of language. It includes writers such as Hoda Barakat and Ibrahim al-Koni who are barely discussed in the English-speaking world. The strength of such a shortlist is its ability to afflict and provincialise the comfortably monolingual reader — something it shared with the student protests swirling around us.

All these strands came together with a resounding silence in the final public event. First a power cut, then a back-up generator kicking in, sending audible surges of electricity through the hall. The Rhodes Must Fall protesters entered halfway through, with banners in their hands and masking tape over their mouths, standing silently in front of the stage and looking back at the audience. Redwing starlings (a legacy of Rhodes’s ecological imperialism) twittered in through the windows above as the questions became ever more combative. Did the judges know that books are taxed as a luxury item in South Africa? Were they aware of the levels of illiteracy in the country? Were they lending legitimacy to that by being here?

The time of polite literary discussion, it seems, is over. And on the subject of difficulty and discomfort, I may as well voice my unease with any format (like this very essay) that must involve processes of summary and aggregation, classification and caricature — processes that are, finally, antithetical to the practice of reading creatively. The “world” of world literature does not, after all, exist. Or rather, we build our worlds in the most random fashion: through a kind of bricolage in which writers will almost always be encountered embarrassingly late. Two years of hard reading by the judges has produced an invitation, or rather a provocation, to extend this project of world-building — as partial, inadequate and unpunctual as it must always be. And also a reminder that, in the words of the musician Sun Ra: There are other worlds (they have not told you of).

Hedley Twidle lectures in English at the University of Cape Town and won the 2012 Bodley Head/ FT essay prize

Photograph: Michael Hammond/ UCT.ac.za

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