/ 23 May 2008

Booker’s best six

From the birth of modern India to the wild early days of settlement in Australia, the unmistakable golden thread linking them all is the long shadow of the British empire.

Some of the most revered novels of the past 40 years have been narrowed down to just six in a shortlist that will produce what the public judge to be the greatest Booker prize winner of all time.

Salman Rushdie is the favourite to win the Best of the Bookers with 1981’s Midnight’s Children. The lineup for the award — which aims to honour the best winning novel since the prize began in 1969 – sets him against JM Coetzee’s towering Disgrace (1999), as well as less well- known books such as JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist.

The other shortlisted books are Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995) and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988).

The shortlist was chosen by biographer Victoria Glendinning, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and John Mullan, professor of English at the University of London. The public will have the final say: voting for the best book has begun on the Man Booker prize website, in advance of a result to be announced on July 10.

Of the six shortlisted books, five deal more or less directly with postcolonial experience and three are historical novels. The authors span four continents: Barker and Farrell were born in England, Coetzee and Gordimer in South Africa, Carey in Australia and Rushdie in India — although Farrell spent much of his life in Ireland, Rushdie settled in Britain and Carey moved to the United States.

Mullan said the unflinching focus of the panel was to choose what they regarded as the best books: those likely to outlast the fashions that created them.

‘As judges we were consciously trying to blot out the hype and trying to erase expected judgements,” he said. The shortlist does not include recent popular hits such as Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2002).

While some observers had tipped celebrated books such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and AS Byatt’s Possession, neither made the cut. Mullan said: ‘Had we been looking for novels that had been the most influential, then Possession would have been on the list.”

Mullan noted that the list would have looked quite different had every shortlisted title been eligible. ‘All three of us felt that quite a lot of really good novelists have won, but not for their best book. Lucky the novelist who won for his or her best book, like Coetzee. If Ian McEwan’s Atonement had won the Booker it would have had a great chance, but he won with Amsterdam. And it’s a pity that Margaret Atwood won for The Blind Assassin.”

The judges had not consciously aimed to revive the perhaps ailing fortunes of books such as The Siege of Krishnapur and The Conservationist — although they did, Mullan said, go to some effort to track down some of the most obscure titles, such as PH Newby’s Something to Answer For (1969). ‘The organisers managed to track down a single, thumbed copy which we passed among us like a samizdat,” he said.

Of The Conservationist, which focuses on the character of Mehring, a middle-aged white South African businessman, he said: ‘I read the book when it came out and I have to admit that at the time it did not make much impression. I remember it as all about race, politics and apartheid. Reading it now, all that seems to have dropped away: it is a brilliant book about a man’s ambitions and desires, about a peculiar, solitary manliness. The whole exercise to me seems worthwhile to rediscover this.”

Of Coetzee’s Disgrace, he said: ‘It’s a searing book and though it is often called spare, it is delightfully intricate, containing a tissue of literary allusions that are brilliantly used.”

The judges, he said, proceeded more or less in harmony. ‘We really wrangled only about one book.”