Back in the Neolithic age, when I was an undergraduate student, there was a fashion at my university for professors to set provocative questions on the contemporary literature exam paper. One example went something like this: ‘The Booker prize rewards the right author but rarely the right book. Discuss.’
The truth is, literary prizes can be tricky things. At their best, they are great platforms, raising up brilliant books that many of us would never otherwise hear about. As I found several times during my quest to read a book from every country, they can be invaluable guides for readers with little experience of books from certain parts of the world, particularly when they are led and judged by experts on the writing of the region.
However, prizes can also be skewed by the interests and biases of their founders and sponsors. At their worst, they run the risk of rewarding literature that conforms to a certain kind of system or worldview rather than purely championing quality writing. Or, as the essay question suggests, they make awkward compromises driven by external factors, plumping for safe choices over daring, exciting work.
The International Booker Prize, however, seems to be doing a fairly good job of dodging these pitfalls. Since it merged with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, it has recognised a number of brilliant and surprising works that refuse to conform to the anglophone publishing industry’s prevailing trends.
This year’s shortlist is no exception. Not only does it feature Standing Heavy, a Book of the month of mine from a little while back, but it also contains the engrossing and mind-bending Boulder.
This is a novel that resists a summary. ‘Nothing is essential when you refuse to imprison life in a narrative,’ explains the protagonist in the opening pages, as she describes her nomadic existence, largely as a chef on board cargo ships. Gradually, however, the scattered elements in the pages are pulled into alignment by a relationship that at first grounds and then overwhelms the narrator, to the point where she risks losing herself.
Part of what is so arresting and subversive in the writing is its presentation of a female voice discussing female experience as though from the outside. ‘I talk about women without counting myself among them,’ says the narrator. ‘I’m not a woman. I am the cook on an old merchant ship.’
As a result, when her lover Samsa decides to have a child, the narrator finds herself observing gestation and early motherhood, while struggling to define and defend her own role in the family. At times, her tone is misogynistic. In fact, her femaleness gives her licence to express things that may sound unacceptable in a male voice. Mired in domesticity, she explains how responsibility ‘sutures itself to the brain and contaminates the blood with its narcotic fluids’, leading her to seek solace with drinking buddies and other women in the time-honoured tradition of many a jaded husband.
But there is also a wonderful freshness to her perspective. Her description of observing Samsa deliver their child is one of the most powerful reflections on the process of giving birth I’ve had the privilege to read:
‘It becomes clear to me how imperfect nature is. Imperfect and cruel, almost furious. It’s not wise and never has been. How many centuries have to pass before a woman can give birth without it looking like an experiment? The midwife keeps a cool head. She asks the baby to flow and Samsa to flow with it. All I can think about are cesareans. I am witnessing something reckless. Like stealing jewels from a museum or breaking prisoners out of a police van—there’s just so much that can go wrong. Every second contains a possible mistake. Danger sticks out its tongue and coats everything in a layer of gluey, lethal drool.’
The use of language is key to the book’s success (hearty credit to translator Julia Sanches here). Fragments at the opening. Contradictions. Disjointed phrases and objects. The narrator drifting from place to place, garnering fleeting impressions that are gradually harnessed into longer sentences as convention snares her in its net.
One of the most thrilling aspects is the writing’s capacity to simultaneously reveal and conceal the emotional or psychological reality of the situations it describes. On several occasions, a word that the narrator seems to have intended in a figurative sense later proves to have literal truth. As she becomes unstuck from herself, so her words turn against her, at once masking and advertising the extent of her predicament.
For my money, this thrilling subversion of language and convention is what makes Boulder’s place on the International Booker Prize shortlist so well deserved. But perhaps that’s because subversiveness appeals to me. It could be that disruption is simply another kind of system and it’s in my nature to reward and promote stories that conform to it.
Either way, the fact remains that this is a wonderful, thrilling read. Slender but far from lightweight, this novel rides roughshod over heteronormative storytelling etiquette. It’s great to know that its shortlisting will mean it finds its way into many more readers’ hands.
Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2022)
Picture: ‘Merchant ships’ by Andres Alvarado on flickr.com