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Sample Saturday: Literary Prize Contenders

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that were short or long-listed for some of the major literary prizes.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Accidental by Ali Smith

This 2005 novel by the Scottish author Ali Smith was Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. It follows a middle-class English family whose holiday in a small Norfolk village is disrupted when Amber turns up on their doorstep claiming her car has broken down.  Her arrival has a profound effect on all the family members.

It’s written largely in stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, with multiple narrators I think. The first is the family’s 12 year old daughter Astrid.

I’ve read a later novel by Ali Smith – How To Be Both – which I loved but I’m not sure about this one. Child narrators are such tricky things to get right – the few pages I’ve read of this novel make her seem quite precocious.

The Verdict: Undecided. I need your help to make a decision. Should I keep or let go?

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

If you like authors who can combine great storytelling with erudition, Umberto Eco is probably your man. He was a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics until he published one novel, The Name of The Rose, which propelled him into the world of best selling, intelligent fiction which a story of a series of murders in a late-medieval monastery. 

The Prague Cemetery is his sixth novel, published in 2010 and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. It tells the story of a notorious antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – document which purported to describe a meeting in Prague during which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination.

According to the back cover, The Daily Telegraph called this book “an extremely readable narrative of betrayal, terrorism, murder …” But I can’t find the full version of the review to see if that extract was a fair representation of what the reviewer thought of the book as a whole.

I did find The Guardian review which commented: “Once again, [Eco] includes a great deal of eclectic learning, organised (to a greater or lesser extent) around a potboiler plot.” That sounded pretty good but the reviewer then went on to call the book “a tiring plod.”

I don’t much care for books that are plodding so this is headed for the charity shop.

The Verdict: Ditch

Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam is a British Pakistani novelist who won the Betty Trask Award with his first novel Season of the Rainbirds. Maps for Lost Lovers is his second novel and was shortlisted for  the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Booker Prize.

It’s is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in a northern English town where a pair of lovers disappear and are believed murdered. According to the blurb the novel “opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and exoresses their pain in a language that is arrestingly poetic.”

I’m tempted by this one. It’s the portrayal of the immigrant communities that have grown up in many parts of England, that is drawing me to this book. This is a world captured so memorably by Monica Ali in Brick Lane but I’ve yet to find anything set in a different part of the country.

The Verdict: Keep

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

NumeroZeroConspiracy theorists will love it. Readers who enjoy pacy satire will love it.  Bibliophiles with a penchant for fiction-fact blended narratives will love it. Umberto Eco’s seventh novel Numero Uno is a pin-sharp playful satire on Italy’s culture of corruption in high places.

Set in Milan in 1992, Eco offers us Colonna, a fifty-something failed writer who takes a job at a new newspaper financed by “Commendatore”, a tycoon, property dealer and would-be media mogul with a plot up his sleeve. Right from his first day Colonna is let in on the secret – this is a newspaper that will never be published. The staff will simply produce:

…twelve zero issues — 0/1, 0/2 and so on — dummy issues printed in a tiny number of exclusive copies that the Commendatore will inspect, before arranging for them to be seen by certain people he knows.

It is quite simply an instrument to help Commendatore out manoeuvre those who stand between him and access to the corridors of power.   The editor in chief tells his new team their boss plans to get into the inner sanctum of finance and banking using the newspaper as a threat. Once they see his new newspaper is “ready to tell the truth about everything” they will be so afraid of what it might reveal, they’ll fling open all doors to him.  Actually truth isn’t going to playing much of a role in this newspaper. Instead of merely reporting the news the Domani newspaper (the title translates as ‘Tomorrow’) will create it, speculating what could happen, how people could react and what they might say and concocting stories and features to fit the speculation. This editorial team is to operate on the principle that

It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news And if you know how to put four different news items together then you can offer the reader a fifth.

As the journalists beaver away at fabricating their alternative versions of events, one of their number believes he has stumbled on a genuinely shocking story of a conspiracy involving the country’s foremost political leader. According to Braggadocio, Mussolini was not really executed in the spring of 1945.  Instead, the Allies, or Hitlerite Blackshirts possibly in league with the CIA, duped the Italian population by substituting a body double for the man hanged in a Milanese square in 1945. The real Mussolini was spirited away to Argentina (or maybe the inner corridors of the Vatican) there to become the master mind behind a bomb attack on Bologna railway station in 1980. Braggadocio sets off in pursuit  of proof for his conspiracy theory unaware that he is putting his own life, and those of his fellow reporters, in danger.

The sections dealing with Braggadocio are actually the least interesting elements of this short novel (its comes in at just under 10 pages). The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they get so wrapped up in their theory, seeing significance in every small fact so they become a bore. Braggadocio unveils his particular theory in long sections of dialogue which describe and analyse Italy’s complex political history. Unless you are particularly interested in Italian politics of the 1940s, you might find you end up skimming many of these episodes,

Where Eco shines is in his portrayal of the newspaper office and its editorial policy.  It is alternatively hilarious and chilling. The editorial team at Domani have little respect for their readers, viewing them as shallow, nitwits. Their readers don’t have books in their homes but can talk with ease about the latest hot title. Crossword puzzles perplex them if they go beyond clues like “The husband of Eve.” They understand so little of what’s going on that the journalists at Domani are told to ensure in their articles they have plenty of expressions like “have our cake and eat it, keep our finger on the pulse, be in the spotlight, make the best of a bad job.

Is Eco is making a serious point rather than simply setting out to entertain his readers? One of the key themes is the underlying sense of corruption and manipulation of power at the heart of Italian politics. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see some parallels between his fictional Commendatory and the real life former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (though of course for legal reasons the latter’s name is never used). Eco’s Commendatore is described as the controller of a vast media empire of TV channels and magazines (just like Berlusconi)  and a man about whom there is much speculation of shady deals (just as Berlusconi was for many years.).

In a country of individuals intent on building power through plots and manipulation of the truth, where can people find the truth? The answer for Eco is clearly not in the media because the Fifth Estate – traditionally the group most able to expose the abuse of power, can itself be corrupted. Instead of exposing wrong doing, they become forces for collusion.  According to the editor in chief of Domani:

… newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition, you add some shock headlines — mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc — so news drowns in a great sea of information.

It’s hard to read that without experiencing the icy sensation of getting rather too close to reality to be comfortable.

End Notes

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco, translated, from the Italian by Richard Dixon, was published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is Eco’s seventh novel. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Review

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is set in Barcelona in 1945. The city is recovering slowly from the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. In the dark, labyrinthine streets of the Gothic quarter, Daniel Sempere lives above the bookshop owned by his widowed father.

Daniel is 10; old enough his father decides to be introduced to the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, to select one book from its shelves and assume the mantle of responsibility for that book throughout the rest of his life.

But the book he chooses, ‘The Shadow of the Wind’  written by the relatively unknown Julián Carax, holds a secret. And in attempting to unravel it’s mystery, Daniel puts himself and his friends in danger. For someone is systematically tracking down and destroying every copy of every book written by Carax. And now they seem bent on destroying Daniel too.

On the basis of this plot alone, Zafon’s book would be a page turner. But it could so easily be simply one of those books that you race through, enjoying the twists and turns and wondering how the final denouement will be executed. Enjoyable but transient like so many other historical-murder-mystery stories. Except, like Eco’s The Name of the Rose this one is different.

It’s a novel of multiple layers and an intricately-woven plot. Within the Gothic-mystery outer layer lies a Bildungsroman, a political thriller, and a romance. Star-crossed lovers share the page with skeletons and bricked up walls and a truly menacing police officer in the shape of Fumero who is corruption and decadence personified.

What lifts Shadow of the Wind above the ordinary, is Zafon’s skill in creating atmosphere. Even in translation, the quality of his writing shines through. Walk with him down Barcelona’s winding, cobbled streets or through the leafy avenues of crumbling, ivy-clad mansions, and every building and corner seems to ooze with dark secrets of the past.  Go with Daniel and his friend  Fermín, a former Republican agent hideously tortured by Fumero, to a nearby cafe and you can almost taste the tortillas and strong coffee.

It’s a heady mixture.


In an interview some years ago Zafon talked about his feelings towards Barcelona and reflects on the success of his novel. Read the interview here:

Since reading Shadow of the Wind I have read the prequel – The Angel’s Game  – the review is posted here 

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