05 June 2007

A new internationalism

In the last thirty years, the contemporary Indian novelist (writing in English) isn’t the only one who has prospered. There have been others, with similar émigré backgrounds, who have acquired fame outside their home countries through works of great literary importance in the late 20th century… with some of it spilling over to this very moment. In my previous post, I had named three such authors – J M Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Ondaatje – but my favourite would really be Brian Moore.

Brian Moore, Irish by birth, is not the typical émigré novelist. He is white and from the United Kingdom. The reason I remember him today (he passed away in 1999) is because, to me, Moore displayed many of the attributes of an émigré novelist, leaving his home in Ireland and migrating to Canada while in his twenties. He roughed it out as a journalist for several years before turning to writing novels. All through his life, he was haunted by guilt, loss of faith, alienation and isolation and, from what I’ve read about him, he was never at home anywhere. Moore could have been a character in his own novels.

However, Moore did set the trend for the émigré novelist which Salman Rushdie, much later, defined so eloquently as the writer looking back and seeing life through a broken mirror. Or, the characters with broken lives coming from divided worlds, and with divided loyalties, which Coetzee, Ishiguro and Ondaatje (among others) created and described in their novels a quarter of a century later. As far as the English-language novel goes, I tend to think Brian Moore’s immigrant writing paved the way, and set the mood, for a new kind of international novel.

Rushdie was one of the first authors to ride on this road, but it was Ishiguro who actually voiced this sentiment – this new phenomenon – in the international literary world clearly. In an interview by Linda Richards in January Magazine, Ishiguro had said that, in the early eighties, there was “a great hunger for this kind of new internationalism.” That, “publishers in London and literary critics and journalists in London suddenly wanted to discover a new generation of writers who would be quite different from your typical older generation of English writer.”

This new phenomenon clearly put aside (some of my favourite) English authors such as John Mortimer, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Angus Wilson, and introduced a new generation of authors who wrote about the world as they saw it – not as an Englishman, but through the multicultural eyes of an émigré. It introduced a cultural blend which only émigré writers writing in English could offer its readers, critics and publishers.

The focus automatically shifted to the post-colonial world – the Commonwealth for a start – for its bevy of writers. And the rest, I suppose, is literary history. This new generation of international writers went on to win the Booker, the Nobel and other literary prizes around the world… and adorn the bookshelves of millions of readers like you and me.

[Although Brian Moore had won several literary prizes in his life, he did not win the Booker. He was nominated for it thrice.]

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