Hilary Mantel’s Tudorian saga is of interest only to Brits. What about the rest of us?
Hilary Mantel won this year’s Booker Prize for Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to her Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Yawn! Honestly, what other reaction can I, as an Indian, have to such a decision? And I am someone who lived in Britain for the better part of five years.
What is Bring up the Bodies? It is a Tudorian saga about Thomas Cromwell that revisits the same bleak, blood-soaked terrain that Mantel traversed in Wolf Hall. Thomas who? I admit, at first, I mistook him for the Cromwell who overthrew the British monarchy during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. A Google search informed me otherwise. Thomas Cromwell was the powerful minister of King Henry VIII. Henry VIII? Was that the same Henry who had six wives and broke from the Catholic Church? A Google search told me that this time I was correct.
That was the end of my desire to read Bring up the Bodies or, for that matter, its predecessor Wolf Hall. The other Cromwell, whose Christian name I now know was Oliver, might have been of more interest, if for no other reason than the fact he had the temerity to execute a monarch, which makes him something of an oddity given how staunchly the Brits support their monarchy nowadays. But Thomas Cromwell? Give me a break.
I am not being fair to Mantel or the Booker Prize, you might say. After all, as a book man, I should judge a book for its literary merit, irrespective of its subject matter. Poppycock.
Mirror of our times?
Isn’t subject matter a reason why books get published? Why they are celebrated? Why they become bestsellers? Books become hot property if they deal with a hot issue or catch a popular mood. Conversely, they are panned if they have tired plotlines or include subject matter that is so off the wall that most people can’t relate to it. And the simple truth is that I simply can’t relate to Tudorian England. And I don’t think I am the only English-speaking Indian in that respect.
In fact, I would like to ask the Booker committee in what way does a novel like Bring up the Bodies — or, for that matter, Wolf Hall — mirror the times in which we live. As far as I know, there is no altercation between the Protestants and the Catholics. If we have an ongoing conflict with religious overtones, it is between the West and fundamentalist Islam. If it were a novel set in the days of the Crusades, okay, I could see the connection. But Tudorian England?
Furthermore, it isn’t as if Mantel is making a great literary breakthrough. If she had invented something on the scale of magical realism or minimalism, I am sure I would have heard of it, even though I haven’t read Bring up the Bodies and couldn’t get past the first few pages of Wolf Hall. Somehow the idea of a novel that begins with a father practically bashing his son to death wasn’t appealing.
A very English affair
Handing the Booker to Bring up the Bodies is just another indication of what the Booker has become since 2009. A very English affair that appears hell-bent on rewarding the ageing brigade of English letters before they kick the bucket. In 2011, the award went to the sexagenarian Julian Barnes who had been shortlisted a few times but never won. In 2010, it went to 68-year-old Howard Jacobson and in 2009 and 2012 it was won by Mantel who is now 60. Consequently, the bellyaching that went on in Britain about the exoticisation of the Booker has been conspicuously absent.
This year, though, the Booker committee even took me by surprise with their love for Mantel. I thought, since she had won the Booker barely three years ago and was competing with a sequel that was already a bestseller, they would choose someone who hadn’t won it yet. When the longlist came out, I thought the veteran South African writer Andre Brink might finally be rewarded for his yeoman service to the world of letters. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
That said it is not hard to figure out how Mantel has managed to hit the right note with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. In Britain nostalgia is a pre-eminent industry, much more so nowadays where the country is passing through difficult economic times and languishes as a secondary player in world politics.
Mantel’s wares fit perfectly in that highly successful niche. The rest of us, however, have no reason to waste our hard-earned cash on them. Let’s leave the Brits to their Tudors. There is so much in the bookstore that is more enticing and topical.