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Following in the footsteps of The Master
By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-17 10:40

Following in the footsteps of The Master

Now that the verdict is out on the winner of the third edition of the Man Asian Literary Prize, Colm Toibin can drop his guard. Last week he was understandably reticent.

The Irish author was "careful" not to compromise his role as one of the heavyweight judges of this contest that locates and salutes writing unpublished in English from Asia.

"There was something raw about most of these unpublished voices," he said, of the 27 long-listed titles he read for the judging. Also, there was "quite a bit of explaining" when it came to describing culture-specific elements.

"The idea of a tight form, along the lines of Jane Austen, did not exist in these books," Toibin said. "The intention was to get the voice right."

This was something he could relate to, given the minimalist and unobtrusive nature of his own writing.

Toibin has been twice short-listed for the Booker and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award - "the world's richest prize for a single volume of work" - for his portrayal of the American literary giant Henry James in The Master.

The latest of his six novels, Brooklyn, published this year, employs a similar craft - one that's so subtle and disarmingly spare that it is difficult to pin down.

The story of Eilis Lacey, the bright but utterly unselfconscious small-town girl from Enniscorthy, County Wexford in Ireland, who lands up in New York, quite by chance, is suddenly made to confront sides to her she never knew existed, is told with Toibin's characteristic detachment.

And yet he manages to invest the world of his plain Jane from the 1950s - the shop floor where she works, the business school where she studies, the Church where she helps serve a meal to people on a Christmas morning and returns to after she has pre-marital sex for a confession - with extraordinary dignity.

The fresh crop of Asian literature he read as a jury member on the Man Asian Literary Prize board, he said, were more "dramatic". The classic conflict between parent and child were often given a heightened, spectacular edge, referring to images of rebellious children hooked to their iPods, shutting parents out of their lives.

Su Tong's The Boat to Redemption, the only Chinese entry in the Man Asian shortlist, was also about unresolved, often unstated, conflicts between generations and coming to terms with the legacies of one's ancestors, but Toibin, rather dexterously, deflected queries on China's literary star.

He was slightly exasperated when I pointed out young people hooked to their iPods was the story of only a minuscule section of the Asian population.

"Literature reflects the dreams of a civilization but probably not its reality," he insisted. "Literature is a heightening of life, a play with life life goes on, independent of literature."

His favorite Chinese writer is the relatively obscure two-book-old Li Yiyun. Li, Toibin said, has extraordinary sympathy for her characters, "which is not necessarily a Chinese thing", referring to her novel, The Vagrants, set in a late 1970s China, struggling to cast off the shackles of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). "She has a darkness of touch and a new confidence even as she is criticizing the culture."

Which is a trait Toibin can relate to. Be it his seminal work on the inner world of a creative genius torn between a need for space and a consuming desire to belong in The Master; or the story of three generations of women coming together to cope with the impending death of a man in the family, dying of AIDS, in the novel, Blackwater Lightship; Toibin has never stopped short of stating the inevitability of loss or "interrogating" institutions such as home, family and society.

After The Master was translated into Chinese last year, more Chinese-speaking people are reading him. A Fudan University students' blog recently described him as a "realist".

"Which is great, I suppose," said Toibin, who unlike his subject, the brilliant Henry James, has never stopped short of addressing the sordid, the vulgar, the bizarre, the prosaic and the mundane, for what they are.