‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

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‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry

15sena3Eloquent and assured, after a slow start Such a Long Journey develops into a riveting narrative set in 1971 Bombay on the eve of the Indian-Pakistan war and the birth of an independent Bangladesh.

A gifted storyteller, Mistry focuses on ordinary people, introducing a gamut of characters centred round the Noble family and residents of the down-at-heel Khododad Building.

Patriarch Gustad, as his surname suggests, is a respected, upright, devoted father of three working at a local bank as a clerk. From a family of bankrupted wealth, educated Gustad is the man of reason amidst his neighbours and work colleagues. But he unwittingly becomes involved in fraud and dangerous political machinations when he receives a letter from an old friend.

Layers of story and symbolism, philosophy and political gossip, theology and superstition are woven together as Gustad works to keep his family out of the poverty trap and understand the potential repercussions of helping Major Jimmy ‘Billiboy’ Billimoria. But he is also dealing with the everyday politics of living in the compound, the unexplained illness of his 8 year-old daughter, Roshan, and the refusal by his eldest, Sohrab, to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. As the rift between father and son widens, so Gustad’s wife Dilvanez turns to the help of old Miss Kutpitia and her remedies of lizards’ tails, toe nails and chillis.

Rich in detail, Such a Long Journey dwells momentarily on the poverty of Bombay neighbourhoods – the overcrowding, open sewers, fetid garbage, a chronic shortage of freshwater – before moving on to the corruption of the Indira Gandhi government or the cost of visiting a local GP. And always seen from the perspective of ‘everyman’ – primarily Gustad or his friend and bank colleague, Dinshawji: Such a Long Journey is a commentary, not an overtly political preach or exposition.

It’s a beautifully written amble of a journey, compelling in its telling, intricate in its composition. Like Gustad’s overnight train journey from Bombay to New Delhi, Such a Long Journey is crowded, full of energy with unexpected twists and turns which, quite simply, need to be dealt with.

There is an air of overhanging melancholia, a sense of powerlessness for the ordinary person in the street – whether it be a damning indictment of the Indira government and American foreign policy or the demolition of the wall protecting the Khododad compound by the local Municipality. But there’s also a sense of hope – the independence of Bangladesh, Miss Kutpitia finally free of her past.

Yet, ultimately, Such a Long Journey is Gustad’s journey. He loses Billimoria and Dinshawji, but he learns a great deal about himself and his family becomes stronger. And as a result, he becomes stronger.

His debut novel, Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize but Such a Long Journey lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘The Redundancy of Courage’ by Timothy Mo

9112Colonised by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Timor Leste (East Timor) declared independence in November 1975 under the leadership of the left-wing FRETILIN party. Just nine days later it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. Sharing a border on the island of Timor, the Indonesians feared the rise of a communist state within the south eastern Asian archipelago. Whilst condemned by the UN, the invasion was supported by the west.

Narrated by Adolphe Ng, a fictional The Redundancy of Courage is firmly based on events following the invasion and occupation. But this is no overtly political discourse.

Chinese, gay and Canadian-educated, Ng is an outsider on the island. Even his future, the opening of a beachside hotel, is isolated at the edge of town. Yet the worldly and essentially apolitical hotelier is, to some extent, accepted by the young radicals and intelligentsia who meet in the cafes of the Praca in the capital.

But the invasion changes everything. Told in three parts, Ng’s narration is one of survival.

As an outsider, it’s his friendships with the ardent, political Rosa and the strident Maria, doctor to the poor, who draw him into the cause immediately post-independence. But he remains more of an observer – it’s not his cause. Even after the invasion, with his hotel commandeered by the malais (Mo never refers directly to Indonesia), Ng looks to survive. He becomes nothing more than a servant in his own business, always fearful for his life (the occupation of Timor Leste was marked by violence and brutality).

Ng’s sense of detachment and judgement at this juncture is verging on unpleasant. His disdain of the Timorese and life in Timor Leste is patronising, to say the least. Yet he becomes drawn more and more into the conflict, with that sense of detachment creating a seemingly more balanced perspective of events.

From the hotel to the jungle, from servile to freedom fighter and back to servile, Ng depicts the struggles of the Timorese against the occupiers. But the resistance is not presented simply as a heroic struggle – Timothy Mo is unflinching in presenting flawed heroes and resistance fighters, balancing bravery with foolhardiness, ruthlessness with sensitivity, joy with desperation, loyalty with betrayal.

Resistance for Ng ultimately accounts for nothing (hence the title) but The Redundancy of Courage is a powerful, at times harrowing, novel. The meat of the novel, the extended period when Ng finds himself as a member of the guerrilla army hiding in the interior of the island, is a gritty, detailed (if somewhat dense) page-turner.

It took Indonesia almost 25 years to relinquish control of Timor Leste. The Redundancy of Courage covers the first few years of this occupation. With the exception of the mention of the murder of five Australian journalists (the Balibo 5), the novel never directly names places, political parties or people (Timor Leste itself is Danu, FRETILIN becomes FAKOUM). As a result, whilst specific to Timor, The Redundancy of Courage is a universal story of unequal conflicts, of bullying military tactics. But it’s also a deeply personal story – of one man’s courage in the face of adversity, but whose courage shifts and turns in order to survive.

The Redundancy of Courage was Timothy Mo’s fourth novel and third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It lost out in 1991 to Nigerian author Ben Okri and The Famished Road.