Gerbrand Bakker reading chapter one of his novel The Detour is unceremoniously interrupted by the 9:00 tatoo fireworks. He raises his voice and continues. When he completes his reading, he sits down and says And am I glad I only write short chapters.
Linden MacIntyre who had previously read from his novel Why Men Lie quips And I want to know why there were no fireworks for me!
Gerbrand Bakker (Winner of the IMPAC with his novel The Twin): Are you aware how much money is involved in winning the IMPAC?
Linden MacIntyre (Winner of the Giller Prize with his novel The Bishop’s Man): Oh yes. Very well aware!
I love it when authors respond to each other in the way these two did, aided (and sometimes abetted) by vivacious chairperson, Juliet Swann. The event begins to sparkle and everybody benefits. Gerbrand Bakker, who was initially quite reticent, claiming he find it difficult to talk about his novels, is brought out of his shell and the discussion that followed revealed many points of similarity between the two novels. For instance:
– MacIntyre’s novel is about why men lie, Bakker’s novel is about why people lie.
– Both novels are written from a women’s viewpoint (although both were initially conceived with male narrators).
– Both explore the difference between autonomous solitude and isolation and the need for human beings to connect with each other.
– Place is of paramount importance in both. MacIntyre claims that geography becomes a character in its own right in his stories. A trustworthy one because geography doesn’t change in our lifetime. Bakker cannot begin to write a novel without knowing the setting and, outdoor type that he is, (he came to the festival having just walked half the West Highland Way), he knows North Wales very well.
The big question: Are the novels any good?
Why Men Lie: I came to the festival knowing nothing about this novel. So all details are literally straight from the author’s mouth. The novel is the third in a trilogy, the second of which was Giller prize winning The Bishop’s Man. According to the chair, however, Why Men Lie, works as a standalone and she recommends diving right in. The premise of that novel is that all men lie either to get something they want or to avoid something they don’t. The lying starts with their mothers. In this novel, the female narrator who after a period of autonomous isolation believes she has found the perfect man, and for a while it appears that he is … until a moment of crisis. MacIntyre’s reading showed us the moment of crisis (though with a voice like his I could have happily listened to the whole novel) and he said things go downhill from there. Intriguing – the novel has gone straight to my wishlist.
The Detour: I picked it up and though the action was hardly earth-shattering discovered I couldn’t put it down. The psychological profiles of the characters here are fascinating, though their behaviour is not always explained. It’s a novel that Bakker wrote with the sole intention of understanding the poem by Emily Dickinson – A Country Burial. Bakker has mixed feelings about Emily Dickinson believing that a lot of her poems were less than great. He’s not very enamoured with her as a person either and those feelings show in the novel. His protagonist, Emilie (or is she), has fled to North Wales to come to terms with an event that only she knows about. She has abandoned her thesis on Emily Dickinson, for the qualitative conclusions shared by Bakker, and yet she is intent on translating, breathing life into and acting out, the words of A Country Burial. Let’s just say in the course of this and in the course of a novel where noone is telling the truth, she manages to lose all my sympathies. Yet still I read on … The translation of a novel which Bakker himself considered untranslatable, because it ends with a Dutch version of Dickinson’s poem, is seamless. David Colmer has pulled some nifty translating tricks out of his hat and Bakker admires him greatly for it. Moi aussi.