A non-catty review of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht (Orange Prize Winner 2011)

This novel was poetic and much better than the odd title suggested. However, the author was very young when she composed the narrative and it is possible that she will go on to produce even better work in the future. Although ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ possessed many good qualities, there were some aspects of it which seemed a little unsatisfactory.

On the positive side of things, the novel was highly imaginative. Ms Obreht generated an abundance of ideas. In addition, she wrote well about the former Yugoslavia. She clearly has an effective way of creating atmosphere and does not find it hard to capture the feel of diverse places.

Nonetheless, the magical realist approach adopted by the author seemed somewhat disappointing for two reasons. Firstly, it did not appear particularly original. Secondly, the elements of humour within the book were not particularly funny and did not work well with the grim realities of a protracted civil war. Ms Obreht has also written short fiction, and in my view one of these dark tales was more effective than this episodic novel. To be fair, this was a first novel and this fact should be underlined. The late Gabriel García Márquez did not compose ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ until after he had finished ‘In Evil Hour.’

A note on paternalism: ‘Are Museums Political?’ by Richard Hoggart.

This lecture was given in London in 1998. It was then put in a book called ‘Between Two Worlds.’ This collection of essays was published in 2001. While Richard Hoggart had a lot of expertise and experience in relation to the question, his attitude towards the subject made reading the lecture an uncomfortable and disappointing read.

It seems obvious that museums are political. They are part of the cultural economy. Moreover, their contents have sometimes been looted from diverse countries. Furthermore, what is included within their walls has an ideological impact on the visitors. However, Hoggart did not take this straightforward approach, perhaps because it would have raised really awkward questions about capitalism and imperialism.

Critical of other parts of the world, Hoggart believed in many of the values of the West in an uncritical manner. He claimed that we lived in “sophisticated democracies.” In addition, he argued that museums were places of “collective memory.” Nonetheless, he admitted that citizens were short of education. And he confessed that class played a role in this. Interestingly, his attitude towards value was not postmodern. He thought that museums could be a positive force in changing society. The fundamental problem with his lecture was that it did not question the type of formal democracy we have under capitalism. Hence it adopted a fairly paternalist perspective which did not engage creatively with how museums could inspire non-capitalist behaviour within capitalism. Nor did it advocate returning objects like the Elgin Marbles to where they had been found.

Flair and fair? ‘There but for the’ by Ali Smith

This novel was really unexpected. In terms of style, it was certainly original. Even the paragraphs were not printed normally, for example. They were not justified in line with the side of the pages of the book. Repetition was used to good effect, while brackets and italics were also employed quite extensively. In short, it was a pleasure to read.

However, the content did not quite match the superlative style. The story of a man who chose not to leave a room in a house owned by somebody else was a little on the flimsy side. While there were some characters that were constructed effectively, others were less plausible. And it was hard to sustain great interest in what would happen to any of them.

Nevertheless, the novel has been compared by a critic to ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. ‘There but for the’ seems slightly less empty than the clever postmodernism of Egan. This is because Smith is a real wordsmith with a genuine appreciation for the weakest of puns. Hence I would recommend ‘There but for the’ on the basis of its style.   

Wanting more: ‘In Praise of Love’ by Alain Badiou.

This short book was the consequence of an extended conversation between the philosopher Alain Badiou and the writer Nicolas Truong. It was translated by Peter Bush in 2012. It was an odd book for Badiou in that it seemed simple. However, perhaps that simplicity was somewhat deceptive.

‘In Praise of Love’ was not just the record of a conversation. It had been polished after the event. Nonetheless, it confirmed that Badiou has a gift for making the complex seem simple. This was evident when Badiou discussed Lacan’s idea that there “is no such thing as a sexual relationship.” This provocative conclusion of Lacan had been reached in a particular context. Regardless of the veracity of Lacan’s thought in this area, Badiou explained it, and used it to elevate love above sex. Similarly, Badiou had the ability to explore and take on some Surrealist thinking about love. Specifically, he appreciated the contribution of Breton while making it apparent that love is hard work.

At times, Badiou seemed to manipulate ‘love’ to promote revolutionary politics. Some readers might object to the ‘politicisation’ of love. However, love is inherently political. In a capitalist society of dating sites, marriage, and Valentine’s Day cards, love is political whether we like it or not. Hence Badiou has not produced a self-help book. Instead, he has started a conversation to foster love. In a cynical age, love arguably required a champion. Badiou has never forgotten that he is a person as well as a philosopher. Therefore he was well-equipped to rise to the challenge. The only meaningful flaw in this exquisite work was that it was too brief.