by SRB

Despatch from the Edinburgh International Book Festival I

August 16, 2010 | by SRB

by Alan Taylor
Christos Tsiolkas Saturday 10.15

Philip Pullman Saturday 11.30

James Robertson Saturday 17.00

Andrew O’Hagan Sunday 11.30

Fatima Bhutto Sunday 15.00

IT started with a slap. Or, rather, The Slap, the fourth novel by  Christos Tsiolkas, a 44-year-old gay Australian of Greek descent. Tsiolkas,  whose novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been the butt of  rather crass criticism from feminist pundits who have accused him of misogyny.  But, as he was at pains to point out, it is not he who is misogynist but one of  his characters, a Melbournian “poofter basher” whom he based on a friend. It is  not so subtle a distinction. 
The Slap opens with a child being slapped by an adult who is not one of his parents and descends thereafter into an angry denunciation of contemporary mores  and attitudes. From Tsiolkas’s perspective, Australia is going to hell in a  handcart for which he blamed his own selfish, racist, sexist generation. And  plasma screen TVs. Whether his novel  can turn things round remains to be  seen. One member of the audience, though, was unimpressed, alarmed as she was  remember we are in Edinburgh  at the amount of sex it contains.

Philip Pullman, who is best known for the trilogy His Dark Materials,  touted his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is  part of Canongate’s imaginative Myths series and which has upset some  Christians. As well it might. Accompanied by Richard Harries, a former Bishop of  Oxford, and introduced by the ever urbane Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of  Edinburgh, Pullman said that while he did not believe Jesus was the son of God  he did accept he had existed. As a man he admired him, as he might, say, Nelson  Mandela or Prince Philip. Harries gently took issue with him, as he might a  well-meaning sinner. What kind of book had Pullman written, he wanted to know. History? Historical fiction? Myth? Pullman was disinclined to clarify matters, frustratingly insisting it was up to his readers to decide for themselves. 

A similar response was elicited from James Robertson when quizzed by James  Naughtie. Robertson’s new novel, And the Land Lay Still takes as its subject Scotland, dwelling specifically on the past half century. He read two passages and two songs were sung by the folksinger Jimmy Hutcheson. “The book,” said  Robertson, “is about change. Things are not yet resolved.” Naughtie said he never thought he’d read a novel which both mentioned The McFlannels and gave the result of the Pollock by-election of 1997. Near the novel’s beginning a  mysterious stranger hands a pebble to one of its main characters. What was the  significance of the pebble, Naughtie wanted to know. Was it symbolic? If so, of  what? Robertson demurred. He, too, said he’d prefer to leave it to his readers  to figure that out.

While the Fringe may not lack for comedy, hilarity is not the prevailing  mood at the Book Festival. With an awesomely well-read and catty dog as its  narrator, Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and a Dog  Called Maf, offered  an hour’s respite from more urgent matters. Joined by  three actors, including Ian McDiarmid of Star Wars fame, O’Hagan played the part  of the pooch from Aviemore who is gifted by Sinatra to Monroe and drops names as bombs once did on Dresden. It was like eavesdropping on a live version of a  1950s’ gossip column. O’Hagan pointed out that there was a venerable tradition  of dogs in Scottish literature, by which he meant Burns and Henryson rather than Greyfriars Bobby.    

“I show up and depress everyone,” said Fatima Bhutto, a member of the  Bhutto family if not the dynasty. Bhutto, whose father was murdered by Pakistani police, and whose aunt Benazir   who she claims was complicit in her  father’s murdered  was likewise assassinated, talked about Pakistan and its  manifold problems, most of which can be traced to corruption, violence and  nepotism. It made for grim listening with few shafts of optimism. 
Interestingly,  out of an audience of around six hundred no more than a handful were Pakistani. One wonders why.

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