Our judges agreed that Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s genre-defying comic masterpiece was a worthy winner, but what impressed them about it the most – and why do they think readers will love it? We asked Frank Wynne, Viv Groskop and Jeremy Tiang to tell us more
You had well over a hundred books to choose from. Why did Tomb of Sand win – and what’s unique about it?
Frank Wynne: While any of the shortlisted books would have been a worthy winner, we were won over by the joyous polyphony of Tomb of Sand, which explores crucial issues of grief, identity and belonging with wit and humour, while being powerfully human. I have read nothing like it, this year or any year. It is profoundly intimate, yet has an epic sweep; it is tender, funny and yet profound. It is a major addition not simply to the literature of India and of partition, but speaks to readers around the world about loss and love, exile and homecoming, the borders that constrain us – personal, political and geographic – and how they can be overcome.
Viv Groskop: The International Booker Prize is a special prize because it represents the best of fiction translated into English. But although the entries need to be published during a one-year period in order to be eligible for consideration, unlike almost any other prize these are books that could have been written at any time previously – they’re not necessarily contemporary, they could have taken years to get an English language deal or to have been translated. So it’s not a prize that reflects recent trends in literature or publishing, it reflects excellence and longevity. Many of these are already books that have stood the test of time. Of all the books [the judges read], Tomb of Sand was really the title that stood out as the most striking and memorable – and as a shining example of the perfect match between author and translator. It’s a classic example of family storytelling and it’s a brilliant exploration of identity. But at the same time it’s genre-defying and has a very unique energy.
Jeremy Tiang: Of all the books we read and re-read, this was the one that most lingered in the mind, and offered up something new each time I went back to it. No book translated from any South Asian language has ever been longlisted for the [International] Booker, making Tomb of Sand’s accomplishment all the more unique.
The English version of the book is almost 800 pages long. Is it as forbidding as it looks?
Frank Wynne: It’s not remotely forbidding – it rattles along and is filled with incident, with luminous imagery and fully realised characters, with digressions about life, language, literature and the stories that we tell ourselves and others. Many of the chapters are brief – sometimes a paragraph, or a single sentence, even a two-word telegram.
Viv Groskop: No. It’s a very visual, colourful story told with a lot of humour. And, to be blunt, the type-setting of the English language version is generous: there’s a lot of blank space to give the text room to breathe. Tomb of Sand has the emotional and historical weight of War and Peace but it won’t strain your eyesight in quite the same way.
Jeremy Tiang: Not at all. It’s a brisk read, and by the end I definitely felt it had earned its length.
In its linguistic contortions it evokes Don Quixote, in its discursive digressions it is reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, in its sense of the magical there are echoes of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Although it begins with an elderly woman retreating from the world following the death of her husband, and confronts the effects of the 1947 partition of India, reviewers say it’s a funny book. What kind of funny?
Frank Wynne: Tomb of Sand is incredibly funny, it bristles with word play and puns, with comic vignettes and flashes of absurdity – it is a testament to Shree’s writing and Daisy Rockwell’s translation that every page is filled with lines you want to read aloud to anyone and everyone.
Viv Groskop: I have a pretty black sense of humour so I thought it was funny from the beginning: just the boldness of kicking off with this incredibly depressing-seeming premise of this old lady who has given up and has literally turned her back on life to stare at the wall. Who hasn’t wanted to do that every now and again? I sensed from the outset that Ma wouldn’t give up quite so easily – and that’s the joy of this novel. You feel her grief. But you know she’ll find a way out of it. She really (and I mean, really) takes her time about it – which, again, I thought was audacious and kind of hilarious.
Jeremy Tiang: Every kind you might imagine! From a profusion of puns to zany situations, this book is a comic marvel.
Can you tell us about aspects of the story or characters that readers might connect with?
Frank Wynne: Every reader – regardless of gender, nationality, identity or age – has experienced love and grief, have tested the boundaries imposed on us by the world and by ourselves. Some have been fortunate to make an improbably joyous friendship like that between Ma and Rosie Bua, to have reinvented ourselves, reimagined ourselves and our place in the world and made peace with our past. First and foremost, this is a novel about family, the relationships between a mother and a daughter, a brother, a father and those in the extended family with whom we surround ourselves.
Viv Groskop: This is a great way into understanding the psychological complexities of partition if you know very little about that historical period (which, to my shame, was true for me).
Jeremy Tiang: The epic journey that Ma undertakes at the age of 80 shows that it’s never too late to transform your life.
This is a great way into understanding the psychological complexities of partition if you know very little about that historical period
Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in the real world?
Frank Wynne: Tomb of Sand is deeply relevant to the world – not simply to post-partition India.
Viv Groskop: When I interviewed Geetanjali Shree at the Hay Festival she underlined how important it was for her to fill this novel with hope and joy. We are living through an incredibly bleak era where many writers and artists are talking about progress not being linear and are warning that we need to ready ourselves to defend democracy and free speech, battles many thought were already won in a lot of parts of the world. In this climate, Tomb of Sand is a celebration of humanity, family and the natural world.
Jeremy Tiang: It’s a book about borders. Need I say more?
Where does it sit within the canon of Indian literature – or world literature as a whole? And is it like anything else I might have read?
Frank Wynne: For too long, the literature of India published in the UK has been dominated by literature written in English. Tomb of Sand is a powerful reminder of the wealth of literature written in the many, many languages of the sub-continent. In Indian literature. On the one hand, Tomb of Sand is sui generis – it could only have been written by Geetanjali Shree, and could not have had a more brilliant translator than Daisy Rockwell. Yet in it’s impish approach to narrative and language, if calls to mind other great books, in its linguistic contortions it evokes Don Quixote, in its discursive digressions it is reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, in its sense of the magical there are echoes of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez – yet the voices, the story, the novel are unique.
Viv Groskop: It’s a cliché to say that it’s in a class of its own but sometimes clichés speak a truth. Of course, it feels like an “Indian novel” because of its scope and its setting. But it has many unintentional echoes and references: the playfulness reminds you of Bulgakov, the social realism elements can feel like Isabel Allende, the fusion of family and political is reminiscent of Arundhati Roy.
Jeremy Tiang: Geetanjali Shree is in a canon all of her own. I think it’s safe to say this is like nothing else you have ever read.
At one point, a chorus of crows begin commenting on the human characters. They have a lot of opinions
What were you looking for in a translated work, and how did you decide whether you’d found it with this particular book? Was there something uniquely impressive about this work as an act of translation?
Frank Wynne: What I look for in translated fiction is precisely what I look for in any fiction – something that stimulates or moves me, unsettles or delights me: it can be the voice of the narrator, the twists of plot, the depth of feeling. In Tomb of Sand, I loved all three. World play, punning, neologisms and humour are inherently difficult to translate since languages do not map onto one another; this is all the more true when the cultural context is very different. Translating Tomb of Sand must have presented a huge challenge, since the novel is as much about words, about language and about the nature of storytelling as it is about characters and plot. Daisy Rockwell’s all-singing all-dancing translation not only rises to that challenge but revels in it, and makes the ineffable feel effortless.
Viv Groskop: The best translated works exude a sense of being a labour of love – whilst somehow simultaneously “disappearing” the translator. And Daisy Rockwell achieved this elegant vanishing trick to perfection.
What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but love? Is it one of the characters, the humour and word-play, or is the way the novel as a whole is constructed? And is there one particular moment that sticks in the mind?
Frank Wynne: I particularly loved the voices, the word-play and the world-play, but the sheer pleasure of the text, line by line, is what brings the human story alive. The mischievous exuberance of the language is not an end in itself, it is the foundation on which Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell build a shimmering, evanescent yet profoundly compassionate world.
Viv Groskop: There are surprises throughout this novel: characters who defy expectations, the innermost thoughts of doors and of crows, a slow burn of a narrative with sudden brutal endings. It helps to be slightly prepared for the unusual pace of the novel. On page one we learn that Ma is grieving the death of her husband and has decided to die herself. It is not until page 144 that she really wakes up from her state of samadhi (a state of meditative ego-less absorption) and gets on with things. So this is a reading experience that rewards patience.
Jeremy Tiang: At one point, a chorus of crows begin commenting on the human characters. They have a lot of opinions. But it’s the warmth and big-heartedness of this novel that will touch readers and expand their world.