Thursday, February 12, 2015



As slected by Russell Soaba, Soaba's Storyboard and The Anuki Country Press

The best novel in the English language is not judged by its popularity, by its sense of timelessness nor by word of praise from its immediate locale but by its ready appeal to the willing consciousness of the modern world at large. A renowned critic may by and by remind us that The Great Gatsby or Ullysses ought to be included on our list but that to some degree would be an outdated kind of notion, if not suggestion. Times have changed considerably and so has the intellect of those great thinkers of the world who, particulary at a time when the globe itself seems to be in a vulnerable position of losing its status as a comfortable place to live in, believe that what mankind writes must answer some of the most pressing questions about narrative, and story telling, by not only the present generation by those yet to come. The best novel is therefore considered to be such by this very lot of intellectuals and critics, many of whom are quite ordinary people like us who care more about the state of the planet we live on than the cleverness of one who picks up the pen to write.

Counting from the top, number one, to the bottom, number ten, here are our 10 best novels written in English.

1. Retaining its significance for over five decades as an anti-colonial narrative and despite its sense of provinciality, the very quality that substantiates its sense of greatness as a novel, Things Fall Apart is a must read for the serious scholar and student of literature in our times. Written at a time when one part of the world was beginning to doubt itself about its own power and influence across the globe. W.B. Yeats did not waste his time with those pre-conceived, pre-civil war meditations on the shape of things to come and Chinua Achebe well understood that.

2. Considered by a segment of Third World countries as the worst of narratives as far as aesthetics go, Heart of Darkness will retain its reputation as the most important moment of narrative in the annals of modern world fiction. Powerful in descriptions of landscape and imagery it is the sort of novel lavishly treasured by the serious student of civilizations, race, class and gender. Joseph Conrad's (or more precisely, the novella's) worst critic has been Achebe himself. But the rest of the Third World and the whole world at large thinks otherwise.

3. Seldom does an Aristotelian tragic hero get comfortably nestled into the religious consciousness of a larger culture (such as that in the Western world) but in The Power and the Glory the "whisky priest" does. At the end of the novel we cannot, looking up from a tea cup, resist asking why Graham Greene would consider an alcoholic as a protagonist. Aside from Conrad's and others', this novel will remain one of the finest pieces of writing in the English language.

4. The notion of a novelist from one culture getting into the conscioussness of another can prove troublesome as much as risky at times. Not many succeed in this area of literary enterprise - "the art of jumping into the skin of another" as the novelists Tevor Shearston and Russell Soaba put it. But Randolf Stow does in this fine novel, Visitants. Though written entirely in the English language it surprises the native English speaker by making itself be read in the Kiriwina language of the Trobriand Islands - the islands closely asssociated with Bronislaw Malinowski, the anthropologist.

5. What is greatness in story telling but that which opts for liberal simplicity in its approach to complex subject matter? Human sentiment can easily overcome what we naively term as common sense, especially when that "common sense" happens to be lateral through and through. Somewhere in a turn of phrase, in dialogue or in character, Alan Paton knew that one day an embodiment of his passion in writing a novel would come in the person of Nelson Mandela. The apartheid policy has been the most difficult of phenomena in human calculation and the whole world needed Cry, the Beloved Country to break the chain of bondage this very policy had created.

6. Things that come to the human senses as rustic in nature are often frowned upon by the demands of high powered metropolitan intellectualism. There is much manouever for room in this regard, much pushing and shoving, as it were, all in the name of the survival of the fittest. Yet the rural setting, the rustic sentiment, the provincial sense of pride remains safely intact in its quiet corner of timelessness. We all are peasants at heart whether we like it or not. John Steinbeck teaches us that in East of Eden.

7. All novels are monumental in their own right. But there are those that actually build monuments worth mulling over in our consciousness. All art pertaining to pastoral scenery, all imagery pertaining to memorable depiction and all narrative concerning what is most valuable to humankind are ever present in novels such as this that the serious scholar, the serious student of literature searches for. Metonymous use of language itself becomes the order of the day. Thus, Patrick White's monumental The Tree Of Man.

8. Not often does a critic, editor or essayist choose to write a novel. When that happens the result or product of the effort is met with mixed feeings and thought. That is because the challenges are too conspicuous to ignore, as conspicuous as an English speaking reader from one part of the globe exclaiming: "What the heck is Ulysses about? Translation, please!" It all boils down to asking, quite properly, what the subect matter of a novel is. When Drusilla Modjeska set out to write The Mountain she half suspected she would be treading on unfriendly territory. Her readership would be small, she realized, limited only to Papua New Guinea and Australia. But her belief in the novel as a plausible venue for a good argument got her home safely.

9. The English language is the most difficult of entities for anyone, particularly a non-native English speaker, to adapt to or even tame and domesticate. For over four decades Russell Soaba, to whom English is a sixth or seventh language, did just that: tame the language - so much so that "one can hear the pulse and beat of one's own language in English". His novels best speak for themselves in that regard. Maiba finds itself a place in this selection and has so far been translated into Italian and French.

10. Finally, great novels albeit the very best, are those that cross vast cultural boundaries for no other purpose than to remind us once all over again that all humanity matters. They need not teach nor explain things but leave them as they are: unnamed, invisible; allowing only their narrative to flow on without a hint of who will read them along the way, who will bother to pay attention to them, yet leaving a significant amount of impression on those who come across them, even by chance. There is where humanity finds its sense of identity. There is where we all find ourselves. In our moments of invisibility, in our deepest sense of anonymity, we know we have arrived. We feel complete, we become one with Ralph Ellison. And so it is with the novel, Invisible Man.

So there you have it: our selection of the 10 best novels in English.

Things Fall Apart; Heart of Darkness; The Power and the Glory; Visitants; Cry, the Beloved Country; East of Eden; The Tree of Man; The Mountain; Maiba; Invisible Man

There are other great titles in the world today. But unfortnately for most of us these were never, originally, fashioned and made available to us in the English language. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation.