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'Obscure four' in Booker shortlist

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, OCT. 7. Kazuo Ishiguro who won the 1989 Booker Prize for ``The Remains of the Day'' is back in the reckoning for this year's Booker, as is the one-time darling of the feminists, Margaret Atwood, who was shortlisted three times in the past but never made it to the big day. Ishiguro and Atwood are the stars of this year's shortlist of mostly obscure writers, and bookies are putting their money on Atwood's ``The Blind Assassin'' 2 to 1. The odds for Ishiguro's ``When We Were Orphans'' are 5 to 2.

The other four shortlisted writers, barely known outside very intimate literary circles, are way behind but their mere appearance on the 21000 prize shortlist, announced here on Thursday, has already boosted the sales of their novels. The ``Obscure Four'', as the media has dubbed them, include the debutante Trezza Azzopardi for ``The Hiding Place'' (Picador),

Michael Collins for ``The Keepers of Truth'' (Phoenix House), Mathew Kneale for ``English Passengers'' (Hamish Hamilton) and Brian O'Doherty for ``The Deposition of Father McGreevy'' (Arcadia).

Considering that the Booker traditionally throws up surprises - the shortlist itself is full of surprises - anyone of them can upset the favourites and end up as a dark horse. Indeed, over the years, it has become conventional wisdom to expect the darkest of horses to win the race. As in the past, the shortlist has raised eyebrows for different reasons, with newspaper headings ranging from ``Booker judges shun modern Britain'' (The Times ) to ``Obscure authors make Booker history'' (The Guardian ) and ``Booker judges stick to the well-told story of pretenders and conspicuous absentees (The Independent ). The most astonishing ``absentee'' is Zadie Smith whose first novel ``White Teeth'', somewhat overwritten but a brilliant examination of cross- cultural experiences, was widely expected to sail through the shortlist. Its omission is particularly surprising because it is precisely the kind of novel that is known to appeal to the Booker judges - complex, not everyone's cup of tea, full of allusions, satirical, occasionally over the top but extremely good literature in the end. Others whose omission has been noted include Julian Barnes, Doris Lessing, Fay Weldon, Michael Ondaatje, A. S. Byatt and J.G. Ballard.

The Times columnist, Mr Simon Jenkins, who chaired the jury suggested that the quality of entries this year was rather modest and it was not easy to choose. ``It was a year when no book leapt out at us'', he said. Last year, on the other hand, the jury had to keep out celebrities like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth in order to make it a more level playing field for lesser glamorous novelists; and the result was J.M. Coetzee's haunting ``Disgrace''.

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