I need a man!

Truly, I do! I would like any many who has read David Szalay’s All That Man Is to give me their perspective on this book. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and I am working my way through that shortlist at the moment. This was my second read, and whilst I found it reasonably engaging, I also found myself saying at the end “And….?”

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It is a book of nine parts and focuses on nine men, each at a different stage in life. In that sense, it is a book of nine stories. Each is set in a different part of Europe and each character is away from home, although ‘home’ is a fluid concept in the novel. It is a very international, very European, book.

As the reader progresses through the novel, the characters become older. So, we start with 17-year-old Simon in Part One, inter-railing with a school friend, and end with 73-year-old Tony in Part Nine. In between, there is young Frenchman Bernard, leading an aimless life, not sure what to do with his future, who takes a holiday in Cyprus; Hungarian security guard Balazs, who finds himself in London minding a young woman with whom he is in love, and who is being pimped as a high-end prostitute by her boyfriend; self-obsessed German linguist academic Karel, driving to Krakow with his Polish girlfriend, who tells him en route that she is pregnant; then we start on middle-age with Danish newspaper editor Kristian, bored by middle-class family life, but smug with the trappings of his career success; James a London-based property agent, looking to invest in apartments in ski resorts in Switzerland, preoccupied by how to make  more money; Murray, 52-year-old Scotsman, living in Croatia, conned out of what little he has by his own foolish ego; Aleksandr, suicidal Russian billionaire on the ropes, down to his last few hundred million after losing a court case against a rival; and finally, Tony, 73 year-old former diplomat, alone in his house in Italy in the winter. He has been ill and then has a car accident and is facing into old age with all its travails.

The parts, and characters are all completely disconnected, until the end when we learn that Tony is the grandfather of Simon, whom we met in Part One. The only connection between the other characters is that they are all exiled, living away from ‘home’, or travelling, and they are all somewhat dissatisfied with their lives, disillusioned or lost. They are also all flawed individuals, except perhaps for Balazs, who finds himself in illicit company, and whose temper gets him in trouble. I can’t say I liked any of the characters; I felt sympathetic to one or two of the younger ones, who just seemed to be directionless, but most seemed just to be unpleasant, foolish or deluded.

When I started the novel I was expecting to be enlightened. I was hoping for a Zeitgeist novel which would set out for me what it is to be a man in the 21st century; the challenges, the new-found pleasures and whether there is any sense of liberation in the changed situation that many now find themselves in compared to their grandfathers. I don’t feel I really got that; I got nine stories about individuals whose unwillingness to reflect honestly lies at the heart of their dysphoria. I didn’t recognise any of the men – perhaps I haven’t been looking hard enough at the ones around me?

So, if there are any men out there who have read this book and can give me their take on it, I’d be delighted!

 

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