A timely literary road trip around the world

The 147 titles on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist are a treasure trove of great reading

International Dublin Literary Award longlist : 147 titles nominated by 109 libraries. Montage: Gillian Keyes

International Dublin Literary Award longlist : 147 titles nominated by 109 libraries. Montage: Gillian Keyes

 

Gather ye round as fiction launches yet another exciting open day guaranteed to showcase the pleasures of reading with the annual announcement of this year’s International Dublin Literary Award longlist. Now is the fun part, to dig in and enjoy the freedom of reading and discovering books from around the world recommended by readers, not judges. It is this communal quality that makes this prize so special. When the shortlist is announced on April 11th, the serious debates will begin.

Of the 147 titles nominated by 109 libraries in 40 countries, 43 are in translation with 35 nationalities represented.

The contenders include three former winners – the 2013 victor Kevin Barry, one of the seven Irish writers featured, is included along with the 2006 Nobel literature laureate, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk (2003) and the increasingly controversial French visionary of sorts, Michel Houellebecq, the 2002 winner.

As the award begins the intriguing search for its 22nd winner, the International Dublin Literary Award is well established not only as a major prize for novels written in, or translated into English, but as one with an accumulating history.

Some 30 debut novels make the list. Aside from the presence of the three former winners, there are also writers who have been previously longlisted, 11 of whom have also made it to the final cut, such as the Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa, who was shortlisted in 2013.

He should also feature this year with These Are The Names, which won the 2013 Libris Prize, the major literary award in the Netherlands, and has been brilliantly translated by the distinguished American Sam Garrett.

These Are The Names, an eerily topical narrative about displacement, concerns an investigation undertaken by a world-weary and extraordinarily likeable policeman, Pontus Beg, who is also battling his own demons. This novel with wide appeal should make a very strong challenge.

Among the five Dutch-language contenders are Jaap Robben’s poignant debut, You Have Me to Love, translated by David Doherty, and Esther Gerritsen’s exceptional and theatrical Craving, translated by Michele Hutchinson, which as a fraught study of mother and daughter relations leaves Deborah Levy’s glib, overrated Man Booker contender, Hot Milk, wallowing in its wake.

Claim on the prize

Another with serious claims on the outcome is Danish-Norwegian writer Kim Leine with a powerful and prophetic historical work in The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.

Swiss writer Christian Kracht’s Imperium, translated from the German by Daniel Bowles, draws on the weird antics of radical vegetarian and nudist August Engelhardt.

Expect to see Vietnam-born, US-raised Viet Thanh Nguyen’s multi-award winning debut The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, to impose itself on the award. It looks at the fall of Saigon and its shocking aftermath. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” declares its narrator, a Vietnamese army officer. “….I am also a man of two minds… I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” Chilling and funny, place your bets here.

Along with Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, the seven-strong home team includes former Man Booker winners John Banville, for The Blue Guitar and Anne Enright, expectedly featuring with The Green Road. Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs is nominated along with Nuala O’Connor’s acclaimed, imagined narrative Miss Emily, inspired by the life of poet Emily Dickinson and young Ada Concannon, who arrives from Ireland to be her maid.

Major new voice

Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, exploring hugely important issues facing young women, will find support, while British-born, Irish resident Sara Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither immediately established her as a major new voice in Irish literature.

The 23-strong British contingent is headed by former Booker winners Salman Rushdie, whose Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights proves quite an entertainment, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, a daring if not wholly convincing study of enduring love, which divided opinion. Other British writers nominated are the ever-popular William Boyd for Sweet Caress, Sebastian Faulks with Where My Heart Used to Beat, David Mitchell with Slade House, the always competitive Andrew O’Hagan is nominated for The Illuminations,as is Caryl Phillips with The Lost Child. Also included is Paul Hawkins’s rampaging bestseller, The Girl on the Train.

One to heed closely is Lucy Wood’s debut Weathering, with its atmospheric handling of themes of loneliness and mothers and daughters. Jeanette Winterson’s somewhat forced The Gap of Time, her retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is a surprise inclusion.

Stephen Kelman, who was Man Booker shortlisted for his big-hearted debut Pigeon English in 2011, bounds on to the list with Man on Fire, which is partly a biography of an Indian friend who defies pain for a living, and his story is juxtaposed with a fictional character’s attempt to conquer the cancer which has alerted him to the stark realisation that he has not done anything with his life. It is a novel which could be dismissed as being too earnest, yet Kelman has boldly attempted to do something different. No prizes for noting that Kate Atkinson is nominated for her bestselling A God in Ruins.

Another former Booker winner and shortlist veteran for just about any literary prize going is the revered Canadian seer Margaret Atwood, who enters the fray with The Heart Goes Last. Atwood is probably one of the cleverest people in the world, and intellectually is as sharp as tack. Instead, gaze in wonder at the way she speaks so many truths in narratives which are invariably fierce and witty, if rarely high art.

Little marvel

One of the most engaging novels on the longlist is Atwood’s countryman Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, a variation of the fairy tale genre. It is a madcap combination of Gormenghast and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Confused? Good. De Witt had fun with the western in his The Sisters Brothers, which should have won the 2011 Man Booker yet was relieved of that burden by Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. It is to be hoped that de Witt will make the shortlist with this little marvel. If lacking the unexpected pathos and profundity of The Sisters Brothers, it possesses flashes of tender humanity.

Among the 14 Canadian contenders are Andre Alexis with his Giller Prize winner Fifteen Dogs, a novel with much appeal, and Helen Humphrey’s The Evening Chorus, set during and after the second World War, has a restrained intensity.

Man Booker International runner up Austrian-born Robert Seethaler is in contention with A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins.

Heading the 10-strong Australian challenge is Charlotte Wood with The Natural Way of Things. New Zealander Anna Smaill promises a great deal with The Chimes.

Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud not only looks set to make the shortlist with his excellent debut, The Meursault Investigation, translated by John Cullen, but he could put pressure on a novel as strong as Wieringa’s These Are The Names.

Daoud takes on Camus’s classic tract on alienation, L’Etranger (1942), and has created a back story for the man killed randomly on the beach by the anti-hero Meursault, who referred to his accidental victim merely as the Arab. He has given him a name, Musa, and a brother, Harun and stricken mother, who mourn him in a volatile Algeria.

Another Algerian, Yasmina Khadra, twice previously shortlisted, features with The African Equation, translated by Howard Curtis.

Former Impac winner Michel Houellebecq’s latest wacky if astute satire, Submission – or to quote Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan’s admiring comment, “of the several suicide notes for the West Houellebecq has written, this is his best” – looks ahead to a French presidential election which sees secularism yielding to Islam. It is translated by Lorin Stein.

US contender

Yawnsville comes in the shape of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, and far more interesting among the US contenders is the always original William Vollmann with his massive The Dying Grass, part of his Seven Dreams series, a breathtaking history of America. At 1, 356 pages, perhaps place your planned re-reading of War and Peace on hold and plan your Christmas reading. It’s just an idea.

Far shorter is David Vann’s Aquarium, a coming-of-age novel told from a young girl’s viewpoint. The much-loved Anne Tyler reprises her Man Booker shortlisting for A Spool of Blue Thread and her sheer readability could see her reach the shortlist ahead of stronger books. A

Also lurking is Hanya Yanagihara’s bloated endurance test, the Man Booker shortlisted A Little Life. Not one for me. Paul Beatty’s knowing satire, The Sell-Out, predictable and cliched, won this year’s Man Booker and has been nominated here. Can it do a double? I hope not.

Big guns

Major figures such as Czech-born veteran Milan Kundera and Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa are both nominated; Kundera for his charmingly aimless The Festival of Insignificance, translated from the French by Linda Asher, while Vargas Llosa is included for The Discreet Hero, translated by Edith Grossman.

His fellow Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk is represented by his Dickensian celebration of his beloved Istanbul, A Strangeness in My Mind, translated by Ekin Okap, who also conveyed Pamuk’s Impac winner My Name is Red into lively English.

Pioneering independent

Yet, while there are plenty of big name writers and publishers, it is all the more impressive to see three titles from Susan Curtis-Kojakovic’s pioneering independent list, Istros, which since 2011 has been publishing outstanding fiction from southeastern Europe and the Balkans.

Slovenian Gabriela Babnik’s Dry Season, translated by Rawley Grau, is about a love affair between a 62-year-old Slovenian woman and a much younger African man. Set in Burkino Fasso, the story unfolds through the contrasting versions of the protagonists, each an unreliable witness.

Babnik is joined by her countryman Goran Vojnovic with Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, translated by Noah Charney, in which a son seeking the truth about his war hero father embarks on an odyssey through the Balkans.

Montenegrin Andrej Nikolaidis’ Till Kingdom Come, translated by Will Firth, also sees a man, this time a reporter, investigate his family’s past in a quest to discover his birth mother’s identity.

Toronto-based translator Anne McLean, co-winner in 2014 with Juan Gabriel Vasquez for The Sound of Things Falling, teams up with Anna Milson in a translation of Spanish wizard Enrique Vila-Matas’s witty extravaganza The Illogic of Kassel, in which a visiting writer becomes an art installation.

The same translation collaboration has eased Colombian Evelio Rosero’s ambitious Feast of the Innocents into English, which sees a local doctor attempting to debunk the myth of Latin America’s liberator Simon Bolivar.

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has some fun with The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney, in which Gustavo Sanchez attempts to improve his smile.

So, on your marks, to the nearest book store and/or library where 147 great titles await...

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