Great winner, shame about the shortlist

Kevin Barry’s wonderful novel is a worthy winner of the Impac; but it was chosen from a shortlist that did not reflect the quality of the wider literary field

Hisham Matar’s superb novel Anatomy of a Disappearance   failed to make it past the Impac longlist.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Hisham Matar’s superb novel Anatomy of a Disappearance failed to make it past the Impac longlist. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Ireland’s Kevin Barry, an artist of daring and linguistic panache, has been declared the victor. This is the third Irish Impac win to date, and at such times we should celebrate – but literary prizes do, and should, generate discussion. And when a competition is decided by judges, rather than the more clear-cut, first-past-the-post results of the sporting field, an autopsy is often par for the course.

This year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2013 was destined to be a two-horse race between Barry’s dazzling tribal extravaganza, City of Bohane, and Kjersti A Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. In the end, the heartrending, jaunty eloquence of the Norwegian novel - nominated by libraries in Waterford and Oslo - failed to withstand the bravura comedy of Barry’s wonderfully daft tale; few books could.

The Irish writer, already established as an original stylist possessed of a quicksilver rhythmic prose, is that rare thing – a true original. Even his shopping lists must be interesting reading. His letters will ultimately sell for millions; I’ve printed out and kept an email he sent me last year.

Longlist shortfall
That said, this year’s shortlist was one of the most disappointing in the 18-year history of the prize. And this in a year when there were, among the longlist of 154 library nominations, several wonderful novels, including – in my opinion – two worthy winners.

The Libyan writer Hisham Matar’s magnificently elegiac Anatomy of a Disappearance, which goes a long way to explaining the horrors of Libya, towered above all else. Nominated by three libraries, including Cork City Libraries, Anatomy of a Disappearance was the novel that should have won. It was not even shortlisted.

Another strong challenger, The Sisters Brothers by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, would also have had many supporters. An unexpectedly profound variation of the traditional Western, it also failed to make the shortlist. As did Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s powerful tale of love in war, Julia.

Instead, a previous Impac winner, controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq, was shortlisted with a characteristically self-regarding and parodic little yarn, The Map and the Territory, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. In it, the author Houellebecq, playing his laconic self, gets murdered. Mon Dieu, as they say.

My point is we know the quality of novels such as Matar’s and deWitt’s. Houllebecq’s offbeat subversion is funny – but not as funny as Barry’s. Also funnyish, if only intermittently, is US writer Karen Russell’s overrated Pulitzer finalist Swamplandia!, in which a thin coming-of-age plot is stretched to breaking point.

It is ironic that a far superior coming-of-age novel, Norwegian Roy Jacobsen’s Child Wonder (2009), had been nominated but failed to make the shortlist, yet Tommy Wieringa’s disturbingly unconvincing Caesarion – which tackles incredibly serious subjects such as parenting and the rights of an absent parent with ham-fisted theatricality – was shortlisted.

Yet it seems churlish to criticise Houellebecq and Russell when all 987 pages of 1Q84 by bestselling Japanese author Haruki Murakami consist of a bloated, extended gag which features – good grief – a literary prize. It meanders round and round, fuelled by repetition and familiar Murakami riffs of a tedium for which one would have to be as famous as, say, Murakami to get away with.

The tragedy is that Murakami is capable of so much better, as in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1987) or South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992).

Readers may groan on being confronted by criticisms of shortlists – but shortlists are scrutinised because they are important. For the author, being on one is almost as good winning the prize. And the stronger the shortlist, the better the overall winner. Instead of Matar’s masterful work, the judges selected Julie Otsuka’s incantatory The Buddha in the Attic, a poignant act of remembering the many thousands of young Japanese women who travelled to the US as “picture brides”. It is an historical gesture, in ways reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Otsuka’s elegant narrative reads like a prose poem – there are no characters. It is instead a brave memorial.

Yet again, it seems only fair to reiterate that Matar’s book is ultimately more engaging, as it tells the story of one man’s search for his father.

Most years the outcome of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award is an intriguing conclusion to a lengthy campaign. The longlist should prove an enticing curtain-raiser and it was fun to see Arthur Phillip’s utterly eccentric The Tragedy of Arthur make it through to the final 10. But what a shame that Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog – nominated by a Bremen library – did not attract the judges.

Foreign focus
The strength of Impac has always been to highlight foreign fiction in translation. The Icelandic poet Sjon’s shortlist contender From the Mouth of the Whale, for all its biblical intensity, is overwhelmed by its own rhetoric, yet it made the shortlist.

Andrew Miller won the Impac in 1999 with Ingenious Pain. His 2013 contender Pure, won the Costa Book of the Year, yet it is a slight work consisting of flourishes and does not sustain its historical setting, while appearing to totter on the edge of farce.

All of this criticism may seem like pointless moaning. But there is a point: Impac is a good prize, and an important showcase for international fiction. Selecting the shortlist is even more important than deciding on the winner. Neither City of Bohane nor The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, are obvious major prizewinners, yet they are both engagingly human and they dwarfed the shortlist.

By contrast, the shortlist for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story award is a bold one. It includes Joyce Carol Oates with Black Dahlia & White Rose – not for nothing is this most daring of writers described as “dangerous”. Also shortlisted is Claire Vaye Watkins for Battleborn. The Canadian-based Hungarian Tamas Dobozy, whose brilliant story The Restoration of the Villa Where Tibor Kalman Once Lived won a Pen/O Henry award, is a serious contender with Siege 13, while the presence of the Swiss Peter Stamm casts a big shadow.

Yet nothing is definite; also shortlisted is Deborah Levy with Black Vodka, Ten Stories while the quiet, understated reflective fictions of David Constantine, author of The Shieling, shortlisted in 2010 when Ron Rash won with his superb Burning Bright collection, is again shortlisted, this time for Tea at the Midland and Other Stories. The title story won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.

Now in its ninth year, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award has been won by Edna O’Brien, the only Irish winner to date. This year’s shortlist is the strongest in its history. Stamm should win but readers know that each of these collections has a claim.

It is quite an endorsement of a prize whose previous winners include Rash and Yiyun Li. The latter, having won the inaugural award with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), published her first novel The Vagrants (2009) and was again shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor in 2011 with Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

Novel vs short story
Volumes of short stories still struggle for publication – or so publishers claim. Yet the great short story appears to inhabit a more rarefied realm than its longer counterpart, the novel.

It does seem ironic that Kevin Barry – a supreme exponent of the short-story form – has taken a major international prize for a debut novel that had been shortlisted for the 2011 Costa First Novel Award, while Joyce Carol Oates, veteran author of so many novels, is now competing for a major short-fiction award.

By faulting this year’s Impac shortlist, I intend to diminish neither the prize nor its winner, but I do feel strongly that when the readers of the world prove so astute in their nominations, the judges must pay greater heed. No two juries will select the same shortlist; judges no doubt disagree. But this year, as with most years, library readers provided the International Impac Dublin Literary Award judges with a fascinating longlist.

It was, sadly, one which this year’s shortlist did not reflect.

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