2020 International Booker Prize longlist revealed

Michel Houellebecq and Irish translator Shaun Whiteside up for £50,000 award

Three Latin American authors, two from Asia and one from South Africa have been longlisted for this year’s £50,000, or almost €60,000, International Booker Prize in a 13-strong longlist dominated by Europeans.

The longlisted titles range from the 18th-century South African veldt to post-revolutionary Iran; from the pampas to the edge of the Russian empire; from a sweltering Barcelona to the Norwegian coast and rural Mexico, France and the Netherlands.

French author Michel Houellebecq, with Serotonin, is the best-known name in the running for the award, which would be shared equally with his Irish translator, Shaun Whiteside, who lives in London but is from Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Samanta Schweblin has been longlisted for a third time for her as yet unpublished Little Eyes, having been longlisted for Mouthful of Birds and shortlisted for Fever Dream. A second Argentinian writer, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, has been longlisted for The Adventures of China Iron, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh.


Previously shortlisted translator Sophie Hughes appears on the list twice, as the translator of Hurricane Season by Mexican Fernanda Melchor and as co-translator (with Margaret Jull Costa) of Mac and His Problems by Spanish author and renowned Joycean Enrique Vila-Matas. "Melchor's extremely graphic prose throughout would have Georges Bataille himself reaching for a crucifix but it is a commendation of translator Sophie Hughes that the novel never reads like cheap smut," wrote Irish Times reviewer Barry Pierce.

The identity of the translator from Farsi of Iranian Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree has been kept secret for what are understood to be security reasons. Azar moved to Australia as a political refugee in 2011.  The other Asian author longisted is Japan’s Yoko Ogowa for The Memory Police, translated by Stephen Snyder. Willem Anker’s Red Dog is translated from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns.

The other European works on the longlist are The Other Name: Septology I-II by Norway's Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls; The Eighth Life by Georgia's Nino Haratischvili, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin; Tyll by Germany's Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin; France's Emmanuelle Pagano for her short story collection Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins; and Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, an award-winning poet and dairy farmer who identifies as male, for The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison.

The longlist was selected from 124 submitted titles by five judges (chairman Ted Hodgkinson of London’s Southbank Centre; Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France’s centre for international writing; Man Booker International Prize-winning translator and writer Jennifer Croft; and authors Valeria Luiselli and Jeet Thayil.

Hodgkinson said: “What a thrill to share a longlist of such breadth and brilliance, reflecting a cumulative artistry rooted in dialogue between authors and translators, and possessing a power to enlarge the scope of lives encountered on the page, from the epic to the everyday.

“Whether reimagining foundational myths, envisioning dystopias of disquieting potency, or simply setting the world ablaze with the precision of their perceptions, these are books that left indelible impressions on us as judges. In times that increasingly ask us to take sides, these works of art transcend moral certainties and narrowing identities, restoring a sense of the wonderment at the expansive and ambiguous lot of humanity.”

The prize is awarded every year for a book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators. Both novels and short-story collections are eligible.

The shortlist will be announced on April 2nd and the winner on May 19th. Last year’s winner was Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. The Booker Prizes are sponsored by Crankstart, the charitable foundation of Sir Michael Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman.

International Booker Prize longlist

Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans (Pushkin Press)
In the 18th century, a giant bestrides the border of the Cape Colony frontier. Coenraad de Buys is a legend, a polygamist, a swindler and a big talker; a rebel who fights with Xhosa chieftains against the Boers and British; the fierce patriarch of a sprawling mixed-race family with a veritable tribe of followers; a savage enemy and a loyal ally. Like the wild dogs who are always at his heels, he roams the shifting landscape of southern Africa, hungry and spoiling for a fight.

The judges said: “A work that reminds us how translation is a creative force that destabilises linguistic conventions. A novel of serpentine, swashbuckling sentences that capture the mounting cruelty of the colonial project in South Africa.”

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions)
Set in Iran in the decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this moving, richly imagined novel is narrated by the ghost of Bahar, a 13-year-old girl whose family is compelled to flee their home in Tehran for a new life in a small village, hoping in this way to preserve both their intellectual freedom and their lives. But they soon find themselves caught up in the post-revolutionary chaos that sweeps across the country, a madness that affects both living and dead, old and young.

The judges said: “A wild, humorous revisitation of Persian myths and fables, filled with brutal scenes of contemporary life. A ghostly portrait of a family caught in the abject violence of political unrest.”

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish (Charco Press)
1872. The pampas of Argentina. China is a young woman eking out an existence in a remote gaucho encampment. After her no-good husband is conscripted into the army, China bolts for freedom, setting off on a wagon journey through the pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a settler from Scotland. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina's richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to the ruthless violence involved in nation-building.

The judges said: “A feminist reading of 19th-century foundational myths, the brutality and beauty of rediscovering an already devastated world. This must have posed an enormous challenge to the translators, one they have faced with inventiveness and poise.”

The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Irish Times review
A major new work by one of Europe's most celebrated writers, it follows the lives of two men living close to each other on the west coast of Norway. The year is coming to a close and Asle, an ageing painter and widower, is reminiscing about his life. He lives alone, his only friends being his neighbour, Åsleik, a bachelor and traditional Norwegian fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in Bjørgvin, a couple of hours' drive south of Dylgja, where he lives. There, in Bjørgvin, is another Asle, also a painter. He and the narrator are doppelgangers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life. Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not another? With The Other Name, the first volume in a trilogy of novels, Fosse presents us with an indelible and poignant exploration of the human condition that will endure as his masterpiece.

The judges said: “A portrait of the ravages of alcoholism in two men named Asle, both painters, one who quits drinking with the help of his wife, the other who is in hospital and may never recover. A book about grief, and the shining darkness that is our lot in life.”

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German ( Scribe UK)
Irish Times review
At the start of the 20th century, on the edge of the Russian empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste…

Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband Simon to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. But Stasia’s will be the first of a symphony of grand, if all too often doomed, romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The judges said: “A sweeping but intimate 20th-century family saga, chronicling an inheritance of stories handed down from one generation of mothers, daughters and sisters to the next, and stretching from Georgia to Moscow and beyond.”

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside from French (William Heinemann)
Irish Times review
Dissatisfied and discontented, Florent-Claude Labrouste feels he is dying of sadness. His young girlfriend hates him and his career as an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture is pretty much over. His only relief comes in the form of a pill - white, oval, small. Recently released for public consumption, Captorix is a new brand of anti-depressant which works by altering the brain's release of serotonin.

Armed with this new drug, Labrouste decides to abandon his life in Paris and return to the Normandy countryside where he used to work promoting regional cheeses, and where he had once been in love. But instead of happiness, he finds a rural community devastated by globalisation and European agricultural policies, and local farmers longing, like Labrouste himself, for an impossible return to what they remember as the golden age.

The judges said: “A novel about a repugnant man, and such is the level of artistry that our moral universe is turned on its head.”

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German (Quercus)
He's a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake's like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he's watching you now and he's gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!

With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time.

The judges said: “This novel travels with the currents of history. In its cycles of brutality and violence, it reaches into our solitude and echoes with the power of rewritten myth.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Irish Times review
Hurricane Season opens with the macabre discovery of a decomposing body in a small waterway on the outskirts of La Matosa, a village in rural Mexico. It soon becomes apparent that the body is that of the local witch, who is both feared by the men and relied upon by the women, helping them with love charms and illegal abortions.

Mirroring the structure of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the novel goes back in time, recounting the events which led to La Matosa’s witch’s murder from several perspectives. Hurricane Season quickly transcends its detective story constraints: the culprits are named early on in the narrative, shifting the question to why rather than who. Through the stories of Luismi, Norma, Brando and Munra, Fernanda Melchor paints a portrait of lives governed by poverty and violence, machismo and misogyny, superstition and prejudice. Written with a brutal lyricism that is as affecting as it is enthralling, Hurricane Season, Melchor’s first novel to appear in English, is a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons.

The judges said: “In a propulsive translation, the eight paragraphs of this novel spiral down through layers of violence, corruption and desire. A novel of hellacious force.”

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogowa, translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese (Harvill Secker)
Irish Times review
Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn't forget, and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, from one of Japan’s greatest writers.

The judges said: “Originally published in the 1990s, this novel speaks directly to the amnesiac present: a world in which things disappear, then the memory of things themselves, in affectless prose that mirrors this erasure.”

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins from French (Peirene Press)
Meetings, partings, loves and losses in rural France are dissected with compassion.

The late wedding guest isn’t your cousin but a drunken chancer. The driver who gives you a lift isn’t going anywhere but off the road. Snow settles on your car in summer and the sequins found between the pages of a borrowed novel will make your fortune. Pagano’s stories weave together the mad, the mysterious and the dispossessed of a rural French community with honesty and humour. A superb, cumulative collection from a unique French voice.

The judges said: “Linked short stories, subtle and delicate, rooted in the countryside of the French Ardeche. Slices of life, rather than conventional short stories, in a spare and evocative translation.”

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish (Oneworld)
They've infiltrated homes in Hong Kong, shops in Vancouver, the streets of Sierra Leone, town squares of Oaxaca, schools in Tel Aviv, bedrooms in Indiana.

They’re not pets, nor ghosts, nor robots. They’re real people, but how can a person living in Berlin walk freely through the living room of someone in Sydney? How can someone in Bangkok have breakfast with your children in Buenos Aires, without you knowing? Especially when these people are completely anonymous, unknown, untraceable.

The characters in Samanta Schweblin’s wildly imaginative new novel, Little Eyes, reveal the beauty of connection between far-flung souls - but they also expose the ugly truth of our increasingly linked world. Trusting strangers can lead to unexpected love, playful encounters and marvellous adventures, but what if it can also pave the way for unimaginable terror? Schweblin has created a dark and complex world that is both familiar but also strangely unsettling, because it’s our present and we’re living it - we just don’t know it yet.

The judges said: “A deft dystopia set within touching distance of the present that lays bare our contemporary obsession with watching and being watched. Savagely funny and disarmingly frank about our predilection for self-surveillance, it is a novel that captures an increasingly interconnected and unhinged moment.”

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison from Dutch (Faber & Faber)
Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter's day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.

A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison’s striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty.

The judges said: “Rijneveld’s language renders the world anew, revealing the shocks and violence of early youth through the prism of a Dutch dairy farm. The strangeness of a child looking at the strangeness of the world.”

Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Harvill Secker)
Mac is not writing a novel. He is writing a diary, which no one will ever read. At over 60, and recently unemployed, Mac is a beginner, a novice, an apprentice - delighted by the themes of repetition and falsification, and humbly armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.

Mac’s wife, Carmen, thinks he is simply wasting his time and in danger of sliding further into depression and idleness. But Mac persists, diligently recording his daily walks through the neighbourhood. It is the hottest summer Barcelona has seen in over a century.

Soon, despite his best intentions (not to write a novel), Mac begins to notice that life is exhibiting strange literary overtones and imitating fragments of plot. As he sizzles in the heatwave, he becomes ever more immersed in literature - a literature haunted by death, but alive with the sheer pleasure of writing.

The judges said: “In his metafictional explorations of the tiny repetitions of life, Vila-Matas’s imagination constantly produces new constellations. A literary novel that is happy to call itself literary, born out of a compulsion to carve meaning from the mundane.”