Booker International shortlist spans not just globe but outer space
Books on six-strong shortlist for £50,000 prize set in Europe, Latin America and space
Booker International 2021: the shortlisted books
As one might expect from a prize with a global reach, the six-strong shortlist for this year’s Booker International Prize for fiction contains multitudes and dazzles with its variety, translated into English from Danish, French, Spanish and Russian.
Two are short story collections, one terrifying tales of magic realism set in contemporary Argentina, the other accounts of defining moments from the history of science. The novels tell of two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France during the first World War; the lives of the crew on a space ship in the 22nd century; an exploration of cultural and personal memory, based on the author’s Jewish family history in Russia; and a tale of rebellion against power and privilege set during the Reformation but inspired by today’s Gilets Jaunes protests.
The 2021 shortlist
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (France), translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press)
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez (Argentina), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta)
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut (Chile), translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press)
The Employees by Olga Ravn (Denmark), translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions)
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Russia), translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard (France), translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Picador)
Although award-winners in their native languages, four of the shortlisted are published in English for the first time and only translator Megan McDowell has been shortlisted or even longlisted before. “Word of mouth starts here,” said prize director Gaby Wood. But the organisers are keen to emphasise that they are not so much discovering brilliant beginners but introducing to Anglophone readers the proven best of the rest of the world, works with “enormous emotional clout” in the words of prize administrator Fiammetta Rocco .
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, chair of the judges, said: “Our six shortlisted books, chosen from 125 submissions, are all extraordinary, and wildly unlike each other. We have the genres of sci-fi and ghost stories being brilliantly subverted and repurposed. We have biographical essays opening out to become blazingly imaginative testaments to the strangeness of the universe or the cruelty of human injustice. We have a hallucinatory and terrifying vision of the madness of warfare. We have a meditative journey into a family’s history that becomes a profoundly moving story about the way time eventually bears us all away.
Their differences demonstrate how vital the art of fiction is worldwide. What they have in common is their beauty, their originality and their power to grip the reader and excite new thoughts. It is a privilege to be part of a prize that spreads the word about such remarkable books to English-speaking readers, that looks beyond national boundaries to honour authors wherever they come from, and that rewards the translators who reveal their work to us.”
The shortlist is again dominated by independent publishers, with two books by Pushkin Press, as well as books by Granta Books, Fitzcarraldo and first-timers Lolli Editions.
The shortlist was selected by Hughes-Hallett, a cultural historian and novelist; journalist and writer, Aida Edemariam; Man Booker shortlisted novelist, Neel Mukherjee; Professor of the History of Slavery, Olivette Otele; and poet, translator and biographer, George Szirtes.
The £50,000 prize is split evenly between author and translator and the winner will be announced on June 2nd. Last year’s winner was The Discomfort of Evening, written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated by Michele Hutchison.
2021 International Booker Prize shortlist
At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop
Translated by Anna Moschovakis from French (Pushkin Press)
At Night All Blood is Black captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during the first World War.
The judges said: “Horrifying, cruel and continually present in the action it describes, it is partly a personal report from the front in the first world war by a traumatised Senegalese soldier. Like nothing else in terms of tone and power, it is a blinding revelation, an incantatory work of kinship and terror.”
David Diop was born in 1966 in Paris and grew up in Senegal. He is a professor of 18th-century literature at the University of Pau. At Night All Blood is Black is Diop’s second novel. It was shortlisted for 10 major prizes in France and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens as well as the Swiss Prix Ahmadou Korouma. It is being translated into 13 languages and has already won the Strega European Prize in Italy.
Anna Moschovakis was born in 1970 in Los Angeles. She is a poet, author and translator.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez
Translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish (Granta Books)
Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts and hungry women. The stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighbourhood is cursed to death when it fails to respond correctly to a moral dilemma.
The judges said: “An extraordinarily intelligent collection of short stories that knowingly uses the tropes of the horror story, the ghost story and even pulp fiction to think about the Argentina’s painful past. In the process, it fashions a Magical Realism Version 2.0, from a subtly feminist perspective. Smart, political, unputdownable.”
Mariana Enríquez was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires. She is a novelist, journalist and short-story writer. As well as Things we Lost in the Fire and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, she is the author of a collection of travel writings, a novella and three novels. In 2019 her latest novel, Our Share of Night, was awarded the prestigious Premio Herralde de Novela. She is an editor at Página/12, a newspaper based in Buenos Aires.
Megan McDowell was born in 1978 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her translations include books by Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Lina Meruane and Carlos Fonseca. She has won the English PEN award for writing in translation and the Valle-Inclán prize from the Society of Authors, and has been shortlisted or longlisted for the International Booker Prize three times. She lives in Santiago, Chile.
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
Translated by Adrian Nathan West from Spanish (Pushkin Press)
Using extraordinary, epoch-defining moments from the history of science, When We Cease to Understand the World exists in the territory between fact and fiction, progress and destruction, genius and madness.
Albert Einstein opens a letter where he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work. The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.
The judges said: “A Sebaldian book of grippingly narrated stories on science and scientists that cumulatively become a meditation on the history of human destruction. ‘How did we get here?’ it asks, and answers in utterly original and unexpected ways.”
Benjamín Labatut was born in 1980 in Rotterdam and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires and Lima. He published two award-winning works of fiction prior to When We Cease to Understand the World, which is his first book to be translated into English. Labatut lives with his family in Santiago, Chile.
Adrian Nathan West was born in 1977 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and the forthcoming Philosophy of a Visit and translator of more than 20 books. He lives in Spain.
The Employees by Olga Ravn
Translated by Martin Aitken from Danish (Lolli Editions)
Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, The Employees follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while simultaneously delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.
The judges said: “This beautiful and moving novel, set in a workplace – a spaceship some time in the future – is by turns loving and cold, funny and deliberately prosaic; capable of building a sense of existential horror one minute then quotidian comfort and private grief the next. In deceptively simple prose, threaded on a fully achieved and ambitiously experimental structure, it asks big questions about sentience and the nature of humanity. And about what happiness might be.”
Olga Ravn was born in 1986 in Copenhagen. One of Denmark’s most celebrated contemporary authors, she is also a literary critic. Alongside Johanne Lykke Holm, she runs the feminist performance group and writing school Hekseskolen. She lives in Copenhagen.
Martin Aitken was born in 1961 in Carlisle. He has translated numerous novels from Danish and Norwegian, including works by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Peter Høeg, Ida Jessen, and Kim Leine. He won the PEN America Translation Prize 2019 for his translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love. He lives in Denmark.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova
Translated by Sasha Dugdale from Russian (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
In Memory of Memory tells the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Following the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova builds the story out of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs left behind: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. In dialogue with Roland Barthes, WG Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.
The judges said: “An unclassifiable, sui generis book that begins with what you think is going to be a family history, then opens up, in slow degrees, to allow seemingly the whole world to enter. In its seamless fusion of history, memory, essay, meditation, literary criticism it creates its own indelible form, a new shape in the air. An act of truth-telling like no other.”
Maria Stepanova was born in 1972 in Moscow. She is a poet, essayist, journalist and the author of 10 poetry collections and three books of essays. She has received several Russian and international literary awards (including the Andrey Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship). In Memory of Memory won Russia’s Bolshaya Kniga Award in 2018. Her collection of poems, War and the Beasts and the Animals, is published by Bloodaxe in Sasha Dugdale’s translation in 2021, and is a Poetry Book Society Translation Choice. Stepanova is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online independent crowd-sourced journal Colta.ru. She lives in Moscow.
Sasha Dugdale was born in 1974 in Sussex. She is a poet, writer and translator and has published five collections of poems with Carcanet Press, most recently Deformations in 2020. She won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016 and in 2017 she was awarded a Cholmondeley Prize for Poetry. She is former editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and is poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge (2018-2021). She lives in Cambridge.
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
Translated by Mark Polizzotti from French (Picador)
The history of inequality is a long and terrible one. And it’s not over yet. Short, sharp and devastating, The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well-known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century takes on the powerful and the privileged. But quickly it becomes more about the bourgeoisie. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not equality now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Inspired by the recent gilets jaunes protests in France: a populist, grassroots protest movement - led by workers - for economic justice. While The War of the Poor is about 16th-century Europe, this short polemic has a lot to say about inequality now.
The judges said: “From the very first paragraph of this blazing piece of historical fiction Vuillard has the reader transfixed. Set at a time when religious differences sent nations to war and individuals to the pyre, Vuillard’s account of the life of a largely forgotten visionary is both a dazzling piece of historical re-imagining and a revolutionary sermon, a furious denunciation of inequality.”
Éric Vuillard was born in 1968 in Lyons. He is a writer and filmmaker who has written nine award-winning books, including Conquistadors (winner of the 2010 Prix Ignatius J. Reilly), and La bataille d’Occident and Congo (both of which received the 2012 Prix Franz-Hessel and the 2013 Prix Valery-Larbaud). He won the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, for L’ordre du jour. He lives in Rennes.
Mark Polizzotti was born in 1957 in New York. He has translated more than 50 books from French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, André Breton, and Raymond Roussel. A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature, he is the author of 11 books. He directs the publications programme at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and lives in Brooklyn.