Iraqi Frankenstein story shortlisted for Man Booker international prize
Novels from South Korea, Spain, France, Poland and Hungary also in running for £50,000 prize
Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi poses with the French translation of his novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/ AFP/ Getty Images
An Iraqi first-time author’s “horrific” reimagining of Frankenstein set loose in war-torn Baghdad is up for the Man Booker international prize for fiction in translation, competing against two previous winners, Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai and South Korea’s Han Kang.
Ahmed Saadawi, who won the “Arabic Booker” – the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – in 2014 for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, is up for the £50,000 prize, shared equally between author and translator, along with his English translator, Jonathan Wright.
Saadawi’s novel, which the judges said “accrues in horrors as you move through it”, tells the story of a Baghdad junk dealer who assembles body parts left on the streets and stitches them together to make a political statement. The corpse goes missing, resulting in a series of eerie murders across the city.
Han, who won the prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, is shortlisted for The White Book, which draws on her experience of losing an older sibling, who died before Han was born, and explores the various symbolic meanings of the colour white. Krasznahorkai is nominated for The World Goes On, a collection of 21 stories spanning from a Hungarian interpreter contemplating his state of mind while in Shanghai to a child labourer who wanders off from a quarry.
Also shortlisted is the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, the first of her novels to be translated into English. Exploring the concept of travel and anatomy, Flights spans centuries, from the story of a 17th-century Dutch anatomist who dissected his own amputated leg, to a present-day Polish emigree returning to her home country to poison her terminally ill childhood sweetheart.
Another contender is Virginie Despentes, a French journalist, filmmaker and former sex worker. Her novel Vernon Subutex 1 follows a Parisian record store owner who becomes homeless and, unbeknown to him, internet famous. Judges described the book as a “racy, sexy, urban, picaresque”. Her translator is Irishman Frank Wynne, who was also longluisted this year for his translation from Spanish of Javier Cercas’s The Impostor.
Spain’s Antonio Muñoz Molina, the author of more than a dozen novels, is nominated for Like a Falling Shadow, which explores the story of James Earl Ray, assassin of the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, and the 10 days he spent in Lisbon while attempting to evade the FBI.
The chair of judges, Lisa Appignanesi, said the 2018 shortlist was “only united in diversity. There are books with very strong narrative, books with lyrical atmosphere as their forefront, and books with a real density of metaphysical preoccupation. These six were definitely the best, in terms of the energy of the narrative and their formal exhilaration.”
She said the judges had debated whether to include two previous winners. “We talked at length about not allowing repeat performances like Krasznahorkai and Han. But there was a sense we had to consider the novels and find the best fiction instead. And The White Book is so different from The Vegetarian that we could be talking about a different writer.”
Translated fiction accounts for 7 per cent of literary fiction sales in the UK, and the Man Booker International winner is a considerable powerhouse each year. Sales of last year’s winner, A Horse Walks Into a Bar by the Israeli author David Grossman and translator Jessica Cohen, soared by 1,367 per cent in the week after the announcement. The paperback sold 53 times more copies than Grossman’s previous book.
Joining Appignanesi on the judging panel are the translator and writer Michael Hofmann, the authors Hari Kunzru and Helen Oyeyemi, and the journalist Tim Martin. The winner will be announced 22 May at a dinner in London.
2018 Man Booker International shortlist
Read review: Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne (France)
Read review: The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (South Korea)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai, translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes (Hungary)
Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Camilo A Ramirez (Spain)
Read review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright (Iraq)
Read review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Poland)
– Guardian service