This year’s International Dublin Literary Award has been won by Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa with his 14th novel A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn. The €100,000 prize is divided between author and translator, with Agualusa receiving €75,000 and Hahn €25,000.
It tells the story of a traumatised woman Luanda, who retreats from the world and history and remains in an apartment while outside Angola endures civil war and a sequence of horrors. Her isolation is shared with an albino dog Phantom, whose spirit continues to sustain her after he dies.
One of three African books on a shortlist of 10 novels, which also included Ireland's Anne Enright and the 2006 Nobel Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, the winning book is bold, beautiful and often poignant, with many stylistic echoes of Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. Yet Agualusa (56) is an original whose international reputation was secured with the success of the English-language edition of The Book of Chameleons, also translated by Hahn. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007.
It is an important win. The International Dublin Literary Award, established in 1995 and now funded entirely by Dublin City Council, which has proved a pioneering champion in alerting readers to international fiction in translation, has come under pressure from the revamped Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. In only its second year in its new format, the latter has emerged as a specialist competition for books in translation.
This year’s Dublin award seemed destined for the Vietnamese-born US writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is already an international bestseller. Pamuk, as the only previous winner, having taken the then International IMPAC award in 2003, was regarded as an outsider with A Strangness in My Mind, translated by Ekin Oklap, a Dickensian love letter to Istanbul. More favoured was the previously shortlisted veteran Mia Couto from Mozambique, who this year featured with Confessions of a Lioness, translated by his regular collaborator, David Brookshaw. It is a strange and compelling work, very beautiful and subversive. Few commentators were prepared to discount either the appeal or threat of Enright’s The Green Road which had received a wide critical reception and is very popular.
A General Theory of Oblivion not only gives the prize a fine winner, it is an important one. It is true that it had also been somewhat ironically shortlisted for the rival prize last year as was another of this year’s Dublin International contenders, Robert Seethaler’s elegiac A Whole Life, a work of rare beauty which has been lovingly translated by Charlotte Collins.
An ongoing criticism of the Dublin prize is the three-year cycle which surrounds its submission due to the egalitarian nature of its selection process which is initially determined by library readers across the world. Many of the titles are already well known even at the time of the publication of the long list.
Agualusa’s triumph is a victory for empathy. The plight of Luanda, or Ludo, reflects that of mankind itself. Wronged early in life, she endures alone; catching birds on the balcony and ultimately burning her beloved books for warmth as she camps out in an empty flat, the furniture long gone in the fire. Her loneliness ends with the arrival of a young boy, a chance thief who befriends her.
That a work of art held off the driving narrative of Nguyen’s swashbuckling Catch-22 of the 21st century is fascinating. Even more so is the fact that of the original 149 titles submitted only 43 were in translation and yet 6 of the final 10 titles were in translation.
The quality of books in translation is not only impressing readers and prize juries; it is giving wary publishers much to consider. That a brief, magical and alluring work of art and intent could hold off witty and politically-barbed tour de force which returns to the squalid aftermath of the Vietnam War says a great deal about the perceptive intelligence guiding the award, and the collective insight which decided the outcome.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times