Four possible Nobel literature laureates, Israelis Amos Oz and David Grossman, Albanian Ismail Kadare and Yan Lianke, who is a banned writer in his native China, are among the contenders for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. This is an exciting longlist which impresses while also causing some bewilderment which might just edge towards minor irritation at some obvious omissions.
Now in its second year of its new format, the award continues to fulfil its objective: increasing the profile of international fiction in translation. A dozen countries are represented by 10 men, including Israel’s two most famous writers, along with only three women, one of whom has written a devastating dark horse of a book. The 13 nominees now begin the battle for ultimate victory on June 14th via the six places on the shortlist.
At first glance the judges must be applauded for including two remarkable European works, Compass, by the gifted French writer Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) and Bricks and Mortar, by visionary German realist Clemens Meyer (translated by Katy Derbyshire).
Both novels are bold, brilliant and very different from each other and just about everything else. Also, they are published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the daring, young independent publisher established in 2014. Either of these novels could win; each has a strong claim and it is difficult to choose between them.
Compass is a cultural and blatantly indulgent tour de force which elegantly trawls through the contrasting artistic and historical legacies of East and West. Énard, who established his voice with the magnificent Zone (2008; 2014, also translated by Mandell) – which was aptly described as an Iliad for our violent epoch – is a scholar of Arabic and Persian and an original. His imagination is indeed a wonder to behold. Compass won the 2015 Prix Goncourt.
Compass is dazzling and very clever, as well as immensely entertaining. The central character, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist, unrequited lover and career insomniac. He is also very ill and as he lies in bed, one very long Viennese night, his memories run riot. Having travelled widely throughout the Middle East, often in the company of the elusive Sarah, a scholar obsessed with the interaction of East and West in history and art, his thoughts are alive with fact, digression, anecdote and images of composers, writers and archaeologists all struggling for meaning. Énard takes Claudio Magris's Danube, a work he references throughout, many, many stages further. It is an eccentric delight.
Bricks and Mortar is starker if no less compelling. Meyer, best known to date for his assured second book, All the Lights (2008; 2011, also translated by Derbyshire), confronts the sex trade in Germany from just before the fall of the Berlin Wall until the present day. At the centre is an Everyman thug and his rise and fall. It has echoes of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). It is full of voices and individual stories.
Published in Germany in 2013 and one of my books of 2016, Bricks and Mortar is a movie waiting to be made. Its blunt humanity and cinematic energy are sustained through a daunting technical control, which complements the edgy artistry.
Norwegian Roy Jacobsen's The Unseen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) will be a popular choice. It is a beautiful work, one of those rare perfect novels. Jacobsen tells the story of a family living on an island off Norway's coast and its efforts to draw a living from the unforgiving sea. Humour and tragedy shape the life of Ingrid Barroy who comes of age in a traditional world which is beginning to change. This was also one of my books of 2016.
MacLehose Press, a pioneering champion of literature in translation, is also the publisher of Icelandic master Jon Kalman Stefanssson's Fish Have No Feet (translated by Philip Roughton). It is also a family epic and is equally appealing. In it Ari, a writer and publisher who has been living in Denmark, returns home when his father is dying, and begins to recall his youth. As with The Unseen, it should reach the shortlist.
Albanian veteran Ismail Kadare, inaugural winner of the Man Booker International in 2005 and a likely future Nobel laureate, has a large body of work. The longlisting of his surreal and admittedly witty fable The Traitor's Niche (translated by John Hodgson), which was originally published as long ago as 1978, seems an odd choice, considering that so many of Kadare's books reached translation so much sooner. As a Kadare fan, I would say he has written better books.
Making the longlist is the slight and frankly routine coming of age offering, Swallowing Mercury, by Polish poet Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak). This heavy-handed tale of growing up in rural Poland consists of random anecdotes and only very late in what is a small work does it begin to acquire resonance when the narrator re-imagines her dead father as a boy and young man whose life ended prematurely. Its inclusion in a longlist this good is inexplicable.
A father gives way to grandfather in Belgian Stefan Hertman's War and Turpentine (translated by David McKay). Based on his grandfather's notebooks, this is an important book, particularly from the viewpoint of a Fleming in the Belgian army where French speakers assumed a social superiority. The central sections are dramatic and allow McKay's translation to soar. The opening and closing sequences expose Hertman's stylistic limitations and his tentative response to WG Sebald's influence.
Israeli writers David Grossman and Amos Oz are potential Nobel laureates; both are represented on the longlist with fine novels, neither of which should win. David Grossman's A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen) is a courageous, new departure for the always interesting Grossman. His narrator is a despairing, veteran stand-up comic who confronts his life one night during a routine which exhausts and intrigues his audience, even repels others. One of my Books of 2016, it should reach the shortlist.
Amos Oz’s Judas (translated by Nicholas de Lange), his first novel in a decade, is a traditional narrative, a love story which also revisits the Judas theme of betrayal. Oz as a polemicist was always vital, as a storyteller he has grown into his art.
Famously referred to as Africa's Samuel Beckett, Congolese magician Alain Mabanckou is always smart and disturbing. Black Moses (translated from the French by Helen Stevenson) is about growing up fierce and fast. His comedy helps temper the indignation. Imagine Robin Hood's merry men on the loose. Previously nominated for the Man Booker International in 2015, he is one to watch.
Always worth heeding is Chinese satirist Yan Lianke, who is banned in his homeland and is also a potential Nobel laureate. Shortlisted last year for The Four Books, here he is again with The Explosion Chronicles (translated by Carlos Rojas). Set in a village community initially established by survivors of a natural disaster, Yan loves juxtaposing the natural with the evil of men.
He is very funny and fearless, as seen in The Four Books and the excellent Dream of Ding Village (2009; 2011), in which he castigated the Chinese government over an Aids epidemic caused when injections of plasma are used to prevent anaemia.
No one will dispute the inclusion of Argentinean Samanta Schweblin’s marvellously ambivalent Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell). A young mother is dying in hospital, her mind tormented by terrifying memories, or are they dreams. Schweblin, the youngest contender, should have a say in the closing stages of this prize with a dramatic and compelling story.
Far from compelling and in ways the oddest book on the list, Danish writer Dorthe Nors’ sympathetic and familiar Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (translated by Misha Hoekstra) will nevertheless charm. A childless, single woman of a certain age knows all about becoming invisible, so she learns to drive. Most readers will like this book.
The longlist for this prize, with a wealth of international fiction in translation from which to draw, certainly makes the Man Booker, eligible to writers in English appear, very dull indeed.
Man Booker International longlist
- Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (Serpents Tail)
- Compass by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo)
- Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, tanslated by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo)
- The Traitor's Niche by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker)
- War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay (Harvill Secker)
- Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (One World)
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose)
- Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson, translated by Philip Roughton (MacLehose)
- Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello)
- A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
- Judas by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange. (Chatto and Windus)
- The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas (Chatto and Windus)
- Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra. (Pushkin)
Kruso by Lutz Seiler, translated by Tess Lewis (Scribe) This is a wonderful novel, the story of a depressed literature student, devastated by the death of his girlfriend, who heads off to the Baltic island of Hiddensee. It is a 21st-century variation of Thomas Mann's classic, The Magic Mountain, written with a casual literary ease all of its own.
The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk (MacLehose) Sharp and funny examination of the Russian soul - this would have been very popular as Kurkov has quite a following.
The Wednesday Club by Kjell Westo, translated by Neil Smith (MacLehose) Set in 1938, Hitler is causing confusion which is even beginning to penetrate the muted serenity of Helsinki's Wednesday Club where gentlemen gather. Westo is a Finn who writes n Swedish and this novel will beguile.
Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun, translated by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin) Even if one didn't immediately realise that Bolivian Hasbun was included as one of Granta's Best writers in Spanish under the age of 35, the presence of translator Sophie Hughes, whose magnificent version of Ivan Repila's magnificent allegory, The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse (2013;2015), established her as a translator to trust.
Belladonna by Dasa Drndic, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (MacLehose) Drndic is a courageous voice and this novel is about a woman, her country, life itself. In Celia Hawkesworth, we see one of the world's great translators at work - subtle, intuitive and unobtrusive - a serious omission.
Cry. Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini (MacLehose) Salvayre grew up in France and writes in French but she is the daughter of exiled republican parents and her first language is Spanish. This is her stylistically sophisticated version of the chaos which was the Spanish Civil War. It is a precise, intelligent novel.