Man Booker International Prize preview

Eileen Battersby surveys the shortlist of six titles ahead of tonight’s awards ceremony

The six shortlisted titles

The six shortlisted titles


Slowly the minutes appear to drip by, yet finally a result is in sight, and whatever the destination of the Man Booker International 2017, now in the second year of its reinvention – fiction in translation, the standing army of world-class literary translators and we, the readers, are the big winners.

Joining us of course will be the winning author, the chosen one of the four men and two women – or, to be even more exact, one of the three Europeans, two Israelis and a lone South American. Each of the six competing novels has been translated and published in English by British publishers. Equally, each of the six books has been well received; two of the shortlisted authors have been tipped as potential Nobel Prize in Literature laureates.

One of the novels to survive to the final out of an original submission of an initial, highly impressive 123 titles, is most accurately described (okay by me but I am not alone) as perfect; a second, the only debut, has been hailed as mysterious; a third as engaging and likeable; a fourth as a literary confection of anecdotal delight; a fifth could break your heart; and the sixth, written by an acknowledged literary giant, takes on the contentious and painful history of his troubled country.

Interested? Why not have a look and see how writers can make a very big world appear very small, vulnerable, utterly human and all things considered, not such a bad place to be. Literary translators are opening the world to readers and this list includes works originally written in French, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian and Hebrew. The winning author will share their prize, 50/50, with their translator, all too often the invisible conduit but not according to Man Booker International.

Tonight’s contenders

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Why not begin with perfection? This is the story of a family living on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast. The central character is Ingrid Barroy, born on the island which bears her name. Her father is a dreamer; her mother looks on in stoic resignation. Life is hard, the sea is lord and a change in the weather can prove fatal. Roy Jacobsen was shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary award in 2009 with his beautiful wartime story of one man’s defiance, The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, which earned him a devoted readership. He has a huge following in Ireland, and his subsequent novels Child Wonder and Borders also impressed. The Unseen was my Book of the Year last year and it is also included in the forthcoming Irish Times selection of books for Dad on Father’s Day. This novel is already widely admired – no, make that deservedly loved.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
Unsettling, fluid, elusive, as strange as the human mind, Schweblin, from Argentina, the youngest contender at 39, as expected made the final six with her intoxicating debut novel, brilliantly translated by the outstanding Megan McDowell. The good old Gothic does its thing in this mesmerising narrative which charts the tragic descent of a young woman as she lies dying in a rural hospital, sharing a fragmented conversation with a boy who is not her son. And to think all she did was to dare to enjoy a country vacation with her small daughter while her husband stayed on in the city, working. It is a devastating feat of translation conveying all the menace and ambivalence of the original.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra
Supremely sympathetic Everywoman Sonja is the Danish translator of Swedish crime fiction; she is very lonely and very human. Now 40, she is single, her sister is decidedly unsupportive, but Sonja decides to fight back and attempts to learn to drive. Should it be that difficult? Well, for Sonja it is. Nors is clever and in tune with the small hardships, often the most painful, of life. The first Danish writer to have a story published in the New Yorker – and let’s be honest this has become a calling card, as if she needs the New Yorker. Author of Karate Chop, a collection of short fiction which you either love or, like me, merely er, like… and the inventive novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, which is a performance piece of sorts and ideal for the stage, she is very popular. Although the only one of the six who most emphatically should not win, and cannot win, Nors has written a book which is impossible to dislike and could leave even the most stony-hearted Grinch (me) with a smile on their face (it did.)

Compass by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Everything you may ever have heard or imagined hearing about French flair comes into play in this delightful confection. Arabist, scholar of the Middle East and author of cult wonder Zone (2008), Enard’s impossible genius is tempered by his humour. His narrator Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, dreamer and unrequited lover, lies in bed, very ill, possibly dying and revisits the time he spent with the love of his life, a tenacious French woman, also a scholar, who pursed knowledge with a deranged intensity.

The narrative spans one night as his mind and imagination race. It is simply gorgeous, anecdotal and eccentric without being bombastic. It makes one recall Ivan Goncharaov’s classic Oblomov (1859). Rich in ideas, digression and historical fact, with a cast of colourful, often comic characters, Compass is also profound. Enard’s theme is the ongoing conflict of East versus West. He is contemplating the ransacking of Middle Eastern culture by countries who built up impressive museums filled with loot, theft passed off as intellectual endeavour. Most poignantly, Compass will encourage a reader to pause and consider the plight of the Syrian people. To read it is to wander in a treasure house. Be warned.

A Horse Walks into A Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
Bold, brash, angry and heartbreakingly tender, with flurries of exasperated humour, here is a novel to take one by surprise. David Grossman, widely tipped as one of two major Israeli writers capable of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, has a body of fine work to his name. He is an impassioned, courageous writer and commentator. This novel does announce itself with strident, uncharacteristic intent. Even Grossman’s many admirers might be taken aback at the tone – if only initially. One of my books of 2016, it is also included in the forthcoming Irish Times selection, A book for Dad on Father’s Day.

Dovaleh G is a veteran stand-up comic – desperate, perhaps even unhinged – but on a mission to tell the truth. He regales an audience at a small-town Israeli nightclub with the story of his past. Not everyone chooses to stay. As the long evening unwinds, so too does an account of childhood pain. A demanding and gloriously rewarding novel, in it Grossman confronts the business of being alive.

Judas by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange
Also regarded as a potential Nobel laureate, the legendary truth teller Amos Oz, Grossman’s countryman and senior by 15 years, looks back to his earlier work with Judas. It is a novel of ideas as well as a story of an Everyman figure, Shmuel, a student whose tendency to shout out his ideas is stalled by the departure of his long-suffering girlfriend. So upset is he by this that he abandons his thesis and persists in replying to an advertisement requesting a willing listener to an elderly man’s thoughts. Set in the winter of 1959-1960, it is vintage Oz. The subsequent love story between the young man and a world-weary older woman of dangerous appeal may set teeth on edge, but Oz is always worth heeding. It is an important work and as ever Oz’s translator Nicholas de Lange attends to the power, intensity and nuance Oz brings to every idea.

Who will win?
Don’t bet your house on this one – only Nors looks a clear outsider.

Who should win?
Compass is a delight; comparable to finding you have inherited a chocolate factory. I love it. Can Roy Jacobsen’s perfect novel stave off the weighty challenge of the Israeli duo? This will be close. A great deal depends on how much you need a house….

Lest we forget: firstly, the current and growing interest in the wealth of international fiction in translation owes a debt to the Dublin International Literary Award which has since 1995 pioneered and consistently showcased international fiction in translation. This year’s winner will be announced on June 21st from a short list of 10 titles, six of which are in translation.

Secondly, many outstanding novels did not make the shortlist including Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire which was long listed, while neither Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur, nor Kruso by German poet Lutz Seiler, which was translated by Tess Lewis, even made the long list. Back in January I thought Kruso would win this – I still feel it should be in there, battling it out in the final six. You could spare a thought for the judges but then again why? What a wonderful job, getting to read such a range of remarkable novels.

The winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction will be announced at 10pm on Wednesday.

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