The Booker International Prize’s ambitious 2021 shortlist

Adventurous selection of works has a common preoccupation with the ebb and flow of private and public histories

As the primary shop window for translated fiction in the English-speaking world, the Booker International Prize for fiction attracts admiration and suspicion in equal measure.

Admiration because, along with the International Dublin Literary Award, the prize has done much to boost the profile of translated literature in English. Suspicion because, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed, nobody is ever excluded from feeling left out.

There will always be recriminations about the neglected, foreign masterpieces deprived of the oxygen of recognition. However, there is no denying that the shortlist for the 2021 prize is adventurous and diverse, with a refreshingly generous sense of how fiction might be defined. If there is a common preoccupation among the works, it is with the ebb and flow of private and public histories and the tussle between metaphor and fact to arrive at some notion of truth.

At Night All Blood Is Black, written by David Diop and translated by Anna Moschovakis, looks to the experience of a Senegalese soldier fighting in the French army in the first World War in order to measure the intimate traumas of public events.


Alfa Ndiaye is aware of the cynicism of his French superiors using racial stereotypes to send flattered colonials to their deaths: “The captain’s France needs for us to play the savage when it suits them. They need for us to be savage because the enemy is afraid of our machetes.” Grieving over the death on the battlefield of his “more-than-brother” Mademba Diop, Alfa exacts terrible revenge on German combatants. His tactics disturb his commanding officer and fellow soldiers, who do not like to be reminded of the sheer scale of violence unleashed by flag waving and the bloodless abstractions of misplaced patriotism.

Diop’s remarkably evocative text moves between Flanders Fields and rural Senegal in a deft unpicking of lives marked by the troubled ties of kinship and the multiple discriminations of race.

Maria Stepanova's In Memory of Memory, translated by Sasha Dugdale, is similarly concerned with kinship in the long, bloody history of 20th-century Russia. Documents left by a deceased aunt set Stepanova on the trail of her Jewish family, tracking countless appearances and disappearances.

As she tries to give voice to “the captive tongue of our general history”, Stepanova struggles with the difficulty of making any sense of past lives, emotions or objects. The formidably erudite Russian author includes long extended considerations on film, photography and painting as a kind of reflective counterpoint to her grappling with the erratic evidence of her family’s pasts.

The blending of the (auto)biographical and the non-fictional finds its echoes in the contemporary writing practices of Olga Tokarczuk, a previous winner of the prize, as well as Judith Schalansky and the late WG Sebald ,whom Stepanova frequently references. Her prose is often arresting (“The long narrow entrance hall was uplit with turquoise light, it was like walking down a drinking straw”). This combined with her fierce, critical intelligence makes her work distinctive and engaging.

Engagement of a very specific kind is to the fore in Benjamin Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World, translated by Adrian Nathan West. Labatut takes a group of 20th century scientists and mathematicians, including Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzschild, Alexander Grothendieck, Erwin Schrödinger, Louis de Broglie and Werner Heisenberg, and explores the imagined human lives of minds that have flirted with absolutes. Here, we encounter Faustian pacts that unravel with sinister consequences.

The brilliant chemist Haber, who will save the lives of millions from hunger through his procedure for extracting nitrogen, later used in fertilisers, is the same man who creates mustard gas. Labatut’s text offers an astonishing recreation of the circumstances in which Schrödinger and Heisenberg arrived at their different understandings of quantum mechanics.

Labatut is never didactic, but there is more than an undercurrent of concern about where certain kinds of knowledge might take us. If we are to begin and not cease understanding the world, his deft and original work suggests that the ethical and artistic dimensions of the imagination are as necessary as the scientific.

Figuring out why the world suddenly does not make sense is a concern that repeatedly intrudes on the lives of the characters in Mariana Enriquez' The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, translated by Megan McDowell. The stories in the collection, which are mainly set in Buenos Aires, move tentatively through a landscape of mental distress, self-harm and the chance eruption of the uncanny. Often it is the lives of young women who are held hostage by the psychic disturbances of family histories or by the aftermath of exploitation and neglect.

In the longest story in the book, Kids Who Come Back, all the children reported missing in the Argentinian capital return, much to the joy of their bereft parents. However, the joy sours as the children, though identical to those lost, turn out not to be these children at all. In a brilliant conceit involving a Ouija board and restless teenagers, Back When We Talked to the Dead brings up the fate of those who were “disappeared” by the Argentinian military. Enriquez’ stories linger, unsettling and irreverential.

Éric Vuillard in The War of the Poor, translated by Mark Polizzotti, looks at those evacuated from history through the trapdoor of poverty. In detailing the history of peasant uprisings led by figures such as Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, he comes to focus on the charismatic if doomed figure of Thomas Müntzer in 16th-century Germany. Müntzer's radical gospel of social and economic equality terrified Catholic and Lutheran worthies alike, and Vuillard charts his sudden rise and bloody fall.

This short but vivid text is a historical fiction, but Vuillard’s attentions, like his tenses, are firmly focused on the present. The wretched of the earth have not forgotten, he suggests. They are simply biding their time.

The Danish writer Olga Ravn expands that notion of time in The Employees, translated by Martin Aitken, and subtitled A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century. The crew on the Six-Thousand Ship is made up of humans and humanoids (manufactured rather than born). The Ship is an Amazon-like dystopia, an unFulfillment Centre, where the employees are wholly subordinate to the algorithmic tyranny of the Board of Directors.

Before the humans are liquidated, the humanoids collect statements from them in which the humans detail their profound sense of loss and disorientation and their longing for a planet they no longer inhabit.

The Employees is a strangely affecting work of speculative fiction which brings Vuillard’s war of the poor to the heavens. Irrespective of who wins the Booker International prize, they can be glad of the company they have kept on this ambitious and innovative shortlist.

Michael Cronin is director of the Trinity Centre for Cultural and Literary Translation