‘The Vegetarian’ towers over Man Booker International Prize long list
Candidates for now combined literary award uneven but greeted with interest
At a mere 183 pages South Korea’s Han Kang’s superb and disturbing novel in three acts, ‘The Vegetarian’, towers over the Man Booker International Prize long list.
Equal measures of interest and caution will greet the announcement of a 13-strong, if uneven, long list which marks the inaugural combining of two important literary prizes - the Man Booker International Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
The previously bi-annual Man Booker has been awarded since 2005 for a body of work rather than a single book. Winners include Albanian Ismail Kadare, Canadian Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and last year Hungarian maestro, László Krasznahorkai. The always rich, always perceptive Independent Foreign Fiction Prize followed a brave furrow despite a mid-life lacuna when it fell silent for five years between 1996 and 2000.
On the one hand it is deeply satisfying to see the quality of international fiction in translation being deservedly showcased. On the other, what a shame to see the demise of the pioneering, and vital, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which since its inception by the British newspaper, the Independent, in 1990, alerted readers not only to wonderful writing but to the work and craft of literary translators.
The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize initially survived for five years and then ended. In 2001 it rose again like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. By 2002 it had posthumously honoured the great W.G. Sebald for Austerlitz and continued amassing a body of brilliant winners - and fascinating short lists - up until last year with what was to be the final award going to the outstanding German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck for her masterful The End of Days.
The new Man Booker International Prize inaugural long list, dominated by South Korean Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, includes the charming if meandering and overblown A Strangeness in My Mind by 2006 Nobel Literature Laureate Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap, is it yet another variation on a favoured Pamuk theme, his love for Istanbul.
Far more intriguing is the inclusion of a second Nobel Literature Laureate, Japan’s Kenzaburo Oe, who was honoured in 1994. His long listed book, Death By Water, translated by Deborah Bolivar Boehm, could be his finest achievement, a tormented swan song, and should not only make the short list but be a serious contender.
The inclusion of the courageous Chinese writer Yan Lianke for The Four Books, translated by Carlos Rojas, is inspired. This is a power truth teller’s narrative about China and the Great Famine. Shaped by the logic of Confucius, this study of power and powerlessness was immediately banned in China and it tells what really happened between the years 1958 and 1962 when an estimated 40 - 45 million people starved to death in a country which knew how to keep its scandals a secret and kept exporting rice. It would be a magnificent and important winner.
Italian bestseller Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga of a fraught friendship infused with sexual rivalry, translated by Ann Goldstein is internationally revered, but I find it jaw-droppingly humourless and over-written. It would be difficult to imagine that even winning could possibly further increase her legions of fans. The fourth instalment of the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, is long listed.
But at a mere 183 pages South Korea’s Han Kang’s superb and disturbing novel in three acts, The Vegetarian, towers over the list and is profoundly human.
French original Maylis De Kerangal’s Mend the Living, translated by Jessica Moore, takes a candid look at the human tragedies which make organ donation and a further hope, for some, of life possible. Her countrywoman, Prix Goncourt-winner Maria Ndiaye’s Ladivine, translated by John Stump, tells the story of a woman who lives in denial of her natural mother and for sheer emotion force it easily out- guns Ferrante.
One of the most beautiful narratives published last year was Austrian-born Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins. It follows the taciturn Andreas Egger from his harsh boyhood lived with a cruel relative and on to brief love and personal tragedy. With shades of John Williams’ classic Stoner (1965), this is a melancholic, beautiful and subtle book, if an unlikely winner and it already has a following.
White Hunger by Finland’s Aki Ollikainen, translated by mother and daughter, Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah, is one of two debuts on the list and it draws on the great Finnish famine of 1867. Harrowing in parts it is dramatic, even melodramatic, is not quite fully convincing, almost as if it is overwhelmed by the weight of the real life history upon which it is based.
Also a debut novel is Tram 83 by Congolese Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser. Poet Lucien experiences life in a small mining town in the Congo along with a colourful cast of writers, drunks, drug-dealers and dreamers.
The Angolan Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, explores the history of Angola through the self-imposed isolation of a reclusive woman.
Indonesian Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring, a new wave crime novel with supernatural flourishes if no mystery to solve, is a bold contender.
A surprise inclusion must be Brazil’s Raduan Nassar for A Cup of Rage, translated by Stefan Tobler. At only 47 pages it is an intense account of sexual relations between a man and his younger lover. When they’re not having sex, they argue. It is all very intense. Nassar is 80 and is being heralded as a great discovery for English-language readers.
Yet greater claims must be made for some serious omissions. Spain’s Ivan Replia’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, translated by Sophie Hughes, is a philosophical work of art which observes two brothers, Big and Small, who are trapped in a well. One of the most remarkable literary achievements of recent years, it should be celebrated, but has been overlooked.
But the current wave of outstanding Spanish fiction, as so well represented by Hispa in Madrid with Alvaro Colomer’s Uppsala Woods, translated by Jonathan Dunne; J.A. Gonzalez Sainz’s None So Blind, translated by Augenbraum & Cecila Ross; or Javier Montes’s The Hotel Life, translated by Ollie Brock with Lorna Scott Fox - has been overlooked.
Young Croatian author Olja Savicevic’s Farewell, Cowboy, translated by the great Ceila Hawkesworth is missing as are Slovenian masters, Drago Jancar’s I Saw Her That Night, translated by Michael Biggins and Evald Flisar’s My Father’s Dreams, translated by the author. Another shock exclusion is Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s daring, The Meursault Investigation, translated by John Cullen which was short listed for the Prix Goncourt.
Campaigning publishers and literary translators are ensuring that outstanding fiction from around the world is now available to English-language readers. This long list does include several outstanding books, yet there are some significant oversights with far greater justification than established names such as Pamuk and Ferrante for inclusion for a prize that counts - now more than ever with the combining of two awards.
This year’s inaugural winner could be decided in the East; between Japan’s Oe, the South Koran Han Kang and the courageous Chinese witness, Yan Lianke.
The judges will announce a shortlist of six books on April 14th and the winner on May 16th with the £50,000 prize being divided equally between the author and the translator of the winning entry. The judges considered 155 books.