#InternationalBooker2024: A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare (tr. John Hodgson)

At the centre of A Dictator Calls is an examination of a short phone call made on 23 June 1934 by Stalin to Boris Pasternak. The subject of the call was the recent arrest of Pasternak’s fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. But its precise details are uncertain, because there are multiple accounts of the call, ranging from the official record to second-hand accounts by people of varying proximity to Pasternak. 

Kadare goes through each version of the call, drawing out the differences and varying interpretations. There’s no single definitive account of exactly what Stalin asked Pasternak, or how Pasternak replied, or even why the call took place. Different versions put different slants on these things, and the ultimate impression is one of no stable reality – which, the book suggests, reflects the nature of living and writing in a totalitarian state. 

Alongside his exploration of the Stalin-Pasternak call, Kadare gives an account of his own experiences as an Albanian writer. This puts into context his interest in the Stalin-Pasternak  call, as well as setting up a counterpoint that runs through the tapestry of the novel.

Published by Harvill Secker.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: the official shortlist

The official shortlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Scribe UK)
  • What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey (Scribe UK)
  • Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Verso Fiction)

I am still working through the longlist myself, so I don’t have a final opinion yet. But I am sure that at least three of these (Not a River, Kairos and Crooked Plow) will end up on my own personal shortlist. On the other hand, Mater 2-10 struggles to hold my attention whenever I try to read it. Different books for different readers, I guess.

The Shadow Panel will be revealing our own shortlist in a couple of weeks.

#InternationalBooker2024: Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Julia Sanches)

In Undiscovered, we first meet Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener in Paris, as she visits an exhibition of pre-Columbian artefacts that were taken to Europe by her Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, Charles Wiener. Her father’s death has spurred Gabriela on to investigate the legacy of that side of the family, and this is perhaps the most difficult part: the white ancestor who plundered her country.

As she tells it in the novel, Gabriela experiences a certain affinity with Charles in terms of his writing:

Isn’t that what writers do anyway? Pillage the real story and deface it until it shines its own singular light on the world? At some point, Charles started shining brighter than the world he swore he’d discovered, casting the world around him in his shadow. Scholars of his work agree that he was a travel writer, even though that’s wasn’t his intention and his work reads like fiction.

Translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches

Undiscovered could be seen as Gabriela-the-narrator’s way of trying to process and reconcile the different parts of her identity – not just her past, but also her present. Gabriela lives in Spain in a polyamorous relationship, but then has a fling on a trip back to Lima. One strand of the novel then follows Gabriela’s search for an equilibrium in her personal life. The intertwining of the personal and historical is, to my mind, what most animates Wiener’s novel.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior (tr. Johnny Lorenz)

Bibiana and Belonísia are sisters in a community of tenant farmers in northern Brazil. An accident with a knife when they are young leaves Belonísia without a tongue, which comes to represent the farmers’ own lack of voice. Belonísia narrates:

I liked hearing the word “plow” enunciated; it’s a strong, resonant word… But the sound that came from my mouth was an aberration, chaotic, as if the severed chunk of my tongue had been replaced by a hard-boiled egg. My voice was a crooked plow, deformed, penetrating the soil only to leave it infertile, ravaged, destroyed.

Translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz

The tale that unfolds reaches outwards in the person of Bibiana, who leaves the community for a time and gains a greater sense of politics. It also reaches inwards in the person of Belonísia, whose journey is more spiritual.

The first two parts of Crooked Plow are narrated respectively by the two sisters. I was particularly struck by the third part, which is narrated by a spirit conjured forth by their father, a healer. The spirit’s perspective allows this part of the book to take an overview that the rest cannot, adding further dimensions to the story – and the novel’s final image is with me still, both in itself and for what it represents.

Published by Verso Books.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Michael Hofmann)

According to Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Kairos is “the god of fortunate moments”. The chance moment that sets this story in motion occurs in East Berlin in 1986, as two characters meet on a bus: Katharina, a 19-year-old student; and Hans, a married man older than her father. They fall in love and begin an affair, and their thoughts are slightly to one side of each other from the start:

From now on, he thinks, the responsibility for their existence is entirely hers. He has to protect himself from himself. Maybe she’s a monster?

She thinks, he wants to prepare me for difficult times ahead. He wants to protect me. Protect me from myself, and so he gives me the power of decision over us.

He thinks, as long as she wants us, it won’t be wrong.

She thinks, if he leaves everything to me, then he’ll see what love means.

He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.

And she, he’s putting himself in my hands.

Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Over time, the couple’s differences and contradictions emerge more sharply, with Hans emerging as abusive and controlling. In the background, life is changing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things don’t necessarily turn out as the characters may have expected, with the reunification or their relationship. 

Kairos does not present a straightforward one-on-one allegory between wider society and the protagonists’ affair. But relationship and society echo each other in the ways that they change, and the result is a novel that opens up further as you venture in. 

Published by Granta.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (tr. Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn)

Ulises Kan bonds with his father-in-law, retired general Martín, over a shared love of dogs:

They’d drive [Martín’s dogs] in the pickup to a park just before Cota Mil and let them run loose. Sometimes Martín would get out with them. At other times, he preferred to watch from his seat in the truck, following their comings and goings, the jumping, the barking, the growling, and the biting, as if they were running at some crazy racecourse. Martín would always come back home happy, as if he had won, or lost, a bet against himself.

Translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

Ulises decides to get his own dog on the day his wife Paulina leaves Venezuela. Several months later, Martín dies, and Ulises finds that dogs will become even more prominent in his life: Martín has left his house to a foundation for abandoned dogs, and Ulises has been given four months to put everything in place or he’ll lose the apartment he has within the property. 

This set-up intrigued me, and the situation only grows more complicated for Ulises. For example, Paulina contests Martín’s will, the house is under watch, and the woman Ulises now loves has her own secrets to keep. At the same time, the country is falling apart in the background, all making for an eventful novel. 

Published by Seven Stories Press UK.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo (tr. Leah Janeckzo)

My journey through this year’s International Booker longlist begins with an Italian novel. Veronica Raimo’s narrator – also Veronica, or Vero, or Verika – starts by introducing her parents: her mother, who’s convinced that, if Vero’s brother doesn’t answer the phone, it means he must be dead. And her late father, who used to put up walls to subdivide the family apartment into even smaller areas, for reasons best known to himself. 

The way Vero describes these qualities, they come across as wryly amusing at first, until you start to think about them more. There’s a dry humour to much of the narration, such as here, where Vero talks about her family’s noisy household:

We lived immersed in the all-absorbing drone of our bodies and electrical impulses. Compressed and crammed into a home, we were a single organism that wagged its tail, banging it against the partition walls. We talked to each other over the noise, through the noise, which always turned out to be useful in later claiming the other person had misunderstood you.

Translation from Italian by Leah Janeckzo

Vero tells of her life in a series of anecdotes, and it becomes clear that not only does she have a ‘flexible’ relationship with the truth, she’s also using that as a kind of shield. So it’s up to the individual reader how much trust to place in Vero’s voice, but it’s an engaging voice in any case. 

Published by Virago.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: the longlist

The International Booker Prize is upon us, and as ever I will be joining in with the Shadow Panel to read along and offer my thoughts. Here’s the longlist, which was announced on Monday:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn (Seven Stories Press UK)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • White Nights by Urszula Honek, translated from Polish by Kate Webster (MTO Press)
  • Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Scribe UK)
  • A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare, translated from Albanian by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker)
  • The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk (MacLehose Press)
  • What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey (Scribe UK)
  • Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo, translated from Italian by Leah Janeczko (Virago)
  • The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky (Europa Editions UK)
  • Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Verso Fiction)
  • Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener, translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches (Pushkin Press)

I don’t have much to say at this point, because I haven’t read any of the books yet! Buts I read and review the longlist, the titles above will turn into links. It’s going to be quite a journey, so let’s get going…

Dylan Thomas Prize: Open Up by Thomas Morris

For the last few years, I’ve taken part in a blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize (awarded to works in English by writers aged under 40), looking at one of the longlisted titles. This year, my book of choice is the second story collection by Welsh writer Thomas Morris (following on from 2015’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing). 

The five stories in Open Up each revolve around male protagonists seeking a connection of some sort (seeking for the world to open up, if you will) – but there’s always a twist to how Morris approaches his material. The first story, ‘Wales’, sees a young boy going to a football match with his father (whom he hasn’t seen for three months) and feeling that everything will be fine if only Wales win. A glimpse into the future at story’s end stretches time to show that there can be unexpected turns of fortune (though maybe not perfection) after all. 

Sometimes Morris’s tales shift towards fantasy. For example, ‘Aberkariad’ is a story about seahorses. It lays human emotions on top of the particular biology of seahorses, bringing an unusual angle to the tale of a boy searching for his absent mother. In ‘Birthday Teeth’, Glyn describes himself as a vampire. Maybe he is, maybe it’s part of the disconnection he feels from his past and the world around him. Either way, he’s going to get himself some fangs on his 21st birthday. The process changes Glyn’s outlook, with the sense that he is able to become more fully himself. 

Even in the stories that seem more ordinary, there are intriguing undercurrents. ‘Little Wizard’ sees Big Mike (all five-foot-three of him) struggling with work and dating. So much of his life seems to be mediated through screens, whether that’s taking to friends on apps or watching football on TV. These represent Mike’s distance from the world but, in a nice touch, that very distance is also what helps him find a way forward. In ‘Passenger’, Geraint is on holiday in Croatia with his partner Niamh. But he’s not really present, as he’s dwelling more on the past. So there are two journeys going on in this story at the same time, and each helps resolve the other. The seems to me typical of the striking patters Morris paints in the stories of Open Up.

Open Up is published by Faber & Faber. The Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist will be revealed on 21 March, with the winner to be announced on 16 May.

Melville House ‘Futures’ blog tour: The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh

Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for the new ‘Futures’ series from Melville House – short books in which authors reflect and speculate on the possible future of their subject. The first four titles were published in the UK yesterday, and include volumes on the future of trust, war crimes justice, and Wales. But I’m looking at The Future of Songwriting, by Throwing Muses co-founder Kristin Hersh. 

Hersh’s book is written as a series of conversations between herself and a comedian friend (standing in for a number of actual conversations she’s had along similar lines), while both are playing a festival over Christmas in Sydney. The two of them are not out for fame, but they do want to work, and to keep working. Hersh is constantly thinking over how to balance art and commerce:

Art plus entertainment, substance plus style, and maybe they could get along, of all things. But don’t goddam sell, you know? No selling, no stars, no status, just pass the hat so you can work again.

Hersh and the comedian talk around this and related issues, with various symbols recurring. They see echoes of themselves in the Jack of Diamonds, the messenger travelling between the material and spiritual worlds. An apple growing on a tree represents music in its primal form, and (Hersh suggests) people’s relationships with both have grown distanced and denatured. 

My overall impression of Hersh’s book is not of an argument that progresses and reaches a firm conclusion, but more of a dance that explores the space opened by the subject. That feels appropriate, when Hersh highlights the importance of reaching back as much as pushing forward. 

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