CategoryAwards

Man Booker International Prize 2017: and the winner is…

The other day, I wondered whether the official MBIP winner would match the shadow winner again. Now I know the answer to that question: well, no. 

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017 was…

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape). 

I quite liked the book, but it wasn’t one of my favourites; and it didn’t make our shadow shortlist at all. As Tony notes in his post on the winner, it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you’ve invested several months in following this competition, and the result doesn’t go the way you wanted. 

Of course, there’s more than one point of view. A Horse Walks was by far the favourite longlisted title of readers from the Mookse and the Gripes Goodreads group who were also following the Prize. A lot of people rate this book very highly. We on the shadow panel weren’t among them. Ah well, so be it. 

My congratulations go to David Grossman, Jessica Cohen, and everyone else involved in the publication of A Horse Walks into a Bar. My thanks go to my fellow shadow panellists StuTony MaloneGrantBellezzaTony MessengerClare, and Lori. Thanks also to everyone who’s been reading along with our discussions. 

See you again next year? 😉

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow winner

A little over a month ago, we of the MBIP shadow panel revealed our shortlist. Now it’s time to announce our shadow winner… 

The votes have been counted, the numbers have been crunched… and the result was the closest it has ever been. So, before we come to the winner, we have one novel which is Highly (Highly) Commended. That novel is:

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Unseen is an excellent novel, but it was just pipped to the post by another excellent novel. And so – drum roll please – we can now reveal that the MBIP shadow winner for 2017 is… 

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Congratulations to all involved in this worthy winner! 

Now, there is one other little matter, of course: the official MBIP winner, which will be announced tonight. Both Compass and The Unseen made the official shortlist – I wonder whether either of them will take the Prize. The shadow winner has matched the official one for the last two years. Will this be a third time? I look forward to finding out. 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow panel’s shortlist

The official shortlist was announced a couple of weeks ago; we of the shadow panel have totted up our scores and are ready to announce the shadow MBIP shortlist for 2017:

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell). 
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw).
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire. 
  • Judas by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Longe). 
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell).
  • Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton). 

Four titles overlapping with the official shortlist, but quite a different list in character even so, I’d say.

We will be choosing one of these six books as our shadow winner, which we’ll announce shortly before the official winner is revealed on 14 June. For the last two years, the shadow and official panels have chosen the same winner. Will that happen again this year? Only time will tell… 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shortlist

I’m a few days late reporting this, but the official shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize was announced:

  • Compass by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell). 
  • A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen). 
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw). 
  • Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra). 
  • Judas by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Longe).
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell). 

I’ve reviewed five of those; the links above will take you to the relevant posts.

I think this is an interesting shortlist, but most importantly from my point of view, it includes three of my favourites (Compass, The Unseen, and Fever Dream). I’d love to see one of those take the Prize. 

Normally, we on the shadow panel would have announced our shadow shortlist by now. However, for various reasons (not least that we’d read fewer of the books in advance of the longlist than was usual), we have decided to put our announcement forward to 4 May. How will it compare to the official shortlist? I can’t wait to find out…

The Explosion Chronicles: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Yan Lianke, The Explosion Chronicles (2013)

Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (2016)



Yan Lianke is the only author to appear in last year’s MBIP longlist as well as this year’s. I didn’t get chance to review his The Four Books last year, but I did enjoy it, even though I was flagging by the end. I ended up having much the same reaction to The Explosion Chronicles.

Yan’s novel narrates the history of the fictitious settlement Explosion (named after a volcanic eruption), in particular its expansion over the last sixty years from a village all the way up to a megalopolis. Much of this history revolves around two rival clans, the Kong and Zhu. Explosion gains its initial wealth from the villagers’ following Chief Kong Mingliang’s example and stealing (sorry, unloading) coal from passing trains. The previous chieftain’s daughter, Zhu Ying, makes her fortune elsewhere through prostitution, then comes back to Explosion in order to build an empire there.


To my mind, Yan’s prose style (in Rojas’ translation, of course) often has a folktale quality; and there are touches of magical realism that push the novel into absurdity, if it’s not there already. But Yan’s afterword reveals that some of the events which I had assumed were made up had their basis in actuality. Yan calls his approach ‘mythorealism’, and explains that he felt he had to stretch reality in order to address the particular changes in Chinese society with which The Explosion Chronicles is concerned. It gave me cause to think again about what I’d been reading.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


What I’ve found having read two Yan Lianke novels is that I do enjoy his work, but in small doses. Over 450 pages (the length of The Explosion Chronicles), it becomes a little wearying, as the novel is quite repetitive. Yan’s book won’t make my top six, but I can see absolutely why it might find a place on the official shortlist.

A Horse Walks into a Bar: Man Booker International Prize 2017

David Grossman, A Horse Walks into a Bar (2014)

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (2016)



Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: this is the first book by David Grossman that I’ve read, but (yes, just like the last two titles reviewed here) it’s not going to be the last.


Dov Greenstein (alias Dovaleh G) takes to the stage in a comedy club. Watching in the audience is our narrator, Avishai Lazar, a retired judge who attended the same private remedial class as Greenstein when they were young. The comedian called Lazar out of the blue and asked him to attend tonight’s show, and to report back what he sees when he watches Greenstein.


It’s quite the performance, as Greenstein does his best to alienate his audience. He throws in a few jokes as a sop (or taunt) to them; but mostly he’s intent on laying bear details of his life, and one incident in particular.


A Horse Walks into a Bar explores moments of intense experience in the frame of a stand-up show, which is itself a heightened and intense situation. Grossman is then able to examine the relationship between teller and told-to (including novelist and reader), and how emotional events become processed and accepted (or not) in the telling. This is a dense rush of a novel.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Unlike some of the other titles on the longlist, A Horse Walks is strongly shaped around a particular conceit, which is the sort of thing I like in a novel, so I’m inclined to be sympathetic towards it. However, I do think that the novel achieves a good deal with its conceit; so my answer is yes, I could see it on the shortlist. 

Black Moses: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Alain Mabanckou, Black Moses (2015)

Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson (2017)



Papa Moupelo gives him the name “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko”, which translates into English as “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”. The boy has great affection for the priest at the orphanage in Loango; but, one day in Moses’ teens, Papa Moupelo doesn’t arrive for his weekly visit. His hut is turned into the meeting place of the “National Movement of Pioneers of the Socialist Revolution of Congo”. The old religion is out: the new age has begun.


Well, that depends on how you look at it. The orphanage’s Director takes the opportunity to strengthen the position of himself and his favourite nephews; kids like Moses don’t feel much benefit. The first half of Mabanckou’s novel tells how Moses negotiates life at the orphanage, buttering up the Director by parroting his propaganda; and becoming the accidental associate of the twins who bully the other orphans.


In the novel’s second half, Moses has escaped to the city of Pointe-Noire with the twins, where he is now a member of their gang. He may come to fancy himself a Robin Hood figure, but can Moses find his own people to lead – and to where?


Black Moses starts off as an engaging tale of a childhood shaped at a remove by political change. Then it expands its web, always with the personal at the forefront; before tightening its strands, until the personal becomes the heart of novel’s end.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


By now, I have a greater sense of the books on the longlist; in turn, I can start to see the shape of the potential shortlists I might choose. Some of the slots are already filled, but there’s still plenty of room; and I could see a place for Black Moses. As with The Traitor’s Niche, this is my first time reading the author, and won’t be the last. I’d be happy to see Mabanckou’s novel on the official shortlist.

The Traitor’s Niche: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche (1978)

Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (2017)



At the centre of the Ottoman Empire, carved into Constantinople’s Cannon Gate, the Traitor’s Niche lies ready to host the severed head of the latest individual to rebel against or displease the sultan. Abdualla is guardian of the niche; when not inspecting the head, he watches the people in the square, silently.


At the edge of empire, Hurshid Pasha has suppressed the latest rebellion of the province of Albania. He is presented with the head of Ali Tepelena, Albania’s ill-fated governor. The head is duly given to the sultan’s courier, Tundj Hata, who takes it back to Constantinople – but not without charging a few villagers for the privilege of seeing it along the way.


The Traitor’s Niche was my first Kadare novel, but I don’t intend it to be the last – in Hodgson’s translation, his brisk prose is delightful to read. What appears to be simply a yarn becomes more serious as Kadare reveals the lengths to which the empire will go to suppress opposition, as it seeks to extinguish languages, folk traditions, even memories. The novel then revolves around contests for human and cultural spaces: the head in the Traitor’s Niche commands the attention of those in the square it overlooks; if the empire extinguishes a culture in thought and practice, its former people wander lost in an empty human space that can easily be stepped into. 


The original Albanian version of The Traitor’s Niche was published in 1978; there may well be some parallels between the political situation at that time and the world of the book, parallels I’m missing because I don’t have that context. Nevertheless, I found much to enjoy and think about in Kadare’s novel as I found it.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Lacking any deeper background knowledge, I have to consider The Traitor’s Niche primarily as an enjoyable novel to read – which, when it’s done this well, goes quite a long way. Even so: compared to the experience I’ve had reading some of the other longlisted books, is that enough for the shortlist? Well, maybe. It would be a close call. But maybe.

Fever Dream: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell


While thinking over my preferences recently, I realised that many of my favourite novels could be described as ‘short and sharp (or strange, or strong)’.  Fever Dream is a good example.

The novel takes place in a hospital (or maybe the liminal space behind closed eyes), where Amanda is dying. She talks to a boy named David, who urges her to remember what happened to bring her here.


Amanda recalls a conversation with Carla, who is the neighbour of her holiday home and also David’s mother. Carla tells Amanda how her son once drank poisoned river water; she took David to the “woman in the green house”, who performed a ritual to send half of David’s spirit to a new body, thereby diluting the poison.


Amanda’s conversation with David is a blur of Carla’s tale and her own memories, coloured by Amanda’s concerns for her daughter Nina (whom she likes to keep well within “rescue distance”). David keeps interjecting, encouraging Amanda to focus on what’s “important” as she sorts through her (real? imagined?) recollections.


As a result of all this, Fever Dream is a deeply unstable text: you never know whether what you’re reading will fall away to reveal another layer of reality beneath. David’s interruptions prevent Amanda from settling into an easy groove of narration. She becomes a participant like the reader, uncovering the novel as she goes. That process is a powerful reading experience.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Yes, without a doubt. Fever Dream is my favourite of the books that I’ve read so far; it’s a potential winner as far as I’m concerned.

Judas: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Amos Oz, Judas (2014)

Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (2016)


Jerusalem, 1959: newly single Shmuel Ash abandons his studies and answers an advert on a campus noticeboard. He becomes the companion of an irascible old invalid named Gershom Wald. His job is to spend each evening reading to and debating with Wald; the days are his own.

Shmuel also becomes infatuated with Atalia Abravanel, the fortysomething woman who shares Wald’s house. It transpires that she is his daughter-in-law, and that her father was a renegade Zionist who advocated peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Shmuel discusses with Wald his idea that Judas Iscariot was not a traitor, but a true believer in Jesus’s divinity. Over the course of the novel, parallels emerge between this figure of Judas and Atalia’s father – and, perhaps, Shmuel himself.

There’s a lot to like about Judas: the novel is very amusing in places, and the prose rhythmic; repetition of words and descriptions serves to suggest that Shmuel’s life is caught in a loop. But, to be honest, I found a lot of the discussions quite dry to read; I suspect that, had I known more about the religious and political context, I may have enjoyed the book more.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?

I don’t know whether Judas is going to make my own top six, but personal taste plays a strong part in this instance. I do appreciate a lot of what the novel is trying to do, and there is certainly enough to make it worthy of a spot on the shortlist. 

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