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Compass: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Mathias Énard, Compass (2015)

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2017)

Compass is the latest novel by Mathias Énard, author of Zone (which I reviewed here alongside Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake). The original French novel, Boussole, won the Prix Goncourt in 2015. Now the English translation is up for the Man Booker International Prize. 

Compass is narrated by Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist in the grip of an unknown illness. Over the course of a night, he takes us through his memories. On a personal level, many of these concern Sarah, a French scholar he has known for many years, and for whom he harbours unrequited feelings. But Ritter also ranges over his professional interests: cultural encounters between East and West.

The dense, erudite, digressive paragraphs of Compass will be familiar to readers of Zone. But there seem to be more moments of lightness this time, punctuating the turmoil of Ritter’s night. The trawl through his mind highlights how much influence Eastern music and art had on Western arts in the 19th century. Compass also suggests that “the Orient” has become a cultural construct built up by both West and East, independent of historical reality. However, although Ritter may be preoccupied with scholarship at times, his thoughts still return to the personal. Even his relationship with Sarah seems to have reached a new chapter by the end of the night.


Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist? 

The Shadow Panel called Zone in a couple of years ago, since we felt strongly that it should have been included on the then Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. Personally, I don’t think Compass quite reaches the heights of Zone, because it’s not formally as tight. Nevertheless, this is a significant work of literature in an excellent translation, and it would certainly merit a place on the shortlist. 

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

This is the official group response of the shadow panel to the Man Booker International longlist. 

The Shadow Panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize would like to extend its congratulations and thanks to the official judges for their hard work in whittling down the 126 entries to the thirteen titles making up the longlist. In some ways, it is a somewhat unexpected selection, with several surprising inclusions, albeit more in terms of the lack of fanfare the works have had than of their quality. However, it is another example of the depth of quality in fiction in translation, and it is heartening to see that there is such a wealth of wonderful books making it into our language which even devoted followers of world literature haven’t yet sampled. Of course, at this point we must also thank the fourteen translators who have made this all possible, and we will endeavour to highlight their work over the course of our journey.

In the second year of the prize’s new incarnation, there is a definite sense of quality being prioritised, with many of the titles promising heavy topics and quality writing (we note, with trepidation, that the longlist is also literally far heavier than its 2016 counterpart). This second year of the MBIP book prize is also the first of the post-Tonkin era, and it will be interesting to see what effects the departure of the longtime IFFP/MBIP Chair will have. Will the new age bring a different feel to the prize, ushering in a longlist notable more for the writing and less for emotional turmoil? Time will tell…

Turning to the actual books, we note a pleasing spread of languages (eleven) and countries (twelve), with five of the longlisted titles by writers hailing from outside Europe.  There are some notable omissions, though, with no books translated from Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese or Russian (a language particularly poorly represented over the past few years). The list of writers shows a mix of old friends (Ismail Kadare, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Yan Lianke, Alain Mabanckou) and newcomers to the prize (Wioletta Greg, Clemens Meyer, Roy Jacobsen), some of whom will no doubt become new favourites for many readers.

While the female authors longlisted (in particular Samanta Schweblin) should prove to be strong contenders, the fact that only three women made the cut is disappointing. However, we fully acknowledge that this is less a reflection on the judges than further evidence of the gender imbalance in what is published in translation in the UK (it would be enlightening, and perhaps useful, to learn how many of the 126 submissions were by women). On that point, it was interesting to note in the week leading up to this announcement the start of a new initiative, The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Hopefully, this will encourage the commissioning of more translations of works by female authors, which may then encourage more submissions for the MBIP in future years.

Another interesting feature of the list is the spread of titles published by independent presses and major publishing houses. Peirene Press’s six-year run may have come to an end, but that has more to do with the high standard of the competition than with weak entries. Other small presses to miss out include And Other Stories, Comma Press, and Istros Books (although we feel it is only a matter of time before they finally achieve a longlisting). Among the small presses who did manage to have titles selected, particular congratulations must go to both MacLehose Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions, with two nominations apiece rewarding their commitment to high-quality, challenging literature. We were particularly pleased by the recognition of Mathias Énard’s novel Compass; perhaps this decision will go some way to righting the wrong of the omission of his work Zone from the 2015 IFFP longlist (a decision we at the Shadow Panel saw fit to rectify…).

Zone was the first book ever called in by the Shadow Panel, and one of our main tasks after the longlist announcement this year was to decide whether this was required again. It is no secret that Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream would have been the automatic pick, but thankfully the official panel has made that decision for us. Works that were perhaps unlucky not to be chosen include Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Sjón’s Moonstone, yet the only other title we seriously considered calling in was László Krasznahorkai’s War and WarHowever, a combination of his previous success in both the MBIP and the American Best Translated Book Award and doubts as to whether the novel was eligible (or even submitted) have led us to decide not to do so.

Therefore, we set off on our journey at the same point as the real judges, ready to explore the thirteen titles selected for the official longlist. However, this is where our paths will (and should) diverge. Over the coming months, our eight shadow judges will do their best to examine these books and explain why they were selected (or question those decisions). We give the longlist a cautious nod of approval; the shortlist, of course, is another matter entirely.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest:from my #shadowclarke shortlist 

The first review from my shadow Clarke shortlist is now up at the CSFF website. I thought I would begin this shadow Clarke journey with the one author I already knew: Christopher Priest. 

The Gradual returns to Priest’s Dream Archipelago (setting of The Islanders), and concerns a composer who goes on a concert tour of the islands, only to find when he returns that time has slipped away from him. The novel also takes in themes of grief and creativity; I enjoyed it very much. 

I’d also like to say a few words about the review itself. This is my first extended piece of writing on a book in some time; it has also been a few years since I’ve written as much about science fiction specifically as I will be in the months ahead. In that time, my approach to reviewing has changed: now I’m most interested in trying to capture my experience of reading a book, rather than “like/dislike + reasons” as I might have done in the past. I think this shift comes across in the tone of the review, and I’m interested to see how else it might manifest as I go through my shortlist.

My full review of The Gradual is here for you to read. 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the longlist 

Once again, I’m part of the shadow panel following the Man Booker International Prize. The longlist has now been announced:

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

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello Books). 

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

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Harvill Secker). 

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

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker). 

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Ross (Chatto & Windus). 

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Helen Stevenson (Serpent’s Tail). 

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press). 

Judas by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto & Windus). 

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld). 

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (MacLehose Press). 

Well. For the first time in my four years of doing this (including IFFP shadowing), I haven’t read any of them. So it’s going to be a busy month ahead. I will review as many as I can on the blog  (though it may be in the shorter format that I’ve been trying out on Twitter and Facebook), and use this post as an index. 
I won’t make any broader comment on the longlist, except to say: a lot of languages are represented there – eleven in total. I wonder if that’s a record. 

Finally, you can find the rest of the shadow panel here: StuTony MaloneTony MessengerBellezzaClareGrant, and Lori. Right, time to start reading… 

Stepping out of (or into) the shadows 

Well, it has been quiet around here lately. I had been hoping to be back up and running by now, but unfortunately I’m still only able to use my phone to get online, which makes blogging awkward. You can still find me talking about books on Facebook and Twitter, though. 

Having said that, there is news that requires a blog post: it’s time for award shadowing. Once again, I will be part of the Man Booker International Prize shadow panel, reading and (hopefully!) reviewing the longlist once it has been announced on 15 March. I’ll post more about that at the time. 

The other project I want to tell you about is already underway. Inspired by the idea of shadow juries, the writer (and friend of this blog) Nina Allan has decided to put one together for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. She invited me to take part, and I was happy to accept. Besides me and Nina, the Clarke shadow jury includes Megan AMVajra ChandrasekeraVictoria Hoyle; Nick Hubble; Paul KincaidJonathan McCalmont; and Maureen Kincaid Speller. (The links are to the individual blog posts – or, in Victoria’s case, a video – where each person announced their involvement in the jury.)

As with any other shadow jury, we will all be reading and reviewing the Clarke shortlist, which is announced on 3 May. However, the Clarke Award doesn’t have a longlist phase, so we’re doing something a little different to begin with. Each shadow juror has put together their own personal shortlist from the published list of books submitted for this year’s Clarke. We’re each going to review the books on our individual shortlists as well as the official one. The hope in doing this is to widen the conversation around the Clarke Award. It’s been a few years since I last blogged the Clarke, and I look forward to getting back into it. 

On that note, let me tell you which books I’ve selected for my personal shortlist:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman 
  • The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen 
  • Graft by Matt Hill
  • The Gradual by Christopher Priest 
  • The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo (tr. Lola Rogers) 
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The other thing to say is that the Clarke shadow jury is being hosted by the new Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University. This means that our reviews will all be published on the CSFF website first, before appearing on individual blogs. The site already hosts an introductory essay by me about my relationship with the Clarke Award; and a piece explaining in more detail why I chose the novels in my personal shortlist (they’re all books I hadn’t read previously). I recommend spending some time exploring the CSFF site, because there are introductions and shortlist pieces from each shadow juror.

One last question: how am I planning to fit all this in? When I agreed to take part in the shadow Clarke, I already knew I’d be doing the MBIP at roughly the same time, but I felt confident there was enough time for everything. I hadn’t expected to be having difficulties with blogging. 

I think I should still be able to do it all. We’re writing full-length reviews for the shadow Clarke, but there’s also more time with that award; so, while I may not (for example) be able to review all of my personal shortlist before the announcement of the official shortlist, I should still be able to review both shortlists by the time that the Clarke winner is announced on 27 July.

The biggest task is getting through the MBIP longlist before the shortlist announcement on 20 April. I usually manage to read everything, but not necessarily to review it all. I may end up using the shorter ‘snapshot’ review format that I’ve been trying out on social media; but I’ll try to post as much on here as I can. 

Let the shadowing begin! 

Goldsmiths Prize 2016, part 1: McBride, Schofield, Levy

I’m splitting my review of the Goldsmiths shortlist into two parts. Here’s a look at three of the titles…

lesserbohemiansEimear Bride, The Lesser Bohemians (2016)

We’ll start with Eimear McBride, who of course won the vvery first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Her second novel is the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who goes to study drama in London in 1994, and falls for an actor named Stephen, who is more than twice her age. Sounds conventional enough in the synopsis; but, as before with McBride, the novel is transformed by its language:

Goes on time so. Every day. Hours spent opening lanes of ways on which I might set forth. These are your oysters, boys and girls. Here are your worlds of pearls. I remember it as I sit in dust. Put on tights. Stretch on mats. Lean with hot drinks on stone steps where the throng pokes holes through shy.

A Girl is a half-formed Thing was written in a fragmented style which suggested that its narrator’s consciousness was not yet coherent – in the other words, the cohesion of voice (or lack of it) matched the cohesion of the character’s identity. The Lesser Bohemians could be seen as an extension of that technique: Eilis is further on in life than Girl’s protagonist, so her narrative voice is not quite as fragmented, but its rhythms are still noticeably jagged.

What really gives this novel its shape and contrast for me, however, is the section where Stephen tells Eilis his story – and his voice is rendered in a much more conventional literary style. This gives his life a semblance of order and control; but the events he describes don’t bear that out at all. So, McBride seems to suggest, a life is as coherent as the one living it allows; the tumult of the past will always be there, but – just maybe – it’s possible to bring oneself together eventually.

martinjohn

Anakana Schofield, Martin John (2015)

Conventionally, a novel is organised to create meaning for its reader. Even with a book like The Lesser Bohemians, where you have to work at it a bit, and where part of the meaning is encoded in the style, the general shape is recognisable and you can find your way around soon enough. Martin John is different: this is the form of the novel broken down and rebuilt to generate meaning for its protagonist; readers just have to derive what they can.

Martin John Gaffney lives in South London (his mam sent him away from Ireland). He works as a security guard, visits his Aunty Noanie every week. He loves the Eurovision Song Contest, but hates words that begin with the letter P. He is also a flasher. Martin John the novel is perhaps not so much his story (that would imply a narrative) as an account of his being.

Martin John’s existence is based around rituals and refrains, routines and circuits; these provide the structure that helps keep his life together (or, perhaps, keep his life at bay). The novel is built from looping, elliptical paragraphs:

With no day shift or night shift or circuits, time has become strange, neither protracted nor squat. Just strained. Strange. Estranged. Estuary ranged. There are days, inside the room, that because the windows are blacked out, he can’t tell you if it is day or night. He can’t tell if it’s night or day? He can’t even tell you how he wants to make this statement.

Martin John is a novel that lives with you, demands that you make space for it, uncomfortable as that inevitably will be. It places Anakana Schofield on my list of must-read authors.

hotmilkDeborah Levy, Hot Milk (2016)

As with reading Ishiguro, reading Deborah Levy has for me been a learning process. In both cases, when I read the author for the first time (Nocturnes and Swimming Home respectively), I wasn’t equipped to appreciate texts that had the appearance of stereotypical middle-class literary fiction, but distorted the form subtly, so that interpreting them literally didn’t work. I’m still finding my way.

In Hot Milk, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has travelled with her mother Rose to Almeria on the Spanish coast. Rose’s legs have been affected by a mysterious illness; it’s hoped that the Gómez Clinic in Almeria will provide a solution, but Sofia has surrendered her own life in order to come here – she’s even begun to copy Rose’s gait. It took me some time to get into the swing of the novel’s patterns of imagery and oblique characterisation. Even then, I can only see my understanding of it as provisional.

I came to the conclusion that Hot Milk was structured around metaphors of personal space: Sofia begins the novel having effectively subordinated her own identity to her mother’s; and the extent to which other characters encroach on her indicates how much Sofia is her own person. The scene that really seemed to unlock this is one where, hands bloodied from gutting a fish, Sofia rushes into the local diving school to free the owner’s dog, and ends up drinking the vermouth on his desk and leaving bloody handprints all over the walls. It seems strange if taken at face value, but made sense to me as a metaphor for Sofia exerting control over her surroundings.

I wouldn’t say that I unlocked Hot Milk entirely – I don’t have a sense of a complete metaphorical underpinning – but I was able to see Levy’s work in a new light. I now want to explore further, and hopefully come back to this book (and Swimming Home) one day, to see what else I can find there.

 

Goldsmiths Prize 2016: the shortlist

One of the literary prizes that I like to pay particular attention to is the Goldsmiths Prize, because its remit chimes a lot with what I like to read: “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form.” I’m planning to read along with the shortlist, which was announced yesterday:

Transit by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape)

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber)

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press)

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press)

Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories)

At first sight, that’s an interesting mix of books that I look forward to exploring. I’ll be reading and reviewing as many as I can before the winner is revealed on 9 November.

 

Man Booker International Prize 2016: and the winner is…

You might well have heard the news by now, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) has won this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

Vegetarianpb

 

As you can imagine, I’m very pleased with that result: The Vegetarian was my favourite book of last year (here’s my review for Shiny New Books), not to mention my favourite book on the MBIP longlist. I’m pleased that this win will bring it to a wider audience; and it’s good to see such a singular, uncompromising work getting this kind of recognition.

This also brings to an end our award shadowing for this year. Thanks to Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Bellezza, Clare, Grant, and Lori for being such excellent reading companions. We chose the same book as the official jury, albeit from rather different shortlists – I’ll champion The Vegetarian to anyone who will listen, but do check out the rest of the MBIP longlist because there’s some really good stuff on there.

What next? Reports are that fiction in translation is thriving, and my hope is that Han’s and Smith’s win will open the door wider. I will continue to search for more of these remarkable books from around the world, and report back here and elsewhere (I’m quite keen to read more Korean fiction, and this reading list by Han Kang seems a good place to start). Reading experiences like The Vegetarian don’t come along every day; but there is always another one out there, waiting.

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Vegetarian (2007) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2015), Portobello Books paperback

Man Booker International Prize 2016: the shadow panel’s winner

Today’s the day when we’ll find out the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in its new incarnation. But first, we have a shadow winner to announce.

It was close – extremely close. After our initial round of voting, Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine narrowly missed out on a place in the run-off vote…

…and, in the final vote, Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water came a close second…

…but our shadow winner is:

Vegetarianpb

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

This means that, following last year’s IFFP result, this could be the second year running in which the shadow and official winners coincide. Given how much I love The Vegetarian, I actually hope it will be. Only a few more hours to wait…

Read my other posts on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize here.

 

The official Man Booker International Prize shortlist 2016

The official shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize was announced on Thursday:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portugese by Daniel Hahn (Harvill Secker)
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
  • The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Faber & Faber)
  • A Whole Life by Rbert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Picador)

mbi2016-logo-rgb-pink

This list has three titles in common with our shadow shortlist, but they’re quite different selections overall. (If I’m honest, I prefer ours). It never ceases to surprise me how two groups of people can read the same books and reach such divergent conclusions.

(If you’re wondering, my personal shortlist would have been different again: Mend the Living, The Vegetarian, Tram 83, Ladivine, White Hunger, and The Four Books.)

The winner of the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on the evening of 16 May, and we’ll reveal our shadow winner shortly before them. Right now, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at what either winner will be; but I am looking forward to finding out.

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