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#2021InternationalBooker: Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý

With some books, the voice is key, and here’s one of them. The narrator of Wretchedness is a cellist living in Malmö. As the novel begins, he’s waiting by the canal for a couple of friends and colleagues, a guitarist and composer. He is approached by a homeless man who wants a smoke. As the cellist speaks to this man, he is reminded of his own past, the poverty he escaped. He realises that, if life had turned out differently, he could have been this guy. 

The book then switches back and forth between the cellist’s past and present, contrasting the hard realities of his earlier life with his more abstract thoughts on music, in a torrent of language. Here he is, for example, discovering the freeing power of the radio:

…I listened and thought and listened and soon learnt to recognise the sounds I liked, the ones that sounded different to the ones I was used to, but also words and sounds that in different ways related to the life I recognised, the pain and the rage and the shame and the hate and the madness, like when I, at Eleonora’s place, got to hear Godflesh and Slayer for the first time, and at that point, as I listened, it was like my life got better, like it really, properly, got noticeably better just cos some guy had stood there yelling in a studio…

translation from swedish by nichola smalley

The dense, chapter-long paragraphs of Wretchedness suggest that maybe this man can’t outrun his past after all, because it’s so inextricably mixed up with his present thoughts. Whatever the case, this book is a vivid and powerful journey for the reader.

Published by And Other Stories.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s view on the longlist

Last week saw the announcement of the 2021 International Booker Prize longlist, and after a particularly long wait this year, it was both a relief and a pleasure to finally see the list unveiled. It’s important to start off this response to that announcement, then, by acknowledging the hard work of this year’s judges. Thanks to them, we have a manageable overview of the best translated fiction published in the UK over the past year, and we look forward to getting to know more about these writers and books over the coming months.

If we examine the make-up of the list, we see that the geographical and gender split is fairly par for the course. Seven of the featured writers are women, while five of the longlisted authors hail from outside Europe. Many would prefer to see fewer European books chosen, but this ratio is unsurprising when you look at how many of the books published in the UK originally appeared in Europe.  It’s perhaps more suprising that only one title from Asia was selected, with nothing from Japan or the South Asia region, but there is a book from Africa on the longlist, which is a fairly rare occurrence for the prize.

In terms of the publishers, the longlist, as seems to be the case most years now, reflects the efforts of a host of wonderful small presses to broaden the UK’s literary horizons.  Fitzcarraldo Editions and Pushkin Press lead the way with two inclusions each, and stalwarts of translated fiction prize lists such as And Other Stories, Granta Books, MacLehose Press and Peirene Press also made the cut. It’s particularly pleasing to see newcomers Lolli Editions and World Editions rewarded for their efforts over the past year.

Of course, with a limited number of spots available, it’s inevitable that some publishers will miss out. The big surprise here is the absence of Charco Press, with several potential longlisters going unrewarded. Unfortunately, other independent presses, including Istros Books, Tilted Axis Press, Honford Star and Europa Editions, also failed to make the list. We remain hopeful that future years will see their turn in the spotlight arrive.

Looking at the books selected, one fairly striking feature emerges. The Booker Prizes pride themselves for championing the finest in fiction, yet this year’s panel seems almost to have gone out of its way to question what fiction is. As was the case in 2019, one of Fitzcarraldo Editions’ white-covered titles has made the cut, and several other inclusions appear to be pushing the boundaries of the Booker guidelines. We observe this move with interest, but also with caution, lest the prize begin to drift away from its core premise – fiction.

As a result, perhaps, of this focus, the make-up of the longlist is rather different to what many readers would have expected. When discussing possible longlisters before the announcement, books such as Andrés Neuman’s Fracture, Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, Jon Fosse’s I is Another and Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering were frequently mentioned, with Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs thought most likely to appear on the list. While we did consider calling in one or more of these books, it was felt that given the judges’ deliberate shift away from the higher-profile works, we would respect their decision and focus instead on their selections. We trust this decision will be justified.

In any case, with the longlist now public, there’s a simple task ahead of us. It’s time to read the world, or at least that part of it the official judges have chosen to explore. We’ll be taking our time, though, so don’t expect the shadow judges to reveal their shortlist when the official panel does; it’s likely that we’ll give ourselves a few extra weeks to ensure we cover as much as possible. And, of course, there’s one more way in which our path may diverge from theirs. While we’re following in the official judges’ footsteps for the first stage of the journey, once we get to crafting a shortlist, we’ll be setting out on our own, regardless of what they may decide. Let’s see whether this year’s voyage of discovery will be smooth sailing or entail some rather bumpy roads. As always, the joy will lie in the journey, not the destination…

#2021InternationalBooker: the longlist

The International Booker Prize longlist for 2021 was announced on Tuesday, and here it is:

  • I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping (Yale University Press).
  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis (Pushkin Press).
  • The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press).
  • The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta Books).
  • When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press).
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author (Harvill Secker).
  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions).
  • Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty (World Editions).
  • An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith (MacLehose Press).
  • Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions).
  • Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley (And Other Stories).
  • The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Picador).

We’ll have an official response from the Shadow Panel in a few days. For now, I’ve linked above to the books I’ve already reviewed, and will add more as I read my way through the list. This is always something I look forward to, and I’m interested to see what I’ll find this year.

International Booker Prize 2021: introducing the Shadow Panel

It’s that time of year again, when the International Booker Prize is almost with us (the longlist will be announced on Tuesday 30 March). Once again, I will be taking part in the Shadow Panel. We’ll be reading and reviewing the books, coming to our own conclusions about what’s good – and ultimately choosing our own shadow shortlist and winner.

This post is an introduction to the members of this year’s Shadow Panel. Without further ado, here they are:

***

Tony Malone (@tony_malone) is an occasional ESL teacher and full-time reader who has been publishing his half-baked thoughts on literature in translation at the Tony’s Reading List blog for just over twelve years now. One unexpected consequence of all this reading in translation has been the crafting of a few translations of his own, with English versions of works by classic German writers such as Eduard von Keyserling and Ricarda Huch appearing at his site. After a well-earned sabbatical year from all things shadowy, he’s returned with fresh energy in 2021, ready to discuss this year’s longlist and keep the ‘real’ judges honest.

Stu Allen (@stujallen), the everyman of translated fiction, has been blogging for twelve years and has reviewed over a thousand books from more than one hundred countries at his site, Winstonsdad’s Blog. He founded the original Shadow IFFP Jury back in 2012, as well as the Twitter hashtag #translationthurs. By day, he works for the NHS as a care support worker, helping people with learning disabilities on a ward in a learning disabilities hospitality centre in sunny Derbyshire. He’s married to Amanda, loves indie music, foreign films and real ale, and is pleased to be shadowing the prize for another year.

Meredith Smith (@bellezzamjs) has been writing about books at her site, Dolce Bellezza, since 2006. Now that she has retired from teaching, she has much more time to devote to her passion of reading translated literature. She has hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for fourteen years and been a member of the Shadow Jury for seven. It is her great joy to read and discuss books from around the world with both the panel and fellow readers.

Oisin Harris (@literaryty), based in Canterbury in the UK, reviews books at the Literaryty blog. He earned an English degree from Sussex University and an MA in Publishing from Kingston University. He is a librarian at the University of Kent and a co-editor and contributor for The Publishing Post’s Books in Translation Team, as well as the creator of the Translator Spotlight series where prominent translators are interviewed to demystify the craft of translation. His work on Women in Translation was published in the 2020 research eBook of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting, entitled Translating Women: Activism in Action (edited by Olga Castro and Helen Vassallo).

Frances Evangelista (@nonsuchbook) works as an educator in Washington DC. She elected a career in teaching because she assumed it would provide her with lots of reading time. This was an incorrect assumption. However, she loves her work and still manages to read widely, remember the years she blogged about books fondly, chat up books on Twitter, and participate in lots of great shared reading experiences. This is her fourth year as a shadow panellist for the International Booker Prize.

Barbara Halla (@behalla63) is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote, where she has covered Albanian and French literature and the International Booker Prize. She works as a translator and independent researcher, focusing in particular on discovering and promoting the works of contemporary and classic Albanian women writers. She has lived in Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA), Paris, and Tirana.

Vivek Tejuja (@vivekisms) is a book blogger and reviewer from India, based in Mumbai. He loves to read books in Indian languages and translated editions of languages around the world (well, essentially world fiction, if that’s a thing). He is Culture Editor at Verve Magazine and blogs at The Hungry Reader. He is also the author of So Now You Know, a memoir of growing up gay in Mumbai in the 90s, published by Harper Collins India.

Areeb Ahmad (@Broke_Bookworm) recently finished an undergrad in English from the University of Delhi and is now pursuing a Master’s in the same subject from the University of Hyderabad. Although he is quite an eclectic bookworm, he swears by all things SFF. You can find him either desperately hunting for book deals to supplement his overflowing TBR pile or trying to figure out the best angle for his next #bookstagram picture while he scrambles to write a review. He impulsively decided to begin book blogging in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since.

And then there’s me…

David Hebblethwaite (@David_Heb) is a reader and reviewer originally from Yorkshire, UK. He started reading translated fiction seriously a few years ago, and now couldn’t imagine a bookish life without it. He writes about books at David’s Book World and on Instagram @davidsworldofbooks. This is his eighth year on the Shadow Jury, and it has become a highlight of his reading year. There are always interesting books to read, and illuminating discussions to be had.

***

So there we are. I’m not going to guess which books will be on the longlist, but whatever they are, I am sure it’s going to be another enjoyable year in the Shadow Panel. I hope you’ll join us for the journey.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is the first novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s partly autobiographical, partly essayistic, often intensely felt. 

In 2012, our narrator is a young mother. Life is full of domestic routines, with repeated phrases in the prose to match. There’s a strong sense of how stifling this can be. When the narrator has to stay in hospital with her newly born child, it becomes downright terrifying – she doesn’t know how this will end, and we feel her fear from the inside. 

Ní Ghríofa’s protagonist is fascinated by the 18th century poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The narrator resolves to uncover everything she can of Ní Chonaill’s life. (The original Gaelic poem and Ní Ghríofa’s translation ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ appear at the end of the volume.)

Something that really comes across to me in this book is how the act of researching and writing about Ní Chonaill is a means of self-expression and assertion for the narrator. There’s a similar effect in the prose, when passages about Ní Chonaill disrupt the everyday detail. At the same time, the sequences concerning the narrator’s motherhood and domestic life share something with the historical researches: they highlight women’s experiences that might otherwise be treated less seriously than they deserve, if not ignored. 

A Ghost in the Throat is a novel that takes us deeply into its narrator’s viewpoint, where we can experience for ourselves how much Ní Chonaill’s poem means to her.

Published by Tramp Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey

One thing I value the Republic of Consciousness Prize for is that it highlights books I would never have come across otherwise. This is such a book, and I’m so glad to have read it.

Unknown Language is a reimagining of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German mystic. It’s mostly written by Huw Lemmey, but there’s also an introductory story by Bhanu Kapil and a closing essay by Alice Sprawls, which add their own dimensions to the book. 

Lemmey’s Hildegard lives in a version of reality which has elements of 21st century life, yet which nevertheless seems timeless. It feels like a place where profound transformations could happen at any moment. 

Divine judgement is visited upon Hildegard’s city, which forces her into exile. There’s danger beyond the city walls, but also the chance for Hildegard to begin anew. She’s looking for the unknown language to describe the all-encompassing visions she experiences, and the unknown language to articulate her own personal form of grace. 

Lemmey’s prose is always compelling and vivid, but I find it rises in intensity along with Hildegard’s experiences – such as when she meets and falls in love with a young woman. At those times, you really get a sense of the personal transcendence Hildegard is feeling. Unknown Language is a powerful book to experience. 

Published by Ignota Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič, Alindarka’s Children (2014)
Translated from the Russian and Belarusian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid (2020)

This novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič is an act of assertion, perhaps even reclamation. It begins with Alicia and Avi, two children interred in a camp whose purpose is to ‘correct’ their language, make them speak Russian rather than Belarusian. The children’s father helps them escape, and they flee into the forest, though the camp leaders won’t let them go that easily…

There’s a fairytale atmosphere to this story, with the mysterious forest seeming almost a character in its own right – the children even come across a gingerbread house of sorts. It’s also a novel about language: we meet the camp’s Doctor who seeks medical ‘cures’ for what he sees as the speech defect of Belarusian. Speaking Belarusian – and writing the novel partly in that language – then becomes an act of resistance. ⁣

This carries over to the translation, which is an act of assertion in its own right. The Russian in the original appears as English in the translation, but the Belarusian has been translated on into Scots. It’s an idea that preserves the power relationship between the two languages of the original – not to mention that it forces readers of the ‘dominant’ language to work harder.⁣

There are also lines of Belarusian poetry scattered throughout the book. Rather than being translated, these have been substituted for Scots poetry. I have to admit the use of Scots sometimes left me seeing the characters as more Scottish than Belarusian – your mileage may vary. Still, I found Alindarka’s Children a thought-provoking piece of work.

Published by Scotland Street Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: the longlist

I promised myself that this year I would read the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist. I’ve always found it an interesting prize to follow, and I’ve enjoyed the last few months as a subscriber to their book of the month – but I’ve never actually read along with it. Time to change that.

The 2021 longlist was announced yesterday, and here’s what we’ve got:

  • A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti, tr. Fionn Petch (Charco Press)
  • The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)
  • Unknown Language by Huw Lemmey and Hildegard von Blingen (Ignota Books)
  • LOTE by Shola von Reinhold (Jacaranda Books)
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree Press)
  • Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman (Peninsula Press)
  • Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevic, tr. Jim Dingley & Petra Reid (Scotland Street Press)
  • A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Tramp Press)

To date, I’ve read four of those and reviewed three (links above). Mordew was one of my favourite books from last year. Mr. Beethoven and The Mermaid of Black Conch were not far behind. The other one I’ve read so far is A Musical Offering, which is so far away from what I’d usually read that I didn’t really appreciate it properly – so a re-read is in order.

I love that, even though I’ve become reasonably knowledgeable about small presses over the years, the Republic of Consciousness can still shine a light on books and publishers I’ve never heard of. Well, it’s time to get acquainted.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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