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#InternationalBooker2023: the shadow panel’s winner

Here we go… Before the official winner of the International Booker Prize is revealed later today, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce our winner. We selected our own shadow shortlist, and have individually ranked the titles to award 10, 7, 5, 3, 2 and 1 points.

It was quite an open field this year, but with 47 points, our shadow winner for 2023 is…

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, tr. Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions UK)

We’re also giving a special commendation to our runner-up, which, with 44 points, is While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, tr. Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Both these books are well worth your time. I wonder if Whale will take the official title as well – we’ll find out soon…

Catching up with Peirene: books from Iceland and Thailand

Peirene Press were one of the first small publishers of translated fiction to emerge at the same time as I was beginning to pay attention to the subject, which is one reason I’ve always tried to keep up with their catalogue. Another reason is that they publish some really good books. Today’s post is all about their first two titles of 2023.

History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir
Translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith

It begins with an innocuous detail that could change everything. A PhD student in Oxford is studying the diary of one S.B., whom her supervisor believes was Britain’s first professional artist. It’s mostly mundane stuff, but then one passage seems to indicate that S.B. was a woman. On the way home, the protagonist is already daydreaming about the thesis she’ll publish about this revelation. 

Then we move forward in time, and the protagonist has returned to Reykjavík. Her life is far from what she imagined back in Oxford – she hasn’t finished her thesis, and spends most of her time at home. It becomes apparent that, later in her studies, she had found another page in S.B.’s diary that disproved her theory, and that discovery has taken its toll.

The account that follows is not only fragmented and out of chronological order – it also collapses into conjecture. Just as the protagonist couldn’t get to the ultimate truth of S.B.’s identity, so the protagonist is lost to us in a maze of realities. Subjectivity all the way down, that’s what animates this novel. 

[Publisher’s page]

Venom by Saneh Sangsuk
Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

This year, as well as their usual three novellas, Peirene are publishing two books by the Thai writer Saneh Sangsuk. In Venom, the village of Praeknamdang is lorded over by Song Waad, who has convinced the villagers he is a medium connected to their Patron Goddess. 

Only one small family regard Song Waad as a fake, which makes him their enemy. The boy of the family lost the use of one arm in an accident: Song Waad took the opportunity to paint this as the Goddess’ displeasure, with some of the villagers accepting his word. 

In the present, the boy finds himself in a life-and-death predicament when he is attacked by a king cobra, which he manages to grab before it can bite him. For most of the rest of this short book, the boy is trying to keep the cobra at bay while making his way back to the village for help. 

The story of the boy’s struggle with the snake is compelling in its own right, but it’s also embedded in the broader struggle against oppressive authority (which Song Waad represents). So Venom paints a large portrait on a relatively small canvas. 

[Publisher’s page]

#InternationalBooker2023: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (tr. Angela Rodel)

I don’t know whether I’d have read this Bulgarian novel if not for its International Booker listing. I am so glad that I did. 

Gospodinov’s narrator (a version of the author) meets a mysterious figure named Gaustine, who seems preoccupied with the past. With dementia on the rise, Gaustine’s idea is to set up a clinic whose rooms recreate periods of the 20th century, to help jog his patients’ memories. 

It’s an idea that works well for some people, less well for others (and too well for a few). There are striking sequences, such as those where a secret policeman has become the main source of memory for the man he once pursued, because he remembers more about the man’s life than anyone else. 

It turns out that everyone wants a taste of old times. People without memory loss are admitted to the clinic for a hit of nostalgia. Then, the vogue for the past spreads out across Europe, with countries holding referendums on which time period they should revert to. Gospodinov handles this beautifully, illustrating the dangers of being too fixated on the past. Here, his narrator reflects on how the lived present transforms with hindsight:

I presume that 1968 did not exist in 1968. Nobody back then said, Hey, man, that stuff we’re living through now, it’s the great ’68, which’ll go down in history. Everything happens years after it has happened…You need time and a story for that which has supposedly already taken place to happen…with a delay, just as photos were developed and images appeared slowly in the dark…Most likely 1939 did not exist in 1939, there were just mornings when you woke up with a headache, uncertain and afraid.

Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Gospodinov adds another layer to his novel by undermining the narrator, whose own memory starts to fail him. He can’t be sure whether Gaustine was real or his creation (or even whether he, the narrator, was Gaustine’s creation). Nothing is certain within the pages of the book, and there is no real shelter from time, after all. 

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

HarperNorth: Fray by Chris Carse Wilson

Above all, the main sense I get from Chris Carse Wilson’s debut novel is that this is a book he needed to write. You can just feel the urgency of it, how much it must have meant to capture the feelings in these pages.

Fray begins with its anonymous narrator arriving at a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. The narrator’s mother died some time ago, and shortly afterwards their father disappeared, apparently unable to accept what had happened. The narrator has now traced their father to this cottage – he’s not there himself, but the place is full of papers and maps written and drawn by his hand. The novel chronicles its narrator’s attempt to piece together these texts and, hopefully, find a clue to their father’s whereabouts.

The papers are haphazard and don’t make a great deal of sense. The narrator’s father talks of searching for his wife, but also mentions the Devil. He records times and weather conditions precisely, then describes experiments whose purpose is unclear.  One of his hand-drawn maps has the word ‘hotel’ marked prominently, but there doesn’t seem to be a hotel nearby. Perhaps the father has made some sort of breakthrough, but if so, its nature is inscrutable.

The narrator is driven to their wit’s end trying to puzzle all this out. Along the way, they talk about the darkness that has clouded their life at times, and the ways they’ve tried to cope. Running is one thing that helped, a way to keep moving, to hang on:

Breathing in enough to be given life, softening the pain a little, finding some colour in all the grinding grey. Remembering that something else was possible, that it could change. That was all I could hold on to, never daring to consider that it actually would change. That I would.

Fray can be seen as an active process of working through its narrator’s deep feelings – and there’s cause to wonder how much of what’s narrated is happening in the external world, and how much in the narrator’s mind. Then again, for this narrator, there may not need be much difference. Whatever your interpretation, the experience of Fray’s narrator is vivid in Carse Wilson’s telling.

Published by HarperNorth.

Greek Lessons by Han Kang: a Shiny New Books review

Back in 2015, I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith). I loved it, and went on to be my favourite book of the year. Human Acts was my favourite book of the following year, too. Han became a must-read author for me, which brings me to her latest book in translation.

Greek Lessons (tr. Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won) concerns a language learner who’s lost the ability to speak, and a language teacher losing the ability to see. It’s about the intimacy of language, and how these two characters eventually forge a connection. I’m please to have reviewed it for Shiny New Books, which is also where I reviewed The Vegetarian.

Read my review of Greek Lessons here.

#InternationalBooker2023: the shadow panel’s shortlist

After the official International Booker shortlist, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce ours. We’ve done our usual process of reading and scoring. Here are the six books that have risen to the top for us:

  • While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated from French by Daniel Levin Becker (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (Verso)
  • Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions)
  • Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

So, half of our shortlist is the same as the official one, but – as I predicted in my post on the official shortlist – we have gone in quite a different direction overall. I’m sure we will have some interesting discussions on the way to our shadow winner.

The official winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced on 23 May, and we’ll reveal our shadow winner shortly before then.

Three new reviews: White, Mayo, Voetmann

Today’s post is rounding up a few reviews I’ve had published elsewhere. First off is an Irish novel from Tramp Press, Where I End by Sophie White, which I’ve reviewed here for Strange Horizons. This is the tale of Aoileann, who lives an isolated existence looking after her bedridden mother. It’s not until an artist and her baby son visit Aoileann’s island that she realises what she’s been missing in terms of human connection. What particularly struck me about White’s novel is the way it creates its own little fairytale horror world without ever invoking the supernatural. Aoileann becomes both a source and victim of horror in an intimate piece of work.

The European Literature Network has recently launched The Spanish Riveter, the latest issue of its occasional magazine on European writing. This one has almost 300 pages of articles, extracts and reviews of translated literature from Spain – including a review of mine. I’m looking at a Catalan novel from 3TimesRebel Press: The Carnivorous Plant by Andrea Mayo (tr. Laura McGloughlin). It tells of an abusive relationship, and challenges the reader to understand what it was like for the protagonist, and why she stayed in that situation. The Spanish Riveter is available as a PDF here; you’ll find my review on page 91.

My last stop is Denmark, and Awake by Harald Voetmann (tr. Joanne Sorgenfri Ottosen, pub. Lolli Editions). This is a novel about Pliny the Elder, and his attempt to catalogue the world and its knowledge in his Naturalis Historia. Voetmann brings Pliny’s world to life, and explores the limits of what he could achieve. I’ve reviewed this one for European Literature Network in their regular review section here.

#InternationalBooker2023: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (tr. Rosalind Harvey)

Mexico is my latest stop on this year’s International Booker journey. Still Born examines changing feelings about motherhood, through the experiences of two thirtysomething female friends. Both were sure at one time that they didn’t want to have children, and Laura, the narrator, had her tubes tied. 

Laura’s friend Alina starts to feel different, and becomes pregnant after fertility treatment. But she’s faced with a difficult situation when she learns late in the pregnancy that her baby will not be able to support itself independently – yet she’s also advised that going to term will help with any future pregnancy. Then, when baby Inés is born, she survives – albeit with brain damage. So Alina has to rethink her relationship to Inés several times, a process that Nettel traces sensitively. 

Laura, for her part, finds herself stepping in to look after her neighbour’s young son, at the same time as her relationship with her own mother is coming under strain. Through this set-up, Nettel explores her subject from multiple angles, in a thought-provoking piece of work. 

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2023: A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson (tr. Nichola Smalley)

A set of triplets is born in Sweden in 1989. Their lives are eventful from the start, as one is quickly whisked away to have treatment for breathing problems. By 2016, the siblings are living very separate lives. Sebastian works as a cognitive scientist in London, though the nature of what his organisation does is so secret, even he doesn’t know exactly what his work involves. Clara is trying to revive her journalistic career by reporting on Easter Island’s environmental degradation. Matilda left her home country looking for love, and is now back in Sweden with a relationship and stepdaughter. The revelation of a family secret is about to bring the triplets back together.

A System So Magnificent is a big, digressive novel with a real energy to its writing, nicely captured in Nichola Smalley’s translation. For example:

First came the triplets, then the drama and the tears, and the drama again. Then almost twenty-three years’ ceasefire. But the day finally came when the last of the three triplets left home: the first-born, Sebastian, who, perhaps because he’d been the first to leave the womb, had the most difficulty flying the nest, even though he flew no further than to a room in the local student halls. The same day, their father moved into a single room at the local hotel. It didn’t even have a minibar, but there were stars outside the window – indeed, the whole universe. He looked out of the window and for the first time in his life it struck him that the universe was very, very big and that a person, in comparison, was very, very small.

Translation from Swedish by Nichola Smalley

In this paragraph, there’s rhythm, repetition, shifting imagery, and a casual switch from the human scale to the vast universe. It’s appropriate for a novel concerned with the question of whether there is a system underpinning the apparent connections and parallels in its characters’ lives. This book is an intriguing journey.

Published by Scribe UK.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2023 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2023: the official shortlist

On Tuesday, the official shortlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced:

  • Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated from French by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press)
  • Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated from French by Richard Philcox (World Editions)
  • Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions)
  • Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated from Catalan by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

It always fascinates (and frustrates!) me how different groups of people come to different conclusions on the same set of books. There are some good books on this shortlist, though it wouldn’t be my personal selection – and I suspect our Shadow Panel shortlist (which we’ll announce on Tuesday 2 May will also be quite different.

Tony from the Shadow Panel has his thoughts on the official shortlist here.

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