Tagbooks

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.

The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen: from my #shadowclarke shortlist 

It’s time for my second Shadow Clarke review. On this occasion, I’m looking at the debut novel by Emma Geen, The Many Selves of Katherine North.

The book is set in a near future where the technology has been developed to project a human’s consciousness into artificial animal bodies. Katherine North is a ‘phenomenaut’, paid to experience animal consciousnesses in order to assist research on empathy – but the company that she works for is not all it seems. 

I had mixed feelings about Geen’s novel – at its best, it works very well indeed; but there isn’t room for everything it tries to do. The book adopts a thriller plot, but doesn’t then successfully integrate its more philosophical aspects into that structure. This is something I wanted to explore in the review, as it’s not the first time I’ve seen it in contemporary science fiction. 

My review of Many Selves is here on the CSFF website.

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. 

© 2017 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: