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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. 

Swallowing Mercury: from the Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury (2014) 

Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak (2017) 

This book is an episodic chronicle of a rural Polish childhood during the late communist era. It’s a time and place where tradition and modernity meet and intermingle: life is punctuated with the sound of litanies being recited as well as periods when the entire parish has its electricity cut off (“energy-saving measures”, according to the local power station).

Each chapter is a string of interconnected moments; so many shine like pearls in the memory. In one aside, Wiola the narrator burns peppercorns to clear out a family party, just so that she can take another matchbox label for her collection. In another chapter, Wiola’s school holds a contest to see who can collect the most scrap metal for a new central heating system. Wiola’s team spend days collecting a great pile of scrap, only to see their cart fall down an abyss at the last.

Something felt odd about Swallowing Mercury, and it took a while before I realised what it was. Although Wiola is a first-person narrator, she never reveals her innermost thoughts, as one would typically expect such a narrator to do. As a result, there’s a powerful contrast between the events of the novel, which are so vivid; and the essential mystery of Wiola’s response to them. It’s a reading experience I’ll remember for some time.


Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


Swallowing Mercury has really grown in my mind since I read it; so I’m going to say yes, I think it would well deserve a place on the shortlist. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make my top six; it would take a very strong longlist for that to happen. 

The Unseen: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen (2013)

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (2016)


This novel depicts the Barrøy family, sole inhabitants of a Norwegian island that bears their name, in the early 20th century. Each chapter is a discrete ‘slice of life’, reflecting the largely unchanging nature of island life – there is a sense, at least to begin with, that the story of an individual chapter could have been told at any time. The family move to different rooms in the house depending on the temperature outside; and the weather dictates when they can fish.

However, time catches up with the Barrøys eventually, in more ways than one. Hans, the head of the family, wants to build a quay in order to connect the island to mainland Norway. The modern world encroaches, as does the passing of generations; Hans’ daughter Ingrid has to navigate her way between the old life and the new.

Bartlett’s & Shaw’s translation is subtle and vivid. I particularly like their use of comma splice, which makes description and action bleed together like wet paint. This technique underlines that everything is connected in island life; The Unseen explores what happens when that life is disrupted.

Should this book make the MBIP shortlist?

My honest answer is: I don’t know yet. The Unseen is a good book, but not a shoo-in for me. I’d have to see what more of the longlist is like before I could place Jacobsen’s novel definitively. Having said that, if The Unseen were to be shortlisted, I wouldn’t begrudge it a slot. 

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. 

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