AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

#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.

The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips

Bernardine Evaristo has curated a series called ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ with her publisher Hamish Hamilton, which aims to highlight works by Black British writers that have become overlooked. The Dancing Face is one of the six fiction titles launching the series (with six non-fiction books to follow later this year). It’s a thriller originally published in 1997.

Gus Dixon is a Black British university lecturer, and a member of the Committee for Reparations to Africa. He’s disillusioned with the Committee’s lack of action, and sets in motion the theft of a Beninese mask from an exhibition, all for the attention it will bring to the cause. 

But Gus is soon out of his depth, and finds himself entangled with others who have different ideas about the mask. One of the key players is Dr Okigbo, a Nigerian chief in exile who bankrolled the robbery, and wants the mask for personal leverage. In an attempt to keep it safe, Gus sends the mask to his younger brother Danny, a student – which ends up putting Danny in danger. 

Phillips explores issues of identity, and what the mask means to different people. Gus has considered his relationship to an African identity, and reached a conclusion. Danny is still thinking these issues through, and may have ideas of his own. The novel’s African characters offer further perspectives. Alongside this, The Dancing Face is a cracking thriller, with twists that I didn’t see coming and some fine action sequences. I would recommend it warmly.

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:

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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: LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

Mathilda – Black, queer, working-class – is someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider. She has a periodic need to Escape her life: to reinvent herself, even taking on a new name. She has Transfixions, historical figures with whom she feels a deep spiritual connection. She’s also particularly interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s London. 

A chance find in Mathilda’s volunteer role at the National Portrait Gallery leads her to a new Transfixion: Hermia Druitt, a Black modernist poet. Mathilda finds her way on to a residency in the European town of Sun, where Hermia eventually lived. There, Mathilda meets a kindred spirit named Erskine-Lily, and seeks to uncover what happened to Hermia and the cult that she founded. 

LOTE is a fun to read, with its central mystery to be solved, and the way Mathilda shows up the absurdities of the residency. It’s not clear at first whether the foundation behind the residency is for artists or business people. Their outlook is very different from Mathilda’s, but she finds that she can bluff her way through. 

Hermia Druitt is fictitious, but stands in for analogous marginalised or ‘forgotten’ figures from history. Shola von Reinhold expands on Mathilda’s story by including passages from an (also fictitious) academic text called Black Modernisms, and from what seems to be a direct account of the poet’s life. 

By looking into the story of Hermia Druitt, Mathilda is also able to remake herself. LOTE takes apart received views of art and history (and art history) to create its own space for other voices to be heard.

Published by Jacaranda Books.

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

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It’s nine years since I last read Alice Zeniter: Take This Man was a compelling tale of a young Frenchwoman preparing to marry a friend in order to stop him being deported. The Art of Losing (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is a longer novel on a bigger canvas: a saga tracing a line between the Algerian War of Independence and contemporary France, and inspired by the author’s own family history. 

Zeniter’s novel follows three generations, each with a different relationship to Algeria. In the 1950s, Ali is a landowner who fought on the side of France in World War Two. But when the National Liberation Front comes to his village, he is forced into a position of complicity, which leads him to a resettlement camp in France. 

Ali remains tied to Algeria, but his son Hamid turns his back on the country, determined to forge a life for himself in France. In turn, Hamid’s daughter Naïma has no knowledge of Algeria, nor the language to communicate with her grandparents. She has to make a journey of her own to uncover the past and make sense of her history. 

The Art of Losing highlights the personal histories that may fall through the gaps in official (colonial) accounts. It asks how people may carry on in the face of profound loss, and how they might regain what has been lost. 

Published by Picador.

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 Appointment by Katharina Volckmer ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions are the only publisher to have won the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice, so it’s no surprise to see them longlisted again this year. (My copy of The Appointment looks different from the usual Fitzcarraldo blue – I won it in a competition, one of five copies with a cover painted by Katharina Volckmer.) ⁣

The narrator of this short volume is a German in London. She has come to the office of one Dr Seligman for an appointment whose nature is at first unspecified. The book we read is her monologue as addressed to him. ⁣

The narrator begins by revealing some of her fantasies (let’s say that they involve Hitler and leave it there), and continues to unburden herself. It becomes clear that she is profoundly uncomfortable in her body and with her nationality (feeling, for example, that Germany has not reckoned with its past as well as it may like to think). The former source of discomfort is what this appointment is meant to address; the latter one is why the narrator has approached a Jewish doctor. ⁣

The Appointment is densely written, often harrowing, and often drily funny – it shifts mood along with its narrator. There’s a sense that all this – the appointment, and the monologue form itself – is the narrator’s way of taking control. The space of the doctor’s office is private, and by being the one to speak, the narrator can shape what she says, what she reveals about herself. She feels that this is her time and space, and hopefully the chance for a new beginning.⁣

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.

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