Black Moses

April 25, 2017

Alain Mabanckou was no stranger to the Man Booker International’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, having been shortlisted in 2010 for Broken Glass and then long-listed in 2013 for Black Bazaar. He also featured among the ten nominees for the final Man Booker International Prize awarded for a lifetime’s work in 2015. With such a pedigree, it is perhaps no surprise to see him long-listed again this year with Black Moses, translated, as is most of his work, by Helen Stevenson. The novel is set, as is all of Mabanckou’s work, in (and near) the coastal city of Point-Noire in the Republic of the Congo where he was born and brought up. (Though his novels are not – as far as I can tell – linked, he seems intent on painting a detailed picture of his home city in his writing). We can date the novel’s beginning to 1970, when the country is subject to a Marxist-Leninist revolution (Mabanckou was born in 1966).

The novel opens with Moses in his early teens, living in an orphanage on the outskirts of Point-Noire. His happiest moments coincide with the appearance of the priest, Papa Moupelo, to lead them in traditional dances:

“For a couple of hours or more we’d forget who or where we were. Our shouts of laughter rang out beyond the confines of the orphanage.”

When Papa Moupelo fails to appear Moses, and his friend, Bonaventure, fear something is wrong:

“Just look at the warders faces – there’s something there not telling us! You might as well start weeping right now, I’m sure Papa Moupelo is dead.”

In fact, Papa’s disappearance is the result of a Communist revolution, as we see when a sign saying ‘MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL MOVEMENT OF THE PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST REVOUION OF THE CONGO’ is nailed to the door of his room and the children are exhorted to:

“…track down enemies of the Revolution, including those living in our own country, with the same colour of skin as ours, who were referred to as the ‘local lackeys of imperialism’.”

The first half of the novel works well as a political satire, as we see the effects of the new regime on the microcosm of the orphanage:

“We never forgot, though, that before the Revolution the three former corridor wardens were just bruisers with zero intelligence. Now the Director had given them an office close to his on the first floor. They shut themselves in there to prepare Pioneers Awake, a propaganda sheet they posted on the wall of the hut of the National Movement of Pioneers every Monday morning.”

This is simply made up of extracts of the President’s speeches and a “passionate editorial” from the Director, who seems to believe the Head of State will read every issue.

In the novel’s second half, however, Moses escapes from the orphanage and heads to Point-Noire in the company of twins who quickly make the step up from bullies to gangsters. From that point on the novel is more in keeping with the picaresque nature of Mabanckou’s previous work. Moses becomes embroiled in various adventures, usually on the fringes of criminality, as his luck goes up and down like a skipping rope. If you haven’t read Mabanckou before, this is both entertaining and enlightening – after all, novels set in the Congo don’t come along every day. However, reading Mabanckou, I can’t help but be reminded of Irvine Welsh – what initially seems vibrant, brave and break-through eventually feels like the same old trick. In this sense Mabanckou is, for me, an author of diminishing returns. This novel, too, diminished in its second half, Mabanckou’s casual use of madness, and an a suddenly climactic ending which felt out of all proportion to anything which had come before, failing to fulfil the promise of its early pages.

Compass

April 21, 2017

“There’s no such thing as chance, everything is connected,” says Sarah, the object of Franz Ritter’s unrequited love in Mathias Enard’s Compass, the now shortlisted (and possibly favourite for the prize) International Man Booker novel. And, indeed, Compass is a finely woven network of connections, particularly those between East and West. Set in Vienna, a city which was once seen as a gateway between those two compass points, the novel is, like Zone, a stream of consciousness tour de force, occurring during the long, dark night of the day Ritter is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease:

“…today, when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased, almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said…”

Ritter’s single night, in which he staves off death through flooding his mind with his life, is, of course, a nod towards the West’s central Eastern text, One Thousand and One Nights; others have also pointed towards Enard’s debt to Proust in its unspooling memories, who, Ritter points out, was influenced himself by the Arabian tales. Connections from East to West form the basis of Enard’s novel: Ritter himself is a musicologist with an interest in Oriental music; Sarah, a scholar of the Orient; his happiest memories are of their time together in Syria. It would not be fanciful to suggest that their relationship provides an echo of Europe and the Middle East. The novel is more essay than story, however, and Enard’s work seems, at times, to encompass any Western artist who has flirted with the East, as well as being an ‘off-campus’ novel of academics in the wild.

The timeliness of Enard’s novel has already been widely discussed: the East is no longer seen as a source of inspiration and collaboration but, once again, a threat. By reminding us of the fascination of Western artists with the Orient, particularly classical composers, Enard reminds us that each culture has often enhanced the other in a riposte to growing intolerance on both sides. This requires considerable erudition which Enard does not seek to hide, but this, too, is a response to a society living reflex to reflex in the moment, and with scant regard for knowledge in any form – a post-history, post-expert society. At times the novel, quietly spoken as it is, feels like an Enlightenment howl of rage and despair.

The danger is that for every reader attracted by the learning on show, others will be intimidated, but, as with Zone, Enard is always readable, creating that ideal balance between refusing to talk down to the reader while never seeming to show off. Ritter’s humanity is always placed before his knowledge, in particular those moments of failure with Sarah which continue to haunt him:

“If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff, everything would have been different.”

Ritter and Sarah’s relationship (such as it is) grounds the novel, but its evident refusal to flourish ensures that the narrative (such as it is) doesn’t suffer from tension which might make Enard’s detours frustrating. This allows him, like a tour guide, to assume we know the history and focus on the interesting anecdotes and local colour.

“The important thing is not to lose sight of the East,” Ritter tells himself, and that is the novel’s message for us. It’s a determination that finally rewards him with “the warm sunlight of hope.” We can only pray we are as lucky. Compass is a novel that is profoundly of its time because it is out of it, and it would be a worthy winner.

The Explosion Chronicles

April 16, 2017

Yan Lianke’s appearance on the Man Booker International Prize long list makes him the only writer to have a 100% record, The Four Books having made it onto both the official and the shadow jury’s shortlist last year. In 2012 his novel Dream of Ding Village was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This may, of course, lead to a different reaction from the official and shadow juries this year: it’s quite possible that the official jurors are reading Lianke for the first time; for the shadow jury it’s the second (lengthy) book in as many years, and The Explosions Chronicles (translated once again by Carlos Rojas) is stylistically very similar to The Four Books.

As with The Four Books, The Explosion Chronicles sets out to explore the political situation in China, specifically the accelerated industrial revolution which began in the 1950s and has proceeded at an ever-increasing pace since the 1980s. It is estimated that China’s industrialisation has occurred at ten times the speed and one hundred times the scale of Britain’s. To give only one example of this expansion, Shenzhen, which had a population of around 300,000 in 1980, is now home to a staggering ten million people. This is exactly the process which Lianke sets out to record, presented as an official history (or chronicle) of the town of Explosion which he has been hired to write. He does so using many of the tools of satire such as caricature and hyperbole, but infused with elements of magic realism, a style he calls in an afterword mythorealism:

“While realism rigorously accords with a set of logical causal correlations, absurdity discards the causality, and magic realism rediscovers reality’s underlying causality – though this is not precisely the same causality we find in real life. Mythorealism, meanwhile, captures a hidden internal logic contained within China’s reality. It explodes reality, such that China’s absurdity, chaos and disorder – together with non-realism and illogicality – all become easily comprehensible.”

When the novel begins, Explosion is a small village where two families – Kong and Zhu – struggle for power and influence. One night the four Kong sons separate at a crossroads in search of signs which will lead them to their destinies: Mingyao sees an army truck and soon after joins the army; Mingguang finds a piece of chalk and becomes a teacher. Meanwhile Mingliang becomes the first in the village to save ten thousand yuan (a government target) by stealing coal from trains as they slow on a steep hill. He declares to the mayor that “if he were village chief, he would ensure that at least half of the village’s 126 households would become ten-thousand-yuan households” and so displaces Zhu Quingfang. He then pays the villagers to spit on Quingfang until he drowns in spit.

So the feud between the Kong and Zhu families intensifies, a situation made more interesting by the fact that Mingliang had met Quingfang’s daughter, Zhu Ying, on his journey from the crossroads. “Now that I’ve run into you, I have no choice but to marry you,” she tells him. This feud between the families drives the first half of the novel, as Mingliang schemes to expand Explosion by any means necessary and Zhu Ying plots her revenge, first leaving the village so she too can acquire wealth through prostitution:

“When she had left two years earlier she was wearing simple clothing that she, as was customary in Balou, had sewn herself; but now she was decked out in imported clothing that cost thousands of yuan… She swaggered through the village, giving everyone she saw cartons of cigarettes and boxes of chocolates she had brought back from the city.”

In the novel wealth is created by corruption and is then used to corrupt. Though a critique of communist China, it is the unfettered capitalism unleashed by government policies and targets which Lianke attacks. Mingliang’s ambition seems to usurp nature itself: when he is given the letter which announces Explosion has been recognised as a town he places it in the branches of a tree:

“The tree, which was a as tall as a person and had a trunk as wide as a bowl, had for over three years been more dead than alive, but at that moment the faint sound of summer corn sprouting could be heard from its branches…”

This, of course, will remind us of the magic realism of the 1960s, but there’s also something Shakespearian in Lianke’s use of nature to suggest a corrupt world, just as Mingliang’s rise to power also has Shakespearian echoes.

At over four hundred pages, though, some readers may find its relentless focus on what is largely a single issue wearying. In the novel’s second half, without the Kong-Zhu feud, tension certainly weakens as Lianke turns to Mingyao to comment on China’s relationship with the West. The unnamed characters of The Four Books possessed more individuality than the named characters of The Explosion Chronicles, where Lianke seems to move closer to a process where he is content to sketch his story across the surface of his vast canvas. Having said that, in an international prize list, only this and Black Moses arguably lie anywhere outside the European tradition of the novel. Whether it is shortlisted may depend entirely on how fresh it feels to the judges.

The Well at the World’s End

April 13, 2017

Having read fifteen of Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s nineteen novels, it seemed too good a chance to miss when I discovered that one of those I hadn’t read, The Well at the World’s End, had been published in 1951 – the very year which Karen and Simon had chosen to be the focus of their April ‘Club’. The Well at the World’s End is one of Gunn’s later novels (his first, The Grey Coast, was published in 1926); only two others followed, along with his autobiography, The Atom of Delight, which was the final book to be appear in his lifetime in 1956. Gunn had always been a spiritual writer as well as a great documenter of Highland life: his most famous novels are probably his historical trilogy Sun Circle, Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, and his autobiographical tale of childhood, Highland River. It’s not entirely surprisingly, then, that The Well at the World’s End can be read as a spiritual quest, albeit a rather strange one which defies easy interpretation.

The novel begins with Peter Munro staring into a well that is “obviously dry.” This is surprising as he and his wife, Fand, holidaying in the Highlands, have been sent there to fetch water by an old woman who lives nearby. When, not a little put out, he returns to inform her there is no water to fetch, she insists, “That well is never dry.”

“…a man can always see where the surface of water, however crystal, touches the sides of its container. There is a difference between air and water. All he had to do was pick up a handful of dry pebbles form the bottom… Then with the air of someone on the brink of some extraordinary revelation he stooped and slowly put his hand down, and his hand went into water.”

Peter is a Highlander himself – his father was a shepherd – but he is now a university professor. Though they have come to the Highlands together, Peter intends to leave Fand for a few days “to go wandering over the hills and through the glens, taking every adventure as it came…” (Throughout Gunn’s work you will discover he views men and women as quite different). It may seem strange that Gunn should encumber Peter with a wife given that for the majority of the novel he will soliloquise while she is firmly in the wings, but the novel is also a celebration of their love for each other.

Though Peter’s intentions aren’t entirely clear, the story can be read as a quest:

“And he saw that was no need to be grandiloquent; no occasion for fantasy. It would be interesting to find out if among ordinary people there were those moments of penetration, the instant when they went through the boundary, the moment when they saw the crystal water in the well.”

What follows is a series of adventures and encounters which can make the novel feel more of a collection of incidents than a driven narrative. Peter encounters the hospitality of shepherds, fishermen, and landladies, but his journey is not without danger, including a fight in a pub, being knocked unconscious by illegal distillers, and a near-death experience at the end. (Also, every time he gets a lift from a local, he feels he is placing his life in their hands).

In fact, the episodic nature of the novel is not illusory: parts of it were based on shorter pieces which Gunn had previously published. A masterful chapter describing a fishing boat in a storm, for example, originates from a Scots Magazine article which appeared in 1935.This, alongside an excellent haunted house story which neatly strides the divide between scepticism and mystery, are among the best parts of the novel. Others, such as the English ex-spy Cocklebuster, a previous acquaintance Peter encounters in the middle of nowhere, seem either dated or just jarring, despite some amusing description:

“It was the very voice, the high ha-ha ‘county’ voice, that had made some of them seriously wonder if the man could in fact whisper.”

(Cocklebuster is also declared to be “as sane as a cliché”). As for an episode where he attempts to rescue a lamb only to crush it death as it saves him from a possibly fatal fall, it’s genuinely difficult to know what to make of it. Generally the novel is difficult to decode: one motif seems to be a pair of silk pants (that’s underwear, for our American readers) which his wife packs in his rucksack for him. These are mentioned so often it’s hard to not be convinced they mean something – but what?

The Well at the World’s End may not be Gunn at his best, but it does make him a more intriguing writer. It demonstrates his constant striving to be both local and universal, an important facet of the Scottish Renaissance of which he was part. It’s probably not the best place to start or finish with Gunn, but an interesting adventure along the way.

War and Turpentine

April 11, 2017

Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine has the distinction of being the only book to appear on the long lists of both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (though Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine has an MBI 2016 listing to go alongside its BTBA nomination this year). I’m tempted to say it has sneaked onto both lists, firstly because its identity as fiction is rather tenuous, and secondly because it lacks the brilliance you would expect from the only novel noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. It marks the first appearance in English of one of Hertmans’ full-length works (translated from the Dutch by David McKay), despite his writing career beginning with a novel published in 1981, the year his grandfather, Urbain (the subject of War and Turpentine) died at the age of ninety.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is the most successful. Here Hertmans introduces his grandfather via childhood memories. Two central facets of his grandfather’s character, as indicated by the title, are immediately introduced: his love of painting and his experiences as a soldier during the First World War:

“My childhood years were overrun with his tales of the First World War, always the war and nothing but the war, vague heroics in a muddy field under a rain of bombs, the rat-a-tat of gunfire, phantoms screaming in the dark, orders roared in French – all conjured up from his rocking-chair with great feeling for spectacle…”

Though the war may be the focus of his conversation, Urbain spends his time painting: it is the “real work, which he had carried out uninterrupted since early retirement as a disabled veteran at forty-five.” Though these aspects of Urbain’s life are highlighted in the first few pages, the reader is intrigued by a number of mysteries: Hertmans’ memory of his grandfather “silently weeping” in front of a painting; a gravestone found hidden under the floor; and, above all, the contents of two notebooks which Urbain left Hertmans but which (at the beginning) he has not read:

“I held the privilege of his memoirs but was too scared to open them, didn’t even dare to open the first page, in the knowledge that this story would be a farewell to a piece of my childhood.”

Hertmans goes on to recreate Urbain’s life, describing how his parents met, his father’s ill-health, and the poverty they had to contend with. Urbain’s love of painting is inherited from his father who is church restorer; the young Urbain spends hours watching him at work. He, however, begins working in an iron foundry at thirteen. The story is told in what might be described as a Sebaldian style (or sub-Sebaldian if we were being less kind) meandering from the present to the past as Hermans describes his researches (for example, a visit to the National Gallery in London to see Velazquez’s Venus at her Mirror, a painting his grandfather has copied) and interrupted with the occasional photograph.

Part II brings an abrupt change of style as it focuses entirely on Urbain’s war years and is written in the first person. (It’s not entirely clear if it is lifted verbatim from his notebooks, though more likely it has been adapted from them). This creates a perfectly readable and interesting narrative, albeit one which adds little to our understanding of soldiers’ experiences during the war (apart, perhaps, from internal Belgian tensions between French and Flemish speakers – though these seem similar to divisions within the Austro-Hungarian army).

The third and final section is the shortest, returning us to the style of the first. However, with most of Urbain’s life still to be lived, this makes the novel appear lop-sided – as if, now that his childhood and war have been described, there is little of interest left. Hertmans relies instead on some very literary techniques – the symbolism of a pocket watch, and the reveal of the painting which made his grandfather cry. In the end, given Urbain’s bravery during the war (seriously wounded three times) and aptitude for art, we have a portrait of an extraordinary man living a very ordinary life. For some this is a reason for rejoicing (see also Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life) but I feel, instead, despair at a life stunted by lack of opportunity. (It also, as with Seethaler’s novel, contains amore personal tragedy).

Though War and Turpentine features on two long lists, I would not be surprised if it made neither short list. Despite holding the reader’s interest throughout, it’s ultimately an imbalanced work, never quite the sum of its parts.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar

April 8, 2017

David Grossman has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize (the precursor to the Man Booker International) more than once, most recently with To the End of the Land in 2011. A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen), however, seems to be something of a departure: as its title suggests, its protagonist, Dovaleh Greenstein, is a stand-up comedian, and the novel consists of one night’s performance filtered through the narration of an old friend whom he has invited along to observe. “Why the long face?” is the barman’s response in the hackneyed joke of the title, and the novel could be said to answer that question, exploring the unhappiness at the centre of Dovaleh’s life.

Right from the start, Dovaleh seeks to antagonise as much as amuse his audience:

“Are you going to sit there and declare, so help you God, that I am actually in Netanya at this very minute, and I’m not even wearing a flak jacket?…I get creeped out by this Netanya dump. Every second person on the street looks like he’s on the witness protection programme, and every other person has the first person rolled up in a black plastic bag inside the trunk of his car.”

Hidden beneath the humour is a violence, simmering beneath the surface, and directed at himself as much as the audience. More than once he slaps himself on the forehead, “an awful blow, that slap.”

“I’ve seen that grimace before: a little rodent gnawing on himself.”

Though interspersed with jokes (often when reminded by the audience), his act is largely a retelling, a rediscovery, of an event from his childhood. As his monologue progresses, so the truth of what happened becomes clearer to him. Towards the end he says:

“I remember everything suddenly. That’s what’s amazing about this evening… You’ve done a great thing today for me by staying. I suddenly remember everything, and not in my sleep but like it’s happening right now, this minute.”

His humour is a defence from unpleasant truths – even as a child he would walk on his hands in an attempt to avoid being bullied. Grossman seems to be questioning whether humour, perhaps specifically Jewish humour, is therapeutic, or in fact a damaging refusal to face facts.

The novel is not easy (but then neither was the last novel I read with a comedian at the centre, Heinrich Boll’s The Clown, with which this shares both tone and message to some extent). Dovaleh’s stage persona is deliberately unpleasant: pugnacious and vitriolic, with a sense of something pathetic at its centre slowly being uncovered. The performance is a car crash, and while that holds a certain fascination, there are numerous squirm-inducing moments. The novel is a tightrope of heightened emotion, dipping into jokes with a feigned loss of balance: it can be exhausting to watch.

It’s a novel of crisis, a long dark night of the soul: Dovaleh asks his childhood friend, our narrator, Avishai Lazar, to observe him – “I want you to see me” – as if no longer able to see himself clearly. (That he is an ex-judge suggests, of course, that Dovaleh wants to be judged). And, like all of Grossman’s recent work, it’s a novel of loss.

Whether A Horse Walks into a Bar will make the short list is difficult to say. It possesses a formal daring and emotional intensity difficult to ignore, but it feels like a novel which will be more admired than loved.

The Unseen

March 27, 2017

One of the greatest pleasures of shadowing a prize is the chance to encounter writers, often of long-standing, for the first time. Roy Jacobsen is a case in point: The Unseen is his thirteenth novel, and the fifth to be translated into English (by Don Barlett and Don Shaw). It appears with a title and cover suggestive of the horror genre, but is, in fact, firmly historical, set at the point in Norway’s past where modernity begins to threaten a way of life which has been handed down from generation to generation, around a hundred years ago.

This may be why Jacobsen chooses an island setting for his novel; islands typically lag behind the mainland, resisting or unaware of change. In a sense, the novel becomes two stories: that of life on the island, and that of the interactions the islanders have with the outside world. Only one family live on the island (and also use a number of smaller, surrounding islets), named, like the island, Barroy: Hans and Maria, their daughter, Ingrid, and Hans’ father, Martin, and sister, Barbro. They farm, sell eiderdown, and Hans also has a half-share in a fishing boat with his brother.

The chapters are short (there are 53 in total) and tend to focus on a particular moment, with time passing between them as necessary. One chapter may follow directly from the previous one, or there may be an unspecified gap. The opening chapter, which tells of Ingrid’s christening, and the second, which features her travelling in the faering with her father, give the initial impression that she will be the centre of the novel, but, though her coming of age is an important strand, this feels more like the story of a community. It’s told in a simple, authoritative tone:

“Whatever is washed ashore on an island belongs to the finder, and the islanders find a lot.”

This contrasts sharply with the speech of the characters, reproduced in a dialect which presumably mirrors the original Norwegian:

“Hva did A tell tha!”

This is a difficult call for a translator: if he uses a UK dialect he runs the danger of transposing the story to the UK; if he invents a dialect it may jar with the reader (or, worse, read like a fantasy novel!). Although I had some issues with the spelling (‘nu’ = new ‘heir’ = here) and the use of apostrophes (which only indicate it is another language spoken wrongly), I quickly became accustomed to the speech, and it was certainly important not to render it in standard English.

Intrusions from the mainland are rare, but often significant in the novel. When Hans hires some Swedish labourers to help him build a jetty, Barbro sleeps with one of them and falls pregnant. Lars becomes a sixth addition to the island’s population. When a further two children arrive later by other means, we begin to see the island as a refuge with an instinctive care for children which is seen to be lacking on the mainland.

Not all visitors are welcome, however. When an escaped convict arrives in a stolen boat, the islanders are at first paralysed by this unexpected event. The criminal sees this as a weakness he can take advantage of:

“I can see you’re simple folk who are not accustomed to people like me, I could do as I please here…”

The intrusion leaves its mark on the island:

“Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.”

This is, perhaps the ‘unseen’ of the title, though their fears do eventually fade.

Jacobsen seems to find the life of the islanders, though hard, attractive. In reference to planting the coast with evergreens he says:

“No, nobody would even consider doing this until the country attains such wealth that it is the process of going to rack and ruin.”

Yet the drive towards capitalism comes from within as well as without the island. For this reason I was reminded of the archetypal island novel, and exemplification of industry and Protestant work ethic, Robinson Crusoe. From the beginning Hans is set on making improvements to the island; some of these are for the comfort of the islanders, but others relate to increasing trade with the mainland. Towards the end, Ingrid takes on the mantle, negotiating prices for stockfish and eggs.

The Unseen vividly and convincingly places its reader on Barroy. Jacobsen brings the past to life with a level of detail – in particular a sense of how the past might feel – which makes me want to read his other historical novels. If the novel seems to stop rather than end, that too enhances its reality. As island life continues, unseen, the tides of history wash at its shore.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

March 23, 2017

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

The Traitor’s Niche

March 19, 2017

Ismail Kadare is no stranger to the Man Booker International Prize having won the inaugural prize in 2005 when it was awarded, not for a single novel, but for a body of work. He has also been frequently long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the predecessor to the Man Booker International in its present form: The Successor in 2007, Agamemnon’s Daughter in 2008, The Siege in 2009, and The Fall of the Stone City in 2013 (the latter pair were also short-listed). These works reveal a little of how Kadare is currently being translated: while most appeared in English within a few years of their original publication, The Siege was first published in 1970, and represents attempts to bring Kadare’s older work to a wider audience alongside his most recent. The Traitor’s Niche continues that trend (which also includes Twilight of the Eastern Gods, another seventies novel, translated in 2014) as it was written between 1974 and 1976 when Kadare was still in Albania (he claimed political asylum in France in 1990) under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. They also indicate the two most common methods of translation, some having been translated from French translations by David Bellos, others, like The Traitors’ Niche, being directly translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

The Traitor’s Niche is most reminiscent of The Palace of Dreams where Kadare also used the Ottoman empire to explore totalitarianism in the oblique way living in a totalitarian state demands (not oblique enough as The Palace of Dreams was banned). The Traitor’s Niche is set in 1822 when Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, albeit on its disregarded edges. It concerns the rebellion of Ali Pasha Tepelena who rules Albania as part of the empire until he decides “go to war against the sultan” despite the warnings of his wife:

“Why do you want to climb higher?… Why not climb down a little? Wouldn’t it be more natural to yield, to be more human, rather than opverreaching to become more than a man?”

The Sultan sends Hurshid Pasha to defeat him, but Hurshid himself soon suffers the Sultan’s displeasure when he is accused of sending only part of Ali’s fortune back to Constantinople.

Kadare is not only interested in history, of course; his subject is the ruthless exercise of power. The novel’s great skill is that it is told through a series of characters rather than events. The opening chapter presents us with Abdullah, who guards the traitor’s niche (or niche of shame) where the heads of those executed by the state are placed. Years of placing and replacing heads, as well as observing the reaction of the crowds, has taught him that “people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be.” A nearby café owner is equally cynical:

“People are villains. They look at a severed head as if the sight of it has put them off ever committing a crime again, but as soon as they turn their backs on it, it’s clear they can hardly wait to get back to their dirty tricks.”

The niche is awaiting Ali’s head, a place currently filled by the head of the man who was sent, and failed, to defeat him. His replacement, Hurshid, knows that either he or Ali must die:

“The heavens could not contain them both. One of their suns had to sink.”

We follow Ali’s head to Constantinople in the company of Tundj Hata, who charges villagers to see it in the provinces through which he must pass. But Ali’s will not be the last head to be placed in the niche before the novel’s conclusion.

Though The Traitor’s Niche is faithful to the history it draws on, we are constantly pointed towards its wider reach, in particular in answer to the question “What will they do to Albania now?” which is immediately asked on the arrival of Ali’s head:

“They recalled situations and provinces in which a ‘state of emergency’ had been called… A ‘state of emergency’ would be devised by the First Directorate of the Interior Ministry to stimulate internal divisions on the basis of religion, regional and feudal alliances, castes and traditions.”

Or alternatively:

“The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.”

These descriptions of statecraft not only echo workings of the Soviet bloc, but of all powerful empires since time began. Not only do its servants live in fear of decapitation, so do those countries within its grasp. Kadare’s novel exposes the ruthlessness of powerful states, but does so in such a way as to humanise the participants, from the rebellious pasha to the guardian of the traitor’s niche.

At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether The Traitor’s Niche will appear on the short list. Eileen Battersby (of the Irish Times) has argued that, as an older novel, it should make way for newer work (goodness knows what she’d make of the Best Translated Book Award), though I’m not sure her view that great novels are always translated quickly is true in every case. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it just yet.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017

March 15, 2017

With equal parts excitement and trepidation, today I learned which books had made it onto the Man Booker International Prize long-list. The trepidation occurs because, once again, I am going to be reading all of them as part of the Shadow Jury and therefore questions such as, Have I read any? Do I own any others? and How long are they? take on much greater significance.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist:
Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

This year I have only read two of the long-listed novels, Swallowing Mercury and Fever Dream, two of the shorter novels, and two of only three by women writers. The lack of women writers is disappointing, though it partly reflects the proportion of women who are translated. It’s a shame that two excellent Peirene novels (The Empress and the Cake and Her Father’s Daughter) both missed out – Peirene have been represented since 2011 (if we regard the prize as continuing from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), every year of their existence.

Tilted Axis Press and And Other Stories might also feel disappointed not to feature, though two novels from Fitzcarraldo Editions makes up for the snubbing of Mathias Enard’s Zone in 2015 (a move which so infuriated the Shadow Jury they called it in). Both Harvill Secker and MacLehose Press (both long-time supporters of literature in translation) are also represented twice.

Eight of the thirteen books are European (the Guardian originally seemed to suggest Iceland and Albania were not part of Europe though I notice this has been changed. Alain Mabanckou is still “a French writer born in the Republic of the Congo” though, whatever that implies – perhaps that nine are European, or eleven if we use Eurovision rules and include Israel). This compares to only five European books last year (six if Turkey is regarded as European). A pity, then, that Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound was excluded, and Japanese female writers like Yoko Tawada and Hiromi Kawakami.

The list is certainly not short of well-established writers (including Nobel Prize winners in waiting, some might say): Ismail Kadare is 81, Amos Oz 77, and David Grossman, Roy Jacobson and Stefan Hertmans are all in their sixties. (Samantha Schweblin is, I think, the youngest). Many of the books themselves are heavyweights – Bricks and Mortar runs to 670 pages, Compass and The Explosion Chronicles to 480, Fish Have No Feet a comparatively paltry 380… the rest (luckily) are more manageable, and it’s unlikely anything can match the tedium of reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

I’m most looking forward to reading The Explosion Chronicles having been impressed by The Four Books last year; similarly Compass should be a treat based on my experience of Zone. As a long-time admirer of Kadare I would have read The Traitor’s Niche anyway; the same applies to Dorthe Nors, though on the basis of only one previous book. Mabanckou and Stefansson I’ve also read before though with less relish (The Sorrow of Angels I think of with my own personal sorrow). The other writers are entirely new to me.

Let the reading begin!

(You can read the Official Shadow Panel response to the long list here).