Archive for February, 2020

International Booker Prize 2020 Long List

February 27, 2020

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The Booker International Prize 2020 long list was announced earlier today, blind-siding speculators with a number of unexpected titles among a few favourites. Of my own predictions, four have proven to be correct (Tyll, The Hurricane Season, The Memory Police and Mac and his Problem), which is better than most years. I was also right in forecasting a Charco Press presence, though, despite mentioning three possibilities, was not able to guess which one. The list in full is:

Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans (Pushkin Press)

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions)

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish (Charco Press)

The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German (Scribe UK)

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside from French (William Heinemann)

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German (Quercus)

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogowa, translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese (Harvill Secker)

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins from French (Peirene Press)

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish (Oneworld)

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison from Dutch (Faber & Faber)

Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Harvill Secker)

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Perhaps the most noticeable absence is Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, translated by previous winner Deborah Smith, in what is another selection dominated by Europe (seven titles) and South America (three). My forecast of greater Asian representation proved wide of the mark with only two titles, from the extreme east and west of the continent, Japan and Iran, featuring.

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Fitzcarraldo Press, as last year, has two titles in the list (the same number as translator Sophie Hughes), and, as well as Charco, other small presses such as Peirene, Pushkin and Europa are all represented. And Other Stories, who have never been particularly lucky with this prize, have missed out again, despite both Love and The Taiga Syndrome expected by many to feature. Maclehose Press, too, should feel disappointed, with its dedicated line of translated fiction omitted entirely, as perhaps will Tilted Axis Press though it publishes fewer titles.

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The appearance of the 944 page The Eighth Life makes reading the long list even more of a challenge than normal. Red Dog is, I think, next in length at 432 pages. Serotonin, The Other Name and Tyll are all over 300. There is also the fact that two of the books have yet to be published. On a personal level, I find that I have only read two of the (shorter) books so I have less of a head start than usual, but I am fully intending to embrace the challenge, though reading everything before the 2nd of April short list announcement is very unlikely indeed.

International Booker Prize 2020 Predictions

February 21, 2020

This year’s International Booker Prize, the long list of which is announced on the 27th of February, is unusual in recent years as having no obvious favourite. In 2016, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) had been seen as a potential winner before the long list was announced; in 2017 Mathias Enard (for Compass translated by Charlotte Mandell) and Samanta Schweblin (for Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell) were both strongly fancied, though the prize eventually went to David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by; in 2018 Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) was also installed as ‘most likely to…’ prior to the judging; and in 2019 Tokarczuk again and Annie Ernaux (for The Years, translated by Alison Strayer) both seemed strong possibilities, though the surprise winner was Jokha Alhathi’s Celestial Bodies (translated by Marlyn Booth).

One reason for this is a lack of previous winners (and in this I include winners of the award’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). Only Jose Eduardo Agualusa is eligible, I think, with The Society of Reluctant Dreamers (translated by Daniel Hahn). Samanta Schweblin’s new novel, Little Eyes (again translated by Megan McDowell), which could see her make three long lists in a row, will also not be available to mere mortals until the end of April. Other previously short-listed writers are thin on the ground, though two I expect to be there are Yoko Ogawa for The Memory Police (translated by Stephen Snyder) and Daniel Kehlmann for Tyll (translated by Ross Benjamin). Ismail Kadare and Lars Saabye Christensen are two other possibilities. With a new novel translated almost every year, however, Kadare seems more suited to the award he received in 2005 for his body of work before the nature of the prize changed. Christensen, on the other hand, last featured in 2008 with The Model, the last of his novels to be translated into English. I would love The Echoes of the City (translated by Don Bartlett) to be long-listed, though its traditional nature, and the fact it’s the first in a trilogy, may make this less likely. László Krasznahorkai, who is both a winner of the original Man Booker International Prize, and was short-listed as recently as 2018 for The World Goes On, may well make another appearance with Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming (translated by Ottilie Mulzet).

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South American writers are often strong contenders, though 2011 was the last time a writer from that continent won. Hopefully Charco Press will feature again after missing out last year as their eligible novels are very strong. It’s no secret that Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews) was my personal favourite, but Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded (translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott) and Guiseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (translated by Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock) deserve notice. And Other Stories, who last year featured with The Remainder, also have a number of titles from that part of the world in contention. Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) is perhaps too oblique, but Juan Pablo Villalobos’ I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me (translated by Daniel Hahn) looks like it will be published in time. Another Mexican writer who has a good chance of appearing is Fernando Melchor with Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), with the Cuban novelist Carlos Manuel Alvarez (also published by Fitzcarraldo editions) a possibility with The Fallen (translated by Frank Wynne). Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh (translated by Sarah Moses) has also been picking up some strong recommendations since its publication this month.

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Of course European titles are still likely to make up much of the long list. There are a number of Spanish possibilities but I think I would discount the two longest, Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School (translated by Anthony Shugaar) and Fernando Aramburo’s Homeland (translated by Alfred McAdam). I would much rather see the country represented by Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac and his Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes). Other personal preferences would be Hanne Orstavik’s Love (translated by Martin Aitken), Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund) and A Girl Returned by Donatella di Pietrantonio (translated by Ann Goldstein). Based entirely in previous work, I’d be happy to see Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann) and Tommy Wieringa’s The Blessed Rita (translated by Sam Garrett) included. Perhaps Peirene Press, regulars on the IFFP long list, might return for the first time since 2016 with Birgit Vanderbeke’s You Would Have Missed Me (translated by Jamie Bulloch). Another German novel, Nino Haratischwili’s epic The Eighth Life (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), has been suggested as a strong contender by many who have read it, but its length instils such fear in me I unable to judge it objectively.


What I most hope from this year’s prize is a wider representation of Asian writing (there are generally only one or two books from that part of the world), particularly as there seems to be much more getting published in the UK. Bae Suah’s recent Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is only one example; other possibilities include Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-Ha (translated by Krys Lee), Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino (translated by Allison Markin Powell), Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (translated by Natascha Bruce) and Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joon (translated by jamie Chang).

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From elsewhere on the globe, Alain Mabanckou’s The Death of Comrade President (translated by Helen Stevenson, not yet released) must be a strong possibility as he has previously been long listed a number of times, most recently in 2017 with Black Moses. Hamid Ismailov’s Of Strangers and Bees (translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega) probably has the best chance of Tilted Axis’ titles but I would love to see The Yogini by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha) selected. My woeful knowledge of Arabic literature prevents me suggesting anything from that part of the world, though the available titles do not seem extensive. Ultimately, the point of reading any prize list is to discover new writers, so my main hope is that I haven’t got too much right.

The Doll’s Alphabet

February 17, 2020

Canadian writer Camilla Grudova’s short story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet, relishes its own strangeness from the very first sentence:

“One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.”

The nod to Kafka is obvious – especially as she finds afterwards “the closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant” – but here the transformation is voluntary, and quickly copied by others as women discover their “unstitching consciousness.” ‘Unstitching’ is one of the shorter stories in the collection at just over two pages but it provides a warning of what is to come.

Other, even shorter, stories (‘The Gothic Society’, ‘The Doll’s Alphabet’) suffer from being little more than the sketch of an idea; even ‘Hungarian Sprats’, at six pages, reads like a extended squib (although all illustrate that Grudova, like Angela Carter, sees the humour in her gothic intensity). However, when Grudova develops her vision, in particular in what might be termed world-building stories, the results can be astonishing. The best example of this is ‘Waxy’, its scenery borrowed from post-war Europe, but its gender roles even more restrictively defined: Men succeed by passing Exams, while women, in every way subservient, work in factories. It is women, however, who must bear the blame for everything:

“If one’s Man did not do well in Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.”

(Similarly, if you are taken advantage of by someone else’s Man, “It’s always considered the woman’s fault.”) The narrator finds herself without a Man (“I felt good, but it was frowned upon to be Manless”) and eventually picks one up in a café. Paul is not what you would call a catch – he has never sat an Exam and, in fact, has no papers:

“He was missing many teeth and sometimes couldn’t control his bladder. I didn’t mind because one of the first things a girl learns in school is that every man has his own special problems, and it’s one’s duty to take care of them.”

Avoiding pregnancy is also a preoccupation of the narrator but contraception is unaffordable without Exam money; when the baby which eventually results from her relationship with Paul is born it is called Waxy as “we were too scared to name it properly”. Unfortunately, Paul’s unofficial status allows their cohabitees, Stuart and Pauline (space, we understand, is at a premium), to make demands of them: first their tobacco and tinned meat, later that Paul look after Stuart when he falls ill, and, in the end, that Paul sleep with Pauline. This story has all the tension you might expect from such claustrophobic blackmail, but it’s the accrual of detail which astounds both in the fecundity of Grudova’s imagination and the skill with which it is exercised.

‘Agata’s Machine’ is another such story, although one which takes place in a more recognisable world. Here the narrator befriends Agata, the class protégé, when they are eleven. Invited to her house, she is introduced to Agata’s invention, made out of her mother’s old sewing machine, a mason jar, a light bulb and a cigar box. Using this machine they summon tiny figures – a Pierrot in Agata’s case; and, in the narrator’s:

“…a man with white wings, wearing a striped sailor’s shirt, and wide sailor’s trousers.”

Using the machine becomes a nightly obsession, and a third figure appears whom they christen Mr Magnolia, “bald, except for a thin rim of hair like scum on a dirty bowl, and a plain, unfanciful moustache like the little plastic combs used for lice searches at school.” The narrator is eventually forbidden from visiting Agata, and the story concludes when she returns to the house many years later.

The sewing machine is the most obvious of a number of recurring images in Grudova’s work. The narrator in ‘Waxy’ works in a sewing machine factory; Greta, in ‘Unstitching’, is “the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based.” In interview, Grudova has explained:

“I love inventories and indexes; initially I wanted to include an index of mentioned objects, to give a sense of all the stories as part of one piece. And I’ve used a sewing machine since a young age. My grandmother worked as a seamstress. I find a lot of parallels between sewing and writing. It’s a process of creation, something from the imagination, and looks very much like writing to me.”

The stories in general are filled with old-fashioned objects as if the reader were browsing a downmarket antique shop – and many of them are set in shops. They also frequently reference fairy-tales, from a mermaid in which “the fish and human are blended together like tea with milk” to a male character named Wolf. For this reason some space between stories may be advisable.

Like most short story collections, there is an unevenness to The Doll’s Alphabet, though not one of tone or craft. The shorter stories, however, often amuse largely for their cleverness, but where she is at her best she delves into the heart of something dark and dangerous with an unflinching imagination.

The Snares of Memory

February 10, 2020

Juan Marse’s The Snares of Memory (translated by Nick Caistor) tells a story about telling a story. In the novel the narrator – Marse himself we are led to assume – is employed to write a film treatment based on a true story which took place in 1949 when a prostitute was murdered in the projection booth of a cinema – strangled by the rolls of film around her neck. The killer is her occasional lover, and the projectionist, Fermin Sicart, but, even years later, his motives remain unclear:

“He can remember that he killed a prostitute but has absolutely no memory of why.”

Marse at first finds this difficult to accept:

“How could someone remember the details of something so terrible – a murder by strangling no less – and not remember why they had done it?”

In the course of the novel, however, he will have the chance to interview Sicart, who is adamant that “all of a sudden I found myself somewhere else, sitting in the back row of the stalls with no idea of how I got there or how it happened.” In this sense the novel act as an investigation, with the tensions of a crime novel. Marse teases us with various theories for example “that the whole case looked like a cover up.” In speaking to Sicart, he discovers that, after the murder, he suffered a mental breakdown:

“…the doctors put me through such an aggressive therapy that for quite a while I even forgot my own name.”

This, of course, suggests that Sicart’s recollections are unreliable. When Marse asks him, “Is what you’re going to tell me what you actually remember you did, or what the doctors said you had done?” he answers:

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Later he talks about “inventing monstrous stories” in order to get better treatment.

Sicart’s experience mirrors that of many anti-Franco political prisoners of the time, and the novel is also a commentary on Spain’s collective memory of that time. Set in 1982, the country is only beginning to leave behind years of dictatorship and is “torn between memory and forgetting.” At one point Marse comments to Sicart, “Nowadays a lot of people say the past should be left untouched,” and his difficulties in recreating the events of 1949 suggest the more general complexities of writing about the past. 1982, he says, was:

“…precisely the moment when the whole of Spain…seemed determined to convert the bruised collective memory into a dangerous minefield.”

Yet Marse remains clear that, however difficult it is to see clearly, the past continues to haunt the present:

“A distant, phantom, wintry but indestructible city that was as obsolete but as persistent in his mind as it was in mine.”

Alongside this more serious rumination on memory, the novel is also an amusing insight into the film industry. Initially Marse is told repeatedly to “stick to the facts” in his treatment but as financial backing is sought, and even the director changes, so does the emphasis. In particular, another prostitute whom Sicart mentions attracts the producer’s attention as she is losing her sight:

“You’ve struck gold there! A sightless sex worker!”

“The most important thing,” Marse is told, “is not the killer’s inability to remember, but the loveable little whore’s blindness.” Soon a young actress who is ‘perfect for the part’ is sent to meet Marse, and inevitably the final film bears little resemblance to the scripted scenes which Marse includes in the novel.

In the film’s failure, one suspects, lies the novel’s origin (though it is recent, originally published in 2016). This delay has perhaps been caused by Marse’s refusal to opt for easy fictional solutions. At one point it seems that we are being offered a psychological explanation for the murder based on Sicart’s insistence that his mother was a seamstress rather than a prostitute, but these ideas too are dismissed as “mere conjecture” and “too much psychodrama.” In the end Marse, and the reader, must accept that he is unable to solve the mystery:

“I wouldn’t be able to say what the limits of fiction are when it comes to recreating a historical truth; possibly the task is not to throw more light on the real event, but to emphasise the play of light and shade, the ambiguities and doubts…”

The Snares of Memory is certainly a play of light and shade, from its moments of light satire to the darker corners of Spain’s’ history. Spain, Marse concludes, like Sicart, perhaps like all of us, remains attached to a past it can never fully understand.

A Far Cry from Kensington

February 3, 2020

Muriel Spark’s eighteenth novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (originally published in 1988) returns us to the world of publishing in post-war Britain which we saw as recently as 1981’s Loitering with Intent. Since Spark’s debut, The Comforters, writers of various kinds have featured in her work, though the artistic process is rarely fore-grounded; here the novel is narrated, not by the successful but flawed novelist Emma Loy, but by Mrs Hawkins, an editor at a failing publishers (Spark, of course, was editor of Poetry Review between 1947 and 1949). When Mrs Hawkins offers literary advice it is of a practical nature – the suggestion, for example, of acquiring a cat to aid concentration. Advice is something that she is regularly required to dispense as:

“There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidence.”

The appellation ‘Mrs Hawkins’ itself is an indication that others treat her as a motherly figure despite the fact she is not yet thirty, but it is her plumpness that particularly invites those who know her, however briefly, to share their problems.

In this sense, Mrs Hawkins herself is a forgery in a novel of fakes. We quickly learn that Martin York, of the publishing firm Ullswater and York, where Mrs Hawkins initially works, “was to go to prison for multiple forgeries.” Like all forgers, he places the greatest importance on appearance:

“If it’s widely enough believed that you have money and wealth, Mrs Hawkins, it is the same as having it.”

But the greatest fake in the novel is Mrs Hawkins’ nemesis, Hector Bartlett. Bartlett is a would-be writer who has attached himself to the novelist Emma Loy. Mrs Hawkins regards even his professed origins as inauthentic:

“Hector Barlett claimed at every opportunity… to be upper class, to the effect that I presumed him to be rather low-born.”

It is aspirations as a writer, however, which most offend her. When he approaches her in Green Park one day, she cannot help but voice her true opinion:

“I don’t know what got into me, for I said, not to myself as usual, but out loud, ‘Pisseur de copie!’”

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Though she may have been able to deny a single such outburst, which Bartlett is happy not to hear, she repeats the epithet at the end of their unwelcome conversation, and admits it once again when Emma Loy phones, “very worried about Hector” to ask her, “What exactly did you do to him this morning?” Offending Emma Loy ensures Mrs Hawkins loses her job, albeit from a publishing house which is soon declared bankrupt, but Bartlett continues to haunt her, both professionally and, more secretly, at the boarding house where she is staying. Mrs Hawkins never changes her opinion, her remark becoming one of the most striking repetitions of the novel, a refusal to shy from the truth (at one point she says, “It feels like preaching the gospel”) regardless of the consequences. This example of honesty stands in marked contrast to the various dishonest plots and schemes which are unearthed around it.

The first of these begins with an anonymous letter threatening Wanda, a Polish seamstress who lives in the same building as Mrs Hawkins. The letter is followed by a phone call, and the effect on Wanda is visible:

“Wanda was still haunted; all her old confidence and tranquillity had left her.”

Spark has always been interested in blackmail, and here, particularly, it is used to contrast the way people treat each other, blackmail being an extreme form of using others to our own end. This is in marked contrast to Mrs Hawkins who finds jobs for her now unemployed colleagues from Ullswater and York. Another dishonest scheme is the Box, or radionics, in which samples of a person hair and blood are supposedly used to cure them:

“So far as I could see it was as devoid of any functional possibility as one of those children’s toy telephones with which they go through the motions of dialling a number and talking, but never get anywhere.”

In comedic fashion, Mrs Hawkins gets her reward, transforming into a woman half her size by eating only half portions, no longer Mrs Hawkins but Nancy, and once again a romantic lead rather than a sympathetic aunt, a change that is not to everyone’s taste:

“You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.”

A Far Cry from Kensington is a gentler Spark novel, lacking the violence of her continental novels, and with a central character who is entirely sympathetic. It still contains the strangeness that feels true precisely because it is unlikely that is so typical of her work, for example the man paid to stare up at the offices of Ullswater and York to make them feel shame for their debts, or the firm of Mackintosh and Toolley where all the staff are hired on the basis of possessing some kind of disability. Evil remains, however, in the irrepressible egocentricity of Hector Barlett who, of course, is not as harmless as he might first appear. Spark may have mellowed, but she has not gone soft.