Archive for April, 2021

The Perfect Nine

April 25, 2021

Ngugi wa Thiong’o was, without doubt, the biggest name on the International Booker long list. Frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender, he published his first novel in 1964. It was with Devil on the Cross in 1980 that Ngugi decided to no longer write in English but in his native language, Gikuyu:

“Language is … inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.”

The Perfect Nine is, in many ways, the summation of this belief as it retells the origin myth of the Gikuyu. As Ngugi explains in short introduction, in this story the Gikuyu descend from a man, Gikuyu, and a woman, Mumbi, who have “nine daughters, but they were actually ten, hence the Perfect Nine.” In the legend they are provided with ten handsome, young men when the time comes to marry. Ngugi’s version of the story originates in the question: “Where did the Ten Suitors come from?” From this point he develops a quest story which also encapsulates the values he sees as important, in particular equality and community.

The novel (once again when it comes to this year’s long list, we must use the term loosely) is written in a verse form suited to its epic nature. Here, for example, is Gikuyu and Mumbi’s arrival at the summit of Mount Kenya:

“…they found themselves at the top,

Where now they stood, awed by

The summit, as white and massive as the moon,

Its coldness pushing them back as if

Commanding them to stop.”

Repetition, as we would expect, is commonplace – the “moon-white top” of another mountain is mentioned on the same page – and the characters talk in a formal style throughout. The second chapter is entirely given over to praise of the “Giver Supreme”, and the narrator frequently makes themselves known:

“I implore thee for the power to faithfully tell this tale of Gikuyu and Mumbi…”

However, when the quest begins it is told from the point of view of the daughters, and one chapter is written in the voice of an ogre. The quest is to find the ‘cure-all’, a hair which grows on the middle of an invisible ogre’s tongue, in order to cure the lameness of the tenth daughter, Warigia. The quest is designed to reduce the number of suitors from the original ninety-nine. (Some have already left after Gikuyu’s insistence that none of his daughters can leave with their husband once married). We see Ngugi’s intention to instil the values he wishes to promote into the legend when one suitor initially suggests that they simply fight to marry the daughters until only nine are left, to which Gikuyu responds:

“To build calls for hard work,

From the one who looks for tomorrow.

To destroy is easy work,

For one who wants to return to yesterday,

Like a grown person wishing to remain a child.

War destroys lives,

Peace restores lives.

The warrior and the warrior bring home trophies of tears.

The peacemaker and peacemaker bring home trophies of laughter.”

Such words, one feels, should be carved on the walls of every parliament in the world. Ngugi also promotes more progressive values when it comes to equality of the sexes. For example, when there is a contest to shoot an arrow in the eye of a tree from further and further away, Warigia is the best shot. When the suitors go on their quest, the daughters go with them. Less unexpectedly, the epic also enshrines environmental values:

“The forest around is our source of whatever we eat and drink.

The rivers give us water. Clothes we make from the barks of trees and hides of animals.

All citizens of nature – plants, animals and birds – are our friends.”

In this way, rather than an exercise in looking back, The Perfect Nine is also a life-affirming hymn to the future.

Any worry that the work is too abstract for modern sensibilities is off-set by the inclusion of Wagiria, who not only provides an aim for the quest, but is the only daughter with a single suitor – first seen when he cannot decide which of the nine huts (each named for one daughter) to sleep in. He later removes Wagiria’s arrows from the tree to return to her, and is even granted a name, Kihara meaning ‘scarred’, when he is attacked by a lion on the quest. This individual story provides an anchor for any reader who finds the tale too widescreen.

It is difficult to judge The Perfect Nine in a prize list because its aims, in many ways, are different from a typical novel – though this is a prize list where typical novels are largely absent – and this, I suspect, explains its absence from the shortlist. What can be said with certainty, however, is that it tells a gripping story which at the same time encapsulates a hopeful view of humanity. It might also be said to most obviously represent the aims of the prize as it is difficult to imagine it would be quite the same if originally written in English, but, translated by the author, it provide a perfect example of the local as universal.

Summer Brother

April 21, 2021

Summer Brother is the second of Jaap Robben’s novels to be translated into English (by David Doherty). Before the first of these, You Have Me to Love, was published in the Netherlands, Robben was better known as a children’s author, and Summer Brother also features, as its central character and narrator, a child – thirteen-year-old Brian. Brian lives with his father, Maurice – unreliable and often uncaring – in a caravan, while his older, disabled brother, Lucien, spends his days in an institution. The treatment of Lucien was one of no doubt many fault lines in his parents’ marriage – when it was decided he needed sedated to control his at times violent behaviour, Brian’s mother could not face seeing him, leaving the weekly visit to Brian and his father – only to discover, weeks later, that they have not been going. With the mother now newly married and on her honeymoon, Maurice, eternally behind with the rent and always short of money, takes advantage of an opportunity to look after Lucien while the institution is refurbished when he learns that funding is available. The actual looking after, however, is largely left to Brian.

Maurice’s attitude to Lucien can be seen when they visit him at the start of the novel. Not only has it been some months since they last saw him, but he soon leaves Brian and Lucien alone:

“Your brother would rather have a nap, by the look of it.”

Even the task of giving Lucien the chocolate egg they have brought him falls to Brian: “You’re better at this,” he tells his son. It is while feeding his brother chocolate that Brian meets another teenage patient, Selma, “a kind of ‘girllady’ whose breast have shown up early,” who unlike his brother, is both mobile and able to talk.

Maurice is, of course, immediately dismissive of any idea they might look after Lucien over the summer, until he hears there might be money involved. He tries to convince Brian how easy it will be:

“It’s not like he’s going anywhere. I’ll sort out a TV by his bed to keep him occupied the rest of the time and, het presto, another day gone. Quick wipe with a facecloth, brush his little gnashers and then beddy-byes. Nothing to it, right?”

(Doherty strikes exactly the right note in rendering Maurice’s dialogue into English in order to encapsulate his careless, care-free character, a kind of aggressive jollity). In contrast to Maurice’s optimism, Lucien’s arrival is not entirely plain sailing – for one thing, the bed that the hospital brings for him does not fit in the caravan. Maurice also has to contend with Jean and Henri, on whose land the caravan is situated: not only does he owe them money, but they have never been happy with Brian’s presence (“it’s no place for a child”) and are unlikely to be pleased with Lucien’s appearance. As usual, Maurice’s plan is to hope for the best:

“…once they clap eyes on him, they won’t dare send him away. Wanna bet?”

The novel is a coming-of-age story as Brian must deal with the adult role of carer while at the same time cope with the sexual feelings he has developed for Selma. Robben also adds an alternative adult role model for Brian in the form of Emile, who arrives with his tropical fish in desperate need of accommodation (exactly why is never entirely explained) from a middle-class world that seems a million miles away. In Emile, Brian finds someone he can talk to. That Emile becomes a father substitute to some extent can be seen from the way he helps Brian with Lucien, and is later trusted by Brian to look after him. In contrast to Maurice, when Emile encourages Brian (“That was hard work. You’re good at this you know”) it is not a simply a way to push the role of carer onto him.

Summer Brother is perhaps the most ‘novel-like’ of the International Booker long list – it is driven by character and story, has a clearly realistic setting, and grapples with social issues. Maurice, in particular, is a wonderful creation: thinking only of himself, always on the make, possessed of a bullying bonhomie – the Boris Johnson of the lower classes. The novel also explores attitudes to the disabled, not only through Lucien but through Brian’s relationship with Selma. Does he view this as acceptable because he sees her, like his brother, as a person, or is he influenced by his father’s perspective, that others are simply there to be exploited?

With a jury who seem to particularly admire books which test the boundaries of the form, the more conventional Summer Brother is something of an outlier on the long list, but it demonstrates that a more traditional approach can be as captivating and affecting today as it ever was.

The Employees

April 18, 2021

This year’s International Booker long list has not been shy about including all manner of forms and genres. Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) is a case in point: a science fiction novel written as a series of witness statements. The novel is set on the Six-Thousand Ship which (some assumption is required here, as it is throughout the novel) has left Earth in search of new planets – see, for example, the planet New Discovery from which a number of objects have been taken to the ship. It is these objects which seem to have precipitated the crisis on board which is being investigated via the employee interviews, “with a view into gaining insight into how they related to the objects and the rooms in which they were placed.”

This is not a game in which the reader can guess the objects (see, for example, Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home). The employees’ feelings towards the objects are more important than what they are. In particular, many talk about the object as if they were alive, whether positively (“I talk to her while she rests”) or negatively (“The three on the floor seem especially hostile”). Many of the employees become attached to the objects:

“Your sending an object back to Homebase feels like having a tooth extracted, a tooth that was located in the chest.”

In any case, the objects seem to be a catalyst rather than a cause, disrupting the balance between the two categories of employees on the ship: humans and humanoids, and it is here we find Ravn’s real focus, allowing her to ask profound questions about what it is to be human. Some of the humanoids in their statements demonstrate a longing to be human:

“In the same place that she feels the longing for earth inside her, I feel a similar longing to be human.”

In the same statement, the speaker wonders, “Is it a question of name? Could I be human if you called me so?” A humanoid who has been told there are problems with their “emotional reaction pattern” wonders:

“Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.”

At the same time, humans sense that humanoids possess advantages:

“We’re weighed down by the memories of where we come from and what we left behind.”

In a more humorous moment, a humanoid wonders, of their human co-worker’s habit of resting between tasks, “Perhaps it’s a an old custom from before my time?” As the novel progresses (though there is no real chronology until the end) the difference become more threatening:

“I don’t share the opinion of many of my co-workers that the only real solution would be to discontinue the human section of the crew.”

We learn that the human and human workers have begun to sit apart in the canteen.

Once we understand the issues Ravn is exploring we can see how skilfully she weaves then into then narrative. The question over whether the objects are living or not now becomes central to the experience of the crew:

“When the crew are dead, the objects will still be here, in the rooms, unaltered by our having come and gone. So you’re asking me: Does this make the objects bad? Do we blame them for their lack of sympathy?”

This statement, of course, applies to the humanoids as much as the objects. Ravn’s concern with what it means to be human also explains the frequent mention of dreams, something we would normally regard as a human attribute, but here experienced by the humanoids as well. Less obviously, the objects are often described by smell (“The fragrance in the room has will and intention.”), a sense we do not generally associate with machines. Finally, humans have access to holograms of children for morale:

“…the child hologram has without doubt helped stabilise me as an employee here, and I can see that it’s been beneficial to my work effort.”

This also touches on another concern, as evidenced by the title, the way in which humans are reduce to employees, and the dehumanising effect of that.

Just at the point you might feel The Employees will go no further than mediate on these topics through the medium of the witness statements, plot kicks in. In the final pages, events occur to further challenge the reader in their view of what it means to be human while at the same time providing a moving conclusion to the novel. The Employees is the essence of original and thought-provoking  and thoroughly deserves its place on the long list.


April 15, 2021

Fires by Marguerite Yourcenar was originally published in 1936, then reissued in 1957 with, according to Yourcenar, “almost no change”, and finally translated into English by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar) in 1981. As with all of Yourcenar’s novels published by Black Swan in the eighties, it is a short volume, just under 100 pages long. In fact Yourcenar, in a preface written in 1975, disputes that it is a novel at all:

“Fires is in the form of a collection of love poems, or rather, is like a sequence of lyrical prose pieces connected by a notion of love.”

These ‘lyrical prose pieces’ focus almost entirely on figures from classical Greece, the exception being the chapter on Mary Magdalene. The more the reader is acquainted with classical literature, the more enjoyment they are likely to gain from Fires. It is not that any of the figures are particularly obscure, but while Achilles’ story is widely known – even perhaps the time he was hidden among women to avoid fighting at Troy which forms the basis of his chapter here – fewer readers are likely to be acquainted with that of Phaedo, even if Plato named one of his dialogues after him. This matters largely because Yourcenar plunges straight in with little concession to context or back story. The more knowledge you bring to the book, the more you will be able to take pleasure in Yourcenar’s concise and consummate portraits. Here, for example, is Helen:

“…painting her vampire mouth with lipstick that made one think of blood.”

Cassandra, meanwhile, is “painfully giving birth to the future,” and Antigone, later, is described as walking “on the dead as Jesus on the waters”:

“This dead man is the empty urn in which to pour all the wine of a great love.”

Knowing the original stories also allows some wry amusement where Yourcenar adds contemporary references. in ‘Patroclus’ she talks about the difference the invention of tanks has made to the Trojan war and continues:

“Paris had been disfigured by the explosion of a grenade; Polyxena had just succumbed to typhoid in Troy’s hospital…”

In ‘Lena’, Aristogiton is a celebrity, “caught by the reporters’ questions, by the photographers’ cameras,” and in ‘Sappho’ we find the poet in a circus:

“She climbs at last higher than the spotlights: spectators can no longer applaud her, since now they can’t see her.”

Far from being gimmicky, these anachronistic details allow Yourcenar to better get to the heart of the story. Her portrait of love, however, is hardly an inviting one. Phaedra falls in love with her husband’s son, Hippolytus:

“She imagines the rape Hippolytus will be accused of, so that her lie becomes her fulfilment.”

Achilles love for Patroclus becomes a jealousy of Hector for “perfecting this masterpiece,” a feeling he should have killed him “in order to discover Patroclus in the sublime nudity of death.” Clytemnestra resents that she has given up her life (“I agreed to melt into his destiny like a fruit in his mouth”) to a husband who abandons her for the war on Troy and is unfaithful to her. Mary Magdalene marries Saint John only to find that “for him I represented the worst corporal offence,” and so begins her life of carnality. Of Jesus she says:

“I knew at once that I wouldn’t be able to seduce Him, since He did not run from me.”

(Jesus is another figure Yourcenar conjures up with skill: his “feet worn down to the bone”; his hair “infected by a vermin of stars”; his “cadaverous hands”). In each case love is something the lover has little control over, and it is easy to see why Yourcenar is attracted to a time when gods were thought to curse us with such feelings. The stories are linked by a contemporary voice but, here too, love is viewed as misfortune:

“Love is a penalty. We are punished for not having been able to stay alone.”

Fires is less obviously engaging than A Coin in Nine Hands, my only previous Yourcenar, but there is great pleasure to be found in its pages, often at the level of the sentence. The title is well chosen: here love is dangerous, damaging, impossible to tame.

The War of the Poor

April 11, 2021

The War of the Poor is Eric Vuillard’s fifth novel, and his third to be translated into English (by Mark Polizzotti who also translated The Order of the Day). All deal with historical events and are under 200 pages long, with The War of the Poor the shortest yet at only 66 pages, and the furthest removed from the present, ranging from the 14th to the 16th century. This suggests that Vuillard is not so much interested in world building in the way that, for example, Hilary Mantel is, but instead on focussing sharply on a particular moment or idea. Here the idea is that the peasant rebellions which occurred with the rise of Protestantism were as much about poverty as religion, a response to Martin Luthor’s statement that ‘It is not the peasants who arose against you masters, but God himself!’

“But it wasn’t God. It was indeed the peasants rising up. Unless you want to define God as hunger, disease, humiliation, rags. It wasn’t God rising up, it was taxes, tithes, land rights, ground rents, tariffs, travel dues, hay harvests, droit de seigneur, cutting of noses, gouging of eyes, pinching with burning tongs, bodies broken on the wheel.”

Vuillard’s particular focus is Thomas Muntzer but he begins in England with John Wycliffe and his proposal that “there exists a direct relationship between men and God.” This was, of course, seen as an attack on the clergy as such a relationship would logically make their intercession redundant, but it was feared by all men of rank as behind it lay:

“…his most terrifying idea of all, he preached the equality of all human beings.”

Wycliffe’s ideas are expressed in a more down to earth way by John Ball and feed directly into the Peasants’ Revolt against the 1380 poll tax, but if Ball’s ideas had their origin in theology, Wat Tyler’s originated in a more personal grievance, the rape of his fifteen-year-old daughter by a tax collector. And so Vuillard demonstrates that the real danger to those in power is the combination of radical religious ideas and genuine political grievances.

Almost 150 years later Thomas Muntzer is a leading figure in the Peasants’ War in what is now Germany in the 1520s. Originally a follower of Luthor, he is by this time a much more radical preacher:

“Something terrible inhabits him. He is enraged. He wants the rulers’ skins, he wants to sweep away the Church, he wants to gut all those bastards.”

Muntzer’s rebellion, as we know from the example of John Ball and Wat Tyler before him, is a failure. His 300 men are cut off from further support and face an army of professional soldiers with both artillery and cavalry. He, too, will die.

With such dramatic content crammed into so few pages, The War of the Poor does not lack for incident or pace. Vuillard has not the time to develop character but instead seeks out the essence of Muntzer, which he finds in his anger. Indeed, one reason that the novel is more than a sketch of history is the way in which that passion spills into the narrative – a quite different tone from The Order of the Day. Vuillard also brings his story to life with a keen turn of phrase. Take, for example, his description of the invention of printing:

“Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed, flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal.”

Vuillard (and Polizzotti) perfectly convey the sense of threat presented by type, and its unstoppable nature. Here the description is extended, but Vuillard can also be to the point, injecting humour with his depiction of Munzter’s preaching:

“He quoted the Gospels and added exclamation marks.”

At other times colloquial language is interjected into the narrative to power it forward, as, for example, when he tells us that Wycliffe repudiated transubstantiation “to really piss people off.” At the same time, there is no sense that Vuillard is being playful with history; the novel is deeply felt despite its distance and ends with a coda that could well be contemporary:

“Martyrdom is a trap for the oppressed. Only victory is desirable.”

The War of the Poor is an impressive short novel. It fully deserves its long listing for the International Booker Prize, but its brevity is such that progressing to the short list may prove more difficult.

At Night All Blood is Black

April 7, 2021

At Night All Blood is Black is French / Senegalese writer David Diop’s first novel to be translated into English, by Anna Moschovakis, it’s more dramatic title perhaps a result of the different connotations of Frère d’âme (Soul Brother) in English. The original title is more revealing, however, as the central relationship of the novel is between two “more-than-brothers”, Alfa, our narrator, and Mademba, who have left Senegal to fight for France in the trenches of the First World War. The novel opens with Mademba wounded and dying, and Alfa, for what he now calls “mistaken thoughts”, refusing to kill him quickly:

“God’s truth, I let Mademba cry like a small child, the third time he begged me to finish him off, pissing himself, his right hand groping at the ground to gather his scattered guts, slimy as freshwater snakes.”

Alfa becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the German soldiers in the trenches opposite. When the whistle signals that an attack is over, rather than returning to the French side, he waits, covered in mud, playing dead, until an enemy appears, thinking the danger is over. Then he not only kills the unsuspecting soldier in the same manner in which Mademba died, but severs the hand in which he is holding his rifle to take back with him:

“I returned late, because I would bring trophies back to the trench. I brought back the spoils of a savage war.”

He feels guilty not simply at his refusal to end his friend’s suffering, but also because he blames himself for his death. On the day of the attack, they are joking with each other about their family totems – Alfa’s is a lion, Mademba’s a peacock, which Alfa calls “an arrogant fowl”.

“And that’s why he left before the others, why he shot out of the earth shrieking toward the enemy on the other side, to show us, me and the trench, that he was not a braggart, that he was brave… It’s because of totems, because of our joking relationship and because of me that Medemba Diop was disembowelled by a half-dead, blue-eyed enemy on that day.”

At first his fellow soldiers are pleased with his bravery and daring but after the fourth hand this changes and they begin to avoid him: “God’s truth, I became untouchable.” Diop uses this to make a more general comment in war: the temporary madness which allows soldiers to go into battle is admired, but anything more permanent is less welcome. Soldiers, Alfa argues:

“…play at being mad, perform madness so that they can calmly throw themselves in front of the bullets of the enemy on the other side… but when you seem crazy all the time…that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.”

When Alfa is asked to rest behind the lines it is really a plea for him to stop taking his trophies, which the other soldiers now believe are unlucky. Placing Alfa’s ‘savagery’ alongside the butchery of the war makes explicit that his actions are viewed through his African origins, alongside which there is a pretence that the rules of battle allow the fighting to remain ’civilised’. When he is in the rear, Alfa thinks of his life in Senegal, and in particular his relationship with a woman there, forbidden by the rules of his people. This feeds into the novel’s startling conclusion but leaves the two halves of the novel superficially disconnected, though perhaps united in their duality: the first focusing on death the second on sex. Alfa frequently refers to the trenches in sexual terms:

“Seen from a distance our trench looked to me like the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells and to us, the soldiers.”

Both war and sex are seen as doorways into manhood by Alfa, and Diop succeeds in presenting these largely unfiltered in a narrative that makes little concession to European sensibilities, instead providing the context of a European setting already enshrined in literature. This is partly down to voice: though Diop writes in French he clearly does not write in standard French, and translator Anna Moschovakis conveys Alfa’s voice admirably in English through rhythm and repetition. This, to a large extent, grants the narrative its power.

At Night All Blood is Black presents us with a different view of the First World War, but rather than a worthy attempt to convey the experience of African soldiers what we have is a much narrower, but therefore more powerful, viewpoint, embedded in the language of its telling. Personally, I felt the novel was stronger when Alfa was in the front line, and the conclusion will, I feel, leave readers divided, but Diop does succeed in taking the historical novel and making it something new and unexpected, vibrating with life, and death.

Minor Detail

April 4, 2021

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, now an International Booker long listee, is a novel of two parts: the first, set in 1949, tells of a young Arab woman captured by Israeli soldiers in the desert; the second, contemporary, section relays the story of another young woman who sets out to investigate the first incident which occurred exactly twenty-five years before her birth. The first part is written in a spare, detached style, largely from the point of view of the Israeli officer who is leading the group of soldiers sent to “cleanse” the area “of any remaining Arabs.” The second is told in the first person, narrated by the young Palestinian woman as she travels across Israel to the scene of the first part. Congratulations are due to translator Elisabeth Jaquette for preserving the distinct style of each part. Together they combine in a fierce condemnation of the treatment of the Palestinians over many years.

Shibli begins by emphasising the inhospitable landscape the Israeli soldiers are faced with:

“They could no longer bear the scorching heat.”

For the officer, the hostility of the desert manifests itself in an insect bite on the first night which grows more painful as the days pass:

“The burning sensation from the bite on his thigh gradually intensified.”

This leads him to crush any insect he sees in his tent, and it is no surprise when the Arab girl, the only survivor when the soldiers open fire on a group of Bedouin, is compared to one:

“…the only sound was the muffled weeping of a girl who had curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle.”

Later, she too will bite him. The officer’s physical, and perhaps moral, discomfort can be seen in the way he frequently washes himself. The girl, too, is cleaned: stripped of her clothes, hosed down, her hair shorn, and her scalp coated with petrol. The cleansing reaches its pinnacle, with echoes of religious ceremony, after the girl has slept in his room:

“He… picked up the bar of soap, crumbled it into very small pieces, between his fingers, and scattered them over the area that had been occupied by the second bed,”

For the officer, the girl is not a human being but a bad smell (“her smell invaded his nose”; “the putrid smell was still there”) though interestingly his repulsion is often expressed in terms of fearing his own space being occupied. A putrid smell, however, also emanates from the infected insect bite on his leg until he can no longer tell which is which, just as the section ends with his hand “still exuding a faint smell of petrol” from touching the girl.

In terms of plot the first and second part are linked as it is what happens to the Arab girl in part one which is investigated by the narrator of part two. However, this attempt to discover more is not really the main point of the second narrative: a crime has been committed but this is not a crime novel. The two parts are also more subtly, and perhaps more importantly, linked by a number of sensory markers. For example, the howling dog, who survives alongside the girl in part one, introduces part two: “a dog on the opposite side of the hill began to howl incessantly” The darkness which frequently invades the officer’s tent also invasive in the second part:

“But then, as soon as darkness spreads into every corner of the house, I’m racked by the dog’s howling again.”

Intrigued by the date of the first event, “which would coincide, exactly a quarter of a century later, with the morning of my birth”, the narrator decides to find out more. Shibli uses this section to demonstrate the conditions for Palestinians living in Israel. The narrator must borrow a friend’s identity card in order to travel the distance she needs to, navigating numerous checkpoints. When she arrives at one of the museums where she hopes to find information, she gives the curator “the first non-Arab name which comes to mind.” She cannot, however, find any of the ‘minor details’ she is looking for:

“I’m here in vain. I haven’t found anything I’ve been searching for.”

It is the subtle links between the two narratives as well as the more dramatic moments which emphasise Shibli’s point that little has changed. However, I must admit that plausibility was stretched in the second section when the narrator takes off on a journey she admits to finding daunting, even terrifying, on the basis of a coincidence. She explains her actions by saying:

“As soon as I see a border, I either race toward it and leap over it, or cross it stealthily with a step.”

This does not feel like the way people think of themselves, and the motivation for her journey is, to my mind, unconvincing. This is a pity as otherwise Minor Detail is a compelling and powerful novel, particularly in the first half, and has a strong chance of making it to the short list.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996

April 2, 2021

With the long list for the International Booker Prize of 2021 announced a few days ago, it seems only appropriate to finally reveal the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of twenty-five years previously. This was a project I began back in the UK’s first lockdown in March last year, attempting to discover which books might have made it onto a 1996 long list (the prize itself was in abeyance between 1996 and 2000). In July I announced the long list:

In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)

Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)

Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Although I largely stuck with the rules of the prize (altering the timeframe slightly by including anything published within the calendar year of 1996 rather than April to April) I eventually had to include two US published titles to ensure at least four women writers were present. The list was also far more Eurocentric than I would have liked with only three writers originating from elsewhere. It features an unusually high proportion of writers who were then, or are now, regarded as world class, including two Nobel Prize winners: Kadare, Kundera, Vargas Llosa, Marias, Saramago and Sebald are all unarguably major names. Perhaps too predictably, I would have certainly placed four of them on any short list, discounting Kadare and Saramago as I felt in each case these were weaker works. The final two places would have gone to Amin Maalouf and (my discovery during the judging) Marie Redonnet.

As for a winner, it finally came down to one of two books:

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Both Marias and Sebald are unique stylists. One might even argue they have a lot in common in their circuitous, meandering narratives where plot plays only a minor role, and their concerns with identity, choices and loss. Today, of course, they feel like established writers, but The Emigrants was Sebald’s first book to be translated into English and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was Marias’ third. Sebald later won the prize (posthumously) in 2002 with Austerlitz; Marias has only ever made it as far as the short list, with Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream in 2007. Ultimately, as my review shows, there were elements of The Emigrants I found uneven, whereas for me Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me remains among the perfect novels, and so takes this imaginary and entirely meaningless prize.