Archive for the ‘International Booker Prize 2020’ Category

The Memory Police

March 31, 2020

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is one of the few books which had been previously proposed as a potential winner of this year’s International Booker to have made it onto the long list. It follows her shortlisting for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Revenge in 2014, and is, surprisingly, the first translation of her work to appear since then (by regular translator, Stephen Snyder). Like Revenge, and indeed most of her work which has been translated, it dates from the 1990s; it is, however, much more substantial than anything that has appeared before which has tended towards stories, novellas and short novels.

The eerily prescient premise of The Memory Police is one of erasure. In the island society of our narrator objects and ideas disappear from one day to the next:

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

These disappearances not only remove the objects from the island but from the memories of those living there. Take, for example, the day birds disappear:

“Then I spotted a small brown creature flying up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realised that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word ‘bird’- everything.”

The narrators’ father, now dead, was an ornithologist, and the Memory Police soon arrive to remove all the materials relating to birds from his office. Her mother, too, is dead, though in different circumstances, having been taken away by the Memory Police and reported to have died suddenly later. As part of their role the Memory Police not only eradicate any trace of an object which has been disappeared, but also take away people who can still remember it, as the narrator witnesses one day on the street:

“Judging from the loose buttons, fluttering shoelaces, and bits of clothing protruding from their bags, it was clear that they had been forced to pack quickly. And now they were being marched out of the building with weapons at their backs. Still their faces were calm and they stared into the distance with eyes as still as a lonely swamp deep in the woods. In those eyes, no doubt, were all sorts of memories that had been lost to us.”

The narrator’s mother was one of those people who held onto her memories, as we see in an early scene where she describes a number of lost objects to her daughter, including perfume:

“I could tell there was some sort of scent there – like the smell of toasting bread, or the chlorine form the swimming pool, yet different – but no matter how I tried, no other thought came to mind.”

The narrator is a novelist and her decision to hide her agent, R, from the Memory Police is partly loyalty to her first reader, but also to her mother, after a scene in which R is able to remember those very things which her mother attempted to describe to her:

“But I remember… the beauty of the emerald and the smell of perfume. I haven’t forgotten anything.”

Enlisting the help of her nurse’s husband, who had once been a mechanic on the now disappeared ferry, they create a hidden room for R to live in. The novel then plays off the tension of whether they can keep R hidden while at the same time coping with the increasing number of disappearances. Less importantly (or perhaps less successfully) we follow the progress of the narrator’s novel about a woman who loses her voice and attempts to find it again through learning to type. For me, this added little to the overall narrative, though the character’s increasing powerlessness to some extent mirrors the narrator’s.

Where Ogawa is most successful is in the novel’s tone which manages to be both placid and menacing at the same time. From the beginning we understand that there is little resistance to the disappearances. “People,” the narrator tells us, “- and I’m no exception – seem capable of forgetting almost anything.” As her mother told her:

“…no one makes much of a fuss and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened.”

Though her friend, the mechanic, agrees to help her, he is of the opinion, “There’s nothing too terrible; about things disappearing – or forgetting about them.” As the novel progresses, we see the dangers of forgetting more and more clearly as we head to the inevitable conclusion.

The Memory Police is well deserving of its place in the long list. If I have any doubts about it they relate to the common problem of fiction which begins with one big idea – its tendency to to write itself into a corner. As more and more aspects of life disappear there is an inexorable logic to the narrative’s direction which overpowers the novel’s other concerns. Ogawa’s decision to cast her narrator as a novelist can also seem a little lazy at times. Despite this, the novel is a powerful (and timely) examination of our acceptance of continual reduction.

Serotonin

March 28, 2020

Michel Houellebecq is the biggest name on the International Booker long list but fame means little in translated fiction awards. Though the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was won in its early years by Orhan Pamuk and Milan Kundera, since then the prize (and the Man Booker International which followed) has tended to favour the more, as yet, unheralded. (Most recently, Knausgaard twice failed to make it as far as the short list). It seems unlikely that Serotonin (translated by Shaun Whiteside) will buck this trend as it’s a novel which holds little appeal.

Its central character, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is a self-pitying, middle-aged Frenchman who spends the novel reflecting on the women he has, in varying ways, abandoned over the years, even when they made him happy. “My life,” he says, “is ending in sadness and suffering,” and, never one to underplay his own emotions:

“I was going through a very difficult time, there are people who kill themselves for less.”

One difficulty is extricating himself from his current relationship with a Japanese woman, Yuzo, who he can clearly no longer stand:

“The weekends were always torture, but otherwise I could almost go for weeks without meeting Yuzo.”

If this raises the question of why Labrouste embarked on the relationship in the first place, that is easily answered:

“She had been available for sex on a more or less constant basis, and at the time I had deduced that she was in love with me.”

When he leaves her (which he does simply by becoming ‘voluntarily missing’ – that is, by walking out on her without telling her or giving her any indication of where he is going) he speculates as to whether she might become a prostitute. For Labrouste love and sex are not simply related but symbiotic: as he explains in detail (largely, as he says, for the benefit of women) “women have difficulty understanding what love is for men” as men can only really demonstrate love through sex, “having hardly any other means of showing it.” Therefore:

“…the happiness of the phallus becomes a goal in itself for the woman.”

All his relationships therefore are to some extent measured by the sexual skills of the woman, and, as he reminisces, we must brace ourselves for these often repetitive descriptions. His poignant departure from Kate (“How could a man who had known Kate turn away from her?”), left crying on a railway platform, contains the less than romantic line:

“…she had fucked and sucked me with all her might and her might was great at the time…”

Despite this he is soon ignoring her messages and sleeping with someone else. In later relationships his unfaithfulness is not so much the problem as his inability to sacrifice himself in any way, continually tempting Claire to live with him in the house he loves in Normandy when he knows she cannot leave Paris because of the career she wants to pursue. Again, sex is at the heart of the relationship and, when he meets her again, he worries that that was all there was:

“…it was frightening to think that maybe there had in fact only been sex.”

Even as he revisits these women his view is phallocentric:

“I wanted to see, once again, all the woman who had honoured it.”

Camille is the final woman he returns to, concocting a bizarre plan to win her back (that we are perhaps meant to think is a result of the Serotonin tablets of the title). In terms of his egocentricity, this is believable, but it less credible that he should care about anyone else enough to act so desperately: he is a man entirely without passion.

Mixed in among this is a subplot about French agriculture which involves a violent farmer’s protest, and some niche pornography (Yuzo and a dog; a paedophile whose house he breaks into to view (and describe) a video of the occupant with a ten-year-old girl). Both feel old-fashioned.

Far from being radical, this strikes me as a typical literary novel: a middle-aged, well-educated white man feeling sorry for himself about all the supposed opportunities for happiness he has missed, without any care for the happiness of the women involved. This is perhaps what makes it so dull. It is a strange inclusion in a list that is otherwise exciting and diverse.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

March 17, 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (the translator has chosen to remain anonymous) is exactly the kind of book I delight in finding in contention for the International Booker: of the long-listed titles, it was only one which had entirely escaped my notice, and it also struck me as the one I would have been least likely to read even if I had known of its existence. That would have been a mistake, as it is not only richly imaginative but also emotionally powerful.

The novel tells the story of an Iranian family in the years after the deposition of the Shah in 1979. It is narrated by the ghost of thirteen-year-old Bahar who dies during the Islamic Revolution when her father’s basement is set alight. It is not the first novel to be narrated by a ghost, but here it is more than a narrative trick as the supernatural is intrinsic to the novel and the family are aware and accepting of her presence.

“There are a lot of good things about dying,” she tells us, and, later, in a nod to Tolstoy:“We dead were all consistently happy, while each of the living were variously unhappy.”

Ghosts are a commonplace in the novel, carrying a powerful message that the dead cannot simply be forgotten. This is most dramatic when the ghosts of those murdered by the regime haunt Khomeini in his palace:

“The ghosts of five thousand political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities’ deserts and from around Tehran and Kahavaran, they looked at their stinking, maggot-infested body parts strewn about and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs and then they set off with a common loathing. They wanted to see their murderer’s face up close.”

The story is not told chronologically and it begins with Bahar’s mother achieving the enlightenment of the title at the same time Bahar’s brother, Sohrab, is killed:

“At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.”

Her brother’s story is the most explicit example of the cruelty of the regime. Once arrested, he is forgotten in his cell when the guard who puts him there leaves to get married. Days later he is barely alive. Meanwhile his family search desperately for news:

“As Dad went from city to city looking for his son and our brother, they moved Sohrab like a hot potato from city to city, beating him so severely he peed blood and one of his kidneys failed.”

After the revolution the family leave Tehran for an isolated village, Razan, and there they are safe for a while, but eventually the regime makes its presence known there too:

“All our dreams of a safe, tranquil environment dissolved the minute Hossein and his gang arrived.”

In a sign of how things have changed, Hossein had once visited the village as part of the Literacy Corps but now returns as a Revolutionary Guard to recruit soldiers for Iran’s war with Iraq. As the family discover, there is no escape.

Their fates, however, are entwined with the novel’s magical realism, a term that can perhaps be used fairly to describe the supernatural occurrences accepted within both the narrative and the society. Each aspect of the characters’ stories is enhanced by some element of this. Bahar’s mother, for example, will simply leave the village one day, walking and not stopping; this rejection of her suffering emphasised by the fact she is followed, in pied piper fashion, by the mothers who have lost their sons to the regime, the ‘orphan mothers’ as they call themselves. Bahar’s sister, Beeta, will fall in love, a love that is characterised as follows:

“Every time they made love the heat generated as they twisted together was so intense the grass around them caught fire and burned.”

Even so, she is rejected and leaves for Tehran where she is soon arrested and banned from studying. Only when she accepts that her true element is water and slowly becomes half fish, in the most extreme form of escape, does she find happiness, though it is at the cost of forgetting.

My one worry as the novel progressed was that it might become overwhelmed by the supernatural elements, and also the narrative detours which branch off to tell the stories of minor characters. While this would not have lessened the pleasure of reading, it would have dissipated the novel’s power. In fact the stories become a vital party of the novel’s resistance when Bahar’s father is arrested, and also demonstrate the cruelty of the new regime in Beeta’s final fate. All of this could be done realistically I’m sure but, as Bahar says:

“When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality it liven it up.”

In the end, it is the stories themselves which remain defiant.

Mac & His Problem

March 10, 2020

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac & His Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes) is another playful rumination on writing from the incomparable Spanish author. The narrator, Mac, is a failed building contractor who is now turning his hand to writing. From the beginning we are told to distrust what we are told:

“I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be ‘posthumous’ and ‘unfinished’ when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete.”

(Even this, it is later suggested, is not an original idea – in a novel of repetitions and borrowings – as Mac points out that Georges Perec’s posthumous, unfinished “53 Days” was discovered suspiciously complete). Mac begins, however, with a diary, a diary which, he tells us (as we read it) “no one else is going to read.” (We also discover later that “afterward I painstakingly edit what I’ve written”).

Mac soon fixates on a novel written many years before by a neighbour, Sanchez, with whom he is only distantly acquainted. Walter & His Problem tells the story of a ventriloquist – that is, someone who lends his voice for a living – in a novel full of borrowed voices:

“Walter’s main problem, a very grave one for a person in his profession, namely, that he had only one voice, the voice that writers so yearn to find, but which for him, for obvious reasons, was highly problematic.”

Conversely, the novel is written in the form of a series of stories, each adopting the style of another writer:

“Behind the different voices corresponding to each of the stories lay, camouflaged, ‘imitations, sometimes satirical and at other times not, of the masters of the short story.’”

This allows Vila-Matas (Mac) to retell the stories of the novel adding a further layer of repetition, before Mac decides to rewrite them:

“I could set about repeating the book Sanchez claims to have more or less forgotten.”

“We come into the world,” he tells us, “in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated.” For Mac there is no anxiety of influence only an unequivocal acceptance.



Literary influence, however, is not Vila-Matas’ only target; he is also interested in the relationship between “fiction and reality, an old married couple.” As Mac writes, his real life increasingly intermingles with what he puts on the page. In this, Vila-Matas is addressing (tongue in cheek) a type of writing made fashionable by Karl Knausgaard, whom we are told Sanchez admires (“Sanchez’s sole ambition was to emulate a certain Norwegian writer…”). As Mac points out, once you begin to write your life, the process of writing affects the life:

“I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing.”

His reading of Walter & His Problem also interacts with his own life, in particular one chapter entitled ‘Carmen’ which he identifies with his wife of that name. Not only does it transpire that Sanchez once knew Carmen, Mac begins to suspect that they are involved once again:

“I thought I saw Sanchez and Carmen walking along together on the opposite sidewalk. They weren’t holding hands, but it looked as if they were.”

Mac begins to feel that “my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes.” By the end of the novel he is both identifying with Walter while at the same time disassociating himself from his own work by attributing the re-writing of Sanchez’s novel to his (fake) nephew.

I found Mac & His Problem to be an affectionate but often uncomfortably accurate ridiculing of contemporary literature. It is not only very funny at times, but has the charm of spot-on satire without cruelty. The character of Mac – both a writer and not a writer – allows Vila-Matas to comment as if from the side-lines while retaining his erudition (it’s a book that will point you towards other books). It’s a pleasure to see it on the International Booker long list, which so far suggests an admiration for books which are playfully serious.

The Adventures of China Iron

March 5, 2020

Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, is, indeed, an adventure, a retelling of the epic Argentinian poem Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez. In Camara’s novel both Fierro and Hernandez featured, but are relegated to the role of minor characters as we instead follow the journey, both literal and metaphorical, of Fierro’s wife, China Iron (‘china’ is a slang term for woman which she assumes as her name, suggesting an ‘everyman’ – that is, ‘everywoman’ – status).

Her adventure begins when Fierro is conscripted and she takes the opportunity to run away from her subservient and servile life. She feels little love for the woman who has raised her, La Negra – “she’d treated me like her slave for most of my childhood” – or her husband: “Everything was filthy about Fierro, even his knife.” She goes with a red-headed Scotswoman, Elizabeth, who is searching for her husband, Oscar, and the land they have bought. She already has two children (which she leaves behind), and she is fourteen years old. The journey is full of adventure and encounter, but it is also a journey in which she discovers herself. At the beginning she declares

“I was tethered by my lack of ideas, by my ignorance, I didn’t know I could stand own my own two feet…”

Soon after she says, “Up until that point, my life had been absent somehow.”

Elizabeth is the catalyst for her discovery of her true self: “I saw the light in her eyes, she opened the door to the world for me.” Her attraction towards Elizabeth is both spiritual and physical. She wishes to “immerse myself in her breath” as they sleep together in the wagon, and soon it is clear that the attraction is mutual as:

“Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.”

The detailed description of their kiss not only emphasises the intimacy of the moment but reminds us that Elizabeth’s appeal is also in her exoticness, with a list of tastes associated with her class and British nationality, as well as the impish “imperious”. Elizabeth also represents Britain, a “land where machines moved by themselves with burning wood,” a land which suggests more possibilities than China was previously aware of. Elizabeth also shares with her British culture; not only tea and whisky but Frankenstein (“a poor forsaken monster made by British science with lightning”) and Oliver Twist, both appropriate to China’s story.



They arrive at the hacienda of Hernandez, author of the original Martin Fierro, China, dressed in male clothing. Here she learns how to appear genteel during the day, while finally releasing her passion for Elizabeth at night:

“…at dinner I copied her manners, now I mirrored her caresses.”

She also has a political awakening as Hernandez describes the process of creating Argentina while at the same time excusing his treatment of the gauchos:

“The nation needed the land to be conquered… And now were are conquering a workforce for the nation.”

He tells Elizabeth that her land is in Indian territory:

“Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentinians.”

This, of course, touches on the propagandist nature of the original poem, and draws attention to the fact that The Adventures of China Iron is about more than the sexual awakening of its protagonist. Both are related, however, as China and Elizabeth venture on and are soon living among the indigenous inhabitants. Here they are finally free: this is both a sexual freedom (“I became aware of the whims of my heart, the different appetites my body could have. I wanted to be both the berry and the mouth biting into it.”) and a political freedom, in a society where “women have the same power as men.”

In this, the novel retains its status as an adventure with an upbeat conclusion which attempts to remake the myth of Argentina. Despite its often cruel and violent setting, it leaves the reader hopeful without seeming shallow, a more difficult trick than it might at first appear. Though ‘rollicking’ is in many ways a fair description, this is also a subtle commentary on national as well as sexual identity, and the International Booker judges are to be commended for selecting it.

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.

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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.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

September 21, 2019

Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting, also translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, consisted entirely of short passages which built towards a picture of love in all its many forms. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is more traditionally structured as a series of short stories, but has a similarly cumulative effect as we discover characters and incidents reappearing from different angles, perhaps still central to the story, but just as possibly an aside, a sentence or two glimpsed fleetingly as we travel on. Where Trysting was very clearly an exploration of love, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, as the title is perhaps intended to suggest, is more difficult to pin down, reflecting, as it does, on place, isolation, and eccentricity.

The idea of isolation is touched on in the first, and briefest story, told in the first person, when the narrator tells us, “I pedalled out to the middle of the lake to read there, away from the others but not too far away.” It forms a companion piece with the final story, ‘Glitter’, in which the narrator finds glitter between the pages of a library book; the suggestion of being “away…but not to far away” echoed in the way in which the narrator believes this discovery connects her to other readers:

“I never did find more glitter. But I did find readers. I’ve found other proofs of reading. I’m no longer alone reading these demanding books, no longer alone in my steamy bath, my bubble.”

Isolation which is not loneliness is a common thread, as can be seen from the narrator of the second story’s summation of the setting:

“The plateau harbours so many solitudes you might think it bustling with life.”

Solitary characters often momentarily connect or at least coincide. In ‘Blind Spots’ the narrator intentionally hides by the roadside: “I stand in their blind spots… I make myself invisible.” But in the story he is seen:

“It’s different with you. You’re the one frightening me. You’re so serene, you’re like my fear, you’re like fear itself.”

The woman who picks the narrator up is, in fact, intent on suicide, a suicide already mentioned in the previous story (“I think she decided to kill herself, I think it was on purpose.”) but one she postpones in the course of this story, only to return to in ‘Three Press-ups and Unable to Die’:

“They’ll know of my death today, of course; I won’t get it wrong again.”

The man from the roadside wonders, “Who are you not to be frightened – a madwoman?” but he will later be referred to by another man who has hitched a lift in ‘The Mini-pilgrimage’, along with others – “he knew some mad people too, more like roadside loonies.” Another reoccurring character, “the automatic tour guide” is first introduced as “the mad old Polish man”. Madness, in this context, is living your life by ritual; habitual behaviour that is both imprisoning and liberating.

This is perhaps best seen in another ‘roadside loony’ who waits by the roadside at the place where his wife and children were killed:

“He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.”

When the road is changed locals wonder how he will react and, in what seemed a hopeless tale, the narrator strikes a hopeful note: “He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to.” ‘The Loony and the Bright Spark’, is one of the most successful stand-alone stories in the collection, and could easily be placed in an anthology. The same applies to ‘The Short Cut’, although only five pages long, where a woman, returning home for a funeral, finds that a short cut has taken her back too quickly:

“I wasn’t lost on the road but in my mind. It had gone too fast, this return with the short cut.”

‘The Drop-out’, despite echoes to previous talk of cousins who look alike, also works well isolation, and is possibly the strangest story in the collection, as the narrator leaves her daughter’s wedding with the woman who may or may not be the cousin she has not seen for many years. Other stories work better in the context of the collection, accumulating meaning in their echoes, something, perhaps, to be expected from the constant play of isolation and connection within them. In both cases Pagano has an eye for the unseen, the blind spots of life, those we shun or try to forget about. This collection, alongside Trysting, marks her out as a unique and perceptive voice.