Archive for the ‘International Booker Prize 2022’ Category

Happy Stories, Mostly

April 16, 2022

The stories collected in Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s Happy Stories, Mostly (translated by Tiffany Tsao) demonstrate a writer delighting in the form. Pasaribu is Indonesian and many of his stories reflect on what it means to be gay in that country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia but, as Pasaribu has said, “Not illegal” gives a radically different idea from what my friends and I currently experience.” As he goes on to explain, community is important, but this can lead to a pressure to conform:

“Even to be eccentric, to be a loner, to be a reader is to be seen differently here.”

This is evident in ‘So What’s Your Name, Sandra’ where a mother travels to Vietnam after the death of her son, Bison. The name, she felt, “sounded manly and strong,” perhaps partly to compensate for an absent father – a fact that means “all the kids called him ‘Bison the Batak Bastard,’” an early sign of community disapproval. A more significant ‘difference’ occurs alter when Sandra discovers he has a boyfriend:

“I told him he was no child of mine. And then I kicked him out.”

The story is beautifully paced, intercutting her trip to Vietnam (where she intends to visit My Son) with moments from the past.

Interestingly, ‘The True Story of the Story of the Giant’ also examines its gay characters from the outside, using a heterosexual narrator, Henri. Henri’s friend, Jamie, acts a comedy chorus, for example replying to Henri’s concerns that he is “confirming stereotypes” by having multiple partners:

“Henri, Henri… all the hetero guys that I know have three or four girls! What do you call that?”

The focus of the story is a newer friend however, Tunggul, whom he assumes is straight until he tells him otherwise, admitting that he has kept it a secret as his sister has already told their parents she is a lesbian and, “All my parents have left is me.” These very human stories combined with the story of the giant man which Henri hears in different versions, a story that comments on the nature of friendship. This story within a story is an example of Pasaribu’s skill with the form; other stories showcase a more obvious experimental streak. ‘A Young Poet’s Guide to Surviving a Broken Heart’, for example, is addressed directly to the reader. Largely humorous in tone, it ends on more poignant note with a poem slipped between the pages of a book.

Pasabiru also ventures into science fiction in ‘Metaxu: Jakarta 2038’ with the same mixture of humour (“vidxfessions”) and humanity. The narrator confesses to throwing a medicine bottle at her brother which leaves him deaf in one ear, and further to refusing to help him when he wanted a job at the karaoke bar where she works:

“I never mentioned my brother to my boss. Not only that, I fibbed to buy time.”

The science fiction is in some ways incidental, but it does allow a striking juxtaposition at the end where the idea that “we’ll soon have the technology to erase all our bad memories for good” is mentioned alongside her memory of her brother looking “like an old photo.” Pasabiru moves from science fiction to fantasy with ‘Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers’, a monologue addressed to a new staff member:

“When it comes to lunch, I’d suggest only sitting with people form this department. Try to avoid interacting with others, especially those in Matchmaking.”

As with Pasabiru’s stories in general, the humour directs us towards a more thoughtful conclusion, as the listener is warned that one day their own unanswered prayer will appear:

“Just remember: Don’t trust any of your feelings. They’re wrong.”

Perhaps surprisingly, my favourite story was ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’ about a retired nun, Sister Tula, who begins sneaking out of the convent:

“She feels like Lazarus: raised from death to life by the power of Jesus Christ.”

On one ‘outing’ she encounters a young boy who is lost and, in returning him to his father, gets an invitation to visit. The father is gay but won’t live with another man as he fears his son will be bullied. Tula becomes intent on developing a relationship with the boy and the story’s light-hearted premise soon acquires an emotional depth.

Pasaribu’s stories suggest a playful but serious imagination. Sometimes they are heart-warming, sometimes heart-rending, but they always touch the reader’s heart. Happy Stories, Mostly may not have made it onto the International Booker shortlist, but it provides a wonderful example of the exciting writing brave publishers like Tilted Axis Press are discovering and bringing to an English-speaking readership.


April 12, 2022

Paulo Scott’s Phenotypes, translated by Daniel Hahn is, as the title suggest, a novel about race. It’s original title – Marrom e Amorelo (Brown and Yellow) – perhaps makes this even clearer, but obviously has entirely different connotations in English than in (Brazilian) Portuguese. Scott tackles the issue head-on as the novel opens with its protagonist, Federico, sitting on a committee considering the use of racial quotas in Brazil. Federico has an understanding of racial distinctions much closer to home as he is in appearance white, while his brother is not:

“I, with my very fair skin and straight brown hair verging on the blond, was considered white, and he, my brother, was considered black…”

And so even as a child his brother, Lourenco, has to suffer “the insults that had come out of the filthy mouths of three of his little bastard class-mates.” Years later Federico admits that even he did not fully understand the difference, giving as an example his refusal to use the flash when taking photographs as it’s “for amateurs” only for his brother to eventually tell him:

“But you’ve got to use it for me, otherwise when it’s kind of dark like now I don’t show up properly.”

Federico’s relationship with his brother will be one of the central strands of the novel, but in the meantime the committee allows Scott to highlight both the currency and the complexity of the race issue, and the difficulty of even defining ‘colour’, with black students unhappy with:

“Afro-convenient brown people, those who were merely inoffensively tanned and who’d decided to pose as true deep-down blacks in order to exploit the opportunity and surf on the advantage of quotas.”

Similarly, white students are accused of “getting themselves a few sessions in the tanning booth… perming their hair, getting lip injections…” Scott’s description of the committee suggests he could write an excellent political satire, but rather than being the focus of the novel this instead provides a context for the much more personal story it will tell, one that originates in Federico’s past when he arrives home to find his brother with a gun he has been asked to hide. Years later the gun resurfaces in the hands of Lourenco’s daughter, Roberta, when she is arrested on her way to a demonstration. Federico leaves the commission to help her, but she is dismissive of him, regarding his work as a link to the government:

“…she shrugged, and it was the first time I’d felt any kind of aggression from her, leaving me kind of unsure how to react from one moment to the next.”

One strength of the novel is that Federico’s character is far from perfect, and, in particular, is seen as arrogant and aloof by some of the other characters. For example, he is contrasted unfavourably with his brother in a bar in the neighbourhood where he grew up:

“I’m a fan of your brother’s. Lourenco never moved away, Lourenco’s not all theory, Lourenco just is.”

Complicating matters further, the policeman who is intent on charging Roberta is known to Federico from an incident years before:

“He’s a guy who’s been carrying a grudge against me and might want to take his hatred out on Roberta.”

The incident is a fight which breaks out one night in a queue to get into a club. It begins with a racist comment aimed at Federico’s cousin, Elaine, by another girl. The girl refuses to apologise, and the argument escalates, but it is Federico rather than the girl’s friends who resorts to violence first. This seems out of character and, indeed, it is as later we discover that Federico has had his own encounter with racism already that day. This is all cleverly revealed throughout the novel which alternates chapters set in the present with those in the past. This not only signals that racism persists (in fact, according to Federico’s father, “the group of people who think black men and women are disgusting is only growing”) but that the novel is, in part, about Federico facing up to his past, a place he has tried to escape from.

Phenotypes is a powerful novel which does not shy away from the complexity of its topic. It uses its structure and characters to explore racism from a variety of angles, but without ever seeming schematic or preachy. Federico’s flawed character is an important facet of this, seeing himself by the end perhaps like his father:

“…a man who is neither better nor worse than other men, carrying with him his rage and his intention not to make mistakes, never to make a single mistake.”

Cursed Bunny

April 5, 2022

The International Booker Prize has an unusually high number of short story collections on the long list this year and, having only been won once by anything other than a novel (Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ in 2014), it seems unlikely that many of them will make it through to the shortlist. Of the four, Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (translated by Anton Hur) most deserves a place there.

Chung demonstrates her disregard for realism within the first moments of the opening story, ‘The Head’: a woman, just as she is about to flush the toilet, notices a head looking up at her. She ignores its cry of ‘mother’ and flushes it away, but it soon reappears. When she questions it, she is offered this explanation:

“My body was created with the things you dumped down the toilet, like your fallen-out hair and feces and toilet paper you used to wipe your behind.”

Even when she pulls it out of the toilet and throws it away, it finds a way back. Years pass; when she has child, she tells her: “That was what we call a ‘head’.  If you see it again just flush.” The story taps into both the guilt we feel at what we discard and the anger that results when we cannot entirely reject those elements of our past we regret. Like most horror stories it is about loss of control, and Chung brings it to a fitting conclusion. Body horror also features in the second story, ‘The Embodiment’ abut a woman whose menstrual bleeding won’t stop. A doctor prescribes birth control pills but six months later she feels sick and dizzy and discovers she is pregnant, despite a complete absence of sexual activity. This is blamed on taking the pills longer than she was told to:

“If your body happens to be abnormal, a side effect from taking birth control pills for a long time can be pregnancy.”

This obviously requires a tricky suspension of disbelief from the reader (perhaps because other elements of her fiction, like the talking head, are so clearly fantastic) but may well originate in an old wives’ tale. Certainly, the story proceeds to satirise Korean society as the woman is told she must now find a husband:

“You better find a father for that child, fast. If you don’t, things will get really bad for you.”

The story proceeds to relate her often excruciating attempts to do just that on a series of awkward dates, though the satire gives way to horror once again at the end.

A number of the other stories feel like modern versions of traditional tales. The title story is about a family that make cursed fetishes and the havoc that a cursed lamp in the shape of a bunny creates. In ‘The Frozen Finger’ a woman returns to consciousness after a car accident to hear a voice telling her she must get out of the car. Chung uses a small detail (the wedding ring the woman searches for before she will leave) to create a spine-chilling ending. Like ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Reunion’ it is an unexpected ghost story.

Even closer to fairy-tales and fables are stories such as ‘Snare’ (which literally begins, “Once upon a time…”) in which a man finds a fox in a snare bleeding gold:

“The surrounding snow had made it hard to notice at first, but now he saw the area around the snare was splattered with the glittering substance, some of it hardened in the cold snow.”

He keeps the fox and bleeds it regularly, but that cruelty is exceeded when the fox dies, and the man finds a similar ability in his twin children. In ‘Ruler of the Winds and Sands’ we have kings and princesses – and a golden ship that sails through the sky, and in ‘Scars’ we have a man tuned into a monster. Each of these showcases the darkness at the heart of Chung’s work, ‘Scars’ in particular, as the protagonist, once he has been changed, seems incapable of anything but destruction no matter how good his intentions.

Despite these common themes and genres, Chung’s work is varied and unpredictable – she even branches out into science fiction in ‘Goodbye My Love’. The only certainty in every story is that the reader can be confident they are in the hands of a writer in complete command of her material, no matter how incredible the events she is describing.


April 3, 2022

Paradais is Fernanda Melchor’s second book to be translated into English (both by Sophie Hughes) and her second book to be long-listed for the International Booker Prize. Paradais is more compressed than Hurricane Season – not only shorter but also limited to single voice – but it contains the same intensity of language and focus on the darker side of desire where it borders and eventually becomes violence.

Paradias is a luxury housing complex, a gated community which seeks, and fails, to control what lies within its walls. The novel brings together Franco – porn-addicted, overweight, a misfit and loner – who lives there with his grandparents, and Polo who, having flunked school, works there as a gardener. Rather than friendship, they are united in unhappiness. Franco – or fatboy as Polo calls him – has developed an unhealthy obsession with a neighbour’s wife, Senora Marian, which he shares with Polo as they drink together:

“I’ll fuck her like this, he’d drawl, having clambered to his feet at the edge of the dock; I’ll fuck her like this and then I’ll flip her on all fours and I’ll bang her like this, and he’d wipe the drool from his mouth with the back of his hand and grin from ear to ear with those toothpaste ad teeth of his, white and straight and also clenched in rage as his gelatinous body wobbled in a crude pantomime of coitus…”

Polo’s main concern is escape: he hates the job (“he’d gladly never set foot inside that fucking development again”) which his mother has forced him to take, and resents the presence of his pregnant cousin, Zorayda, in his home. If Franco has deluded himself that Marian might reciprocate his feelings for her, no doubt influenced by the pornography that makes up his entire experience of sex, Polo has nothing but contempt for her. Like Franco, he views her personality through his own limited understanding of women, but he resents what he regards as her attempt to gain power over him through her looks:

“To be desired, lusted after, to put dirty thoughts into your head. You could tell she loved it…”

This is exacerbated by his position as an employee, as we see when she gives him a tip for staying late to tidy up after a party:

“Why the hell hadn’t he handed the envelope straight back and told her, with every ounce of disdain he could muster: I don’t need your handouts, thanks very much?”

Polo also views Zorayda with a mixture of hatred and desire, accusing her of trying to seduce him until eventually:

“Polo couldn’t contain his hatred for that bitch a second longer and he pushed her up against the back of the armchair, yanked down her hotpants and rammed his rock hard cock inside her while the little whore panted and slapped her hand on the back of the chair without a clue of what was going on.”

Polo’s anger at his powerlessness in his own life is directed at the women around him, his resentment particularly focused on any power they might have over him. Similarly, despite his privilege, Franco is equally powerless when it comes to the opposite sex (in direct contrast to the pornography on which his understanding of relationships is based). In this sense, the novel’s violent denouement is almost inevitable.

Melchor’s skill is in unleashing the misogynistic torrent of the narrative without compromise, and hijacking the language of pornography to her own ends. No female perspective is admitted – we learn nothing of Zorayda or Marian beyond what Polo or Franco tells us, though, of course, we can interpret it differently. (For example, it is hinted at that, far from sleeping around, Zorayda has only had sex with Polo making him the father of her child). We also get a glimpse of the only escape possible for Polo, one into a world of crime, which he begs his friend Milton to admit him to, even after the quite terrifying story Milton tells him of being forced to kill a man.

Paradais reads like a modernist crime novel, one where the reader cannot leave the consciousness of the criminal. This allows Melchor to display in all its horror the visceral hatred and sexual objectification of women. Few novels will be more uncomfortable this year, but her approach lends it an undeniable power. Hurricane Season made to the short list in 2020, and I suspect Paradais will do the same.

Love in the Big City

March 29, 2022

Love in the Big City by Korean writer Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur, is one of three Tilted Axis Press titles long-listed for the International Booker his year, giving it a more diverse reach than has often been the case. The four-part novel (either autobiographical or disguised as such) tells of Park’s search for love, and his difficulty in recognising and accepting it when he finds it. In the first part he has little interest in settling down:

“I… got drunk and slept with a new man every night… Some of the men I met wanted more than just drinking followed by a one-night stand. No matter how many times I refused they kept going on about wanting to date me and threatening to come and see me at my apartment, at which point I would fend them off by saying I had a roommate.”

They assume Park’s roommate is male but instead it is a young woman, Jaehee. Similarly, her boyfriends think that she shares her flat with another woman and complain that they never meet her; one jokes that she must be a cat – “Why is she always at home? Why haven’t you introduced us? Why have I never heard her voice?” Park and Jaehee are very close – this section has the feel of a buddy movie, except it’s one where one buddy pays for the other to have an abortion, an example of how Park’s light-hearted tone admits more serious moments. The same might be said of the section’s ending, where Park must sing a song at Jaehee’s wedding, the importance of their relationship only really hitting home as he sings “Stay with me always”. Jaehee, however, rescues him:

“I sucked in my snot and finished the rest of the song with her.”

The second and third sections tell of failed relationships. The second begins retrospectively when an old boyfriend returns a diary. The relationship had begun at a class both were attending – “we ended up wandering around the area after each class, picking a place to have dinner.” The boyfriend is a complex, older character, something Park conveys, as usual with humour – noticing his “unfocused gaze” he wonders, “Was he part of a cult?” and he later says their conversations:

“…gave me the feeling that he was reciting lines from a Greek tragedy or an absurdist play, or even an eighties movie.”

He is politically radical – refusing to wear a Gap top with an American flag on it – but also embarrassed by his homosexuality:

“When I thought no one was looking I snuck a kiss on the back of his hand. He snatched his hand out of my grasp and said, ‘Don’t do that,’”

When Park asks him if he’s ashamed he replies:

“Yes, that’s right, I’m ashamed of you. You want to hold my hand in public, you call me baby. I mean, what would anyone think?”

Though they speak again after this argument, the relationship ends when he dismisses the idea it could be love. Once again, the emotional power of the story almost sneaks up on the reader, particularly as this section also deals at length with Park’s relationship with his mother.

The final two sections tell of Park’s relationship with Gyu-ho. It begins at the airport as they are about to depart for a trip to Japan – to celebrate their “two-hundred-day anniversary” – but Park has brought the wrong (expired) passport and can’t travel. He hands Gyu-ho the itinerary saying, “Follow this plan and find some guy to spend the night with.” The scene foreshadows the end of their relationship months later when Gyu-ho leaves for a job in China with Park still refusing to say the right thing when Gyu-ho asks him, “Are we breaking up?”

“Stop asking me. No one cares anymore.”

The carefree persona Park adopts is revealed to be less than the full story in the final section where we see the effect Gyu-ho’s departure has on him:

“In my dreams, he and I are laughing and talking it up, and he tells me he loves me. But even in my dreams, I know it isn’t Gyu-ho.”

As throughout, the gentle pace and gossipy narrative of Park’s novel disguises a sadder heart. Park observes the small difficulties of relationships but, more so, he reveals a resistance to commitment, a compulsion to take the first escape route. “Sometimes it feels as if everything was all my fault,” he writes, “and sometimes I think: it’s all so unfair.” Both are true but we cannot help feeling that perhaps Park wants it to be unfair rather than open up. Love in the Big City is a novel which is neither showy nor shocking and its episodic structure can give it a soap opera feel, but, like the narrator, it is good company most of the time.

After the Sun

March 26, 2022

One of the most exciting discoveries of last year’s International Booker was Olga Ravn’s The Employees from Lolli Editions. This year the same publisher is represented by another Scandinavian writer, Jonas Eika, and his short story collection, After the Sun, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg. Eika’s stories, of which there are five in this volume, begin in a convincingly realist vein but each one at some point diverts into disconcerting strangeness.

Two of the stories, both called ‘Bad Mexican Dog’ (or perhaps that makes them one story though they sit second and fifth in the collection), are related. The fifteen-year-old narrator works as a ‘beach boy’ at a Mexican resort, tending to the needs of the tourists – bringing water, rubbing in sunscreen. According to Manual the trick is to:

“…guess where they’re from and how much money they have and then I try to imitate the waiters they know from back home. But you have to make yourself completely blank on the inside.”

The story is shot through with sudden moments of jarring violence. The narrator, massaging a tourist, informs us his hands “disappear between the flesh belts” and his next action is to “pull out a kidney and fling it across the sky.” Later, one of the boys, Ginger, is beaten to death by a jealous boyfriend:

“The boyfriend staddles him and lets loose on his face. In his rage, he grabs a rock, thick red pool next to Ginger’s head.”

While the first incident can be attributed to the narrator’s imagination running wild with heat and boredom, the second is lodged in the world of the story by the funeral ceremony which follows, a ceremony which cements the idea that the boys exist within their own culture. Eika seems intent on brining to the surface the violence that underlies this apparent tourist paradise. He is also clear that the culture of the boys is quite alien to the tourists, promoting this idea through sexual scenes between the boys which take place in a pool “thick and living with the jellyfishy blobs we’ve been filling it with day after day” and involving the use of shrimps as a stimulant. The story ends by veering into another narrative, that of a tourist asked to appear in a film by the boy (because he is “studying film”), a film which descends into the tourist treating the boy like a dog. In the second part we discover that this film is being used to blackmail the tourists. As with the other three stories, there is a very strong realist narrative here which Eika chooses to skew with unexpected surrealism, almost a declaration that reality is not real enough.

In the first story ‘Alvin’ the narrator arrives in Copenhagen for a meeting at a bank to discover the bank had:

“…collapsed and tall piles of marble, steel, pale wood and office furniture lay dispersed among other unidentifiable materials.”

Shortly after his aborted appointment he meets Alvin in a café, an encounter not unlike those in 19th century stories where a new acquaintance turns out to be the devil (“the way I was both seeing and seeing through him”) but Alvin is perhaps something worse, making a living in derivative trading. Soon they develop a working partnership and a homoerotic friendship in a story which brilliantly exposes the empty heart of capitalism as, for example, when the narrator realises the necessity of forgetting the losers:

“To edit them out of the image, by an act of will working slowly and covertly inside you, so in the end only your own victory remains.”

Despite having made his point, Eika pushes the story further with a surreal ending that (literally) takes it to a place that is both unexpected and inevitable.

Of the remaining two stories ‘Rachel, Nevada’ is one of UFO obsession and ‘Me, Rory and Aurora’ one of drug-dealing within an awkward, unspecified three-way relationship, emphasising the range of Eika’s writing despite the small number of stories in this volume. In the first of these Antonio finds what he describes as the ‘Sender’ which he believes is designed to attract alien life. Deciding “he had to become the Sender” he physically alters his body to imitate it, a process that is described in gruesome detail:

“Suddenly his windpipe popped put of the wet flesh, distended and fluted with cartilage.”

The story works so well because Antonio’s behaviour, and his UFO obsession in general, is grounded in his daughter’s death: however bizarre Eika’s stories become they feel psychologically true. Similarly, in ‘Me, Rory and Aurora’, it is the narrator’s feelings for Aurora that provide a basis for the events of the story.

As with The Employees, After the Sun is another original voice with a distinct perspective on the possibilities of fiction. There are a number of short story collections on this year’s long list, but this is a particularly striking and vibrant one.

The Book of Mother

March 20, 2022

Violaine Huisman’s debut novel The Book of Mother (translated by Leslie Camhi) is very much in the ‘bad mother’ tradition which (as I know, having recently reread Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest) has been around for at least the last seventy years and is still going strong today – just ask Gwendoline Riley. The novel is in three parts: the first is a child’s eye view, emotional, angry, listing the mother’s many faults; the second is a more objective recounting of the mother’s life, beginning with her own childhood; and the third deals with the mother’s death. Each one is tonally different, and, in succession, less successful, though the middle section is clearly intended to act as a bridge to greater sympathy and understanding.

The novel opens at the moment ten-year-old Violaine learns her mother, Catherine, is a manic-depressive. This follows what she calls the “definitive incident” when her mother, with Violaine and her older sister Elsa, in the car, accelerates through a red light:

“I still don’t know by what miracle we survived.”

The picture painted of Catherine in this section is of a woman whose beauty gives her licence for extravagance, unpredictability and egotism. She, above all, has little time for the feelings of others:

“Maman was a force of nature and her patience for the whining of wimpy little brats was very limited.”

When an apple tree her daughter loves is in the way of the tennis court she wants to build, she goes as far as promising that it might be possible to replant it, but, of course, she has no intention of doing so. The pets they own have, according to Violaine, “one principal purpose: to prepare us for grief,” dying, as they do, one after the other, often through carelessness or abandonment, and, in the case of one dog, because Catherine kills it to relieve her feelings of anger.

Her life story is visible in fragments, distorted through her own telling, “continuously, ad nauseum, an unbearable monologue,” and filled with regrets (“Maman always said that her biggest mistake had been to leave her first husband”) and self-pity (“Maman didn’t get very far in school”). Yet her life is not without successes – her dance school, for example – though these tend to be subject to her own sabotage.

In the second section we are presented with a more dispassionate version of Catherine’s life. We discover that her mother, Jacqueline, whom she has always regarded as cold, became pregnant with her as result of rape, and was then forced to marry the man who raped her. He is just the worst of series of abusive men in the novel, though later, after his marriage to her mother falls apart, Catherine will re-establish a relationship with him as a teenager, losing her own virginity hastily when she fears, after he climbs into bed with her one night, that her father might take it. Her first marriage, however, is a success, but her life changes when she catches the eye of the wealthy, upper class Antoine:

“She’s not in love, it’s something else: she’s been swept off her feet.”

Less generously we might say, it’s something else: money. Her relationship with Antoine is tempestuous and sexually adventurous, but it is with him she has her two daughters. Drugs, alcohol, and Antoine’s predilection for threesomes and infidelity place increasing stress on Catherine, as does her desire to be a better mother than she believes her mother was to her. She finds it difficult to reconcile her role as wife and lover with that of parent, discovering after a trip to America with Antione when Elsa is a baby that she feels estranged from her daughter when she returns:

“She doesn’t recognise her daughter, she’s different suddenly, and Catherine no longer knows what to do with her.”

The reader’s sympathy for Catherine wanes as she becomes more distant from the daughters she claims to live for:

“It’s complicated with the girls, she has no patience, and she’s very aware of how much they notice her absences. They see everything, and their gaze makes her feel unbearably guilty; she’d rather blind them than catch them looking at her like that.”

Part 2 ends where Part 1 began, but Part 3 takes place twenty years later with the daughters both living in America and Catherine in Dakar. When Elsa flies to meet her in Paris she finds he dead. While this may not be unexpected, the twenty-year gap leaves something of a hole in the narrative, especially as we are now expected to believe that the girls have nothing but love for their mother. Lengthy and rather ridiculous commemorations follow Catherine’s death, all in keeping with her wishes. “We were just as excessive as she was,” Violaine tells us, though there is no evidence of this, “we were addicted to her” (while ensuring they were many miles apart). This sudden character change (and both sisters feeling exactly the same) seems both unlikely and unsympathetic – certainly not redemptive in the way that seems to be intended. The ending is truly terrible, which seems such a shame for a novel which began so promisingly. The judges clearly admire the whole novel, but I suspect not enough for it to make the shortlist.

More Than I Love My Life

March 16, 2022

David Grossman, and translator Jessica Cohen, won the International Booker in 2017 with his previous novel A Horse Walks into a Bar. Its central character was a comedian whose performance is revealed to the reader through the eyes of an old friend – one he has specifically asked to watch him. His new novel, More Than I Love My Life, longlisted for the same prize, is also filtered through a narrator, Gili, who, at times, seems more of an observer than a participant despite the fact she is the granddaughter and daughter of the main characters, Vera and Nina. Further suggesting her role as observer, much of the novel centres on a film she and her father, Rafael, are making of their troubled family history – the story of Vera’s abandonment of Nina as a young child, and Nina’s subsequent abandonment of Gili when she is three years old.

In 1962, Vera arrives in Israel from Yugoslavia with her seventeen-year-old daughter Nina. Vera, like Rafael’s father, Tuvia, is widowed, but before they can meet and marry, fifteen-year-old Rafael encounters Nina and falls in love. As she walks away, he holds out his hand:

“I can actually see him standing there with his hand out.

“And that’s how he’s remained, with the outstretched hand, for forty-five years.”

Gili characterises her father’s relationship with her mother in this way because, as we shall see, whatever occurs in the years which follow, he is always there for her when she needs him; “you know me,” he tells her, “If you were to suddenly turn into…I don’t know… a hunchback, then I’d start loving hunchbacks.” But she also warns us that the story of their first meeting has been told to her by her father who insisted “every detail in the story was important, because that is how you construct a mythology.” The idea of mythologizing those we love will turn out to be central to the novel.

Though much of the novel consists of flashbacks, it begins at Vera’s ninetieth birthday, and a final appearance in the lives of her family of Nina (“my rarely seen mother”) who, after a time in New York, is now living in a village close to the Arctic circle. Shortly after the party she reveals that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and will lose her memory over the coming years:

“Even right now I’m being a little bit erased, look… now I’m in colour, but three or four years from now I’ll be flat white, then transparent.”

Before it’s too late, she wants to know the truth about her childhood, a time she has previously attempted to forget. When she was a little girl her mother was sent to Goli Otok, an island used by Tito as a gulag, and she was left alone, her father having been already killed by the regime. It is for this reason she asks Rafael to make a film of Vera’s memories as the family return to Croatia and to the island.

The truth she is looking for is the reason Vera abandoned her, this sense of abandonment having defined her and prevented her from forming any lasting relationships of her own, including with her daughter. Subconsciously she feels this was a choice, and that Vera put her dead husband before her living daughter. Even as she marries Rafael’s father, Vera tells him that she still loves her first husband, Milosz, “more than anything in the world, more than my life” and he, too, is mythologized. The novel questions the ability of characters to see beyond the idealised images of this they love, and the damage this can unwittingly cause.

As the family journey to Croatia, Vera’s story is revealed, not only in her speech, but in a separate first-person narrative of her time on the island, climaxing as the family arrive there:

“Empty and barren. We’re alone on the island. Only a madman would come here in this storm.”

Will the storm be one of cleansing or destruction?

The novel has a complex structure which Grossman skilfully navigates, but the various barriers between the reader and the story can, at times, dilute its impact. It’s no surprise that one of the most effective sections is the direct narrative of Vera’s years on Goli Otok. The filming does provide some powerful moments as, for example, when Nina begins to address herself (much to the confusion and panic of the others) when in fact she is addressing the future, amnesiac Nina. It also provides an excuse for various videoed recollections over the years, and a symbolic, if slightly contrived, ending. However, both Gili and, to a lesser extent, Rafael remain largely behind the camera. Rafael as a character rarely goes beyond his love for Nina which, being unconditional, is also uninteresting. Gili is even less memorable. In fact, even Nina struggles to compete with Vera – which is at least in keeping with the family dynamic.

On the other hand, the novel once again showcases Grossman’s ability to demonstrate the impact of historical trauma on the individual. The punishment which a totalitarian regime inflicts on Vera is felt not only by her but by her child and grandchild – the harm does not end when the violence stops. This is an accomplished novel, as one would expect from a writer who has written ten others, certainly good enough to make the shortlist (though it’s early days yet) but, in the end, lacking the focus and emotional power of A Horse Walks into a Bar and therefore unlikely to repeat his win.

International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist

March 11, 2022

My International Booker Prize predictions may have mentioned five of the final longlist, but in other ways the thirteen selected have been something of a surprise. First of all, it is the fewest number of European books in the Prize’s history – normally around half (between 6 and 7) of the longlist are by European writers, but this year there are only four. Two were expected by many to be there – previous winner Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft) and the final part of Jon Fosse’s Septology, A New Name (translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls). The other two represent the first appearance in English of their authors. Jonas Eika’s short story collection After the Sun (translated from Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg) has already won the Nordic Literature Prize and is published by Lolli Editions, whose The Employees was a highlight of last year’s longlist. Violaine Huisman’s The Book of Mother (translated from French by Leslie Camhi) is a debut novel which has also already won prizes.

Latin America is represented by Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle), one of my favourite books of the last year, and Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais (translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes), published later this month. Melchor was shortlisted as recently as 2020 for Hurricane Season, and Pineiro appeared on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist back in 2010 with Thursday Night Widows.

The real achievement of this year’s longlist, however, is its global nature. With Europe and Latin America making up less than half of the titles, its leaves space for a wider range of countries to be represented. Much of this is down to the three books published by Tilted Axis Press: Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (translated from Korean by Anton Hur); Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao); and Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell). How wonderful that (previous winner) Deborah Smith’s publishing venture finally gets the recognition it deserves. (Ironically, having faithfully suggested that one of their titles should be selected in every previous year, this year I simply haven’t read any yet).

Finally, there is another Korean title, and another translation credit for Anton Hur, in Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, a Japanese representative in the form of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd) and, from Israel, a second previous winner, David Grossman, with More Than I Love My Life (translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen).

The full list is:

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Honford Star)

After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated from Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg (Lolli Editions)

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape)

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from French by Leslie Camhi (Virago)

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Picador)

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

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Tilted Axis Press)

Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press)

Phenotypes by Paulo Scott, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories)

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press)

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Reading the longest before the shortlist is announced (7th April) will be quite impossible for me having only read two, and with The Books of Jacob and Tomb of Sand coming in at almost 1,700 pages altogether. Having said that, I will be reading as many as I can…

International Booker Prize Predictions 2022

March 7, 2022

With the announcement of the International Booker Prize long list of 2022 only days away it is traditionally time for me to fail to predict what might be on it. The favourite, of course, is Nobel Prize winner Olga Tocarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft), running to as many pages as most of the other contenders put together. The prize – both as the International Booker and in its previous guise as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – has never been particularly kind to Nobel Prize winners: Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago’s wins both predate their Nobel anointing, and Mario Vargas Llosa has only once made it onto a short list. The Books of Jacob may not be as certain to win, or even to be included, as we might think.

Other major European contenders, however, are in short supply. The French writer Maylis de Kerangal, with Painting Time (translated by Jessica Moore) is one possibility having been previously long-listed in 2016 for Mend the Living. Also Portuguese author Dulce Maria Cardoso, who narrowly missed out in 2017 according to the chair of the judges Nick Barley, may find herself included with Violeta Among the Stars (translated by Angel Guirra-Quintana). Then there is the yet to be published Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead) or Trust by Domenico Starnone (translated Jhumpa Lahiri, whose own Whereabouts is also eligible having been originally written in Italian) – unfortunately, Elena Ferrante has never won, preventing Starnone from doing a Romain Gary. Hopefully at least one of two strong contenders from Peirene Press will feature – Winter Flowers by Angelique Villaneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter) and Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich), both of which find hope in trying circumstances. If I could place one European writer on the long list myself, however, it would be Bel Olid for Wilder Winds (translated by Laura McGloughlin), a collection of short stories where quality far exceeds volume.

Last year was a disappointing year for Latin American writers, although both books which were long-listed made the short list. Charco Press have, as usual, numerous contenders. Tender by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott) is one, but it is surely too off the wall even compared to the first two parts of her ‘involuntary’ trilogy. Both Brickmakers by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott) and Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro (translated by Frances Riddle) are very fine novels and at least one of them should be there. Phenotypes by Brazilian Paulo Scott (translated by Daniel Hahn) and Chilean Poet by Chilean Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell and not yet published) are also strong possibilities. Evelio Rosero may reappear with Stranger to the Moon, thirteen years after winning with The Armies (both translated by Anne McLean).

Elsewhere, perennial judges’ favourite Yan Lianke has a new novel out – Hard Like Water (translated by Carlos Rojas) – and Mieko Kawakami – who missed out with Breast and Eggs – may have more luck with Heaven (which I preferred, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd). The popular Cursed Bunny by Korean writer Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur) would be a great addition for the name alone. Otherwise eligible titles outside European languages have rather passed me by in the last year so my main hope is that the judges, who include writers from Zimbabwe and Singapore, have unearthed some potential winners of their own. This year more than ever, it is in the hope of discovery, rather than the expectation of accurate prediction, that I approach the announcement!