Archive for the ‘International Booker Prize 2023’ Category

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding

April 30, 2023

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is Amanda Svensson’s third novel, but her first to be translated into English (by Nichola Smalley, who won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize in 2021 with Andrzej Tichý’s Wretchedness). At over 500 pages, it was one of the longer books on the International Booker long list, and it’s therefore no surprise it contains more than one narrative. It tells the story of triplets Sebastian, Matilda and Clara, beginning, after a brief summary of their birth and childhood, with Sebastian in London, working in the field of neuroscience for an Institute whose director, Corrigan, is deliberately vague about the purpose of their research, even to employees. He explains to Sebastian that he has adopted the model of terrorist organisations “in which each cell holds only holds only the information needed to undertake the tasks delegated to that cell”:

“Because to be as frank as I can without undermining the model I’ve just described to you: I can’t tell you exactly why we’ve recruited you.”

Sebastian’s responsibilities include looking after the ‘moral monkey’ (a monkey whose morality, Corrigan claims, “never wavers”) and his colleague, and eccentric genius, Jennifer Travis, as well as treating patient such as Laura Kennedy. Laura suffers from an intermittent, but escalating, inability to see the world in three dimensions:

“To think she’d become flat… Laura Kandinsky, a paper doll!”

Laura can, however, see Sebastian clearly, which might be one reason why, despite the fact she is married with a daughter, they begin sleeping together. Sebastian’s own family also have more than their fair share of ‘issues’. His father is missing, and his two sisters are not on speaking terms – or, at least, Clara is not speaking to Matilda, though she still reads her emails. They fell out at the funeral of Sebastian’s girlfriend, Violetta, for reasons we will only discover much later. Clara is on Easter Island, having lost her job as a journalist, and hoping to strike out as freelancer writing about a small group who have moved there led by a man called Jordan:

“This guy Jordan believed, apparently, that it was already too late, that no so-called climate solutions would be able to halt the catastrophe, that tech optimism and rolled-up sleeves were just a new phase of the same illusion that had brought the human race to this very point…”

While on the island she befriends an American TV star, Elif, although Clara is a reluctant friend to anyone. Meanwhile, Matilda is living with Billy and his daughter, Siri. Matilda has synaesthesia and is increasingly bothered by a particular shade of blue:

“There was a flash, somewhere behind Billy’s head. It was the colour. She couldn’t see him clearly.”

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is, therefore, a novel in which there is a lot happening, though the stories of the three protagonists are each given time and space to breath, and the number of secondary characters is, in fact, fairly limited. There is less clarity on what the novel is actually about, however. Having introduced Sebastian’s research into the brain, and a number of characters whose brains work differently, Svensson seems to become less interested in this aspect of the novel as it progresses. The same applies to the issue of climate catastrophe foregrounded in Clara’s story. At times, the novel begins to feel a little like the building in which Sebastian works, where they are searching for Travis at the end:

“You’ve only seen a fraction of this building, you’ve no idea how big it is. And jumbled. And illogical.”

Yet Svensson has built in answers to this criticism (which is not to say the reader must accept them) in Corrigan’s conclusion:

“…there is no order. The whole damn thing is just chaos.”

(Ironically, this statement occurs just as Svensson foists yet another coincidence on us as we discover that Laura’s husband was one of the founders of the Institute). Similarly, as Svensson ditches her bigger issues for a conclusion which is focused on the feelings of her characters, she pre-empts that criticism too, telling the reader, “soap operas are the only true narrative form.”

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is packed with incident and interesting characters (though they are characters who are consistently free of financial concerns) but it ultimately lacks the thematic heft that would raise it above an entertaining family saga despite promising beginnings. There is a lot to enjoy, but less to take away.

The Birthday Party

April 23, 2023

Laurent Mauvignier is a French author who has published regularly since 1999 but has only been translated into English twice previously, despite The Birthday Party (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) being his thirteenth novel. This novel is a thriller but one in which the execution of the prose is as important as the pace of the plot. The novel is set in an isolated hamlet of three houses known as Three Lone Girls. One house is inhabited by the painter, Christine, another by the Bergogne family – the father, Patrice, the mother, Marion, and the daughter, Ida (the daughter’s age is not mentioned but we can work out from other information she is around ten). Mauvignier moves from character to character to tell the story in a style that may prove frustrating for readers who just want to know what happens next, but ultimately increases rather diminishes the tension.

The novel opens with Patrice taking Christine to the police station to report threatening, anonymous letters she is receiving, the latest of which “wasn’t mailed… someone slid it under my door.” Although the letters are, to an extent, a misdirection, they immediately place the reader on alert. Mauvignier quickly establishes the relationships between the characters: Christine is friendly with Patrice, wary of Marion and affectionate with Ida. Ida comes to Christine’s (whom she calls Tatie or Auntie) after school, taking the drawings she intends to give her mother for her birthday:

“Ida hopes Tatie will like them, her drawings, because Tatie’s opinion counts for her almost as much as her mother’s.”

That, when Ida asks Christine if she has a present for her mother, she gets no answer suggests the coolness between the two women:

“Ida doesn’t dare ask her if she has a reason for avoiding talking about Marion, if it’s all just in her head or if there is something amiss between them, if what Tatie thinks of Mum means she can’t say…”

Patrice, too, can find Marion remote. His love for her tempered by a feeling that she is too good for him; where Christine is suspicious of her, Patrice regards as her as exceptional in a way he does not quite understand, but this can also make her seem distant:

“This pain, so often renewed, of feeling like he’s not there when she looks at him, when all this beauty to which he believed – used to believe – she gave him access, the possibility of contemplating it, or touching it, cast him back even more violently into his loneliness…”

Today is Marion’s fortieth birthday and Patrice has not only invited Christine over, but also two of Marion’s work colleagues (who, it must be said, also look on her as something out of the ordinary).  Into his preparations for the evening, Mauvignier injects further tension via everything from the moral dilemma of whether he should sleep with a prostitute (later we will realise this is thematically relevant in the sense that we all have aspects of our lives which need forgiven) to a flat tyre. In fact, over a hundred pages have passed before we really enter thriller territory with the arrival of a strange car at Three Lone Girls and the disappearance of Christine’s dog (set up as far back as the first chapter when Christine was worried about the anonymous letters):

“I have my dog you know. I have my dog.”

At this point, Mauvignier has cleverly removed all his characters from the scene apart from Christine, yet the reader knows each one will return: first Ida, from school, then Patrice, from town, and finally Marion, from work. Each arrival will offer potential plot twists, until all the characters are together, including Marion’s work colleagues. As to what happens on the night of Marion’s’ birthday, that is best left for each reader to discover for themselves, but the final section is a masterpiece of narrative control.

The Birthday Party has the plot of a thriller but the prose of modernism, as if an artist had decided to render a superhero comic in the style of Vorticism (as I am sure someone has). Most successfully, it does not lose its power as a page-turner, but brings with it a depth of character and stylistic panache that should have transported it into the shortlist of International Booker Prize.

International Booker Prize Shortlist Predictions 2023

April 16, 2023

With the International Booker Prize shortlist announcement on the 18th of April, I thought I would venture my own suggestions as to what should remain when the original thirteen books are whittled down to six. True, I have not yet managed to read all thirteen – but, as I have managed to add eight to the two I read before the long list was announced, I feel entitled to propose my own favourites. Generally, at this point I have simply avoided the longest books (which often have a more than reasonable chance of winning) but that is not the case this time, with only While We Were Dreaming, (unpublished when included in the long list) falling into that category.

The other two I have yet to read can be more fairly dismissed as shortlist contenders. Andrey Kurkov’s Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv (translated by Reuben Woolley) has been described by Marcel Theroux in The Guardian as “a charming but slight addition to the author’s oeuvre,” and, much as I’ve enjoyed Kurkov’s novels in the past (though admittedly with diminishing returns) this does not feel like a prize-winner. Maryse Conde, thoroughly deserving of her alternative Nobel Prize in 2018, is now eighty-six and can only write through dictation as she struggles to both see and speak. While this doesn’t in itself suggest The Gospel According to the New World (translated by Conde’s husband Richard Philcox) is inferior to her previous work, it does tell us that, as a writer with a well-established reputation, she has no real need to win another prize. The novel has not been widely reviewed, but Tony (at Tony’s Reading List) from the Prize’s shadow jury commented, “While there’s nothing particularly wrong with Condé’s fun romp around the Americas, nothing about it really impressed me overly, either.”

The two strongest contenders for the prize (and therefore definitely on my shortlist) are Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) and Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey). Both are novels unafraid to tackle serious topics in an intellectual way. Gospodinov examines our irrational attachment to the past, and Nettel questions the role of motherhood. At the same time, both are accessible and narrative driven.

I would also place Vigdis Hjorth’s Is Mother Dead (translated by Charlotte Barslund) on the shortlist. Although I don’t think this is Hjorth’s best novel, it is a wonderfully controlled narrative where our sympathy for the narrator slowly dissipates as the novel progresses. As in Will and Testament, it questions how far family loyalty should go and explores issues of guilt and blame. Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Whale (translated by Chi-Young Kim) also deserves to be on the shortlist – the first shortlisted writer that is entirely new to me. Scatological and even grotesque at times, it is a powerful satire of society with some unforgettable characters.

This leaves two final places for two of the longer novels. Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) is another exciting discovery from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It might be described as a modernist thriller but the most important factor in its inclusion is that its success in transcends the genre while building towards a conclusion that is surely perfectly timed for maximum tension. I might also be tempted to include Amanda Svensson’s A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding (translated by Nichola Smalley). This novel, Svensson’s first to be translated, had entirely passed me by, but is packed full of incidents and ideas, though I have misgivings about the way it becomes increasingly like a soap opera towards the end. I suspect therefore that While We Were Dreaming (translated by Katy Derbyshire) might be a more likely contender.

Of course, my suggestions mean little, and exist without the horse-trading that juries have to endure to ensure everyone can agree – a process that can improve variety but diminish quality. On Tuesday we will know whether my predictions are in any way accurate.


April 15, 2023

Whale is Cheon Myeong-kwan’s first novel, which he originally published in 2004 after a career as a screenwriter, now translated by Chi-Young Kim. Intended as a satire of recent Korean history, it covers an uncertain number of years, but certainly enough for three generations to come and go. While its central character may be the impressive, gender-fluid Geumbok, the novel begins with her mute daughter, Chunhui returning to the brickyard where she was brought up, after a period in prison, before travelling backwards to a time before Geumbok’s birth to tell the story of “the old crone who used to sell simple meals out of her home in Pyeongdae” and her daughter. Both stories highlight a lack of love that must, one assumes, reflect the author’s feelings about his homeland’s treatment of the next generation in what is often a bleak and pessimistic novel.

The old crone’s child is born as a result of her grotesque union with a halfwit she is charged with looking after which occurs only because she notices his organ is unnaturally large when bathing him. When the affair is discovered, she is beaten and chased from the house, but returns to take her revenge, leading the halfwit to a nearby creek to ‘bathe’ and drowning him. This kind of casual cruelty is not infrequent in the novel, presenting a world where characters often act on base instincts. The crone falls pregnant and, when her daughter is born, it only reminds her of the halfwit “which tormented her” and so:

“Not a day went by without a bruise forming on the little girl’s stick-thin body.”

On the one day she does show her affection, deciding to bath her after she has been sleeping in manure for warmth, the girl refuses to be washed and so the mother jabs her in the eye with a red-hot poker, a barbaric act which at least allows the author to refer to her as the one-eyed woman for the rest of the novel. Chunhui, as we shall see, fares little better when it comes to affection from her mother, but Geumbok had no example to follow, her mother having died in childbirth. Geumbok seizes control of her life as a young girl by persuading a fishmonger who has come to her village to take her to the coastal town where he collects his fish. This escape is probably just as well as her father is finding it increasingly difficult to resist her developing physique:

“He drank to suppress that desire, but when he got drunk he found it was difficult to control those feelings.”

This is no doubt exacerbated as Geumbok emits a “certain mysterious scent” which attracts men. But Geumbok is more than a femme fatale – it is she, arguably, who represents capitalism in the novel as she soon takes over the fishmonger’s business, encouraging him to sell dry fish rather than the fresh fish which quickly rots, and drying the fish herself when he says its too expensive to buy:

“Thanks to her brilliance, he was soon rolling in the kind of money he had never even dreamed of.”

Later she will make the brickyard a similar success story, after coming into the possession of some land where brick-making seems the only possibility. (The land was originally owned by the od crone, thus tangling the two families together). Her bricks are only a success, however, as a result of a vagrant labourer she befriends (not the only man she will use throughout the novel) who insists they are good quality. Geumbok displays a more ruthless attitude:

“All that matters is being able to sell it, whether it’s rotten fish or cracked bricks.”

She does have the idea, however, of imprinting them with the brickyard’s name and throwing them from the train throughout the country in the hope of attracting buyers. The monument to her wealth is a cinema in the shape of a whale – she is introduced to film on the coast by a gangster, which is also where she first sees a whale. In the novel itself, the whale’s appearance is brief, but a circus elephant called Jumbo, owned by twins who come to live with Geumbok and Chunhui, can be regarded among the main characters. It not only converses with the mute Chunhui when she is a child, but continues to do so after death.

Although there is clearly a wildness to Whale’s narrative with its distorted characters and improbable coincidences, it is also deeply moving in parts. Geumbok is not always an admirable character but she is an impressive one, determined to come out on top in a vicious world. She does feel love, as does Chunhui later – this is a novel of unlucky love stories, most notably that of the gangster with the scar who tells of how he pledged his love for a woman in his youth by removing his fingers.  Cheon says of Chunhui, “she wasn’t a hero and she wasn’t a victim” and this is true of all the characters who each retain some amount of the reader’s sympathy. Whale is both the work of a powerful imagination and a reflection of reality and deserves to be on the International Booker Prize shortlist.


April 7, 2023

Perumal Muragan is an Indian writer whose first novel was published in 1991. A number of his novels have been translated into English, though originally for publication in India rather than the UK. In 2019 Pushkin Press published One Part Woman which, like Pyre, was translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (and which had caused some controversy in India), followed by The Story of a Goat in 2021.  Pyre, originally written in 2013, and translated in 2016, became Murugan’s third novel to appear in the UK last year. On the evidence of Pyre alone, one can see why Murugan might be popular in India, but his writing also transfers easily to other countries despite being deeply rooted in the culture of the people he is writing about.

Pyre tells the story of a young couple, Kumaresan and Saroja, who are returning to Kumaresan’s village after marrying in the city. His family know nothing of the marriage, but he is optimistic that they will accept it:

“Whatever I say, amma will listen to me… She will worry about what others might say, but everything will be all right soon.”

Kumaresan is blinded by his own love for Saroja (“Can anyone who looks at your face not like you, my dear?”) and underestimates the opposition they will face. The first villager they meet on the road asks what caste Saroja belongs to, and is unconvinced by Kumaresan’s declaration that it is the same as his:

“Does a face that wanders over fields and rocks look like this? This is the face of someone who hasn’t toiled, a body that hasn’t suffered summer’s heat.”

Saroja’s fairer skin marks her out as someone who comes from, and in the villagers’ eyes belongs, somewhere else. Kamaresan’s mother’s first words are, “You have ruined me,” and when Saroja faints and Kamaresan asks for water, all the women turn their faces away. The plot is classic Romeo and Juliet – a love story in the face of parental (and societal) opposition – but there is no secrecy, the marriage is public knowledge, and the couple must face the consequences. Like Romeo and Juliet, Kamaresan and Saroja share the belief that their love will overpower the opposition. Kamaresan in particular is an endearingly optimistic character, though one who, as a result, does not always foresee problems:

“So far, all his plans had been focused on managing his mother’s reactions. He had not given much thought to what else he would have to do once Saroja began living with them.”

He has a plan to set up a business selling soda, but he has given little thought to the life of his wife, (who thinks at one point, “what did he know about living with his mother?”) not out of lack of care but because it her world is quite different. Working on his plans for the future, he is away all day leaving Saroja, like Juliet when Romeo is exiled, entirely isolated and, as a woman, powerless. Kamaresan’s optimism also benefits the narrative tension created by the ongoing conflict as it convinces the reader it can be overcome. The affection the couple have for each other balances the hate they are often shown by the villagers, and Murugan is adept at introducing enough happiness and hope to prevent the novel becoming simply an account of suffering. One of the happiest scenes is when Kamaresan takes Saroja to the shop he is renting in town where society is much more open and tolerant. As she sweeps in front of the shop:

“…a few people came out of the neighbouring shops and stood watching her. She gave them a friendly smile. They smiled back. True smiles. Happy smiles.”

Murugal contrasts the intolerant attitudes of the villagers with the more welcoming life of the town. How easy it is to be friendly, he seems to be saying. One Part Woman, which was also about social ostracism, caused controversy as it was regarded as an attack on tradition, and Pyre continues in this vein, building into a fierce condemnation of the caste system. Traditional in form, its power lies in the story itself, and the sympathetic portrayal of the two main characters. Murugan deserves the attention the International Booker Prize long-listing has brought him, and, though Pyre is unlikely to win, it could well continue on to the shortlist.


April 4, 2023

Eva Baltasar’s first novel, Permafrost, which was also translated into English by Julia Sanches, tells the story of a woman who finds closeness difficult, at one point (entirely falsely) telling a girlfriend who suggests marriage that there is someone else just to push her away. Her follow-up, Boulder, focuses on a single relationship, but one which also runs into problems. The narrator is a cook on merchant ship when she first meets Samsa and is instantly attracted to her:

“We spend the night together. I don’t fuck her, I whet myself on her.”

Already we can see where Baltasar’s power as a writer lies – and perhaps guess that she was a published poet ten years before her first novel. The image of ‘whetting’ herself against the women she has fallen for, sharpening her desire, is one John Donne would be proud of. Her longing only increases when the boat leaves and only returns three months later. Samsa names the narrator Boulder, telling her she’s “like those large solitary rocks in southern Patagonia, pieces of the world left over after creation, isolated and exposed to every element.” It is an unheeded warning (particularly when combined with the book’s Carson McCullers epigraph, “Love is a solitary thing.”) Their relationship becomes more intense, matching Baltasar’s fearless descriptions of sex, until Samsa tells the narrator she is leaving for a job in Reykjavik.

Rather than ending the relationships, this creates a new beginning as they travel to Iceland together. Their relationship takes on a more domestic flavour, particularly at first when the narrator is not working. They buy a house, though it is clear that their new way of life is more suited to Samsa than her lover who feels, “Quaint little houses like hers eat away at you.”

“Sometimes I have the feeling they all come equipped with a full retinue of ghosts itching to haunt you into an early grave.”

Yet her love remains unquestioned: “I feel stronger with Samsa’s body underneath mine, like she is my foundation.” Time passes; the narrator sets up a food truck business, her desire to keep this separate from Samsa (“to keep her away from this thing that’s all my own”) highlighting her earlier need for isolation. Baltasar moves the narrative forward at will – at this point five years are brushed aside in a sentence. The paragraphs focus instead on deeply felt moments, into which the reader can be dropped in a disorienting fashion. In this fashion, the idea of having a child appears suddenly, exactly as it feels to the narrator:

“It comes out of nowhere with such extraordinary force it razes everything to the ground, like an earthquake.”

While this idea follows the narrator “like a sinner harassing another sinner,” it has the opposite effect on Samsa:

“She seems to generate a light whose source is the same active, powerful nucleus that glows inside a squid.”

Once again, it is the language the author uses to describe her character’s feelings that is striking – it conveys the change in Samsa, while at the same time containing both the idea of pregnancy and the narrator’s disgust. She is now torn between her love for Samsa and her loathing of the further domesticity that Samsa’s dream entails. While Samsa goes to pregnancy classes “as if it were a religious event,” the narrator feels, “You either need a hangover or an active imagination to be able to appreciate them.” Of course, their sex life suffers:

“Samsa is sexless, a dockyard gridlocked by a single ship.”

The story may not be original – they are not the first couple to feel unequally about having a child – but Baltasar’s ability to describe the physicality of emotional states raises it above the ordinary. She captures the narrator’s feelings with an intimacy and accuracy that assaults the reader at times, where even cliches such as affairs seem freshly seen. Boulder deserves its place on the International Booker longlist for the power of its language alone and, despite its brevity, may even make the shortlist.

Standing Heavy

March 30, 2023

African writers have appeared intermittently on Booker International longlists, though this is, in part, the result of many writers of African origin writing in English. Last year there were none, though in 2021 Ngugi wa Thiong’o was present as both writer and translator, and in 2020 there was Willem Anker’s Red Dog, translated from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns. (Also, the 2021 Prize was won by David Diop, whose father is from Senegal, writing about the experience of Senegalese soldiers in the First World War). This year the sole African representative is Ivoirian GauZ’ with his 2014 debut, Standing Heavy, now translated by Frank Wynne. The novel covers a half century of immigrant experience, beginning in the 1960s and ending in the decade the book was written.

The novel opens with a procession of African immigrants being hired as security guards:

“It’s relatively accessible. The training is absolutely minimal. No experience is required. Employers are all too willing to overlook official status.”

These immigrants are only ‘African’ to the uneducated European eye; GauZ’ is particularly good at identifying the different nations in various, amusing ways – what they are wearing, how they speak. This sets the tone of the novel which is frequently one of observational humour – here, for example, the author describes walking along the multicultural rue du Faubourg du Temple as:

“…like taking a stroll along the tower of Babel if it had been expertly toppled by a demolition crew such that, rather than standing vertical, it runs horizontally from Belleville to place de la Republique.”

In fact, observational humour informs the structure as well as the tone with whole chapters consisting of sights noted by security guards on duty at various shops, beginning with ‘The Sales at Camaieu’. These short observations are headed with such titles ‘The Regulars’ and ‘The Cute Little Top’ and resembles aphorism or pensées. Here, in its entirety, is ‘Fat Women’:

“Often fat women will start by picking out clothes in smaller sizes…before discreetly disappearing into a changing cubicle with the correct size.”

These sections are not only entertaining but convey the mundane, everyday working life of the security guards. As well as three sections set in particular stores, there is also one simply entitled ‘Break’ which is set in the streets outside and includes a note on the various speeds of ATM machines. Our first Ivorian is Ferdinand who arrives in what GauZ’ calls ‘The Bronze Age’ between 1960 and 1980. He stays in an Ivoirian student residence despite having never been a student:

“He had, after a fashion, inherited the room from his cousin Andre, who had gone home some months earlier with his diploma in medicine in his back pocket.”

GauZ’ keeps us informed of the political background, both in Cote de Ivoire and in France, the oil crisis being given due attention in this section. More importantly for Ferdinand, the seventies opens up the possibility of permanent residence and by the end of the chapter he is able to say:

“He had finally arrived in France, his France.”

1990 to 2000 is ‘The Golden Age’. We meet the next generation in the form of Ossiri, who comes to France to work as a security guard from a good job as a teacher in his home country:

“The wanderlust he felt inside was powerful and utterly unfathomable.”

By this point Ferdinand is running his own security company, hiring the guards for the businesses that need them – “the little boss at the end of the chain” as he describes himself. Everything changes in ‘The Age of Lead’ with the attack on the Twin Towers, which we see through the eyes of Kassoum:

“This couldn’t be happening now, live in New York… White people, as Kassoum knew, always did things by the book.”

Immigrants are now viewed with much greater suspicion; residence is much harder to achieve.

Standing Heavy is an entertaining novel which conveys the immigrant experience across the decades. If anything, it attempts too much – sketching in the political background, the chapters on observations, and the need to introduce new characters as time passes, leaves the reader feeling that Ferdinand, Ossiri and Kassoum are known only fleetingly. For this reason, it may not make it to the shortlist, but it’s presence on the longlist demonstrates the Booker International’s range not only in nationality but in tone.

Time Shelter

March 25, 2023

Although Georgi Gospodinov’s first novel, Natural Novel, was translated into English as long ago as 2005, and his second, The Physics of Sorrow, in 2012, Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) is the first to be published in the UK, making it eligible for the International Booker Prize and, in fact, the first Bulgarian novel to be long-listed. Time Shelter is a philosophical and political novel, but it is written with a light touch in a style which is frequently conversational. It begins with an idea, an idea that the author claims as his own “(I must admit that in my case the idea was for a novel but still)”even as he summarises an article describing its use in a geriatric clinic in Vienna where a doctor has “decked out his office in the style of the 60s” with the result that patients stay longer and are less likely to run away. This will not the only time fact and fiction blend together in an often-indistinguishable mixture, most strikingly in the form of Time Shelter’s other central character:

“Gaustine, whom I first invented, and then met in flesh and blood.”

Gaustine might be said to be a conduit for the author’s wilder ideas, bringing them from the world of theory into practice – at least, within the fictional reality of the novel. It is Gaustine who decides to take the idea of recreating the past to benefit patients with Alzheimer’s further, beginning with a house designed to replicate the 1960s, but with expansion in mind:

“There’ll be houses from various years everywhere, little neighbourhoods, one day we’ll even have small cities, maybe even a whole country.”

He locates his operation in Switzerland as “a country without time can most easily be inhabited by all possible eras,” adding a new dimension to the phrase ‘historically neutral’. The narrator becomes Gaustine’s assistant, a “collector of the past,” an occupation not dissimilar from that of novelist as he readily confesses, admitting he is writing a novel about “the discreet monster of the past”:

“My work for the clinic and the simultaneous writing of the that book were like interconnected vessels… the basic question for both was how the past is made.”

Gospodinov tells the story of the clinic through the stories of individuals. Many of these are from former Communist countries – where, one imagines, the distinction between past and present is made even more striking by their entry into the ‘Western’ world in the 1990s. In one example, a man who can no longer remember his past relies on the memories of the policeman whose job it was to report on his activities. Some memories persist even as those in the clinic live in a recreated past. One man, who spends his days reading the newspapers of the 1970s in the belief they represent the present, comes to the author one night:

“John Lennon will be killed, he said quickly. He was truly worried, in any case he could not explain whether he had dreamed it or not.”

This is only the beginning of Gospodinov’s examination of our relationship with the past, however. In the novel’s second part he goes beyond the individual to the national as Gaustine’s prediction that “some kind of global dementia is coming” proves accurate:

“And then the past set out to flood the world…

“It  spread from one person to another like an epidemic, like the Justinian plague or the Spanish flu.”

If this paints a dystopian picture, it is also a recognisable one, a longing to return to a past which is remembered with nostalgia. We see this in former Eastern-bloc countries where the privations of Communism are seen by some as preferable to chaos of capitalism, but, of course, we have also had our own lobby group for retreat into past in the UK, Brexit being the most obvious outcome. As Gospodinov says:

“A new life was beginning, life as re-enactment.”

Countries hold referenda to decide which decade they will return to. The concept may seem far fetched but the political machinery proposing one decade or another seems remarkably similar to campaigning as we experience it today. The versions of the past on offer are, of course, not a true reflection of lived experience – just as, in the first part, individuals with dementia live in a false past, so nations which fail to recognise their past create one instead:

“The more a society forgets, the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz memory.”

In Time Shelter, Gospodinov tackles one of the most crucial political questions of the present moment – our relationship with the past. His exploration is playful and entertaining but nevertheless serious and thoughtful. Like the best satire, it is both ridiculous and instantly recognisable. It seems very likely it will feature of the International Booker shortlist, and should not be ruled out from winning the Prize itself.

Is Mother Dead

March 18, 2023

Superficially, Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel Is Mother Dead (again translated by Charlotte Barslund) has much in common with Will and Testament. Here is another dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (interestingly, Hjorth has an as-yet-untranslated novel entitled What’s Wrong with Mother) where contact has been broken off and attempts at reconciliation seem difficult, if not impossible. In this case, however, it is the disowned daughter, Johanna, who determines to repair her relationship with her mother having returned to Norway from America after the death of her husband. Her father is dead, and she blames her sister, Ruth, for preventing her mother replying to her messages. (At this point we may well remember that Hjorth’s sister wrote her own novel in response to Will and Testament “in which a character suffers the trauma of living with the public fallout from a narcissistic sibling’s “dishonest” autobiographical novel.”)

The story is told from Johanna’s point of view, and she admits that the original rupture occurred as a result of her actions:

“The situation was of my own making. I had chosen to leave my marriage, my family and my country almost three decades before, although it hadn’t felt as if I had choice.”

The sense of not having a choice relates to her vocation as a painter, a talent that was initially encouraged by her mother. When Johanna is asked to draw the school’s Constitution Day invitation as she “has a talent for drawing”, her mother whispers to her, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” It is her father Johanna blames for stifling her ambition – she imagines:

“Mum had told Dad I had a talent for drawing, but Dad had disagreed.”

When she leaves school, she studies law like her father rather than art. Looking back to her mother’s fiftieth birthday party she remembers:

“…how I struggled to breath, the knot in my stomach I always had on such occasions when the family showed its public face, the feeling of having had script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student, I was ill at ease with this role…”

It is only when she falls in love with her American tutor, Mark, at a water-colour painting evening class, that she sees the chance to live the life she wants and takes it. Even then, after she moves to America, there is still some contact, but the exhibition of her artwork Child and Mother 1 and 2 in Oslo is seen as an attack by her family:

“Ruth’s occasional messages and Mum’s seasonal greetings ceased.”

Even more unforgivably, when her father dies, she does not attend his funeral. Just as she placed the blame on her father when he was alive, Johanna now regards her sister as the barrier between her and her mother – she tells herself that if her Mum had asked her to come home when her father was ill she would have, and that it is Ruth who has blocked her number on her Mum’s phone. She is, at least, self-aware enough to admit, “I blame Ruth so that Mum can go free, it’s simpler that way.”

Whether Johanna’s version of events is entirely reliable is, of course, a question that the reader will increasingly ask themselves. The novel is told in a series of short chapters, some only a sentence or two long, and its entire focus is Johanna’s relationship with her mother. This gives an impression of monomania in stark contrast to her years of detachment. We learn that Mark has recently died and that their son has moved to Europe – events which may make the reader speculate as to both Johanna’s motivation and state of mind. There are also indications that her reactions can be extreme, as for example:

“I had thought from an early age that Dad wasn’t my father.”

The unanswered phone calls from the novel’s opening pages develop into hours spent sitting in her car outside her mother’s apartment – in fact, her behaviour takes on the aspect of a stalker. She remains convinced that her mother feels the same way:

“I live a secret life in Mum’s mind and Mum lives a secret one in mine, but I’m in the process of unearthing her from the darkness, dragging her out into the light, and slowly she emerges because I want it to happen.”

Is Mother Dead could be regarded as a companion piece to Will and Testament. In the latter it is Bergjlot’s decision to break off ties with her family (“the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief”); here, Johanna wishes to renew them. In both cases Hjorth powerfully exposes the cracks and fissures which divide families and the desperate remedies we adopt to either paper them over or peer inside.

International Booker Prize 2023

March 14, 2023

Six of the eventual International Booker long list were mentioned in my predictions, a reasonable hit rate given that of two of the books I failed to feature (Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv and While We Were Dreaming) have yet to be published. The former, by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, could perhaps have been predicted, especially with a translator from Ukrainian on the judging panel (although Kurkov writes his fiction in Russian).  The latter is also far from a surprise as Clemens Meyer’s previous novel, Bricks and Mortar, was long-listed in 2017. (I say previous, but While We Were Dreaming is his debut, only now translated).

Meyer’s novel is one of three published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in what is another fantastic year for them. This achievement should not be under-estimated – such consistency is remarkable given that the judging panel changes entirely each time. Still Born is one of two novels on the list I have read, and I was very keen to see it there. The Birthday Party, I said, “sounds the most fun” and now we shall find out. The other book I have read is Is Mother Dead, which I can also full-heartedly endorse – I’ve loved each one of Hjorth’s novels. Time Shelter was also one of my favourites, a position enhanced by actually owning a copy. And, finally, Whale and Ninth Building, representing Korea and China respectively, also made it into my suggestions.

Other novels were omitted largely by my ignorance – Boulder unforgivably so as I very much enjoyed Permafrost. Maryse Conde becomes the oldest author to be included – so old, in fact, that the only previous novel I have read, Segou, is a Penguin Classic. Pyre is the first novel translated from Tamil to be recognised. And the remaining two novels originate in France (Standing Heavy) and Sweden (A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding).

In fact, after a measly four selections in 2022, which hinted at a more global outlook for the prize, Europe is back in force with eight out of the thirteen books originating in that continent. Of the remaining books, three are from Asia and one each from Africa and South America. And it is Latin America which feels like this year’s loser. Both Mariana Enriquez and Nona Fernandez were tipped by many as potential inclusions, and Charco Press miss out after being short-listed in two of the last three years. I feel partly responsible for the absence of Our Share of Night as, having generally failed to read the entire long list due to the longer books, I foolishly read this in advance. Nothing quite meets this level of challenge, or last year’s 900 page The Books of Jacob, but the judges have included three over 500 (and another over 400). Oh well. Time to start reading.

Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox

Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund

Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Reuben Woolley

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated by Daniel Levin Becker

While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Pyre by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan 

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson, translated by Nichola Smalley

Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi, translated by Jeremy Tiang