Archive for the ‘Man Booker International Prize 2017’ Category

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

March 23, 2017

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

The Traitor’s Niche

March 19, 2017

Ismail Kadare is no stranger to the Man Booker International Prize having won the inaugural prize in 2005 when it was awarded, not for a single novel, but for a body of work. He has also been frequently long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the predecessor to the Man Booker International in its present form: The Successor in 2007, Agamemnon’s Daughter in 2008, The Siege in 2009, and The Fall of the Stone City in 2013 (the latter pair were also short-listed). These works reveal a little of how Kadare is currently being translated: while most appeared in English within a few years of their original publication, The Siege was first published in 1970, and represents attempts to bring Kadare’s older work to a wider audience alongside his most recent. The Traitor’s Niche continues that trend (which also includes Twilight of the Eastern Gods, another seventies novel, translated in 2014) as it was written between 1974 and 1976 when Kadare was still in Albania (he claimed political asylum in France in 1990) under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. They also indicate the two most common methods of translation, some having been translated from French translations by David Bellos, others, like The Traitors’ Niche, being directly translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

The Traitor’s Niche is most reminiscent of The Palace of Dreams where Kadare also used the Ottoman empire to explore totalitarianism in the oblique way living in a totalitarian state demands (not oblique enough as The Palace of Dreams was banned). The Traitor’s Niche is set in 1822 when Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, albeit on its disregarded edges. It concerns the rebellion of Ali Pasha Tepelena who rules Albania as part of the empire until he decides “go to war against the sultan” despite the warnings of his wife:

“Why do you want to climb higher?… Why not climb down a little? Wouldn’t it be more natural to yield, to be more human, rather than opverreaching to become more than a man?”

The Sultan sends Hurshid Pasha to defeat him, but Hurshid himself soon suffers the Sultan’s displeasure when he is accused of sending only part of Ali’s fortune back to Constantinople.

Kadare is not only interested in history, of course; his subject is the ruthless exercise of power. The novel’s great skill is that it is told through a series of characters rather than events. The opening chapter presents us with Abdullah, who guards the traitor’s niche (or niche of shame) where the heads of those executed by the state are placed. Years of placing and replacing heads, as well as observing the reaction of the crowds, has taught him that “people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be.” A nearby café owner is equally cynical:

“People are villains. They look at a severed head as if the sight of it has put them off ever committing a crime again, but as soon as they turn their backs on it, it’s clear they can hardly wait to get back to their dirty tricks.”

The niche is awaiting Ali’s head, a place currently filled by the head of the man who was sent, and failed, to defeat him. His replacement, Hurshid, knows that either he or Ali must die:

“The heavens could not contain them both. One of their suns had to sink.”

We follow Ali’s head to Constantinople in the company of Tundj Hata, who charges villagers to see it in the provinces through which he must pass. But Ali’s will not be the last head to be placed in the niche before the novel’s conclusion.

Though The Traitor’s Niche is faithful to the history it draws on, we are constantly pointed towards its wider reach, in particular in answer to the question “What will they do to Albania now?” which is immediately asked on the arrival of Ali’s head:

“They recalled situations and provinces in which a ‘state of emergency’ had been called… A ‘state of emergency’ would be devised by the First Directorate of the Interior Ministry to stimulate internal divisions on the basis of religion, regional and feudal alliances, castes and traditions.”

Or alternatively:

“The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.”

These descriptions of statecraft not only echo workings of the Soviet bloc, but of all powerful empires since time began. Not only do its servants live in fear of decapitation, so do those countries within its grasp. Kadare’s novel exposes the ruthlessness of powerful states, but does so in such a way as to humanise the participants, from the rebellious pasha to the guardian of the traitor’s niche.

At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether The Traitor’s Niche will appear on the short list. Eileen Battersby (of the Irish Times) has argued that, as an older novel, it should make way for newer work (goodness knows what she’d make of the Best Translated Book Award), though I’m not sure her view that great novels are always translated quickly is true in every case. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it just yet.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017

March 15, 2017

With equal parts excitement and trepidation, today I learned which books had made it onto the Man Booker International Prize long-list. The trepidation occurs because, once again, I am going to be reading all of them as part of the Shadow Jury and therefore questions such as, Have I read any? Do I own any others? and How long are they? take on much greater significance.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist:
Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

This year I have only read two of the long-listed novels, Swallowing Mercury and Fever Dream, two of the shorter novels, and two of only three by women writers. The lack of women writers is disappointing, though it partly reflects the proportion of women who are translated. It’s a shame that two excellent Peirene novels (The Empress and the Cake and Her Father’s Daughter) both missed out – Peirene have been represented since 2011 (if we regard the prize as continuing from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), every year of their existence.

Tilted Axis Press and And Other Stories might also feel disappointed not to feature, though two novels from Fitzcarraldo Editions makes up for the snubbing of Mathias Enard’s Zone in 2015 (a move which so infuriated the Shadow Jury they called it in). Both Harvill Secker and MacLehose Press (both long-time supporters of literature in translation) are also represented twice.

Eight of the thirteen books are European (the Guardian originally seemed to suggest Iceland and Albania were not part of Europe though I notice this has been changed. Alain Mabanckou is still “a French writer born in the Republic of the Congo” though, whatever that implies – perhaps that nine are European, or eleven if we use Eurovision rules and include Israel). This compares to only five European books last year (six if Turkey is regarded as European). A pity, then, that Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound was excluded, and Japanese female writers like Yoko Tawada and Hiromi Kawakami.

The list is certainly not short of well-established writers (including Nobel Prize winners in waiting, some might say): Ismail Kadare is 81, Amos Oz 77, and David Grossman, Roy Jacobson and Stefan Hertmans are all in their sixties. (Samantha Schweblin is, I think, the youngest). Many of the books themselves are heavyweights – Bricks and Mortar runs to 670 pages, Compass and The Explosion Chronicles to 480, Fish Have No Feet a comparatively paltry 380… the rest (luckily) are more manageable, and it’s unlikely anything can match the tedium of reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

I’m most looking forward to reading The Explosion Chronicles having been impressed by The Four Books last year; similarly Compass should be a treat based on my experience of Zone. As a long-time admirer of Kadare I would have read The Traitor’s Niche anyway; the same applies to Dorthe Nors, though on the basis of only one previous book. Mabanckou and Stefansson I’ve also read before though with less relish (The Sorrow of Angels I think of with my own personal sorrow). The other writers are entirely new to me.

Let the reading begin!

(You can read the Official Shadow Panel response to the long list here).