Posts Tagged ‘International Booker Prize 2021’

When We Cease to Understand the World

May 17, 2021

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is one of the books on the International Booker long list (and now the shortlist) which seems at first to be more non-fiction than fiction. It provides a selective history of twentieth century science, dramatizing the discoveries of famous figures such as Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzchild, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, while at the same time demonstrating their intrinsic links with war and madness. However, it is the tools of the novelist which Labatut brings to this task in a fusion of discursive ideas and traditional character creation and scene setting.

The book is divided into five sections, the first of which, ‘Prussian Blue’, is the most discursive. Its focus is German chemist Fritz Haber, but it begins with Herman Goring, cyanide, Zyklon A, and the accidental discovery in the 18th century of Prussian Blue (of which cyanide is a by-product). Prussian blue is later used to colour the uniforms of the Prussian army, “as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence”. It is our first indication that science and war will walk hand in hand throughout the novel. Indeed, when we meet Haber he is overseeing the first gas attack of the Great War, at Ypres in 1915:

“What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die.”

His wife, Clara, also a chemist, accuses him of “perverting science by devising a method for exterminating humans on an industrial scale,” and later kills herself. Haber goes on to discover a method of extracting nitrogen from air to use as fertilizer:

“Had it not been for Haber, hundreds of millions of people who until then had depended on natural fertilizers such as guano and saltpetre for their crops would have died from lack of nourishment.”

Rather than attempting to judge whether this life-saving discovery outweighs Haber’s previous use of chemicals to kill (which links directly to the Nazi death camps in which many of Haber’s relatives will later die), Labatut seems instead to be portraying science as amoral, inhuman, and indifferent to consequences. Discovery is all that matters.

This drive to discover is also highlighted in the next section when we encounter Karl Schwarzchild: “Physics was not enough for him. He aspired to the type of knowledge the alchemists had pursued.” It is 1915 and he is wrestling with Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the front line. It is here he predicts a singularity, a black hole, “an inescapable abyss permanently cut off from the rest of the universe.” From the danger scientific discoveries might pose to human life, we now encounter the damage they might cause the human mind. Physics for Schwarzchild is a search for certainty:

“Just imagine how far we have fallen into uncertainty if the human imagination cannot find a single place to lay its anchor…”

But not only can we not see the singularity (because no light can escape), “nor could our minds grasp it… Physics no longer had any meaning.” This sense that our attempts to understand are only leading us towards a dangerous incomprehension is continued with mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“After spending so long gazing down at the foundations of mathematics, his mind had stumbled into the abyss.”

Grothendieck retreats from mathematics, and the world in general.

The longest section of the book, which deals with Schrodinger and Heisenberg’s different interpretations of the quantum world, also emphasises the need to understand alongside the possibility that understanding may be beyond us. Schrodinger believes he has “reined in the chaos of the quantum world” whereas Heisenberg believes the answer is not as neat:

“Heisenberg understood that to apply concepts of classical physics to… a subatomic particle was sheer madness. That aspect of nature required an entirely new language.”

Heisenberg’s story is related in detail, and with the craft of a novelist, and we see, not for the first time, the relationship between obsession, illness, madness and discovery:

“In his delirium his mind would establish strange connections that allowed him to achieve direct results, foregoing any intermediate steps.”

At one point Heisenberg becomes lost in a fog, and the scene is later repeated in a dream (Labatut’s frequent use of dreams is one sign the book is not non-fiction):

“He ran without knowing where to, lost in the fog with his arms outstretched in front of him, groping in the air like a blind man.”

The dream suggests that, for all our knowledge, we are still lost, travelling blind. The danger of this is also emphasised in the dream:

“Countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash, were stretching out their arms to try and touch him.”

Labatut ends the novel with war, just as he began it, every scientific discovery within interlinked with atrocity. When We Cease to Understand the World is a book which questions the foundations of western thought, of science as progress. The final few pages provide a coda, a ‘night gardener’ who was once a mathematician. At the end he tells the narrator that the only way to tell the age if a tree would be to cut it down; “But, really, who would want to do that?” Sometimes, the pursuit of knowledge can be more damaging than the ignorance which precedes it. This is a book that is likely to stay with you long after you have put it down. It is with certainty a potential winner of this year’s International Booker.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

May 7, 2021

Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is her second short story collection to appear in English, though its original publication predates that of Things We Lost in the Fire, which was also translated by Megan McDowell. It contains twelve stories, all of which eventually find themselves in the territory of horror, except the title story which, at six pages, perhaps simply doesn’t have the time to get there. It’s a genre for which Enriquez shows great skill as well as appetite, but as the certain destination of story after story, its unexpectedness becomes increasingly expected in this anthology format.

The first story, ‘Angelita Unearthed’, begins when the narrator discovers bones in her backyard. Chicken bones, her father tells, her, but her grandmother has a different story, of a baby who had died a few months after birth, and whose bones had been brought with the family when they moved so she can rest in peace. Ten years later, the baby appears in the narrator’s apartment:

“The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She’s half rotted away and she doesn’t talk.”

This is typical of Enriquez’s horror – it’s a physical horror, one you can reach out and touch – as the narrator discovers when here first instinct is to strangle the baby:

“I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers and her trachea was left in full view.”

The physicality of Enriquez’s approach to horror runs through the volume; where characters develop obsessions they are often physical obsessions. In ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’ the narrator displays an erotic attitude to illness, originating in her adolescent reading of Jane Eyre and, in particular, the scene where Jane climbs into the bed of the dying Helen. Soon she is reading medical books instead:

“Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those euphemisms for death. All those beautiful medical terms that didn’t mean anything, all that hard jargon – that was pornography.”

Her obsession, of course, develops a physical expression, a web-site “where other heart fetishists shared their hearts.” In ‘Meat’, too, obsession is key, the perhaps more natural obsession of teenage girls for a pop star. His suicide does not lead to copycat behaviour among his fans; instead they want to own him physically, and begin by digging up his corpse. A sense of physical intimacy with Enriquez’s characters occurs even when it is not intended to cause terror. Defecation (in both cases in the street) and masturbation are described in more than one story. Evil itself is perceived through the senses, for example in ‘Rambla Triste’:

“She’d just decided to keep quiet when the smell inundated her nose like a hot pepper, like a strong mint, making her eyes water; a smell that was almost palpable, black from the crypt.”

Evil does not feel abstract in these stories, as evidenced by the curses which feature in, for example, ‘The Cart’ where a vagrant is harassed in a residential street about defecting on the pavement. Soon after the families living there begin to have increasingly bad luck – apart from the only one who defended him, who have to hide this fact so as not to anger their neighbours (for example, going to work across the rooftops to disguise the fact that they alone remain employed). By the story’s end, J G Ballard levels of horror have been unleashed. A curse, of a kind, also features in ‘The Well’, where Josefina has become so anxious she can hardly leave her home:

“Josefina felt faint when she reached the front door…”

In contrast, her mother and sister, Mariela, no longer feel the anxiety that once affected them. Only when Mariela takes her to the woman who cured them does she discover the truth.

However, despite the strong fantasy element in the stories, many of them originate in real life horror. ‘The Cart’, for example, begins with homelessness; ‘Rambla Triste’ is about how we treat children. In ‘Kids Who Come Back’ we see the missing return, sometimes years later, just as they were when they vanished (there is an echo of Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic here). This is horror with a social conscience.

In fact, at times one wonders whether Enriquez needs, on every occasion, to resort to the supernatural. One of the best stories, ‘Our Lady of The Quarry’, exquisitely captures the teenage jealousy of a group of girls when their slightly older friend gets the guy:

“All speculation was brought to an abrupt halt – as if a cold knife had sliced through our spines – when we found out that Silvia and Diego were dating.”

The setting – the Virgin’s Pool in an isolated quarry – enhances the rising tension. Enriquez leaves enough ambiguity in the ending to allow for a realistic interpretation for once, and the story does not suffer for it. It is not that there is no place in literature for horror tropes, but repetitively their effectiveness diminishes. For this reason, I doubt I would have placed The Dangers of Smoking in Bed on my personal International Booker shortlist, despite the pleasant thrill many of the stories provide.


May 1, 2021

Every year on the International Booker long list there is usually one book which leaves me cold. In 2018 it was Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest; in 2019, Alia Trabucco Zeran’s The Remainder; and in 2020… well, let’s just say, the judges liked it a lot more than I did. This year I find myself having the same troubled relationship with Andrzej Tichy’s Wretchedness, translated by Nichola Smalley. The premise of the novel is simple: its narrator, a cello player, is prompted, when he encounters a junkie asking for spare change, to think back to his years as a child living in poverty, and as a young adult surviving any way he could. As these memories resurface, we see his struggle to accept his own escape as he remembers those he left behind.

But firstly, of course, the reader must struggle to accept this premise, and, unfortunately, just because something is possible, does not automatically mean it feels authentic. Escape from poverty via art is a well-worn path in fiction – and often autobiographical – but the cello seems an unlikely life raft for the narrator to cling to amid the wreckage of his youth. Perhaps Tichy, understandably, doesn’t want his main character to be a writer, but – no disrespect to authors – playing a cello requires more expensive equipment, more substantial training, and more extensive practise. Our narrator, however, seems able to perform to a professional standard – he doesn’t simply play the cello; he is a cellist – despite little sense of how he has reached this point in the narrative, just the smallest hint of an interest in music at a young age:

“I hide in a corner of the youth club and listen to this secret music, my secret life, my true life.”

Wretchedness is stylistically interesting, with Tichy intent of juxtaposing present day ruminations on abstract musical concepts (“Just as I was unsuccessfully trying to remember the name of an Italian philosopher who’d written a long an exceptionally deep and incisive essay on Scelsi’s work and importance…”) with the narrator’s memories of his youth, written in a more informal, and less punctuated, prose – a contrast that accelerates as the novel progresses suggesting that the memories become overwhelming. Each chapter is one paragraph, but each chapter is also longer than the last, and with fewer of the pauses created by sentences. Tichy is scathing about the poverty which greets immigrants in Sweden, for example the estate on which they live:

“My dad said to me now we’ve come to PARADISE, but in the paper they wrote it was a HUMAN RUBBISH DUMP.”

Tichy describes the way in which the narrator is haunted by his past viscerally, frequently referring to it as a taste in his mouth:

“I’d rather give it a miss, be someone else, have a different mouth without bloody pigs in, without that taste…”

And later:

“I still have that taste in my mouth, of dust, coffee, fags, a nagging boss, the taste of sweaty reused face masks, the taste of work, the taste of the same all the time, again and again, back and forth, round and round, that’s what I have in my mouth…”

These extracts also give a taste of Tichy’s use of repetition – which he uses repeatedly – to diminishing returns. Comparison have been made to Thomas Bernhard (always the go-to reference for writers who eschew the full stop), but Bernhard’s writing burns with a different rage, and is funnier. The same might be said of another touchstone for tales of drug addicted youth, Trainspotting: it too is funnier, and also sadder. (In comparison, Tichy’s occasional profanity, or attempt to shock – “failed abortions,” for example, even “well-fucked anus” – feels tame). Language is perhaps an issue here, as Welsh had a powerful vernacular to write in, whereas here we are left wondering how to react to “brah” and “you get me” in the English translation.

Tichy’s style is not without some success, and the narrator’s complex feelings – “not some kind of straight forward survivor guilt” – is both credible and, at times, compelling. But as the novel becomes more immersed in his past it also becomes, frankly, dull. His present life is barely sketched – there is no sense of tension between past and present – and the other characters, including pivotal characters such as Soot who he admits to ‘cutting off’ – have very little individuality. This dullness may be intentional – poverty is dull – but, by the halfway point, I had lost interest. It’s true that Tichy does something quite clever at the end, if a little ambiguous (though not as baffling as the wax leaf plant he mentions in every chapter). Many others have felt much more positive about this novel – see, for example, Tony’s review – but I was pleased to see that the novel had not made it to the shortlist.

The Perfect Nine

April 25, 2021

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

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

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

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

“…they found themselves at the top,

Where now they stood, awed by

The summit, as white and massive as the moon,

Its coldness pushing them back as if

Commanding them to stop.”

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

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

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

“To build calls for hard work,

From the one who looks for tomorrow.

To destroy is easy work,

For one who wants to return to yesterday,

Like a grown person wishing to remain a child.

War destroys lives,

Peace restores lives.

The warrior and the warrior bring home trophies of tears.

The peacemaker and peacemaker bring home trophies of laughter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Brother

April 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Employees

April 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The War of the Poor

April 11, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He quoted the Gospels and added exclamation marks.”

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

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

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

Minor Detail

April 4, 2021

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

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

“They could no longer bear the scorching heat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The International Booker Prize 2021 Long List

March 30, 2021

The long list for the International Booker Prize was announced earlier today with arguably fewer surprises than is often the case. This is not to say my predictions were any more accurate than normal, with only three of the thirteen featuring in final choices (The Pear Field, The Perfect Nine and Minor Detail), though I did mention another three as possibilities (At Night All Blood is Black, An Inventory of Losses and In Memory of Memory). The list is, as usual, dominated by Europe, though it does contain two titles by African writers (Ngugi wa Thiong’o and David Diop, who was born in France but grew up in Senegal), two Latin Americans (Argentinian Mariana Enriquez and Benjamin Labatut – again, born in Europe (Rotterdam) but growing up in Argentina and Peru as well as the Netherlands, and now living in Chile), Can Xue from China, and Adania Shibli from Palestine.

The long list is as follows:

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

This will be the third year in a row that Fitzcarraldo Editions have had two titles in the long list, an incredible achievement for a small press (and one that always reminds me that the shadow jury was so incensed when Mathias Enard’s Zone was not long-listed in 2015 that we included it anyway). Two titles also for Pushkin Press, and plenty of other small press representation, most excitingly the recently established Lolli Editions. Disappointment, though, for Charco Press which misses out for the first time.

Though most of the publishers have an established history in the prize, this is not true of the writers. For six of them this is their first work to be translated into English; for another three is it is their second, and, though Maria Stepanova has been translated before, she is better known as a poet. Judith Schalansky, who was long-listed in 2015, seems like a veteran with her third book. Can Xue was also long-listed that year, and again in 2019; only she and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been regularly published in English over the last twenty or, in Ngugi’s case, fifty years. Other established writers who have missed out this year include Virginie Despentes, Jon Fosse, Roy Jacobsen, Andres Neumann, Amin Maalouf and, of course, Elena Ferrante. This makes establishing a favourite even more challenging than normal. Ngugi, as we know, just doesn’t win prizes; Can Xue, on previous form, is simply too opaque. An Inventory of Losses may also suffer from its experimentation, and In Memory of Memory, like Annie Ernaux’s The Years before it, from the nagging doubt it doesn’t quite belong among the fiction (see also, in a different sense, The War of the Poor). The short list (22nd April), and the eventual winner (2nd June), feel even more thrillingly unpredictable than ever.

International Booker Prize Predictions 2021

March 12, 2021

The Booker International long list for 2021 will be announced on the 30th March, a little later than last year as I know only too well having been in the middle of reading the 2020 selection when Lockdown #1 came into force here in the UK. As seasoned Booker International / Independent Foreign Fiction Prize watchers know, guessing the long list is as impossible as it is irresistible, so, with little expectation of accuracy, here are some possibilities.

If I were simply basing my predictions on profile then I would begin with Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (tr. Ann Goldstein), but Ferrante has only been selected once before in 2016 for The Story of the Lost Child, the previous three volumes having been routinely ignored. This may have a better chance as a stand-alone novel and I think it deserves a place.

Novels which are part of a series always complicate selection – perhaps there should be a separate ‘series of the decade award’ – and a few such are in contention this year. The final volume of Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy (tr. Frank Wynne) is one – the first volume was long-listed in 2018, the admittedly weaker second volume was not. First and final volumes, one assumes, are more likely to be chosen, which is good news for Despentes, but not for Jon Fosse: the first in his Septology trilogy (tr. Damion Searls) was long listed last year, but this year it’s the middle volume which is eligible. Similarly, (and similarly Norwegian), Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen was short-listed in 2017, the second volume White Shadow, was not. The third in what most people assumed was a trilogy, The Eyes of the Rigel (all three translated by Don Bartlett), is eligible this year, though apparently there is a fourth volume to follow. Perhaps it’s best to assume that one of these might appear.

Further complications are created by the borderline between fiction and non-fiction – a situation exacerbated by the inclusion Annie Ernaux’s The Years in 2019, which featured despite the publisher, Fitzcarraldo, going out of their way to brand it non-fiction with their jacketing. Another ‘white’ Fitzcarraldo title has been suggested as a contender this year, Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory (tr. Sasha Dugdale). Other ‘non-fiction’ books which may make it onto the long list are Selva Almada’s Dead Girls (tr. Annie McDermott) and Yan Lianke’s Three Brothers (tr. Carlos Rojas – Lianke is a long-time IFFP/Booker International favourite!). I suspect, though, that Ernaux was the exception, and none of these will appear.

If Fitzcarraldo is to be represented on the long list it’s most likely to be for Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette), two linked stories from Palestine set years apart. Other writers of middle eastern origin who may feature are Hassim Blasim (God 99, tr. Johnathan Wright) who became the first Arabic writer to win the IFFP in 2014, and Amin Maalouf (The Disorientated, tr. Frank Wynne), the Lebanese writer’s first novel in twenty years. If we turn our attention to Africa, traditionally under-represented in what is an international prize (partly because so many African authors write in English), in a year where Alain Mabanckou has not published a new novel, hope could rest with perennial Nobel runner-up, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and The Perfect Nine, translated by the author. However, given Ngugi’s luck with prizes, perhaps Senegalese author David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black (tr. Anna Moschovakis) is a better bet.

Latin America tends to be better represented, though it’s worth pointing out that the last Latin American winner was in 2011. Andres Neuman’s Fracture (tr. Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) is perhaps as close to a certainty as we’re going to get, but also expect Charco Press – now the UK’s preeminent publisher of Latin American fiction – to be there. Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering (tr. Fionn Petch) seems to be a favourite of many, which would make sense as it’s the only one I haven’t yet read. Claudio Hernandez’s Slash and Burn (tr. Julia Sanches) from And Other Stories may also feature.

Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd) seems the most likely candidate from Asia (i.e. it’s had the most publicity) and would be an interesting inclusion both in terms of its subject matter and construction. Personally, I would love to see Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori) included simply on the basis that it would treat any new readers it attracted to something rather unique. I would also enjoy the addition of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China (tr. Jeremy Tiang) as it would add a little wildness and variety, as, if what I’ve read is true, would Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower (tr. Sung Ryu).

Europe will, unavoidably given its dominance in what is translated, likely continue to make up around 50% of the long list. My tip here would be Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (tr. Charlotte Barslund), one of my favourite books from last year. Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic (tr. Lisa Dillman) also deserves inclusion, as does, very much under the radar, Philippe Claudel’s Dog Island (tr. Euan Cameron). Claudel won the IFFP back in 2010. Pereine Press, once regulars, could find themselves long listed for the first time since 2014 with three very strong contenders. The difficult to define An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (tr. Jackie Smith) would also be worthy of a place, though its unusual form (novel? collection of stories? something else entirely?) could both help and hinder it.

And so (to be held accountable) my predictions are:

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

I is Another: Septology III-V by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls) (or Vernon Subutex 3 / The Eyes of the Rigel)

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette)

The Perfect Nine by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translated by the author

Fracture by Andres Neuman (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)

A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch) (or another Charco Press title)

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang)

Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth (translated by Charlotte Barslund)

A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman)

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel (translated by Euan Cameron)

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway)(or another Pereine Press title)