Posts Tagged ‘Man Booker International Prize 2018’

The Flying Mountain

April 28, 2018

Christoph Ransmayr’s The Flying Mountain (translated by Simon Pare) is a novel in verse – or, at least, the prose is shaped differently. It’s not Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, composed of 590 sonnets, or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, apparently Seth’s inspiration. It reads more like an English translation of ancient epic – though whether this is because it is an English translation, or simply because it echoes the form without the poetic techniques of the original (metre, for example) I cannot say. Like an epic, it is concerned with the daring deeds of men and, though a love story lies at its heart, it is the relationship between two brothers which concerns most of its pages.

The two brothers, Liam and Padraic (who is also the narrator) are Irish (you may have guessed this) and therefore subject to a harsh upbringing, particularly after their mother runs off with the electrician who installed their television. Their father, Captain Daddy, is a diehard (but also a blowhard) Republican who is determined to make men of his sons. He is so successful that, years later, Liam is living alone on “a near-uninhabited island / that was inaccessible on stormy days” with only “twelve Highland cattle, more than a hundred Targhee sheep, five sheepdogs / and two powerful computers” for company while Padraic is a merchant seaman. Liam convinces his brother to travel with him to Tibet to climb a mountain he has discovered via a photograph online. (This is not as unlikely as it seems as Liam’s specialty is simulating “the movements of the Earth’s mantle / for digital atlases and globes” – though, as the novel is apparently based on the story of Reinhold Messner (who was born in 1944) it raises the question of why Ransmayr felt the need to set his novel in the present day). While there, they learn there are in fact three mountains, and it is on the final ascent (of Flying Mountain) that Liam dies (this is revealed in the opening pages).

The novel begins, however, with Padraic fearing for his own life only to be rescued by Liam and, to be fair to Ransmayr, we are treated to some dramatic description:

“I had lost my brother’s tracks
in a blizzard
when the moon vanished,
as if doused by a wave of black water.”

The focus then retires to Liam and Padraic’s past and their father’s attempts to toughen them up:

“our father acted on these hikes
as if he had to train
his sons in the mountains
for future battles
over Irish unity”

Liam, the elder brother, adapts more readily to this life, and we see in their childhood the beginnings of both their relationship and their differing personalities:

“Manoeuvres were my father’s name
for these summer nuisances,
which Liam hungered for
whereas I had to be coaxed”

These childhood memories are by far the most interesting sections of the novel, partly because the domestic content and the blank verse form create a dynamic contrast. Also, Captain Daddy, with all his cruel eccentricities, is the novel’s most charismatic character, and provides tonal changes which do not exist in the rest of the narrative (his participation in a Republican parade is the one scene which I think I will remember for a long time). The rest of the novel, particularly Padraic’s relationship with Nyema (which reads like something out of John Buchan) pales in comparison. The style saps the tension from its more dramatic moments and, like the mountain landscape, the novel’s scenes become indistinct and indistinguishable, the verse blanker and blanker. Reconstituted into slabs of prose, the novel would be very dull indeed, and it’s difficult not to suspect that the form is an illusion just like the flying mountain. Happiness may write white, but snow, it seems, writes whiter.

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The 7th Function of Language

April 8, 2018

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH, centred on the assassination of prominent Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, though it also contained Binet’s discussion of his research and reflections on the fictionalisation of historical figures. Five years later in The 7th Function of Language, we have a novel which not only fictionalises Roland Barthes (and an enormous cast of other semiologists, structuralists and literary theorists) but goes one step further in creating a playful, but entirely unlikely, plot around his death in 1980, when he was indeed run down by a laundry van as he is at the beginning of the novel:

“His body makes the familiar, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the tarmac like a rag doll. Passers-by flinch. This afternoon – 25 February 1980 – they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very god reason that, until today, no one knows anything about it.”

There is nothing particularly suspicious about the accident but Superintendent Jacques Bayard is sent to investigate as Barthes met with Socialist candidate for president, Francois Mitterand, shortly before and “it is the habit of Renseignements Generaux to gather information about everything, and especially, during the run-up to the election campaign, about Francois Mitterand.” He discovers that papers Bathes had on him at the time of the accident have gone missing.

The novel is imbued with an enormous sense of fun. Realising, after an interview with Foucault (“Roland Barthes is dead.” “But who killed him?” “The system, of course!”) that he is in need of some expert help, Bayard enlists a young university lecturer, Simon Herzog, who is, of course, decoding James Bond when we first meet him. He then uses his semiological skills to apply Holmesian deduction to Bayard:

“You fought in Algeria; you’ve been married twice; you are separated from your second wife; you have a daughter under twenty, with whom you had a difficult relationship; you voted for Giscard in both rounds of the last presidential election, and you’ll do the same again next year…”

There are also more subtle touches, such as the Citroen DS, from Barthes’ famous essay in Mythologies, which begins to follow the main characters around.

Binet is also no respecter of the many real-life characters which feature in the novel. When we next meet Foulcault he is in a gay sauna being fellated by an Arab – “He points at his crotch: ‘This is not a pipe, as Magritte would say, ha, ha!’” – and he is portrayed throughout as more interested in carnality than academia. Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian spy – something which, in a bizarre twist, has been alleged as fact this year. And having dealt with the French intelligentsia, Binet ensures the investigators need to travel to Italy (to meet Umberto Eco) and the USA (for a conference featuring Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault, with a guest appearance by Chomsky).

The McGuffin which allows all this to take place is the titular 7th function of language. Eco speculates it relates to the performative function of language, “the capacity that certain pronouncements have to produce … what they pronounce through the very fact of their pronouncement.”

“Whoever had the mastery and knowledge of such a function would be virtually master of the world.”

The secret of this 7th function exists in different forms (written, recorded, memorised) which are sought by various parties, both to use and destroy. Into this mix Binet throws the Logos Club, a secret organisation which descends from ancient Greece:

“It developed as a highly compartmentalised secret society, structured like a pyramid, with its leaders – a body of ten members known as the sophists – presided over by a Protagoras Magnus, practising their rhetorical talents which they used essentially in the service of their political ambitions.”

Promotion is won through debate, but defeat can lead to the loss of a finger, or worse.

Parts of the novel are genuinely filled with tension, for example when Simon is involved in a car chase which ends with a crash and a misfiring pistol. And much of it is amusing, though probably more so if you are either an academic or interested in French politics. It is, though, over-long, the initial thrill of finding intellectuals embroiled in a pot-boiler having long worn off by page 400, and neither Bayard nor Simon having the depth to carry the reader’s interest to the end. Unlikely, then, to make the short list, but also suggesting that Binet will be a writer whose next project will always be worth looking out for.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

April 3, 2018

The Man Booker International Prize, like the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize before it, tends to be Eurocentric, reflecting, as it does, what is actually translated. This year nine of the thirteen long-listed books are by European authors with the others coming from Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan and Iraq. Han Kang has, of course, already won the prize, but Iraq too have a previous winner, with Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ winning the IFFP in 2014 with a title which is echoed in Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Whether this is a portent or not, Frankenstein in Baghdad is an excellent novel which I fully expect to make the shortlist.

Frankenstein is famously a patchwork narrative and, although Saadawi does not choose to recreate its pieced-together presentation (beyond a ‘Final Report’ which appears as a preface), he gives us instead a patchwork of characters, each bringing their own story. (A ‘List of Characters’ is included, though I can’t recall referring to it so well defined are the individuals who inhabit the novel). Saadawi uses an explosion to introduce his cast:

“The explosion took place two minutes after Elishva, the old woman known as Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, boarded the bus.”

Though her daughters have left Baghdad, Elishva continues to stay in the same house in the hope her son Daniel, reported missing during the Iran – Iraq war, returns. Her house is coveted by real estate agent Faraj, who arrives at his office to find “cracks in the large front window” as a result of the explosion:

“The best thing would be to wait until she died and then no-one would dare to take over the house, since everyone knew how attached he was to it and acknowledged him as its future owner.”

The contents of her house, meanwhile, have caught the eye of Hadi, the junk dealer. Hadi, we learn, has changed since he lost his brother as a result of a car bomb:

“Nahem had already been dead for several months – from a car bomb that had exploded in front of the office of a religious party in Karrada, also killing some other passer-by and Nahim’s horse. It had been hard to separate Nahem’s flesh from that of the horse.”

In the aftermath of the most recent explosion he finds a nose which he takes home to add to the corpse he has been creating from body parts retrieved from the streets since his brother’s death, a body which comes to symbolise Iraq:

“I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.”

He tells his audience in the coffee shop that the next morning the corpse was gone, but as Hadi is famous for his stories (to which he was “careful to add realistic touches”) no-one believes him. The corpse is, of course, the Frankenstein (‘s monster) of the title, brought to life by the combination of the lost soul of a hotel guard killed in the explosion and Elishva’s belief it is Daniel finally returned to her:

“With her words the old woman had animated this extraordinary composite – made up of disparate body parts and the soul of the hotel guard who had lost his life. The old woman brought him out of anonymity with the name she gave him: Daniel.”

The monster (known as Whatsitsname or the One Who Has No Name) begins to kill those responsible for the deaths of the various parts of his body. He kills Abu Zaidoun whom Elishva blames for Daniel’s death as he forced him to enlist; he almost kills Hadi, reasoning, “You’re responsible for the death of the guard at the hotel… If you hadn’t been walking past the hotel the guard wouldn’t have come out to the gate.” The rising death toll allows Saadawi to involve a journalist, Mahmoud, and a secret army unit in investigating the events, further widening the canvas of his portrait of Iraq.

Perhaps the best adjective for Frankenstein in Baghdad is fearless (like the monster itself), facing down the challenge of turning news headlines into literature. It utilises a large cast of characters to create a rounded vision of society without confusing or losing the reader; it folds elements of the supernatural easily into a realist narrative; it tackles serous issues with a lightness of touch and some humour, without ever seeming preachy or overly earnest. And it is never without life.

Like a Fading Shadow

April 1, 2018

Like a Fading Shadow is the seventh of Antonio Munoz Molina’s novels to be translated into English (by Camilo A Ramirez) but it would be fair to say he remains largely unknown in both the UK and the US. Those previous novels suggest a writer fascinated by history, and Like a Fading Shadow is no exception, a novel set in three different time periods in the city of Lisbon. In one Molina recreates the ten days spent there by James Earl Ray in the aftermath of his assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968; in the second he recounts visiting the city in 1987 when he was writing the novel which became Winter in Lisbon; and, thirdly, there is a contemporary section covering his research for the novel we are reading.

Molina begins the novel by saying, “I awake inside his mind,” and he certainly inhabits Ray’s thoughts convincingly, his presentation of a character who rarely communicates taking place largely within his head; a taciturn man, we suspect, even before he finds himself isolated in a country whose language he does not speak. Self-educated and understandably paranoid, Ray is the sum of his influences, a patchwork of knowledge much of which reads like a self-help book for spies:

“Autohypnosis can give you complete control over bodily functions… Your face will be forgotten faster if they never see your eyes… With a lot of training it was possible to develop telepathic powers to anticipate an attack seconds before it happens…”

Ray is a parody James Bond, a character (does he think of him as a ‘character’?) he idolises who frequently crops up in his inner monologue:

“He carried the revolver in his back pocket. James Bond kept his Berretta in a holster made of antelope skin.”

His assimilation of facts (including numerous capital cities) seem focussed in his own mind, but is random in relation to understanding the world. This originates not in his rejection of traditional education but in education’s rejection of him:

“The teacher did not hide her repulsion for him and used to laugh at him in front of the others. He would go to school barefoot or wearing his father’s old boots, several sizes too big, and the old man’s coat with the sleeves rolled up. Before he could enter the schoolhouse, the teacher inspected his head for lice.”

Similarly, he identifies himself as ‘under-cover’ to differentiate himself from his own past:

“He hides in the human waste of the slums but he is not one of them.”

Clearly there is a novel to be written of Ray’s life, and Molina reaches beyond his time in Lisbon into both his past and future. However, perhaps because Ray’s character, once defined, does not develop, and also, as an archetypal loner, he lacks relationships, he ties Ray’s story to his own life. What seems to link Ray’s time in Lisbon with his own in 1987 is a sense of losing oneself and being lost:

“Beneath the calm surface of my daily routine was a juxtaposition of fragmented lives without rhyme or reason, unfulfilled desires, scattered pieces which did not fit together.”

Molina describes a Jekyll and Hyde existence where he is both a family man working in an office and, when allowed any freedom (as in Lisbon), a party animal whose nights are filled with Bacchanalian excess. As one of acquaintances comments:

“You are under-cover all right, but I can’t tell if you are infiltrating the underworld or City Hall.”

His trip to Lisbon is ostensibly to work on his novel but he wonders if “maybe I just wanted to escape for a few days and literature was my excuse.” Despite Molina’s attempts to yoke the two narratives together, however, (“I was leaving like a spy who has accomplished his mission”) they remain very different, though in both we see the tension between the identities society imposes on us and those we create for ourselves.

I found Ray’s story fascinating, though largely in a ‘true crime’ kind of way; Molina’s confessions are less interesting as they feel far from unique, and drifts as the novel progresses. A story of meeting Juan Carlos Onetti is more a curio than an insight. More generally, the novel runs out of steam before the end, and a final section written from the point of view of King arrives too late restart the engines. Above all, though, it is Molina’s failure to make the parts of the novel a greater whole which leads me to suspect this will not feature on the Man Booker International shortlist.

Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions

March 1, 2018

Though I have decided not to be part of the shadow jury this year, this does not mean that the Man Booker International Prize has been forgotten. At this time of year, with the long list announcement a fortnight away, thoughts turn to which books might be selected. The book must have been published in the UK between the 1st of May 2017 and the 30th April 2018, the book’s writer and translator must be living, and reprinted translations or new translations of a work which has already been translated are not eligible. (This year I discovered a new rule from previous juror Daniel Hahn via Tony Malone – books translated by one of the jurors (in this case Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond translated by Michael Hofmann) may not be entered).

Previous Winners

Two recent winners (in discussing the prize in its present form I will consider it as a continuation of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) – Han Kang and Jenny Erpenbeck – are likely to reappear. The fact that both books (The White Book and Go Went Gone) are quite different to the author’s previous work will hopefully be in their favour. The ever-present Orhan Pamuk, who won the first IFFP in 1990, also had a new novel, The Red-Haired Woman, published last year. His two previous novels were tedious and self-indulgent but were still listed, so this (apparently slightly better, and at least shorter) has to have a chance. 2004 winner, Javier Cercas, may also make a (more welcome) appearance with The Imposter.

Previously Shortlisted

Both Haruki Murakami and Daniel Kehlman were short-listed in 2015 and have books eligible again this year (Men Without Women and You Should Have Left). The latter is short but impressive and may have a chance despite lacking press coverage; Murakami has the opposite problem, now so well known there may seem little point in listing him for a prize he is unlikely to win. Karl Knausgaard was short-listed for the second part of My Struggle (the first part only made the longlist); parts 3-5 have been conspicuously ignored. He has three eligible books this year from his Seasons Quartet but I suspect his best chance is the final volume of My Struggle in 2019. In contrast, I will be very surprised if Dasa Drndic’s Belladonna is omitted – especially as I still think she should have won the prize in 2013 with Trieste. (Note: I will now be less surprised if Belladonna isn’t chosen as it was, in fact, published just before the end of April and therefore eligible last year – thanks, again, to Daniel Hahn for keeping everyone right!)

Previously Longlisted

Hamid Ismailov, who was previously selected for The Dead Lake, has a new novel, The Devil’s Dance, out next week. (This would also mean some well-deserved recognition for Tilted Axis Press). Larent Binet (The 7th Function of Language), Bernardo Atxaga (Nevada Days) and Laszlo Kraznahorkai (The World Goes On) are all possibilities. Dag Solstad has two books coming out this year but neither will appear in time; and shadow jurors may be relieved to hear the same applies to Yan Lianke.

New to the Prize

Though absent last year, Peirene Press have a good record of being represented and one of The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (which I haven’t read but has been suggested by others) might well appear this year. In contrast, And Other Stories have, up to know, been unsuccessful. Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons should have a good chance (although two previous novels have passed the prize by), and I would be particularly pleased to see Iosi Havilio’s Petite Fleur feature. As mentioned before, I would love to see a Tilted Axis book included, and my preference would be Sangeeta Badyopadhyay’s Abandon. Pushkin Press’ most likely long-listee is probably My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. When it comes to the entirely new press Charco it would be a pleasure to see any of their books make an appearance – both Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love and Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room are certainly excellent. Any from Maclehose Press’ new Read the World series is also worth a place, with Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 being one I liked far more than  I thought I might. And, apart from Belladonna, surely the other certainty is Andres Barba’s Such Small Hands?

Interestingly, the three novels which I would insist on including (should I ever make it anywhere near the real jury) are all by women: Belladonna, The White Book, and Go Went Gone. I mention this because gender parity has never been achieved in previous longlists, and only 3 of the 23 winners have been female (though technically the MBI is 1:1). A more balanced selection this year would be welcome.

There is a list of eligible books on goodreads here, though this is not entirely accurate, including at least two dead authors.

You can read shadow jury stalwarts Tony Malone’s predictions here, and Stu’s here.