We’re now less than a week away from the longlist announcement of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize that celebrates and promotes works in translation. It’s currently also the only literary prize that I’m still excited to follow, so I thought I would discuss some of the books that might make it onto longlist. Here is my list of potential nominees:
1. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (tr. Jonathan Wright) (published by Oneworld)
I would be very surprised if Ahmed Saadawi’s clever take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 does not make it onto this year’s list. It looks at the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war in Baghdad and describes the constant violence and bombings that became an everyday occurrence in the city, and how, amid this horror and destruction, the city’s inhabitants try to live normal lives. The novel follows a wide variety of characters and, through their individual storylines and relationship dynamics, the author creates a vivid portrait of the atmosphere in Baghdad during that time. It’s a very thought-provoking read that deserves more attention.
2. The White Book by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith) (published by Portobello Books)
Han Kang is the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith), and I think there is a good chance she will make it onto the list again with The White Book, a largely autobiographical collection of musings on different white things that explores death and grief, and is dedicated to her older sister, who died only two hours after birth. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve seen only overwhelmingly good reviews, so I look forward to checking it out for myself.
3. The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (tr. Sam Taylor) (published by Harvill Secker)
I’m a big fan of Laurent Binet’s work and loved both his debut novel HHhH about Operation Anthropoid during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and his latest, much more light-hearted political thriller and satire The 7th Function of Language set amid the French postmodernists in 1980s Paris. The novel starts with a traffic accident when famous French literary theorist Roland Barthes is hit by a laundry van on the street in Paris and dies of his injuries soon afterwards. The novel reimagine this historical event by asking the question – what if this wasn’t an accident but an assassination because Barthes had in his possession the instructions to the much coveted, potentially dangerous 7th function of language? Based on this premise, the author weaves an international conspiracy involving politicians, academics, and criminals. Also, a very interesting secret society of rhetoricians that organise debate duals with ridiculously high stakes. I loved the discussions on semiotics and reading about the almost high-school-ish antics of the postmodern philosophers and their conflict and rivalry with the analytical philosophers. It’s a highly entertaining, yet intellectual read and I hope to see it on the list.
4. Belladonna by Daša Drndić (tr. Celia Hawkesworth) (published by Maclehose Press)
Belladonna is an erudite and thought-provoking novel that explores some of the biggest atrocities of the 20th century. The central character of the novel is a retired and cynical psychology professor and writer Andreas Ban, who looks back at his life that has been deeply affected by the tumultuous history of former Yugoslavia. He ruminates on national identity and displacement, the nature of evil and complicity, both direct and indirect, with the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, as well as the general apathy of younger generations towards history. On a more personal level, it’s also an honest examination of the unreliable nature of memory, the anxieties of growing old and coming to terms with the deterioration of the human body. The book is quite dense and demands the reader’s undivided attention, but if you give it the time, it offers a powerful and unflinching exploration of the horrors that people have unleashed on one another, in the hopes that history doesn’t repeat itself.
5. Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis) (published by Peirene Press)
I’m biased about this one. There are very few Latvian novels that are available in translation, so I was so happy to find out that this book has been translated into English. Moreover, it would be amazing if the novel receives extra recognition by being nominated for a major literary prize (*fingers crossed!*). It was a bestseller here in Latvia and was published as part of a series of novels, written my prominent Latvian authors, that explore different periods in Latvian history during the 20th century. Soviet Milk (original title: Mother’s Milk) is a semi-autobiographical novel set in the 80s, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. On an individual level, it focuses on the relationship between three generations of women and, on a larger scale, the novel describes the crushing effect of the Soviet regime on the lives and dreams of ordinary people. I highly recommend it, and I’m tempted to read it again, this time in English, to see how good is the translation.
6. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Jennifer Croft) (published by Fitzcarraldo Editions)
I haven’t read this one, but I’ve seen it recommended many times, and the description sounds very unusual – a novel about travel and human anatomy. Uh…what?! It seems to interweave stories from different time periods with the common theme of travel and how it relates to parts of the human body. The novel was also awarded Poland’s biggest literary award in 2008. I’m very intrigued. Fitzcarraldo Editions has previously published some excellent, high-quality works in translation and is slowly becoming one of my favourite publishers, and I think there’s a good chance that Flights might be the book that represents them on this year’s MBI Prize longlist.
7. The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (tr. Sam Taylor) (published by Penguin Books)
The Perfect Nanny (or Lullaby) was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016 and is one of the most talked about books from the list of potential nominees, and, even though I’ve heard very mixed things about it so far, I have a feeling it might still get nominated for the MBI Prize. Compared to other potential nominees, this may appeal to a wider audience because it essentially sounds like a thriller about a nanny, who murders the children she was hired to care for, and I believe that through this interesting character study the author tries to shine a light on the lives of low-income workers. I will admit that, solely based on the premise, this novel doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I might pick it up, if it makes it onto the longlist.
8. Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman) (published by Portobello Books)
Based on the description, Such Small Hands sounds like a short, surreal and unsettling novel that packs a powerful punch, and it immediately brought to my mind the experience of reading Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell). It’s about a girl called Marina, who lives in an orphanage after the tragic death of her parents, and has a close and rather creepy connection with a doll that she has also named Marina. I’m very curious about this one, even though I suspect that it might give me some nightmares.
9. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) (published by Portobello Books)
Jenny Erpenbeck is the winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her novel The End of Days (tr. Susan Bernofsky), and in her latest novel Go, Went, Gone she explores the very topical subject of the current refugee crisis, focusing on the experiences of asylum seekers in Germany, and asking some serious questions about the borders that separate human beings and our shared responsibility for the current problem.
10. The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo (tr. Janet Hong) (published by Tilted Axis Press)
A modern Korean fairy tale that follows a class of 12-year olds, and the contrasting lives of two girls in particular. The novel seems to explore the hierarchical structures that are created within a group of children in the absence of adult guidance and the cruelty and rivalry between them. I’ve heard that the novel also includes elements of meta-fiction, where the author inserts herself into the story and examines what it means to write a character. Even though I’m personally not a big fan of fairy tale elements, this sounds like a strong contender from Tilted Axis Press.
11. Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan (tr. Annie Tucker) (published by Pushkin Press)
The latest novel by award-winning Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan is described as a gritty, pulp-style thriller that follows Ajo Kawir, a lower-class Javanese teenager, who, after the shock of witnessing the savage rape of a woman by several men, becomes impotent. In order to regain his virility and express his frustrations, he turns to fighting, and he proves himself to be a very skilled fighter, so he’s given the task to kill a local thug, however, during his mission he falls in love with Iteung, a beautiful female bodyguard, who works for the mafia. Overall, this sounds like a very engaging, fast-paced story that explores the lives of women in a violent, male-dominated world.
12. The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme by Lars Mytting (tr. Paul Russell Garrett) (published by Maclehose Press)
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme seems to be both a sweeping multi-generational saga about a family living on a remote farm in the mountains of Norway and a quest to uncover a tragic family mystery that is closely connected to the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. The description immediately reminded me of previous MBI nominees The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (tr. Don Bartlett & Don Shaw) and War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (tr. David McKay), and I think there’s a good chance that we may see a family story that reflects on the grim history of WWI and WWII also on this year’s list.
13. The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (tr. Ekin Oklap) (published by Faber & Faber)
Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is a celebrated Turkish novelist, whose novel A Strangeness In My Mind (tr. Ekin Oklap) was nominated for the 2016 MBI Prize, so I expect that his latest novel The Red-Haired Woman, which has been described as a parable of modern day Turkey, might be featured on this year’s list. It follows a master well-digger and his teenage apprentice that develop a very close bond and, through their connection, the author seems to explore the relationship between fathers and sons, drawing parallels to different Western and Eastern myths. The young apprentice becomes infatuated with an older red-haired woman, who is part of a small troupe of theatre actors that perform morality tales, and she has a profound impact on his life. The novel also seems to touch upon the tension between Westernisation and traditional Turkish culture.
I look forward to finding out on March 12, how correct I was with my predictions and which of these books will actually make it onto the longlist. Let me know if you agree with any of these picks and I would love to hear about your own predictions.