We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow Panel, Barbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!
Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.
The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.
In fact, the shortlist, announced on 9 April, was greeted with relief rather than surprise. The judges had decided to leave behind seven titles, for the most part the expected ones. Among the first to go were Four Soldiers (Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor) and The Death of Murat Idrissi (Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett). Both had some lovely moments, but I found them unremarkable in a field of much stronger books. And although the MBI is one of the rare prizes that allows short stories to be submitted, this year’s selections did not have much luck: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds (translated by Megan McDowell) and Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen (translated by Jonathan Wright) both failed to make the cut.
On a more personal level, I was disappointed that At Dusk (Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell), a contemplation about South Korea’s modernity and its victims, was omitted as well. I was also rooting for Love in the New Millennium (Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), an experimental novel about women fighting for their place in a world that makes little sense and characters looking for home, to be shortlisted. In another surprising decision, The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg did not make it either. In a flawless translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, this re-imagining of the life of Valerie Solanas, one of the most controversial figures of second-wave feminism (which is saying something) fits very well with the cultural zeitgeist in the UK and US, where other feminists from that era, like Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich, are being re-published and reconsidered.
Nevertheless, the shortlist is comprised of six very strong books representing between them five languages and eight places, at least. If last year’s winner, Flights, celebrated perpetual movement and was an argument against borders, the shortlisted titles are for the most part firmly grounded in the history and culture of specific places and times. Yet, despite this heterogeneity, they are for the most part united in a common theme: their concern with memory as inheritance and burden.
Yes, memory is central to most of these titles, although they do approach it from different angles. Annie Ernaux’s The Years (translated by Alison L. Strayer) a collective memoir of the French Boomers from World War II to the present, grapples with an important aspect of existence: the fact that who we are, and our understanding of the world, is an impermanent, fragile state, constructed out of memories, our own and those we have inherited from those before us, and that if our world is construed of images and words, once those images and words disappear, so will this world.
For Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape Of The Ruins (translated by Anne McLean), memory is a complicated landscape full of shadows whose darkness seeps into the present, transfiguring human relationships and even the characters’ own sense of self. In the book, the writer Vásquez is approached by Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy theorist who believes that two of the most memorable political murders in Colombian history hide some larger conspiracies. Despite his own scepticism, Vásquez cannot help but be fascinated by these stories of violence and mayhem and how they continue to mark the physical spaces he inhabits.
The way we inherit the traumas of the past through memories beyond our own is also a major concern in Alia Trabucco Zeran’s The Remainder (translated by Sophie Hughes) a book whose characters have to deal with what remains (memories, absences) from Chile’s military dictatorship. Felipe sees the shadows of dead people who populate the streets of Santiago and in counting them is unable to match the number of the dead with the graves around Chile. Iquela, his childhood friend, struggles with her own demons: an ailing mother that is the living embodiment of a difficult childhood and the sacrifices an entire generation had to make to survive. Felipe and Iquela join Paloma, a Chilean raised abroad, in a road trip across Chile, where they have to come to terms with their pasts.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translated by Marilyn Booth) is arguably a book about memory, too. Its preoccupation with memory, however, is not addressed as explicitly as in the titles above, instead being woven into the narrative directly. The lives of three Omani sisters are the starting point of the story, and from there they branch out into a cast of characters that through their individual chapters and contrasting plotlines illustrate the tension between Oman’s past and present: debates about love and family and marriage, but also about the pain of slavery and exile. It’s a wonderful book, depicting over three decades of Omani history.
Two of the books break this mould to a certain extent. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead has many layers to it: is it a simple detective novel about who is murdering local businessmen in a small Polish town, or a treatise on animal rights, or an ecological thriller with a feminist bent? It’s a funny and moving mixture of all of the above and an example both of Tokarczuk’s versatility and her erudition. The other outlier is Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (translated by Jen Calleja), a satirical look into one man’s breakdown and the genre of “finding yourself in a remote and ‘exotic’ Asian country.” When Gilbert, a German historian of beards, dreams his wife cheated on him, he leaves the country and ends up in Japan, a place he seems rather indifferent towards. While in Tokyo, he meets Yosa Tamagotchi (that is not a typo), a suicidal young man, and the two begin a pilgrimage together: Gilbert tracing the route made by Bashō some five centuries before, Yosa in search of the perfect spot to kill himself. Although the book is not as smart as it hopes to be, it has some touching and evocative moments.
So where does that leave us? As I said in the beginning, this is not an easy one to call. And although the prize’s moniker is “fiction at its finest,” I find myself gravitating towards non-literary clues to sleuth out the winner. And so, it starts: Olga Tokarczuk won it last year, so it seems unlikely that she will win it a second time. I wouldn’t mind if The Years brings home the prize, but since it is published by Fitzcarraldo (who published last year’s winner), I worry that might hinder its chances. This is all under the assumption that the judges might want to provide a bust to other independent presses that do a lot of essential work in championing fiction in translation. In a shortlist that features five women writers (and six translators), Vásquez stands out as the only male nominee. But for that reason alone, the judges might want to steer clear of the optics of having the only man win. I don’t buy this particular argument, or rather, I find the assumption questionable. The Shape of the Ruins is good, but not quite as good as The Years or The Remainder, whose plots and writing are tighter and less generic than Vásquez’s lengthy dissertation on Colombian history.
And with three titles still in the running, my imagination gets the best of me. I listened to the Man Booker Podcast, where two of the judges, Bettany Hughes and Elnathan John, were invited to discuss the shortlist. I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others. There was an unmistakable glee when Pine Islands came up, but that might have been more a question of the judges being delighted at readers’ surprise at its inclusion than outright preference for that book over the others. Otherwise, this technique failed me and I am still as in the dark over the potential winner. A gut feeling tells me that Celestial Bodies might win, but I wouldn’t necessarily put money on it. Guess we’ll have to wait until 21 May to see who wins.
Barbara Halla is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania. She splits her time between Paris and Tirana, where she works as a freelance researcher and translator for French, Italian, and Albanian. She holds a BA in History from Harvard. She is also part of the 2019 Man Booker International Shadow Panel.
Read more about literary prizes from the Asymptote blog: