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.
We have organized four IndieGoGo campaigns in all our eight years now, and each of the last three times, it’s sucked so much life force from us that we have, on one occasion, even had to skip an issue (there is no Spring 2015 edition) to recover from it. For some reason, however, it does not take long at all after our first campaign to hit our stride again. A sampling of what we were up to immediately after April 2013, apart from sending ‘thank you’s and perks to 231 supporters: We (1) launched our first-ever translation contest; (2) organized a massive translation project that saw translations into eighteen additional languages of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s brilliant send-up of racial profiling; (3) revamped our website to include a map (thus allowing readers to access our content by geographical region); (4) nominated ourselves for a TED Prize (albeit in vain) and, last but not certainly not least; (5) held our largest recruitment drive ever. The rapid expansion takes a toll: my inbox is invaded daily by check-ins. Fortunately, around this time, we migrate to Trello for issue production work. To give you a sense of how much back and forths are required for just one article (say, Can Xue’s interview conducted by Dylan Suher and Joan Hua, as recounted by Dylan below): Trello records 84 comments by 12 team members spanning the period of May 28 to July 15. Here is Robyn Creswell of The Paris Review on the Summer 2013 issue: “It’s hard to read in a heat wave, but the July issue of Asymptote is so absorbing I hardly notice my sweat drops hitting the keyboard. Even more impressive than the diversity of things translated—book reviews in Urdu, fiction in Bengali, poetry in Faroese—is their quality.”
The Summer 2013 issue of Asymptote is a fine illustration of the principle that translation is just a special subset of the general problem of communication: the problem of trying to relate your experience to someone else, of trying to put something “in other words,” of trying to put something into words in the first place. This principle comes across most clearly in Naoki Higashida’s attempts to relate his experience as an autistic person, and in the visual section’s pieces on asemic writing and Ghada Amer’s use of Arabic script. All three remind us what a tentative, unruly enterprise language is. The shapes shackled into service by the Phoenicians millennia ago long to return to the wilds of visuality; when tasked with expressing the plentitude of the autistic mind, simple words seem as crude a tool as a chert axe.
The problem of referentiality epitomized by these pieces runs throughout this entire issue. The way Banaphool’s “Nawab Sahib” (translated by Arunava Sinha) seems to exist just outside the bounds of reality, its repetitive structure, and its surprising twists all suggest a fable (or a joke), but the moral to which it points remains sublimely hazy. E.C. Belli, translating Pierre Peuchmaurd, repeats the word “glimmer” again and again in a mantra of irreducible images: “The glimmers of lakes, of iron, of girls”; “The glimmers of otters inside their prey.” The insistence of the repetition pounds significance into a non-entity of a word. READ MORE…
Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.
The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.
As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”