The Shadow Jury Declares A Winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

It’s been ten weeks since the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, and in that time the Shadow Panel has been working away in the background, reading frantically while discussing the merits and flaws of the selected titles. From the thirteen books we were given by the official judges, we chose a shortlist of six (only two of which made the official cut!), and off we set again, to reread as much as possible in the time we had left. Then, we discussed the books a little more before voting for our favourites, culminating in the choice of our favourite work of translated fiction from the previous year’s crop. And who might that be?

THE WINNER OF THE 2018 SHADOW MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE IS:

OLGA TOKARCZUK’S FLIGHTS

(FITZCARRALDO EDITIONS, TRANSLATED BY JENNIFER CROFT)

Congratulations to all involved! While not a unanimous decision, Flights easily won the majority of votes from our judges. In fact, in the seven years we’ve been shadowing the prizes (IFFP, then MBIP), this was the clearest winner by far, showing how impressed we were by Tokarczuk’s integration of seemingly disparate pieces into a mesmerising whole. Thanks must also go to Croft for her excellent work on the book – as always, it’s only with the help of the translator that we’re able to read this book at all.

A special mention should also go to Fitzcarraldo Editions. This is their second consecutive MBIP Shadow Prize, as we selected Mathias Énard’s Compass as our winner for 2017; they have proved to be one of the UK’s rising stars of fiction (and non-fiction) in translation.

*****

And that’s it for 2018…

Firstly, I’d like to thank the rest of our Shadow Panel. While David, Bellezza and Lori were around to help once more, it was a new-look team this year with Paul, Vivek, Naomi, Oisin and Frances joining the crew. It’s been fascinating to compare our opinions about the books, even (or especially!) when we disagreed about them. Here’s hoping that we can do it all again next year.

Additionally, let’s give a shout-out to all the readers and commenters out there. It’s heartening to have people appreciate our endeavours, and when people say that they’re following the prize vicariously through our reviews and comments, even if they don’t have time to read all the books themselves, it makes us feel as if the whole process is worth it.

Finally, we’d like to thank the official judges for taking the time to read an awful lot of books in order to select the cream of the crop. We hope that their final choice, to be announced about twenty-four hours after ours, is a worthy winner to round off this year’s prize. Who will it be? Could they possibly recognize the winner to be Flights as the Shadow Panel has done?

Middlemarch: Let’s Talk About Marriage For A Minute

Earlier this year I read of a marriage hastily, and later regretfully, made. It was between Isabel Archer and Mr. Osmond in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Now, George Eliot gives me Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon in her novel, Middlemarch. Both marriages seem doomed from the moment we learn they are to take place.

I asked my friend Gretchen why Dorothea married Mr. Casaubon when I first began this novel. Why would a beautiful and charming young woman become entranced by a man with eyes in deep-sockets who resembled a portrait of Locke? It seems she thought he possessed a deep mind, containing profound thoughts, and she believed she could assist him as he laboriously studied and wrote his papers.

But, Mr. Casaubon does not seem as willing to give his heart away as much as he wants his life well served. Here is a typical kind of sentiment Eliot attributes to him throughout the novel so far, about one third of the way through:

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy…When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin. (p.333)

He never seems to take into account Dorothea’s happiness, or her heart, and I continue reading this novel with dread for her future.

(Please feel free read along with us, as we continue Arti‘s plan for #MiddlemarchInMay.)

Life of Pi by Yann Matel (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002)

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The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud. (p. 6)

The first time I picked up The Life of Pi, I abandoned it for being ridiculous. I did not recognize the beauty of the writing, nor the ethereal qualities of magicial realism. I was a very concrete girl, and thus at times, a foolish reader. A boy is named Piscene Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in Paris, because his family’s good friend loved swimming there the best? It was not an auspicious beginning to me.

Skip to the part where Pi’s father decides to leave Pondicherry, India for Winnipeg, Canada. The ship they are on, carrying several animals from the family’s zoo which has been sold, sinks. All that is left is Pi, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. A tiger who has been named Richard Parker, after the befuddled intervention of a shipping clerk who got the papers mixed up between the tiger and the hunter who had found him.

But this time through, I am utterly entranced. I feel as if I am on the boat with Pi struggling to live. First, he has to go through the realization that his parents and brother are lost to him. Then, he has to figure out how it is that he can survive. Not only must he find food and water for himself, in the middle of the sea, he must find it for Richard Parker. He must be certain that he is not dinner for the tiger.

The way they survive is quite graphically depicted. Pi eats fish, and whatever he pulls from the ocean, raw, of course. He tears apart turtles, and exists on dorados, flying fish, and the water he can obtain from rainfall or flimsy stills which turn sea water into fresh.

When I place myself in his position, mentally, I am overwhelmed by the abundance in my life compared to the absence of practically everything required to live in Pi’s. Of course there is the trouble of finding enough food and water, but so much more is lost to him: family, human companionship, baths, entertainment of any sort. He reads the survival manual he has found perhaps a thousand times, for the lack of any book. Yet he is determined to live. His perseverance is one of my favorite things about him.

Near the conclusion of the novel, we come upon two very bizarre things. One, is the encounter that Pi has with another man. Pi has become temporarily blind, but he communicates with this voice on board his lifeboat. Until Richard Parker eats this man, and Pi recovers his eyesight to behold a dismembered body without a face, we are unsure if he exists at all.

Even more bizarre is a forest of floating trees, resting on seaweed and algae rather than earth. Pi and Richard Parker tentatively step out onto this island, and feel quite comfortable there with the pools of fresh water and fish which lie therein. But when Pi discovers a tree, and climbs it in hopes of enjoying its fruit, he finds that the ‘fruit’ is really a light ball, the contents of which is a human tooth. There are, in fact, all the teeth of a human skull inside each ball, and Pi comes to the conclusion that he cannot stay safely on this island as he had hoped; it is a carnivorous island which devours what comes its way.

Like the very best of animal stories, this one is ultimately about dealing with extreme loss, overcoming fear, testing one’s endurance, and being courageous beyond what one thinks he is capable of being. And for those who scoff at Pi’s story being true? I leave you with this quote:

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”

“Mr. Patel-”

“Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (p. 297)

Just call me The Rocket

The Dolphin Dash was this weekend on Saturday; a 5K or a 1 mile run which all the students and their parents sign up to do. Some people take it very seriously, even going so far as to train for the run which is always held the first weekend in May. I, of course, read as hard as I could.

Every year I walk the 1 mile with a parent or two, enjoying the sunshine and the walk and being surrounded by my kids. But long passed are the days when I ran a 6 minute mile in college.

This year, I crossed the finish line (with my timing chip left at home on the kitchen counter) to the cheers of students and the announcement of the P.E. teacher shouting into the microphone, “And now, with a time of 17 minutes and 55 seconds, we have Meredith, The Rocket, Smith!”

It was all great fun, and after I hugged him, I said I was going home.

“What?” he joked. “You’re not waiting for the announcement of the times?” I smiled at him, and left.

This morning, the children walked into my room shouting and screaming. “Mrs. Smith! You won the huge trophy!”

“No,” I said.

But, in walked the PTA mother who had arranged the entire Dolphin Dash with the biggest trophy I have ever won. It said, “Fastest Female” on the bronze plate in front. So, I had to have a picture for proof.

Because NO ONE, least of all me, would ever have expected me to win a running race. It is the most hilarious thing I’ve experienced all year. And, in case you want to congratulate me, it was because I was the only female teacher who ran walked.

I’m still laughing quietly to myself.

The Imposter by Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018) “Reality kills and fiction saves.”

Javier Cercas is unashamedly forthright about his own personal objections to writing this book right from the beginning.

Suddenly I felt that, though I had twice given up on the story, it had been through a lack of courage, because I sensed that in the old man (Marcos) something was hiding that interested me, or profoundly concerned me and I was afraid to discover what it was. p. 51

As long as we’re revealing inner thoughts, I must confess that I am more interested in Cercas’ revelations about his own life, and that of a writer, than I am about Enric Marcos’ life. It doesn’t matter much to me that he lied, and presented himself as someone he was not, as much as what his actions imply: that lies are built on many small truths, and therefore they hide the whole truth. So what would have made Marcos build a life of lies, posing as an imposter, in the first place?

Enric is like Quixote: he could not resign himself to a mediocre existence, he wanted to live life on a grand scale; and since he did not have the wherewithal, he invented it. p. 31

Cercas says he was afraid that in writing his book, he would somehow be justifying the actions of Enric Marcos. And then he remembers a quote by Tzvetan Todorov:

Understanding evil is not to justify it, but the means of preventing it from occurring again. p. 53

Which is, of course, one of the the main reasons for studying history in the first place.

In presenting himself as someone he was not, in mixing small truths with big lies, was Enric Marcos inherently evil? Cercas says that Marcos’ “narcissistic lie (saying that he was in Flossenburg, a Nazi concentration camp, as a prisoner) hides the truth of horror and death…it is an attempt to hide reality so as not to know or recognise it, so as not to know or recognise himself.” p. 187-188

So I read this book not because I am so terribly interested in Enric Marcos the individual, as much as I am interested in what he represents. I also found myself fascinated by the personal revelations of Cercas, as he wrote about what it means to be a writer; what it means to write fiction.

“…reality kills and fiction saves, because more often than not fiction is merely a way of disguising reality, a way of protecting oneself from it or curing oneself of it.” p. 203

While this is not a favorite of mine from the Man Booker International Prize long list of 2018, it was well loved by many on the shadow panel. It was not, however, deemed worthy of the short list by the official judges. Judging from their short list, it seems that they prefer shock value more highly. (Yet, if that was wholly true, why leave off Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz?)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Despentes is France’s most famous bad-girl author. A rape survivor who has worked as a prostitute and a housemaid, Despentes’ unapologetically feminist eye picks out the telling details of contemporary French society’s casual ennui and petty hypocrisies. Her “Vernon Subutex” series of novels — there are three — are critically acclaimed best-sellers in France. In Volume I, we meet the book’s eponymous hero, a fallen former record-store owner who has nothing left to his name except interview tapes of a recently deceased rock star that could be his ticket off the streets. ~New York Times

This is a tame synopsis of a novel which is making me feel increasingly like I need to take a bath.

For example, I wouldn’t call thievery, adultery, lying, drugs, or pornography “casual ennui and petty hypocrisies.” Let’s call it what it is: immorality.

Nor would I say that this is a “mind-blowing portrait of contemporary French society.” (Nellie Kaprielian, Inrocks) Of all the times I have been in France, and there have been many, I did not see or participate in such behavior. So maybe it portrays some level of French society, but to make that a blanket statement for all of France feels a bit extreme.

What Vernon Subutex 1 is, is an acerbic novel of a confused and lost group of people, who keep searching for meaning in their lives while it constantly eludes them. Because, I think, they are looking in the wrong places.

It is hard to read this novel and not feel a certain amount of empathy for Vernon. I see how lonely he is, how directionless and physically poor; a combination of things which can only lead to more despair unless he makes different choices.

For me, this is a novel about life spinning out of control for people who are living their lives based on selfish pleasure. Looking at the cover alone, you can see how much anguish is within its pages.

It has been included in the short list for the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and whether it will be declared the winner remains to be seen.

#MiddlemarchinMay

“We believe in (Dorthea Brooke) as in a woman we might providentially meet…when we should find ourselves doubting the immortality of the soul.” ~Henry James

When Arti read The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James with us earlier this year, it sparked a yearning for George Eliot, and thus we have a read-along for Middlemarch in May.

Beginning May 1, and taking our time, her plan is to (tentatively) end in June. Vivek, my new friend from the Man Booker International Prize 2018 shadow jury is joining us. Won’t you join in as well? All are welcome.

(On Twitter #MiddlemarchinMay)

They said I couldn’t be a teacher.

Not my parents. Not those who knew me well. But when I told my advisor in college that I wanted a double major in Elementary Education and Psychology he said it couldn’t be done. There were simply not enough slots in a four year plan to get through all the requirements. But, I did get a B.A. in both, with almost enough credits for a minor in Russian Literature.

My supervising teacher sat across her dining room table, in the Spring of the year I was to graduate, and said, “I don’t think teaching is for you.” She had seen me struggle with the class in which I was doing my student teaching; their teacher was retiring, and she didn’t have much control even before I stepped in.

The person who gave me a chance was the principal of a small school in Gelnhausen, Germany. I was overseas with my first husband, and I went to apply at the Department of Defense Dependants Schools. “Well,” she said, “let me see how you teach.” And so she sat in the back of a fifth grade room while I taught, and she watched me teach all afternoon. And then she hired me when the kids went home.

We took the students on long Volksmarsches, and by train to overnight trips during which we slept in youth hostels. One of my boys had cerebral palsy, but I told him I would stand with him and help him through.

When we came back to the States, a certain principal was impressed enough by my two years in Germany that he hired me in August, a few days before school was to start. And so my career with Indian Prairie School District was launched, 33 years ago.

I have wanted to send copies of my Golden Apple nomination, my Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers awards, my A+ Teacher Award, my Most Influential Educator awards, my Masters of Science in Education diploma, or my National Board Certification to those who initially scorned me. But, instead I focus on the years with my children.

There was Akhil, who made me laugh every day. Convinced he was a Storm Trooper, he’d come around the corner of my door with his arms pointed out in front of him saying, “Kick ’em in the balls, kick ’em in the butt, kick ’em in the ace.” (Which was how he pronounced “ass.”) I would tell him we weren’t kicking anybody today, and we’d smile at each other.

There was Artem, from Russia, who asked me the very first day if I knew what the largest lake in the world was. I hesitated, foolishly pondering Lake Michigan, when he told me it is Lake Baikal. I never saw a child more proud of his heritage in my life.

There was Jeffrey, who came to school without any valentines on Valentine’s Day because his mother was in jail. But when I looked on my desk at the end of the day, there was a heart jaggedly cut out of notebook paper which said, “Thanks for all the things you’ve done for me.”

I never expected the children to “color in the lines,” be someone they weren’t, fit in a mold of my making. Unlike the teachers my brother had, my son had, and most of whom I had, I said, “You can do it,” instead of “You can’t.”

What someone believes you can do makes all the difference. And when someone tells me I can’t do something? It just gives me that much more impetus to prove them wrong.

Old Buildings In North Texas by Jen Waldo (a delightful book set in America, sent to me from England)

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I came home from work on Thursday after an absolutely exhausting day: Open House, meetings at district office, and a Beetle with an EPC light on (which when Googled said, “Take to the nearest VW dealer immediately.”). So it was a pleasant surprise to receive a packet from Arcadia Books, postmarked from London, with this lovely book inside. I was smitten from the first page.

The narrator, Olivia Henderson, has been released from rehab with an addiction to cocaine (drugs are something I know nothing about, that’s not the part which struck me), and so she lives with her mother and undergoes mandatory counseling.

“Jane, my therapist, says I need to acquire a hobby. Apparently deep introspection while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee doesn’t count. So far I’ve dabbled in eschatology, zombie lore, and, just lately because it’s an election year, politics.

”Maybe you should look into something a little less doomsday, something that doesn’t make everybody around you wish you’d go somewhere else,”Jane says. She disapproves of my libertarian leanings.

“Give me a list, Jane,” I tell her. “Give me a list of hobbies that’ll be acceptable to absolutely every person who has a say in every choice I make every single minute of every day.”

That’s the line I loved. That sarcastic, searing comment made me smile and connect with Olivia immediately. Even if she is a recovering cocaine addict, who worked in journalism, switched over to fashion, and now explores old buildings in Texas.

“I think I found a possibility for a hobby.” She’s (Olivia’s therapist) not the only one who can redirect.

”Oh? Tell me.”

”Urban exploration. It’s where you go into abandoned buildings or houses and poke around.”

”Sounds illegal, so it’s out of the question.” (p. 21)

If only her therapist knew just how illegal it is, for Olivia does not simply “poke around”. She steals the assorted collectibles she finds in abandoned movie theaters, homes or buildings. She takes the nesting bowls, or glass-cut doorknobs, or antique gumball machines, or what might be a Tiffany lamp, and sells them to collectors online, for she is trying desperately to get out of tremendous debt. There is money she has loaned former addicts, money for legal fees, money which she doesn’t have which everyone seems to be hunting down.

We read of her “urbexing”, the relationship between her mother, her sister, her therapist, the addicts she knew, their family friend for whom she works part time, and we see a woman who is not only exploring old buildings in north Texas but exploring what it means to be free of addiction.

Am I making progress? Yes in my recovery, I am; and it’s slow and it’s difficult. But my goal is to get better, not to be better. Maybe in the future I’ll be wise, generous, and productive; but at this point, I am what I am – a self-absorbed addict with murky morals. Chloe was right when she said I’ve traded one addiction for another. Slipping into buildings, taking things and selling them, watching my bank account grow – these aren’t things a good person does. But they’re things  I do. (p. 212)

And yet, Olivia is so honest that it is easy to root for her. It is possible to see her climbing out of despair and into hope, into a life in which she is control rather than one which controls her. I found this book to be endearing, and funny, and ultimately, restoring; for none of us is perfect.

Buy a copy of Old Buildings in North Texas at Bookwitty for free shipping and delivery.