A Brief Summary Of Each Book Long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and My Favorites in Order

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1. The Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli: an impeccable portrayal of friendships, told with the hope and innocence of young men who are facing danger ahead, the kind only war can bring.

2. Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: a mystery of sorts, with the love of animals at its core, but also including the eccentricities of a woman dismayed by the world around her.

3. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi: a story of several generations living in Oman, showing me life in the Middle East in ways that do not make me feel the need to writhe against their culture, nor defend my own.

4. The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: a disconcerting view of history as we’ve been taught, reminding us that what we know to be true probably isn’t. Especially if it comes from the hands of the government.

5. The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa: depicting the difficulties of immigration for those who need to leave their country and those who try to help them.

6. The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann: a German man travels through Japan tracing Basho’s footsteps as he describes nature and tries to find himself.

7. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong: an architect recognizes the mistakes he made for his own growth and profession at the expense of others when it’s too late to do anything about them.

8. The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg: a bitter account of the dreadful life led by Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill Andy Warhol.

9. Love In The Time of The Millennium by Can Xue: a bizarre, nonlinear account of characters searching for love and meaning in China.

10. The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran: counts and recounts the bodies of the dead in Santiago, Chile, through the eyes of two friends, hoping to make sense of the city around them.

11. Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf: short stories about war, pain, and disappointment told with distressing irony, often from youthful points of view.

12. Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: incredibly imaginative short stories of the vilest nature with not a shred of hope or redemption in any of them.

13. The Years by Annie Ernaux: one woman’s memoirs, with a particular emphasis on France, ultimately reflecting her disappointment with authority in general and men in particular as she recounts the experiences of her life. Some of which are universal.

And now I await the official announcement of the short list from the Man Booker International Prize judges, due April 9, wondering which six of these thirteen will be the favored ones. Meanwhile, the Shadow Jury finishes their reading of the long list and is compiling a list of our favorite six. Do not expect that my favorites will reflect the Shadow Jury’s favorites. From the comments and scores we have determined in private so far, I can already see that there are large differences of opinion. But, this is what makes reading together so much fun: finding out what is critical to one another in the literary world.

Love In The New Millennium by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Reading Love In the New Millenium is like dreaming a bad dream: disjointed things are happening on every page, with no clear significance or meaning (to me).

“Do you understand everything now?” she asked.

Wei Bo did not understand at all. What sort of woman was A Si’s mother? Why had Long Sixiang wanted him to come here? His sole impression was that the old woman had a cruel temper.

“No, Sixiang, I don’t understand.”

“Good!” Ling Sixiang clapped her hands. ” Your not understanding is understanding!”

These are the kind of nonsensical sentences that fill the pages at the beginning of this book.

“People come and go so quickly here!” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And they do in Can Xue’s world, too. We don’t really know Wei Bo, except that he is forty-eight and works in a soap factory. We don’t really know any of the women who are a part of his life: Niu Cuilan or A Si (his lovers); nor Xiao Yuan, his wife. We discover that Cuilan and A Si worked in the cotton mill, and then gained employment in the health spa as prostitutes; the later life-style seems easier than the former. There are also Long Sixiang and Jin Zhu, the Gold Pearl. They have left working in the cotton mill as well, to become prostitutes though they are old and had a hard time getting started in the business. These women come and go from Wei Bo’s life with relative ease.

Many things go in and out of Wei Bo’s life. I don’t know what to make of paragraphs like this one, involving an elderly woman who has sung La Traviata for forty years, and walks with Wei Bo after the performance.

“Where do you live?” (He asks her.)

“Over on that side, in the fifteen-story building. It’s been lovely to take a walk with you.

The actress walked in the direction of the tall building. A gust of wind lifted her black skirt, and Wei Bo saw her fly upward like a great bird, both feet leaving the ground. She alighted at the entrance to the building. The door opened itself, she all but flapped through it, then the door shut. The large black door with its pair of copper ring handles made a mournful impression. Before long her aria emerged through an upstairs window, although Wei Bo could not understand a word…” (p. 74)

Wei Bo could not understand a word? Neither, sadly, could I.

Most of this novel was incomprehensible to me, and it frustrated me as I read. But, I could not put it down. It called me to continue, to wander down the path that Can Xue created so that I could see what might lie ahead. Or, under a leaf. Or, in the fifth room of a cave dwelling. The occurrances in this novel are bizarre, to be sure, but the imagery is quite astonishing. Like the vivid cover on the front, there is a richness in design and color which mimics the writing inside. It is like nothing I have ever read before. I don’t know what to make of it. But, I think I like it.

Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.

(Thanks to Yale University Press for a copy of this book to review.)

Find a most excellent review of this novel here.