My Personal Six for the Booker International Prize 2020 Short List

This is not the “official” shortlist from the Shadow Jury with whom I am privileged to read. We plan to reveal what we, as a group, think should be on the short list for the Booker International Prize 2020 on April 10. But, as the official list from the Booker Prize will be released tomorrow, I wanted to submit my six favorites from the thirteen books on the long list.

My very favorite was The Other Name, a quietly contemplative book with which I felt a great compassion and identity. Next, comes The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree for its incredible power to make magical realism effective in relaying the horrors of the revolution in Iran. Then, comes The Memory Police because it has made me think about the power of memory and loss. After that is Little Eyes for its ability to explore the encroachment of technology in our lives (although, I must say that technology has certainly been a boon during this time of isolation!). The Eighth Life is included because it portrays a family’s story with great poignancy. Finally, Hurricane Season must be considered because it is written with such raw ugliness that I cannot forget it, and it has shown me what a safe life I have been privileged to live.

I am eager to see what the list from the Booker Prize will include, as it is revealed tomorrow, April 2, 2020.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabazon Camara (translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Mackintyre, Booker International Prize 2020)

This cover reminded me of Pippi Longstocking at first, with those two long braids erratically standing up. As I read, I learned that they belong to China Iron, “china” being the name for someone’s woman, and “iron” coming from Fierro, her deceased husband’s last name. She cut her braids, and put on the clothing of a gaucho, as she travelled with Liz through the pampas of Argentina in 1872.

Elizabeth is a Scotswoman, familiar with English, tea, lavender-scented sheets, and soft leather shoes. China is entranced by her.

But, I am entranced by the descriptions of their beautiful, and often fearsome, surroundings. Here is an example:

Suddenly everything goes still, the wide pastures – that usually ripple and wave – stop their swaying, a heavy silence descends over everything, a black thunder cloud that had seemed far off is right overhead, imminent in an instant, billowing, swollen, whorls of mottled grey. Although its texture might appear soft to the eyes of those of us on the ground below, in the short time it would take us to get the jerky into the wagon, a torrent of rain would pour down on us, and violent lightning would flash, striking trees and sometimes animals. (p. 53)

The Adventures of China Iron is a “subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic Martin Fierro…a celebration of the color and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom.” (Charco Press)

Personally, I could do without the feminist, LGBT point of view, but that sort of thing appeals to the culture right now, so it makes sense that this novel would be included in the long list for the Booker International Prize 2020. There are other books with a more interesting perspective which I am hopeful will win.

The Other Name by Jon Fosse (translated from the Norwegian by Damion Searls) A book on the Booker International Prize 2020 long-list unlike any other, and I loved it.

Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord by Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand

…so yes, I was pretty good at languages, it was mathematical aptitude that I always had a problem with, and what I totally don’t have is a sense of direction, a sense of place, plus I’m so clumsy, so it’s true probably the only thing I could have ended up doing was painting pictures, and if I wanted to make a living I needed to paint, and that’s both good and all wrong, but that’s what I did and kept doing I painted picture after picture, I did that at least, and when I wasn’t painting I often spent hour after hour just sitting and staring into space, yes, I can sit for a long time and just stare into empty space, at nothing, and it’s sort of like something can come from the empty nothingness, like something real can come out of the nothingness, something that says a lot, and what it says can turn into a picture… (p. 211)

How do I explain how special this book is to me? I can see parts of myself, for one thing, within Asle. I see being poor at maths, and losing my sense of direction, and having languages come easily to me. I understand his desire to be alone, an introvert in the truest sense, but also the sorrow he feels at having lost his first wife.

He tells his story in one long, flowing stream, that reads with great fluidity. It feels that I am inside his head, thinking his thoughts, for which I found myself experiencing a great compassion. I like introspection. I like reflection. I like going over the events of my life, which seem to appear to me now as in a dream, much as they do to Asle.

He stops on the road and looks out over the park where a couple is swinging. He relates their dialogue, their walk, the way they lay down in the sand together, and it becomes clear that this is not a scene he is viewing, it is one that he is remembering. It pierced my heart with its tenderness.

He visits his friend who is an alcoholic (or, is this friend really him?), and finding this man fallen in the snow, makes sure that he gets a much needed drink in the Alehouse, but then goes to the clinic. Perhaps, he is caring for himself, the person he could have been had he not given up alcohol himself.

He is an artist, who first painted by copying the famous Norwegian painting above. And now, he has just completed two dripping lines which comprise the St. Andrew’s Cross. Fosse’s reference to religion is also quite moving to me, not that I am a Catholic, or repeat famous prayers over and over in my bed while holding the rosary between my thumb and forefinger. No, it is the exploration of God that intrigued me as I read.

And it was with mounting terror that I read the final portion of the book, the depiction of him as a young boy, going places by the harbor with his sister where their mother told them never to go. I felt her insistence that they return, and his determination to follow his own agenda, and I knew Something Bad Was Going to Happen.

As far as I am concerned, The Other Name is a perfect book, giving me something to think about deeply. It is a book to return to often, written in an elegant, compelling style, and I truly loved it.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes, Booker International Prize 2020)

This book is violent and upsetting and something I will never forget. Usually, by the time I finish the Booker International Prize long list, my feelings are raw, and this book brought no relief.

I don’t think it is meant to.

I read on Twitter today, the following Tweet retweeted by Fitzcarraldo Editions:

‘I was left buoyed up by Melchor’s anger, elated because she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ @mjohnharrison reviews HURRICANE SEASON by @fffmelchor, tr. @hughes_sophie for @GuardianBooks

I would not call what I felt, after reading this book, “buoyed up.” But, being “shown things I needed to be faced with”? Most definitely.

I know a world where men protect me. For all of my childhood, my father lived an honorable life of integrity which supported our family, and my husband does the same. I didn’t see, until I read Hurricane Season, how truly brutal some families are. I didn’t understand that the fourteen year old daughter can not simply “buck up”, gather strength, and change the trajectory of her life. It is so much more complicated than that, to overcome a mother who keeps looking to men to solve her problems, keeps getting pregnant, and expects her eldest to care for them all. Her mother looks for a savior in all the wrong places, finally bringing home a stepfather who more closely resembles a demon.

I didn’t realize the pervasiveness of drugs, and alcohol, and poverty in endless cycles without hope.

I didn’t expect pages with such violence, and profanity, that I am unwilling to leave quotes here as I normally do. They are admittedly powerful. They are also horrific.

For the way that this novel will remain in my mind, it cannot be dismissed as I may have wished to do with a low, and scornful, score. It would be turning away from a dreadful reality, back into my narrow fantasy that life can be made into what we want it to be.

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, Booker International Prize 2020) An incredibly unusual, and important, book.

When my son was in second grade, Tamagotchis were all the rage. I bought him one, as he longed to fit in with the other kids, and he spent hours “feeding” it, amongst the other things required to “keep it alive”.

“But,” my parents said, “it’s not real!” They could not understand the significance of a virtual pet, and I must say that I agreed with them. How do you keep a machine alive? How can a machine be a pet?

Twenty years later we come to Samanta Schweblin’s magnificent novel, Little Eyes. I was riveted from the first page, and I stayed that way throughout my reading. For it is about technology, and socializing, and the way that people can put feelings on a plastic animal covered with felt or feathers.

They are called kentukis, these creatures costing $279.00 which come in a box and must be activated with a special code. People who buy them become ‘keepers’, while those who are connected to them via technology are called ‘dwellers’. The two people never meet, yet their lives are intimately woven together as the kentuki has ‘eyes’ which serve as cameras, and wheels allowing them mobility; the apartments which they occupy, and the privacy therein, is shown in all its reality to strangers with whom they are connected.

However, the strangers gradually cease to feel that they are anonymous. Suddenly, they find themselves caring deeply about the lives of the people who own the kentuki; worse,they care deeply about the kentuki itself, as if it was real. Or, capable of human emotion.

…it seemed like the idea of kentuki liberation had just been invented. It occurred to someone that mistreating a kentuki was as cruel as keeping a dog tied up all day in the sun, even crueler if you considered that it was a human being on the other end. Some users had tried to found their own clubs and free kentukis that they considered were being abused.

I have never read a book like this. The imagination of Samanta Schweblin is extraordinary, and the world she brings to life is frightening. For I do not believe we are far from the power that machines can exert on our lives.

About the Author: Samanta Schweblin was chosen as one of the 22 best writers in Spanish under the age of 35 by Granta. She is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel and is longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, Booker International Prize 2020

There’s nothing I like quite so much in a book as a story. And, who better to bring us a story of great imagination than the Germans? I think of tales from the Brothers Grimm, into which Tyll could fit in small ways: there is a dark forest, a poisoned apple, a witch, a laughing man on a tightrope, and an executioner. There are Jesuits and a hangman, forged testimonies, and an abundance of fear from the villagers.

Combined with the fear is no small amount of paranoia, which, in my opinion, seems completely justified when someone can just come into your home, dislocate your shoulders, and try you for sorcery with no justification.

Dr. Oswald Tesimond and Dr. Kircher, both Jesuits, meet Tyll when he is but a boy, left alone in the forest to guard a cart filled with flour all night. It actually ends up being two nights, as his mother left him to return home when birthing pains suddenly came upon her. Who knows what terrors he endured? But, when his father and two other strong men come upon him, Tyll is up in a tree, covered in flour, and the donkey which had been pulling their cart is beheaded. He is wearing the scrap of flesh bearing the donkey’s two ears on his head.

It is right after this accursed state that’s the two Jesuit priests come upon him, and decide that it is time to visit the boy’s home, suspicious that they have crossed paths with a warlock.

How easily, Dr. Kircher thinks, pity could overcome you, but you must not permit yourself to believe the appearance, for they are in league with the greatest power of the fallen world, and their lord is with them at every moment. That’s why it is so dangerous: during the trial, the devil can always intervene. (p. 86)

Groats, small beer, pentagrams, spells and superstition, paranoia, witch hunts and hangings. I am caught up in this medieval world that Kehlmann has created, that strangely resembles our own. Suspicions forced into fact. People wrongly accused, then killed. Tyll’s father, Claus, is hanged, and Tyll decides he must leave. Nele, he says, is coming with him.

She knew she must not think,or else she would lose her courage; or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there. (p. 118)

How strange it is to read this book while under quarantine from the Corona virus. The disease, poverty, and human ills become all the more tangible to me, safely ensconced within my own home but well aware of the evils without.

It is when we land in the middle of the story of the Winter King, Frederick V, and the Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, that I feel we have wandered off course. Is this a story of fiction, or am I suddenly in a history book? My enthusiasm immediately dwindled in the last third of the book, which for me, ruined what had been a perfectly intriguing novel up until then.

Red Dog by Willem Anker (translated by Michiel Heynes, Booker International 2020)

We venture into the kloofs to go and goad elephants. If an elephant is angry enough, you feel pins and needles all over your body and the hair on your neck stands up straight and your whole skin comes alive. Then you shoot. At home you stare into corners. Curl yourself up like an animal in its hole.

While Conraed de Buys is busy killing elephants, the French are storming the Bastille. Everyone, it seems, has a desire for power, regardless of the continent on which you live.

Of course, when he’s not shooting elephants, Omni-Buys is stealing cattle. (And still shooting.)

Our cattle are now disappearing every day, but if you go on commando with me, you always return with more cattle than were stolen. They say that on punitive expeditions my gang and I shoot a bit too freely among the Heathens. And apparently we shoot the Caffres who hunt on our farms. But we are big men and strong and what we aim at we hit.

The imagery in this novel is powerful; the sentences are cleverly constructed. (I especially like the mocking done with words connected by hyphens: pen-lickers for the commission wanting the Caffres to stay on their side of the river, for example, or pedant-prick for the schoolteacher.)

This is an elegant piece of literature beautifully describing an historic figure in South Africa, who vaguely resembles a terrorizing philistine from the Old Testament in his self-serving, power-grabbing, violent ways.

The new landdrost, Bresler, says to Buys, “I’m just coming to shake your hand. Seems to me nobody can administer the law here without your blessing.” But, Buys is no Abraham. No Moses, or Jacob. I don’t even see him as capable of understanding law, let alone administering it. His own desires are his law.

Kemp (the English missionary) immediately drops to those well-worn knees of his to thank God and his heavenly host for my help in guiding him through the perils of the land to this place of rest. He prays that one day there will be a church here that will blazon forth the Gospel to the far ends of Africa. He prays for altars and sacrifices and the light of civilization and flames reaching up to heaven. He prays that God will have dominion over Africa. I want to tell him Just go and have a look around the corner, there is already a large enough altar of shouldering babies stinking to high heaven. I want to tell him My dogs and I, we have dominion here. But I keep my trap shut and go forth.

Red Dog is the story of a larger than life figure who lived in South Africa in the 1700’s, fighting the Boers and the British while maintaining his own powerful stand. His image is perfectly rendered by Willem Ankers, who makes it possible for the reader to visualize all the ways that Coenraad de Buys lived.

Even though this novel has won six major South African prizes, I wonder as to its power for the rest of the world. What are we to learn? What are we to take away beyond the violence committed in an uncivilized country so very long ago? Personally, I prefer the content of novels which deal with more universal subjects, such as memory, religion, and loss.

About the author: Willem Anker was born in Citrusdal in the Western Cape in 1979 and lectures in creative writinf at Stellenboch University. His first novel, Siegfried, was published in 2007. Red Dog was oublished in Afrikaans in 2014 and won six major literary prizes in South Africa. It is his first novel to be translated into English.

About the translator: Michiel Heyns is a South African author and translator. He has won numerous awards in South Africa, including the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize for his novel Lost Ground and the Sol Plaatje Prize dor Marleene van Niekerk’s The Way of Women.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Booker International Prize 2020): a collection of interrelated stories exquisitely told.

This is a spellbinding web of stories about people on the periphery. Pagano makes rural France her subject matter, invoking the closeness of a local community and the links between the inhabitants’ lives, but then she reminds us how little we know of each other.

~Peirene Press on Faces on The Tip of My Tongue

I think the best way to ‘review’ this collection of stories, translated from the French, is to put what struck me as the most meaningful bits under each chapter’s title. As you read them, perhaps common threads uniting them will be revealed, perhaps not. Regardless, the power of Pagano’s writing is, I think, evident:

The Lake’s Favorite:

I was the lake’s favorite.

I loved my life by the lake so much that it was worth going away for awhile, if only for the pleasure of coming back.

The Jigsaw Puzzle:

We were just wondering how to tell our daughter, when she came down into the kitchen. She flew to the door with a joy that left us speechless. Her little hand fumbled at the handle; I had to help her turn it. For her, the fallen tree was no more dead than before, it was simply transformed into a tree house.

The Short Cut:

She lied herself a comfortable life, forgetting her childhood fears, but they returned once the children were grown up, they came back, they’d always been there most likely…

She suffered from the heaviness of a body that feels like lead when you don’t want to live any more.

Blind Spots:

Lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on the motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives, they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision. Our vision. We don’t see anything else, nothing of what’s at the edges.

The Loony and the Bright Spark:

The man was one of those people who ‘haven’t their peace’. That’s how we describe them around here, our loonies. He worked at the social enterprise down in the town. He lost his peace by the side of the road one evening at about five o’clock when his wife and children were killed on the bend going down, more than forty years ago…

This tormented waiting that we can’t comprehend, this disaster, it’s him, it’s what’s inside his head, it’s the whole of him that we thought we knew but that goes beyond our knowledge. He goes beyond the figure we made of him that we thought we could reduce him to.

Mum at the Park:

When she was young, she didn’t play the same sorts of games as we did. She daydreamed among the trees, did jigsaw puzzles without getting bored, spent lots of time drawing and already read a lot…

Mom used to say that silence doesn’t exist, that there are always tiny sounds in the background, muted and barely perceptible. And she was an expert in barely perceptible things. Her whole childhood was made up of them.

The Automatic Tour Guide:

My little sister’s death doesn’t need inventing, and when he tells it to the people staying in the gîte he doesn’t embellish it with local color. He delivers it straight, raw, hardly like a story at all…

My sister rain off towards the tractor but I didn’t, I knew we weren’t allowed, and I told her not to but she didn’t listen, that two-year-old silly. Father came out again almost straight away, still cross, went back to the filed and got on the tractor. He started it up again, and when he heard me screaming louder and higher than the sound of the engine, when he felt the tiller jam, he was really beside himself, absolutely furious this time.

Just a Dad:

My dad knew just what to do, what to say and what not to say, everything the therapist would never understand.

Three Press-ups and Unable to Die:

I’ve had more than enough of myself, I must get rid of this self. I’m leaving me. Other people provide no refuge: they mass together instead of lightening my load, they lay their own armour upon my already overburdened carcass and their touch is heavy. Other people are an excess weight, my children especially. I can’t do it any longer, can’t carry anyone, anything more.

The Dropout:

You’d seen my face somewhere and here it was now in front of you, in front of you and elsewhere in an elusive memory, my recognized but unrecognized face, my face on the tip of your tongue. You smiled as if to thank me.

Glitter:

For a book to change us, to cleanse us, it must get deep inside, and those pink books, as I’ve told them hundreds of times stay on the surface. They reach only the outer layers of our skin, our thoughts and memories. They smooth over worries with illusory balm, like the anti-wrinkle creams that my friends spread on their faces…I’m alive and I read real books. Not dead books that simply submit to being read.

About the author: Emmanuelle Pagano was born in Rodez, France, in 1969. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and she has won many awards for her work, including the EU Prize for Literature in 2009 and, most recently, the Prix du Roman d’Écologie in 2018. This is her second book to appear in English. The first, Trysting, was published in 2016 by And Other Stories.

About the translators: Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis translated Pagano’s previous collection, Trysting, to much acclaim. Individually, Higgins has translated numerous books from French and Italian, and Lewis’s translations have been shortlisted for the Scott oncrieff Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize.

(Thanks to Peirene Press for their willingness to send me this copy to review.)

Find an excellent review from Reading in Bed.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 and the Booker International Prize 2020

The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances.
(p. 14)

How ironic that the very next book I pick up after The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree should also be about terror. Force. Loss.

Things disappear, like emeralds and perfume bottles, ferry boats and families. People who are able to still remember are taken away by the Memory Police, never to be seen again. And so, some of them go into hiding.

Though the cold weather had not yet set in, they each wore several layers of shirts, an overcoat each, and mufflers and scarves wrapped around their necks. They held bags and suitcases that were obviously stuffed full. It seemed they had been trying to bring with them as many useful items as they were able to carry. (p. 21)

I am reminded of reading The Diary of a Young Girl, and Anne Frank’s description of wearing as many clothes as they could before they went into hiding. Although The Memory Police is a work of fiction, it closely resembles the power of a government gone wrong to me.

The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. (p. 25)

While it is never quite clear exactly why things disappear from the people, or where it is that these things go, what is made evident is the fear and the loss in their aftermath. One of the patterns that I kept noticing is how Ogawa drew a connection between “memory” and “heart.”

Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them. (p. 109)

Maybe there’s a place out there where people whose hearts aren’t empty can keep on living. (p. 117)

The music continue to play, before the disappearance and after. It plays on faithfully, as long as the key is wound. That’s its role, now and forever. The only thing that’s different is the hearts of those who once heard it. (p. 147)

‘There, behind your heartbeat, have you stored up all my lost memories?’ I thought this to myself, cheek pressed against R.’s chest. (p. 158)

I will be thinking about this novel for a long time, considering the impact of loss on our lives; the impact of loss on our hearts. Ogawa raises so many questions, I think, more than she gives us answers. Where do the things which have disappeared go? Do we eventually become accustomed to what we have lost, and not experience the pain as acutely as we did at first? What are we, if we have no memories? And, ultimately, isn’t loss inevitable?

In a beautifully written book, I am struck by this thought towards the end: “But I suppose the order of the disappearances made no real difference – if in the end everything disappeared anyway.” (p. 271)

There is no avoiding loss. There is only deciding on how it is that we will handle our memories.

About the author: Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope: All-Story. Her works include The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas; The Housekeeper and the Professor; Hotel Iris; and Revenge. She lives in Tokyo.

The Memory Police was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Find a fascinating review of this book from Tom at Wuthering Expections.


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, Booker International Prize 2020. (This could be my favorite, and we’ve only just begun.)

To deny or forget her past, she read and wrote, submerging herself in the meaning of myth…

It is hard for me to imagine that I will find a book from the Booker International Prize long list which I find to be more powerful than this one, and this is only the second that I have read from a stack of thirteen.

It isn’t the theme I love, about the Islamic Revolution in 1988 in Iran. It isn’t the terror, or the fear, or the religion of Islam. It is the voice of the narrator, a young girl named Bahar, who died in 1979 when her home was set on fire by the Revolutionary Guards. She now floats above her family, a ghost with a pure and childlike perspective, who tells us what living during this time was really like.

Five thousand men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious beliefs, were killed in the prison of Tehran, Karaj, Mashhad, and other cities.

Bahar’s mother refers to the Islamic Revolution as the Arab Invasion, whereupon the family fled to Razan, from Tehran, for safety. But, they are not safe there, either. Their son is taken, and their books are burned, along with the musical instruments which their father had lovingly made.

With the burning of Dad’s tars – which had been our ears, mind, and soul – then of me, and now the books, we had lost both our limbs and our voice…we understood that contrary to what Dad believed, culture, knowledge, and art retreat in the face of violence, the sword, and fire – and for years after remain barren and mute.”

Some of the events that occurred to her family are told as facts, as I have quoted above, but most of them are relayed in the form of magical realism. Gradually, we come to see how the revolution changed her family’s destiny, for one by one, the members of the family disappear.

Her mother steps into the garden one lovely day, and keeps walking. Her sister, Beeta transforms into a mermaid, and lives in the Caspian Sea.

Beeta transformed into an aquatic creature so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human.

Rather than seeming like utter fantasy, these events made perfect sense to me as I read. The magical realism is perhaps the only lens possible through which to endure the horror their lives had become. The other way, for this family, was through the power of books. For as much as an account of life in Iran, I found this novel to be an ode to literature. Literature must have been as threatening to the revolution as it was sustaining to the family; over and over accounts of burning books are told.

But, it is this quote from Beeta, now mermaid, that resonates so soundly with me: “In our world, nobody comes into life to stay forever, and our fish-like minds don’t allow us to think of the past.” For there is no comfort in reliving the past. There is only the courage required to move forward, changed though we may be.

About the author: Shokoofeh Azar moved to Australia as a political refugee in 2011. She is the author of essays, articles and children’s books, and is the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, originally written in Persian, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize for Fiction in Australia and is her first novel to be translated into English.

The translator’s name has not been included here for reasons of safety and at the translator’s request.

(Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book to review.)