In Which The Shadow Jury for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 Revisits Mathias Enard’s Compass and Arrives At A Decision

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“We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other we smoke, faces agonizing in a mirror, we are a frozen image to which time gives the illusion of movement, a snow crystal gliding over a ball of frost, the complexity of whose intertwinings no one can see, I am that drop of water condensed on the window of my living room, a rolling liquid pearl that knows nothing of the vapor that engendered it, nor of the atoms that still compose it but that, soon, will serve other molecules, other bodies, the clouds weighing heavy over Vienna tonight: over whose nape will this water stream, against what skin, on what pavement, toward what river, and this indistinct face on the glass is mine only for an instant, one of the millions of possible configurations of illusion – look, Herr Gruber is walking his dog despite the drizzle, he’s wearing a green hat and his eternal raincoat; he avoids getting splashed by the cars by making ridiculous little leaps on the pavement: the mutt thinks he wants to play, so it leaps towards its master and gets a good clout the second it places its dirty paw on Herr Gruber’s trench coat, despite everything he manages to reach the road to cross, his silhouette is lengthened by the streetlights, a blackened pool in the midst of the sea of shadows of the tall trees ripped apart by the headlights along the Porzellangasse, and Herr Gruber seems to think twice about plunging into the Alsergrund night, as I do about leaving my contemplation of the drops of water, the thermometer, and the rhythym of the trams descending towards the Schottentor.”

It’s not exactly the kind of first sentence you could easily memorize, as people have done with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

But, it is indicative of the style of this book. Mathias Enard’s prose is mesmerizing, catching us up in a mood, covering us with atmosphere, and yet not wavering one instant from brilliance.

I thought this book might be too esoteric to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017. It wasn’t, for me, an easy read. Nor is there a specific plot on which I can center my thoughts. For those reasons, I chose The Unseen as my personal favorite for the Prize. In fact, The Unseen received four votes from the Shadow Jury panel.

However, another four votes went to Compass, resulting in some heavy consulting between Tony and Stu, who point out that Compass won by .1 of a point in the first round of voting. All of us concur; it is a worthy book to win the Man Booker International Prize 2017.

We shall see what the official judges say is the winner. They have a hard job of it, I think, deciding between the likes of Compass, Fever Dream, Judas and The Unseen. Each book stands out for its power and pertinence; I do not envy them their job. But, the Shadow Jury has declared our choice in Compass, and we eagerly await the official judges’ verdict.

 

(While one waits, might I point out that Spotify has a playlist for Compass? It is a lovely accompaniment to listen to while reading.)

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Man Booker International Prize 2017; the Shadow Jury Announces Its Shortlist

img_3846With great excitement, and after some deliberation (but, it really wasn’t that hard for us), the Shadow Jury has produced its short list for the Man Booker International Prize this year.

From the time that the longlist was announced on March 15, we managed to read most of the 13 titles before April 30. Each of the longlisted books was read by at least six of the eight judges; six titles were read by all of us.

In my opinion, the best books of the longlist easily stood out. (Determining the best from the shortlist will be the tricky part!) The jury’s decision for the short list is as follows:

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)
Translated by Philip Roughton
(MacLehose Press)

Compass by Mathias Énard (France)
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway)
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
(MacLehose Press)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany)
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
(Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel)
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
(Chatto & Windus)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina)
Translated by Megan McDowell
(Oneworld Publications)

My personal favorites from this list are Fish Have No Feet, The Unseen, and Judas. But, there is a strong feeling for Compass and Fever Dream by several of the jury members. So, we await the official announcement of the winner, as we deliberate among ourselves which title we will choose as our winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 this June.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017 Short List is Announced

BookPile MBIP 2017

With the exception of Mirror, Shoulders, Signal and A Horse Walks Into a Bar, I am in complete agreement with the expert judges for the Man Booker International Prize. While I’m confused about the inclusion of Dorthe Nors’ book, at least they had the sense to leave off the tedious, boring and overwrought Explosion Chronicles.

I’ve heard good things about A Horse Walks Into A Bar, but I am still awaiting my library copy; it is one of the few books I have not yet read. But the others? Wonderful stuff!

I love Fever Dream for its enigmatic, mysterious message.

I love Judas for addressing the age old conflict between the Arabs and the Jews in a fascinating, well written plot.

I love The Unseen for putting us on an island about a century ago, and letting us live there within a closely knit family.

I love Compass for ethereal, brilliant writing like a stream of consciousness but better.

But, surely I would not have omitted Fish Have No Feet from the short list. It remains in my top three.

As for what the Shadow Jury panel chooses for our top short list? We will make that decision public on Thursday, May 4.

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Translated by Katy Derbyshire, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

IMG_3980Each chapter is a different voice telling a different version of the same desperate story: sex trade in a former East German city from 1989 to the present. It makes you ache at the loneliness and despair, while at the same time feeling horror at the choices these people have made with their lives. For surely becoming a prostitute, or a pimp, or a “guest” (a word preferable to the women than “customer”) is a choice, is it not?

How adept Clemens Meyer is at assuming the point of view of each person in his tale. I feel I am listening to the 30-something woman as she prepares to leave her warm flat in January for the unknown darkness awaiting her in a hotel room; I feel I am listening to the taxi driver who says to her, with a sweeping flourish of his arm, “Your car, madame.”

The irony, the pain, is piercing.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel a little slimed while reading this. There is more than I want to dwell on about the darkest sides of human nature, the way sex is twisted into anything but love, the way that money and drugs and power are more important than a person’s heart.

Surely what Meyer writes about must be based in truth somewhere. Surely this is a world not entirely of his own creation, and who am I to judge? But 124 pages in feels like enough, at least for tonight. There is more than enough sorrow in these pages to last me until page 672.

What do you think? Should the subject matter of a book effect the way it is scored?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Winner of the English PEN Award
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on October 17, 2016
672 pages

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

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“Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps.”

But that is exactly what Franz Ritter is doing one night; as he struggles to find sleep, he is reviewing his life, his time with Sarah and the joy he felt in her presence.

They met at a conference held at Hainfield Castle in Vienna, and have since taken strolls or eaten meals in Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran and Aleppo.

“I have to admit that, even though I am not what could be called a hedonist or a gourmet, the setting, the food and the excellent Lebanese wine they served there (and especially the company of Sarah, whose beauty was brought out by the Ottoman cortile, the jewels, the cloth, the wooden mashraybiyas) have fixed that evening in my memory; we were princes, princes from the West whom the Orient was welcoming and treating as such, with refinement, obsequiousness, suave languor, and all of this, conforming to the image our youth had constructed of the Oriental myth, gave us the impression of finally living in the lost lands of the Thousand and One Nights, which has reappeared for us alone: no foreigner, in that early spring, to spoil its exclusivity; our fellow diners were a rich family from Aleppo celebrating a patriarch’s birthday, whose women, bejeweled, wearing white lace blouses with strict black wool vests, kept smiling at Sarah.”

You can see how the sentences, which are often a full paragraph in length, contribute to the dream-like quality, while at the same time giving us a perfect sense of place.

And because Franz is a musicologist as well as narrator and dreamer, we are introduced to music and composers such as we may have been previously unaware. Take Felicien David, for instance, who became famous on December 8, 1844, after the premiere of Le Desert which is a symphony in three parts based on the composer’s memories of a journey to the Orient. (What a beautiful piece of music it is.)

“…memory is the only thing I don’t lack, the only thing that doesn’t tremble like the rest of my body…”

His recounting of a night he slept with Sarah seems to embody not only their relationship, but the love-hate relationship of the East and the West. Perhaps we may admire each other, even partake in the glorious offerings each has to offer, but can we truly ever understand each other? Can we truly be united? It seems an invisible line divides us, one that try as we might, can never be fully dissolved.

11:10 p.m.

11:58 p.m.

12:55 a.m.

We spend a restless night with Franz, tossing and turning, unable to find the peace required to rest.  Each “chapter” is instead listed with a time stamp, recording the hour and the intricacies of his thoughts. They are tangled and knotted; he tries to sort out his memories, his relationships, his past which is inextricable from music and stories and historical figures.

My fellow shadow jury members are well taken with this book, and for its sense of beauty, its important themes, and well wrought sentences, I can concur. It certainly has more power than the trite Mirror, Shoulders, Signal, or cumbersome Explosion Chronicles.  I fully expect Compass to be on the jury’s short list, as well as the official short list which will be announced April 20.

Find other reviews at Tony’s Reading List, The Bookbinder’s Daughter, David’s Book World, and Winstonsdad’s Blog.

Compass by Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on March 22, 2017
480 pages

Judas by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange, Man Booker Prize 2017 long list)

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“The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend…Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for awhile.” (p. 106)

I don’t suppose it matters if I agree with what Shmuel Ash writes in his notebook, with what he comes up with for his thesis, that Judas was “the first Christian. The last Christian. The only Christian.” My job is not to agree or disagree with Shmuel’s reasoning, or Oz’ writing, it is to absorb what he is saying and like Mary, to ponder it in my heart. For the concepts about Christianity (and Judaism) presented in Judas are fascinating to me, as I have been a Christian all my life and read the Bible all the way through for more years than I can remember.

It is not my understanding that the disciples “were hungry for power, and in the end, like all those who are hungry for power, they became shedders of blood.” (p. 137)

But, this novel is not a religious treatise, and we do need to look at some of the characters.

Shmuel Ash, who lived in Tel Azra, has come to live in Rabbi Elbaz Lane in Sha’arei Hesed in order to be a caretaker for Gershom Wald. Shmuel first steps into the meticulously kept home over a rickety stair which seems to symbolize much that is unsettling to him, and the home’s inhabitants, throughout the novel. For each has quite a story which is disclosed bit by bit as we read on.

Shmuel is attracted to Atalia, a woman in her forties who also lives there. She was married to Gershom Wald’s only son, Micha, who was killed during an assault on a mountainside on April 2, 1948 when he was only 37 years old. Now she lives with her father-in-law, hiring caretakers for him as they seem to fall in love with her then move on when they encounter her resistance.

The traitor in this novel is her deceased father, Shealtiel Abravanel, a man who was disgraced by being thrown out of both the Zionist Executive Committee and the Council of the Jewish Agency because he believed that they had “all deviated from the path,” and were carried away by David Ben-Gurion’s “lunacy”. (p. 205)

He was firm in his belief that Zionism could not be achieved through confrontation with the Arabs, whereas I had understood by the end of the forties that it could not be achieved without some such confontration. (p. 206, Gershom Wald speaking to Shmuel about Abravanel)

How easy it is for any of us to become a traitor, especially when we follow today’s rhetoric to follow you heart. For “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (a quote sprinkled throughout the text.) How easy it is to be blind to any truth but our own, to betray the ones we love.

The themes of Arab opposition, Jewish denial of Jesus as savior, and the intricacies of a family in the Land of Israel make this an extremely powerful book. It is as pertinent to us today as it was in the 40s, indeed as it was in the times of the New Testament. Surely this is a most worthy contender for the Man Booker International Prize; it is one of my favorites on the long list.

Find more reviews at Winstonsdad’s Blog, David’s Book World, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List.

Judas by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pages

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra, Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list)

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I shouldn’t be so intolerant of Sonja, a woman in her forties who just wants to learn to drive. Or, more specifically, to properly shift.

There was a time when I could drive a stick shift on any autobahn in Germany, but ever since having a small panic attack on 294 outside of Chicago a few years ago, I’ve been reluctant to go on any toll road whatsoever. So you’d think I’d be patient with this character’s weaknesses.

But, as I made my way through the book I just wanted to slap her.

She translates the fictional Swedish author Gösta Svensson’s crime novels, all the time wincing about the blood and semen descriptions, and nursing her aching wrists.

She complains about her driving instructor, Jytte, who seems boorish enough to make anyone nervous. But when Folke, the owner of the driving school, hears Sonja’s complaint and offers to teach her himself, she worries that he’ll attack her in the backseat.

She wears unpopular yellow clogs because the red are sold out. She has positional vertigo. She likes to sit in a field of rye. And, she doesn’t get along with her sister, Kate.

“In a lot of ways, thinks Sonja, Mom did me a disservice in believing I could just be myself. If I hadn’t been allowed to, then I’d be sitting right now with the whole package, but that train’s left the station. And if anyone does, Mom knows that you have to adapt if you’re going to entangle yourself in an intimate relationship. Kate knows that too. And Dad.” (p. 107)

Mirror, Shoulders, Signal is interesting enough in its own way, if you feel like reading a big long whine until you come to the last fifteen pages, but how it managed to be on the Man Booker International Prize long list surprises me.

Find more reviews at Messenger’s Booker, Winston’sDad’s Blog1st Reading’s Blog and Tony’s Reading List

Mirror, Shoulders, Signal by Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra
published by Pushkin Press
188 pages

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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How fresh is the voice of a young girl, especially in the hands of Wioletta Greg. It is as if I am listening to one of my students telling me a story; there is a mixture of the bizarre within truth such that you can hardly separate the facts from the imagination. Both are equally important to the story teller, and in this case, to me, the reader.

In chapters which could stand alone, but together contribute to the overall story, we see what it is like to pass from childhood to adulthood in a Polish rural community during the 1970s and ’80s. Often the chapters will hold luminous description and then end suddenly, jarringly, with a revelation about adults which they have tried to keep secret. It’s as though the girl speaking to us, Wiola, has an omniscient eye. She tells us everything, with no agenda or shame.

What is behind the locked door at the dressmaker’s house? Why does Wiola swallow mercury after coming back from the doctor’s? How does the (fictional) town of Hektary prepare for the visiting portrait of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica? How does a small group of students, organized by the student council to search for scrap metal, turn into a game of spin the bottle in an old woman’s basement?

Wiola will not bend to the expectations of authority around her (much like her father who deserted the army and became a taxidermist). She would rather burn her collection of matchbook labels than acquiesce to the demands of a bachelor who catches her reaching for his box of Orbis travel agency matches featuring Krakow’s famous Lajkonik horsemen.

As she grows up, the political events of Poland during this time period are gently referred to. Familiar names to me, such as Lech Wałęsa, make the briefest of appearances to remind us that this is more than a coming of age story. It is also a finger pointing to the realities of daily life in Poland at the end of the communist era.

Find more reviews at 1st Reading’s Blog, Winstonsdad’s Blog, Messenger’s  Booker and David’s Book World.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Published by Portobello, January 5, 2017
160 pages

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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I have rarely reviewed the books I hold the most dearly on this blog. I am afraid that my words will tarnish them, that my words and their author’s words have no business being on the same page.

So it is with Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. If I tell you that I read breathlessly, turning the pages without being aware of the paper, or the light, or the time, or my chair, you might say, “I’ve heard all that before.”

You might even be unconvinced of its power if I told you there was a line on nearly every page that I wanted to record in my commonplace book, write down to record exactly what Jon said so that I can read it again and again at my leisure.

Even though he writes a family history with some of the hopelessness of a secular viewpoint, he brings to mind questions that I often battle, feelings which I claim to have owned. A few examples:

“Question: What travels faster than the speed of light?

Answer: Time itself.

It whizzes like an arrow straight through us. First the sharp point penetrates the flesh, organs and bones, that’s life, followed shortly by the feathers, that’s death.” p. 51

“…how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out-when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we choose?” p. 73

“Memories are heavy stones that I drag behind me. Is it heavy to remember? asked Ari. No, only what you regret or long to forget – regret is the heaviest stone.” p. 86

“Nothing but eternity matches up to God’s terrible implacability.” p. 91

“…we constantly try to suppress the feeling, the certainty, the fact, that humanity is ephemeral, our lives birds’ songs, seagull’s cries, then silence.” p. 84

“At some point, this thought assails us all. Why have I lived? Why am I living? Because if we never ask, never doubt, and pass our days and nights thoughtlessly, or dash through them so quickly that little stays with us but the newest mobile phone, the most popular song, it’s not unlikely that sooner or later, we’ll run into a wall.” p. 107

“It’s impossible to measure longing, nor is it possible to understand it, describe it, explain it, those who miss someone always have something dark in their hearts, a string of sorrow that time plays, strums, plucks.” p. 312

And the title? Fish have no feet, what does that mean?!

“The silly girl neither stops nor hesitates but steps into the sea, despite no-one having been able to walk on water since Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago to charm a few fishermen. The girl from the north steps down from the rocks and one foot immediately enters the sea, as does the other a nano-second later. No-one, you see, can walk on water, and that’s why fish have no feet.” p. 331

Have you ever searched for something and then perhaps compromised, making do with what comes close enough to what you had in mind? And then have you ever had the rare experience of knowing, as surely as anything you ever knew, that you have found what you were looking for?

That is me holding this book right now. I’m not saying it will win the Man Booker International Prize 2017, or even that my fellow shadow jury panelists will feel that it should.

But I know, in my heart of hearts, that no book on the long list will surpass this one for me.

Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Routman
Published on August 25, 2016 by Quercus
384 pages

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw): Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list

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However, one afternoon something strange happened to the sky, and when the sky not only goes dark but also strange and is low and hard to read, this is a sign in itself, a sign of the worst.

The people on the island do not make the rules. The weather makes it for them, and they must cope accordingly.

Young Ingrid has an infectious laugh. She laughs all the time, until she goes away from the island to school. There, the first thing she learns is to swim; she also learns her alphabet and her numbers and sees herself in a big mirror for the first time.

You are not allowed to laugh in the classroom, for three reasons, the teacher counts on his long, thin fingers: it is disruptive, it is infectious and it looks stupid…Ingrid doesn’t understand what he means. Not being allowed to laugh when you need to is like being deprived of a leg. But life is hell, she does learn that at least, so she stops laughing and starts crying instead.

I am learning about a country of which I am ill aware: Norway. The open space must be wonderful, the sea’s power terrible, and the work arduous beyond belief. Just staying alive, and warm in the Winter, takes every day’s efforts. But, there is a certain beauty in a job well done, as only experienced,  wind-chapped hands know how to do.

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photo credit here

A correctly constructed peat stack is not only beautiful, like a man-made eye-catching attraction in the countryside, it is a work of art. A slapdash, hastily built stack, on the other hand, is a tragedy, which reveals its true nature at the worst possible moment, in January, when they wade through the snow with hand-woven baskets on their backs and discover the peat to be encrusted with ice, frozen rock solid.

I loved reading about this family on their island, catching and salting the fish, rowing the færing into the Trading Post on the mainland, caring for one another, as well as unexpected children who come their way. Jacobsen gives us a magnificent picture of life in Norway, but even better, to me, is the portrayal of family. Which need not be related by blood.

He also includes themes of dreams and regret, courage in the face of adversity, and how to survive the loss of something you aren’t even aware is being taken away from you.

This is yet another splendid book in what is proving to be a very powerful long list.

Find another review at 1st Reading’s Blog and David’s Book World.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Published by Quercus on August 16, 2017
272 pages