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?

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.

The Man Booker International Prize 2018 Short List: In My Opinion They Got One Right

As you may have noticed, the Man Booker International Prize 2018 short list was revealed yesterday. But, I didn’t write a post on it yet because I needed some time to absorb the judges’ decision, as so often happens with literary prizes for which I am reading. Of the six books listed, I have read all but one (Vernon Subutex 1); of the five I have read from this list, I feel only one really ought to be on the short list.

Each book does, of course, stand out in its own way:

  • Han Kang’s writing in The White Book is gorgeous. But, I could find little connection with her content.
  • László Krasznahorkai’s book, The World Goes On, is deep and insightful, yet hopelessly dark.
  • Like A Fading Shadow would simply not end in a drawn out, boringly repetitive account of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray and his attempted escape to Lisbon.
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad dealt with a corpse made up of body parts from the deceased in Iraq; I found it rather forced, and an ineffective way to describe the horrors within that country as the monster elicited no compassion within me, unlike the other monster by Mary Shelley. Also, what some described as humorous, I found tragic.
  • Which leaves me with Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, a book I thought to be brilliant the first time I read it, and hoped to be included in the short list. From these six, may her book be the one which wins.

All opinions are my own, and they are not to be confused with the Shadow Jury’s thoughts. Many of us are quite happy with the short list, as you will discover on Thursday, or thereabouts, when we reveal ours. Until then, here is the official list in case you haven’t yet seen it:

The 2018 shortlist (link to the brief video here):

Author (country/territory), Translator, Title (imprint)

• Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne, Vernon Subutex 1 (MacLehose Press)

• Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith, The White Book (Portobello Books)

• László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock Press)

• Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, Like a Fading Shadow (Tuskar Rock Press)

• Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld)

• Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Let’s talk about what determines a prize winning novel, shall we?

The Man Booker International Prize short list will be revealed on Thursday, April 12. I am sure that the official judges are pondering each of the thirteen novels on the long list, discussing amongst themselves which six ought to be included in the final round. It can’t be an easy job. It isn’t easy for me, and I am not an official judge, a professor, or professional reviewer. I simply stand on the five decades of experience, and volume of books, I’ve accumulated as a reader.

Yet there is the matter of personal preference, which came up today in a fragmented discussion between me and a fellow shadow jury member. He feels a very strong emotional attachment to a book I cared about not in the slightest. I value his opinion highly, and I stand in awe of his beautifully articulated reviews. So where do we go from here? The other members of the shadow jury will weigh in, and we’ll sort it out. But, there are a few qualities which make me feel a book is prize-worthy beyond the quality of the writing itself.

For me, an exceptional book must have an honorable aspect, something that sets it apart from the common, degrading, dark aspects of life. Of course those elements exist, but I need to have more to hang on to. I need to know that there is something beyond filth and despair when I have finished such a novel, even if it is only a lesson. (Charlotte’s Web is a good example. One could argue that it contains aspects of murder and death as Wilber is slated for slaughter and his best friend does, in fact, die. But, balanced with this reality are honorable things like friendship and self-sacrifice and hope for the future.) Don’t give me a book which is nothing but bleak despair, leave me with only that in my mind, and expect me to claim it deserves an award.

The other thing a novel must have, for me, is an emotional connection. I need to feel that if I haven’t cried, at least there were tears close at hand; if I haven’t laughed, at least I’ve smiled. I need to put the book down from time to time in order to fully absorb it, or record some powerful thought. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them, even if the outcome is only derived from my own imagination. They need to breathe and move and leap off the page for me, instead of laying there inert.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not representing a specific publisher or author, that I write my blog purely for my own pleasure in recording what I’ve read and my opinion about those titles. Surely members of the Shadow Jury panel don’t agree with me completely; after all, we take into consideration the quality of the writing, the content of the novel, and the longevity we think it will hold in the future. No where is there a category to score a novel in terms of “honor” or “emotional impact”. Those are just two qualities which are important to me.

And you? What makes a book most noteworthy in your opinion?

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

“There’s too much in the world. It would be wiser to reduce it, rather than expanding or enlarging it. We’d be better off stuffing it back into its little can – a portable panopticon we’d be allowed to peek inside only on Saturday afternoons, once our daily tasks had bewn completed, once we’d made sure there was clean underwear to wear, ironed shirts taut over the armrests, floors scrubbed, coffee cake cooling on the windowsill. We could peer inside it through a tiny little hole like at the Fotoplastikon in Warsaw, marvelling over its every little detail…We have no choice now but to learn to endlessly select.” p. 65

In her novel Flights, Olga Tokarczuk selects vignettes for us, details of lives that somehow feel familiar to my own even though I know they couldn’t possibly be. I’m not Polish. Or, a doctor. I don’t even like looking at body parts in formaldehyde which seem to take up the entire middle of the novel. But, somehow it spoke to me.

Take the phantom pain in an amputated limb. I don’t know what that is, personally, but I know a type of phantom pain from a person who’s missing from my side. I know something of the searching she describes, the hunger for meaning she describes, the flights that we take wondering if we’re going in the right direction. Wondering if we’ll ever reach our intended destination.

Don’t expect a story, a plot with a beginning, middle and end. Don’t expect clear answers to the questions which arise.

Some favorite quotes:

“They weren’t real travellers: they left in order to return. And they were relieved when they got back, with a sense of having fulfilled an obligation.” p. 12

“But nomads and merchants, as tbey set off on journeys, had to think up a different type of time for themselves, one that would better respond to the needs of their travels. That time is linear time, more practical because it was able to measure progress toward a goal or destination, rises in percentages. Every moment is unique; no moment can be repeated. This idea favours risk-taking, living life to the fullest, seizing the day. And yet the innovation is a profoundly bitter one: when change over time is irreversible, loss and mourning become daily things. This is why you’ll never hear them utter words like ‘futile’ or ’empty’. p. 59

“Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces. Life? There’s no such thing; I see lines, planes and bodies, and their transformations in time. Time, meanwhile, seems a simple instrument for the measurement of tiny changes, a school ruler with a simplified scale – it’s just three points: was, is and will be.” p. 187-188

“So it would appear that memory is a drawer stuffed with papers – some of them are totally useless, those one-time documents like dry cleaning tickets, and the proofs of purchase of winter boots or a toaster long since gone. But then there are other reusable ones, testaments not to events but to whole processes: a child’s vaccination booklet, her student ID like a tiny passport, its pages half-filled with stamps from each term, her school diploma, a certificate of completion from a dressmaking course.” p. 296

There is an angst which comes from a life without faith, a life which questions its every move. And if it weren’t for my faith, I would feel hopelessly lost in a flight pattern not of my own design as is described within these pages. As it is, though, this emerges as my favorite so far of all the Man Booker International Prize books on the long list. The imagery, the writing, the scenes are incredible.

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munez Molina (translated by Camilo A. Ramirez, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

I’d like to say I liked this novel, and at first I did. But halfway through I became so bored I didn’t know whether to finish it or throw it against the wall.

In a nutshell, it is the story of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his endless aliases and attempts to avoid being captured by the police. He reads James Bonds novels and cheap spy thrillers; he stays in fleabag hotels and employs prostitutes. He tries to be more sophisticated than he is, but his suit is the wrong thing to wear in the hot May temperatures of Lisbon, Portugal. His ears are lopsided, one bigger than the other, and he never quite fits in. We are given only the briefest glimpses into his past, brought up in Alabama with alcoholic parents, lice ridden siblings, and a growing prejudice against African Americans.

Alternating with his story, is the story of the author who is discontent with his life; his marriage, his two sons, everything gets in the way of what he wants to do: write. Or, on some pages, drink and hang out with his friends. I was interested, at first, in the difficulties inherent to writing: seeing the stack of white paper next to the typewriter, feeling the flow of ideas fall naturally into a rhythym one day, or hide into nonexistence another.

But the two storylines don’t connect very well in my opinion, and the tediousness of Ray’s efforts to escape became overwhelming to me. I am compassionate to a point. However, there are books on the Man Booker International Prize long list which are calling to me more loudly than this one.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

“You better find where your body’s gone,” he said, “or else things are going to end badly.”

Hasib was killed in an explosion outside of the hotel he was guarding, and his soul without a body found a body without a soul in which it could dwell.

Elishva, an old woman known an Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, is convinced her son is not dead even though he has never returned from the Iran-Iraq war.

“Get up, Daniel,” she shouts. “Get up, Danny. Come along, my boy.” With these words she has animated the soul of the hotel guard who has inhabited the disparate body parts put together by Hadi, the junk dealer.

Thus Frankenstein in Baghdad comes to life. At first he is called Whatsitsname, and the first murders he commits are those of drunk beggars he doesn’t know whom he arranges in a circle, each with his hands around another’s neck.

He said he tried to avoid them, but they were aggressive and tried to kill him. His horrible face was an incentive for them to attack him. They didn’t know anything about him, but they were driven by that latent hatred that can suddenly come to the surface when people meet someone who doesn’t fit in. p. 125-126

His murders become a means of vengeance. His creator, Hadi, sees the reason he exists as this:

…the Whatsitsname was made up of the body parts of people who had been killed, plus the soul of another victim, and had been given the name of yet another victim. He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf.” p. 125

Except, with revenge, where does the killing stop? Especially terrible, is that the monster says he’s “the only justice there is in this country.”

Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it so accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

But the killing had only begun. At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

When he kills an innocent, frightened old man in the street, he arrives at a fresh explanation.

My head was swimming with conflicting thoughts, but I held firm to the idea that I had only hastened the old man’s death. I was not a murderer: I had merely plucked the fruit of death before it fell to the ground. p. 155

Of course the larger picture is of the situation in Baghdad itself, where things more unbelievable than monsters running the streets or people returning from the dead occur.

Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people appeared out of nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face-to-face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’ – when, for example, a motorbike ran into them in the middle of the road. Believers lost their faith when those who had shared their beliefs and their struggles betrayed them and their principles. Non-believers had become believers when they saw the ‘merits’ and benefits of faith. The strange things that had come to light in the past three years were too many to count. p. 227

So who is to blame for all the evil that has happened in Iraq? Does this monster represent a Shiite extremist? An “agent of foreign powers” as described by the Iraqi government? A man designed by the Americans?

Whoever he is, if only his arrest could actually have stopped the unrest that is in Iraq.

The Stolen Bicycle by Ming-Yi Wu (translated from the Mandarin by Darryl Sterk, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

stolenbicycle1886506134.jpg

Twenty years ago, when Father first went missing, it occurred to us if we could find his bicycle, we might find him. Only then did we discover that his bicycle was gone, too – that Father and his iron steed had left us together.

Lucky brand bicycles, which in fact seem to bring no luck at all. Butterfly wings made into collages. Mudslides in the jungle of Burma and granades exploding. An orangutan named Mr. Ichiro, and elephants named Miss Ma and Ah Mei, so carefully portrayed they seem to have human characteristics. Red cedars and banyans within the branches of which one could climb to hide from enemy soldiers.

A man, on a search for his father.

Dead, or missing fathers, everywhere.

These images swirl in my head as I read, letting me know that I am reading about much more than just a stolen bicycle. This novel is about war and the horrendous things people have done to one another, but it is also gentle and insightful.

Stories exist in the moment when you have no way of knowing how you got from the past to the present. We never know at first why they continue to survive, as if in hibernation, despite the erosive power of time. But as you listen to them, you feel like they have been woken up, and end up breathing them in. Needle-like, they poke along your spine into your brain before stinging you, hot and cold, in the heart.

Some favorite quotes as I read:

“Brother had bawled on the whole way home on Ma’s back – well on his way to a career of annoying everyone around him to no end.”

“The boss had reached that age when loneliness starts to choke you and any company will do.”

“The truth of a novel does not depend on facts.”

“Then I did my best to forget about it. This is my habit in the face of uncertainty – I try not to think about things, hoping they’ll turn out fine.”

“Bicycles in War lists some of the advantages of war bicycles. For starters, bicycles were as fast and agile as cavalry, but didn’t have to eat, drink, shit, piss or sleep like a horse. A bicycle also won’t kick or bite. Even more important, a bicycle unit doesn’t consume gasoline like a motorcycle unit. And riding a bike is much quieter than riding a horse or driving a vehicle.”

“I was shocked to realise how quickly a familar face could fade from memory after just a few days’ absence.”

“But as I grew older, I discovered that people living for their own happiness often bring pain to those around them. They don’t seem able to consider their family members’ opinions, or their feelings. Everyone envies this kind of person. Sometimes I felt I was a lot like him, the difference being that I didn’t have the courage to face disapproval.”

“Emotionally he stayed underwater, only occasionally sending up a periscope.”

“If you can accept that – that some things aren’t meant to be, that you can’t get all you want – you can be more accepting in your own life.”

The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Reading The White Book is like reading an exquisite poem. It is not written in free verse, exactly, but the images conveyed, the very sharpening of our senses, is revealed in every phrase.

The narrator mourns the death of her sister, a sister “white as a moon-shaped rice cake”, a sister she had never known. Instead, she had been “born and grown up in the place of that death.”

“I think of her being weaned and raised on rice porridge, growing up, becoming a woman, making it through every crisis.

I think of death deflected every time, faced with her back as she moves firmly forwards.

Don’t die. For God’s sake, don’t die.

Because of those words knitted into her, an amulet in her body.”

Han Kang examines a multitude of things that are white: snow, salt, a lace curtain, handkerchief or sugar cube…

“She isn’t really partial to sweet things any more, but the sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is colored by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.”

Her writing sparkles, but the end result for me is a certain detachment. I am unable to connect with the loss of a sister I never knew, to feel a shadow over my life from the death of a sibling. But, for those who can, they will surely be moved by this novel, and especially the final sentences Han Kang writes:

“With your eyes, I will see the chill of the half-moon risen in the day.

At some point those eyes will see a glacier. They will look up at that enormous mass of ice and see something sacred, unsullied by life.

They will see inside the silence of the white birch forest. Inside the stillness of the window where the winter sun seeps in. Inside those shining grains of dust, swaying along the shafts of light which slant onto the ceiling.

Within that white, all those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Leave it to Jenny Erpenbeck to write the most compassionate novel about refugees I have ever read. In my mind, even Exit West by Mohsin Hamid cannot compare.

Perhaps it is not only because of her beautiful writing that she is able to do this; perhaps because she is German she has an idea of what being a refugee must be like.

When I taught in Germany during the 1980’s the Wall was still up. My husband and I rented an apartment from a man whose father had come to visit friends and was never allowed back to his home in the East. We saw films of people trying to escape into the West, and it was horrible.

Our narrator, Richard, lives in Berlin after the Wall has been taken down. I found him to be alienated from his country in ways that faintly resembled how the Africans were alienated from theirs.

In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.

If being a refugee is like being a stranger in a land, than Richard himself qualifies as one in telling this story of his past and Germany’s present.

His terrain has changed not only with the fall of the Wall, but with the death of his wife, the absence of his lover and now the end of his career. As he tells us of his youth, in the East side of Berlin, we hear of pain and suffering which resonates with that of the refugees whom he is so curious about.

His curiosity expands into “interviewing” the African refugees when he visits them in the nursing home where they have been temporarily moved, then helping them, and finally befriending them.

Some of my fellow bloggers have suggested that this novel is more about the theme than the writing, and indeed, the theme of the refugee’s plight is relentless. But, the novel is compassionate, and thought-provoking, and in many ways uncomfortable to me as I examine my own thoughts regarding this current issue in our world.

One of the most striking pages to me was one in which on a field of white, the only sentence was this:

Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?

Some favorite quotes, highlighted as I read:

He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others – only for him is it an ending.

…everything he’s ever studied – is now his own private property and nothing more.

Today alone, six people died in swimming accidents in the greater Berlin area, the newscaster says in conclusion, a tragic record, and now it’s time for the weather. Six people just like that man still at the bottom of the lake. We become visible. Why didn’t Richard see all these men at Alexanderplatz?

The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.

Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.

When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. Somewhere here is where the problem lies, Richard thinks: the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others – people with the freedom to choose – get to decide which stories to hold on to.

Learning to stop wanting things is probably one of the most difficult lessons of getting old. But if you don’t learn to do that, it seems to him, your desires will be like a bellyful of stones dragging you down to your grave.

For a long time the old man and this young man sit there side by side at the desk, watching and listening as these three musicians use the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing to do with the keys’ colors.

Buy with free international shipping and delivery from Bookwitty.