Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Man Booker International Prize 2019) ~ As near to perfect a book as I have ever read.

I was alone in the world and in the evening I watched the river as I ate.

This sentence, on the very first page, pierces me with its loneliness. But when our narrator, Benia, joins the Red Army to fight on the Romanian front, he finds he is not alone anymore.

He met Pavel when he was hidden from the road, behind a wall, heating up water to make some tea. They met Kyabine, who was built like a lumberjack and seemed a bit slow, when he watched them playing dice in the middle of the street. They invited Sifra, who never had any trouble with anyone, to help them build a hut in the pine forest where they could endure the winter, and the group became four.

They discover a pond, which they keep to themselves, and Pavel and Kyabine splash in it like children. They play dice and gamble tobacco, or roll it into cigarettes. They take turns sleeping with a watch, taken off of a fallen soldier, that has a picture of a woman inside it. When Pavel gets up in the darkness, he gently wakes Benia to accompany him; Benia is his comfort from the terrible nightmares that come in the night.

Their friendship charms me.

The tenderness of their youth charms me.

There is an innocence and joy about the comrades, about the four soldiers, that charms me.

And, there is a sorrow lying underneath the joy that is almost unbearable.

Once, while trying to capture a horse, they became separated.

So I spoke in my head to my parents: Don’t believe what you see. I told them: There’s Pavel, Kyabine and Sifra somewhere in the field, so don’t worry.

I sat down in the grass.

I watched the sun sink beteeen the grass stalls, and after a while I lowered my head and began to sob. But believe me, it wasn’t out of sadness…

And now I held them both in my arms and I sobbed as I pressed them against me and I swear it wasn’t out of sadness.

You know they have to leave the pond, burning the huts they have built because they don’t need them anymore. They are ordered to advance on the enemy.

A kid they have met, who sleeps in their tent and writes in a notebook with a pencil tied to a string, records their precious days together. They tell him all that they want him to write, reminding him to skip no detail.

When Benia takes the notebook after the kid has fallen, there are only letters. Nothing that could form a word. It does not take away the time they shared as four comrades, but it does point to the impermanence of their lives.

I am as impressed by this book as I ever have been. It caught me by surprise because I don’t like books about war, and I didn’t particularly like Mingarelli’s earlier book, A Meal in Winter.

But, The Four Soldiers? I will never forget it. Reading it caused a worthy sadness.

(The Four Soldiers is also published by New Press.)

The Shape of The Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list)

The Shape of The Ruins is a novel of historical fiction which dwells on many themes: the past, coincidence, conspiracy, how mistaken we might be about what we are told is factual. What if the Twin Towers in New York did not fall just because two planes crashed into them? What if John F. Kennedy was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald alone? And, what if Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the Liberal leader of Bogata, was also part of a nefarious plan when he was assassinated on April 9, 1948?

I like how Juan Gabriel Vasquez highlights pieces of American history and parallels them with that of Colombia’s, in terms of possible deception to the people. He presents governments who, at the very least, have distorted or omitted facts for their own political agenda. And, he presents himself as an author within this book, for authors have the freedom to interpret what happened in the past.

And nevertheless, that was the only thing that interested me as a reader of novels: the exploration of that other reality, not the reality of what really happened, not the novelized reproduction of true and provable events, but the realm of possibility, of speculations, or the meddling the novelist can do in places forbidden to the journalist or historian. (p. 181)

Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives us many interpretations of what the past can mean, this being one which particularly stands out to me:

That’s what the past is: a tale, a tale constructed over another tale, an artifice of verbs and nouns where we might be able to capture human pain, fear of death and eagerness to live, homesickness while battling in the trenches, worry for the soldier who has gone into the fields of Flanders and who might already be dead when we remember him. (p. 224)

The plot within these pages is quite involved. It is detailed, in some places, to the point of being tedious. (Especially the section from page 290-390 which describes the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe.) Facts, as we know them, have been intertwined with the author’s conjecture, portraying a country’s history as tenuous at best.

I don’t know when I started to realize that my country’s past was incomprehensible and obscure to me, a real shadowy terrain, nor can I remember the precise moment when all that I’d believed so trustworthy and predictable—-the place where I’d grown up, whose language I speak and customs I know, the place whose past I was taught in school and in university, whose present I have become accustomed to interpreting and pretending I understand—-began to turn into a place of shadows out of which jumped horrible creatures as soon as we dropped our guard. (p. 441)

The last section of the book pulls me in with sentences like that. I remember being a child who believed that teachers taught you, doctors healed you, and leaders led you. Now that I am grown up, I, too, see the shadows all around me, and for that reason I think The Shape of The Ruins has an impact far beyond its pages. Far beyond Colombia or America. Perhaps all of us can find a certain disillusionment in what we thought to be true about our country.

The Man Booker International Prize 2019 long list

Perhaps it is not a surprise after all, to find that of the thirteen books long listed for the Man Booker International Prize, I have read two of them. It seems that the jury wishes to find the unsung heroes for translated literature, the books which could go unnoticed were it not for the attention given by this prize. While I had hoped for Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore to be included, it makes sense to read authors whose novels are less known. It makes sense to draw attention to the small presses who publish such magnificent works.

The Shadow Jury and I will begin reading tonight, if I speak only for myself, as eager to begin as those who attended a release party for the Harry Potter books when they came out at midnight.

Our library had only three of the thirteen titles, a fact which does not surprise me as it wouldn’t leave much room for John Sanford or Kristin Hannah if they filled their shelves with the mind-broadening books listed here. Therefore, I am searching for the remaining 10 titles as I plan on reading them all before the winner is announced in May.

Man Booker International prize 2019 longlist

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe)

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta)

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)

The Shadow Jury and I will be reading and posting our thoughts on as many titles as we can before the short list is revealed on April 9, 2019, and the winner declared on May 21, 2019. 

The Man Booker International Prize 2019: a few of my predictions


Several members of the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury have been thinking about the books they’d like to see on the long list which will be released March 13, 2019. Each of us gave Tony three of our favorite titles so that he could determine if the jury would add a title should it be neglected from the official list.

But my predictions for the MBIP long list include these books:

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen)

Convenvenience Store Woman by Sayata Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

The Last Children of Tokyo (published as The Emissary in the United States) by Yoko Tawada (translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)

The Three Governesses by Anne Serre (translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson)

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe)

The Children of The Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah)

How exciting it is to wait for the official list, to see what it includes and to begin reading. Hopefully, you will see some of the above-mentioned titles.

The Man Booker International Prize is awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK. Both novels and collections of short stories are eligible.

The Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury for 2019

1139FA76-466E-4744-9072-A9B9102BCE4FIt is with great anticipation that we have assembled ourselves again, waiting for the Man Booker International Prize to release its long list on March 13, 2019. For several weeks now, bloggers have been putting forth their predictions or at least what they hope will be on the official list. Guesses include Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Kings, Battles and Elephants, Anne Serre’s The Governesses, Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, and others. While we await the official long list, however, let me introduce you to the Shadow Jury for this year’s prize:

Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. He’s recently branched out into a spot of translation himself, including a serialised version of Eduard Graf von Keyserling’s novella Sultry Days at his site. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Bellezza (Meredith Smith) is from Chicago, Illinois, and has been writing a blog focusing on translated fiction, Dolce Bellezza, since 2006. She has also written reviews for Shiny New Books and hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for 12 years. Her Twitter name is @bellezzamjs

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for European Literature Network, Splice, Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, and Strange Horizons. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb

Vivek Tejuja is a book blogger and reviewer from India and based in Mumbai. He loves to read books in Indian languages and translated editions of languages around the world (well, essentially world fiction, if that’s a thing). He also writes for Scroll.In and The Quint. He blogs at The Hungry Reader and tweets as @vivekisms. His first book, “So Now You Know”, a memoir of growing up gay in Mumbai in the 90s is out in September 2019 by Harper Collins India.

Paul Fulcher is a Wimbledon, UK based fan of translated fiction, who contributes to the Mookse and Gripes blog and is active on Goodreads, where he moderates a MBI readers’ group. He is on the jury of the Republic of Consciousness Prize (@prizeRofC), which rewards innovative fiction, including in translation, from small independent presses. His reviews can be found at @fulcherpaul and via his Goodreads page.

Emma Cazabonne was born and raised in France and has now been living in the US for nearly 20 years. She published a Medieval spirituality anthology. After university studies focusing on foreign languages, she tutors in French, translates fiction and nonfiction, and runs the virtual book tour company France Book Tours. She blogs at Words And Peace, where she likes to share about her passion for reading across many genres and for books in translation. She can be found on Twitter @wordsandpeace

Naomi Morauf is a voracious reader and avid tweeter with a particular interest in translated and speculative fiction. She moved to London for her philosophy degree and fell predictably into its clutches, working in media analysis as a broadcast editor before moving into book publishing. A Creative Access alumna and active member of the Society of Young Publishers and BAME in Publishing, she is a regular at Post Apocalyptic Book Club and the Dark Societies series of events. She is currently reviewing submissions at Unsung Stories.

Oisin Harris lives in Canterbury, UK and is an editor-in-the-making with a Publishing MA from Kingston University and an English degree from Sussex University. He is an academic librarian, and a freelance editor and proofreader. He has written about Women in Translation, Book Histories and how they can affect Book Futures as well as on Islam and Literature in the West. When not reading or writing he can be found on Twitter @literaryty

Frances Evangelista is an educator from the Washington DC area who has been blogging about books for over ten years at Nonsuch Book and chatting on Twitter about the same @nonsuchbook. She has participated in a variety of projects including a Man Booker Shadow Panel for the last three years, and is eager to spread her wings with this MBIP panel.

Antonomasia (Anna Thompson), a UK-based freelance commercial writer, has been posting on Goodreads since 2011, and has over 700 reviews under her belt, some of which are being imported to a new blog. For four years, she has been the main compiler of Goodreads lists of newly-translated fiction which is eligible for the Man Booker International Prize, inspired by other users’ lists for the English-language Booker Prize, and by Three Per Cent’s translation database in the USA. You can see the 2019 MBIP-eligible list here. Like Paul, she is a contributor and moderator in the Mookse and the Gripes Goodreads group.

Follow our thoughts and opinions, if you will, as we make our way through the long list, to the short list (revealed on April 9, 2019), and on to the winner (declared on May 21, 2019). Personally, it is some of the best reading I will do all year.