Hello Gentle Reader
The Best Translated Book Award always releases perhaps one of the most extensive longlists for a literary prize. The fiction longlist alone contains twenty-five titles from twenty-five different writers, who have been translated into English. It’s a plethora of different experiences, themes, languages, voices and styles. The poetry longlist contains ten poetry collections in the same fashion, of different writers from all over the world and linguistic landscape, ranging in styles, themes and preoccupations.
The following Gentle Reader is the fiction longlist. Following the longlist is a rundown of some of the titles and writers who have been longlisted for the prize. The sheer volume of the list often makes it difficult to properly ruminate on each writer singularly; so under time restraints and circumstances, it is often more economical to selectively discuss some of the titles listed, which are viewed as either interesting or worth commentary, while others may simply be glanced over. Without further delay here is this year’s fiction longlist:
Yoko Ogawa – Japan – “The Memory Police,”
Ma Jian – China (United Kingdom) – “China Dream,”
Olga Tokarczuk – Poland – “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,”
Burhan Sönmez – Turkey – “Labyrinth,”
Hiromi Kawakami – Japan – “Parade,”
Christos Ikonomou – Greece – “Good Will Come From the Sea,”
Vigdis Hjorth – Norway – “Will and Testament,”
Khaled Khalifa – Syria – “Death is Hard Work,”
Ariana Harwicz – Argentina – “Die, My Love,”
Marcus Malte – France – “The Boy,”
Daša Drndić – Croatia – “E.G.G,”
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo – France – “Animalia,”
Nona Fernández – Chile – “Space Invaders,”
Donatella Di Pietrantonio – Italy – “A Girl Returned,”
Sinan Antoon – Iraq – “The Book Collateral Damage,”
Yuko Tsushima – Japan – “Territory of Light,”
Juan Carlos Onetti – Uruguay – “A Dream Come True,”
Marie NDiaye – France – “The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel,”
Vasily Grossman – Russia – “Stalingrad,”
Igiaba Scego – Italy – “Beyond Babylon,”
Guillermo Saccomanno – Argentina – “77,”
Rita Indiana – Dominican Republic – “Tentacle,”
Virginie Despentes – France – “Vernon Subutex 1,”
Selva Almada – Argentina – “The Wind That Lays Waste,”
Linda Boström Knausgård – Sweden – “Welcome to America,”
As in years past, the longlist contains writers from across time periods—living and dead—as well as different status in their foothold in the English language. There are those with numerous publications and translations, and those who are just beginning to have their work translated and published and gaining some recognition.
Japan has three writers named on its longlist, much like last year when three Japanese writers found themselves on the longlist, and two of them received places on the shortlist: Masatsugu Ono and Sayaka Murata. The Japanese writers currently nominated on the longlist are:
(i) Yoko Ogawa – “The Memory Police,”
(ii) Hiromi Kawakami – “Parade,”
(iii) Yuko Tsushima – “Territory of Light,”
Yoko Ogawa was recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize with her novel “The Memory Police.” Up until this point, Ogawa has found moderate success in the English language, with a few of her novels and one short story collection translated into English. What is available provides an overarching overview of her work, varying from the hallmark sentimentality characterized in the understated domestic novel “The Housekeeper & the Professor,” to the dark and grotesque stories of underlying violence in her novels “The Diving Pool,” and “Hotel Iris,” and reaching its pinnacle in the short story collection: “Revenge.” Yet each translation and subsequent marketing fixated on these superficial elements, while ignoring the poetic psychological underlying components that have garnered Ogawa a following in Japan, as well as France. “The Memory Police,” unfortunately suffers the same missteps. The novel is being paraded and characterized as a dystopian novel, and a cautionary tale of totalitarian control, manifesting itself through the ability to manipulate and command the populace of the unnamed isolated island to accept and forget the disappearing objects vanishing from its shores; both mundane and more menacingly surreal. The novel is more Kafkaesque then it is dystopian, with more acute themes contemplating memory, through the scope of hiding, remembering, documenting and recording the sudden loss of objects. “The Memory Police,” is not about the notion of authoritarian politics, but the poetic beauty of paying respect, remembering, and the fleetingness of memory.
Much like Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami has found some moderate success in the English language. Her off-beat fiction has endeared her to her readers in Japan, and has found a somewhat cult following in the English language. Her work is noted for employing simple language, and describing routine daily activities, and social interactions to insinuate, the complicated emotional ambiguities that exist between individuals. “Parade,” is by no means any different; it traces the platonic and affectionate relationship between the narrator and the teacher (sensei). What transpires is a novel of gentle fairytale tropes, a peculiar blend of Japanese magical realism, and the sweet yet striking sting of childhoods come and past. It’s a novel that explores the quiet moments of life unperturbed by the grander demands of life; and in these quiet moments the characters are encapsulated in the amber of lazy summer days, stung to sleep by the sweet nostalgia of childhood, and days now past. Hiromi Kawakami proves that literature is not just found in the grander themes of life or contemplating human destiny, or existential crisis’s, or ones place in the crystalline etchings of history; but rather a deeply human, understated and overlooked elements of being. The quiet moments, past over as a mere footnote; it is in these moments that Kawakami exploits to showcase literary pursuit is not just the pursuit of the most scholarly, or recounting the most divine testament; but also a celebration of the otherwise simple, mundane, and the glorious magic that exists in that realm.
Of the three Japanese writers, Yuko Tsushima had the longest career (she died in two-thousand and sixteen); and of the three, Tsushima is the most acutely aware of providing a more concrete and direct commentary on social, psychological, and political issues of the time. Her tone is realistic, and unabashed. Where Yoko Ogawa will slip into the Kafkaesque to provide a surreal reflection of the world; or Hiromi Kawakami employees folktale and magical realism to extrapolate the bittersweet; Yuko Tsushima plainly recounts the otherwise undiscussed with steel severity and iron conviction. Yuko Tsushima’s work takes an interest in the marginalized populace of Japanese society, and throughout her literary career she continually unearthed their stories and crafted them into her own. The daughter of the late and tragic Twentieth Century modern classic author, Osamu Dazi, Yuko Tsushima is credited for following in her suicidal fathers’ literary legacy, specifically maintaining a commitment to the ‘I-novel,’—a special Japanese literary form of semi-autobiography and psychological realism. In “Territory of Light,” Yuko Tsushima writes of abandonment, single motherhood, and the cruel aspects of the feminine subject lost in society. The novel itself traces the relationship between a single mother and her young daughter. The mother is bohemian and the daughter of a celebrated but dead writer, but all the while ordinary herself. She has left her husband, who is a man of few traits beyond habits and addictions; but despite this she is constantly encouraged to reconcile, or criticized refusing to do so. Society quickly abandons her—there is no alimony, no joint custody laws, and the stigma of single motherhood is a vicious blight. Then there is the opposition of self, the very real judgement and criticism imposed on oneself. The novels true beauty, however, is found in the descriptions, discussions, and depictions of the realistic quotidian life in Tokyo, as an individual and as a single mother. Throughout her life and literary career, Yuko Tsushima grew out of the shadow of her late and willfully tragic fathers’ literary shadow, and in its placed fashioned a career all her own, on which mixed personal and social commentary, where she became one of Japans most conscious writers, engaged with larger concerns beyond the self.
Surveying the list of twenty-five writers longlisted, one can’t help but notice Olga Tokarczuk. The recent Nobel Laureate in Literature and Polish literary star, has had a modest output in English, but gained recognition in two-thousand and nineteen when she won the International Booker Prize for her monumental constellation novel “Flights,”—and a few months later, she would receive the retroactive two-thousand and eighteen Nobel Prize for Literature, cementing her success not only in the English language, but on a global stage. Her longlisted novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” is a blend of environmental commentary, murder mystery, and a heaping spoonful of mysticism and astrological ruminations, along with contemplative thoughts on William Wordsworth’s poetry. Despite this the novel would not be described as one of the crowning achievements of Tokarczuk’s career. Its literary and an enjoyable romp; but also lacking in the deeper content that was continuously unearthed and discussed in “Flights.” It did not share the same magical cast of characters of “Primeval and Other Times,” whose lives spun through time, and the small miracles and strange wonders which continually passed through the small village. “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,” was nominated last year for the International Booker Prize as well.
The French language is also highly represented with four writers on this year’s longlist.
(i) Virginie Despentes “Vernon Subutex 1,”
(ii) Marcus Malte “The Boy,”
(iii) Marie NDiaye “The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel,”
(iv) Jean-Baptiste Del Amo “Animalia,”
In two-thousand and eighteen, Virginie Despentes was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for her novel: “Vernon Subutex 1.” Last year Despentes was also on the Best Translated Book Award longlist with her novel: “Pretty Things.” “Vernon Subutex 1,” is a transgressive literary masterpiece. The novel is considered an eviscerating vitriolic comedic ride, narrated by a post-punk eighties screwball, whose life has been ultimately squandered, wasted, and left unfulfilled. Thriving off few enjoyments, minor hedonism and a lot of couch surfing, while being fueled by cocaine (most likely mixed with a lot of nostalgia); the narrative takes a detailed account of the current political climate, complete with its contentious atmosphere; its vibrating rage and anger; coupled with its eclectic cast of characters who all embody the information age; the age of false media; and of course the internet’s electronic junkies, the social medias narcissist’s, and everyone in-between. It’s a novel that gathered interest due to its topical commentary with its scathing and searing as its recounts the polarization of the world, and the rise of anti-intellectualism, be it in France or the rest of the world. Virginie Despentes is one of Frances most popular and read writers; much like Michel Houellebecq, Despentes has made a literary career with her transgressive, post-punk and socially critical novels. She continually questions the boundaries of literary and moral decency, and fixates on the otherwise subcultural elements, feminist critical theory, and a lot of graphic depictions of the shadow aspects of life and culture. She is able to depict with vicious vitriol and wit (and a heavy dose of post-punk sensibilities) the moral, intellectual, and sociopolitical failings of the world.
Between Virginie Despentes and Marie NDiaye, is Marcus Malte, who is relatively unknown. His novel “The Boy,” recounts the life of a feral child who joins French society and falls prey to the torrid events of first half of the Twentieth Century. The boy is but a naïve primal and bestial being, who knows no human companion or interaction beyond his mother, who has taught him the points of survival. He journey’s into the greater world to join civilization; to learn to exist among other human beings; and what it is to be a human being. Throughout his travels he encounters earthquakes and car crashes; artists and monsters; and begins to understand that survival and living are not synonymous concepts. The novel is peppered with a colourful cast of characters: superstitious farmers; a caring circus performer; and an influential elderly woman who teaches the wisdom of sensuous pleasures of life, as well as the pursuits of life beyond making it till the next day. This feral boy lost and adrift is the perfect embodiment of natural innocence and naivety, and becomes the avatar in which Marcus Malte is able to expose society’s beauties, absurdities, monstrosities, cruelties, and magical moments.
One of the wonderkids of contemporary French literature, Marie NDiaye her work was discovered and published by Les Éditions de Minuit, while she was still a high school student. From her initial publication onwards, Marie NDiaye proved herself to being one of the most compelling literary forces and voices in the French literature. Her work has routinely being translated and published in English to the same critical acclaim. “The Cheffe: A Cook's Novel,” follows the typical themes of Marie NDiaye’s usual novels. The novel traces the life of a world renowned female chef, from the perspective of her former assistant and unrequited admirer. The novel traces the chef’s life; her pursuit for love, culinary delights, and career. Marie NDiaye once again uses the novel to explore powerful and resilient woman characters.
In his novel “Animalia,” Jean-Baptiste Del Amo traces the lives of a family of pig farmers from the late Nineteenth Century into the late Twentieth Century. The novel traces the families complicated past, and the continual inheritance of trauma manifesting itself in the forms of alcoholism, incest, mental illness, financial ruin, abuse, and the torrent of barbarism lying in their cradle of filth. The novel is circular, mimicking the lifecycle of both beast and human, through the ages: industrialization, World Wars, and other historic events. The novel is a bestial depiction of barbarism of the family, through the ages; their emotional inadequacies; their own vicissitudes; and their ever present failings as human beings. It’s a monstrous novel, riddled with a bleak account of butchers cum family—whom from their first germination into their legacy is infected with the dry rot of a past human monstrosity that can only be suppressed on the most superficial level. It’s a dark scatological novel, which enjoys its beastly narrative and recounting with poetic flourish the horrors and monstrous legacy of the family.
South America, and Spanish language literature is heavily mentioned on this year’s shortlist. Six writers from the southern continent and romance language have been included on this short list:
(i) Ariana Harwicz “Die, My Love,”
(ii) Nona Fernández “Space Invaders,”
(iii) Juan Carlos Onetti “A Dream Come True,”
(iv) Guillermo Saccomanno “77,”
(v) Rita Indiana “Tentacle,”
(vi) Selva Almada “The Wind That Lays Waste,”
Of the longlisted writers, three authors hail from Argentina, which has become one the most literary countries of the southern continent producing remarkable young writers who have found their work translated into other languages. These contemporary writers work in a completely different direction than their predecessors of the Latin American Boom. Rather than fixating on the solitarily homes, riddled with its exotic and magical realism like narratives populated by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Carlos Fuentes. Instead, their narratives take a global approach in experience and narrative. Ariana Harwicz’s novel “Die, My Love,” takes place in the French countryside, who battles her demons of alienation, loneliness, lack of self-worth, and of course the concepts of wife and mother. “Die, My Love,” is an intense and uncomfortable read, always bordering on the edge of insanity, and a complete fall into the void. It was nominated for the International Booker Prize in two-thousand and eighteen.
Unlike “Die, My Love,” “Space Invaders,” is more fixated in the author’s homeland of Chile, tackling the personal and the political. The novel is narrated through the chorus of a group of friends; who during their childhood came of age during Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile. The narrators remember a former classmate who all of a sudden turned up in their class, and then suddenly disappeared, while her father disappeared. In her absence she sent letters, until they stopped coming. Years later the narrators are haunted by the memory of their erstwhile schoolmate. Through remembering her, contemplating her, and dreaming of her they recount the times of their childhood: their inability to gravitas of their lives, the external political forces that control their lives, and their own ability to defend themselves from it. In “Space Invaders,” Nona Fernández wrote a generational narrative about those affected by the Pinochet’s government; who grew up its brutality while being only superficially aware of it, while being unable to comprehend its grasp. The novel is a potent reminder of childhoods deprived, and recounting history regardless of the official records obsolete and inadequate management practices, which only creates an era of oblivion.
Guillermo Saccomanno is not as well-known as other Argentine writers: past giants: Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo; or contemporary stars: Hebe Uhart, Cesar Air, Ricardo Piglia, Samanta Schweblin. Guillermo Saccomanno in comparison has not found his foothold in the English language. His novel “77,” recounts the ‘Dirty War,’ orchestrated by Jorge Rafael Videla who used the war and the military to suppress any questions, opposition, ideals, or ideas that worked contrary to his dictatorships social, religious, and political doctrine. The Dirty War saw thousands abducted (disappeared), tortured, and of course killed. Guillermo Saccomanno structures the novel through flashbacks, of the reminiscent memories of an eighty year old gay man who lived and survived the Dirty War. The novel process that survival is often an act carrying its own guilt and grief, where one witnesses the brutality and yet remains silent. The novel though recounts the war, survival and silence, it also recounts the attempt of personal reconciliation, the desire to come to terms with the private in the historical and find peace.
“Tentacle,” is a post-apocalyptic voodoo dystopian novel. The novel is riddled with gender bending concepts; queer politics and theory; impending climate change conduced disaster; technological advancements; voodoo rituals and rites; colonial history; poverty and sex; all wrapped up in conversations on contemporary art. Rita Indiana is a controversial writer and singer-songwriter in her native country of Dominican Republic, often referred to as “La Monstra,” due to her explicit conversations regarding unconventional notions in the Carribean, specifically gender fluidity and queer culture. “Tentacle,” carries on this tradition, utilizing science fiction tropes to provide a sociopolitical commentary on the state of the Caribbean—the division between wealth and poverty; the uneven distribution of technology; and highly conservative notions on social matters such as same sex relationships, gender fluidity, and other matters under ‘queer identity.’ “Tentacle,” is a post-punk Caribbean dystopian novel, fighting the good fight, while providing its own unique commentary on the issues of today.
Uruguayan master Juan Carlos Onetti is longlisted for his collected short stories: “A Dream Come True.” Where some of other writers from the Southern Continent have trekked out their own path away from the influences of the Latin American Boom, Juan Carlos Onetti was a participant and an influence on it, though recognition beyond the continent evaded him. Now two and a half decades after his death, Juan Carlos Onetti’s work is beginning to take notice within the English language. His short stories are noted for their subtlety, enigmatic, and elegant approach, sketching out the faintest depictions and details within a few pages. The stories take place often in the fictional town of Santa Maria, a backwater town riddled populated by Italian, German and Swiss immigrants. Throughout the collection spanning five decades, readers are given the enjoyable pleasure of witnessing; Juan Carlos Onetti’s talents burgeon and grow. His work is noted for its skepticism, and is deprived of the whimsy and fantasy perpetrated by later authors of the Latin American Boom. Characters often teeter on the edge of madness, and have lukewarm relations to the divine or philosophical treatises of the time. Instead the characters are trapped in the encompassing rhymes of their lives. Reprieved is recounted in the simple and small gestures of life, such as lighting a cigarette; or drinking a cup of coffee. Beyond his narratives, Juan Carlos Onetti was a linguistic stylist, which was invigorating in its rattling use of adjectives, while effectively avoiding awkward amateur pitfalls. Juan Carlos Onetti was a master of the quotidian and the skeptical. “A Dream Come True,” is perhaps the overdue recognition awaiting one of the greatest language writers of the Spanish Language of the Twentieth Century.
Finally, Selva Almada’s novel “The Wind That Lays Waste,” is a poetic account, of four people who come are forced by circumstances to take shelter together. Their ideas, ideals, and belief could not be any different—from a narcissistic evangelical minister who seeks to spread his righteous message of God through the countryside of Argentina; his daughter traveling with him, is restless and far more skeptical of having unyielding and unquestioning faith in any matter; a young mechanics apprentice is riddled with ideals and earnestness; and a mechanic who is riddled with apathy and moral relativism based on previous embittering experiences. Over the course of a day these characters come to terms with their beliefs as they are tested, questioned, and defended. In the quarantined space of their shelter, tensions inevitably run high. In her English language debut, Selva Almada writes a novel cycling around the contrary beliefs; skepticism and a desire to believe or at least belong to a larger idea. “The Wind That Lays Waste,” is a novel of contrary perspectives; conflicting beliefs; and the bonds that bring individuals together, and pulls them apart.
Christos Ikonomou takes the holiday idyll and pulls back the cover to reveal the same concerns everyone suffers throughout the world, regardless of their geographical location; the temperance of the climate; or the culture they are beholden too. In his collection of short stories “Good Will Come From the Sea,” Christos Ikonomou chronicles the internal migrants of Greece into the rural countryside to escape penury of the financial crisis, and instead are greeted with a rural community they have sense of being above, while the rural community built on a rigid social order, corruption and organized crime. What results is a darkly comedic collection of stories form the Bard of Crisis (Christos Ikonomou) recounting a nation at war within itself.
Since Karl Ove Knausgård began to publish “My Struggle,” to critical acclaim, the autobiographical novel has come to have been accepted by western readers as an acceptable literary form; one that can be both literary and scandalous. Vigdis Hjorth’s novel “Will and Testament,” was a best seller in its native Norway, and recounts the trial, tribulations, and destructive cycle of one family, who in turn are prescribed abuse and trauma, and later go on to administer it to their own children. The power political of family is acutely measured and recounted by Vigdis Hjorth in unsentimental and matter of fact prose. What begins as a dispute over inheritance and real estate (the obvious contentious topics amongst family) leads into a startling and destructive recount over ones past, and the conflicting perspectives each individual views them. When it comes to recount, record, and personal history versus another’s, no one is guaranteed a winner—let alone any winner declared. What follows suit is by a repetitious cycle of the bitter ugly internal strife each family is bound to have lurking beneath its otherwise sense of normalcy, waiting to escape and invectively disrupt the daily discourse. Over and over again, the cycle of administration, prescription, endurance, and resentment is repeated, from one generation to another. Linda Boström Knausgård (the former wife of Karl Ove Knausgård) follows a similar path of Vigdis Hjorth, once again recounting trauma. “Welcome to America,” recounts the family tragedy of a young girl who no longer chooses to speak. Stuck between the superficial buoyant light of her mother, an acclaimed actress who enjoys and lives for the limelight of the stage; and her father a mentally ill and unstable man who tormented and tortured the family; and whose death—though prayed for—ensures that the narrator (Ellen) questions the power of language and speech. The novel is an interior driven recollection and narrative of the strange, tortured, and complicated family. A brother who has entombed himself in his room (literally); to the narrator who no longer speaks; to the flitting mother who flutters forwards to the refuge and spectacle of the stage. “Welcome to America,” is essentially the girl who meets the void and in her silence stares into it, and what stares back but the brutalized family who surrounds her; both victims and participants in the continual barrage of horror in their lives.
The Middle East is always refracted through the lens of complicated connotations. Khaled Khalifa tackles the Syrian Civil War in “Death is Hard Work.” The novel traces three people who traverse the bloodied, wounded, and scarred landscape of Syria in civil war, whose only weapon to get them through the wasteland of peppered by the soundtrack of screams, gunfire, and routine bombings. “Death is Hard Work,” depicts three siblings who are forced to put their differences aside, either by conscious or by their own sense of paternal endearment, to carry on a quest to have their father buried at the family’s ancestral plot. This odyssey of obligation sees them wade through the warzone of Syria; they are captured, interrogated, released, recaptured, and imprisoned. “Death is Hard Work,” is a unsentimental odyssey through the warzone, to lay one man to rest; where three siblings must settle their own squabbles to begin what maybe the final journey for them, as it is for their father. Similarly, Sinan Antoon recounts the Iraq War in his lyrical novel: “The Book of Collateral Damage.” Rather than fixating on the statistical evidence of the conflict; Sinan Antoon writes about the consequences of the wars loss through lives, stories, books, buildings, objects, manuscripts, antiques and so on. “The Book of Collateral Damage,” is a catalogue of loss through the obliteration, destruction, and abandonment of the objects during the Iraq War. It’s a beautiful and poetic premise, which only adds to Sinan Antoon’s small, but impressive bibliography and cements his name as one of the most important voices in contemporary Arabic literature.
Italian literature for the longest time was dominated by male writers such as: Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, and Antonio Tabucchi—great writers, Tabucchi in particular is one of my favourites; but alas they were niche by the general reading public’s standards. Then Elena Ferrante took the literary world by storm, and dominated translated literature. Her novels of the lives of girls and women, and the complications of being a woman throughout the ages and in different roles and forms, such as: daughter, friend, wife, mother—captivated readers in the English language. It will be hard to imagine any Italian language writer attempting to crawl out from beneath her shadow. Donatella Di Pietrantonio and her novel: “A Girl Returned,” will undoubtedly suffer comparison to Elena Ferrante. “A Girl Returned,” follows a complicated relationship of a girl with her family. She was relinquished as a newborn to an aunt who raised her until she was thirteen, only to be returned to her biological mother. What follows is a complicated relationship the girl has between the complicated maternal bonds she feels towards the two women who have raised her during her life. The juxtaposition from a life of privilege to one of impoverishment is defined quickly, and creates a situation for resilience and self-determination. Still, “A Girl Returned,” will suffer from the shadow of Elena Ferrante, and comparisons will obviously be made. Igiaba Scego’s work will be able to avoid and navigate and retain a safe distance from Ferrante’s shadow, and any comparison to the global breakthrough writer. Where “A Girl Returned,” was a novel of set in the claustrophobic spaces of the internal struggles of family relations, Igiaba Scego’s novel takes a global approach, as her epic novel “Beyond Babylon,” explores the unsettling and chaotic world of authoritarian politics through Argentina’s dirty war; Somalia’s collapse into a brutal civil war; and the contemporary re-emergence of right-wing politics, values, and ideals; and the corrosive and traumatic impressions these events leave on the unexpected, who are mere collateral damage. The novel traces these events through the lives of people: two mothers, two half-sisters, and one who is connected to all of them; yet absent all the same. The mothers escape the political crises of Argentina’s Dirty War and Somalia’s collapse into Civil War—though not without the scars of sacrifice. The daughters suffer their own in the realms of the personal; in the landscape of violation; as the subjects of powerlessness. Igiaba Scego has written a powerful novel of the historical and political, and interwoven into the personal, creating a powerful testament of resilience, determination, and the traumatic price of survival. “Beyond Babylon,” is not a topical novel, rather it is a masterpiece of historical and personal consequence, intensely brutal, and unapologetically upfront with the ruthless costs of war, dictatorships; and the sacrificing penance required to survive them.
Before her untimely death in two-thousand and eighteen, Daša Drndić has been one of Europe’s most intellectually potent and powerful writers for well over four decades. Over her four decade literary career, Daša Drndić produced eleven novels, noted for their literary postmodern and use of intertextuality: characters, scenarios, situations, and settings often remerged in her work, creating a complex literary and narrative tapestry, which recounted the Twentieth Centuries history, with an acute eye of detail and research, while also providing personal commentary on the events. “E.G.G,” her final novel is by no means any different. The novel is narrated by a known literary figure in her oeuvre: Andreas Ban—who was a character in one of her most critically acclaimed novels: “Belladonna.” Andreas Ban is a retired psychologist and former émigré to Canada, beyond that and being a narrator for the novel: “E.G.G,” Andreas Ban is nothing but a literary persona and stand in for his literary creator: Daša Drndić; and recounts the lives lost through the Twentieth Century, from the wars into the following dictatorships and authoritarian states, which followed. Andreas Ban recounts numerous deaths, suicides, mass murder, concentration camps, and unfortunate events within the novel—as instructed by Daša Drndić. The author herself was always praised for her finely tuned historical research. Drndić has always avoided the historical novel though, her work does not necessarily provide testimony or depict the events in a dry manner; instead it recounts the events through the objective perspective of her narrators, who provide mere opinions on the events from a temporal distance, and in doing so restores the humanity of the statistics; the evidence; the records and recounts; by reciting the names of those lost, those destroyed, those killed, and those now lost and forgotten. The novel also digresses, through the interior monologue providing thoughts on politics, literature, and people. “E.G.G,” is a tour de force, and a final send off by a writer whose impending doom grew closer everyday during its composition.
It would be curious to now think of the “Chinse Dream,” considering the controversy, outrage, and anger now being directed towards the largest communist country in the world. Yet, in two-thousand and twelve, President Xi Jinping crafted the creative slogan (after pilfering it from the usual propagated slogan of the antiquated 1950’s United States of America) to refer to the rejuvenation and restoration of a new China. Now eight years later it’s hard to see what that might be. Ma Jian on the flipside takes the new slogan, and in his literary fashion shapes it as a poignant criticism against the authoritarian and autocratic rule of the Chinese Communist party and its oxidized iron ideals. “China Dream,” by the exiled Chinese critic and author, satirically and viciously depicts the slogan “Chinese Dream,” as a dystopian device. The novel concerns a writer, and vice-chair of the municipal writer’s association, which now takes the added responsibility of ensuring the Chinese Dream becomes a permanent fixture in all citizens minds, by repeated propagation. Of course, the narrator (Ma Daode) envisions a dream device implanted in every citizens mind would ensure their dreams conformed to those of President Xi Jinping’s notion of the Chinese Dream. However, no dream is without its nightmare; and Ma Daode recalls and remember the atrocities of China’s contemporary past as it became the Communist Red Giant of today. Sites for new development, hold mass graves of the previous civil war; cemeteries are demolished as their unsightly or in the way of progressing the Chinese Dream. Ma Jian writes of a China rushing towards their idealized version of the future, while obliterating or ensuring their unsavory past remain either obsolete; or at least oblivious to its citizens and if at all possible: the wider world. Thankfully through the utilization of satire, Ma Jian is able to pull his punches, while easing the tension for its readers. Yet, considering the pandemic and the increased criticism being aimed east, one can only wonder what will remain of the Chinese Dream.
The final writer of who I can give commentary on is the Turkish writer, Burhan Sönmez, who is nominated with his novel: “Labyrinth.” In the novel “Labyrinth,” Burhan Sönmez asks questions regarding memory as the cornerstone of self. After a failed suicide attempt, and being discharged from the hospital, the novels protagonist Boratin, finds himself at home, but in a disorderly state. Boratin is unable to recall memories—that is if any were retained from his previous suicide attempt. What remains is a man alienated from his personal sense of being; a vague sense of time; an understanding of language; and a list of names: film titles, singers names, band names, sports teams, and the other identifying markers of the peripheral. What follows is a man attempting to recollect his past life, and retain his sense of being. “Labyrinth,” is a novel concerned with how the past and memories create one’s sense of being; one’s sense of identity. Boratin’s dissociation is praised as being masterfully depicted by Burhan Sönmez, as he attempts to reconnect with who he was, from the standpoint of who he is now.
The writers on this years Best Translated Book Award, explore a variety of different themes, concepts, and concerns with their novels. The novels move from notions of memory as it is tied to existence and being, to the questions of the survival in the face of political adversity. They trace dystopian lands; and give commentary on the frivolous notions of contemporary society. The circumstances and settings move from the quiet domestic concerns, to the globe trotting efforts of others. As in years past the longlist is riddled with a plethora of themes, characters, narratives, experiences and notions. It’s a massive and monstrous list for the judges to wade through and eventually reduced to the shortlist, it’ll be interesting to see what the shortlist looks like, as there are some powerful narratives which certainly standout in the thicket of the longlist.
The Poetry longlist in comparison to the fiction longlist is much smaller. Rather then twenty-five works to read; the poetry judges are given the task of reading ten collections of poetry to read and ruminate on. Personally, Gentle Reader, I am not a fevered poetry reader. Poetry has always been some cryptic correspondence, whose keys and codes eluded my understanding and remained solipsistically intrapersonal, rather then communicative. I won’t be able to give much detail or commentary on the writers longlisted, so this section will inevitably short. In that regard the Poetry Longlist reads as follows:
Kim Hyesoon – (South) Korea – “A Drink of Red Mirror,”
Gemma Gorga – Spain (Catalan Language) – “Book of Minutes,”
Reina María Rodrígue – Cuba – “The Winter Garden Photograph,”
Stéphane Bouquet – France – “Next Loves,”
Shimon Adaf – Israel – “Aviva-No,”
Amanda Berenguer – Uruguay – “Materia Prima,”
Kulleh Grasi – Malaysia – “Tell Me, Kenyalang,”
Pere Gimferrer – Spain (Catalan Language) – “The Catalan Poems,”
Etel Adnan – Lebanon (French language) – “Time,”
Lupe Gómez – Spain (Galician Language) – “Camouflage,”
The (South) Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, is once again nominated for the Best Translated Book Awards Poetry section. Last year Kim Hyesoon was shortlisted with her poetry collection: “Autobiography of Death.” Prior to being longlisted or shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, Kim Hyesoon has had a continual output of her poetry collections translated into English, providing a fresh visceral and feminine perspective to Korean poetry in translation; and in complete contrast to the poetry of Ko Un. “A Drin of Red Mirror,” is no different; this collection of poetry once again shows the poets interest in paradoxical intimacies, contrasting preconceived notions and conventional understandings against an electric new perspective, that is both surreal and invigoratingly new.
Reina María Rodrígue writes about the power and the limitations of images and photography in her poetry collection: “The Winter Garden Photograph.” The poetry collection traces the magazine images and photographs displayed in publications, which Reina María Rodrígue admired and begun to imagine in relation to her city of Havana. What follows is a treatise on images, photography and their limitations, quietly observed in her refined lyricism.
Love poems bring to mind the poems many teenagers wrote, chronicling their condensed lustful expectations they held towards their unarticulated teenage crush. Those embarrassing confessions uttering devotion and affection in whisper tones. Stéphane Bouquet’s poems in “Next Loves,” Bouquet writes about homosexuality, love, desire, loneliness and alienation through the lens of global inequality, and the rise of social precarity.
The final two poets I’d like to provide a short comment on are: Pere Gimferrer and Gemma Gorga. Pere Gimferrer is one of Spain’s greatest living poets, whose work has spanned multiple genres (poetry, essay, novels) as well as languages, interchanging between Spanish and Catalan, and modest forays into French and Italian. His longlisted collection of poems: “The Catalan Poems,” is a career spanning collection of his poetry written in the Catalan language. Throughout “The Catalan Poems,” Pere Gimferrer’s career as a poet is showcased through the capsulation and development of his work, showcasing his early relationship with modernism, into his mature meditations and influences. The Catalan poet Gemma Gorga’s monumental poetry collection: “Book of Minuets,” has finally been translated and published in English. “Book of Minuets,” is a collection of prose poems, which grapple with the natural world, as well as the complicated relationship between the personal and the divine. “Book of Minuets,” is a remarkable collection of poems by one of the greatest Catalan language poets currently at work. The entire collection shimmers with radiance and contemplation, as it discusses a variety of subjects including reanimations on past poets; metaphysical treatises; philosophical conundrums; and commentary on the quotidian life.
There you have it, Gentle Reader, the Longlist for this years Best Translated Book Award. It’ll be interesting to see who will make it on to the shortlist. I have my suspcisions of some of the writers who will certainly be shortlisted; such as Yoko Ogawa, Igiaba Scego, Daša Drndić, and Sinan Antoon—but at this point all chances are equal.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read